How to Have an Amazing Birthday

My 45th birthday was a couple of months ago, so I’ve had some time to really think about this.

  1.  Be born. Done, easy, check.
  2. (OK, this one is going to take a while.) Find a life partner as fabulous as XFE. Took me about, ummmm, 34 years and a couple of failed attempts.
  3. Agree to let this fabulous, XFE-like life partner plan your birthday trip every single year.
  4. Show up and go along.
  5. Drink champagne (thoughtfully purchased by said life partner) in a plunge pool at your private beachside villa in Sri Lanka while watching the sea turtles ride the waves (*stuff that actually happened).

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So we went to Sri Lanka in March. And the Maldives. Yes. The Maldives. Yeah. It was awesome. It’s the MALDIVES. Of course it was awesome.

But first, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a very interesting place. It wasn’t really on my radar. I knew that it was close to India (geographically) and I’ve never really had much desire to go to India, so yeah. Sri Lanka wasn’t on my bucket list.

The only people I know of from Sri Lanka are M.I.A. (“Paper Planes,” y’all. That song is my jam.) and Pettifleur on “Real Housewives of Melbourne.” And as far as I can tell, both of those ladies are crazy hotheads who bring all the drama.

I also knew—vaguely—that there had been a recent civil war there and I knew that one of the warring factions were known as the Tamil Tigers. But that’s it. I mean, it’s not like this stuff is covered on the news very much. If I hadn’t read an article about that “Paper Planes” song back in the day, I wouldn’t have even known the name Tamil Tigers, let alone details about the civil war.

So, I did what any good history nerd would do. I read a book–“Elephant Complex” by John Gimlette. A very good book which I can’t recommend highly enough, even if you aren’t planning to go to Sri Lanka. It’s just good, good stories.

Here’s the deal (in a very simplistic nutshell): The Tamil Tigers were (are?) a group of separatists who wanted to (still do?) carve out part of Sri Lanka as a separate, independent state–a homeland for ethnic Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, to protect them from discrimination in the hands of the ethnic Sinhalese majority, which is mainly Buddhist. The war started in 1983 and (technically) ended in 2009. It was, as modern, ethnic wars go, horrible. A conservative estimate is that around 100,000 people died.

Make no mistake, the Tamil Tigers were/are basically terrorists. They used suicide bombers and targeted internationals for maximum impact/headlines. But the discrimination and hate perpetuated upon the Tamils that brought them to that state was also really, really bad. And, of course, we have the British to blame (Kidding. Sort of. The seeds of the war were tied to colonialism and favoritism of one caste over the other.) As usual, nobody’s a saint and there are no winners when it comes to civil war.

So that’s some recent, not-so-cheerful history for you. Bet you didn’t see that coming from the headline, amiright? Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit more about the country’s current conditions, why you should go, and how we decided to go there.

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Nope, I do not think it’s possible to have too many unflattering pictures of yourself goofing off outside a temple in Sri Lanka.

Where to Safari? Tanzania or South Africa

It’s the question that everyone asks when they hear about our recent African safari.

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No, not I packed for essentially three weeks of travel (although, that would be my first question and the answer is: not that much). It’s not even whether we ever got bored of seeing many of the same animals day after day (answer: nope, not at all).

The question is: which African safari destination did we like better? Tanzania or South Africa?

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The answer is a bit complicated. Actually, it’s not that complicated for me. It’s just that it’s a different answer than my travel-companion-for-life, XFE, and it always feels a tiny bit awkward when we don’t necessarily agree. Especially as he is the one who does most of the travel planning. It makes me feel like I’m being slightly ungrateful of all his hard work or something.

Anyway, XFE liked the Serengeti (Tanzania) slightly better. I preferred Sabi Sands (South Africa). Which is just fine. I don’t think either destination is going to pack up their tents and call it a day based on our meager little preferences. And guess what? Neither of them suck. Like, at all. So don’t worry. No bad decisions here.

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Safari in Tanzania or South Africa? They both beat a handful of poop.

Look, the Serengeti is beautiful. Vast grass plains that go on forever and ever. Little purple and white “tissue” flowers signaling the approaching of spring. Rocky outcroppings that allow animals to hide in plain sight. Completely empty savannas with just a single tree providing shade for a couple of leopard brothers. The viewing is plentiful and easy.

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And, as far as sheer numbers of animals, you cannot beat the Serengeti. You don’t just see one lion, you see a whole pride of them, scattered out in a dry river bank, nursing their babies and snoozing and washing themselves and just generally being cats. The Serengeti has the Great Migration, and herds and herds of wildebeest participating in a truly awe-inspiring, bucket-list experience. We saw plenty of everything, especially the Big 5. (But between the two destinations, we saw the Big 7 – that’s the Big 5 plus cheetah and African wild dog).

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A whole bunch of hippos in the Serengeti.

We also saw plenty of death, which bummed me out and contributed to my personal preference for Sabi Sands.

But actually, for me, it comes down to the focus on conservation, which varies greatly between the Serengeti (a vast, open public park) and Sabi Sands (a private reserve set in the midst of a public park).

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A couple of young Sabi Sands lions, approximately 18 mos old. They had been part of the Ottawa pride. They’re mother had been killed by a hyena (!), but they were adopted and raised by the rest of the pride. Our guide Stefan knew all of this.

In Sabi Sands, the drivers and guides know the animals—they know who their parents were, they’ve given them names, they have whole identity kits on each of them and they have spent years acclimating the animals to their human sounds. They approach new or unknown animals very cautiously and respectfully, so as not to scare them.

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Making friends with a new group of skittish rhinos in Sabi Sands.

The guides in Sabi Sands also coordinate over the radio so that there aren’t too many vehicles converging on an animal at once—a vehicle will drive up, spend a few minutes viewing the animal and then back out. And they only drive off the established trails when they’re chasing a Big 5 animal.

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Sleepy cheetah in the Serengeti

The Serengeti is a bit more casual, much more Wild West, if you will. And the guides there are a lot more focused on making sure you (the paying and tipping customer) get your NatGeo-worthy photo, rather than the comfort of the animals. For example, when we rolled up on some sleeping lions one day, our guide began clapping his hands to get the lion to wake up and look up, so we could get a better picture. We assured him that that was not at all necessary and to just let the lion be.

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Believe me: there was more than just the one other vehicle.

In addition, there are a lot more vehicles around in the Serengeti, including all sorts of private guides from outside the park. So there’s no coordination amongst them. The day we finally found black rhinos still makes me cringe, as about half a dozen (at least) trucks encircled the two rhinos. Even though most everyone kept their distance (to some extent), I still felt like we were pinning them in and they really had nowhere to go (they were trying to retreat back into the bush and trees along the river bank behind the trucks–including ours).

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Serengeti family. No names, but lots of babies.

The guides in the Serengeti also do not know the names or lineage of the animals, and in fact, when I asked about the name of our first lion sighting, I got a bit of a strange look. And they definitely drive off the trails quite a bit, in pursuit of any animal. And I do mean pursuit. A couple of times it felt (to my sensitive soul, at least) like we were chasing animals, which I did not like.

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Mom coming to the rescue of a couple of young cheetah brothers we went offroading to see in the Serengeti.

There are a few other things: I much preferred the guides in Sabi Sands. They were knowledgeable and excited every day. Both locations are a little difficult to get to, but Tanzania was definitely more difficult. I also liked the safari style of Sabi Sands–morning game drive, break in the afternoon, evening game drive. There were no nighttime game drives in Tanzania, so it was an all-day safari drive. Although, eating breakfast and lunch out in the wild in the Serengeti was amazing in its own right.

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Leopard climbing up the tree for the snack he’d saved (upper left, hanging). He had a name, I think it was Dayone? Definitely not Scotia. She was a female.

But for me, it ultimately comes down to the entirely different focus—animals first or clients first. Neither is wrong, but I definitely preferred one approach over the other.

Plus, Sabi Sands = honey badgers!

The Hottest Spot in the Serengeti

There are no plush velvet banquettes. No artisanal craft cocktails. No happy hour specials or hipster DJ pushing play on an iPod.

But the bathroom at the airstrip in Kogatende is hands down the most happening. most popular spot in the entire Serengeti.

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Now listen: I’m from Texas. Clearly I have no issue with peeing out in the bushes. Not at all. But I also understand that some people prefer even a modicum of plumbing and privacy. So it’s easy to see why this otherwise unassuming cinder block/tin roofed building was everyone’s favorite watering hole while we all were on our respective game drives.

And like the wild animals we observed navigating the ponds and watering holes across the Serengeti, there was a ritual to the gatherings.

Our particular gaggle of genus: homo touristus would swing by the Kogatende “watering hole” at least twice a day, and invariably, we’d see dozens of other safari jeeps and vehicles parked in rows on the hard-packed reddish dirt parking lot.

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Here’s how it generally went down (told in my best NatGeo Wild “Safari Live” voice):

A safari vehicle pulls up. Now, watch carefully as the white female inhabitants dash quickly out of the car and hotfoot their way up to the building! Notice they carry with them a supplemental item: why its….its…toilet paper! And a wise decision as well, since there’s a 99% probability that neither of these two stalls will not be outfitted with that particular nicety.

Wait….our female is pausing….she’s shirked back and is wrinkling her nose now. Oh dear! Apparently, despite the best efforts of the erstwhile male bathroom attendant lurking about, our female homo touristus is a bit suspicious about this particular watering hole. It appears she is not a fan of the large dual septic tanks flanking the building and filling the air with one of the many aromas unique to the Serengeti. Whatever will she do?

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Meanwhile, back at the safari vehicle, the male homo touristus are loitering about, seemingly unsure of whether they need to partake of this particular watering hole, or just wait to hang out near some trees. They decide to pull a beer from the cooler while they make up their minds. As with all male species, these male homo touristus know they have other options and are quite lucky in that regard.

Ok, so right now we’re also getting a not-so-rare glimpse into Kogatende watering hole life as the homo safarium guiduses slowly abandon their vehicles and charges to gather in clusters with others of their species. Notice how they are laughing and chattering away. There’s no rush here at this robust watering hole. There’s plenty of time for everyone to partake in both the amenities and the social bonding rituals available.

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Now, back to our female homo touristus. After a bit of a dance, she has finally, tentatively made her way into the bathroom vestibule. She appears to be investigating her two stall options quite carefully….perhaps she’s comparing their flushability merits, or perhaps ascertaining the presence of a toilet seat. We can’t really be certain, but we can be sure that she will likely be disappointed on both counts.

Holding her nose and picking the lesser of two evils, she dives into a stall to heed the call of nature. Mere seconds later, our female bursts out of the stall, helps herself to several pumps of watermelon hand soap, and engages in an extended round of hand washing under the cold and weak tap. This is a rigorous grooming ritual, indeed!

Slapping her hands back and forth over her shorts, our triumphant female struts out of the Kogatende watering hole and makes her way back to the vehicle to share all the details of her latest bathroom escapade with the other, uninterested inhabitants of her vehicle.

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Me, hanging out with a rhino at a different type of watering hole in South Africa.

 

Hotel Crashing, Bushtops Serengeti, Tanzania

Back when I was a nubile young woman–aka: my broke-as-hell-and-unable-to-afford-any-sort-of-vacation period–my friends and I would often retreat for into the verdant hills of Central Texas and go camping for a couple of days.

And believe me, I do mean camping. Not glamping. There wasn’t anything glamorous about it.

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Not at all like a Real Housewives camping trip. Except the rusty fire barrel. That’s fairly universal.

We’d load up our respective cars and trucks with coolers brimming with cheap beer and wine, various meats and cheeses, and foil packs of veggies to throw on a grill or open fire. We’d scrounge up a few old tents of questionable structural integrity, a couple of sleeping bags (or comforters that could be adapted into sleeping bags), a bottle of Dr. Bonner’s All Purpose Soap, maybe some bug repellant, and off we’d go to the nearest wooded area, riverside or greenbelt we could find—preferably one with a swinging rope already in place for true feats of drunken courage.

It was definitely fun, but far from comfortable.

Bushtops Serengeti may technically have what they call “tents,” but it’s about as far from any traditional camping experience as you can get.

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And it was, hands down, the most romantic place I think we’ve ever stayed.

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There are a total of 15 tents spread out across the property, and a large dining/bar/library-type tent sort of in the middle, near the pool/deck area. And what a pool! It overlooked the Serengeti plains and was just gorgeous.

We were at the far, far end of the property in tent 14 (Oribi). All of the tents are around 120 meters, are made of traditional canvas and sit atop a large wooden deck with a private hot tub and built-in seating area overlooking the Serengeti plains. We definitely made good use of that built-in sofa for reading, taking naps or just soaking in the amazing landscape.

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There was no air conditioning but the tent opened pretty completely on all sides and we found we didn’t need the A.C. In fact, during turndown service, our butler Fahldi left these adorable hot water bottles to heat up the bed and we definitely needed them when we visited in early October (3 days, 2 nights).

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Oh, do you like how I oh-so-casually mentioned the butler? Yeah, I know. We had a butler. Faldhi, who brought us afternoon gin and tonics (on a mile-long walk from the bar to our tent without spilling any of it!), took care of our laundry, ran a hot bubble bath after our evening game drive, and arranged for us to have a super romantic, lantern-lit dinner our first night at the camp. He was so, so, so wonderful.

Bushtops Serengeti is also where I learned an unexpected lesson about myself: I had no idea how food-motivated I am. Apparently, I get very cranky about a place (no matter how nice it is) if the food isn’t good. Lemala Kuria Hills was very, very nice but the food was a bit of a letdown.

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The food at Bushtops, however, was phenomenal, especially the passion fruit soufflé we had for dessert at our tent that first night. I seriously don’t know how it made the journey all the way from the kitchen to our tent while still staying so light and fluffy and intact.

(The main tent with its cool, cowhide bar and outdoor fire area) 

The staff at Bushtops were wonderful. Everybody was so, so professional and accommodating. They really went above and beyond. Juma, our driver/guide and John, our tracker, made sure that we saw plenty of lions (including large pride with 3-4 day old babies and a pregnant female), cheetahs and even black rhino, an animal that had eluded us for most of our time in the Serengeti.

(Clockwise from top left: lions mating, black rhinos, female leopard stalking a Thompson gazelle, mama lion and a baby peeking out just by her foot). 

The game drives in the Serengeti were long (generally 6:30 am to 3 pm then back out for an hour or two right before sunset) but Juma and John did everything to make the drives comfortable and pleasant, even stocking our favorite rose in the cooler and making sure we had hot water bottles and blankets for those morning game drives.

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My excellent photography skills at work again: That’s John cut off on the right and Juma cut off on the left. But look how well I captured the truck!

Some of my favorite Bushtop memories (besides that romantic dinner and the drives):

  • Snuggling up in blankets on our tent deck with a glass of wine and neglecting my book because I was too busy watching the clouds roll in.
  • Sundowners by the outdoor fire near the main tent.
  • Having a delicious lunch under a tree out on the plains with nothing but zebras and wildebeest off in the distance for company.
  • Falling asleep to the sound of some major rain on the tent top and our hot water bottles warming our sides.
  • Waking up that same night to the sound of buffalos, hyenas, and some other animal friends (we saw zebra hoof prints in the morning) scraping or licking the sides of our tent.
  • Lying in bed in the morning and listening to all the little bird feet running up and down the tent roof.
  • Our barman, Dennis, delivering coffee with Amarula (African Bailey’s) to our tent early on our last morning.
  • The outdoor shower. And that outdoor tub!
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Just waiting for a refill.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who was blown away by the tub. Bushtops Serengeti made it onto this list of “10 of the Best Bathtubs on Earth that are Totally Worth Traveling For.”

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Let’s have a better look at that tub.

Pricewise, Bushtops Serengeti was a far cry from my Texas Hill Country camping days. This is definitely not economy lodging–in fact, it was the most expensive of the three lodges we stayed at during this trip (2017 rates are here)—but it was definitely my favorite and well worth the splurge if you can swing it.

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Hotel Crashing: Lemala Kuria Hills, Tanzania

Sorry for the lack of posts this week. I was a bit bummed out by the election results.

For a variety of reasons, I’m not going to get too far into this topic, but this post from my favorite blogger, The Everywhereist, pretty much sums up EXACTLY how I feel. Go. Read it. It’s really good. Then come back here to read about luxurious lodges in Tanzania and maybe I’ll throw in a few gratuitous cute animals, just to soothe all our souls.

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See? A baby zebra and it’s mommy. Makes everything all better, right?

It was not easy leaving Leopard Hills, in part because the place and its’ staff were just so wonderful, but also, literally: it was not an easy transit. We’d had enough foresight to rent a car and drive ourselves to Sabi Sands because we knew from our last trip to South Africa just how unreliable Federal Air (the small-plane airline that flies into Sabi Sands) can be. We didn’t want to risk it.

So, on the day we left Sabi Sands, we got up at the crack of dawn so that we’d have plenty of time for the four-hour drive from Sabi Sands to Johannesburg, where we’d catch our 1:30 pm flight to Dar El Salaam, Tanzania. I had slept horribly the night before, dreaming of dead giraffes. Then, we forgot where we’d put our Sabi Sands/Kruger Park exit pass (which was my responsibility to keep track of) and had a 5 am panic attack before we finally were reminded that we’d stored them safely in the car when we arrived five days before. And then I spilled coffee all over the front of my t-shirt (the exact same t-shirt I’d spilt coffee all over at the airport before we’d even left D.C.). Oh, and then, honey badgers. Very eventful morning.

There was, of course, some confusion at the Precision Air check in at Dar El Salaam (which I described here), but we caught our 3 pm flight to Arusha (landing at 11:30 pm). Where we had the pleasure of taking a $70 cab ride along 50 kilometers of the worst road I’ve ever been on (and I’m including unpaved ranch roads in West Texas, y’all), for the honor of spending the night in Arusha ($200 basic room!) before our 8 am tiny-plane flight to Kogatende.

In case you can’t tell, I was not at all charmed by Rip-Off Arusha.

After two full, long days of not-completely-smooth travel on sketchy-ass small airplanes, we were thrilled to see the Lemala Kuria Hills Land Cruiser at the Kogatende airstrip.

Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti, Tanzania
A sight for sore eyes.

(I just looked it up and it’s about 4,000 miles from Sabi Sands to Kogatende and Google estimates it would take you 52 hours to drive it. We flew and it took us about 2 days, so yeah. That checks out.)

And right away, just during the drive from Kogatende to Lemala Kuria Hills, you realize that the Serengeti is about to blow your lid off. You basically do a game drive right after you get off the plane. We saw a wildebeest crossing, lions mating, and got a flat tire, all before we even arrived at the lodge. (I don’t think that last event was supposed to wow us).

Mating lions in the Serengeti
Right before the big (and very quick) main event. You can see she’s flirting with him.
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The other main event on our drive to the lodge.

We were met by the managers, Anita and Peter. I had already been in contact with Anita to arrange a few birthday surprises for XFE and she was incredibly helpful and gracious in every way. From what I understand, they took over management of the lodge about six months ago and there have been a few minor changes, from what I understand, including a new upcharge for premium alcohol—which was only a couple of extra bucks per drink, but still a bit annoying.

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Main lodge with bar in the background. And Peter photobomb.

After getting the rundown on the schedule and amenities, we were shown to our tent, Room 12, on the far end of the camp, and it was gorgeous. Huge, comfortable bed, beautiful modern African artwork, sliding glass doors lead to an expansive deck overlooking Rift Valley with a plunge pool and outdoor shower, and huge bathroom with a giant soaking tub in front of floor-to-ceiling windows. I will say, those floor-to-ceiling windows turn out to be a bit of a negative. There’s no air conditioning in the tents and the windows really turn the room into an oven in the late afternoon.

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Here, as at the other lodges we stayed at this trip, we were told that it was high season and we had been charged high season prices. But in fact, none of the three lodges we stayed at had full occupancy on any of the nights we were there. If you aren’t going to be fully booked, maybe offer us a better deal?

The main reception/staging area at Lemala Kuria Hills is a collection of tents, including the dining tent and a large central tent with lots of nice seating areas for reading, talking, playing board games, and the long bar area on the other side. A tree-shaded deck runs along the back of the tent and leads down to a very cozy fire pit area.

The staff is amazing and everyone—from the management to our guide (Nahume) to the housekeeping staff to the bartenders and waiters—went above and beyond to make sure XFE’s 40th birthday was celebrated in fine African style. So for that, I will be forever grateful. It was a great, great night.

Guide at Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti, Tanzania
Our guide, Nahume, during an amazing sundowner on top of a rock.

There are, however, a couple of areas that could be improved at Lemala Kuria Hills. We thought their safari trucks had seen better days – in addition to the flat we got on day one, our truck also got stuck in a mud hole another day, and there was a super annoying, persistent and loud squeak along the pop-up part of our Land Cruiser where the joists meet the top of the vehicle. Three days in and we were hearing that squeak in our sleep.

And, unfortunately, the food was not that great. Or, I should say, the food at the lodge wasn’t that great. The food out on the bush was just fine. Simple, but fine. Most days, you’re up and out early (6 am) and you eat a bush breakfast of pancakes/crepes, bacon/sausage, hard boiled eggs, homemade granola with milk and fruit and coffee. I actually liked the bush breakfast very much. Then you’d stop midday for a bush lunch, which would be maybe some tortilla-type rollups of some sort, strips of grilled chicken, pasta and vegetable salad, some cookies and again, I liked that a lot.

Bush lunch in Tanzania, Lemala Kuria Hills

But the dinners were kind of a disaster – meats were often overcooked, sides were a bit lackluster, potatoes tasted slightly off. I probably would have just written it off as some difficulties in logistics except when we finished our trip with a two-night stay just down the valley at Bushtops Serengeti, we found the food there to be really, really excellent.

Sundowner at Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti, Tanzania

Still, a beautiful, friendly lodge in a gorgeous setting. Just bring some earplugs for the squeak!

Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti, Tanzania

Hotel Crashing: Leopard Hills Private Game Reserve, South Africa

In case you are wondering, yes, you will definitely see leopards at Leopard Hills Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s Sabi Sands.

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A little Leopard Hills branding opportunity right there. Clearly, a stunt leopard.

 

And a whole lot of other animals, including (if you’re very lucky like we were) the very rare African wild dog.

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We actually saw three generations of the adorable calico-spotted dogs a ton during our first couple of days on safari in South Africa. I mean, a ton. To the point where I was like, “OK, got it. Dogs. Yeah. Can we please see something else?”

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Then our guide Stefan explained to us just how rare African wild dogs are. They’re the second most endangered species in Africa after the Ethiopian wolf. There are only around 6,000 African wild dogs worldwide and less than 500 in South Africa. Human encroachment is one part of the problem—more people means less land for these shy creatures. And, because they are such effective hunters and they hunt several times a day, African wild dogs are being killed by humans seeking to protect their own animals and livestock. Hence, looming extinction.

And here we were, watching a pack of around 25 of them (including baby pups) frolicking around their den (a renovated termite mound) and even (one morning) the older dogs out hunting (successfully) for food.

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Suddenly, I saw the dogs in a whole new light and I remembered just what makes safari in Sabi Sands, and at Leopard Hills in particular, so special.

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Leopard Hills is a five-star luxury lodge located in the Western Sector of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, bordering the Kruger National Park. The lodge is situated on top of a rocky outcrop, with most (if not all) of the eight luxury suites offering spectacular views over the bush and the natural waterhole on the plains below.

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Each suite has its own plunge pool, deck and outdoor shower, and yes, the suites are air conditioned. In fact, pretty much every modern hotel amenity is available at Leopard Hills, including a gym, a spa and complimentary daily laundry service.

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The rooms are decorated just as you’d expect a safari lodge to be decorated – Ralph Lauren-meets-Out-of-Africa, with mosquito nets, lots of wood and wicker.

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They also provide a variety of books to help you learn more about some of the animals you see on the game drives and a handy checklist to tick off the ones you’ve seen. But, if you’d like more reading material (or to catch a soccer game on TV), there’s a very good library onsite.

The lodge is pretty much all inclusive, including the mini-bar in your suite and all of the meals and drinks. And man, do they stuff you with the delicious food and drink! There’s morning coffee before the 5:30 am game drive, coffee and muffins or biscuits during the 4-hour game drive, breakfast ordered off the menu when you get back from the morning game drive, lunch later in the afternoon, tea with snacks before the evening game drive, sundowners with snacks during the evening game drive and then dinner (which you ordered from a list of two options per course while you were busy stuffing your face with tea sandwiches before the game drive) when your return to the lodge.

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There’s a beautiful main lodge area where you have your meals and gather for morning coffee or a quick tea/snack before the game drives. Breakfast and lunch were usually served on the outside terrace (if the resident vervet monkeys weren’t too aggressive) and dinner at one of the three long, communal tables inside.

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To change things up a bit, the lodge also had boma nights, which are outdoor barbecues a couple of nights a week in an outdoor enclosure made just for it and featuring a large, central fire pit.

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But as great as all these luxuries and amenities were, (and they seriously were) what really makes Leopard Hills (and Sabi Sands, in general) stand out, are the people. Yes, I know it’s a cliché, but it’s really true. The people at Leopard Hills are awesome. From general manager Duncan Rodgers and his daughter, Meaghan, to the incredible guides and trackers (we had Stefan/Sipho for a couple of days and then Hugo/Moelle) to the excellent chef (Jock) and waitstaff (including Millet, Sam and Neville), it was clear that everyone who worked there took a great deal of pride in their work and really wanted us to have the best possible experience. They were always professional but very friendly and welcoming. The perfect hosts for our stay in every way.

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That’s Stefan on the left, Hugo on the right.

After six days at Leopard Hills, we were genuinely sad to leave and had already began planning our next trip back before we’d even finished packing. After all, we’ve got to come back and check in on the African wild dog pack. There aren’t too many places left where you can get that opportunity.

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Flying Fancy: Review of Emirates First Class

And we’re back! Actually, we’ve been back from Africa over a week, but I’ve been in post-vacation mourning.

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I remember when I was on vacation. That was nice.

That coupled with the fact that as a self-employed person, I made $0.00 during my little three-week break, and yet, my bills still came in during that very same three-week period and—quite rudely—those not-so-nice credit corporations and utility providers still expect to be paid. Which led to a flurry of “Hey, remember me? Can I do some work for you this week?” full-on panic-work activity and therefore, no blogging.

I’ve got TONS to say about South Africa and Tanzania and different safari styles and small little islands north of Zanzibar and Great Migrations and artisan gins and hot air balloon flights over the Serengeti (yes, that happened and wow), but before I get to all of that, I have to start at the end—with our flight home.

Because we flew in the rarefied air of Hollywood royalty in Emirates First Class.

anistonemirates-20151009110626719

I’m sure we’re all familiar with Emirates First Class at this point. It’s pretty ridiculous. And I say this as someone who has flown in Singapore First Class, which I also deem….pretty damn ridiculous.

Once again, lest anyone think we’re secret millionaires who won the lottery, we used airline miles to fly Emirates, this time in the form of 200,000 Alaskan Airline miles and $65.46 per person in fees and taxes (FYI, Alaskan Airlines has already caught on to schlubs like us using their miles to book Emirates First Class and has doubled the miles now needed to book the same ticket we booked. Womp. Womp.).

Similar to our Singapore flight, we were facing more than 21 hours of time in the air plus layovers, so for us, upgrading to such comfortable accommodations made total sense. Here’s how our return flights home broke down:

  • Pemba to Zanzibar: 30 minute flight on a Cessna that held 12 other people with questionable hygiene and no air conditioning.
  • Zanzibar to Dar Es Salaam: 30 minute flight on the same Cessna with a group of new people with questionable hygiene and no air conditioning. Actually, I have no further questions on the hygiene of my fellow passengers. It was abundantly, nose-stingingly clear.
  • Dar Es Salaam to Dubai: 5 hours, 40 minutes.
  • Dubai to Dulles in D.C.: 14 hours, 20 minutes.

It was, to put it mildly, a haul, even in First Class. Which, I know, sounds a bit like complaining that my diamond shoes are hurting my feet.

Continue reading Flying Fancy: Review of Emirates First Class

Flying Fancy: Review of Singapore Airlines Suites

I think I’m generally pretty spoiled. And I’ve had some pretty spectacular flying experiences.

But our trip in the Singapore Airlines Suites was so over-the-top, it almost made this girl (formerly from the trailer parks of West Texas) downright uncomfortable.

Singapore Suites check in
I’m ready to check in, dorky grin included

First of all…let me just stop you right there. I’m sure you know, or suspect, that a ticket on such a flight from New York to Frankfort to Singapore costs about the equivalent of a nice car–or even, a West Texas trailer. But we didn’t pay that. We paid about $375 per person all told, thanks to miles we got last year through a LifeLock deal (the deal’s no longer available, guys. Sorry.)

Ticket for Singapore Airlines

So, we cashed in those miles for a true first class adventure on an airline that consistently gets rave reviews for its customer service. And, since the total flight time was around 19 hours (7.35 from New York to Frankfurt, 11.25 from Frankfurt to Singapore) PLUS a two-hour layover in Frankfurt, it’s worth using the miles to have a truly relaxing and pampered experience.

We started at the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK. It was my first time there and it was a freaking awesome lounge! So coolly designed, yet cozy at the same time. Amazing (and free!) food and drinks, and they even had a spa featuring Dr. Hauschka products. I got a $20 15-minute moisturizing facial and then settled into a giant lounging couch with a blackberry bramble and a flatbread pizza for a snack. I almost wanted to just stay in the lounge. (Still, it’s no Turkish Airlines Istanbul Departure Lounge, which has to be the most amazing lounge I’ve ever been to, hands down, bar none).

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse interior
Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse interior

Back to Singapore Airlines: Soon, it was time to board the gigantic A380 aircraft. We went down a separate, dedicated bridge to get to the front part of the plane, where our flight crew was waiting with champagne and newspapers to greet us (no trashy magazines, alas. I had to bring those myself.)

Singapore Airlines A380
The behmoth

Now on to the star of the show-–the much talked about suites: The whole set up reminded me of the old train berths.

Singapore Airlines Suites
Those stairs on the right go up to the Business Class section.

There are 12 suites, and on our first flight from New York to Frankfort, there were only two other people in the suites section.

Singapore Airlines Suites

We had picked the middle two seats, which can be folded down and combined into a double bed. Your seat is surrounded by private walls and your “pod” even includes a door. But the walls don’t go all the way up to the ceiling, so a very curious tall person walking by could still crane their neck and look down into your “pod.” And there were a lot of people (flight crew, mostly) walking around throughout the flight. Nevertheless, you did feel completely private and blocked from the view of those sitting around you.

Singapore Airlines Suite 3D

IMG_2433

The tan leather seats were like recliners, huge and wide and with lots of leg and back settings. Across from me, in another tiny seating/footrest alcove was the entertainment system and the Givenchy bedding. Soon after boarding, we received our pajamas and a Salvatore Ferragamo amenities kit, including a full-sized perfume.

Givenchy bedding on Singapore Airlines Suites

Ferragamo amenities kit on Singapore Airline

Ferragamo perfume from amenities kit

The fold-down bed is just awesome. There’s no denying that the best amenity on any first class flight is the ability to change into some pajamas, get completely prone on nice comfy pillows and sheets, and get some sleep. That, and all the new movie releases they have on board, which can keep you from getting any sleep at all (on our Cathay Pacific flight home, I made this mistake, watching “Foxcatcher,” “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Horrible Bosses II,” and something called “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.” I was very cranky by the time we landed in Chicago. And I still had a flight to DC to look forward to.)

Double bed on Singapore Airlines

Double bed on Singapore Airlines

The food on the Singapore flights was, of course, good. I’m not sure it measures up to my favorite – Lufthansa, and it certainly couldn’t compete with the meal we’d had the night before at Le Bernardin! XFE had pre-ordered his meals using their Book the Cook option online, including a delicious pork cooked in beer (!) for the flight from Frankfort to Singapore. I don’t remember much of what either of us ate–I think I had some beef brisket on the first flight and a duck confit on the second, both off the menu–but I’m sure it was better than whatever food box I might have had the option to purchase on a United flight.

Wonton soup on Singapore Airlines
My favorite meal of the flight was a wonton soup I had before we landed in Singapore.
Givenchy plates on Singapore Airlines
I was, however, very impressed with the Givenchy plateware.

What I do distinctly remember is how ridiculously nice everyone was on both legs of our flights. The Singapore Airlines flight crews were incredible and so attentive. They consistently address you by name, your champagne glass is never empty. They’re attentive without being annoying. They made a super big deal out of my birthday, offered up suggestions on things to do in Singapore and where to get the best chili crab, and just really made the whole trip special.

My second birthday cake
My second birthday cake

When I didn’t finish my duck at dinner on the Frankfurt-to-Singapore leg (hard to cut duck with nothing more than a butter knife), they were pretty upset and concerned that it wasn’t prepared properly (it was) or that I hadn’t gotten enough to eat. Which is crazy when you consider that we basically ate something every few hours, and my main course had been proceeded by an appetizer, a soup, and a salad.

Birthday bear with a Singapore sling.
Birthday bear with a Singapore sling.

Overall, it was an amazing experience, and a great start to my birthday trip. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to use that option again, but I’m extremely grateful for having had the chance to roll around and relish all of it.

Six Most Memorable (for Better and Worse) Things We Ingested in Hong Kong

I’d love to tell you that on our three-day stop in Hong Kong, we hit all the major tourist attractions and checked them off one-by-one. Alas, that would be a lie.

We did not go to Victoria’s Peak, or Lantau Island. We did not gaze in wonder at the mid-level escalators, or pose for photos in front of the Clock Tower. We did not say hi to the Big Buddha or peak into the Po Lin monastery. We did not go to Disneyland or even the Museum of History.

We ate. And ate. And then ate some more.

We barely even visited the Jade Market, and when we did, it was because we were killing time before our next scheduled feeding.

OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but only slight. We wanted to taste everything that Hong Kong had to offer, and I think we did a pretty fair job. From milk tea and tomato noodle soup at one of the city’s last dai pai dong to dim sum at the world’s cheapest Michelin star restaurant (the pork buns were the standout) to elegant Cantonese specialties at the Ritz Carlton and inventive Japanese fusion fare at one of the city’s hottest restaurants, we tried a lot of stuff. And then some more stuff.

(Except shark fin soup, even though it was on every damn menu and sold as an ingredient in every damn market).

We weren’t alone on this quest. While we did find and book a couple of restaurants on our own, we also booked two days with Daisann of Little Adventures in Hong Kong before we left home.

Daisann (her name is actually a combination of Daisy and Ann) is the founder of the company and an expat from New York who has lived in Hong Kong for 12 years. With her hands waiving excitedly and her excellent grasp of the Cantonese language, her enthusiasm for Hong Kong and its food scene is completely contagious.

By the second day, I really felt like we were just walking around the city with a good friend who just happened to be a local. My favorite thing was when she would bust out in Cantonese with the shop owners or at the market stalls. Her face would become more animated, her tone would become more forceful, and the looks of respect she got from the locals was priceless. I would really, really highly recommend her services.

So, without further ado, here are the most memorable things we ate on our trip to Hong Kong.

drinks at 001 in Hong Kong
Drinks at 001. Thanks, Aziz Ansari.

Drinks at 001

This place is not easy to find. Especially at night, which it was (you can’t tell from my overly exposed collage above.) Luckily, I had my personal GPS/master navigator XFE to lead the way, and he found it no problem, despite having never even set foot in Hong Kong. At that point, we had actually only been in the city for approximately 2 hours and this was literally our first time out of the hotel. He amazes me.

Anyway, down a whole bunch of small twisty streets, and behind a dull dark gray door with absolutely no signage sits 001, a very swanky speakeasy with delicious cool drinks, plush sink-your-butt seating, and an atmosphere so dark, you can barely see the drinks menu. We had a couple of rounds of drinks, trying the Earl Grey martini, an Old Cuban and a Godfather Smash (can’t remember the fourth cocktail, not surprisingly). Also, the calamari was tasty.

(True story: about five minutes after we got there, a gregarious young guy came in, announced to the bartenders that he had a test tomorrow and needed to try a whole bunch of spirits. He proceeded to order a taste of just about everything in the place, from pisco to grappa to tequila to all kinds of other stuff. It was pretty fun to watch him work his way through all of it, using his spit cup obviously.)

Continue reading Six Most Memorable (for Better and Worse) Things We Ingested in Hong Kong

Hotel Crashing: W Hotel in Seminyak, Bali

It’s cold here in D.C., y’all. Like, eye-tearing, nose-running, teeth-achingly cold. Yes, the cold makes even your teeth hurt. It’s crazy.

And I won’t even get into my whole frozen fingers and toes situation.

So, with that in mind. I thought we might go back in time (to around August or so). Time to revisit someplace more forgiving and less frigid. Someplace where the gentle breezes warmly caressed our pale, pale, Northeastern skin. Ah, Bali.

Bali sunset
Bali sunset.

Our first couple of nights in Bali were spent at the W Hotel in Seminyak, a very fun and touristy little town down on the coast. Think lots of hotels, restaurants, bars, boutique stores.

We love W Hotels and have stayed in lots of them (including the one in Istanbul right after it opened. Oh, and the one in the French Quarter where I split my head open.), so we knew a bit what we were in for. And the W Hotel in Bali definitely lived up to the brand.

bag of beach goodies
Bag of beach goodies

Check in was smooth and easy. We cooled off with a cucumber/minty/lemony type drink and a wet cloth while they processed our upgrade to a private villa.

Reception at the W Hotel Bali
Reception at the W Hotel Bali

Then we went to our villa, opened the gate and saw all this.

private pool

private pool again

Private pool again again

Then we basically disappeared and barely emerged from our villa. And lived happily ever after.

The Villa at Bali W

I’m just kidding. Sort of. We did spend a lot of time in our room.

Room view at the W Hotel Bali

Bathroom at the W Hotel Bali

Oh, actually, our villa had two rooms to choose from. A master and then another, slightly less opulent room with two beds.

Second room at our villa

For just the two of us. Crazy.

Bar area between the rooms
Bar area between the rooms

But when we did leave our little bit of paradise, we found the W Hotel to be just gorgeous. And the staff were amazing. So friendly and helpful. We even had the GM come out and say goodbye to us as we were sadly leaving.

W Hotel Bali

W Hotel outdoor bar

W Hotel Bali deck bar

The perfect oasis. I would probably chop off one of my frostbitten ears to be in one of those loungers right now.

W Hotel Bali Private Villa loungers