Picturesque Annecy

We visited Annecy in May, 2015.

Picturesque Annecy

Location and Transportation

Annecy is a charming Alpine city – very close to Geneva. So it is a good place to visit if you are flying in to Geneva. Of course, technically, it lies in France – but that shouldn’t make any difference as long as you are on a Schengen Visa / Permit.

It only takes about 45 minutes by bus from Geneva to Annecy. Trains are also available, and they are not very expensive; but they end up taking a lot longer (around 2 hrs 20 mins) – as they route you via Culoz and Aix-le-Bains – which is really not the shortest route distance wise. So we would really recommend taking a bus from the Geneva Gare Routiere (bus terminal). It is possible to buy tickets on the spot at the bus terminal.

Scenery

As with most of these Alpine villages, you can see the spectacular combination of lakes and peaks whichever way you look.

Whether you consider it a good or bad thing, Annecy remains a bit hidden from the international touristic landscape. It was nevertheless quite crowded when we visited –  but with mostly locals (both French and Swiss) having a picnic. The place is still quite international that you shouldn’t have any problems even if you don’t speak any French. Of course, the internationalism is primarily due to its proximity to Geneva, which also implies that you wouldn’t get the cheaper French prices for gifts / souvenirs that you would get in most parts of France (other than of course, Paris). So be prepared for prices comparable to the (higher) Swiss prices here.

 

Hotel

We stayed at the Imperial Palace hotel in Annecy. As you can see from the pics below, the hotel and its surroundings are really impressive – easily rivalling a James Bond movie location πŸ™‚ The mandatory lake / mountain views are a given at this hotel. We unfortunately could not get an ariel shot of the hotel, but check out the hotel website for the really impressive pics of the hotel.

“Venice” of the Alps

The most unique and beautiful thing about Annecy is of course its Canals – winding their way through the “old” city – and also the reason for it being called the ‘Venice of the Alps’.

The restaurants along the canals make for a picture perfect setting for the senses at night:
mind (peaceful / serene), eyes (alpine scenery), ears (the gentle sound of the water flowing in the canals), and taste buds (authentic french cuisine) – oh, how I wish I was a poet !!.

Picture perfect Annecy canals at night
Iluminated Annecy canals at night
Old prison among annecy canals

South African Wilderness

We visited South Africa in Aug 2015.

Zebras and antelopes in one frameLeopard drinking water at night in Kruger National ParkIn the lap of mother nature!!

 

Kruger National Park

Our first stop up on reaching South Africa (landing in Johannesburg) was to head out to the Kruger National Park (KNP), for our long awaited safari. The park is huge and there are many things to consider while planning a trip there – so we will try to highlight some of the important parameters below:

Private Game Reserves

Here, it is important to understand that KNP consists of a government maintained park (as part of the South African National Parks), and a Greater Kruger National Park area which mainly consists of the private game reserves.

Link to a tripadvisor post (link) which we found very helpful while researching the differences between KNP and the private game reserves.    

To cut a long article short, area wise KNP is larger; but here you will have to rely on either driving jeeps yourself or jumping into overcrowded (shared) jeeps for your safari. Also, you will have to stay at lodges / inns – where the best you can hope for is a bed with or without food.
This is in contrast to the private game reserves where you can live in luxurious tents / chalets / suites – all in the jungle – enjoying guided safaris and gourmet food. Clearly, the more you are willing to pay, the more luxury you can enjoy inside the jungle.
So here it is more of a decision between may be your budget and your sense of “roughing it up” in the wilderness.

Of course, everyone goes to a safari to see animals (and birds) in their natural habitat – so the variety of animals one can expect to see is a big deciding factor.

Variety of Animals – Big 5

The most relevant point here is that there are currently NO boundaries (physical fences) between the KNP and private game reserves. So the probability – at least the theoretical one – of sighting an animal in KNP and private game reserves is the same. The same applies to choosing among the many private game reserves, where some of the more prominent are: Timbavati, Balule, Sabi Sands, etc.

While talking about the animals, everyone here refers to the Big 5: Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Buffalo, Rhinoceros.  Basically, the 5 are referred to as the Big 5 because it seems that they are most dangerous to hunt. One might be surprised to find Buffaloes in this list, however it seems that they can be really revengeful if you somehow manage to injure them without killing them.

Bird sitting on a two horned Rhino
Majestic lions roaming around
Peaceful elephants
Buffalo in Balule Game Reserve

Of course, the Big 5 is a marketing term, and you can expect to see many animals in addition to the Big 5: Zebras, Giraffes, Hippos, Steinbucks, Antelopes, etc. But please understand that this a Safari and not a Zoo – so you are never “guaranteed” to see anything – at the same time you may end up seeing much more than you bargained for. For instance, we found the antelope (below) giving us a perfect pose on the very first day of our arrival (while driving to the lodge), while running away from us on almost all the remaining days when we took safaris.

An antelope posing for us ...


Transportation

The final point which might influence your decision is the location / distance of the reserve. It is basically a 5 hour drive from Johannesburg to KNP – if you decide to go there by car.

A more convenient option is to take a (1 hour) local flight from Johannesburg to Hoedspruit / Nelspruit. Note that given the size of the KNP, even Hoedspruit and Nelspruit are quite far distance wise, so please make sure that the lodge you have booked is close to the airport you are flying to.

Pondoro Game Lodge

We stayed at the Pondoro Game Lodge which is in the Balule game reserve – and we can absolutely recommend it.

A typical day at Pondoro used to start at 6 am in the morning with the morning safari drive. Safaris were on a open jeep with a guide / driver and a tracker. Our guide and tracker (Rulani and Andries) were absolutely wonderful. Rulani always gave us a brief description of the animals / birds we sighted – which was very helpful for us city people. Both were very friendly and absolutely motivated to provide us the best safari experience. We still remember the time when Andries went out on foot in search of lions, and after half an hour we saw a family of lions heading our way with Andries following them calmly with a stick in hand.

Group of lions freely moving in Balule Game ReserveGroup of lions freely moving in Balule Game Reserve 2Lions posing for us in Balule Game Reserve

As mentioned before, sighting an animal in a safari requires careful tracking – similar to hunting. So Rulani and Andries were basically tracking animals by their footprints and droppings. There were many times when one of the other jeeps (at times belonging to a different lodge) would report a sighting and Rulani would race our jeep there so that we also got a sighting. This resulted in wonderful sightings of a group of lions hunting a pack of hyenas, a group of lions resting together at evening, and a leopard drinking water (it seems leopards are even more difficult to sight as they usually move alone and tend to avoid jeeps). Below are a couple of videos of the above activities:

Leopard drinking water at nightPack of hyenas being tracked by a group of lions

Some of the other animals we managed to see include zebras, elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, hippos, etc.

Safari jeep surrounded by a buffalo herd
Hyenas being chased by lions
A giraffe walking tall
Hyenas in Balule Game Reserve
Giraffe holding its head high

We have to mention here that even after being on a safari, and having seen lions / leopards at close range; we still find it very difficult to believe that the animals did not attack us. The guides gave us many reasons, ranging from the animals not being interested in human meat, to having weak eyesight due to which they see the jeep with people in it as one large animal (which they are afraid to attack). Whatever the reason might be, we can safely report that we weren’t attacked even once during our 4 safaris trips. So do not be afraid! but at same time be always alert as exceptions may occur at any time πŸ™‚

Robbie and Lize maintain the lodge as a family home and you are always made to feel very welcome. Returning from the morning safari (around 9 am), there is  a luscious breakfast waiting for you. It is indeed an exhilarating experience having breakfast out in the open, with the sound of a stream flowing nearby,  where different animals often drop by for a drink.

After breakfast, you are free to relax, roam around a bit and explore. The cottages are beautifully designed with modern amenities such as air conditioners, fully equipped bathrooms; and a bit of wilderness such as showers and a jacuzzi out in the open. So you might be taking a shower when an elephant decides to drop by for a visit πŸ™‚

Below is a video of a group of baboons enjoying our jacuzzi.

Baboon drinking water from our jacuzzi in Pondoro Game LodgeBaboons drinking water in front of our room

After a light lunch, one is again ready to leave on the evening safari – which lasts another 3 hours – often returning after sunset. During sunset, there is usually a break where you can enjoy drinks in the wilderness under the setting sun. 
Up on returning from the evening safari, a 3 course dinner awaits you under candlelight settings – again out in the open if weather permits. Below is a pic of our dining lounge.

We had an absolutely wonderful time at Pondoro, and would definitely return if and when time permits !! 

Chilling out in Cape Town

Continuing our South African trip, we traveled to Cape Town after visiting Kruger.

Relaxing in the sunset overlooking the Atlantic


Blue Train

The plan was to travel from Kruger to Cape Town by the Blue Train.

The Blue Train is a luxury train operating between Pretoria and Cape Town. If you are a Agatha Christie fan, you might have read the “The Mystery of the Blue Train“. It takes around 27 hours and is the perfect way to travel in luxury from North to the South of South Africa.

Unfortunately, as we learned later to our dismay, the rail network in South Africa is not really up to speed. There was a derailment on one of the tracks the night before our trip. As such, our trip was cancelled. So to our utter disappointment, we had to miss out on our eagerly anticipated Blue train experience. To the credit of the Blue Train organizers, they handled the cancellation exceptionally well – with full refund, arranging alternate transport to Cape Town, and providing accommodation for the night at Taj Cape Town. As we were waiting for them to make the alternate arrangements, the crew gave us a small tour of the Blue Train – some pics below:

While the interiors (bars, lounges, rooms) were really gorgeous, the only thing we felt on the negative side – was the size of the rooms. The normal rooms seemed even smaller in reality than in the pictures. So think carefully about booking the luxury rooms – the extra ZAR 2000 may be worth it.

Accommodation

We had the pleasure of staying in 2 lovely hotels in Cape Town.

Taj Cape Town

(Our Tripadvisor review: link) The Taj Cape Town is a luxury hotel located in central Cape Town. The staff is super friendly and helpful. It was quite crowded when we were checking in, and as our room was still not ready; the lady at the desk kindly upgraded us to a room with a view of the Table Mountain. And, what a view it was!! – check out the pics below πŸ™‚
Scenic view from the Taj Cape Town Hotel
Table Mountain view from the Taj Cape Town Hotel

The rooms are spacious, tastefully decorated with expensive furniture. The breakfast selection was also excellent. We were really happy when we came to know that you can also order a Masala Dosa for breakfast.

The only downside might be the location. The hotel is centrally located in the business district. So while it would be great for a business traveler, it is a bit far (4 kms) from the Waterfront where you would usually stay as a tourist.

Bombay Brasserie

(Our Tripadvisor review: link) While  staying at the Taj, we also had the pleasure to dine in its in-house Indian restaurant: Bombay Brasserie
If it is Indian food you are looking for in a luxury setting, then this is the place to go. The restaurant is small, maybe for 25-30 people at a time; which means a nice, cosy, and romantic setting. It also means that it is usually fully booked, and that you need to reserve in advance. Even as hotel guests, we had to reserve in advance.
As Indians, we can vouch that the food quality was great. We really liked the small starters they kept serving in between the courses. The service was friendly and attentive. It is expensive, yes; but we did not find anything overpriced – it is the price you pay for fine dining. Overall, we had a very enjoyable experience and can really recommend it!

Radisson Blu Waterfront

(Our Tripadvisor review: link) The search for ocean views and proximity to the Waterfront – took us to the Radisson Blu Waterfront. So “location” is really the key for this hotel.

While you can enjoy ocean views from the room or restaurant (the hotel is right on the Atlantic coast), the Waterfront is not exactly walking distance – but the hotel has a free shuttle departing every 30 minutes – takes about 5 minutes from the hotel to the waterfront. We stayed in a business room which had a balcony with wonderful views of the ocean. The view was definitely worth the additional expense of a business room.

Quiet atlantic ocean at night in front of Radisson
Birds in an Atlantic Sunset

Hotel staff are very friendly and helpful. The room service menu can be improved – not many choices. However, the kitchen staff are flexible, so feel free to ask them if you are looking for a specific dish. The hotel interiors somehow do not give the impression of a luxury hotel. It is a bit difficult to express it in words; the hotel is modern and has all the necessary amenities of a comfortable stay, but somehow does not give the feeling of a grand luxury 5 star hotel.

Waterfront

 

Waterfront is kind of the “happening” place for tourists in Cape Town – the hub for shopping, nightlife, restaurants, etc. There are enough shops in the proximity to keep you occupied the whole day. Do not forget to check out something called the  Watershed – where you can find crafts, furniture, etc. from all around Africa. There also have some live workshops and fashion shows from time to time.


V & A Waterfront in the backdrop of the Table Mountain
V&A Waterfront in the Sunset

If it is Tanzanite jewellery you are looking for, we can recommend Uwe Koetter Jewellers – which is located inside the V&A Waterfront Arcade. They seemed to have a good collection and the prices seemed reasonable.

The usual “suspects” e.g. Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Armani … are of course also there for your shopping pleasure. We did not find the prices any cheaper than say in Europe – however it might still be worth it as you can get a VAT refund for all purchases above ZAR 300. So be sure to collect / preserve the Tax receipts, and have the purchased goods ready for inspection at the airport. They have Tax Refund centers at both Cape Town and Johannesburg airports.

The whole place has a fun, picnic, family outing, kind of feel to it. There are numerous cafes and you can often enjoy live street performances from local artists in the evenings.

In part II of this blog, we will focus on the nature / activities in Cape Town: Table Mountain, Cape of Good Hope, Seals and Penguins Colonies.

Chilling out in Cape Town II

Part I of the blog appears here: (link)

Filming the Table Mountain PanoramaCute penguins at Boulders beach

Located in the South of South Africa, Cape Town boasts of some amazing landscapes and diverse flora / fauna.

Table Mountain

One such natural wonder is the Table Mountain. The Table Mountain is considered to be one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Without going into controversies regarding which are the “true” wonders of the world, it would be quite fair to say that the Table Mountain is indeed a natural wonder.

The name is self-explanatory and the uniqueness of the the mountains is that they are wide and (very) flat at the top – it is almost as if someone took a knife and cut out the pointed peaks.

Exploring the Table Mountains is easy – there is a cable car which takes you to the top of the mountains. There are public buses, as well as the Cape Town Hop-on / Hop-off sightseeing bus, which can take you to the Cable car station. Note that the cable car gets quite crowded during peak touristic seasons, so we would recommend purchasing tickets in advance. You can also buy the tickets together with your Hop-on / Hop-off bus tickets.

Cable car to the top of Table Mountain

Once you reach the top of the Table Mountain, you can walk around and explore the reserve – there are cafes, toilets, and most importantly view points from where you can capture wonderful panoramas of Cape Town.

Cape Town panorama from top of the Table Mountain

You can often spot these little ones (pic below) sitting at the peaks and staring at you. We believe that they are called Rock Hyrax aka Dassie. We also noticed groups / agencies providing (selling) bungee jumping experiences at the top – however it is clearly not meant for the faint of heart (like ours).

Rock Hyrax aka Dassie at the top

Cape of Good Hope, Cape Point, Penguin and Seal Colonies

As we did not have much time, we booked a private “Cape of Good Hope, Cape Point, Penguin and Seal Colonies” – 9 hour trip with Cape Town Day Tours.
(TripAdvisor review: link)
The whole tour was well organized. We managed to see seals, penguins, Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope – all without any rush and at a leisurely pace. We made many small stops along the way while driving along the Atlantic seaboard – the most significant among them being the 12 Apostles Peaks and Chapman’s Peak.

Scenic Cape Town

 

Hout Bay and Seals

Our first real stop was at Hout Bay – to take the ferry to Seals island.  Hout Bay itself is an amazingly beautiful village with mountains encapsulating the boats docked at the valley.

Scenic Hout Bay
We then took a ferry which took about 20 minutes to reach Seals island. The island was amazing as well. We were expecting to see a tiny island where it would be difficult to even spot 1 or 2 seals. However, we were pleasantly surprised, and the island was teeming with seals. Although, we were not allowed to set foot on the island; the ferry approached quite close to the island providing us an up-close and personal viewing of the seals. 
Once the ferry had sailed about 10 or so minutes from Hout Bay, you can start feeling the powerful (Atlantic) ocean waves; and the ferry seemed to rock quite a bit – so may be think twice before taking the ferry if you get seasick easily πŸ™‚

Seals colony on Seals Island

 

Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope

Our next stop was the Cape of Good Hope reserve. The Cape of Good Hope is the southern most point of Africa, and from here you can see the Atlantic in all its fury.

Furious Atlantic ocean at the Cape of Good Hope

In the reserve, you can take the funicular to the lighthouse at the top; or simply walk around – there are photo opportunities at every corner. While it is said (rather advertised) that one can see the Atlantic and Indian oceans merging at Cape point; for all practical purposes, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two oceans. (It is e.g. nothing like our Triveni Sangam where one can clearly distinguish the rivers by their water colors.)

Cape of Good Hope panorama

We also managed to track down a few animals in the Cape of Good Hope reserve, e.g. the bucks and ostriches below.
 

Majestic Ostrich

Boulders Beach – Penguins

Last but not the least, do not forget to visit the Penguins colony at Boulder’s Beach. Yes, Penguins, you heard it right!! It seems that popular media including films and TV shows have led us into believing that Penguins can only be found in very cold places e.g. Antarctica.
However, this is clearly not true; and we were pleasantly surprised to see a whole colony of Penguins in Cape Town. It is their natural habitat, and not a close facility like a zoo by any means – e.g. check out the 2 guys below walking on the main road.
It was absolutely "out of this world" to see the 2 cute penguins walking on the road in front of us!!

   

The area is not huge, probably can be covered by walking 15-20 minutes. But during that time, you can easily expect to spot around 100 penguins. There are penguins in whichever direction you look – and they are surely as cute as you’d expect them to be – if not more.

Seattle – the perfect mix of natural and urban landscapes

We visited Seattle in Oct 2015.

Moment of reflection in Mount Rainer National park

Downtown Seattle

Downtown Seattle looks very similar to NY: crowded streets surrounded by tall buildings on all sides. The only difference is that in Seattle – you will see a Starbucks in every corner.

Starbucks

For the uninitiated, Seattle is the birthplace of Starbucks.  Hence, the first Starbucks store (below) close to Pike Place Fish Market is actually a very popular tourist attraction here. From the inside, it looks very different from the Starbucks store layouts we are used to; however we can vouch that the coffee inside still tastes the same πŸ™‚  It is still however very difficult to justify the sheer number of Starbucks stores in Seattle – there is practically one every few meters. It seemed like Starbucks is almost a “religion” for people living in Seattle.

Pike Place Fish Market

The Pike Place Fish Market near the harbor is also a popular touristic attraction in its own right. The locals come here for fresh fish and flowers.  This is the place you visit, when you get tired of the unending buildings and shopping malls.

For the tourists, it is is a scenic place close to the harbor with fantastic views, seafood, and of course Starbucks. Below is a night shot of the famous Seattle ferry wheel from the Fish market.

Seattle ferry wheel at night
Seattle colorful ferry wheel at night

And, below is another shot of the harbor at night.

Seattle waterfront night lights

We also tried an Indian restaurant called Daawat Grill close to the Washington State Convention Center, which we can absolutely recommend. It had a great lunch buffet at very decent prices.

Kerry Park

For people interested in photography, Kerry Park is an absolute must vist. The park by itself is nothing extraordinary, however its position and altitude provides the perfect location to click those classic shots of the Seattle skyline including the Space needle. Note that it can get a bit crowded at the park, so it is always better to go there a bit early to get a good spot. Don’t forget your tripod to take those perfect night shots.

It is possible to reach Kerry Park by public transport from Seattle downtown. Look for buses to the Stop “Queen Anne Ave N & Ward St”. From there, it is a 10-15 min (depending on how fit you are) uphill climb to Kerry Park. Incidentally, the same bus also stops at the ‘Space Needle’ in between, so it is a good option to cover both in a single evening.

Below is a sequence of clicks from Kerry Park  – as it gets progressively darker.

Seattle sunset panorama
Seattle panorama with Mount Rainier in the background
Seattle panorama at sunset
Classic Seattle night shot - Space Needle

Mount Rainier National Park

If you are a nature lover, and visiting Seattle, and have a free day in hand – a trip to the Mount Rainier National Park is an absolute must. There are many tour companies offering day trips from Seattle to Mount Rainier (and back). We booked the following tour: (link)

Talking to people on the tour, it almost seemed like people in Seattle were unhappy as all the “nature tourism” basically got diverted to nearby Alsaka. So, Seattle seemed almost like an afterthought for such tourists. We haven’t visited Alaska yet [to be updated when we have visited Alaska :)], but we absolutely loved the Mount Rainier landscape.

Up on entering the park, there is a very scenic drive to the parking at the top.

Scenic pathways in the Mount Rainier National Reserve

Along they way, there are many viewpoints where you can stop to soak in the amazing landscape – not to forget some of most beautiful / colorful birds we have ever seen. The more prominent attractions include the Christine falls, Narada falls, and Reflection lake. As you can probably guess, the lake is so called as on a clear day with no wind, it should be possible to see a reflection of the mountain peak on the still (lake )water. Unfortunately, it was a bit windy the day we visited, and we missed this. Still, enjoy some pics below – hopefully, you will be luckier πŸ™‚

Stunning Mount Rainier waterfalls
Christine falls
Majestic blue Stellar Jay
Reflection lake
Reflection lake

Below are a couple of pics of the tourist parking spot at the top. The parking is not huge, but it was not very crowded when we arrived – of course it might have been because it was almost towards the end of touristic season. Unfortunately, we learnt that there isn’t any public transportation available from the nearby cities or lodging options. So you either need a car, or consider one of the tours operating out of Seattle to visit the Mount Rainier reserve.

There is also a small restaurant at the top offering hot food, e.g. pizzas, soup and bread, etc. The menu is not extensive, and the prices are on the higher side; however it is still a welcome option at that altitude.

Mount Rainier parking at the top
Mount Rainier parking spot at the top

The parking at the top is also the starting point for many short and long hiking trails, which you can try if you have time. There are amazing views of fountains and mountain peaks whichever way you go.

Hiking in the Mount Rainier National Reserve