Saturday, 23 May 2015

Beijing Bites - St Regis Champagne Brunch

Price: 488RMB (+100RMB for free flow Champagne)
Time: 11:30am to 3:00pm Sunday
Booking: Required

My first experience of a Champagne brunch was in China.  There are a number of them about and it is deciding which one to go to that can be difficult.  They are all extravagant and look impressive but differ in their quality.  St Regis is my recommendation as it balances the quality and quantity scale just right.

The seafood selection is fantastic with oysters cracked open to order, a small selection of Sushi, cracked snow crab and lobster tails.  It even has the Chinese favourite of Abalone.  A first starter of fresh seafood followed by a second starter of roast duck pancakes are perfect accompanied with your second glass of Veuve Clicquot Champagne.

I always have the issue of filling up on starters and leaving little room for mains.  Barbecued meats, Chinese classics and European roasts are all prepared by individual chefs and I could not point fault at any of them.  The grill station is brilliant and you can select from a great selection of raw meats and have them prepared for you.  Mains number 2 can be a small bowl of noodles prepared how you choose or go straight into the immense cheese board counter!  Cold cuts of hams, a selection of cheese and sweet relishes with super fresh baked breads.  Depending on your age that makes either a main course or a dessert!  I decided it was dessert number one followed by flaming Crepe Suzettes also made whilst you watch.

It is an ideal brunch; our Champaign flutes never ran dry as somebody was always on hand to refill them; food tastes fresh and recently prepared and specialities come to your table every now and then hot out of the kitchen.  If you are looking for a real treat and cannot decide on which brunch to go to, I recommend St Regis.  It will not disappoint.  

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Dubai - Spring 2015

The Worlds Greatest
Sunday, 5 April

The UAE is one of the few countries to not have a national dish.  I am on the hunt for traditional Emirati food in one of the biggest international hubs in the world; Dubai.  It is a city built from desire over necessity.  If you had the infinite money hack for SimCity you would create Dubai.  You would construct the worlds tallest building; open the first 7 star hotel and build the largest shopping mall ever to exist.  Once you have built on all of your allotted space you would create extra land in the sea in shapes of elaborate patterns just because you can.  This is Dubai in a nutshell; a city of luxury, designed with the rich in mind.

Rules are everywhere of which many are grounded in Islamic traditions.  As a Westerner you can't help but feel a little anxious about what you can and cannot do!  I grew up hearing stories of hands being chopped off, people "disappearing" in the desert and westerners put in prison for mild public displays of affection.  It was always the country where gold shops were left unattended as people went for prayer because nobody ever stole in fear of losing a limb!  It certainly doesn't help your anxiety when you find yourself holding an ice cream in the women's only carriage on the metro where there is also a substantial fine advertised for eating.  A near miss to losing a hand!

It being Dubai, we decided that we had to go 5 star.  Us being mere teachers, we also decided to spend some of the holiday in a 2 star.  Perfectly central and a stones throw from a metro; Pride Hotel Apartments are a little unkempt but good value for what you get.  We are lucky enough to have friends that live here so we met up with them on our first evening down at the Marina at the top of the Hilton.  Alcohol is of course absent from most places but hotels and this in turn brings a ridiculous increase in price.  I am talking £8 for a standard bottle of Heineken!?  If you are going to spend that amount on a beer you might as well go all out and browse the cocktail menu!  Apart from taxis and petrol, everything here is expensive.  You just have to suck it up and accept that it is just going to be that kind of holiday!
I was wrong to think that I was leaving the haze in Beijing as we are 3 days in and I am yet to see a blue sky.  A day at the beach feels a little strange without a sparkling sea against the windows 95 desktop backdrop.  With the amount of construction work going on paired with the general desert climate the concoction is not great.  It is still a decent beach and on a clear day the views would be brilliant with the iconic Burj al Arab in the background.  Today, however... not so much.

We have just come back from possibly the most expensive meal I have eaten to date.  Maybe new years in Singapore was on par but I did not pay for that one or have any idea what the bill came too.  Tonight I also did not pay for as it was my Birthday treat from Becky but I did manage catch a glimpse of the cheque.  We had an evening at Indego by Vineet; a truly high end Indian restaurant.  I have always wondered how Indian food would do "a le carte" as it is all about the dipping, wiping and eating with your hands which doesn't quite sit side by side with quaint arrangements on a plate.  We went for the £120 taster menu with selected wines and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  And I think that is what these kinds of places aim to offer; you pay for an experience more than just a meal.  Every dish looked stunning and tasted out of this world.  The portions look small but the number of courses made up for it and though part of me was looking forward to a potential kebab on the way home at the start, my stomach was perfectly filled by the end.  The selected wines paired beautifully (I think!?)  with each dish and they even achieved the unachievable by making an Indian dessert that did not taste like tooth decay and butter.  Would I go there again?  Of course not, I don't have anywhere near that kind of cash.  Would I recommend it for a special occasion? Definitely!  Though, it being Dubai, we did notice that it was clearly just another evening for the majority of the diners.  It attracts rich people... and people celebrating.  It makes me wonder where rich people go to celebrate?  

"You can even ask me how many wives my dad has"
Thursday, 8 April

On Monday we moved to our swankier 5* hotel apartment in the Pullman's Residences situated further North in Deira.  It was here where we could start to chip away at Dubai's shiny coating and see into its past and deep culture.  Just 15 minutes from the main strip it feels like you are in a completely different country!  A country where you don't need to save up to pay for a meal or sell a kidney when it's your round for drinks.  A place where every second man asks if you want a watch and every third man wants to sell you t-shirts.  We spent our afternoon window shopping through the Gold Souke and finding "The Creek" which, be warned, is not at the metro station named "The Creek".  You only need a few hours to do both as window shopping when every window looks pretty much the same doesn't take too long.  The creek is a nice place to nose around and maybe grab some local lunch but you wouldn't spend the day there.  We took a boat across the water to the markets for 1 Dirham before heading back to our hotel.

Struggling to find Emirati food in Dubai my new plan was to see if I could eat a different cuisine for every meal over the holiday.  If there was a place in the world to try this; it is probably here.  It started well with our first meal being Greek, followed by Lebanese, followed by Indian, followed by Indian, followed by Indian, and this is where the plan fell apart.  The lack of curry in China and the abundant variety of it here was just too much!  I learnt that traditional Emirati food is very similar to Indian food.  In fact, on Tuesday I learnt all about Emirati's and the beautifully rich culture of the UAE.  This is because we attended the "Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding" for a morning heritage tour followed by a traditional lunch (£30).  I think that every visitor of Dubai, ignorant of religion or not, should see this place.  It was truly fascinating and debunked sooo many myths about Islam.  With their motto being "Open door, open minds" our guide insisted that we could ask her whatever we wanted.  For a start, they never chopped hands off in Dubai!  My dad lied to me all those years ago.  And did you know that women covering their faces has nothing to do with religion and in fact developed because Mohammed's wives (yes, plural!) covered their faces in order to be anonymous in their day to day life.  They were married to an extremely important person and were highly regarded and so what they wore became fashionable!  The polygamy was also explained brilliantly and left us all nodding are heads in agreement; back in a time when men made money and women stayed at home it was a means to allow rich men to take care of more women during dire times!  It is an extremely rare practice nowadays and not allowed in many Muslim countries.  Again my dad lied to me all those years ago...  What really tickled me was the fact that there are laws in Dubai preventing women from covering their faces in certain work places.  In a Muslim country!  And England pussy foot around the idea when it became an issue in schools.  It was informative and I did not feel at all preached at.  I could write an entire essay on the things I learnt and that is without even mentioning the food.  The morning tour came with a sit down Arabic coffee with sweet sticky dates. The lunch talk came with an entire feast.  It is worth the money just for the meal!  Two massive trays of "Machbus"(the local equivalent to a Biryani) were the main dishes.  One chicken and one veal.  Machbus is quite probably the front runner for National Dish if the UAE were ever to choose one.  These were accompanied by two pots of lamb curry and two of vegetable curry.  All of it not too dissimilar to Indian food.  My favourite!  The dessert, gladly, was different; round balls of fried dough with date syrup.  This place genuinely makes the top spot on my list of things to do in Dubai.

What should be at the top of my list is one of Dubai's many "world's greatest" such as the tallest building, the largest mall or the most spectacular fountain show.  All three of which can be done in one go as the access to the viewing lounge of the Burj Khalifa is from inside the Dubai Mall and the fountains are just outside it.  We booked online which gives you the option of going to floor 124 for about £25 or to floor 148 for £60 (costs more for sunset timings!).  It is worth noting that neither are actually the top but both blow the second tallest building (Tokyo Skytree - 451m) well out of the water.  But why would you not go up to the record breaking floor!?  The worlds highest observation deck (555m) with close runner up being floor 124 of the Burj Khalifa.  It is great At the Top Sky and I recommend finding the view of the fountains below and waiting for the show.  Music plays through the speakers at the top and so you can enjoy the synchronized squirts from a different angle.  Once you get back to the bottom you can marvel at the building whilst waiting for another fountain performance! There are over 20 different tracks so it will take a long time for it to get boring and this time you can really get the sense of its enormity.  And then you have the awesome Dubai Mall to roam around afterwards which has its own aquarium in it.  Make a full evening of it!  Go shopping, have dinner at the food court and have desert at one of the ice cream parlours.  Unless you are super rich and can have dinner in the worlds highest restaurant followed by dancing in the worlds highest club.  We of course did not do that and ate at Fat Burger and took our ice cream to eat in front of the fountains.  Each to their own.

"The people of Dubai don't like The Flintstones..." 
Sunday, 12 April

... But the people in Abu Dhabi doooo! Haha.  Flying back to China now and we have done a fair amount since my last post.  Wednesday we visited the Dubai museum, which could quite easily be skipped from a busy itinerary, and ate at "Local House" which is around the corner from the Museum (and the Sheik Mohammed Cultural Centre!).  I picked this restaurant as it served camel meat and camel milk milkshakes which is probably the only thing I could have guessed is eaten in this part of the world.  I have no idea how popular it is in Dubai as this is the only restaurant I saw that served it.  It tastes like gamey beef and the milk is half way between goats milk and cows milk with the thickness of Jersey gold top.  Another obscure meat ticked off! The evening was spent at a cheese and wine night at the Westin with some expat friends.  Not a cheap night but combining Groupon vouchers with The Entertainer vouchers it was an absolute steal!  An enormous selection of wines, Ports and Champagnes on an all you can eat and drink deal.  Oh how I missed cheese!

Our hotel desk insisted that we must visit Abu Dhabi whilst we are here and informed us of all the ways to go about it.  A £6 bus was the chosen method and took about 2 hours.  I didn't plan it brilliantly as I could not get into the palace in my flip flops and then realised that the Sheikh Zayed Mosque probably would not let me in with my shorts.  Having bought some cheap trousers we arrived to find that you could hire some awesome traditional outfits there!  How annoying.  I almost hired them anyway even though I didn't need them!  It is a seriously impressive mosque and is worth popping to Abu Dhabi just to marvel at it.  Everything in there screams "we have oil" with its intricate mosaics, crystal chandeliers and record breaking carpet.  As for other things to do in Abu Dhabi; we didn't get a chance to go to Ferrari world or Yas Island Waterpark but they provide a decent reason to return one day.

The Expat brunch was born in Dubai and so it seemed only natural that one had to be done.  As brunch at the Burj al Arab required me to sell my girlfriend for a couple of nights she decided that we could just have brunch at our hotel.  Friday is the start of the weekend here and so Friday Brunch at Little Suzie's American Diner saw the best part of the day through.  There was braised beef(of course!) ribs, brisket, a burger joint, a hot dog stall, a pancake/waffle station, a milkshake hut and so much more.  All done properly too;  burgers were steamed for 10 seconds to give the bread that perfect squidginess; sweet potato fries were done to order so they remained crisp and milkshakes were delivered to you by a blond girl on roller skates!  That put us out for the day until the evening when we felt a little peckish but could not be bothered to go far.  We spent an hour online trying to find a nice shisha bar to go to and ended up spotting one from our balcony window called Gulf Airozina Cafe which fit our criteria perfectly.  Mint tea, peach flavoured shisha and Lebanese arayes which are minced lamb stuffed and grilled flat breads.  Outdoor in a perfect people watching spot.  

Simple steps to build an amazing water park:

1. Make a lazy river that takes you through the entire park
2. Make all rides end in the lazy river
3. Make "conveyor belts" that take people from the lazy river to the start of the rides
4. Build an awesome aquarium
5. Make rides go through aquarium tanks.

Welcome to Palm Island's Aquaventure Waterpark!  It may cost £60 for a combined park and aquarium ticket but it was completely worth it.  My only disappointment was that the one ride I really wanted to go on, the vertical drop "Poseidon's Revenge", was closed for maintenance.  Either way, we got to fly down the Aquaconda - the worlds largest water slide and spent a good 5 - 6 hours experiencing and re-experiencing everything the park had to offer.  Food, as expected, was extortionate at £7 for a potato twist and £10 for a snow cone!  Doesn't stop it from being a fantastic water park though.  The aquarium is also superb and unique in its theme and I definitely recommend doing them both saving the aquarium to wind down in the evening.

All week I have wanted to go to the Pakistani restaurant called Ravi's which I read about online.  Finally, on the last evening of our holiday, we found the time to go.  Just a few minutes off the Sheikh Zayed road there is a tonne of local restaurants!  The area looks great and it is a real shame that only on our final day we found it.  We sat outside of Ravi Restaurant and lapped up the buzzing atmosphere whilst mopping up delicious curries with fresh hot rotis and naans.  And the total price for the two of us...? £9!!  I could walk for 5 minutes and pay £50 for a less superior curry.  We are finishing on a high because it was such a great find but a slight low that we found it so late.  If I find myself in the land of "the world's greatests" again, I will be spending a lot more evenings on this side of Dubai. :o)

Friday, 27 February 2015

Sri Lanka - Winter 2015

Never stand with your back to a Buddha
Sunday, 15 February

Another advantage of working in China is Chinese New Year!!  An occasion important enough for the students to require a full two weeks off.  Just 6 weeks after a 3 week Christmas break spent in England I am meeting my girlfriend and friends 'halfway' in Sri Lanka. I am yet to find a fault in international teaching.

I arrived a day earlier (and will leave a week later!) than the others and so I had a day to explore Colombo on my own.  I checked in to Drift BnB and headed straight out to find a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast.  Drift recommended a couple of places but upon inspection they were absent of any local diners and so I opted for a busy corner spot where suited men (didn't see any women!) congregated for their morning Ceylon tea before work.  Everybody seemed to know each other and they were clearly regulars having their orders brought out to them, without having said a word, as they sat down.  I was the irregular based on my shorts, voice and having asked for a menu.  I ended up just saying "give me a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast" which was responded to with a 'you're not from around here' smile.  Everybody's eyes followed the cheery man to the food equally intrigued as I to see what will be picked from the selection as 'traditional breakfast'.  Completely new food!  I wasn't expecting food items that I had never seen before.  My family are South Indian and so I figured it would be much of the same.  String hoppers are totally unique!  Sri Lankans are hand eaters just as Chinese use chopsticks.  So how can you make noodles into something you can eat with your hands?  Simple; take a bunch and mould them into something that represents a chapati!  Curry and noodles doesn't sound that appealing but make the noodles into flat circular pancakes and suddenly it's a perfect companionship.  Served with a thick lentil curry and a spicy red coconut mix called coconut sambol is the traditional breakfast in which he assembled on my plate in front of me so I knew how to eat the rest.  As I gobbed these he began to bring over more and more bowls of different vegetable curries, hoppers and topped up my Dhal.  What started as a light, simple breakfast became a feast as the waiter (owner) showed off every dish on his menu.  All washed down with two cups of Ceylon tea; my tea of choice in England drank from it's mother country.

Only minutes into walking along the main palm tree lined seafront road, reading my map and deciding where to go, a local man told me about a festival that is on today which he was already on his way to.  He asked if I would like to join him as he flagged down a tuk tuk.  Now I've been conned abroad enough times to smell a rat but I figured I had no other plans and would just refuse to pay anything when the time comes.  And I felt that I could take him if it came to it!  He took me to a temple to see the supposedly real hair of Buddha and then to a couple of his favourite restaurants.  He told me he was a chef on his day off; I told him I was a food blogger; we had a lot to talk about! A few beers down I was still awaiting his moment of strike when conversation went onto it being Valentines day and me having not bought anything for my girlfriend who arrives in Sri Lanka the following morning.  "Sri Lanka is the number one gem mining in the world! My friend has shop 50% discount today".  Ah! This is it! The last 3 hours of showing me around, helping me plan the rest of my trip, taking me to his recommended restaurants and showing me pictures of his wife and children was so he could take me to his shop! Right?!  Either way, he's right; it was valentines day and a stone mined in Sri Lanka would make a sterling gift!  I picked out a stone, chose a shape and design and bargained down to a price that Amazon said I didn't pay over the odds for.  Antonio even haggled for me.  I think!?  He took me to an ATM (on my request!) and dropped me off at a shopping mall I said I wanted to go too.  He wished me a safe journey and went on his way! I did a final phone, wallet, camera pat down check and walked off still confused whether it was simply a kind gesture or he some how financially gained from me.

In the evening I decided to risk a 'Ni Hao' to the Chinese looking girl sitting opposite me in my dorm.  After initially looking a little racist we ended up chatting (in both English and Chinese!) and planned what was left of an evening.  Sunset at Galle Square followed by dinner at 'Beach Wadiya' recommended by chef Antonio!  We arrived a little late for the sunset but just about saw the orange hue left behind in the sky and its reflecting shimmers in the sea.  Night stalls sell snack foods such as shrimp fritters and other deep fried spicy treats.  Crispy dough with shrimp bits in it topped with tangy hot sauce and sliced red onion was good eating whilst watching what was left of a sunset and practising my Chinese!

Onto a tuktuk we arrived to Beach Wadiya to find it was fully booked all night.  Valentines day!! It suddenly dawned on me that I am eating out after watching the sun go down with another woman on Valentines day!?  Good job I bought that gem stone!  So onto Antonio's restaurant number 2, 'Summer Garden', for a spicy pork curry, seafood platter and regular hoppers!  Very different to string hoppers and again completely original.  Light and airy and bowl shaped retaining the shape of the pan it was cooked in.  My Chinese friend had an egg hopper which was the same thing but with an egg fried in the centre.  I didn't know how to ask "can I take a photo of your food" in Chinese and without sounding weird...

There are no Dragons in Wales
Tuesday, 17 February

There are no lions in Sri Lanka, in fact there are no wild lions on this entire continent.  So why do Sri Lankans associate themselves so much with them?!  There is a Lion holding a sword on their flag and their beer is called Lion.  Elephants on the other hand can be seen on the streets and in the wild in population densities far above average.  Of whom I have asked so far it is because Lions are strong.  Do you know what animal is even stronger than a Lion?  I haven't even mentioned the fact that Sri Lanka is home to the national park with the highest concentration in the world of wild leopard too!

I met my girlfriend and friends at the airport and we headed straight to Sigiriya by driver.  It is where a big rock called 'Lion's Rock' is situated as it supposedly resembles a lion.  Like cloud formations, it can look like anything you choose.  Proven by the fact that we all saw the lion but were a split group in concluding whether it was just a lions head facing left or an entire lion looking to the right.  It also has some ancient ruins and paintings on it so lion or not; it's a deserved place of interest.  We went posh for our first few days and stayed at an 'Aliya Resort'.  Situated in lush greenery with a river running alongside and a view of lions rock from the infinity pool sat at the heart of this lap of luxury.  And do you know what 'Aliya' means? ELEPHANT!!

From what I can gather there is not much to do in Sigiriya with its only attraction being the rock.  I wouldn't be surprised if most of the hotel guests never leave the resort!  We woke up early yesterday and took a driver down to the base of Lion's rock.  The climb is not too bad and we did well to start early as the tourists really did flock in late morning with stand still queues going up as we were coming down.  The heat was also a lot more tolerable at 8am.  Views at the top were well worth the small hike with stories of old Ceylon hidden in the ruins and water pool.  Having exhausted the 'things to do in Sigiriya' list we lazed some more by our infinity pool and prepared ourselves for our first taste of of the Sri Lankan national dish; Rice and Curry.  We had to book this the night before as apparently it takes about 4 hours to prepare.  'Rice and Curry' is another identity choice of Sri Lanka's that I have to question.  Rice and Curry is not a dish! It's a thousand dishes! It's like the national dish of England being anything you roast.  It's not like they don't have unique dishes in the country.  All the types of hoppers would be a start!  Or Rottie Kottu which is chopped up rottie with vegetables.  I haven't eating it yet so couldn't comment on whether it is any good but at least it is uniquely Sri Lankan!  As I work through the dishes in the coming weeks I will point out all the ones that would make for a better national dish.  One that shows originality, identity and an insight to Sri Lankan life.  For £22 per head we did have an exquisite meal with around 6 curries, fried fish, coconut sambol, pickles and crispy strips of poppadoms.  This was certainly the high end version of the dish but ultimately it was designed to give the rich folk a taste of Sri Lanka and probably not the best representation of a typical 'Rice and Curry'.  I counted 12 different dishes; that's a lot going on for one banana leaf.

We said our farewells to expensive comforts this morning after another original (I think) Sri Lankan breakfast of Kiribath (also called Milk Rice) which is rice boiled in coconut milk and moulded into cakes.  Another potential national dish!  We are heading to Mirissa, a beach side town on the southern coast and 5-6 hours from Sigiriya.  We just had an amazing halfway stop at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.  You can never be quite sure with these places whether you are going to leave feeling guilty or glad to have shown your interest and support as a tourist.  We were happy to see happy elephants.  You can't beat a scene of elephants bathing in a river and playing on a generously sized plot of lush green land.

"...a tongue the weight of an elephant."
Sunday, 22 February

Mirissa is a popular beach stop for tourists and so prices can be expected to be higher for food, drink and accommodation.  We stayed at 'Riverside Cabana' for 6000SLR (£30) a room.  It was night and the beach was lit up with multicoloured fluorescent palm trees, candle lit faces at beach side restaurants and muscled men swinging fire showing off their poi skills.  It's a buzz of excitement at night avoiding the tackiness of loud bars, strobe lighting and screaming teens.  Less buzz, more hum with nicely chilled music in sync with the crashing of the waves.  We ate another 'Curry and Rice' this time with a beautifully sweet crab curry at a restaurant called Mirissa Eye followed by cocktails (£2 each!) at Zephyr and a shisha pipe further down the beach.  I'm liking Mirissa!

By day the restaurant tables are replaced by sun beds and the fresh fish displays substituted for bodyboards to rent and tour advertisements.  The sea is warm and welcoming but once you're in it tries its damn best to throw you back out.  It is not a forgiving sea and my all day board rental soon ended with me upside down being dragged a long the sea bed and being twacked in the side of the head by the board once I found me feet.  Only to be pummelled by the next wave.  There's only so many waves to the face a novice swimmer can take!  Beach side dinner this time I picked a nice snapper fish (£7) from the ice filled wooden boat decorated with sea creatures.  It came with rice and salad and though it was super fresh and perfectly grilled I couldn't help but be a little disappointed that it was not done in Sri Lankan spices.  It was delicious but would have been perfect if that salad was replaced with a vegetable curry or local dhal.  In fact, all the restaurants here only offer western style grills.

The potential to see the worlds largest land animal(the elephant!) is enough to bring you to a country.  But to be able to also see the worlds largest animal full stop is beyond exciting.  Ok so the Asian elephant is smaller than it's African relative but it is crazy to think that both species can be seen from one small island country.  I am yet to research what brings the Blue Whale to the southern waters of Sri Lanka but I am told that it is one of the best spots to find them and that nowhere else in the world do they come so close to land.  There are many tour operators to go with all advertising several different whales and dolphins to see and offering a free tour if no whale sightings are made.  We booked with 'Rajah and the Whales' online from England as it claimed to be whale friendly and following the state guidelines to cause the least stress on the whales.  For 6000 SLR (£30) we were picked up at 7am, fed breakfast and had 3-4 hours at sea on the search.  A few hours went by without seeing a thing and as we started to think today wasn't our day, in the distance a spout of water into the sky filled the boat with adrenaline.  One of the guides confirmed from this that it was indeed the jackpot Blue Whale.  As our enormous friend dived under, our guide set his timer running and told us to pay attention once again in 10 to 15 minutes.  With our engine on low we crept behind the presumed path of the whale in the hope that its next ascent will be close to us.  In 9 minutes it had surfaced a little closer but still too far away to appreciate its magnificence.  As we tiptoed towards it and were informed to remain quiet, other boats now on the scene sped passed us on full throttle causing the whale to dive back under.  Like the annoying kid at school who barges in front of you in the dinner queue and takes the last pizza slice.  We carried on creeping and they carried on charging, edging closer and closer to the Whales surface position but with its surface time being no more than 20 seconds at a time.  The other boats were continuously in front of us often blocking our view of the whale and very clearly breaking the state guidelines.  As they had their fill of whale disturbing, one by one, they left for the harbour.  All that remained was us and a 190 metric ton whale.  With the engine switched off the only sound was the boat sloshing on the water as everyone sat silently in anticipation.  A tour guide hung off each side of the boat ready to announce the whales emergence but before the words "1 o'clock!" could be uttered the whale announced its own presence with a loud blow whole swoosh.  No more than 10-20 yards between us and an animal that could fit our boat in its mouth (maybe a slight exaggeration!).  It stayed up for 3-4 minutes before revealing its immense tail to wave us goodbye.  I 100% support Rajah and the Whales in its approach but can understand the frustration in high tourist season when, I am informed, there is a constant stream of bully boats and never a chance to sit alone with the beast like we did.  The bucket list has just got shorter!

Yesterday we visited a tea plantation (Hundungoda Tea Estate), a turtle hatchery and bummed around on the beach some more.  The tea plantation was free with the expectation that you may buy something from their shop at the end.  I felt genuinely educated in tea and enjoyed tasting all the types of tea developed from a single plant.  The turtle sanctuary, like the elephant orphanage, we did not know what to expect.  For a start, we definitely arrived at a different sanctuary to the one we had researched online to be filled with smiling turtles.  But we were here now so we paid our 500 and walked in with fingers crossed.  It was great to see that it was all done properly and genuine care was given for the turtles well being.  There was no doubt that this place was positively impacting the population of wild turtles in the area.  We were a little concerned over the deformed and disabled turtles in tubs little bigger than the turtles themselves but I could not offer any alternative methods in my head.  Part of me thinks that they should just be released into the sea and let nature take over.  At least they would die happy and free!

Today was the girls last day and a change in plan to take a taxi to the airport straight from Mirissa (£45 - 3 hours) meant that they could spend the best part of the day soaking up sun rays on the beach instead of car fumes in Colombo.  And I got to spend more time with my girlfriend which is always a bonus!  So I am on my own from here on to explore Sri Lanka; time to eat more back street and do more manly things like fishing and fighting leopards!

Thursday, 26 February

I wasn't joking when I said going fishing.  Sunday was a full day of fishing!  In the morning I got myself onto a boat that was going out to sea for a dive fisherman.  It was just me, a boat driver and a man kitted out in the most primitive SCUBA diving gear I had ever seen;  no BCD; no 5 point decent; no BWRAF buddy check!  He was diving to catch live tropical fish to sell to an aquarium dealer waiting on shore.  Suddenly my fishing seemed so boring!  None the less, I pulled in some blinders with my biggest being a yellow and blue striped kind you see in posh hotel tanks.  I planned to throw it back in until my boat driver hit it over the head with the not so useless end of a screwdriver!  Meanwhile, the other fisherman was returning to the boat with treasures of multicoloured gems in bags you would win your gold fish in at an English fair.  He had 6 air tanks on board and this determined our time out at sea.

So I had a bag of fish, none that I had ever seen in a fish market before, and the intention to eat them somehow.  I asked the owner of my hotel (now the Amaya Resort having moved after the girls left) and showed him my bag of goodies.  His eyes widened and he too had no idea whether they were edible.  After phoning his mother it was arranged that she would come and see which are edible and cook them for me as part of my "curry and rice" meal in the evening.  For no extra cost!  Amazing!  As she started to prepare the fish I informed them that I still had an afternoon of fishing in me and they were happy to work with whatever else I brought back.

I paid a tuktuk driver £7.50 on the premise that he takes me to see the stilt fisherman and negotiate with them the possibility of me fishing too.  "Where are you from?" the driver asked me over his shoulder. "England but my family are--."  "No! You are from Sri Lanka but you study in England!" he interrupted my well rehearsed response to that question.  It took me a while to realise that this was to be my guise in order to get my backside onto those stilts and fish.  We went to three different spots to convince them of my localness and settled for a fisherman who asked for 500SLR (£2.50) and quizzed me over my life growing up in Colombo.  I am afraid to say that stilt fishing in Sri Lanka, for fishing purposes at least, is dead and gone.  And who can blame them when they can make more than their days catch from one bus load of Chinese tourists' donations for photos?  There were five of us fishing and either I was way better than them or I was the only one actually fishing.  I sat and watched them all keep the same fish on the end of their lines and raise it up pretending to have just caught it when tourists held their cameras up.  A fishing companion on shore then swoops in and asks them to cough up the dough.  They're still fisherman, but now catching unsuspecting tourists.  A prime example of how tourism can kill a culture.  Of course I am a culprit too but this time most of the tourists were taking photos of me!  My legs gave way before my mind lost interest so a decided to call it a day after a couple of hours of having my photo taken.  These stilts are far from comfortable and not all that easy to climb as they are purposely built in the rocky shallows and the waves are still as unforgiving as before.  The fisherman I paid was the one to hold on to me and navigate me to shore as I pulled him into rocks as each wave hit.   And the Chinese tourists look at me with a confused expression on their face.

I exchanged my 9 fish for 4 tiger prawns and bought 6 more from one of the many make shift beach side fish markets to add to my home cooked fish meal.  The meal was epic with 8 different dishes and a mountain of fried rice all for me!?  It was a ridiculous amount of food for one person but I managed to plough through dish after dish of delicious perfectly spiced Sri Lankan home cooked 'Rice and Curry'.

Food here is a lot spicier than I expected as I assumed it would have adopted the creamier, milder cuisine of Southern India.  The coconut sambol can add spice if needed or even further heat can be added with a spoon of 'Chilli paste' which is a crunchy mixture of fried chillies, dried shrimp, sugar and salt.  All restaurants I have been to seem to have there own brand of 'chilli paste' and tap a spoon of it on to your plate from a big mixing bowl on request.  Sits nicely on the side of a plate of fried rice or Kottu Rottie.  Kottu is only served in the evenings as it uses up the left over rotties from the day.  Rotties chopped up into tiny bits and tossed on a hot plate like a fried rice with vegetables.  Kind of stodgy, a little bit chewy and not really for me.  We discovered vegetable rotties quite early on as being the only good way to eat a stuffed rottie but again these can be seriously spicy!  I am enjoying eating more off the track and the difference in price is enormous.  Bread and Dhal, another common breakfast, with a pot of tea cost me 60p!  A selection of fried goods in a polystyrene tray from a street tuktuk vendor cost 30p!  All tasted just as good or better than the tourist restaurants.

For the last few days I have resided in Yala National park to have a peaceful end to the trip.  Yala is famous for its lush green safaris with a particular hype over its leopard population.  I had 3 nights booked in at Eco Island Campsite which was based in Yala just outside the gates of the safari.  A great little place built right inside the bushes next to a crocodile infested lake.  Ok there was one small crocodile in it.  I could not have picked a better place to relax for a few days.  Completely cut off from the busy world; zero internet, limited electricity and only the sound of nature.  The food was surprisingly good with curry and rice for lunch, 3 course breakfasts and a barbecue for dinner.  Walks from camp are safe as long as you don't get lost or bump into a leopard and the tents are cosy and clean.  I did, however, learn one very quick lesson; don't poke monitor lizards that use your tent roof as a hammock (video on the left).  It didn't seem at all phased by me and as I stroked its belly from underneath it would just poke its nose in the fabric sniffing and walk on.  This is when I found out that my bathroom and bedroom were two completely separate tents.  I assumed the lizard was heading to reside on my bathroom roof but instead it fell through the gap and was in the tent with me!?! Despite being enormous, they are not dangerous.  But I didn't know this!  I ran out and told one of the workers who simply shoed it out with his foot whilst giggling hysterically.  My only regret? I should have taken a photo!!  Or simply carried on recording for just a minute longer!

I booked myself a full days safari which started at 8am.  I had my very own personal safari guide who worked for the Eco Island Campsite.  He was brilliant with answers to all of my questions about every thing and anything I saw moving.  It officially has the highest concentration of leopard in the world which my guide tells me equates to just 25 individuals in total on just under 1000 square kilometres of land.  That's a high concentration?!  My chances of seeing one of these beauties suddenly doesn't seem so likely.  But from all the places in the world, my odds are greatest here!  Safaris are strange; there are few things in the world that I could sit and watch and not notice the time go by.  We parked up next a group of crocodiles eating a deer and I could have quite happily sat the entire day there.  And then again when we saw a family of elephants wading in the water and playing around.  Just after lunch (on a pristine deserted beach!) my guide spotted gold relaxing up a tree.  Gold with black spots to be precise.  Just like with the whales, my camera does not do justice to the experience.  Time simply stopped as we watched this beautiful big cat groom itself in the shade of a great deciduous.  We pretty much watched until it was time to go.  Having felt that I had seen everything I still couldn't resist booking another half day to happily relive it all again.  I learnt that very few Indian elephants grow tusks (known as tusker elephants) and the park has only 8 in all.  I believe the gods were truly smiling down at me as on my second day we got even closer to a leopard sitting in the bushes by a river and we spent the entire time in its company.  But that wasn't it!  Just as we were leaving we also witnessed a magnificent tusker named Tilak (the parks largest) wondering off into the sunset.  There is something extremely exhilarating about being up close and personal with a wild elephant that freezes you still and makes you concentrate on your breathing.  It's truly breathtaking!

My final few moments in Sri Lanka sums up my holiday as I sit on Mirissa beach writing the last few pages of this blog by candle light as the sun sets behind the palm trees.  I have eaten my final rice and curry and have come to the conclusion that it is, in fact, a perfect national dish.  It's not any old curry with rice and it is the specific combination and how it is presented that makes it unique.  It must come with dhal, popodom, coconut sambol and at least 2 other vegetable curries.  The dish is 100%, well and truly and uniquely Sri Lankan.  If only they could have thought of a better name for it...  :o)