Reflections on a round-the-world journey

Several nights into our journey, as we were speeding along dark roads en route to our guest house on the island of Lifou in New Caledonia, I felt a bolt of irrepressible excitement of the sort familiar, no doubt, to most travel enthusiasts. We’d just spent several nights in big, bold Sydney, a bona fide world city, well-organized and self-evident. Sydney was exciting, but, truth be told, not unlike many places I knew well. The quiet island of Lifou, with its hybrid French-Melanesian culture, provided a novel contrast. There were few people around, and few streetlights. The air smelled sweet. Occasionally a car overtook us during our 40-minute journey, and headlights once or twice revealed women in bright clothing walking along the side of the road.

We had made it to an unknown place. I felt myself caught up with that familiar emotion known to all who love travel: teeming excitement, tied to a lack of knowledge of what was to come.

Taking stock of a five-week trip after the fact is perhaps unavoidable, but it’s also fraught. You don’t want to put too much energy into second-guessing what you did on your journey, perhaps in particular because a specific round-the-world itinerary is unlikely to be repeated. Simultaneously, you also want to learn from the experience.

Here’s what we planned well and what we might have executed differently if we had the trip to do over.Good planning.

• Hotels. Our hotels were well chosen, all in the $95-$175 range. In terms of value, we did especially well by scoring a room through Hotwire at the Hilton London Docklands for just under $100 per night. Most of the hotels we chose are well-located, or close enough to secondary attractions to feel central.

• Open-ended approach. Our general lack of planning as far as activities are concerned was also beneficial. This approach gave us time to relax into each destination and pick up inspiration on the spot. Our approach perfectly fit my neighborhood-based strategy of urban exploration. More tourist sight-oriented travelers might find this approach to be less satisfying.

• Variety of destinations. Another plus was the variety of our itinerary’s destinations. By including big vibrant cities and out-of-the-way insular idylls on our itinerary, we were able to enjoy a range of experiences in a relatively short period.

So-so planning.

• Johannesburg. As I detailed in an earlier post, our brief Johannesburg stay suffered from poor planning. In retrospect, it turns out that I’d simply consulted the wrong sources. Several friends and acquaintances popped out of the woodwork following the publication of this blog post with tips. I’ll be better prepared for my next visit to Johannesburg. Lesson: always get feedback from your trusted contacts and carefully contextualize reports of a city’s security situation.

• Tanna Island. I’m a big fan of picking a base and then fanning out to other places. I wish we’d taken greater advantage of this approach to spend a few nights on Vanuatu’s Tanna island. I read about Tanna, an ecological wonder of nature, in Lonely Planet’s Vanuatu & New Caledonia guidebook. It is fairly easy to visit Vanuatu from New Caledonia.

• Rodrigues Island. Nine nights on Mauritius was perhaps two too many. A jaunt to the country’s far flung Rodrigues Island, 350 miles to the east, would have provided a fascinating cultural and physical contrast with the main island.

This is the final Capricorn Route series installment. Check out other stories in the Capricorn Route series here.

Round-the-world: Capricorn Route trip top ten

Later this week I’ll reflect on the ups and downs of our round-the-world trip. I’ll look at what we might have done differently as well as those elements that turned out to be particularly well conceived. In the meantime, here’s a playful top ten list of some of the best things we encountered along the way: best beach; best ice cream; best tourist trap; best breakfast; best market stall; best new subway line; best hotel arrival punch; best rough neighborhood; best flight; and best place to sharpen cupcake decoration skills.

1. Best beach: Châteaubriand Bay Beach, Lifou. The Loyalty Island of Lifou in New Caledonia certainly several incredible beaches. Châteaubriand Bay Beach is the most magnificent of these. The sand is delicate and white, the water is a mesmerizing hue, and there’s plenty of shade for those who burn easily. Locals share the beach with tourists, though in the very pleasant off-season there are few of either around.

2. Best ice cream: violet ice cream at Cutler & Co in Melbourne. The extraordinary tasting menu served at Cutler & Co was devoid of missteps. The parting shot of violet ice cream left a bold final impression. It was also the tastiest serving of ice cream of the trip.

3. Best (that is, worst) tourist trap: Île aux Cerfs, Mauritius. Everyone raves about Île aux Cerfs, an island off the east coast of Mauritius. Visitors pay 1000 rupees ($34) upfront at a tour agency in the coastal town of Trou d’Eau Douce for access to the island plus a barbecue lunch. A boat picks up tourists and deposits them at a jetty on the island, then later ferries them over to another island for a barbecue lunch. The island is packed with tourists and touts selling boat rides and parasailing adventures. Prior to development, this island was no doubt terribly beautiful–and, it must be said, it has no landscape-scarring developments even now–but it’s quite crowded for a destination where it is pretty easy to avoid masses of tourists.

4. Best breakfast: Forbes & Burton, Sydney. A potato cake under poached eggs with smoked salmon and onion jam (AUD$18) was the best breakfast of the trip, hearty and refined at once. Runner-up in the great breakfast stakes: several items on the menu at Il Fornaio in Melbourne’s St. Kilda neighborhood.

5. Best market stall: Tisanes N. Mootoosamy, Stall 244, Central Market, Port Louis. The owner’s pitch is hilarious: “There’s one herb we sell here that you can’t use until you leave Mauritius. This is the anti-stress herb, because there’s no stress on Mauritius.” The range of ailments addressed by the herbs on offer here, meant to be imbibed as tea, is broad. It includes menopause, insomnia, cellulite, and anemia.

6. Best new subway line: London Overground East London line. Opened for service in May, 2010, this new line provides a new more or less vertical south-to-north link from West Croydon to Dalston Junction. Some stations are pristine and modern and the trains are gleamingly new.

7. Best arrival punch: Oasis De Kiamu, Lifou. To be fair, this was our only welcome punch, but no matter. It’s awfully nice to be welcomed to a hotel in the tropics with a fruity drink, especially one that turns out to foreshadow well the flavorful aperitifs to come.

8. Best supposedly rough-and-tumble neighborhood: Footscray, Melbourne. I loved this neighborhood of cheap Vietnamese restaurants, a market, an excellent community arts center, and countless specialty shops, many oriented to Melbourne’s various ethnic communities. If you find yourself in Melbourne in desperate need of a grocery that sells both Fijian and Sri Lankan products, Footscray would be a safe bet.

9. Best flight: Qantas Business class Los Angeles-Sydney on the Airbus A380. This is, quite simply, one of the best business-class long-haul routes around. The seats recline completely, the food is quite nice, and there is plenty of privacy. Even the bathroom lighting is gentle. Not cheap, though completely worthwhile.

10. Best place to take a lesson in cupcake decoration: Amandine, London. One of many exciting retail venues in Victoria Park Village, Amandine is a beautiful little café that prioritizes delicious homemade cakes. It also offers fresh produce, good coffee, and free wi-fi. Inside, Amandine is bright and cheerful, like a stylish country cottage gone Boho. There’s also a back garden.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

Round-the-world: Victoria Park Village, London’s most perfect retail cluster

London is the final stop on our round-the-world trip. This stop is different than the seven that preceded it; from the moment the plane lands, we are no longer in vacation mode. The point of our visit is to do research in preparation for a move to London in December.

First and foremost, our objective is to figure out what sort of living situation we can afford; after that, our goal is to assess neighborhoods based on the quality of local grocery stores, restaurants, and cafes as well as a dry cleaner, good transportation links, and the other sorts of intangible atmospheric factors that make a neighborhood appealing.

In our housing search, we focus on London’s East. The areas that appeal to us the most are in three East London boroughs: Hackney (specifically London Fields, the north side of Victoria Park, Shoreditch, and Dalston), Tower Hamlets (Bethnal Green), and Islington (Clerkenwell and around).

Along the way, we stumble across Victoria Park Village, a neighborhood that checks all our boxes and also perfectly embodies an outsider’s fantasy of an ideal London neighborhood. Victoria Park Village is at the intersection of Victoria Road and Lauriston Road, in the borough of Hackney, just north of Victoria Park.

Emerging from the park along Lauriston Road, a visitor immediately notices plenty of trees, strong foot traffic, many retail establishments, and the slender spire of a small church on the horizon. Were this intersection in Notting Hill, one could imagine a heavy tourist presence. Because this neighborhood is a fair hike from higher-volume tourist areas, it’s firmly off most tourist itineraries.

Carrot cake from Amandine.

The neighborhood has two great cafés, Loafing (below) and Amandine (above); Bill Hall, a greengrocer/fruiterer; a fishmonger; one of four branches of The Ginger Pig butcher shop; several barbershops; a wine store with frequent tastings called Bottle Apostle; a handful of clothing stores; several estate agents; Haus, a fancy home furnishings store, a local bookstore (Victoria Park Books); and a smattering of restaurants. For dining, there’s Su Sazzagoni, a Sardinian trattoria and delicatessen; a takeaway restaurant called Hope Caribbean Cuisine; and Fish House, which is, at least somewhat expectedly, a seafood restaurant.

Loafing, on a late weekend morning.

One appeal of London for many visitors is the promise of a quaint neighborhood, a place where the vague, romantic notion of the English market village merges with London’s bustling energy. The thing is, many parts of London’s West that might once have fulfilled such fantasies have become very expensive, mobbed with tourists and clogged with international high-end boutiques. Nothing against Aesop and agnès b. outlets, but they belong in a shopping district, not a neighborhood retail landscape. Victoria Park Village, with its inarguable cuteness and many local, small-scale specialty shops, delivers the traditional neighborhood goods.

Next week, I’ll finish up the Capricorn Route series with some reflections on five weeks on the road as well as a trip top ten list.

You can check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

Round-the-world: Mauritius top five

Mauritius has all sorts of charm by the bucketload. It’s got beaches, beautiful resorts, rough-and-tumble districts, colonial architecture, and a tropically lush physical environment. Following are five stand-out places and pastimes that showcase the island’s distinctive beauty.

1. Local grub. In addition to the fresh seafood on offer, there are hunting reserves on Mauritius that generate incredibly delicious venison and boar. Eat these things. Plenty of other food items have to be transported over huge distances and are not particularly fresh. Two restaurants in the south of the island (La Bougainville in Blue-Bay and Les Copains d’Abord in Mahébourg) are particularly good; the latter has a direct relationship with a hunting preserve and puts especially tasty and fresh things on its menu. Its hearty sausage stew, which admittedly has to be flown over 300 miles from Rodrigues Island, is outstanding.

2. Botanical Gardens. The Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Gardens (above and below) are referred to by locals as Pamplemousses. They are a wonderfully peaceful place to relax, despite poor signposting. Guides can be arranged, though it’s perfectly pleasant to simply wander around in blissful semi-ignorance, enjoying the beautiful foliage. The gardens contain a monument to Sir Ramgoolam, the first president of Mauritius following independence, trees planted by visiting heads of state, and a gorgeous colonial mansion (see below.)

3. Le Jardin de Beau Vallon. Located near the airport, this hotel and restaurant occupies a colonial house dating to the 18th century. The restaurant is in the main building, with guest rooms in the house and in several detached cottages. The restaurant is very good, one of the best we sampled in Mauritius. The house, which has been restored beautifully, casts a romantic spell. If you’ve ever had fantasies about drinking rum on a porch on an Indian Ocean island while curtains billow behind you and the fan churns its way through the thick heat, then this is one place to quench them. And if you’ve never entertained such fantasies, an evening at Le Jardin de Beau Vallon might just conjure them up.

4. Beaches. At Chantemer, we were awfully lucky. The windswept beach at the guest house’s doorstep is beautiful. On weekends it fills up a bit with kiteboarders and picnickers, but never to the point of annoyance. There are other great beaches on Mauritius, but this one, to the west of Pointe D’Esny, is very possibly the island’s best.

5. Bois Cheri tea factory. The relatively steep admission here (350 rupees, over $12) ends with a tea tasting at the factory’s hilltop restaurant. The tour starts in a cavernous museum room full of displays devoted to the history of tea and the tea industry. A guided tour of the factory follows. It’s fascinating to watch the tea leaves arrive, go through the drying, slicing, and heating process, and then get packaged. The tour is fascinating. It’s also strangely comforting to be overwhelmed by the deep scent of tea leaves at various stages of transformation. Tours are always offered on Wednesday, and during heavier harvest times tours are provided on a daily basis.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

Round-the-world: Chantemer, a Mauritius guest house

“This is not a hotel. This is a private home.” With these words, Indra Tinkler, widely referred to simply as “Madame” by taxi drivers and other tourism providers across the south of Mauritius, introduces us to Chantemer, her small guest house. There is a flourish of the hand in the delivery. I assume–it turns out correctly–that we are in for an entertaining stay.

Located at Pointe d’Esny near Mahébourg, Chantemer’s neighborhood is a prosperous one, occupying an idyllic stretch of coastline between a resort called Preskil and the town of Blue-Bay. The surrounding area is full of lovely villas, none garish or McMansion-like. Most of these villas boast a stretch of white-beige beach of their own.

Chantemer is the sort of quiet, good value guest house that cost-conscious travelers yearn for, treasure, and then recommend to the like-minded. The house’s downstairs, where Madame lives, is stylishly appointed. Guest rooms are tasteful and simple, with many of Madame’s own paintings hanging throughout. The basics for budget-minded and midrange leisure travelers are all there. The water heater works. The breakfasts (fruit, bread, and coffee) are fresh if small, though a boiled or fried egg can be ordered for an additional 25 rupees, which is less than $1. Rooms also have refrigerators, and two of the three rooms have balconies with sea views. Rooms do not have televisions. If anything, this amenity absence adds to the bolthole atmosphere. Chantemer’s backyard, which leads down to the beach, is populated with palm trees and bougainvillea, among other tropical flora. After nine days spent checking out many different beaches on Mauritius, we came to the conclusion that Chantemer’s beach was the best on the island. That claimed, the constant presence of windsurfers and kiteboarders playing with the robust wind means that it’s infrequently completely empty.

To be sure, there are some downsides. The wireless Internet did not work while we were there, and there are no phones in rooms. This latter fact means that, until they get their bearings, guests are dependent on Madame to call for taxis. As the guest house is a good 20-minute walk from the nearest restaurant and taxi availability slows down dramatically at night, this dependence can be a little bit difficult, especially in light of Madame’s busy social calendar. These logistics can be handled with a little advance planning.

While Mauritius has its share of extravagant five-star resorts, the island is less well-known for small, unassuming guest houses. Chantemer is the perfect pick for anyone looking for a simple, relatively inexpensive retreat. There are three rooms currently on offer. Ours, with a direct view (see below) of the beach, ran €78 per night. A more expensive unit has a kitchen. My sole recommendation, if you find yourself considering a booking, is to request a room with a sea view. Chantemer is one place where a kick-ass dawn view is certainly worth a few extra euros.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.