Thursday, January 17, 2013

Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania

Lemala Camp

The little single engine plane stops three times, picking up or dropping off a few people, on the way to the Lake Manyara airstrip in Tanzania.  The runway is a very bumpy dirt strip right on the edge of the “escarpment”  - aka “steep cliff”.  We overhear a pilot telling a passenger waiting for another flight “if the plane doesn’t take off by the end of the runway, it will be airborne - at least for a little bit... “.  We will be taking off from here in a few days. 

Lake Manyara National Park is in the midst of the East African Rift.  The park is home to lovely and varied trees and shrubbery.  While worth a one-day drive through, this will be our home for two nights.   Our camp tonight is deep in the park.  Actually it is a one-hour drive into the park.  We are in the bush again in “luxury” tents.   And even though billed as lakeside, we cannot see any water or lake from our campsite.

The people at this camp are all incredibly nice and helpful and want so much to make our stay enjoyable.  All of the personnel are either Masai or natives from local villages.  Everyone in Tanzania is so darned pleasant and friendly.  I feel so horrible even thinking these thoughts about the rustic nature of these camps.   I must say the safari showers do work well.   You just let them know about what time you want to take a shower and they bring the 20 liters or so of hot water, pour it in the water bag, hoist it up above the shower head and you have at least 2 to 3 minutes of hot water. 

We see lots of monkeys, baboons, elephants, giraffes, impalas, flamingos, Acacia trees, and sisal trees.   Dinner tonight is superb.  There are 13 in camp tonight and we dine of course al fresco by candle and lantern light.   And the chef prepares it all in a bush oven or on a gas grill in a little tent.  We start with a delicious vegetable soup, followed by a perfectly done beef filet with rice, which is beautifully presented, and end with an apple crisp with cream for dessert.   The bread, which is freshly baked each morning and evening, is amazing. 

I must mention again how friendly and personable and lovely are the people here in our camp.  

Conundrum #3:  The Masai are an interesting people.  Their traditional diet is chiefly meat, milk and cow’s blood.  They will bleed the cow for the blood and then staunch the wound with cow dung.  Cattle herds are most important to the Masai.  Lions, leopards and other big game are a threat to these herds and so they are often at cross hairs with animal conservationists.  But the cow herds are the Masai’s livelihood.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Masai Mara - continued

Kenya is on the equator but it has been chilly and rainy so far.  Very strange.  We head out for our game drive early this morning and the rain stops but the roads are quite muddy.   We see a leopard whose meal is stolen by hyenas, many elephants and baby ones too (so cute), crocodiles feeding on a baby hippo (too sad), and lots of rainbows.  Our guide is quite a good driver but on the way back to camp we get stuck!  The nearby heard of elephants don’t seem to mind us in their space and a nearby hippo continues going the other way to the river.  Our guide takes off his boots and wades in the knee-high mud to try to free us but to no avail.   Another truck comes and we transfer and return to camp where the resident warthog family joins us for a superb breakfast. 

Conundrum #2:  Driving off  “road” in the Masai Mara has allowed us to see so many animals up close in their natural habitat but with the proliferation of camps and tourists and jeeps, is this negatively affecting the habitat and therefore the well-being of the animals?  Or does the resulting increased tourism and income provide improved animal conservation efforts?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Kenya - Masai Mara

The variety and numbers of animals in this, the Kenyan portion of the northern Serengeti, is truly astounding.  And unlike the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, which we will visit later in our trip, the Land Rovers can drive off road to get up front and personal with all the animals.  

Little Governor’s Camp is our home for these three nights.  Wart hogs, hippos and buffalo populate the watering hole right in front of our tent and at night, we can hear elephants and hippos close by - they roam through the camp at night.  Armed guards patrol during the day and the night, making sure not to disturb the animals but making sure they know where they are so they can detour guests.  We are not allowed to wander freely after dark and during the day must stay within a very limited area.

We find this “luxury” tent camp a bit too rustic for us.  We are staying essentially in a tent, albeit with a bed and a connected en suite bathroom with flush toilets and a regular shower.  The food is marginal.  I believe we have had the same soup four times, always named something different on the menu (celery and apple puree, cream of cucumber, cream of zucchini, vegetable), but I am pretty sure it's the same soup each time.  Appetizers in the lodge tent before dinner are similar to what kids might fix as their first cooking attempt. 

This review sounds a bit tough.   But prices for all of our accommodations on this trip are way up there.  And we have had the experience, three years ago, of staying in three camps/lodges in Botswana and South Africa that put Little Governor’s Camp to shame.  I will mention them now as I am longing for them...  Duma Tau Camp in the Linyanti Reserve in Botswana, the even more impressive Vumbura Plains Camp in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, and the highlight of our last trip: Singita Boulders Lodge in the Sabi-Sands Game Reserve in South Africa. 

And so this presents the first of many conundrums of our trip.  How can we complain about the quality of the food and the level of luxury in this, one of the poorest countries in the world?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Touristy Key West - Hemingway would be appalled

Occasional glimpses of the old Key West
If you really, really, really! concentrate and get to your inner self and use your imagination you might feel a bit of the funky, laid back, American writers in Paris in the 20’s feel if you skirt the masses, stick to the back streets, avoid weekends and high season, and tour Ernest Hemingway’s house.   And it is quite pleasant to eat in one of the many open-air Caribbean style bar-like restaurants.  And I suppose the hordes and busloads of tourists carousing and shopping and eating their way ala Las Vegas and New Orleans is just an evolutionary jump but one that I wish hadn’t been made.   I will try to find movies filmed in Key West during a more “traditional” time period and just pretend.   (The Rose Tattoo, Beneath the 12 Mile Reef, License to Kill, PT 109, perhaps will take me back.)

However, if you go:  Like New Orleans and Austin, Texas, I have a feeling there are some real gems to be found if one concentrates on music and investigates and checks out the various bars and restaurants with live bands and performers.  And as I’ve mentioned, Hemingway’s house is fascinating and the tour is a must do.  There are 40 cats in residence and many are descendants of the original six-toed (or polydactyl) cat named Snowball, which was given to Hemingway by a ship captain.   Apparently six toed cats were considered good luck on ships. These cats roam the property and seem to own the place.

The Conch Republic Seafood Company overlooking the docks right in the middle of town is a great stop for lunch. Good food and atmosphere.

Fun Facts: 
  • The highway that ends in Key West at Mile Market “0”, US Highway One, is 2,209 miles long and runs from Fort Kent in Maine.
  • The nearest Wal-Mart is 126 miles away.
  • Key West is the southernmost city in the United States. The city is closer to Cuba than it is to Miami.

Friday, November 9, 2012


I highly recommend the tours at Monticello.  On our recent visit the guide was fabulous – engaging and poignant and obviously a scholar and admirer of Thomas Jefferson.  We were almost crying at the end of the tour.   The tour guides do an excellent job of presenting the environment in which Jefferson and other southern landowners lived and the contradictions and nuances of the institution of slavery in the south. 

The countryside around Monticello is lovely especially in this fall season and there are so many interesting stops in close proximity.  After visiting Monticello, we continued on down the road a few miles on Route 53 to Jefferson Vineyards for a short picnic, then on a few miles more to Ash Lawn, President James Monroe’s home (he used to visit Jefferson by horseback), and then just a few miles further to Trump Winery to see what the new Trump owners have done to the beautiful former John Kluge Estate.  The wine is not very good (our opinion only…) but the setting and the tasting area is lovely.  We did not get a chance to visit Dave Matthews' (yes the singer) vineyard - Bleinheim Vineyard -  right around the corner.   Next time.

For dinner - Hamiltons' on the Mall in downtown Charlottesville is excellent. The menu changes often to take advantage of fresh and seasonal ingredients.  My blue-plate vegetarian plate was perfect.  (I feel that any restaurant that can do a tasty and elegant vegetarian entrée definitely has a leg up on competitors.)  The crab cakes with pickled okra and crispy bell pepper polenta was memorable.  And Charlottesville’s downtown pedestrian mall is quaint, charming, lively and fun with cute boutiques and shops.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Coming Home to an Empty Refrigerator - Ugh

You know the feeling: you are coming home from the airport after a long trip and flight, there is not much in the refrigerator and you are not looking forward to a grocery run. But you at least need milk for tomorrow morning's coffee. And if you are like me, you just can't get too excited about a bowl of cereal for dinner. Even though really, tomorrow will be another day and a better meal. Just one evening without something tasty should be ok?  No No.  Not to be.  Can't do it.

This time, coming home by myself to an empty house, I do walk to the store to get milk and while there, pick up some romaine hearts.  I know I have cans of tuna, pasta and capers always in the pantry and fresh lemons always in the refrigerator or freezer, so I plan on a quick pasta with tuna for dinner.

A quick Ceasar salad on the side and everything is right again and I feel at home.  I can wait til tomorrow for that major grocery trip.

Pasta with Tuna and Capers
(Serves one)

1/4 pd. spaghetti or penne 
1/4 cup good olive oil
3 garlic cloves - thinly sliced
1-2 teaspoons rinsed capers
3/4 can albacore tuna packed in water
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chopped parsley (if you have it)
Lemon wedge (if you have it)
Shredded Parmesan (if you like)

While cooking the pasta, heat the olive oil in a small skillet, add the garlic and let simmer in the oil for a minute or two.  Don't brown.  Add the capers, tuna and heat through.  Fold in pasta and top with pepper to taste, parsley and a squeeze of lemon.  

Quick Ceasar Salad
(Serves one)

Wash the romaine hearts, dry, then keep in refrigerator to chill until you are ready to eat.

Crush 1 garlic clove and mix with 1 teaspoon dijon mustard, a scant 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (I keep quarters of frozen lemons in the freezer in case I am out of fresh lemons) and 1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste (I always keep a tube in the refrigerator).  Whisk in 1/3 cup olive oil.  Serve on romaine leaves with freshly ground pepper and shredded Parmesan.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

An Appetizer For An impromptu Dinner Party - or for Hungry Teenage Boys

A charcuterie platter like the one at Spruce that I highlighted in my last blog entry is an inviting casual dinner party appetizer but an even simpler one that I often put together is a prosciutto platter.  Simply cover an attractive platter with thin slices of prosciutto and accompany with a bowl of cornichons, a slab of butter, a trio of varied salts, and a basket of fresh bread slices.  (Either an Italian or, surprisingly, a good rye bread are both great with the prosciutto).

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Charcuterie and Brioche and Caviar - what more could you want?

A lovely birthday dinner in San Francisco

Spruce is known for their charcuterie and so we of course start with an assortment to share as an appetizer.  (I will start recreating this platter for dinners at home all the time.  It’s easy to assemble at the last minute and the presentation is lovely.)  Spruce includes about 5 varieties of sliced hams and beef (including bresaola, prosciutto, and beef tongue), a small pot of pâté, sliced cornichons, a small lettuce salad garnish, and a delicious fruit preserve. 

We splurge on an order of the California Osetra Caviar.  I didn’t know there was caviar from California.   We are certainly not every day aficionados but we are impressed with the taste and try to restrain ourselves so as to make sure we all get about the same amount.  The brioche toast accompaniment (along with the traditional blinis) is devine and I now want to have brioche toast every morning, with the crust cut off.

The service - a bit too attentive.  There seem to be two wine sommeliers and while our waiter is lovely, we keep getting interrupted while we are eating or talking to make sure “everything is ok?”.  But not a biggie – we feel very cared for.  And at least our waiter doesn’t tell us his name and so fortunately we don’t have to slash his tip.  I love my white corn soup with huitlacoche and coriander cereal.  The main courses are quite good – especially the brioche crusted halibut.   (Again that amazing brioche.)  This is a very pricey evening out.  On first reflection I think I would like to save my fine dining dollars for the top of the line establishments.  On second reflection, the total cost is not bad given that we splurge on caviar and enjoy some lovely wine.

(Huitlacoche - sounds so lovely.  It was delicious in the corn soup but now I know what it is and I am not sure I can eat it again.  Knowledge is often not a good thing.   Don't check out these links if you would rather just enjoy the taste next time you have an opportunity.....Spoiler Alert!!)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Day Trip to Charleston, S.C.

I must say the best part of our trip was getting there.  On the recent 2-hour drive from Hilton Head our family took turns suggesting songs we wanted to hear.  My son played each of our choices from Spotify (through his IPhone) and we had hilarious and poignant moments critiquing, complaining about or enjoying each other’s song choices.  Most memorable song – Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z.  I personally love this song but can't understand all the words.  So our son googled the lyrics and gave us an engaging reading of this very intriguing rap song.

Kudu Coffeeshop
One of many cute boutiques
Fleet Landing
Everyone is so darned nice and welcoming in Charleston.  We loved driving by the beautiful mansions in the Battery, visiting Charleston’s historic City Hall and its beautiful art and hearing from the very knowledgeable docent the story surrounding John Trumbull’s portrait of George Washington (I can’t ruin the story in case you go…), lunch on the waterfront at Fleet Landing (great food – don’t let the industrial looking location put you off), coffee at Kudu's,  and shopping the cute boutiques on King Street.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The New Napa?

Albemarle County, Virginia has become quite the grape growing area - which would so please Mr. Jefferson as he is considered by many to be “the greatest patron of wine and wine growing that this country has yet had”.  You won’t find the breadth of good wines we do in California but there are notable standouts and the area’s wineries have been winning more and more awards in national competitions.   Think a history and wine trip to the area - sounds pretty perfect.

Over half of Virginia's vineyard acres are within the MVA - Monticello Viticultural Area - and most of the wineries in the MVA are within an easy drive from Charlottesville and only a two hour drive from Washington D.C.  The Monticello Wine Trail website has great information on visiting wineries in the area and beautiful pictures to pique one's interest.

Thomas Jefferson did many things so very well.  He was a true renaissance man.  His beloved home, Monticello, and his university, the University of Virginia, are both listed on Unesco's World Heritage List.  I am confident one day Virginia will make him even more proud and become a prime destination for wine lovers throughout the world.

Zinc Open Kitchen
But one must eat when touring and drinking wine.  There are some great restaurants in Charlottesville as one would expect from this horse country, university town, wine mecca, and world famous history center....  On this most recent visit we try Zinc.  We love it.  The setting is a former gas station with the former service bays providing funky decor and windows.  The wines and cocktails and glassware are enticing.  I love the charcuterie plate, the seasonal cold soup, the mussels, the duck.  Local ingredients and fresh local produce are in abundance.   It is quite obvious that the chef and staff are professionals and care deeply about their restaurant and I can tell this will be a repeat restaurant for us when we are in town.