Author Archives: C.C.
Author Archives: C.C.
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The Jungle Railway was once known as the Golden Blowpipe thanks to its proximity to Taman Negara. That’s the national park where the orang asli — Malaysia’s nomadic aboriginal people— still use bamboo blowpipes to hunt. The line swings away from the nation’s heartlands and heads all the way up to the Thai border, along the east side of the forested, mountainous spine of Peninsular Malaysia. (For Taman Negara get off at Jerantut station.)
So it’s all wilderness then?
The west coast of the Malaysian peninsula is the densely populated home of the ‘tiger economy’. This is the economically thrusting Malaysia, a network of transport hubs and oil palm and rubber plantations. This economic tiger has left much of the centre and east coast untamed, so doing this journey is a bit like entering into a long, glorious tunnel of green.
Any big cities en route?
Nope. This train effectively does a tour of slow-paced kampong— Malaysian village — life. Despite its name, the East Coast Line doesn’t actually run along the sealine, meaning coastal cities such as Kuantan and Kuala Terengganu aren’t served. Instead, the line grazes Kota Bharu before terminating in Tumpat, up near the border with Thailand. There are only four trains a day back and forth along the main section, and only one that actually connects back with the rest of the network.
So what can you see?
In terms of fellow passengers, this has all the local colour of a village bus route, making it great for people watching. Scenery-wise, expect big limestone outcrops, broad ochre-coloured rivers, a few plantations, and a lot of forest.
How close do you get to the border with Thailand?
The track itself crosses the border, but the train stops at Tumpat. If you want to cross, you’ll need to take a bus or a taxi for the nine miles between Tumpat and the Thai town of Sungai Golok, from where there are trains to Bangkok.
It’s almost impossible to have a bad meal in Malaysia — something brought home to me as I waited under leaden skies by a roadside, waiting for my bus to Batu Niah. Despite my unpromising surroundings, I had managed to breakfast superbly — throw together some glutinous rice, garlic, spinach and prawns, a cadaverously thin and henpecked chef, his bossy spouse barking orders, a large wok and change out of the equivalent of £2,and you have one of those life-affirming experiences that many of us travel for.
Batu Niah is a sweltering low-slung town and the gateway to one of Sarawak’s great glories — the Niah Caves. A geography teacher once described the area to me as Niah’s Ark on account of its extraordinary diversity and tangible links to early human history: earlier this year a 37,000-year-old human skull was discovered there — said to be oldest remains found in South-east Asia — while cave paintings depict the dead voyaging into the afterlife. Come late afternoon, I made my way along a boardwalk and explored the interior of the Great Cave. At 60 metres high and around 250 met res wide, it’s possibly one of the few caves that a claustrophobic person might be able to tolerate.
The same may not apply if you fear the onset of vertigo. Staring upwards into the distant recesses, I saw pinpricks of human beings perched on bamboo poles. Wobbling gently, they were retrieving segments of small cup-shaped bundles from the dizzying extremes of the cave. These were the nests of the black-nest and white-nest swiftlet, which comprise a glutinous solution excreted by the birds’ saliva glands. This quickly solidifies into a cement-like substance long favoured by the Chinese. The nests are processed into a soup that turns up in fancy restaurants in Singapore, Hong Kong and the US. At times they have been worth their weight in gold, which is why nest harvesters are prepared to take such extraordinary risks to retrieve them. Then, as dusk arrived, the show — the main reason people come here — began. In a thrilling tide of hundreds of thousands of wing beats, the swiftlets returned to roost, triggering a similar number of hitherto unseen bats to twitch into action, peel off the walls and swoop for the exit.
In no time, it was as though the air turned full of soot. I was outnumbered on a Hitchcockian scale. Mid-air collisions were narrowly avoided a thousand times every second. A similar spectacle occurs at dawn when the swiftlets dash out as the bats clock in. Show over, I wandered back in the darkness, accompanied by unseen hooting and scuttling and the whizzing of bats cutting through the air. With my breakfast success still on my mind, I chose a pavement restaurant in town. I couldn’t see bird saliva anywhere on the menu — but just in case, I steered clear of the soup.
MULU CAVES – Isolated by dense jungle, Borneo’s Mulu Caves are a place to channel your inner explorer. Trek along tracks that fight their way through thick, primary rainforest via the thrillingly named Headhunter’s Trail, or arrive by air (no roads here), your light aircraft following the twists and turns of tropical river systems to the South China Sea. It was this movement of water and the primordial heave of the earth some 500 million years ago that started to form Mulu’s limestone and sandstone caves and peaks. Sarawak Chamber is the subterranean centrepiece here — the world’s largest cave chamber by surface area, which at 1.66 million sq ft could house 40 Boeing 747s. Deer Chamber next door could fit in five St Paul’s cathedrals. Riverboat rides and easy treks take tourists between the four main caves, while the 480-metre Mulu Canopy Skywalk travels into the trees. For a more challenging journey, hike to the Pinnacles, 45-metre high, razor-sharp limestone spikes that dominate the slopes of Mount Api.
BATU CAVES – The smell of incense is strong as Hindu families gather inside the Batu Caves to pray. One of Malaysia’s holiest and most impressive natural structures, the Batu Caves and temple complex is just seven miles north of the capital Kuala Lumpur. A 42.7-metre high concrete statue of Hindu deity Murugan stands guard at the entrance, painted with 300 litres of gold paint. To reach the caves and temple complex, visitors must hike up 272 gaspingly steep stone steps—but this doesn’t tend to put anyone off. Monkeys provide a distraction on the humid ascent.
Once inside, the dampness cools the heat of the day. Cathedral Cave is the biggest, crammed with ornate gold Hindu shrines. At the base of the steps are two other cave temples, the art gallery cave and the museum cave, littered with paintings and statues. The caves are as craggy and magnificent as you’d expect, with mellow lighting to highlight the stalactites and bats’ nests metres and metres overhead.
CHENG HOON TENG TEMPLE – In the heart of Chinatown, Malaysia’s oldest Buddhist temple has welcomed worshippers for nearly 500 years. Keep your eyes peeled for the traditional Chinese opera theatre across the road.
HEEREN STREET – Once described as Melaka’s Millionaire’s Row, this street is home to a collection of 18th-century dwellings. The pick of these is No.8, a Dutch-period residential property restored as part of a UNESCO project using traditional materials such as papered lime.
ST PAUL’S CHURCH – A sweat-inducing climb will take you to the oldest church in Southeast Asia. Covered in plant growth when it was rediscovered, it’s now a roofless shell, providing great views across the city.
VILLA SENTOSA – Built on stilts for protection against wild animals and flooding, traditional kampong (village) wooden houses served all the needs of rural living. Villa Sentosa is a private home that doubles as a museum. Visitors will be shown around by a member of the household. Packed with artefacts, it’s part of Kampung Morten, a functioning Malay village.
THE STADHUYS – With its red-paint exterior and clock tower, it’s possibly the oldest surviving Dutch building in the East. Built in 1641, it now houses the Museum of History and Ethnography. Its location, Dutch Square, also boasts a Victoria memorial fountain.
SULTANATE PALACE – A painstakingly restored replica of the original, pre-15th century palace, replete with ornately carved ceilings and traditional peaked roofs. There is also a culture museum, showcasing life in Malaysia before European colonialism.
A FAMOSA – The only remaining gatehouse of one of the largest fortresses ever built, with a 40-metre-high watchtower and walls three metres thick.
What makes Sipadan such a great dive site?
In a nutshell, the mind-blowing biodiversity. Sipadan sits inside the Coral Triangle — a region of the world with the highest levels of marine biodiversity — and has been protected by Malaysian law for many years. As a result, the reefs are thriving. Even after thousands of dives at Sipadan, my jaw still drops. It’s possible to see just about anything: hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, marlin and manta rays — you name it.
Is it suitable for all divers?
You must be a certified Open Water Diver to dive at Sipadan, as the currents can be challenging. However, snorkelling here is suitable for everyone and snorkellers see just as much as the divers — sometimes more.
What species can you see there?
Sipadan is famous for its large schools offish, especially chevron barracudas, as well as its shark and sea turtle sightings. White-tip and grey reef sharks are also common; so are green and hawksbill turtles. You’ll find that each dive site has its own unique quirks. For example, on South Point, big nose unicorn fish will hang around, waiting for divers to descend, then make a beeline for their bubbles; the reason they do this is to get rid of parasites.
Can you dive it the whole year round?
Yes. Although it’s worth noting that June to August is turtle-breeding season and during those months it’s not unusual to see turtles mating on the surface or during a dive.
In the inky-black dark ness of the rainforest night, we stand, a ankle-deep in water. With only head torches to guide us, we scan the riverbanks for signs of life. One eye means spider, two eyes means frog, we’re told, as we dodge low-hanging branches and navigate slippery rocks. Tree frogs reveal themselves, including a strange white one with translucent skin and tiny frog lets the size of fingernails. A giant river toad, native to Borneo, perches on a rock, showing off its craggy, wart-covered skin. Tonight we’re looking for amphibians, but somewhere out them lurks a not her creature, the real object of our fascination.
It’s the first evening on the Red Ape Trail, an extended, multi-day trek taking us through prime orangutan terrain in Borneo’s remote Batang Ai region. It has already taken an adventure to get to this point — a five-hour, 170-mile drive from the cosmopolitan city of Kuching, past ever-more dense jungle and terraces dotted with pepper and rice plantations to a jetty on the shores of the vast Batang Ai reservoir. Then, a bracing two-hour journey up river by longboat — the traditional wooden vessel favoured by Borneo’s indigenous Iban tribe — to reach Nanga Sumpa lodge on the upper reaches of the Delok River. After a night spent acclimatising to jungle life, a three-hour hike has taken us even deeper into the forest to reach Mawang Camp, our home for the next few days.
The Red Ape Trail was created in 2000 by Borneo Adventure, a local tour operator, founded by Philip Yong and Robert Basuik in 1987. The pair came in search of an experience that would offer travellers the chance to glimpse Borneo’s prized wildlife, while learning something of the region’s dominant Iban tribe. They settled on Nanga Sumpa, a traditional, timber longhouse in which the locals lived communally. A trail network has since been developed from the longhouse into the surrounding forest. The Red Ape Trail is the most challenging of these, taking walkers out into the jungle to camp out over multiple nights, in the hope of glimpsing wild orangutans. It originally started as an epic, 10-day challenge, but has since been reduced to a more manageable five- day trek — wise, in a country with humidity levels that can rise to up to 80%.
At camp after our frog hunt, we sit playing cards with our Iban guides, drinking potent tuak rice wine. As well astwo guides, Bayang and Sobeng, we’re accompanied by a team of Iban men, who lavish us with spicy Malaysian curries and fried jungle ferns. The biggest character is Ronny, who speaks great English, having worked on the oil and gas rigs in Bintulu further north. With a big smile and prominent tribal tattoos, he sports a football shirt with his name on it — a modern token in an otherwise traditional life. Among the tourists are two young engineers from England and a French couple in their mid-50s. With anticipation high, we try to bed down for the night, donning long sleeves and trousers to keep the insects at bay, before clambering under mosquito nets to sleep on simple roll-out mattresses. But the jungle has other ideas. As the sound of cicadas chimes out, howls and cries join in to disrupt the silence of night. I listen to the hypnotic chorus, eyes wide open.
EMPTY NESTERS – Life at Mawang Camp is simple, and over the next few days, we settle into the easy rhythm of waking early to bathe in the river, before feasting on a breakfast of eggs, toast and banana fritters. Morning treks are followed by lunch at camp, and afternoon hikes, carried out when the weather is cooler and the orangutans are busy building their nests in the trees for the coming night. We spot many of these sturdy nests crafted from folded back branches, and can tell if they’re old or new from whether the leaves are brown or green. The technological skills needed to create them are often cited as evidence of the primates’ innate intelligence.
But the significance of the nests goes beyond this. When logging companies recently started rounding in on the prized timber of the region’s Dipterocarp forest, a team spearheaded by Robert Basuik set out to protect the area. Together with the Forestry Department of Sarawak, the World Conservation Society and the local Iban, they carried out surveys, counting nests to prove this was a crucial orangutan habitat. Their efforts resulted in the creation of the 34,000-acre Sungai Menyang conservation area, between the reservoir and the upper Delok River. It was a vital move, especially as Batang Ai is now the last remaining viable orangutan habitat in the state of Sarawak.
It was good news, too, for the rest of the forest’s residents, which includes 200 species of bird, from yellow-eared spider hunters to red-crowned barbers, as well as bearded pigs, horned deer, civets and reticulated pythons — though I’m in no rush to meet these. Instead, I spy fruit bats hanging from a riverside cave, tarantula nests, pigtailed macaques and several of the eight different species of hornbill that reside in Batang Ai. The walking, though, is the real highlight, taking us through glassine rivers, silent valleys and dense jungle. Indeed, to call it the Red Ape Trail is something of a misnomer, as any evidence of a clearly marked trail seems entirely absent at times. Instead, our Iban guides use their knowledge of the jungle to forge a way through, hacking down six-foot ferns and persistent palms with long machetes to create a path where previously there was none. At other times, we use tree roots and bamboo shoots to clamber up and down steep slopes. With the humidity high, it makes for sweaty going and demands a certain level of fitness from the walker. But regular breaks, peppered with tales of the forest and the Iban’s customs, make it a fascinating adventure.
Each night, as evening falls, we return to camp, muscles aching and heads filled with the day’s exploits. We sit at long wooden benches, staring out at the mist rising over the river, listening to the jungle start up its nightly song. With candles flickering on the tables, dinner arrives and we fill our hungry bellies, before retiring for the night. With all this excitement, it seems to matter little that the orangutans remain elusive. We spy evidence of their existence everywhere, from nests and discarded fruit on the forest floor, to ripped palm shoots, which the animals tear apart to reach the hearts. The Red Ape Trail is over, but the adventure is not yet finished. After a night back at Nanga Sumpa, with a trip to swim in the refreshing waters of Enseluai waterfall, we board a longboat once again for the journey back.
The going is smoother this time and calmer than the way in — there’s no need for the Iban to use their long wooden poles to push us up river, or get out to push when the boat drags along the river’s floor. Suddenly, the calm is broken by a rustle in the trees. Our guides have spotted an orangutan, a female with at least one, possibly two, infants in tow. From the boats, we sit and watch as the apes move from tree to tree, a tiny face at one point clearly visible, staring back at us inquisitively. Of course, they would be here: basking beside the cool, shaded waters of this mighty waterway, that has helped shape this landscape for centuries. While we toiled and tired on the Red Ape Trail, all this time, they were sitting beside the Batang Ai, hiding in plain sight.
Hotel Royal-Riviera has launched the new season of its Indian-inspired restaurant Jasmin Grill & Lounge. Together, chefs Bruno le Bolch and Alain Parodi have infused dining at this luxury five-star resort with a whole new flavour by transforming the former pergola into a stunning, waterfront terrace complete with Tandoori oven. The new terrace area will take guests on a voyage from the scintillating waters of the Riviera below, down the Silk Road to India.
The Jasmin Grill & Lounge menu offers diners an exciting blend of authentic Indian cuisine – scampi with ginger, chilli, turmeric, coconut and lime; rose langoustine in a lemongrass curry; tandoori free-range chicken; or garam massala lamb cutlets – and contemporary Mediterranean dishes. Jasmin Grill & Lounge is the ideal space to relax with all the luxuries of this five-star resort within easy reach: a heated swimming pool, a private beach and the renowned Thalgo wellness centre.
As one of the most magical settings of the French Riviera, it’s no wonder that the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild has become a favourite among international couples seeking a location beyond reproach. To find out more, Riviera Insider speaks to wedding planner Monica Delevaux of Haute Wedding. How would you describe the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild? It is a unique gem nestled atop a very prestigious peninsula on the French Riviera Guests are mesmerised the moment they arrive! The architecture and gardens are breathtaking. Many wedding guests have never experienced such an exclusive venue in their home countries. The views overlooking the Villeffanche bay are postcard perfect with luxury yachts dotting the azure waters.
Our guests often enjoy a cool welcome refreshment drink here with a string quartet playing before moving to the main gardens for the ceremony. The fountains and sheer length of the garden pools, with the pergola at the end, are an exquisite backdrop for the bride and groom when they say ‘I do’! Being able to have the cocktail hour and dinner outside is magical. With the warm Cdte d’Azur weather and beauty of the villa lit up at night we often have wedding guests say: ‘This is the best wedding I’ve ever been to!’ Twinkling lights in the distance, the Mediterranean Sea blowing a warm breeze up through the gardens and music playing up to the heavens… This location a real fairytale setting!
Who are your main clients here? Our clients are generally Americans or of multicultural nationalities: French marrying Chinese, but living in LA English marrying German, but living in Dubai; Indian marrying Bulgarian, but living in NYC…
What trends are you noticing in 2017? Definitely a lot more champagne/gold tones in the styling and decor, clean lines and modem simplicity. Understated elegance is highly sought after by our American couples!
Friends from Switzerland, with whom we are playing on this day, explained the directions to us. Simple as they may be – find the Golf de Saint Donat sign – there is still much exploring to do when we get there. Arriving is only the first phase. It is quite unbelievable that such a large golf course can find a home in the middle of a bustling residential area. However, as we later discover, a multitude of vegetation in the form of forest, bushes and copses is concealed in the hilly landscape. Next to the golf course, there are also other sports facilities and the local tennis courts.
The golf course itself occupies an extensive area with a clubhouse, exercise facilities and a variety of parking places: it makes a good impression. Having arrived on the terrace, a beautiful view of a large pond with a villa property in the background opens up before us. Beyond that and everything else is hidden from view, we can only see a narrow Par 3 on the left and a portion of the 18th hole. Our initial plans are to take the course on foot, but our friend counsels the buggy: “Later in the day, it can feel quite mountainous.” I am glad we followed his advice. After the first two holes, we already found ourselves heading uphill. The greens undulate in this hilly terrain. When you can combine fitness and endurance with gameplay, all while enjoying the landscape, you know this will be a good day on the course.
From a sporting point of view, the course is a challenge and not only for high and medium handicappers. For the long-hitter, several perhaps unwelcome surprises await at many holes. The Par 5 tracks are short, the Par 4s (except for two tracks of over 300 metres) are tricky. With each hole, the golfer has to adapt to the changing requirements of the course. Golfing like this could not be a more interesting or scenic experience: the pace is fast and the setting is sublime. Along with the many other people playing on this fine day, we decide to end four and a half hours of golfing in the sun on the wonderful terrace. All in all a great golfing day. We’ll even let the grumpy welcome by a few staff members and the slightly unpleasant smell in the locker room and the toilets of the clubhouse slide. These small problems should be given more attention by club management – a little motivation and perfume would work miracles here!
Gourmands of the region know only too well the secrets of La Chevre d’Or— the golden goat — a two Michelin star restaurant in Eze, between Nice and Monaco. Perched high on a hill in the medieval old town, guests sit high above the sea and experience an almost deity-like state as one delicacy is served after the next For a year now, chef Amaud Faye has been writing the menu of the restaurant at this five-star Relais & Chateaux hotel and he has successfully mastered his number one goal: to keep the second Michelin star of the restaurant.
As a chef accustomed to colder climes, Faye had to explore the ‘cuisine du soleil’ of the south so he departed to explore the area between the Mercantour mountain range and the Mediterranean Sea, from the Collines de Bellet vineyards in Nice to Piedmont in Italy. He met with local producers, chose the best produce he could find and began composing new – and different — dishes inspired by his surroundings. “The Mediterranean-style of cuisine was, at its roots, nothing but a poor person’s kitchen,” says the 40-year-old. He did not hesitate to reinterpret typical local dishes: “Everyone likes Pissaladiere or Socca!”
At the moment, his amuse bouches that precede each menu are typically Nicois such as the Pan Bagnat or Soupe au Pistou, but presented in a surprisingly innovative way. The Pois Chiche dish is ennobled with giant prawns, octopus and anise. Fleurs de courgettes are also on the menu as are typical fish from the region combined with lemon from Menton or sometimes with liquorice. Guests appreciate the rabbit dish with smoked squid the most and General Manager of the hotel Thierry Naidu reveals how his skepticism has been transformed: “And to think at first that we were unsure whether to put it on the menu at all!”
For dessert, there is no way past the signature dessert of equally gifted chef patissier Julien Dugourd: the Vision d’un Citron de Pays with basil and mascarpone. Dugourd and Faye have known each other fora long time and are the perfect team. Their good humour translating into their sunny creations. Faye has not long fallen to the allure of ‘cuisine du soleil’, hut here, between mountains and sky, his menus unfold more taste and flavour than could be achieved anywhere else.
The name Grimaldi is inexplicably tied to Monaco. In 1395, descendants of a 12th century Genoese statesman took control of the principality and it has remained in their hands ever since. On the other side of the world and 250 years later, a similar attempt to seize power was taking place as the Qing dynasty swept through China. It took them over four decades to conquer the country, from the mid-17th century onwards, but the 150-year reign was a period of great stability for the ever-growing nation.
“The Qing dynasty were builders, bureaucrats, artists, scientists… They built modem China,” says exhibition curator and Honorary General Curator of Heritage Jean-Paul Desroches. “They had a new approach, a new dynamic.” The Qings heritage was somewhat at odds with Chinese culture at the time. They had semi-nomadic roots while the rest of China was invested in agriculture. But despite their differences, the Qing epoch was a golden period for China and its people in terms of culture, art and the pursuit of knowledge. The Grimaldi Forum’s summer exhibition, La Cite Interdite, takes visitors on a tour of the Forbidden City, which was first built in 1420s and remained the imperial palace throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Of the 250 paintings and artefacts that feature in the exhibition, 200 have been sourced from the Forbidden City palace itself and many have never been seen before outside of China. The remaining works have been provided by some of the world’s most prestigious institutions such as the Louvre and the Musee des Arts de I’Asie in Pans, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and the British Library and Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Desroches first presented a China-themed exhibition in Monaco back in 2001 with China, the Century of the First Emperor. This time it is the Qings (1644-1911), their home and their heritage who have piqued his interest. “The Forbidden City is at the heart of the Beijing, which is at the heart of China, which – in turn — is at the heart of the world for the Chinese people,” says Desroches. “We want to immerse visitors in the world of the Forbidden City.”
The Beijing palace, which can be explored in depth at the exhibition, is a replica of the skies, with the emperor as the polar star and the rest of the world moving around him. The Chinese were famous for their astronomy — the exhibition includes the first documented map of the solar system by Chinese hands and dates from the early Tang dynasty — but it was during the time of the Qing that this art truly flourished. Struggling to secure support from the Chinese elite, who thought of the Qings in the early days as uncultured invaders, Jesuit scholars and artists were invited to work at court and assist the Chinese in further developing their expertise.
Their Western influence and breath of knowledge revolutionised China. The second Qing emperor, Kangxi (1662-1722), was particularly welcoming of the Jesuits and was a proficient mathematic and intellectual himself. He was also an accomplished musician and had a teacher called Grimaldi – although it isn’t know if this family was directly related to the sovereign family of Monaco! One wool and silk painting from the early 8th century and a feature at the exhibition is believed to have been painted by a Frenchman and depicts Emperor Kangxi listening to German astronomer Adam Schall. The annual calendar was established by Schall and his Flemish successor, astronomer Ferdinand Verbiest. Another notable Westerner to infiltrate Chinese culture was Frenchman Jean-Denis Attiret who was trained in Rome then sent to China Works attributed to him include an oil painting of a concubine dating from 1750-60.
At over 2.5 metres tall, the Hongli Hunting Deer silk painting is one of the largest pieces to be included in the exhibition, but it is also one of the most telling. Emperor Qianlong, who is depicted in the painting, was the fourth and most prolific Qing emperor, and was in many ways entirely assimilated with Chinese cultural norms. This stylised artwork of unknown origin, however, reveals that Qianlong was still very much in touch with his Manchu Mongolian ancestry and every autumn would participate in great, traditional stag hunts. Perhaps one such successful hunt resulted in the construction of the beautiful antler throne that features in the exhibition.
From calligraphy, sketches and paintings to furniture and pieces of ceremonial dress, which are extremely rare finds and each piece may only have been worn once, twice or even three times in its lifetime, the exhibition is designed to be wholly immersive. As Desroches explains, it was envisioned as a place where the visitor is transported to the realm of Qing and the vast Forbidden City, which measures an astonishing 72 hectares. The exhibition is taking place from 14th July to 10th September.