Travel is a big part of our lives and 2016 was no exception...
We travelled to some of the 'usual' cities we visit most years... New York, Tokyo and London, but also had the chance to visit some new destinations. We travelled to Bhutan with some friends, Stellenbosch and Cape Town and then I met up with some friends in Phuket for a winter break.
Bhutan had been on our travel list for a while and we got together with 3 friends and arranged a private trip taking in Paro, Thimphu, Punakha and Gangtey. We travelled around in a 4x4 which is an absolute necessity as the roads are quite bumpy. Having a private driver and guide gave us great flexibility when deciding where to stop for a rest, where to eat lunch and what time we all wanted to leave our beds in the morning.
Bhutan has quite a restrictive policy to limit the number of tourists that are allowed to enter which does mean that the whole country is fairly unspoilt. Restaurants and hotels are still very traditional. Wi-fi isn't always available in fact - nor is electricity, but I really think that his all adds to the experience and charm.
The people were incredibly friendly and accommodating. The food was a little basic, we ate chilli-cheese with almost every meal, but there was always plenty of food and there was always an abundance of fresh local vegetables.
They aren't breaking any gastronomy records in Bhutan but the amazing scenery more than makes up for that.
Most of the locals actually wear traditional Bhutanese clothes as they go about their daily activities. Traditional clothes are required for school children and all government employees and people entering government buildings.
As a Buddhist country, there were lots of beautiful temples and monasteries to visit and no shortage of stunning photography opportunities....
a little later in the year we visited South Africa as part of a trip to a conference my husband attended. Last time we visited South Africa we only stayed in Sun City and Johannesburg and so this time we decided to add on a week of holiday time and flew to Cape Town and drove along the coast to Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.
Driving around the wine districts of Franschhoek and Stellenbosch in South Africa was fantastic. Beautiful rolling hills with vineyards and both towns were packed with boutique hotels, B&B's and fabulous restaurants.
We did the wine train / bus in both areas, allowing us to leave the car and stop off at some wineries along the routes. Most offer tapas sized plates of breads, cheese and dried meats to accompany the wine tasting sized glasses of wine while some even have full restaurants.
We bought some great wines that we had shipped home and thoroughly enjoyed sharing them with family and friends.
The drive along the coast line south of Cape Town was beautiful, we had great weather, and even got to see hundreds of penguins at Stoney Island Penguin Colony.
In November I travelled to meet with some friends at their amazing villa in Phuket, Thailand.
This trip was all about relaxing and food. I've visited Thailand and Phuket many times to there wasn't any need to race around exploring and we didn't waste any time getting settled, visiting the local wet market and getting started on cooking dinner - with the help of the villa staff - of course, and having lots of foot massages.
Golfing in Phuket is fantastic. First the courses are well maintained, all courses have compulsory caddies so you don't need to pull your own cubs around the course, they all have great food and the changing facilities are excellent too.
It is easy to book tee times directly with the individual courses, but we have been using an agent- Phuket Golf for several years now, and it makes everything a bit easier.
My husband plays every year for a week with two colleagues and he simply sends the agent the dates he wants to play and tells them which courses they prefer and the agent works around tournaments at the individual clubs and sends him back a timetable of games. The other benefit is that the agent also gets around 20% discount off the list price of a round.
There is a slight inconvenience in that you have to meet with the agent at the course before each game and pay with them but its a small price to pay to get 5 games for the price of 4.
We usually call the agent when we are about 10 mins away from the course and they come and meet us before we tee off.
The First course we played was Loch Palm.
You can have a buggy at this course but we decided to walk. Since you don't have to pull your own clubs its not so strenuous, unless of course its exceptionally hot.
When we pulled up to the caddy station and before we were even out of the car we were greeted with 'sawasdeeka' - 'hello' in Thai and smiles while our clubs and shoes are been taken from the boot of the car.
The main area of the club house and pro shop are newly renovated as are the locker rooms which have been decorated beautifully and the stocked with toiletries and towels.
Before playing I had the lunch special - 130 baht for fried chicken with rice and papaya salad it was delicious, tasty, fresh and beautifully presented.
The second course we played was Phuket Country Club. This is a 27 hole course - although we have no idea where the extra 9 holes are....Like Loch Palm it has been recently renovated and has a fabulous locker room. Very modern and lots of space inside the actual locker.
Again the caddies were lovely, and knew the course very well. Sadly our game was stopped 3 times because of heavy rain and after 12 holes we finally gave up. Every time the ball landed on the fairway it sank into the mud or water and was often impossible to find. The bunkers had become water features and there was no roll on any shots.
We did go back and play again the following week when the weather was better and had a great round. It doesn't have as much water as Loch Palm (normally!) but it is just as challenging. Maybe not as well maintained, but it is also cheaper to play...
It is worth noting that Loch Palm have a rain check policy and Phuket Country Club do not....
We were in Phuket in September which is off season and course was incredibly quiet. Only one 4-ball left in the half hour I was eating. And a couple of 2-balls who had already finished were in the restaurant at the same time. We were the last group of the day, so no pressure to play fast, very different to during the busy season over Christmas and New Year when we were here last.
Loch Palm is a challenging course, a lot of water and some very large and steep bunkers, but the caddies know every inch of it and can steer you in the right direction.
For us Europeans having a caddie is a strange concept. When I started to play golf in London I carried my clubs around the course as some didn't even allow trolleys in winter months let alone have carts.
Having a caddie not only means you get good advice about where the next shot should land but also that you don't have to wheel your own clubs if you decide to walk the course, and the icing on the cake is that your clubs and shoes are returned to your car boot squeaky clean....
The caddies in Thailand are all women, some courses even have a book of photos and bios so you can choose one who speaks good English or has worked a particular courses for a long time. I remember playing in Indonesia where all the caddies were men, but with a similar book so you could potentially select one you wanted for the day. As long as I can understand their English when they are telling me the yardage and where the sand and water are, I'm not fussy, but we have had caddies who line up your ball on the greens and even point out where you are going wrong with your swing..... Not everyone wants this kind of advice though, especially on a bad day..
There are additions to both the courses... on Loch Palm between holes 10 & 11 just outside the course through the steel gate (or over the gate if the gate is closed) there is a man with a table and golf balls for sale. They are all 'recovered' from the course and sorted into bags... ideal if that water has been causing you a few problems....
The addition to Phuket Country Club is the chicken hole between holes 12 and 13. My husband claims this is the best fried chicken in Phuket... the only downside to a late tee time is that if the guy has sold out of chicken he goes home..... it can be quite disappointing if you have been thinking about fried chicken since the 10th hole...
In addition to these courses there is Blue Canyon (two courses) which are fabulous championship courses, Mission Hills where you play along the coast and Red Mountain which is a stunning course with as the name suggests lots of red mountains in the landscape.... however there is also a lot of OB on this course.
The two women we met from Phuket Golf are Pin and Noi. Both were lovely, and were always on time when we were ready to play. My husband has used the same company for several years and it certainly takes the hassle of lining up tee times.
We paid 8600 Thai Bhat for Loch Palm and 7200 for Phuket Country Club incl caddie fees. If you are planning a golf trip to Phuket you can make contact with them through their website.
We love Phuket. My husband and I have been to Phuket together many times - it was only a couple of hours away when we lived in Singapore so was the perfect weekend getaway.
My husband also has a golfing week here every year with some colleagues who still work in Asia. For us it has the right balance. There are some good golf courses, great small quiet beaches, a nice mix of fancy restaurants and excellent food stalls by the road and of course Thai people are always so friendly and welcoming.
There is a good range of accommodation in Phuket. You can stay in super luxury in a private villa, in a suite in a resort on the beach or in a cheap and cheerful 500 baht room in a small independent hotel. Over the years we have done them all, but this year we were meeting up with some friends and staying at their villa just south of Kamala and about 15 mins drive north from Patong on top of a cliff overlooking the sea.
The villa has a fabulous location. Occupying the highest point in a small estate the villa claims unblocked views of the Andaman Sea. You can see a video here.
When we landed in Phuket, we picked up a hire car (we always do this as we love the flexibility and also because we play golf) and drove 40mins to the villa. We were greeted by the 4 full time staff and all our things were quickly whisked away to our room.
Within 15 mins we were showered and enjoying the infinity pool while Khun Montha the live in housekeeper sped away on her moped to the market to collect ingredients for the dinner she would cook for us.
The Villa sleeps 10 people in 5 luxurious rooms, it has a TV room, a gym and a salt water infinity lap pool. As we were the first of our friends to arrive we got the pick of the rooms and chose the room below the pool that has a small outside sitting area and an outdoor Jacuzzi. We have stayed in this room many times and it has a bit of privacy away from the other rooms which is great if you are in a group and want an early night or don't want to be disturbed by anybody taking and early morning swim.
There is fast wi-fi available so I could happily tweet away whilst I was there, the rooms are beautifully decorated, the beds are made up with crisp white linens and the towels are big and soft....... Aesop toiletries are just the icing on the cake.
The Villa is amazingly luxurious.
The staff were telling me that many people often don't bother to go into the nearby towns for dinner and after tasting the home cooked food that evening I can understand why. Here are some photos of the food that was prepared for us over the course of the two weeks......
We had different curries, baked fish, steamed fish, fresh crab, fried rice, pad thai, satay sticks, prawn crackers, salt and pepper squid, fish cakes, garlic chicken, fresh fruit, creme caramel, baked pumpkin, pineapple cake and mango sticky rice.... and lots more.
There is even a bread machine so the staff can make fresh toast bread for breakfast...... we were feeling well and truly spoilt.
We simply selected from the menu (a range of European and Thai dishes) that we wanted to eat over the next few days and gave Khun Montha some cash and she would do all the shopping for us..... She even invited me down to the kitchen to show me how she made the Pad Thai noodle dish I love.
We did play a few rounds of golf while we were there, which was good as I think otherwise we were in danger of gaining too many kilos from the delicious food...if golf isn't your thing there is a gym room in the villa for dedicated fitness bunnies.
I prefer doing laps in the pool as a great way to use up some of the calories we were eating.
We had the villa to ourselves for 2 days and then our friends arrived and there were 7 of us. The staff were all delightful, always smiling and happy to work to make sure we had everything we wanted.
During the whole stay we felt thoroughly pampered. Not only inside the villa but also in some of the many massage parlors, where for 300 baht or 8 USD you can have an hour foot massage or Thai massage. After a day of golf there is nothing better.
Within one day of being in Phuket my husband had transformed into a completely relaxed, version of the person who had boarded the plane in Zurich.
There are lots of things to do in Phuket, especially if you like diving, snorkeling, jet skiing and all the other water activities. There are boat trips to some of the smaller islands and lots of beaches to explore. Even just a trip to the wet market in Patong is interesting with all the colour and smells of the fresh Thai ingredients we rarely see back in Europe.
We have been to Phuket so many times that we didn't feel the need to race around the island and this trip was all about relaxing with friends, but of course there are lots of other options available. If you are new to the island this guide to Phuket is a good place to start.
Its a very easy island to get around. There is a wide range of cuisines available and as I said earlier a huge range of accommodation to suit all pockets. Its an easy place to just turn up and find somewhere, so you can be flexible and go island hopping too or you can pre-book one of the islands many luxury villas for a family or friend group. A quick google search will throw up lots of options.
On this occasion staying with friends gave us an amazing luxury experience that I will remember for a long time.
Villa Getaways is the rental company my friend uses exclusively to rent out the villa we stayed in - Baan Santisuk.
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