Friday, June 27, 2008

Back From Bintan

Yes, we're back from our short break in Bintan, complete with suntans and dirty laundry. As before we had a fabulous time, and this time around got to share it with my Mum who is visiting us and returns to New Zealand today. It's been a hectic time, hence the lack of posts, but here are a couple of photos to show what we got up to.

A highlight was riding along the beach on an elephant, the friendly Bani, an 18 year old male elephant who seemed only too happy to wander like a four-legged steam roller flattening a track in the sand in exchange for a large bunch of bananas afterwards. What a life. Actually he reminded me of a few guys I used to know at university.

The weather was gorgeous as always, so we were busy applying sun block and keeping our hats on. The kids and I were fascinated to watch one of the staff catching a long, thin bright green snake which was in one of the tres by the pool, but Mum disappeared in a cloud of smoke as soon as she heard the word snake.
Bintan is only a one-hour ferry ride from Singapore so it's easy and cheap to get to, making it more like an extension of Singapore than a piece of 'real' Indonesia. It's quite expensive if you compare the prices there - all in Sing$ - to Indonesian prices but for an easy, hassle-free break it's hard to beat.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Gotta Haves...

OK I know it seems a bit frivolous but here's a couple of 'gotta haves' which I picked up at a shop called Lims. Actually there are a few of them on the island and I believe I got these from the outlet at Parkway Parade, which is miles from here but I ended up killing half an hour before an appointment and....long boring story which ends with shopping. As you do.

Anyway, the Chinese paper boxes are simply gorgeous. Currently the green one is doing time as a pen holder and the other two are on stand-by. Every panel features a different hand-sown Chinese figure, some complete with hairy moustaches and hair dos. Very cool. They cost $4, $6 and $8 respectively.

The sea-shell plates ($6 each on sale) are perfect for snacks and tasty tidbits and look simply fab. Who says nothing good comes cheap?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bin There, Done That

Actually this post is a bit of a cheat because...I'm not here! See if you can guess where we are...there's a pretty major clue in the header although if you're not from around here you may not get it unless you are an AVID fan who can remember where we disappeared to last year for a week.

Clue: we don't have to get on a plane to get there. And yes, it's hot and sunny.

If you guess and send me an email or a comment telling me the correct answer, I PROMISE I will send you a cool prize.

Back on Friday!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Sembawang Park - Something For Everyone

One of our favourite parks in Singapore also happens to be just down the road from hubby's work in Sembawang. This district, on the northernmost coast of the island, is a varying mix of almost deserted six-lane thoroughfares and modern HDB blocks, seemingly waiting for a population influx to come and make use of the new amenities, and old (for Singapore standards) Black & White colonial houses which were built during the time the British ruled this tiny nation as an outpost of the Emipre.
I once read in the newspaper that the Singaporean government wants to increase the population from 4.6 million to 7 million by 2020 and a lot of these new citizens will be living in the north. In typically well organised style, this means that the public transport, roading, public amenitities and housing all seem to be ready and in place before the people have actually arrived. Eerily efficient.

However I digress. Nestled against the coast facing Malaysia across the narrow Johore Straits, Sembawang Park is a large, rambling affair which almost makes you forget its huge bustling neighbour, the Sembawang Shipyard. The Shipyard was a British Naval Base from 1938 to 1968. Stands of mature trees are home to hundreds of birds, and on any visit you are guaranteed to see a dozen different species. Many of the paths in the park are restored original walkways which were used during the British occupation. Wandering through the park you feel about a hundred miles from the hustle of Orchard Road, although in 45 minutes you could drive to the southernmost point of the island. Yes, it's that small.

The park is also where you can see one of Singapores last remaining natural beaches, and it's a very popular camping spot. You can camp here for free any weekend, although a permit is required. Standing on the wooden jetty watching locals catching blue crabs and fishing for small yellow finned fish, it's fun to watch the kids squealing with joy as they throw themselves from low-hanging branches into the warm waters below. In fact this is in my opinion one of the best parks to meet the locals as it's a real family spot popular for barbeques, picnics and camping year-round. On any weekend you will see clusters of little pup-tents sprouting like colourful mushrooms along the sea-front, although nearly always they are clustered together under the concrete-floored rain shelters which can't be all that comfortable. I don't know about you but the last time I fitted inside a pup-tent I was about 12 years old so it doens't appeal to me, but clearly there are plenty of adventurous Singaporeans who love to get out there and drop off to sleep enjoying the sound of the sea lapping the shore at night.
Many of the locals in this area know quite a bit of the rich history of the area and are willing to share their stories, including those about the large New Zealand Navy battalion which was permanently based here until the early 1980s. We must have made a good impression because they are always keen to ask me if I'm a kiwi when they hear my accent and share a few anecdotes.

Next to the beach you can visit Beaulieu House, an unusual flat-roofed Black & White which was once home to the British Admiral. The house is now a restaurant where you can buy great coffee-to-go if you happen to turn up early on a Sunday morning with a hangover. As you do.

This brings me to the main attraction for our lot, which is of course the large kids playground. Big enough to keep them happy for a couple of hours running around in a pack with a dozen new friends they've met that day, the playground is surrounded by huge trees and provides ample shade for weary Mums. Or those with headaches and a temporary sensitivity to loud noises and bright lights.

In all, Sembwawang Park is a great place to visit. If the nature doesn't interest you then the humungous ships and American Navy vessels being built and repaired at the shipyard next door will certainly keep you fascinated. And if you don't fancy lunch at Beaulieu House, head around to the Yacht Club on the other side of the shipyard for a slap-up Chinese meal for half the price you'd expect to pay for such good food.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Heels From Heaven

Don't you just hate it when your heels get all cracked and dry, looking and feeling like battered armour plated appendages that seem to be the missing link proving our connection to the great apes. The marble floors in the apartment have played hell with my feet over the past 21 months. Yes, I am cave woman, and I have the feet to prove it. Or at least I did, until about half an hour ago. Cast thine eyes downwards and behold: feet, reborn.

Why oh why have I never had a pedicure before?? I've hated my feet for ages when all I needed to do was lie back in a compfy chair, reading my book and sipping honey and ginger tea while a pink-robed magician worked magic on my tootsies, transforming them into something I'm quite proud to show off in a pair of strappy heels. Ooooooh, I feel the urge for a new pair of shoes coming on...

First I was soaked in a hot footbath of purple crystals which slowly transofrmed into a moisturising jelly. My feet were then individually wrapped in warm towels before being given a foot massage. Not one of those comfy fall-asleep massages mind you, but a proper Asian reflexology probing. Apparently any insomnia and digestive problems will be solved after a few sessions. Forty minutes later, after just a couple of squawks of protest (from me, not the masseuse!) my soles were draped in a therapeutic lotion-infused wrap and left to marinate for half an hour. After that, the real work began. I won't bore you with the details but let's just say that after the work out my feet gave her as she filed away, that woman could now arm wrestle professionally. Finally, my feet were well rubbed wtih a gentle moistuirser and it was time for me to leave.

As I slithered home, my feet so oily and slippery inside my sandals that passing motorists probably thought I had a displaced hip , I vowed I will do this every month to keep my feet in shape. Believe me, you should be grateful there are no before or after photos.

No more heels from hell for me!

Monday, June 09, 2008

Fidgets, Our New Favourite Playground

One of the great things about living in the tropics is the weather. It's always warm (sometimes too warm) and even when it rains, the temperature never drops below about 26 degress. Ah yes, the rain. Well, maybe there is something less than great about this aspect of the weather. When we were living in Holland long grey days of drizzly rain were not uncommon. But here, when it rains, it absolutley completely POURS down. There doens't seem to be an in between on the equator: you're either dry or you're one blocked drain away from swimming.
It's a hassle when you've got young kids generating enough excess energy to make it worthwhile selling to the national grid . Our boys need to move, and move a lot. For this reason we've become well acquiainted with most of the indoor playgrounds around the island. So far our favourite is SAFRA at Toa Payoh (Lorong 6), which has a large multi-level play structure and is very reasonably priced at about $7 for unlimited time. The lack of any facilities other than toilets mean you need to take your own drinks and food which keeps it cheap, and healthy too. We've been to Go Go Bambini at Dempsey Hill a couple of times but find it quite pricey and always too busy and incredibly ear-splittingly noisy. Just too many kids in too small a space, although the facilities (cafe and play area) are very nice and quite new.

However now there's a new kid on the block and it's become a firm favourite: Fidgets at Turf City. This is the biggest indoor playground I've found here, getting close in size to the structures you see in New Zealand and Aussie. Not surprisingly, it has been imported from Australia. With two long slides and a couple of cool innovations like the giant ball pen and large plastic bubbles fitted with steering wheels the kids can sit in, there is plenty to keep the kids happy.

Parents will be pleased to know there is an automatic ball washing machine in the ball pit; the kids put the balls into a transparent tube which sucks them up, whizzes them along the side of the structure and shoots them through a machine which washes and disinfects them, then blows the cleaned balls back into the pit. The mechanisms relies on kids feeding it balls but believe me, this isn't a problem.

Another plus for us long-suffering parents: there is a cafe serving a range of muffins and cookies, plus some reasonably healthy sandwhiches, although the selection (roast chicken with apricot sauce, roast beef with horseradish, and egg mayonnaise) wouldn't appeal to most young kids so next time I'm taking our own sandwhiches (Fidgets staff if you're reading this: sell plain Vegemite, peanut butter or jam sandwhiches and you'll make a fortune!) Finally, comfortable seating for us weary mums. So many places neglect to provide somewhere comfortable to sit and before you start thinking I'm going soft, on our second visit to Fidgets we stayed for FIVE HOURS, so imagine how you'd feel if you had nowhere decent to sit.

Price-wise the place isn't exactly cheap at $15 per kid, but this is for an unlimited play time and the facilities, such as the kid-sized toilets and hand basins and the large flat screen tvs hooked up to cameras so you can watch the kids play from the comfy sofa lounge, are by far the best I've seen.

The boys and I give Fidgets a big thumbs up. Next time you're there I'll be the harassed looking Mum listening to her iPod and writing her next blog entry long-hand in a notebook to fill in time.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Learning By Osmosis

Despite the hype about living in the digital age and how kids need to learn to use computers from a young age and programme software by the time they hit puberty, I've never really been all that keen on the kids spending a lot of time behind the screen. They both get computer time at school, so at four years old even Carl knows the basics. However both of our boys have the energy of tree squirrels on speed and need plenty of outdoor exercise, so the idea of them blobbing out behind the computer and storing up that energy until some innocent passerby like, say...their MOTHER has to try get them to sleep at night doesn't appeal. For the same reason they don't own Gameboys or Playstations. Yet.
However, the great thing about computers is of course the internet. If they get birthday money from Nana, they browse the websites of the big toy chains to see what they want to buy before we head into town. Feel like a movie? The kids check out the trailers on line first and if we decide to go, we buy the tickets on line too. Looking for cool pictures to colour in? Try the Starwars or Lego sites for instantly printable pages, and while you're at it check out the great kids games there. Niels loves You Tube for it's collection of home-made Starwars movies made with the Lego figures and clips of planes. Even Carl has his favourite site, the BBC's CBeebies site which has a huge collection of games based on their pre-school programmes. You can even choose to play games that only use the mouse, an easier option for littlies. He sits there, flicking through the game menus using the mouse with two hands, switching between full screen and regular view, closing the pages he doesn't want and hunting down his favourite characters. It really is learning by osmosis as often I'll be sitting there with him and think "I didn't know he could do that". So although their computer access is limited to about an hour or less every third or fourth day, clearly it's enough.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Au Jardin - Location, Location, Location!

For some time now we have been meaning to try out Les Amis au Jardin, a restaurant located inside the famous Botanical Gardens in Singapore. It's taken us this long because the place is always fully booked for Saturday nights, which means you need to be organised enough to place your reservation more than three days in advance. My flair for what I like to call spontaneity, and everybody probably calls disorganisation, means I rarely think to book a restaurant before Thursday. However since we were looking for somewhere special to celebrate our 11th anniversary last Friday I booked us a table and off we went.

Finding the place was the first challenge. But wait, I hear you say, how big can a garden be? Well pretty damn big actually, and the 'uncle' who was driving our taxi had no clue how to find it. The address of the restaurant is Cluny Rd and after a lengthy detour through Cluny Park Road (wrong side of the park!) we finally headed to the right entrance - the visitor centre. We stepped out into the humid darkness, silent apart from the croaking of frogs and the distant traffic noise from Bukit Timah Road. Of course at 8 pm the visitor centre and surroundings are dark and deserted, but oddly there was a man in a snappy tuxedo standing next to a golf cart. We were expected.

A quick wizz along a dimly lit fern lined path took us to au Jardin, which is inside an old Colonial house inside the grounds. Smiling staff welcomed us into the regal surrounds, and we seemed to be one of only about four couples there. We climbed the red carpeted staircase, admiring the original wood panelling and beautiful decor and were ushered to a table intimately set on a small enclosed balcony looking out into the lush ferns and tropical trees outside. What a fantastic setting!

The restaurant offers two types of menu: the 8 course degustation 'taster' menu, or the 4 course menu which you put together from a select range of fish or meat dishes. Opting for 4 courses, we were also offered a side dish of three kinds of the freshest looking mushroms I've ever seen - I expected the wiater to have dirt under his finger nails from picking them in the garden. The food was, in a word, superb. I choose the duck while Holger went for fish, and both were simply divine. The prawn and pea 'pot au feu' was a gorgeous conconction of fluffy pea souffle with succulent prawn fillets, and the tastiest fish boillion I've ever had in my life eleantly poured over the top at the table. My desert of chilled mango soup was superb, while Holger tucked into a tasty plate of suitably smelly cheeses. Something also worth mentioning was the brilliant service; our waiter knew each and every dish and could discuss the ingredients and preparation with knowledge, something you don't come across very often. Wine buffs would appreciate the wine list which was a book at least 2cm thick. We settled for a lovely Raveneau Vaillons 2004 Chablis which hit the spot perfectly.

Just when we thought we were finished and settled back to enjoy an espresso for the road, the waiter approached with slice of delicious chocolate cake on a plate decorated with Happy Anniversary written in chocolate! How sweet. We thoroughly recommend this restaurant for a special occasion or even just because, and in fact it may even come very close to rivalling Blu as our favourite - future testing will be required! One bonus was that the bill was quite a bit less than we would have expected to pay at Blu, although the fact it doesn't have a martini bar may account for some of that.

Check it out if you can, but don't forget: make a reservation!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Dragon Kiln & Pottery Jungle

There is a wonderful place hidden away down a bumpy bush lined road which in my opinion is a must see if you're looking for off-the-beaten-track Singapore. Or good, inexpensive pottery. It's called the Dragon Kiln & Pottery Jungle and is located in the west of the island just off the Jalan Bahar exit from the PIE. I first discoverd this place a few months ago but had Carl in tow and believe me, small children and towering stacks of breakable pottery don't mix, so it was a brief visit. Determined to return however, I gathered up a couple of girlfriends and headed off in the car. This is a place you can't really get to with public transport which may explain why hardly anybody seems to have heard of it.

As you enter the property the first thing you see is a huge expanse of pots spread out across what would be a big carpark if there was any room for cars left! Pots of every size and colour, from little tubs to huge pots you could house a small family in; whatever you want, its here and in 20 different colours. This display is just to get your interest piqued because the real draw is inside the sprawling complex of slightly ramshackle buildings nearby.
You first walk past the Dragon Kiln, a traditional Chinese 44 m long brick and earth structure that runs along the ground, slightly uphill. A fire is lit at the bottom end and the heat and smoke go through the kiln to exit at the other end. Temperatures reach up to 1400C! The Jalan Bahar kiln is one of the two remaining dragon kilns in Singapore. In the 1960s and 70s, it was used to fire latex cups for the surrounding rubber plantations, flower pots and other items, but fell into disrepair when demand for these items dropped. With the help of the National Heritage Board, Singapore Tourism Board and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, the Dragon Kiln was rescued and brought back to life in September 2006. These days it's only fired up once a year to demonstrate how it works. It must be impressive and incredibly uncomfortable to be near.

After the kiln its time to wander through the Pottery Jungle, a huge maze of pottery and ceramics from all over Asia (mostly China) covering every conceivalbe different style of pot. Traditional blue and white constrasts with modern swirls of vibrant reds and yellow; ginger jars and rice pots vie for attention with modern vases and abstract decorative pieces. Figurines, platters, bowls, fountains, foot stools, animals, wall panels, vases, urns and even complete outdoor picnic table and chair sets...all made from pottery in a thousand different hues. As you wander from one open-sided barn to the next you start to wonder if the collection will ever end. You'll soon spot the resident monkeys scooting around the beams in the roof. And yes, apparently they do break the pottery sometimes. One of the staff there told us that the monkeys "can be very naughty sometimes". Hopefully they don't actually hurl the pieces at hapless customers below!

It's an incredible place and what makes it even more appealing is that, for the most part, the pottery is quite inexpensive. What I would call the more contemporary collection of tall red/blue/yellow hued pieces were quite pricey but I picked up a traditional rice urn (to be used as a potato jar as it will provide cool dark storage) and a huge platter perfect for a pavlova or fruit or even a big salad, for just $35 each .

The staff are very pleasant and keen to answer questions. The lady who helped us was quite knowledgable about the origin of the various pieces we were interested in. Inevitably with such a huge open set up the pottery can be quite dusty, but you have to remember that a quick wipe down is all it takes to reveal the beauty beneath. This is no high street store; comfy shoes are recommended to navigate the dirt or wooden steps and pathways. We spent two hours there in the end, revived half way by bottles of chilled mineral water provided for free by the staff, a nice touch which was certainly appreciated.

My one splurge was the lamp which I bought hubby as an anniversary present, and obviously I'm not going to reveal what that cost! But it is beautiful. An air-conditioned room is stuffed with dozens of differnt lamps and lampshades, protected from the humidity by the cimate control. I've tried to photograph it but actually it's come out a bit dark; the red and blue is brighter than shown here but you'll get the idea. With typical Dutch reticence hubby's response was "'s very big". I think that means he likes it.