Vineyards & roses: a weekend in Champagne off the beaten path

There are fewer delightful escapes than spending a long holiday weekend traversing the Marne Valley and tasting bubbles with close friends. For the novice traveller to Champagne, here are a couple of tips from experience if you want to explore the countryside by car and avoid the crowds in Reims and Epernay.

Let me begin by pointing out everyone’s first time visit to Champagne should include a trip to one of the big cellars (Mumm, Pomeroy, Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart, Taittinger, Castellane, Perrier Jouet, Mercier, Moet-Chandon and Laurent Perrier to name a few …) in Reims and in/around Epernay respectively. While expensive, they help one understand the scale of the champagne business and the years of history associated with these well-known houses. Once you’ve done that, you can check the big towns off your list and go local.

champagne

Plan your travel (especially if you go on a long weekend or expect to do tasting on Sundays. (The French still take Sundays and public holidays very seriously so you’ll be lucky to find smaller houses open on Sunday mornings – if at all.) Avoid disappointment or frustration and check the website or call in advance. For a weekend trip, aim to go Fridays and Saturdays ideally – and leave Sundays up to exploring the bigger towns.

When travelling on weekends, book your dinner reservations in advance – especially in small towns. (Lunch you can probably get away with – but to be relaxed, book this too – especially on Sundays because the French are known for their excellent, cheap ‘formules du midi’ – usually consisting of a lunch including a first course appetizer (entrée), main course and dessert.) The same tip always applies to well-known restaurants in the big cities.

Have a ‘base’. I am personally a fan of staying in the local villages in the vast array of bed and breakfasts France has to offer. This is even better if you are on a vineyard, as the ‘vigneron’ or winemaker – will likely introduce you to his/her champagne which will no doubt quickly become a favourite! Do some advance research about which region to use as your base. Are you more of a ‘Côte des Blancs’ – 100% Chardonnay person or a Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier person? Check out this handy explanation and infographic from Wine Folly about the different regions and decide accordingly. I am personally a big fan of Côte des Blancs champagnes but honestly, I enjoy the experience of tasting it all.

Recommendations from recent visits (opening times are seasonal and subject to change):

– Wine bar Au 36 ($$) in Hautvillers (36 rue Dom Perignon, 51160 Hautvillers, France Tel: +33 3 26 51 58 37 – closed Mondays, open from 10.30 – 18.00.) Try the light tasting menu for lunch, check out their champagne store and enjoy this lovely village. Impressive views (and champagne) from Champagne G. Tribaut.

– Restaurant Le Vendangeoir ($$- $$$) in Vertus (25 Boulevard Carnot, 51130 Vertus, France Tel +33 3 26 53 84 99 – closed Mondays and Tuesdays.) This is a relatively new addition to Vertus with friendly staff and excellent food which is both creative in taste and presentation. Very friendly staff.

– Restaurant La Comedia ($-$$) in Vertus (2 rue de Chalons, 51130 Vertus, France Tel: +33 3 26 57 18 66 – closed Mondays and Wednesdays.) An interesting combination of Italian, French and pizza – family friendly and very good for price/quality.

– Restaurant La Grillade Gourmande ($$$) in Epernay (16 rue de Reims, 51200, Epernay, France Tel: +33 3 26 55 44 22 – closed Sundays and Mondays. This is a superb restaurant I’ve known for years – try the champagne lunch and you will not be disappointed. Always reserve in advance!

– Wine bar in a Treehouse – the Perching Bar in Verzy (Parc arboxygene | prés des faux de Verzy, 51380 Verzy, France Tel: +33 6 07 67 94 42 – open Friday – Saturday afternoons and evenings from 12.00 but subject to change.) – known as the ‘Treehouse of Champagne’ I can’t say I’ve been personally but I have heard a lot of good things about it. Be sure to call to check hours and book a time slot in advance.)

Among my personal favourite champagne houses:

– Champagne Jean Milan in Oger

– Champagne Michel Genet in Chouilly

– Champagne Mailly in Mailly (open on Sundays!)

Helpful links:
Official Champagne tourism: http://www.tourisme-champagne-ardenne.com/

Bed & Breakfasts, Gites de la France: https://en.gites-de-france.com/

Tripadvisor of course! https://www.tripadvisor.com/ For the latest in restaurants and hotels/bed and breakfast reviews)

Booking.com (to check availability and compare prices)
prices)

Long live the travel bug

I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”

(Mary Anne Radmacher). These are the words inscribed on an old greeting card tacked to my wall.
To escape the chaos of work and life, I take solace in travel.
Having a travel plan takes off the edge like a smooth glass of Oregon pinot noir.  It gives those of us who like to think of ourselves as travel connoisseurs, something to look forward to.
So break out the champagne, toast to travel and exploring life. Enjoy the temporary escape from reality while you can.  It will be worth it.

 

Postcard from Kiawah

Take me to Kiawah Island, South Carolina in April.  With its pristine golf courses, long sand-packed beach (perfect for beach bike rides), abundance of wildlife and sun-kissed weather, it has become my favourite home away from home.

Kiawah’s beauty has a way of capturing the soul of its visitors. Life on Kiawah is quite literally picture perfect. Relaxation and tranquility come with the territory. Motorbikes are not allowed. ‘Quiet hours’ are enforced between 11 p.m. – 7 a.m.

“When facing the ocean, deck lights and shades must be down from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. from May 15 to October 31, which is loggerhead turtle nesting season, to help the hatchling turtles head toward the ocean, rather than to artificial light which confuses their sense of direction.” (Article 20 of my rental contract.) Gotta love it. Note to self: one day I will join the volunteer turtle night watch team to ensure baby turtle hatchlings get safe passage to the ocean’s edge.

This  year we had more time to appreciate Kiawah’s rich abundance of activities (in addition to indulging in The Sanctuary‘s award winning spa). Morning walks on the beach were my favourite way to start the day.  First footprints in the sand, treasure hunting for sand dollars and whelks.  Jellyfish sightings. Amusement at watching the seagulls and sandpipers on the morning buffet line, “Mine, mine, mine!” they screeched protectively of their morning catch when they saw me coming.

Sunrise on Kiawah Beach - and the morning buffet line

Kiawah also has an excellent nature conservancy. We joined island naturalists with a passion for fish and wildlife on walks and rides into the ‘outdoor classroom’ and got up close and personal to the island’s 400+ resident alligator population and 26-strong wild dolphin pod. We happened across two of the 40 tagged bobcats (rare encounters apparently) and lost track of the number of white egrets and pelicans we saw. We watched mackerel jump in golf course ponds like popcorn and were delighted at the sight of a bald eagle soaring overhead.

At night I would fall asleep to the waves crashing against the shore. I woke upon my return to Belgium missing this soothing sound – only to be replaced by the dull drone of the neighbouring motorway. My mind turning over the possibilities, could I one day afford a place on Kiawah?  When can I go back?  Do I need to wait until April? (Island residents say October and November are beautiful months to visit too when the sweet grass is in bloom.)

Does ‘Big Mama 400 pound alligator’ sun herself in front of her multi-million dollar second residence in autumn? Do adolescent dolphins still find amusement at sneaking up to unsuspecting dogs and giving them a splash or pulling off string bikinis on tourists bragging about their swim with wild dolphins? These stories are too good to be made up! Is the best place for shell seekers really at both ends of the island?  I look forward to going back and finding out. And may I always continue to share the secrets of this low country island jewel with the special people in my life.

See also: Kiawah-ta? Friends, fun and alligators

Green, glitter and beer – St. Patrick’s Day in New York City

St. Patrick’s Day in New York City.  Where kelly green is hip, outrageous leprechaun ties, kitschy shamrock scarves, face painting, green and white clown hats and t-shirts accessorized by flashing green bead necklaces are the norm.  

How extraordinary to walk through Times Square at 8.30 AM,  only to realise the true St. Patrick’s Day revelers have already been toasting St. Patrick since the wee hours of the morning. Saw dust floored McSorleys Ale House are among those Irish institutions in the city that have opened their doors before sunrise for more than 150 years to the brave hearted – all in the name of Irish heritage. One can’t help but admire the gumption, strong livers and devotion of this crowd that begins the day by standing in line around the block – only to drink up or be forced to leave. Beer at 8.00 AM???? Hmmm…..

If you’re not wearing green in New York City on St. Patrick’s Day, one thing is clear, you feel out of place. Forget your own heritage, Hispanic, African, Asian, Jewish… it doesn’t matter. When in New York on March 17, wear green or be prepared to explain why your wife threw away your favourite green t-shirt or how the dog ate your plastic shamrock pin.

Beer taps flow, jaws gape on the street at how short the skirts have become – how do these girls sit down (do they?).  Meetings are cancelled and colleagues mysteriously disappear for the rest of the afternoon…

Celebs abound to add further sparkle to this green day. Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler are in town promoting their new movie, ‘The Bounty Hunter’. Gerard Butler heats up the ‘Good Morning America’ studio with his good looks and Scottish charm.  He may be Scottish, but he is surely a Guinness man! Jay-Z, Beyonce and Swizz Beatz later make headlines by taking the stage with Alicia Keys.  Can’t help but wonder, what does a wrap up party at Madison Square Garden for this group of A-listers look like on St. Patrick’s Day in New York City? So close but yet so far to be a fly on that wallpaper!

Can normalcy be found?

A hurried slice of pizza on Times Square, broken green beads strewn across the sidewalk.  Jubilation and flirtation for those on the high of a fabulous beer buzz lead to weariness, stubble and a dire need for Tylenol.

What a memorable day New York City for this redhead (courtesy of her Irish bloodline).  Here’s to you St. Patrick.

Trendy hamburgers and Hi-Fi paradise – in Liege

Who would have thought… a trendy hamburger restaurant with Miami ‘lounge’ music in a new shopping centre – in Liege of all places! Such was my eye opening experience Saturday, after heeding a friend’s advice to check out this sparkling shopping paradise.

Admittedly, I embarked on this little journey with zero expectations.  A fan of big American shopping malls, I’ve yet to be impressed with Belgian ‘shopping centres’ for reasons I can’t quite explain.  Perhaps it’s the pay parking (with no validation) or the limited food choice.  Or the frustration of always having to go to different shopping centres to find exactly what one needs.  The perfect shopping centre just doesn’t seem to exist.

Mediacité Liege offers hope

Mediacité Liege offers hope.  Having opened its doors in December 2009, and beyond the occasional sighting of a sink not working properly in the bathrooms or wiring hanging from the walls, the shopping centre is slowly but surely nearing completion. Colourful design and modern furniture beg the question, is this a shopping centre or a gallery? It also offers an impressive array of choice (unique to Belgian shopping centres) including the likes of small boutique stores and large UK retail chains such as Primark and New Look.

And there is a decent array of food!  Food courts are none existent in Mediacité, but if you are looking for a good Chinese lunch or a unique hamburger restaurant, you will find it.  Such was my experience at Célébrities, where hamburger chic exists and I couldn’t decide if I was in Miami or Belgium between the velvet ropes, white bar stools and mayonnaise with my fries. Check out the photo gallery here to see for yourself. The manager even wore a suit and tie.  Now that IS weird, but admittedly, kind of cool for a hamburger joint.

The highlight? There is a Saturn! This is a fabulous German electronics store which is always a must on trips to Germany.  The best part is this particular store takes debit cards and credit cards, unlike my experience in its sister stores.  With such great prices, credit card or cash, you can be assured that it is impossible to leave Saturn without an armload of CDs and DVDs you never intended to buy. It took all my willpower to stay away from the computer section to not be tempted by the iPad…

I’m not sure I can ever give the honour of calling a Belgian shopping centre ‘a mall’ – but Mediacité has potential. Did I mention they validate parking?! I’ll be back.

Vietnam Journeys – Days 6 & 7.5

Hoi An

It is officially ‘the rainy season’ in Hoi An which is a shame but  fortunately the temperature is a very pleasant 25c.   rain or shine.  The occasional torrential downpour, coupled by flooded rice paddies and the river puts a new spin on sightseeing activities and has a direct impact on my wallet.

Hoi An is known for its tailors. Supposedly some 500 of them reputed for being among the best copiers in the world. Show them a picture of a dress, shirt or suit design and they will sketch it out in front of you and deliver a perfect match and fit the next day. Such was my experience when I went in to get ‘just one’ shirt copied and somehow managed to leave with seven new pieces including a new winter coat (which I really needed,  returning to the cold of course.) Two fittings followed the initial measurements and discussion and the results are quality fit for a queen. Quite literally, as it turns out we spotted photos of Queen Sofia of Spain getting some tailor-made items from the same store. Good taste! And the whole experience a very pleasant one, complete with tea and ice cold water. We will remember fondly 7 month pregnant Thao who helped us every step of the way. As for her savvy, cut throat business woman boss, she can afford to send her son to university in the US for a reason but then, the quality of her staff’s finished products would have made my grandmother proud.

With the weather forecast still dubious, I decided to sign up for a half day Vietnamese cooking class at Red Bridge Cooking School. At 7.30 AM, I headed across the bridge and through the market for a sneak preview of this animated scene on my way to class. I was glad to have the opportunity to experience the market at its busiest. It helped me get more of a feel for daily life. It was obvious it was the grandmothers’ job to go out and get fresh produce and ingredients for the day’s meals. Lots of little elderly Vietnamese woman wandered through the stalls with baskets, buying fresh fish, shrimp and bundled of coriander, morning glory, mustard leaves and fresh fruit. Five then live ducks sitting in a row engaged in innocent conversation and seemingly oblivious their hours were numbered.

There were 19 other nationalities, all tourists as well, in our class.  Many were Australian-so friendly and easy to talk to. Nothing like tipping back a couple of ‘ba ba ba’s’ (local beer), with easy going Aussies,  while having a laugh about one’s rice paper-making skills. As the master chef said in his dry humour after demonstrating five dishes including, nem, seafood salad, aubergine in a clay pot, hoi-an pancakes and fruit and vegetable carvings, “if you have a
bad lunch, it’s your fault!”

The morning was a success and I’m really glad I took the time to do the class. I enjoyed the boat ride down the river to the school after our market shopping for the morning and explanation of the different ingredients. The fact we had a demo and then our own stations to cook everything ourselves made the course all the more interesting.  We practically rolled out of class five hours later, with the promise of one day becoming expert ‘nem’ makers, with just a little more
practice.

The Water Puppet Theatre

When in Hanoi, save time for the Thang Long water puppet theatre.  It may sound somewhat strange, but it’s well worth the visit.

Water puppet theatre in Vietnam is traditionally derived from the Red River Delta in the north. It dates as far back as the 11th century when rice paddy farmers used water puppetry as a form of entertainment.

Lacquered puppets are maneuvered through water on long poles by puppeteers hidden behind a screen camouflaged as part of the set. The puppets are gracefully brought to life in a series of short folk tales depicting harvest, festivals, fishing and mythical spirits. Traditional Vietnamese folk music and songs accompany each skit, resulting in a fascinating cultural respite from the motorbike madness outdoors.

Check out the video! (I confess to not paying the extra photography charge. shhh.)