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Panama: flying with Air France

I’m in Panama! We’ve touched down less than 24 hours ago, but have done loads of stuff already and experienced the extremes of Panama weather – from 36-degree sun to torrential rain. I thought I’d just post quickly about the flight itself, since it’s Air France who so kindly sent me on this trip.

panamaflight1

Since we were pre-checked in as a group we just had to drop our cases, then we were able to make use of the Skyteam lounge. It was a world away from my usual airport experience: a little oasis to relax in where you can get a cold drink, coffee, pastries or even cooked breakfast. Definitely nice to be put in a relaxed state of mind pre-flight.

panamaflight2

A quick transfer at Charles de Gaulle later and we were on the long haul over the Atlantic to Panama. Our Air France rep Elise pulled some strings and got the group bumped up to business class for this leg. I’ve never flown non-economy before, and I have to say – uh oh – I might be a convert to the swishy business class ways. Amuse bouches! Menus! Real glasses and silverware!

panamaflight3

The best part for me was having so much more space. The cabin in general feels much less claustrophobic, plus the seats themselves are super generously sized and recline to nearly flat. I didn’t get to sleep because I barely ever sleep on flights, but it was definitely comfortable enough to do so and I enjoyed reading mags and watching some films throughout the ten-hour flight. The attendants were charming and kept bringing around treats, from a drink and pre-meal canapé to the main meal, which was considerably better than any other airline food I’ve had, to the dainty trio of desserts. Nice one, Air France.

Back soon with more of the stuff we’ve been up to…

Panama-bound

I know it seems like I just got back from holiday, but I’m off again soon – to Panama! Even better, this time it’s care of Air France-KLM, who are sending me to create some blog posts and photos to mark their new routes from Europe to Panama. I didn’t know much at all about Panama before I found out I was going – besides the obvious, canal and hats – but having just seen the itinerary for the trip I’m so excited.

Our rather packed itinerary includes… (photos c/o Flickr Commons, linked to source)

Gamboa Rainforest, Panama

An overnight stay to the town of Gamboa, where we’ll have an aerial canopy tour of the rainforest.

Aduana de Portobelo

Daytrip to the historic port town of Portobelo, named by Columbus in 1502, where we’ll do a mangrove swamp tour and visit the town’s fortifications.

Isla Yandup, San Blas

A trip to the San Blas Islands on the Caribbean coast, where we’ll see a star pool and go snorkelling. Very looking forward to this bit. Did I mention it’s 35 degrees there right now?

Image 21458.

A day at the Antón Valley, a volcanic area with some unusual natural wonders: gold frogs and square trees! We’ll visit the thermal baths and artisan market, and hit the beach afterwards.

Detrás de la malla galvanizada.

Finally, a visit to the historial colonial parts of Panama city, and a visit to the canal of course.

I’m beyond excited and grateful to have this opportunity, although not a little nervous too. I’ll try to blog while I’m out there, and I’ll be Instragramming my way along too. Has anyone else been to Panama or Central America?

Tel Aviv Day 3 & 4

Cafe 48

We got back into Tel Aviv in time for dinner, and hungry after a long day exploring Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, so after a quick hotel pit stop we wandered back out again. We found Cafe 48 not far away. As as browsed the menu at the door, a couple sitting inside told us we won’t regret picking it – and they were right! It definitely vied for best meal of the trip.

Cafe 48

We started with lovely cocktails. It’s a small-plate kind of place so we picked a few to share. We were all decided then the waitress read the specials which all sounded amazing, we we had to re-decide!

Cafe 48
Cafe 48

Two of the specials happened to be two of our favourite things to eat: burrata (a kind of extra-creamy mozzarella cheese), served here on mouthwatering balsamic tomatoes, and cornbread, given the nacho treatment with a toasted corn and melted cheese topping. I also had a dish of stir-fried pak choi and Josh had some sliders.

Cafe 48

We were pretty damn full by the end, which is a shame as the dessert menu sounded amazing. The waitress overhead me lamenting my ability to fit anything else in, then brought us a little sliver of of Crack Pie (of Momofuku fame) for free with our bill. It’s simply the most indulgent-tasting dessert ever: soft butter, sticky brown sugar and chewy oats in a cookie crust. Needless to say, despite being full I finished the slice, and the accompanying whipped cream.

Farmers market

The next morning we went to Nachalat Binyamin, a street near our hotel which starts as an everyday/junk market, then has a farmer market, then turns into fabrics shops. Yes, basically my dream street.

Farmers market
Farmers market
Farmers market

Mouthwatering displays of fruits, veg and spices.

Fabric shopping
Fabric shopping

Fabric shops! They were awesome. I wrote in more detail about them over on my sewing blog if you’re interested.

Jaffa flea
Jaffa flea
Jaffa flea
Jaffa flea

In the afternoon we went back over to Jaffa to check out the flea market. There was so much stuff, from ramshackle piles of furniture on the streets to higher-end shops with some beautiful vintage and midcentury goodies. It was a bit distressing to not be able to bring anything home.

Jaffa flea
Jaffa flea

Plenty of kitties over here, too.

Jaffa
Jaffa port
Jaffa port

We walked back to Tel Aviv along the beach, admiring the stunning sunset on the way.

Abraxas North
Abraxas North

For dinner we went to Abraxas North, a place that seems to be pretty hyped-up as the coolest place to go. We were seated at the little horseshoe shaped bar, from where you can look into the open kitchen and see the chefs at work. I think the idea is each chef conceives and cooks his own dishes which make up the menu.

Abraxas North
Abraxas North

The food was… okay. Not the best we had on the trip by far, so we a were a bit disappointed given the reviews. The bread salad wasn’t nearly as nice as ones we’d had elsewhere, and the most famous dish – a whole roasted cauliflower, Noma style, just tasted… like plain cauliflower. Luckily we weren’t that hungry so didn’t order much as it would have been pretty expensive for a full meal.

Spice market

The next morning, our last day, was a bit cold and cloudy with a bit of drizzle. We couldn’t really decide what to do before our flight so took a walk to the spice market in Florentin.

Spice market

It was more of a collection of little shops rather than market, and I think there was more choice at the farmer’s market. Florentin isn’t the nicest part of town either, so we abandoned plans and went for a decadent brunch instead.

Benedict

Benedict is another of THE places to be in Tel Aviv. The queues out the door on Saturday morning were ridiculous, but luckily on Tuesday we got seated quickly. The menu is huge and reads like a San Francisco cafe with a bit of Middle Eastern influence. It’s also extraordinarily good value: my massive shakshuka included a free champagne cocktail and bread and was under a tenner. Ending the trip on a high.

Again, all these places are listed on my Foursquare list.

Finally, here are a few of my general thoughts on Tel Aviv if you’re thinking of visiting:

  • It’s a very safe and laid-back city and you will hardly ever feel hassled or ostracised for being a tourist. Nearly everyone speaks good English and it feels quite Western in culture generally, which is quite unique given its Middle East location. This makes it very easy to visit and feel comfortable in, though not actually all that different from London which is a bit disappointing if you enjoy experiencing new cultures.
  • It’s quite an expensive city to visit. The average price of our meals was around 250 shekels which is about £40-45 for a few sharing dishes and an alcoholic drink each. The most expensive was over 400/£70. Clothing and things in the shops seemed to be similar too, though the fabric shops were cheap!
  • You can get around by taxi, bike or public transport, or walk as it’s quite a compact city. The taxis are a bit unpredictable and can get expensive. The buses are about £1 per journey and it’s not too hard to figure out how to use them. Mooovit is a good app with local bus routes. There’s also a cycle hire scheme.
  • It’s a great city for vegetarians as the small meze-type dishes always include lots of veggie options. There’s also loads of local Israeli craft beer and a new but growing wine industry, so lots of nice drinks to be had.
  • If you visit over a weekend, remember that nearly everything (except most bars/restaurants) are closed on the Shabbat, Saturdays. I would probably have flown in on Saturday or done the Jerusalem tour on that day to avoid having not much to do.
  • Jerusalem and the Dead Sea

    Jerusalem

    We’re not usually the package-tour types on holiday, but with such a short stay we decided that doing an organised group daytrip to see Jerusalem and the Dead Sea would be the only way to fit them in. We booked with Viator because they pick up and drop off from your hotel in Tel Aviv and let you see both sites in a 10-hour round trip. It was an early start – 7.15 pick-up – so we just had time to scarf down a quick hotel breakfast beforehand. It was a bit of faff before we actually got going: we were transferred from our pickup bus to a small car to another car park, then finally onto the actual minibus with our tour guide, Moshe, and a small group of just 5 other travellers.

    Jerusalem

    First stop was on the hillside as we approached Jerusalem, to get a panoramic view of the city and see some of the places we’d be visiting later in the day. It was at this point I realised I’d made a big mistake in dressing for the warm Tel Aviv weather: Jerusalem is considerable cooler and the whole group was shivering in the misty morning. It didn’t really improve all day until we got to the Dead Sea, oops. Anyway, Moshe pointed out the Mormon University, the Mount of Olives, the Dome of the Rock (the gold dome) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

    Jerusalem
    Jerusalem
    Jerusalem

    We then drove down into the Mount of Olives and got a closer look at some of the sites we’d seen from far away.

    Jerusalem
    Jerusalem
    Jerusalem
    Jerusalem
    Jerusalem

    We entered the Jewish quarter of the Old Town at Jaffa Gate. A lot of the area has been destroyed and rebuilt, but there are some fascinating excavated archaeological remains to see.

    Jerusalem

    From there we entered the Western (Wailing) Wall plaza and saw the wall. To be honest I felt a bit uncomfortable there as a tourist when people were praying, so I didn’t go very close or take photos. Have a cat photo instead.

    Jerusalem
    Jerusalem
    Jerusalem
    Jerusalem
    Jerusalem
    Jerusalem

    After the wall we crossed into the Muslim quarter and made our way through winding stone alleys lined with little food, clothing and souvenir shops. It felt quite geared towards tourists, though there were locals going about their business too.

    Jerusalem
    Jerusalem
    Jerusalem
    Jerusalem
    Jerusalem

    The Christian quarter begins at the Via Dolorosa, the road that Jesus supposedly took when he carried the cross on his back to his crucifixion. This winding path leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an interesting church because it houses several different sects of Christianity, who each hold it important because it was apparently built on the spot where Jesus was buried.

    Judean desert
    Judean desert
    Judean desert

    This was our last stop, so back on the road we headed east out of Jerusalem into the Judean desert towards the Dead Sea. I’ve never really seen desert terrain before so it was quite fascinating, the dusty sand only broken up by the odd palm tree field, Bedouin farmer settlement, and camel.

    Dead sea
    Dead sea
    Dead sea

    The drive to the Dead Sea is very short, under half an hour to the beach we went to on the north-western coast. It was still grey and misty when we arrived but noticeably warmer and more humid – but perhaps because of the weather, the resort was practically empty of other visitors. It was a nice enough little resort, with a cafeteria, shower facilities and a bar and gift shop containing Dead Sea products.

    Dead sea
    Dead sea
    Dead sea

    I wasted no time in wading into the water. It was surprisingly warm, and the sky cleared up quite a bit once we were in. The bottom of the sea is caked in the famous mud so you can slather up on the way. And it’s true, once you wade out to hip-height you simply lean back and float, thanks to the high salt content. An absolutely bizarre and fantastic experience, especially on such an eerily quiet day where it felt as if we had the entire sea to ourselves.

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    P2040423
    P2040432
    Tel Aviv

    We tore ourselves away after an hour or so of floating, and got back in the bus for the sleepy trip back to the bright lights of Tel Aviv, via little mountaintop towns and the rather sobering sight of the imposing West Bank wall. Overall I was happy with the day tour we did. Our guide Moshe was a very nice guy, knowledgeable and passionate about the things he told us. In retrospect I might have chosen to go to Masada instead of Jerusalem as I felt the religious aspect was a bit wasted on me, and I think the ancient palace remains in the desert would have been more interesting. It’s also a shame we didn’t see much of the real city of Jerusalem so I don’t feel like I know what it’s really like. Nonetheless with only a day I’m glad we could see both Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, and it’s a good reason to come back again some day.

    Day 3 and 4 in Tel Aviv coming up next…

    Tel Aviv Day 1 & 2

    Tel Aviv

    Shalom! For my birthday present from Josh this year we decided to get a bit of winter sun and headed to Tel Aviv, Israel, for a long weekend. It’s right in between a short- and long-haul flight length from the UK at about five hours, and appealed to us as a beachside city with great food, interesting culture and warmer temperatures than home. We stayed in the south-centre of Tel Aviv and also did a daytrip to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, which I’ll split into another post. Here’s what we got up to on the first evening and day.

    Tel Aviv

    Arriving in town early evening and in need of dinner, we set out to explore as soon as we’d dropped off our bags. We stumbled across a cute looking place in a backstreet and pleasingly they had an English menu – doubly pleasingly, it was all vegetarian! I have no idea what the name is in English, but in Hebrew it’s זכאים- בוטיק טבעוני אורגינל which Google Translate tells me means ‘Payables – Original Vegan Boutique’, hmm.

    Tel Aviv
    Tel Aviv

    Tel Aviv does this kind of cosy, rough elegant interior thing pretty well. Mismatched chairs, limewashed walls and raw ceilings are the norm in a lot of bars and cafes.

    Tel Aviv

    Another cute thing is the way that restaurants proudly display their fresh produce and make it into a decorative feature. With such beautiful vegetables why wouldn’t you? I seriously considered how to smuggle home several kilos of the amazing tomatoes and aubergines.

    Tel Aviv
    Tel Aviv

    The food was a superb introduction to the Israeli cuisine, which usually tends to feature those burstingly fresh vegetables smoked or burnt to intensify the flavour, always served with lots of bread and a swirl of tahini. I think this was my favourite meal of the trip, in fact.

    Tel Aviv

    The next day was Saturday, the Shabbat, which we kind of didn’t realise means that everything in this Jewish city is closed all day: the shops, public transport, most museums — thankfully nearly all bars and restaurants are open though. As was the beach, and it was a beautiful day so, along with what seemed to be half of the city’s locals, we headed down there.

    Tel Aviv

    There’s a strip of beaches along the west side of the city, again an easy walk from our central location. We started at Gordon Beach, got ice cream and watched the locals playing beach volleyball and matkot (rather brutal looking beach tennis), then took a wander southwards down to Charles Clore garden.

    Tel Aviv
    Tel Aviv
    Tel Aviv

    There’s lots of interesting Bauhaus architecture along the way.

    Tel Aviv
    Tel Aviv
    Tel Aviv
    Tel Aviv

    We cut back into town via a cute area called Sharazi with lots of cafes and artsy shops, cat-spotting along the way. There’s a large stray/semi-feral cat community in Tel Aviv, and much like the rest of the city’s inhabitants they seem pretty laid-back and happy to get on with their business without disturbing you.

    Tel Aviv
    Tel Aviv
    Tel Aviv

    We got lunch at Port Said, a cute indoor-outdoor cafe behind the Great Synagogue, where we’d had a drink the night before. The food was similar to the first night: a meltingly soft aubergine ‘sashimi’ doused in proper olive oil, a punchy bread salad with those fresh tomatoes, and creamy butterbean mash, washed down with fresh lemonade.

    Jaffa
    Jaffa
    Jaffa

    After lunch we caught a cab south of the city to Yafo (Jaffa). Tel Aviv grew from the ancient town of Yafo in the early 20th century and is now the bigger city, but they make up a joint metropolitan area. It’s got a nice lived-in vibe with lots of bars and cafes, and a flea market every day except Saturday (don’t worry, we came back for it).

    Jaffa
    Jaffa
    Jaffa

    We climbed around the Zodiac alleys – restored ancient walkways that wind up from the harbour….

    Jaffa
    Jaffa

    …then popped into the food market at the port for a beer.

    Jaffa
    Jaffa
    Jaffa

    The view back to Tel Aviv from Jaffa Hill.

    Tel Aviv
    Tel Aviv
    Tel Aviv

    For dinner we went to Mezcal, a Mexican place in the Florentin area in our way back to the hotel. It was pretty impressive and tasty, and cocktails were at happy hour prices. We headed back for an early night, ready for an early start for our Jerusalem trip in the morning.

    More soon! You can see all the places I visited on my Foursquare list.