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Thursday, December 27, 2018

Top 5 International New Year's Eve Destinations

New Year's Eve is one of the most over-hyped holidays of the year. That's why I started a tradition of bringing a group of friends to various overseas destinations to celebrate New Year's Eve in totally new surroundings with no expectations*. 

*This is not an arbitrary listicle - being the journalist that I am, I road-tested all of these New Year's Eve street parties myself!

I figured New Year's Eve would be less fraught with stress and disappointment if we plunged ourselves into a foreign country rather than trying to hit up the swankiest clubs in London and then find black cabs home amidst the chaos. We always balanced out the revelry by spending a few days either side of December 31 exploring the cities. Is the formula successful? More than half a dozen New Year's Eve trips down, I'd say so.

There's one rule that unites all of these New Year's Eve experiences: each New Year's party had to involve us joining the city's biggest street party for the countdown to midnight. So here they are...

5 Paris

Better pic than mine - New Year's Eve on the Champs Elysees: Flickr/Falcon Photography
Paris is so much fun for New Year's Eve that we went twice. The main street party is along the Champs-Elysees, between the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, so we decided to ring in the New Year by drinking champagne on the Champs-Elysees. The entire street fills up with crowds and at midnight everybody turns to face the Eiffel Tower which has a light display on it and a fireworks show. The crowd was extremely friendly and we ended up dancing the hokey-pokey with them.

Actual evidence of  our hokey-pokey on the Champs-Elysees
I can still remember the British Airways steward on our flight from London City Airport. The cabin was almost empty, being as we were travelling late afternoon on December 31 (London is such a short flight from Paris that we didn't need much time to prepare).

The air steward asked how we'd be celebrating and when I told him we planned to celebrate with champagne on the Champs-Elysees he disappeared then returned with a bag full of mini white wine bottles for my group of 12 friends. "Here you go - this is to make sure you celebrate in style - the flight is almost empty anyway so you may as well take them," he said. Such a nice gesture. Yep, we'll be flying with them again...!

Afterwards we found a nightclub in Pigalle and danced until 5am. The nightclubs open late in Paris (around 1am or later) so the timing works well for anyone wanting to go after counting down to midnight outside. There's an ice rink on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower if you'd like to get some skating in beforehand.

Bonus points for: Iconic views of Eiffel Tower,  number of flight connections to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport/Orly, and the legendary British Airways steward who surprised us. 

4 Berlin

Brandenburg Gate, New Year's Eve: Visit Berlin
This was one the coldest New Year's Eve parties I can remember. The thermometer said -13c but the wind seemed to whistle right through my skull, possibly because of the cold humidity. On the plus side, it's one of the biggest, if not the biggest, New Year's street party in Europe - and one of the best! Being as it's an official street party rather than just a congregation of revellers in the street, it was extremely well set up. There are dance tents and beer and sausage stalls all around Tiergarten, running down as far as the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column, which you probably recognise from movies.

The only problem is no beer is allowed in the dance tents. So you have to run outside to drink a beer then run back inside to warm up by dancing again! It was so cold that the beer got slushy ice inside of it within seconds, which was an incentive to get back in the tent.
We had started the night at a legendary bar called Kumpelnest3000 (one of the kitschiest and entertaining bars in this funky city) before joining the street party, which was so good that we stayed out until the street cleaning trucks arrived at dawn.

Beer, pretzels, live music - street party!

Bonus points for: Providing free dance tents for revellers, currywurst and beer stalls, iconic views of the Brandenburg Gate. 

3 Prague

New Year's Eve in Prague: Flickr/Jan Fidler
The main point to meet on New Year's Eve in Prague is at the astronomical clock in the Old Town. It's a beautiful Medieval clock dating from 1410 and when it strikes the hour, little clockwork figures of the 12 apostles and a skeleton (representing death) move around it. There's a firework show from on top of the hill and live music in the same square as the clock, and a compere from the live music stage leads the countdown at midnight. It gets smokey really fast so you need to take your photos as soon as the fireworks start, but it looks really beautiful!

The Old Town Square, right next to the astronomical clock
The square is lined with late-night bars so there are plenty of options to choose from after midnight. We ended up at a Cuban bar (randomly) because everywhere was quite full, although the further you are from the square the cheaper it gets. The cocktails were great and it was extremely cosy inside.

Prague is extremely cold this time of year and there was snow on the ground, but it felt less cold than Berlin, perhaps because it was a drier cold.

Bonus points for: Counting down to midnight at one of the most beautiful clocks in the world, excellent Italian restaurants nearby.

2 Salzburg 

Salzburg on New Year's Eve: Pixabay
This was a wild card as a New Year's Eve destination goes. It was actually the first New Years trip I organised, and managed to round up about 10 friends for it. We had no idea what to expect, having never visited before, and it not being a big city compared to Paris or Berlin.

We gathered in Residenzplatz (a square next to Salzburg Cathedral, in the historic centre) just before midnight, where everybody was drinking beer and dancing. Most of the crowd was Austrian but I heard a few foreign accents there too. There were a handful of stalls selling drinks including 'gluhwein' which helped warm us up a lot! The square itself was very picturesque and was overlooked by the castle, which is on a slight hill.

Drinking gluhwein to stay warm on NYE
Everybody was very friendly and we were able to chat in English, French and broken German to strangers in the crowd, wish them "prost" and dance with them. The atmosphere actually got quite chaotic when some revellers started throwing fireworks and bangers around the streets and off the castle hill, and the historic monuments, but it seemed to make everybody even more excited. Perhaps the

Although it was one of the smallest crowds compared to the turnout in bigger cities like Berlin and Salzburg, it was one of the most wild, fun and friendly crowds - despite the Austrian stereotype of being rather insular and conservative. Just goes to show that stereotypes are often wrong!

Bonus points for: The welcoming crowd, proximity to Untersberg Mountain (where The Sound of Music was filmed) for skiing or just enjoying 'gluhwein' at the top of the ski lift on New Year's Day.  

1 Sydney

NYW in Sydney - Pixabay
This one had been on my bucket list for years. Not only because Australia is one of the first countries in the world to welcome in the new year, but also because Sydney's New Year's Eve celebrations are legendary. 

Before I get into how amazing it is, you need to know it takes a bit of preparation because it's such a big event. Something like 1.6 million attend the free public firework show in Sydney on December 31 and over $5 million AU is spent on it. You'll be able to tell that a lot of money was spent on it. But you need to get there early to grab a spot to stand and watch the show. And if you want to sit somewhere with a good view, you'll need to get there late afternoon/early evening (no exaggeration!) and settle in for a long wait... 

Here we are at our spot next to Sydney Harbour Bridge

We found a great spot in Bradfield Park (Milsons Point), right next to Sydney Harbour Bridge, and directly opposite Sydney Opera House. The downside was there are no drinks stalls and strict controls on alcohol, so you can't bring any with you. There are security checks and staff look through your bags, so if you want to be close to the action AND have a drink, forget joining the crowds and buy a ticket to a hotel, bar or casino party instead. 

As you can see, it was getting quite crowded even by late afternoon...

That said, there is lots of live entertainment including an air show, and when the firework show actually gave me goosebumps. It was undoubtedly the best and most dramatic firework show I've seen to date (and I've seen a lot, including Fallas in Valencia!). There was a huge show right on Sydney Harbour Bridge but also one behind the Opera House that we could see at the same time, and many other smaller ones, too. 
The build-up to midnight on New Year's Eve in Sydney was excellent

The size, the shapes, the sounds...I didn't even know fireworks could make some of those shapes - it was clear a lot of money had been spent on those fireworks. It was nothing short of incredible, and by the end of it, my friends and I were literally shaking with excitement! No drinks until after midnight, but absolutely worth it. Check out the video I shot of the finale of the New Year's Eve firework show in Sydney: 

Honourable mention: New Year's Eve in Krakow (similar to Prague in terms of set-up around the Medieval clock - and the coldness!).

A truly great New Year's Eve party can be affected by the company you're with, so you might not agree with all of these choices but I've tried my best to explain what made them such fantastic places to welcome in the New Year. So this is dedicated to all my incredible friends who have joined me for New Year's Eve over the years.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Discover Colombo's Hip, Organic, Fair-Trade Market

Boujie farmers markets. They've been spreading like wildfire around the world so it probably wouldn't be a huge surprise to you if I told you that there's also an excellent one in Colombo, Sri Lanka, named The Good Market. Here, you can find fresh, organic produce such as juciy mangoes and strawberries grown in Hill Country, Sri Lankan curries and snacks, plus a range of stalls selling ethical handicrafts, souvenirs and homeware. 

These ladies are benefitting from fair trade. Photo: The Good Market

When The Good Market first opened in 2012, founders Amanda Kiessel and Achala Samaradiwakara were hoping to attract 10 stallholders. In fact, 35 producers and entrepreneurs got behind it and within a year there was a toal of 90 vendors and around 3,000 tourists, expats and locals visiting it weekly. 

Shop til you drop. Photo: The Good Market

Since then, The Good Market has continued to steadily draw in thousands of people each week and there are now 580 approved vendors. The market’s philosophy is to only sell organic, Fair Trade and ethical products - from veggies produced by smallscale farmers to arts and crafts. Frequent live music boosts the ‘cool factor’ plus there is also kids’ entertainment and snacks. 

It originally opened at the Diyatha Uyana market complex near the Water's Edge Hotel, Battaramulla. It's now held every Saturday at the nuga tree carpark next to Colombo Racecourse, which is much closer to the city centre attractions such as Barefoot, the Royal Colombo Golf Club and Viharamahadevi Park. The Good Market organic and natural food shop at14 Reid Avenue (about two minutes away) is open every day from 8am to 8pm too. 

Hand-crafted, ethical, fair trade: tick, tick, tick. Photo: The Good Market

When Amanda and Achala set up The Good Market they wanted to ensure that the products being sold there didn’t have the sky-high price-tags often associated with organic farmers markets, so it would attract shoppers from all kinds of economic backgrounds. The goods had to be affordable for everyone, but they also had to ensure the producers got a fair deal too.

Amanda says: “We definitely have some products that cater to an international market but we also try to keep a large number of stalls selling things which appeal to everyone at affordable prices. We have a committee to ensure that the vendors all meet our organic and ethical standards. It’s a good platform for new vendors to launch their products.”

The committee ensures that a wide range of products are available at the market. So if organic veg holds no appeal, you could pick up items such as spices, ethical handicrafts, essential oils, hand-woven placemats, wooden carvings and beauty products such as body-scrubs. 

Local cheese, cakes, juices and rice is very popular at the market too. Many families bring their kids along and for face-painting and kids activities. 

When The Good Market first opened, Amanda and Achala were hoping to attract ten stallholders. In fact 35 producers and entrepreneurs helped to launch it. There are now 90 vendors and around 3,000 weekly visitors.

Delicious home-made food too. Photo: The Good Market

As you wander past the rows of stalls the first thing that strikes you is the laid-back atmosphere. Whilst so many more traditional markets are crammed with shoppers and the stallholders use high-pressure sales techniques (shouting at you until you buy something), The Good Market never feels too congested and the vendors don’t yell at you to attract your attention. Instead they smile and are happy to chat about their products (without being too pushy), which makes it a much more enjoyable experience.

If you want to make a day of exploring the area, you can also go for a stroll in Viharamahadevi Park (formerly Victoria Park), which is the oldest and largest park in the Port of Colombo area. You could also play a round of golf at the beautiful Royal Colombo Golf Club, which allows access to visitors on weekday evenings for $47 or full days for $73.50. And if you haven't had enough of shopping, drop into Barefoot's flagship store in Galle Road - it's also an incredible historic building with an excellent cafe in the courtyard, staffed by super-friendly waiters who'll tell you the best cakes to pick!

Nope, not Washington D.C. This is Viharamahadevi Park, looking towards the Town Hall

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Little Fish That’s Scarier Than Sharks

Triggerfish: One of the most dangerous fishes in the ocean that you’ve never heard of.

I'm ready for my close-up: Triggerfish

If you’re going scuba diving, there’s a good chance you’ll see some sharks. For most divers like myself, that’s something really exciting and to be honest I get a bit disappointed if I don’t see any. I won’t pretend my heart doesn’t beat a bit faster when I see that distinctive fin and see how powerfully they move in the water. But in all honesty, it’s triggerfish that concern me more than sharks when I’m diving. 

Triggerfish have strong jaws and teeth designed for crushing shells and can be very persistent and very aggressive, but strangely they’re a little-known marine hazard in tropical and sub-tropical waters around the world. Maybe that’s because a movie about something that looks like this (below) wouldn’t be half as scary as ‘Jaws’...

Triggerfish come in all shapes and sizes, this is a Clown Triggerfish

Triggerfish come in all kinds of colours and sizes but all triggerfish share a few common characteristics. These include a compressed oval body-shape and small eyes set far back from the mouth. The mouth is small but they have a very powerful jaw. Strong enough, in fact, to be able to crush shells and crustaceans. While Picasso triggerfish only grow up to 30cm in size, titan triggerfish can grow up to 75cm/30 inches, and so a bite from a titan triggerfish can cause more damage. They are most aggressive during nesting season, but attacks aren’t only limited to this period.

Wait, I’m not here to try to scare you about triggerfish! I’m fighting in the shark corner,  and trying to explain why there are other species that get fewer headlines but are more of a concern. It’s good to put concerns into context, plus it doesn’t hurt to be clued up on potential marine hazards so you know how to deal with problems if they arise.

The first time I was attacked by a triggerfish

The first time I was attacked was when I snorkelling in the Maldives. I was blissfully unaware of any problems until I suddenly felt a sharp, deep bite on the end of my finger. “Shark!” I thought to myself. Then turned around to see a pretty little blue, yellow and white fish looking at me. I could hardly believe it was the perpetrator, but I recognised it as a Picasso Triggerfish (I see where the name ‘Picasso’ triggerfish comes from: it looks like the colours are splashed across them like a piece of modern art).

Picasso Triggerfish: Looks innocent enough

The second time I was attacked by a triggerfish was while I scuba diving with my then-scuba instructor boyfriend, when a Titan Triggerfish started chasing me. He pulled off a fin to bat the fish away and gestured to me to move away, then it started trying to attack him for several minutes until we managed to get away by swimming backwards whilst facing it and kicking our fins at it. 

I've had a few more run-ins with triggerfish since then too, which has left me with a healthy degree of respect and caution.

Warning behaviour and what to do if you're attacked

Typical indications that a triggerfish is getting upset with you is that it holds its first dorsal spine erect or possibly rolls onto its side to take a better look at you. The best thing to do if you come across and agitated triggerfish or get attacked by one is to kick it away with your fins and try to move horizontally as far away from that area as you can because triggerfish are very territorial (particularly, although not exclusively, during nesting season). However, they never stray far from the nest site, no matter how narked they are. Their territory is a cone-shaped area stretching all the way from the seafloor up to the surface, so trying to escape to the surface is not a good idea (and let's face it, it’s never a good idea anyway if you’re scuba diving!!).

I was lucky that the ones that attacked me weren’t too big but Titan triggerfish can grow up to 30 inches in length (and almost that in width) which is why they give me the heebie-jeebies. That and their creepy eyes, which have independently-rotating eye sockets!

Ugly Titan Triggerfish: No swipes right

However, it’s worth noting that sometimes they will just charge aggressively and not actually take a chunk out of you. And some of them do look very nice (just maybe not the Titan Triggerfish!). Titan triggerfish are much less attractive than the other varieties, and they are best identified by their yellow face, fins and body set against a background of blue-grey, with a blue-grey throat and prominent eye area.

Other varieties of triggerfish

Triggerfish varieties have all kinds of colours and patterns, including the red-toothed triggerfish (which is deep blue with a scarlet mouth) and the beautifully-patterned orange-lined triggerfish. The fact they vary so much in appearance can make it a bit hard to separate them from just a normal reef fish.

Just act natural, OK: Orange-lined Triggerfish

The Picasso triggerfish is another a very eye-catching variety (see the third pic in this article). If you’ve never seen one before you’ll know it when you see it - they seem as though they were decorated by the great Spanish artist himself, with bold flashes of turquoise and yellow contrasting with muted tones of brown, black and grey.

Another striking variety is the clown triggerfish (not to be confused with the cute orange clownfish from ‘Finding Nemo’. As with the Picasso triggerfish, it’s pretty clear to see how they got their name. With bands of yellow and white around a clown-like mouth; large round spots on the belly and leopard-like spots around the first dorsal fin, this fish certainly is the most amusing-looking fish of its family.

Yellow-spotted triggerfish go by several alternative names including blue triggerfish, rippled triggerfish or blue-and-gold triggerfish. If there were an inappropriate juvenile beauty pageant for triggerfish, juvenile yellow-spotted triggerfish would probably be the winner. The juveniles are a yellow-gold colour with a beautiful pattern of bright blue lines running across them, and electric blue fins. These lines merge as they grow older, resulting in adults with a predominantly blue appearance. 

Juvenile blue triggerfish: If there were an inappropriate juvenile triggerfish beauty pageant, these would win the crown

Habitat and Diet

Triggerfish are carnivorous bottom-dwellers which prey on things like worms, crabs, crustaceans, small fish and even sea urchins (which they flip over in order to attack their bellies which are covered in fewer spines). When attacking prey, they flap their fins and squirt water from their mouths to waft away debris. 


Although triggerfish are largely solitary creatures they come together at traditional mating sites at certain times. The males prepare nests on the seafloor where the females lay thousands of eggs. Whilst the eggs are developing in the nests both sexes blow water on them at intervals in order to keep them well-supplied with oxygen. 

And finally, back to sharks!

I’m not here to tell you there’s no risk at all from sharks (they are apex predators and you accept that when you venture into their territory) but if you look at the statistics, shark attacks are extremely rare, especially compared to triggerfish attacks. Especially when you think of the millions of people every day who swim, snorkel, dive, fish and wash in the oceans around the world every day.

You’re actually statistically more likely to die from taking a selfie, being hit by a champagne cork or falling out of bed. Sharks are thought to kill about eight to 10 people per year. That’s less than hippos (500), snakes (50,000), other humans (475,000) and the number one killer in the animal kingdom, mosquitoes (725,000).

And if you crunch the numbers on shark-related deaths, scuba divers are the least likely to be victims: 8% of shark-related deaths compared to surfers (51%) and swimmers or waders (38%). A marine biologist told me sharks can get confused occasionally by surfers because surfers look like turtles from below, but that divers are safer because they don’t spend much as time on the surface (sharks like to attack prey from beneath). She added that blowing bubbles is a sign of aggression amongst marine creatures, and since we have a constant stream of bubbles from our regulators, it makes us seem more badass. I've spoken to various other diving instructors and marine biologists about this too and they all reflected the same sentiments.

 Some Random Triggerfish Facts

  • A group of triggerfish is called a harem. This is because in some species, the males have been observed keeping a ‘harem’ of female mates. (Not much changes then).

  • Triggerfish can rotate each of their eyeballs independently.

  • There are about 40 species of triggerfish around the world 

  • Triggerfish take their name from the two sets of dorsal spines which have two purposes: The first set is to deter predators and to ‘lock’ themselves into holes and crevices. They then depress the smaller ‘trigger’ (spine) to ‘unlock’ themselves.

  • Scientists have noted a level of intelligence in triggerfish which is not usually observed in other fish. They are able to learn from previous experiences. (Watch out, they’ll be taking over when the revolution comes!)

Saturday, June 2, 2018

7 Reasons To Visit Dusit Thani Maldives

Of all the resorts I've reviewed in the Maldives (and that's most of them), Dusit Thani is in my personal Top Five. Here I'll tell you what makes it so special...

A stunning resort offering a unique combination of Thai and Maldivian hospitality! Photo: Dusit Thani

The other day I wrote about why Four Seasons Maldives has a special place in my heart but although it's considerably less pricey than FS, Dusit Thani Maldives has very good game if you're looking for a five-star resort in the Maldives. Let me tell you why: 

1) You don't need to be a Kardashian to afford to stay at Dusit Thani Maldives

It's a more affordable option for those who don't want to compromise on world-class luxury and service. 'But wait', you might be asking, 'Aren't all Maldives resorts basically the same: white sand, turquoise sea, luxury water villas...'. Sure, choosing between Maldives resorts can sometimes feel like choosing your favourite KitKat out of a box of KitKats (or something funnier)...But hopefully in this blog I can help explain the nuances. Here's the thing with Dusit Thani. It's in the lower half of five star range (compared to the $50,000 a night suite at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, for example). But it's still a very solid Maldives five star resort. I'll tell you why in more detail this post. 

Contemporary Thai decor in one of Dusit Thani Maldive's beach villas. Photo: Dusit Thani

2) Thai Charm and Hospitality, in the Maldives

‘Sawasdee Kaa!’-  this is how the personal butlers greet you at the seaplane jetty with the classic Thai hand gesture and a slight bow. It's the start of a unique journey where guests experience a combination of Asian cultures: Thai hospitality meets the natural beauty of the Maldives, with everything running like clockwork thanks to the excellent Thai, Maldivian and international staff. The staff are extremely friendly and welcoming, the management clearly made an effort to train everyone. (You'd be surprised how many big resorts fail on this).

The stunning beach and water villas are in mint condition, since the resort only opened in 2012 (I was lucky enough to be amongst the media invited along to road-test it and revisted many times since). The villas are decorated in a contemporary Thai style - subdued tones with subtle nods to the resort's Thai ownership (Dusit Thani is a well-respected brand in Thailand), such as beautiful Thai silk curtains and traditional artwork on the walls. 

The accommodation also delivers exactly what you want from a Maldives resort: private sundecks, infinity-edge plunge pools with wow factor, beautiful bathrooms and the obligatory romantic bathtubs big enough for two. Artwork in the restaurants and bars provide hints of Thai culture, but the thatched roofs pay homage to Maldivian traditions.

It's hard to find a better spa in the region than the Devarana Spa and its super-talented, lovely staff. Photo: Dusit Thani

3) One of the best spas in the region

Wait, while I'm still on the subject of Thai hospitality, did you know they have one of the most beautiful spas in the Maldives? And it's not a case of style over substance either, the Devarana Spa at Dusit Thani is the only spa in the Maldives entirely staffed by Thai massage therapists, who are some of the best in the country. 

Devarana Spa is a highly-regarded Thai spa chain. The actual building is an extensive private treehouse. The heavenly-looking white treatment rooms are linked by wooden walkways high up in the trees. Inside they are gleaming havens of tranquility. If you can, try the Devarana Signature Massage that combines Thai, Shiatsu and Ayurveda techniques with Swedish and Aromatherapy influences...I'm drooling just thinking about it! 

Benjarong Restaurant: A real treat for anyone who loves Thai food! Photo: Dusit Thani

4) While we're talking about indulgences: Thai cuisine!

As we all know, Thai cusine is some of the most delicious in the world. At Dusit Thani Maldives you can find a range of restaurants with international cusine but the jewel in its crown is the stunning Thai signature restaurant suspended over the ocean, named Benjarong.

Benjarong is staffed by Thai chefs and waiters and offers truly authentic Thai cusine and service. All of the classic Thai dishes we all love, such as chicken with cashew nuts and green curry are available, as well as some less well-known options. Benjarong hangs directly over the ocean, and above it on the next deck is the Sala Bar. You can head there for an after-dinner cocktail such as a lychee mojito to enjoy the incredible views over the ocean and a hip lounge atmosphere. 

So many restaurants and bars in the Maldives stand on platforms over lagoons but at Dusit Thani there are no less than four separate spacious dining decks over the water. 

The beautiful infinity swimming pool is lit up by LEDs at night. Photo: Dusit Thani

5) Infinity pool and gourmet steaks 

I'm putting these two together as one because they relate to the same location. If you enjoy a quality steak, then you must check out Sea Grill, which is next to the beautiful freeform infinity pool (I didn't know what a freeform pool was either before I started writing about the Maldives for a living: It means it's a soft shape; not a square or rectangle). 
The interior of Sea Grill - or better yet, catch the breeze on the terrace

One of the prides of Dusit Thani Maldives is the 750sqm freeform infinity swimming pool, which is built around an ancient banyan tree. It was one of the largest infinity swimming pools in the Maldives and the only one with a beautiful tree in it (before Amilla Fushi arrived on the scene a couple of years later) and at night the water is brought to life by dozens of twinkling LED lights.

Sea Grill serves fresh seafood but in my opinion the superbly-grilled, juicy, grass-fed Wagyu Australian steaks are incredible. During the day time, you can chill at Sea Grill and watch the infinite turquoise ocean and at night the tiny colourful lights in the bottom of the pool create some magic.

The house reef is in pretty good condition and diving/snorkeling in the Baa Atoll area is excellent. Photo: Dusit Thani

6) An eco-friendly ethos

A lot of 'greenwashing' happens around the world but a few years ago I investigated what luxury resorts in Baa Atoll, including Dusit Thani Maldives, are doing in terms of conservation and environmental work. The good news is that Dusit Thani is doing a lot of genuinely impressive work on that front. 

The main focus of all of the eco-initiatives at Dusit Thani Maldives is on the marine environment. The resort’s marine biologist offers guests regular talks about the huge range of marine species like turtles, rays and dolphins in the area, and leads guided turtle and manta-spotting trips where she informs guests about the species and the importance of conservation. The marine biology team is experimenting with coral-planting in the lagoon to mitigate the impact of coral bleaching in the immediate area and a small amount of damage which was an inevitable result of the resort’s construction.

They also grow vegetables and herbs on the site and have their own desalinated water bottling plant  to reduce the amount they have to import (almost everything in the Maldives is flown in or shipped in), plus they recycle bottles and glass and re-use them on pathways and as mosaics. 

The island's natural beauty is another thing that makes it special. Photo: Dusit Thani

7) The beautiful natural environment

As I said earlier, I'm hoping to explain some of the nuances. There are 26 atolls in the Maldives, and Baa Atoll is one of my favourites. How do they differ? In more ways than you can imagine! From the depth of the water in the atolls (which affects many things including the diving and marine life) to how close they are to Male (you may notice more planes overhead, commercial boats passing by out at sea, etc). 

 A unique feature of the oval-shaped island is that the vibrant coral reef completely surrounds it, unbroken by a natural lagoon.Small, delicate paintings on the walls and contemporary works of art in the restaurant and bars give subtle hints of Thai artistry in the resort, but the thatched roofs and wooden walls pay homage to the Maldivian traditions.

Baa Atoll, where Dusit Thani is located, is a UNECO World Biosphere Reserve, recognised for the importance and diversity of its marine life and protected for future generations. And just around Dusit Thani's vibrant house reef itself you'll find abundant marine life including Hawksbill turtles, brilliantly-coloured fish, soft corals and some huge table corals too. 

As for the island, it's a perfectly oval-shaped island encircled by a beach of icing-sugar soft sand. (Again, nuances! Some beaches are full of dead coral and one in the far north is really rocky!). The beach stretches all the way around the island (again, not all of them do), and you can walk all the way around the island uninterrupted (some resorts block off part of the beach for a private staff area). 

Some final points about Dusit Thani Maldives: 

This was my private open-air bathroom on one occasion I visited, complete with plunge pool. Photo: Sarah Harvey

  • The villas are full of modern technology including complimentary Wi-Fi, cable TV and a Bose surround sound entertainment system, not to mention private wine coolers filled with wine and champagne. The minibar snacks include some Thai treats, including delicious spicy lemongrass crackers!

  • 15 of the 46 Beach Villas have small private pools in the outdoor bathrooms but they are rather tight on space, as there is no-where to lie after a soak. However, the huge pools of the two-bedroom Beach Residences are impressively large; perfect for a big family.

  • The Lagoon Villas and Ocean Villas all provide incredible sea views and the fantastic reef is just a stone’s throw away. Those who prefer to be closer to the sand will find the Lagoon Villas are a better bet.

  • Activities and excursions include wine tasting on a sandbank, fishing, sunset champagne cruises, monitoring turtles nesting, yoga classes, and snorkeling with resident marine biologist.

One last look! Photo: Dusit Thani

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Sri Lanka's Got Talent: Checking Out Colombo's Karaoke Scene

Why not do something different when you're in Sri Lanka! Don't follow the same old well-beaten tourist trails. Check out my picks of Colombo's top karaoke joints...

You've probably seen the elephant at Gangaramaya Temple, shopped til you dropped at Paradise Road and felt the salt-spray on your skin while drinking a gin and tonic among the splendid Colonial surrounds of the Traveller's Bar at the Galle Face Hotel. So why don't you do something different while you're visiting Colombo (which is now seeing a boom in tourism and new infrastructure). I've put together the top picks for karaoke joints in the buzzing, fun city I loved living in...

Photo: Voice Lounge

Anyone who’s ever sung into their hairbrush or harboured dreams of becoming the next Susan Boyle (or should that be Carrie Underwood) will find that Colombo has plenty to offer! If you're anything like me, every once in a while you can't resist the chance to get up and sing your heart out (the Spice Girls and the Elton John/Kiki Dee duet are my guilty karaoke pleasures, although apparently I recently also belted out Total Eclipse of the Heart!). So why not give it a shot when you're in Colombo, the vibrant capital of Sri Lanka. 

Forget about wailing into a microphone in front of an audience of bored businessmen; Colombo's karaoke bars have come a long way since the old days. Like with many cities around the world, today’s karaoke venues in Colombo have been benefiting from a resurgence in popularity, thanks to televised singing contests such as American Idol and the highly-anticipated arrival in March this year of Sri Lanka's Got Talent. The most exciting karaoke bars in Colombo offer a great atmosphere, cool crowd and pretty high-tech facilities.

Photo: Voice Lounge
Without a doubt, Colombo’s flashiest karaoke bar is Voice Lounge (pictured above and left). Centrally-located, at the Burgher Recreation Club (off Havelock Road), Voice Lounge has it all - cool LED-lights on the ceiling, an extensive cocktail menu, high-tech sound system, large screens and a karaoke menu of hundreds of songs dating from the 1970s right up to the present day. 

Despite its glamorous appearance, a relaxed and friendly atmosphere helps to put even the shyest of wallflowers at ease and you can choose if you want to perform standing on the stage or sitting down with your friends. Voice Lounge also holds an American Idol-style singing competition named Voice Idol, so you can really get into the competitive spirit.

By contrast to the glitz of Voice Lounge, Sopranos in Maitland Crescent offers more of a retro-style New York vibe (as the name might suggest). With dark, stylish d├ęcor, low lighting and plush sofas, Sopranos draws its inspiration from jazz bars of the 1950s. Perhaps rather surprisingly for a karaoke bar, Sopranos has no stage. Instead, singers can test their pipes from the comfort of a sofa. The low-key, sing-a-long atmosphere appears to be a recipe for success because Sopranos has been going strong for more than a decade and still draws in large crowds every weekend.

Photo: Sopranos

The Hilton bars always attracts a rambunctious mix of guests, Sri Lankans and expats and the hotel's dedicated Stella Karaoke Bar and Lounge is still a very popular choice. It looks pretty sleek, as you may expect from a Hilton, but that certainly doesn't do anything to subdue the spirits of the singers. It's a really fun spot for parties and groups of friends, and even if you're travelling alone you can often crash. 

Photo: Stella Karaoke Bar and Lounge

Photo: Chopsticks Karaoke and Pub
A combination of good Chinese food and karaoke has been bringing a fun clientele to the more old-school style Chopsticks Karaoke and Pub in Nawala Road for years. On Friday evenings the dimly-lit bar above the restaurant comes alive with party-goers singing songs from the 80s, 90s and present day. It’s not the swankiest joint in Colombo but with a friendly atmosphere, reasonably-priced drinks, decent sound equipment and a wide choice of songs to choose from, the experience itself makes for an excellent night out. You’re sure to leave having made new friends!

These venues all offer something for everyone, now it’s time to get those pipes warmed up and get out there - it's elakiri!