The first week has flown by with a multitude of names to remember and a rapid immersion into the St Helena way of life. Meeting the accommodation providers on the island has been a high point as their open welcome and keenness to hear feedback has been a breath of fresh air when thinking back to my AA days and some of the discussions I have had with proprietors. Much of the accommodation on St Helena is self catering as there has been quite a bit of building by non resident “Saints” or by locals who have worked in the UK or Ascension or the Falklands and have saved a nest egg to put into a property. Most of these properties are like the place I’m staying in. Two or three bedroom bungalows built from breeze blocks and tiled throughout. As many of them have been built in the past three years their condition is excellent. Gardens will take a bit longer to mature and the land is pretty dry on the Jamestown side. Few and far between are the buildings from the old days, some from the times when Napoleon was here (1815). These houses are either in Jamestown or out in the country regions with fabulous views and plenty of land. The great thing about the older properties are the fantastic high ceilings and many have the original teak floors. Another interesting point is that Raeburns and Agas are fairly common due to the surplus of fire wood on the island and the fact that although close to the Equator, it can get chilly here.
The contrast in the countryside is similar to many volcanic islands around the world with the windward side attracting heavier rainfall and leeward side almost desert like in places, (or is it the other way round?) . As St Helena is British and has been since around 1660 it has many characteristics of the mother country. Driving on the left and road signs are two obvious ones. I was surprised to see gorse bushes on the hillsides, pheasants flying across fields and quite a few sheep once I ventured out. The terrain is VERY hilly as some of my pictures show; the roads are single track with passing places just like our country lanes. At the moment the traffic is minimal but I dread to think what these roads will be like once the airport has brought the masses in to visit. At least the vehicles over here are sensibly sized, not American in size!
We start the accommodation grading next week which will entail visits to every accommodation provider with some of the team from the tourist office here. We will be grading each property provisionally in order for any issues to be addressed before a full grading in 2012.
Plans for the food side of this visit are taking shape. I’m going to be running a number of classroom type courses on the most requested subjects: Bread, desserts and pastry. Other subjects are going to be covered when I spend a day with each of the caterers. I am also going to be writing a weekly newspaper article about food in general, with recipes and tips etc etc. The motive behind this is to get more information out there and to create interest in trying different ways of cooking some of the more traditional foods over here. Pumpkin is a staple here as is spinach. Except spinach over here is really chard as we call it in the UK. Vegetables seem to thrive in the rich soil. I had the best tasting broccoli ever yesterday.........nothing at all like the offerings we buy in Tesco and the like.
My last night’s sleep on the ship was punctuated by the vibrations of something in the wall or ceiling of my cabin which sounded like a phone ringing. This was because someone had fallen sick and the Captain had ordered an earlier arrival in Jamestown. I don’t think this ship was meant to go that fast! Suddenly after five days of movement there was comparative silence and the bag I had hanging on a hook stopped behaving like a pendulum. We had arrived. Dawn was just breaking over the cliffs of my home for the next few weeks. The sky was grey as was the sea and all I could see from the cabin. Not quite what I had visualised back in the UK.
Disembarkation was slightly tricky although nothing like the cargo containers. They were placed on what looked like large rafts and gingerly aimed at the waterfront around a ¼ mile away. See the picture I took. I was placed in a lifejacket and climbed down the equivalent of a long fire escape down the side of the ship into a small motor launch. Deposited on dry land I could have sworn the earth was moving under my feet, no wonder people say you have to lose your sea legs. It took me almost two days to get mine back! A welcoming committee was there to meet me, three of the team from the local tourist office; my new colleagues. Cases were identified and whisked up to my new home for the next 6 weeks. The two bedroom cottage (anyone want to come and visit me?) about three miles out of Jamestown is perched up a road called Ladder hill which is carved out of the sheer cliff and although one of only two main roads out of the capital is mostly single track! I have been given a little Suzuki Jeep to drive for my time here and have been told I will probably never use 4th gear!
Arriving at the Seaman’s Mission in Cape Town I had my first view of my fellow passengers, a mix of local “saints” and intrepid travellers each with a reason to travel. This is the rendezvous point for all travelling to St Helena, Ascension, Tenerife and Portland UK. Mini buses took us to the ship and directions to cabins given. Cabins are comfortable although I only saw single bunks in them. My cabin had a top bunk which had been stowed into the wall as I was travelling alone. So far so good!
Within two hours out of Cape Town the reality hit and remained with me and most of my fellow passengers for another 48 hours. The South Atlantic was showing swells of around 2-3 metres which was enough for most to cancel dinner and take to their beds. It was not nice! As one who has always wanted to be an ocean traveller I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. At the end of day two I made it into the dining room and discovered I wasn’t the only sufferer. Thank goodness for that, my street cred is still intact.
This voyage is possibly the last one from Cape Town to the UK as the ship earns more revenue doing the comparatively short commute between Cape Town and St Helena than hiking up the coast of West Africa. I heard that the fuel cost from Cape Town to St Helena is around £300,000. I think there were around 85 passengers on this voyage plus cargo and crew so it doesn’t need much to figure out why there are plans afoot for an airport on the island. Many of the passengers were “Saints” returning to their motherland, a few were like myself, coming to the island to work with the government departments over here and the remaining 20 or so were tourists. Some had booked the whole passage to Portland in England and were stopping in St Helena for the eight days she takes to go up to Ascension Island and back to St Helena. There were English, Scandinavian, Italian, South African, Canadian and American nationals on board.
The voyage was pretty low key in terms of entertainment and organised activities, which was fine by me. Food was available in copious quantity although quality could have been better at some meals, this was possibly because some dishes were cooked in bulk where cooking in smaller quantities or to order would have been better. Service seemed to improve the closer we got to St Helena with the final night’s barbeque on deck a great success.
Deck space was adequate, with just the stern of the ship available as the containers took up the bow area. Once the sun came out there was the inevitable seizing of sun beds and draping them with belongings. This ship is not in the luxury category and is subsidised so in some ways you have to take what’s given.
I am writing this early on Saturday morning, I check in for the RMS St Helena at lunchtime today and onward to the next chapter in this adventure. Cape Town has been a very pleasant and positive experience and somewhere I would have no hesitation in returning to. Much of this sentiment is down to the “home from home” surroundings here at Huijs Haerlem Guest House. I have stayed and inspected over 1000 hotels and guest houses in my time but ask me to name and remember some of them and its only the really fantastic or really BAD ones which come to mind. I can honestly say that Huijs Haerlem will be a strong memory for many years to come and if in Cape Town again I will certainly stay here. So it’s onward and upward as they say.
St Helena here I come!
I don’t know about others but when going on a journey; (or adventure as this is!) the day before leaving becomes entrenched with packing and other essential but unexciting diversions. This was the case yesterday. By noon I was ready to escape.
I hadn’t really done the world famous Kirstenbosch gardens justice when I visited on the Cape of Good Hope tour. 45 minutes to see these gardens is almost an insult! The gardens are nestled on the backside of Table Mountain and are supposed to have more species of plant life in them than the whole of the British Isles!
Now I am not a botanist but I am a lover of colour, formation and anything that looks good in the viewfinder of my camera. The weather wasn’t that great, windy and grey with a spattering of rain every now and then. I managed a good three hours walking around. The proteas are just starting to bloom. These flowers you sometimes see in expensive bouquets in the UK but they certainly won’t grow over there. They come in a myriad of colours and sizes and all look fantastic.
My body clock was telling me it was time for lunch (3.30pm yes it was!) so I headed to the Kirstenbosch tea rooms. And what a delight that was. The young man who served me was articulate, very pleasant and had voice that could have been put to use doing the trailers for blockbuster movies........”she was scared, she was alone, she had nothing. Then it happened!” When I asked him what the Rump steak was like he said “DIVINE” in a deep baritone voice.......now that’s not a word I hear often to describe a meal of any sort and with my aversion to overpromising and underdelivering I was on my guard! However I had been so impressed with the beef over here that I ordered the steak. It truly was DIVINE! Chargrilled and tender with a variety of vegetables chips and salad! It was just what I needed on this grey day. The tearooms certainly do the gardens proud and as mentioned staff here are very pleasant and customer focused which is fantastic
The Kabab Mahal marketing speak goes like this: “At Kabab Mahal you discover the finer nuances of the bygone era through the extensive display of dishes. The dining concept is unique in terms of its simplicity yet mysterious as the mystic aroma of its delightful kababs and curries. The welcome at the door is as warm and inviting as the fragrant aroma of spices that envelope you when you enter this intimate restaurant”
Well if all that is the case then why does the restaurant look like it’s in need of some TLC in the decor department and the staff appearance? The whole impression comes across as a tired and “seen better days” type restaurant. This appears to be an example of over promising and under delivering.
The menu prides itself on the variety of kebabs on offer as well as the list of usual curries and biryanis, pricing is a little above average (my meal of kebab, lentils, naan and a drink came to R150 or £13.00) for this part of Cape Town so my expectations were high. The person who took my order could hardly string a sentence together let alone discuss the menu with me. When asking for a glass of cider with ice no lemon it appeared with lemon and no ice! The meal was edible but disappointing as the palak paneer (spinach and cheese) wasn’t available, the lentils ordered were tepid and the naan bread was lacking any element of pillow like puffiness. My warm kebab could have benefitted from another three or four minutes in the oven as there was no colouring to it and it was watery.
Enough said, we know what to do......we just don’t go back.
La Boheme Menu
By contrast (thank goodness) just a stone’s throw down the road is La Boheme where I visited earlier in the week and vowed terminator style to return!
Second time around was just as good if not better. The girls & boys looking after the tables were on the ball with food and wine recommendations for all and even welcomed me back when they recognised me. The prices knock Mr Kabab into a cocked hat with a two course meal and drink for R113 or £10.00.
The meal this time comprised of fish, corn and chilli spring rolls with soy dip and from the other side of the world beef schnitzels with creamy parmesan potato wedges. The main arrived looking like a whole meal and then came along a dish of beets, lentils and corn on the cob! I ate the lot.........it was terrific.
Walking back that evening it was no surprise to me to see the difference in these two businesses. La Boheme had a good few folk dining or having drinks in the place, candles lit and a general aura of warmth and welcome. Kabab Mahal had one table with people sitting at it, and they were the staff.
As a lonesome female visiting South Africa the dangers of sightseeing alone were conveyed to me more than once by more than one person before coming out here. In retrospect it seems safer than in my small Somerset town of Yeovil where on most days of the week I can pass angry looking youngsters with can of cider or lager in hand as I make my way gingerly to the local shops. So relinquishing the notion of renting a car and going on the great tour of South Africa alone I have made do with local tours.
The Cape of Good Hope is on most people’s “must do” list as its the end of Africa and we all like to visit the extremities of countries though what logic there is behind it I don’t know. There were other stopping off points on the way and plenty of stunning countryside between. I made friends with another lone traveller, Sebastian who as a member of Emirates Airlines had just flown 400 or so passengers from Dubai. Sebastian preferred the escapade of a tour rather than sleeping off his journey in a Cape Town hotel room before heading back up to Dubai.
My second major trip was far more remarkable and one I would do again in a flash! Diving with great white sharks was never on my list. As a keen photographer and one who has in interest in whales and the like, the idea was to do the trip, take some shots and stay in the boat. I had not reckoned with Doug and Jane from Durham (sorry Jane I kept calling you Liz!). When the captain asked for three to make up the numbers diving in the cage Jane grabbed me and shouted “we’re a three!”
Wet suits were donned and into the cage we went. A large female great white had already been spotted so we knew there were sharks around. Instructions were given about not putting hands outside the cage......easy on land but when you are trying to stay under water to see the creature your hands tend to grab anything! “DOWN DOWN” was the call from above; we submerged and saw looming through the murky water, with jaws open, the great white shark of our dreams or more likely nightmares! This didn’t just happen once but around five or six times in a couple of hours on the boat, quite remarkable, and reportedly one of the only places in the world where this phenomena can be frequently seen. My photographic attempts on the boat were far better than underwater although I am happy to have records of both.
As an aside, this tourist attraction is strictly regulated here in South Africa, both from the safety aspect and the conservation aspect so there are minimal risks. As my Mother said, “you were probably safer in the shark cage than walking around Cape Town by yourself”.
www.eatout.co.za congratulate themselves as being the only restaurant guide you’ll ever need! Well I think that may be the case in South Africa but it wouldn’t be much good on the streets of London or New York so let’s just say it’s the only restaurant guide you’ll ever need in South Africa! Their annual best places to eat list is a comprehensive testimony to the diverse culinary talents across this country and lists 1000 eateries with the bests ones getting full page coverage and interviews with the chefs. Many of the best restaurants are to be found (as in France and the USA) in the wine producing areas and therefore inaccessible to me on this trip (no car).
At number 7 on the list is Aubergine. Familiar with the restaurant of the same name in London I contemplated whether this Aubergine was named after the London Aubergine or vice versa? I decided to Google – “Aubergine Restaurant” to see whether I could find out. Interestingly there seems to be an Aubergine Restaurant in every major city of the world, in fact Google came up with 3.5 million suggestions for the name, too many for me to trawl through so perhaps I will never know.
Aubergine can be found tucked away in a small side street near the Mount Nelson Hotel, considered to be Cape Town’s favourite hotel. Aubergine's restaurant is modern looking with much wood and glass. A courtyard to one side offers diners an al fresco experience although on my visit it was far too cold to consider.
At R180 (£16.00) for a two course lunch I was surprised to be the ONLY diner that lunchtime. Having recently bought a small Toblerone and pack of ginger biscuits at the local supermarket for R52 (£4.50), it was even more baffling. The very pleasant and professional Maitre D’ said that the restaurant filled most evenings but lunch was always more of a lottery. “Same in most places” I thought to myself. Veal Kidneys with balsamic braised lentils and morel foam caught my eye, as did the fish of the day with waterblommetjies and braised tomato with crustacean sauce. “What are waterblommetjies?” I hear you ask. They are a cape delicacy and only found around here at this time of year. They are the shoots of an edible water lily and can be compared to crunchy watercress with less pepper I guess. Great for adding texture to a dish without adding calories!
The meal was certainly above average with kidneys and fish both in tip top condition and readiness for the table. Either my taste buds are on the wane or it just wasn’t there but I didn’t get any of the promised morel foam flavour on my starter. Perhaps they aren’t as strong as the European morel?
I didn’t take wine although the wine list looks fabulous, including some interesting dessert wines, (my favourites), and by the glass which is always a bonus to smaller parties such as my own!
Would I return to Aubergine? Yes I would. I thought it unpretentious, excellent value for money and meeting the expectations of being one of the best restaurants in South Africa. Whether it deserves the No 7 spot I won't know as on this trip there will be no going around benchmarking the other top restaurants in this massive country.
Maybe next time?
Restaurants have such a small window of opportunity in which to impress a customer as the diner is only there for an hour or so.
One could argue that serving a meal is such an interactive process that things can go wrong in a heartbeat and are more likely to than not. Having said that, why is it that many restaurants can’t get it right even when they are nigh on empty?
And why is it that hospitality often fails to impress when sometimes just a smile and some eye contact with the guest would put everything right?
Is it attitude or is it lack of training? or both?
Something to ponder on!
Day four and Camps Bay in the rain. Camps Bay is heralded as THE beach to see and to be seen hence the restaurants huddled around the bay are quite upbeat looking with new looking decor and a host of staff. Usually frenetically busy, Camps Bay was almost deserted other than a few tourists like me looking for something to get them out of the rain.
Ocean Blue chose me as their diner by having one of those engaging door staff who thrusts a menu into your hand and suggests that dining with them could be the turning point in your life! I was going to check out menus down the street but dry and warm seemed a far better proposition with the banter from the friendly doorman. The menu had the ubiquitous variety of grills, fish and steak and lobster etc. Specials were pointed out, one being “surf and turf” with sirloin steak and grilled calamari at R9.00 which is about £8.00. Although not a great lover of huge chunks of meat and little else I do love a bargain so ordered S&T. When it arrived I was pleasantly surprised at the excellent quality of the beef and calamari, both in massive quantity and very tasty. The beef was suffering slightly from the malaise that had struck my kinklip, it was tepid and a tad on the raw side so was sent back (no sushi bar here!). It returned with an apology and the right temperature.
Service at Ocean Blue couldn’t have been more different than my La Boheme experience. Having said that it wasn’t rude, it just wasn’t there! Once the meal order had been taken and food delivered there was not one bit of interaction with guests. Staff appeared to be working at half speed, perhaps in order to fill their day as it was so quiet. It was a strange mix as the chap on the door couldn’t have been more upbeat and pleasant. It would be interesting to return here when the sun is shining and the place is packed. Would the special be such a bargain? Would the staff have upped their game? Could the less efficient service be because they don’t have the regular clientele as does La Boheme? Could it be that customers just fall into the place during the season? I will probably never know.