Monday, February 24, 2014

Singapore Boat Quay & 5FootWay.Inn

For visitors to Singapore, Boat Quay is a well known tourist dining and pubbing area. Situated by the Singapore River, and lined with rows of old shophouses, which are preserved and converted to serve various needs, it is particularly atmospheric at night.

Historically, it was of course a quay which had seen a large part of our shipping and trading past. Today the area is dominated by restaurants and pubs, and at one point in time, the IT company I was working with had an office in one of the retrofitted shophouses! Well, nestled within one of these shophouses is also a hostel known as 5footway.inn.

Marketed as a boutique hostel, the reception area is pleasantly decorated in a very cosy setting. The shophouses within Boat Quay all hold certain historical value and I think it is an excellent idea that such buildings can be used for tourism in such practical useful way.

Reception area

The layout of the hostel was a little confusing to me though, perhaps due to the original interior structure of the shophouse. Luckily, ample signs were available to direct customers and I was shown to my room by the staff anyway, so all's good. However, the shared toilets and bathrooms were in a section such that for some rooms, access would require one to walk pass the reception area. For those who are more conscious of their "outlook" when going to/fro the bathroom, well, time to get used to the hostel community lifestyle! :). The toilets and bathrooms are clean though and shower head and hot water all functioning admirably!

The rooms (or at least the standard private room I stayed) have a minimalist look, with simple white furnishings that are so common in so many hostels around the world. A nice touch is the side light and a power point just beside the bed - a necessity for today's many flashpackers! A note to light sleepers though - the wooden floorings of these old shophouses do creak! So you may likely be well alerted of the human traffic outside your room!

The lounge and breakfast area is situated at the topmost floor. A nice surprise was that part of the hostel includes a photo gallery within! Showcasing exhibits from a local award-winning photographer Edwin Koo, you get "free entry" to the gallery with your hostel stay! ;) As a photographer myself, I find that is an excellent tie-up and cooperation between the hostel and photographer. The free breakfast is the usual - toast and cereal, nothing to shout about. But the best part of the kitchen is the coffee/tea/milo machine. Unlimited coffee/tea/milo at a press of a button. Niiice! It's a non-cooking kitchen though, but you do have a microwave to heat up stuff.

Lounge/TV room & photo exhibits
Kitchen with a cool beverage machine

And the really best part? The terrace! Offering views of the Singapore River, the Marina Bay Sands, the Boat Quay crowds below, it is such a great place to just relax and chill. And of course, meet other travelers as well. The day I was there, there were ALOT of Korean guests and almost all girls..! :)

Terrace with a view
Terrace with a view. The photo exhibits extend to the terrace as well!

While Singapore is not a big country, staying at a central location still has its advantages. Easily accessible from MRT, and in a really central location, I do think it is probably the best location of its 3 projects (the others at Bugis and Chinatown). And as mentioned previously, the nighscene in Boat Quay is really pretty. Check it out if you're visiting Singapore!

**My 1-night stay has been kindly sponsored by 5footway.inn

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Bergen, Norway

Bergen - Gateway to the Norwegian Fjords. Norway's second largest city, it is well marketed indeed and why not? Situated on the western coast of Norway, and easily reached from Oslo, it is the launchpad for many cruise ships to the fjords of Norway.

The journey between Oslo and Bergen itself is already a famous and well marketed tourist route. Known as Norway in a Nutshell®, it is a scenic rail cum cruise itinerary that can be flexibly customised. It can be done even in a day, but really, you would want to spend more time on the route. Similarly for Bergen, it is well worth some days to explore.

Bergen's city centre contains many old timber buildings and houses, some which are converted to shops and/or guesthouses. And of course, the highlight is the old wharf, Bryggen, a UNESCO's World Heritage Site. A delightful place with many artisanal shops and cafes, it is a wonderful way to spend a relaxing day browsing and having a cuppa by the water.

Nice timber houses in the city

Beautiful day by the wharf

For me though, the highlight is Mt Fløyen, one of the "seven mountains" that surround the city. Easily accessible via a Fløibanen funicular, the summit provides a spectacular view of the city and the port. Even better, there is a trail going up which seems popular with the locals for their exercises. My recommendation is to walk the trail up in the late afternoon, and when you reach the summit, wait for sunset. After sunset, the magic hour and the night lights over the city is one of the prettiest I've seen! Then take the funicular down, where the station is just beside the viewpoint.

A wonderful way to conclude the day! Check it out if you can!

Sights along the trail up

Sunset views

City and its mountain

Nightscene of Bergen atop Mt Floyen (you can click to see it bigger)

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Kazbegi Georgia

The Caucasus Mountains is a range of mountains stretching through Eurasia, and one of the easiest ways to visit part of the mountains is through the town of Stepantsminda in Georgia, more commonly known as Kazbegi.

Respite in glorious mountain scenery

Just about 3+hours northeast from Tbilisi, Kazbegi sits at an altitude of about 1750m, and is an excellent mountain getaway. Most prominently, Mt Kazbek rises beautifully west of town, and together with Gergeti Trinity Church, perched atop the surrounding mountain at 2000+m, forms an almost iconic image of Kazbegi and Georgia.

Tsminda Samebis Church, with Mt Kazbek as backdrop

Gergeti Trinity Church, also known as Tsminda Samebis Church, can be easily visited by jeeps from town, but the best way is probably taking a hike up. In fact, many travelers come here for the wonderful trekking opportunities, and even the short hike up provided a glimpse of the scenic potential. And for the slightly more hardy, you can even trek further into the mountains to the Gergeti Glacier. For multi-day treks, make sure you are properly equipped.

Trekking in awesome mountain country
Summer wildflowers and snowcapped mountains

Reaching the Gergeti Trinity Church
View of the town of Kazbegi, surrounded by mountains!

The town itself is small and easily covered by foot. There are two museums in town, one of which is dedicated to the man who the town is named after - Alexander Kazbegi, a famed Georgian writer. However, the magic of the place is still the mountain scenery, and so hiking and trekking would be the best activities I would think. To make a mountain town stay complete, stay in one of the many homestays and guesthouses available. Most come with great homecooked food, and I enjoyed staying in these locals' homes. The moment you stepped off the marshrutka, you would be accosted by the owners, so no worries about finding them.

By public transport, reaching Kazbegi from Tbilisi is via marshrutkas from Didube station. For a group of you, perhaps it is better to charter your own vehicle as the journey there goes through the spectacular Georgian Military Highway, and you can have your own photo stops. Whichever the case, a trip to Kazbegi is highly recommended for visitors to Georgia/Tbilisi, and for the matter, a daytrip would probably not do the place justice. Do yourself a favor and enjoy Kazbegi!