Designer Deluxe

Hotel Review : Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom, Vienna – Austria

Located along the banks of the Danube canal, the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom is rightfully described as a living work of art. All geometric slants and angles, the building appears sloping, as if to give its neighbor a peck on the cheek. A skyscraping structure of sleek glass paneling, this spunky hotel designed by French architect Jean Nouvel is a contemporary haven.

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

From the onset as you enter the hotel – your eyes are drawn to the illuminated ceiling, and you know immediately that it’s going to be a very special stay. The first ‘bonjour’ of the day comes from the handsome bellman as he ushers us inside.

Sofitel Vienna StephansdomThe check in (preceded by quite a few more ‘bonjours)’ is seamless, but since our room was not yet ready, we are taken on a guided tour of the spa and fitness area. Presented with two exotic fruit smoothies, we perch awkwardly, fully dressed, on the enormous white geometric loungers in the spa’s relaxation room for a few minutes before we were quickly whisked away to our suite on the 15th floor.

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Jean Nouvel chose three monochromatic palettes for the rooms; black, grey and white. Our room happens to be grey. And I mean really grey! The floors are grey, as are the walls. The bedside cupboards are grey, the desk and chair are grey, the large modern seating area is, yep, you guessed it: grey.

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Sofitel Vienna StephansdomThe bathroom comprises of a walk-in shower, large rectangular bathtub (grey, obviously) and his and hers vanities (also grey!). We find an abundance of sumptuous Hermès bath products and well appointed toiletries including a nail kit.Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Looking back I can see that the monochrome design may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but we loved it. The room was sleek and modern, well designed and spacious.

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

You would think the best part would be the view; staring directly over the canal and onto St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Even the (grey) window blinds could be geometrically opened to allow you to select the size of your window depending on your mood.

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

But no, the best part for me was the SoBed. A celebration of all that is heavenly, this bed is virtually indescribable. But I’ll try: It’s large. So large in fact that it’s easy to lose yourself amongst its pillowy softness. That secret of that softness? The SoBed’s additional layer of plush called the ‘Featherbed’ that lies on top of the SoBed, creating that ‘sleeping on a cloud’ feeling. Along with a pillow menu of various choices (synthetic or real down) and a crisp white duvet, it made for the comfiest bed in the whole entire world.

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

That evening we slip on our waffle robes and head for the spa. Not exceptionally large for a hotel of this size, the spa area is nevertheless as sleek and modern as the rest of the hotel.

Sofitel Vienna StephansdomTwo black slate Jacuzzis are bubbling quietly on either side, surrounded by large slanting windows. There are two hammans filled with eucalyptus steam. The atrium houses a relaxation area with aforementioned geometric loungers, while a state of the art gym caters to those so inclined.Sofitel Vienna StephansdomSofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Sofitel Vienna StephansdomWe eat dinner at the hotel’s famed Le Loft occupying the 18th floor, and have the most memorable meal in the glamorous restaurant whose chef was awarded three Michelin stars. You can read about that experience here.

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

The location of the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom could not be more perfect for visiting the city’s sights. Its namesake, St Stephan’s Cathedral, only a short walk away, and other major attractions are easily reached by foot or public transport.

Sofitel Vienna StephansdomBreakfast is a casual affair, also served at Le Loft. The restaurant is starkly beautiful by day, the views just as impressive without the golden glow of the ceiling’s illumination. We enjoy fresh mixed berries, Greek yogurt and honey; followed by deliciously cooked scrambled eggs on seeded bread rolls. Sipping on French-pressed coffees and flutes of champagne, we take in the stunning 360° vistas le Loft offers.

Sofitel Vienna StephansdomSofitel Vienna StephansdomSofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Again that evening after a long day of sightseeing, we head to the spa to unwind and relax. A full range of spa treatments are on offer (at a fee), and while I’m tempted by the 24 carat old massage, due to time constraints, I reluctantly refrain from making a booking.

We dine in-room, and the speed and quality of room service is exceptional. My order of risotto arrives piping hot, with a fresh bread basket, butter and condiments. The room service prices are outstandingly good value for a hotel of this standard.

Of course, wifi is complimentary, and we never had any issues, irrespective of the number of gadgets we connected.

But for me, perhaps the most enduring memory of the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom is hotel’s façade at night, with the two illuminated ceilings creating a breathtaking silhouette after dark. Each evening after dinner we head out and stroll along the canal to admire the hotel’s design.

Sofitel Vienna StephansdomSofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Two days later, when it’s time to check out I have to dig deep and find superhuman strength to leave the blissful cocoon of the SoBed.

All in all, the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom is one of the most spectacular hotels I’ve stayed at. The service is second to none and the daring design and glamorous details will surely see us heading back in a few months (and this time I will ensure enough time to experience the spa treatments!).

Sofitel Vienna StephansdomSofitel Vienna Stephansdom

The prices are as expected, hardly cheap, but for those seeking contemporary luxury in the heart of Vienna, for whom great service is non-negotiable – the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom is well worth the indulgence.

Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

 Rates from 200€ to >3000€. For more information and special offers, visit the hotel’s official website.

 

 

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The day I said ‘Goodbye’ to Madiba

We arrived in South Africa early in the morning the day before Madiba’s state funeral was to take place.

As an expat South African living in France I really miss my home country and each trip back home is profoundly anticipated. We normally choose to fly with Air France on their overnight flight from Charles de Gaulle to Johannesburg.  I quite enjoy the extreme culture shock of leaving Paris, with its distinct flair, the French language being spoken everywhere, and the unmistakable aroma of macaroons as I walk pass the airport’s Ladurée cart – and waking up in Johannesburg.

Although I grew up in Durban, the minute I get off the plane in OR Tambo, I instinctively feel as if I’m ‘home’. I don’t know what it is; perhaps it’s not anything quite tangible or maybe it’s a combination of factors. Maybe it’s the sunshine that is so typical of our country, or hearing Zulu and Xhosa being spoken along with the distinctive Gauteng accent.  It’s seeing familiar brands; the dark green and white of the airport’s Mugg and Bean or the ‘W’ of my much-missed Woolworths.

But on this day, something was noticeably amiss. And I knew right away what is was. For the first time in my life, I set foot on my country’s soil, but it was a Madiba-less South Africa I had come home to.

The next day the Rainbow Nation mourned. Each in their own way, they paid their last respects to the man we had come to call ‘Father’. Our Tata.

Some wept openly in their grief. Others danced and shouted. Some somberly sang Nkosi SikeleliAfrika –God bless Africa. Others toyi-toyed to chants of Shoshaloza.

I knew I too had to find a way to come to terms with his loss. I needed solace, as much as solitude. So I headed to the one place that had always been a comfort to me.

I arrived at the beach on Durban’s famed coast as the sun was low in the sky. Having come unprepared, I placed my sweater on the warm sand and sat down.

I was much too young to have felt the true scourge of apartheid in my lifetime, but I have one lingering memory of being at this very beach at the age of about 5 or 6. My dad very sternly warned me not to make too much noise, and to remember to pick up any trash we leave behind, as we were not really ‘allowed’ on this beach, and could get in trouble for being there.

Looking around now I saw people of every creed and colour occupying that sunny stretch of beach. There were a group of teenagers riotously jumping around in the waves, and next to them a couple with their arms around each other, venturing deeper for a swim.

On the water’s edge there was a young father dipping his baby girl’s toes into the foaming water. The toddler squealed with joy at each new wave.

Under a distressed gazebo I spotted a cluster of old ladies having a boisterous conversation and laughing loudly.

Every colour, every creed, occupied that golden beach that day and I realized with a sharp intake of breath: Madiba may have achieved more than anyone could have imagined politically – but right there in that moment, on that beach: his legacy could be found.

I do not know what the future holds for the Rainbow Nation without our Tata. Some critics preach gloom and doom, while others are optimistic. Only time will tell.

All I know is, I did a lot of things on that beach that day.

I wept.

I prayed.

I reflected.

I remembered.

I said ‘thank you’.

I then; I said goodbye.

Nelson Mandela RIP

(Source cited in photo)

Sky-High Dining Splendor

Restaurant Review: Le Loft – Sofitel Stephansdom Vienna, Austria

Located on the 18th floor of the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom hotel, with ceiling-to-floor glass windows on all sides; restaurant Le Loft makes it easy to imagine you’re suspended in the air, floating above the beautiful city of Vienna.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna StephansdomI’m not sure if it is unbelievable vistas in every direction that make my jaw go slack; or if it is the vibrant, illuminated work of art designed by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist that stretches across the ceiling, creating a sublime contrast with Jean Nouvel’s minimalist interior. Perhaps I will never know.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Its 8:30 pm and Le Loft is buzzing. The raised bar at the centre of the restaurant is awash with beautiful people sipping even more beautiful cocktails. The decadent pops from champagne bottles being open and wine corks being pulled create the background music. The tables along the gargantuan windows are by now, all occupied, save for one – right in front (or so it seems), of the gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral, for which the Sofitel Vienna is named.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna StephansdomAnd as luck would have it, we’re escorted to the lone free table by the friendly maître‘d. I sit down with a sense of reverie. The ceiling is alive. Animated with eccentric videos (I’ve read that in the videos, Rist aims to capture the viewpoint of a child looking up into the world). The crispness of the autumn leaves on the ceiling canvas casts a golden glow around the restaurant and onto the surrounding glass panels. The view! Oh the view! Breathtaking and unparalleled, the sights stretch well over the city and is sure to provide one of the most memorable dining experiences ever.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Le Loft’s French head chef, Antoine Westermann grew up in the Alsace region of France and his dishes are a delicious fusion of Alsatian and Viennese influences. In a rather unprecedented move, after being awarded a highly prestigious three Michelin stars for his Strasbourg restaurant Le Buerehiesel,  he shortly thereafter chose to hand over the reins of the restaurant to his son Eric.  The French chef remains ever nonchalant about his success, recognition and his choice to leave the Michelin star hype behind him. In an interview with FooDiva he explains: “It’s another life after the three stars. I am really, really happy without having to think about Michelin. My priority is making my customers happy, finding the right produce and offering a great price.” 

At his side, is his protégée Raphael Dworak, who he worked with at Le Buerehiesel, and the two continue to collaborate closely at Le Loft.

At our table, we scan the menu and are presented with crisp bread basket (of which the olive bread is to die for) and beurre CharentesPoitou. The chef’s suggested four and six course tasting-menus look well-defined and impeccably planned, but a little too adventurous for my tame palate (I dont eat red meat or chicken). I stick to a traditional three-course a la carte preference, while Mr. Wolf is positively salivating at the prospect of patés, foie gras and beef filets.

We each commence with an aperitif of kir-royale whilst still staring, speechlessly at the view that lay before us.

Le Loft Sofitel

Le Loft’s sommelier is knowledgeable, and suggests an impeccable white wine to pair with my fish appetizer and mains, whilst Mr. Wolf is presented with a Austrian burgundy to complement his menu choices.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna StephansdomThe chef’s amuse bouche – a lobster cappuccino is presented in espresso cups. The soup is frothy, creamy and deliciously decadent.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

For the appetizers I decide upon the poached pike served with crayfish, pumpkin purée, parsley coulis and jus vadouvan. The pike is cooked to perfection and the pumpkin puree melts like butter in my mouth.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna StephansdomMr. Wolf enjoys paté en croute, which consisted of foie gras and pigeon breast served with elderberry gelee. I can’t comment much on the dish apart from its excellent presentation, but I safely say from the decadent sighs of satisfaction coming from the other end of the table that is was delicious.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna StephansdomLe Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna StephansdomIf you’re expecting a quick meal, I’d advise you not to book at Le Loft. The service at the restaurant is incredibly slow. And rightfully so! Each dish, a work of art, is consumed slowly and celebrated bite by bite. In between courses, the view itself will provide endless distraction between soft chatter and clinking glasses.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

For my main dish I select the pan-fried lake char with porcini mushrooms, homemade tortellini and mushroom sauce. The char is fried crispy on the outside and soft and delicious through the center, while the porcini mushrooms add an earthy, nutty flavor to the dish.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

My dining companion has chosen the beef fillet. The dish is typically served with brussel sprout ragout, potatoes gratin and truffle jus. However, being allergic (self diagnosed!) to brussel sprouts, Mr. Wolf kindly requests an alternative. He’s pleasantly surprised when his fillet is served with the potatoes gratin, but instead of the ragout, there is a side of soft, buttery gnocchi. After having a bite of the gnocchi, I can honestly attest that it was the best I had ever eaten.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna StephansdomLe Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

Selecting dessert is the most difficult part of the evening for me. Each mouth-watering option holds its own merits, but in the end my love affair with chocolate dictates my choice.

Mr. Wolf concurs, and we both choose the chocolate and mint liaison: Jivara chocolate mousse and mint ice cream served in an elaborate chocolate cage shaped like an egg.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

The mint ice cream is truly impeccable. Forget the mild store-bought variety with prerequisite choc-chips – this ice cream is made from freshly ground mint leaves that give a hint of sharpness to the cream. I enjoy every last bite.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna StephansdomWashed down with coffees and the chef’s beautiful (and ample) mignardise selection, we are completely satisfied.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

The dining experience at Le Loft is not cheap, but it is well and truly exquisite, and so worth the splurge. An excerpt from the hotel’s website: “The restaurant exudes exclusivity and extravagance, combining Viennese charm and international flair”.

Le Loft Restauranrt Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom

The hotel, as seen from the street, with restaurant Le Loft illuminated on the top floor

This perfectly sums up our experience of the night, dining on fabulous dishes, in a surreal setting, literally on top of the world.

Disclaimer: Mr Wolf and I were treated to a complimentary dinner at Le Loft during our stay at the Sofitel Stephansdom Vienna, although I hope you will see that has in no way affected my experience or any opinions expressed in this post.

For more please visit the official website.

Booking at Le Loft should be made 3-4 weeks in advance to guarantee a seating.

A Memorable Port Wine Tour

Porto, as the name suggests, is the birthplace of Port Wine. So on a recent visit to Portugal’s second-largest city, I could not pass on the opportunity to tour the famous wine cellars and of course enjoy copious tastings of this delicious grape juice.

Set on the hillside of Vila Nova de Gaia, in the heart of the historic area and across the river from the old city centre, the wine cellars of Porto are truly picturesque.

Porto Wine Tour op 10 things to do in Porto

The Famous Port Wine names seen on the hillside of Vila Nova de Gaia

With their world-famous names in giant neon signs making it hard to miss, the port wine tasting tours at the cellars have become one of the most sought after attractions in Porto.

Taylor's Port Wine Cellar Tour portoTaylor's Port Wine Cellar Tour porto

Accessing the cellars is very easily accomplished if you work your way up from the river bank. The Rabelo boats that once brought the wine from the Alto Douro wine region to Porto can still be seen casually bobbing along the banks of the Douro River – a reminder of the days of old. The Porto cable car, brimming with tourists, glides smoothly past overhead. Along the banks, the famous cellars of Sandeman, Ferreira and Ramos Pinto sit proudly, steeped in their traditions.

Taylor's Port Wine Cellar Tour portoTaylor's Port Wine Cellar Tour porto

If you’re prepared for the uphill climb, you can venture on to some of the other prestigious cellars: Offley, Cockburn and Taylors.

Taylors Port wine cellars sits on Rua do Choupelo, and by the time we reached the vine-covered entrance I was out of breath.

While Taylors have various vineyards across the country, the cellars at Villa Nova de Gaia houses most of the company’s reserves of wood aged Port as well as their Vintage Port, in tunnels below the cellars.

We found a table (cleverly in the shape of a wine barrel) in the Library room, and amidst the dusty books and aging bottles we got to work on the menu. As we waited for the next English tour of the cellars, we ordered some port by the glass; a good mix of the vintage, tawny, ruby, late-bottled vintage (LBV), and dry white.

Taylor's Port Wine Cellar Tour porto

SONY DSCTaylor's Port Wine Cellar Tour portoTaylor's Port Wine Cellar Tour portoWe would have loved to have enjoyed the famed views from the terrace over the city of Porto, but alas, the rain kept us indoors. We did however envy the peacocks lazing about outside.

The tour commenced with some basic history about Port wine, and then delved into the fascinating history of the House of Taylors. We then entered the cellars itself: long cool, dark warehouses with thick granite walls and high ceilings to help keep out heat and maintain temperatures throughout the year.

Taylor's Port Wine Cellar Tour portoTaylor's Port Wine Cellar Tour portoSurrounded by thousands and thousands of barrels, our tour guide talked about the conditions under which port wine is made, and the aging processes.

Taylor's Port Wine Cellar Tour porto

We learned that ‘casks’ are seasoned oak barrels which usually hold around 630 litres of wine. As cask ageing encourages contact between the wine and the wood, it intensifies the ageing process which is used mainly for Tawny Ports.Taylor's Port Wine Cellar Tour porto

The most impressive for me was the sight of the giant oak vats which normally hold around 20,000 litres of wine. In these mammoth vessels, there is less contact between the Port and the wood and this ageing method is therefore used mainly for the fruitier styles of Port such as Taylor’s First Estate Reserve or LBV.

Taylor's Port Wine Cellar Tour porto

As mentioned, below the cellars, lay tunnels in which the Vintage Ports age in bottle, lying horizontally to keep the corks moist.  While we did get to see some ports ageing in bottles we didn’t get the opportunity to slip into the depths of the tunnels (not sure if I would have enjoyed that!)

Taylor's Port Wine Cellar Tour porto

The entire tour took no more than 30 minutes, and was truly an interesting and informative session where I learned a lot about the history and process of making Port wines.

Afterwards, it was on to my favorite part of the tour: more tastings! As part of the tour, we were invited to taste three very different Port wines: Chip Dry – Extra Dry White, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) and the 10 year old Tawny.

Taylor's Port Wine Cellar Tour portoTaylor's Port Wine Cellar Tour porto

At 3€ per person, I would highly recommend a tour of the Taylor’s cellars when in Porto. Get there early like we did, and sample your favorite port wines before the tour! The by-the-glass menu is wonderfully priced, and hopefully, the sun will be shining as you take in the terrace views.

Taylor's Port Wine Cellar Tour porto

For more information visit the Taylors website.

Top 10 things to do in Porto

Portugal’s second largest city is built into its hillside cliffs, overlooking the Douro River. Charismatic and picturesque, with an endless supply of nooks and crannies waiting to be discovered by the avid traveler, the city is best unearthed on foot. Filled with history and monuments, as well as a thriving, cosmopolitan downtown area, the charming city of Porto is well worth a visit.

Top 10 things to do in Porto

Here are the top ten things to do when visiting Portugal’s ‘capital of the North’.

1. Stroll the Historic City centre

The historic centre of Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that sits proudly above the Douro River, like a colorful popup town. Portugal’s second largest city (after Lisbon) is characterized by rugged, tumbling houses, baroque churches and faded storefronts piled on top of each other in a seemingly haphazard fashion. Strolling along the narrow winding streets and up and down the rickety staircases is a must, to truly unearth the essence of the city.

Top 10 things to do in Porto Historic centre

The delightful, crumbling facade of the Historic City centre

 2. Cross the Dom Luis Bridge

Opened in 1886, the Dom Luis Bridge once held the record for the longest iron arch in the world. Built by Gustav Eiffel, many people find the bridge reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower itself. The bridge sprawls across the Douro, connecting the historical centre of Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia. The upper level is where the metro runs, but cars and tourist may cross on the lower level. Walking across the bridge is an experience well worth the incredible views.

Dom Luis Bridge Top 10 things to do in Porto

Porto’s most famous bridge

3. Tour a port wine cellar

On the hillside of Vila Nova de Gaia stand some of the most prestigious Port wine cellars known around the world. Many are open to the public for wine tastings and inexpensive tours that take you into the heart of the cellars. Private tours or those for large groups can normally be accommodated upon request, and if you want to buy port wine, dedicated personnel help answer all your port-related questions as you browse. With the famous names of port wine all in such close proximity, the most difficult part will be choosing which cellar to visit!

Porto Wine Tour op 10 things to do in Porto

The Famous Port Wine names seen on the hillside of Vila Nova de Gaia

Porto Wine Tour op 10 things to do in Porto

Port Wine Tastings

4. Beat the photo ban at the Livraria Lello

Certainly the oldest, easily the most interesting, and arguably the most beautiful bookstore in Portugal, if not the world – Livraria Lello is located in the city centre of Porto. The bookstore is widely tipped to have been an inspiration for parts of Harry Potter’s magical world, since JK Rowling lived in Porto prior to writing the books. Taking pictures inside the bookstore is prohibited, and those caught snapping shots are often asked to leave…but that doesn’t stop those hoping to seize a souvenir of the bookstore’s famous staircase.

livraria lello bookstore porto

The wizardly staircase of Livraria Lello (Source: travel.nationalgeographic.com)

 5. Tempt a heart attack with a Francesinha

Porto’s most famous sandwich is quite frankly a coronary on a plate. The name Francesinha literally means ‘Little Frenchie’ as it is thought to have evolved from the croque monsieur. The signature lunch time dish comprises of two toasted bread slices, filled with three types of meat – wet-cured ham, linguica (fresh sausage) and steak. The entire concoction is covered in cheese, drenched in a tomato-beer sauce, and served on a plate of french-fries. Locals and tourists alike will argue over where to find the best Francesinha, often citing the sauce as the key secret ingredient in the success of the sandwich.

Francesinha top ten things to do in Porto

A mouthful of Francesinha (Source: oportocityhostel.com)

 6. Ascend to the heights of Torre dos Clérigos

One of Porto’s most characteristic symbols, the baroque façade of the Clérigos Church and its bell tower can be seen from most places in the city.  Built by Italian architect Nasoni and completed in 1763, the church and its tower are open to the public. Those braving the climb -240 steps in total- are rewarded with breathtaking views over the city. (I recommend the climb after trying the Francesinha!)

Torre dos Clerigos Top 10 things to do in Porto

The dizzying heights of the Torre dos Clerigos

7. Ride Tram # 1

Porto’s tram #1 is one of three heritage line routes (the others being #18 and #22) Line 1 connects the city (at the Infante stop) to the seaside district of Foz do Douro. The ride is almost exclusively along the river bank and makes for wonderful views along the way.  The ride itself – in a rickety antique tram car – adds to the all round experience of the tour. Although the line operates on a schedule, it arrived considerably late during our wait so I’d recommend allowing plenty of time for this activity. The tickets are sold on board and cost 2.5€ per person.

Tram Tour Top 10 things to do in Porto

The charming heritage tram of Porto Line #1

 8. Feel the ocean breeze in Foz do Douro

Foz do Douro literally translates to ‘mouth of the Douro’ and is the seaside spot where the Douro River meets the Atlantic Ocean. This area is one of the most expensive places to live in Porto and is as such, inhabited by the city’s most affluent people. The main boardwalk is lined with palm trees and upmarket cafes and there is a lively vibe at night with the Felgueiras Lighthouse – which is situated at the edge of the Douro’s river mouth, creating a spectacular backdrop. Also worth visiting in the area is the Castelo do Queijo, a fortress dating from 1661, and Parque da Cidade, the largest park in Porto.

Lighthouse Foz do Douro top ten things to do in Porto

The crashing waves of the Atlantic ocean against the Lighthouse of Foz do Douro

Promenade  Foz do Douro top ten things to do in Porto

The chic promenade of Foz do Douro

 9. Soar above the city in the funicular

With unsurpassable views over the Ribeira, Douro River and Vila Nova de Gaia the Funicular dos Guindais is well worth the 2€ price tag. The journey is quite short, approximately 3 minutes – and at the top, travelers are treated to a panoramic view of the city and the Dom Luis Bridge. Whilst the funicular shuttles its fair share of tourists up and down the steep incline from Batalha to the quayside at Ribeira, it’s also frequented by locals who avoid making the steep climb by foot.

Funicular dos Guindais top ten things to do in Porto

The Funicular dos Guindais making an easy feat of a steep climb

Funicular dos Guindais top ten things to do in Porto

The incredible view upon disembarking the Funicular dos Guindais topside

10. Slow it down with a boat tour on the River Douro

Whether it be an hour-long trip along the banks of the city, travelling under the famous six bridges; or a longer cruise from Porto to a nearby town like Regua or Pinhão, cruising along the Douro offers a unique perspective of the Portuguese landscape. Some tours can last much longer – up to a week, and there are various tour operators in the area ensuring that prices are competitive.

Boat cruise Douro River top ten things to do in Porto

An alternative view of the city: from the river looking up

Spa Review: The Spa @ Sheraton Porto Hotel, Portugal

Stepping off the elevator, we’re greeted by the minimalistic lobby of The Spa (aptly named). In case we’ve forgotten which floor you’re on, the words are engraved onto a bronze plaque on the floor.

The Spa Sheraton Porto Hotel and spaA friendly face at the reception desk takes our room number and then shows us the dressing rooms (separate male and female).

The spa at the Sheraton Porto Hotel is a sprawling level, consisting of various water and heat therapies. The dressing room was elegantly appointed with wonderfully lit vanities and digital lockers. I slipped into a soft, creamy toweling robe and donned the rather strange looking rubber slippers. The main room, also the largest relaxation area, contains a wonderful heated vitality pool, big enough to still feel spacious when at capacity. In front of the ample pool are arranged several ergonomic loungers covered in bright orange towels.

The Spa Sheraton Porto Hotel and spa

We choose two loungers at the far end and settle into them, adjusting the backrest to our perfect specifications via the handy remote.

The Spa Sheraton Porto Hotel and spaBut it isn’t long before the lure of the tranquil swimming pool calls out. Slipping into the warm waters is heaven. The pool is virtually deserted, and perfect for lap swimming, if you’re so inclined.

The Spa Sheraton Porto Hotel and spa

I much rather preferred to try the hot tub. The hot tub was very popular, and several people lazed inside; some applying the traditional jet therapy to their backs and necks, whilst others preferred the more efficient hydromassage from the gushing showerheads at the center of the jacuzzi.

As the crowds in the jacuzzi swelled, we decided to try some of the heat therapies. We made our way to the herbal sauna. The room was dimmed to perfection and eerily quiet. The only sounds appeared, like clockwork, when the wooden bucket tilted to release a burst of water onto the hot stones below creating a hiss of herbal steam.

The Spa Sheraton Porto Hotel and spa

There is also the option to enjoy a more traditional steam room, but much preferring dry saunas to steam rooms; we quickly showered and opted to try the salt inhalation laconium next. This was by far my favorite heat experience at The Spa.

Much cooler than the other saunas, the room gave off an oriental feel, and the dim lighting and red mosaic tiled couches welcomed us. Breathing deeply into the salty air, I felt myself totally relax. When too hot, we hosed off with cool water and continued in our meditative state. After 20 minutes in the laconium, I felt completely rejuvenated, and the niggling muscle aches I’d been carrying around that week evaporated.

The Spa Sheraton Porto Hotel and spaThe Spa Sheraton Porto Hotel and spa

Apart from these wonderful water and heat experience The Spa at the Sheraton Porto Hotel also features a fully functional gym with state of the art workout machines. Our time at the hotel did not permit us to try the gym, but I would have loved to have tried one of their Fitness by Core Performance classes.

There is also a yoga room, and a small but beautiful Zen Garden – complete with soft wicker couches and a trickling waterfall to totally relax your mind and soul.

The Spa Sheraton Porto Hotel and spaThe Spa Sheraton Porto Hotel and spaThe spa treatments at the Sheraton Porto Hotel are reasonably and wonderfully priced, so we booked massages for the next day. Being a huge fan of the ESPA range we opted to try their ESPA body treatment – an hour long aromatherapy massage.

We arrived at the spa the next afternoon after a very long day of sightseeing around Porto, and we were really looking forward to a relaxing afternoon at The Spa. My legs were sore from walking endlessly around the city, and I felt in desperate need of a good massage. My therapist was simply fantastic. Welcoming and extremely friendly, she led me to the treatment room where I prepared for my massage.

The next hour went by in a blur, but to be honest, as a person who has had her fair share of massages in her lifetime – I can truthfully say this was by far the best massage I had ever experienced. From the perfect pressure to the quick responsiveness of my therapist, I felt complete and utter bliss for a full hour as she worked on my tired muscles. Afterwards I felt like a new person, deeply relaxed and completely peaceful as I sipped on green cinnamon tea. We were shown to the relaxation room were we spent a good half hour, eyes closed, reveling in the wonder of The Spa.

The Spa Sheraton Porto Hotel and spa

11 Reasons to Visit South Africa – Today!

South Africa is a travel destination on the rise. Travel critics have been heaping praise and awards on the country in recent years, and South Africa is increasingly playing host to international visitors from just about every nation on earth. Its dynamic and vibrant cities offer modern infrastructure and the country is known for its incredible natural beauty. If you haven’t been to South Africa yet, here are 11 compelling reasons why you should book your trip – today!

1. Spectacular Landscapes

From the jaw-dropping views at Cape Point, to the incredible vistas over the Valley of a Thousand Hills…South Africa has some of the very best landscapes in the world. There is the glamorous beachfront strip of Durban’s famed Golden mile and the hidden treasures of the St Lucia wetlands. Be it a sunset over Table Mountain, or the rugged splendor of the Karoo – there is breathtaking beauty all over South Africa.

Incredible Landscape of South Africa

Incredible Landscape of South Africa (Source willgoto.com)

Green landscape howick falls KZN South africa

The green canopy of the Howick Falls region in KZN

2.  Beach, Desert, Safari or Mountains? No need to settle!

There are very few places on earth where you can enjoy a swim in the refreshing ocean waves one day and go sand-boarding over pristine dunes the next. It’s worth noting that several South African beaches have been awarded the prestigious Blue Flag accreditation which means they meet the most stringent criteria in terms of cleanliness, safety and water quality, amongst others. Whether you prefer the tranquility of the wilderness, the pulsing beat of a cosmopolitan city, or hiking in the mountains – South Africa can make the holiday of your dreams a reality.

Lion's head Cape Town South Africa

Fancy a hike up the ominously named Lion’s Head in Cape Town?

pristine beach south africa

One of the pristine beaches of South Africa

sand dune surfing south africa

Perfect slopes for sand dune surfing (Source: willgoto.com)

3. Culture and Important Sites

About 50 kms northwest of Johannesburg lies the Sterkfontein caves and the Cradle of Humankind. It was here that human evolution fossils – some of the oldest ever found – have been discovered (including the affectionately nicknamed Mrs. Ples) furthering the belief that Africa is the birthplace of humanity. The Cradle of Humankind is one of the eight UNESCO World Heritage sites in South Africa.

Cradle of HumanKind Maropeng

Cradle of Humankind in Maropeng (Source: explorertimeslive.co.za)

An extremely diverse country, South Africans express their culture through music, dance and art – all of which are thriving enterprises in South Africa. A competitive film industry, one of the oldest in the world, continues to grow at an exponential rate. But perhaps one of the most enduring images of South African culture is that of the Zulu people, and a visit to a Zulu village is a highly recommended experience.

Zulu Tribe South Africa

Traditional Zulu dancers

4. History

From the colonial era to the Anglo-Boer war, the discovery of diamonds to the arrival of Indians by the boatload; South Africa’s history is rich, although tumultuous. The most well known part of the country’s modern history remains the rise and subsequent fall of Apartheid. While all South Africans today enjoy the freedoms of a democratic constitution, it is our history that has shaped the people we are today. The Anglo-Boer war battlefields near Ladysmith are worth a visit; while the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg provides a poignant reminder and a fundamental understanding of this dark era in South African history. A trip to Cape Town will not be complete without a ferry ride to Robben Island, another UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once used for the imprisonment and isolation of political prisoners – including Nelson Mandela. A sobering tour depicting the arduous conditions of the prison and the tiny, damp cell where Mandela spent 18 years of his life often leaves visitors in tears.

apartheid south africa

Testaments to Apartheid segregation (Source: capetowndailyphoto.com)

Robben Island Table Mountain South Africa Caoe Town

Robben Island as seen from the top of Table Mountain

5. Wildlife and Biodiversity

There is nothing quite like the African bush, and the world over, people will agree: there is no place that provides better game viewing than South Africa.

Safari Zebra South Africa

Grazing zebra

Of course the Big 5 (lion, cheetah, buffalo, elephant and rhino) is the drawing card for most, but safaris in South Africa can also provide incredible sightings of giraffe, zebra, antelope and thousands of bird species. Although, you don’t necessarily need to be on safari to cash in on the wildlife action – we were once enjoying dinner at a restaurant in St Lucia when a herd of hippos decided to check out the vegetarian offerings in the shrubs across the town’s busiest street!

nyala antelope safari south africa

Nyala antelope spotted on safari

Several coasts along the garden route present amazing whale watching opportunities and several spots in South Africa are considered prime diving and snorkelling sites, rich in coral and marine life.

Turtles South Africa

Twins?

If you’re more flora than fauna, don’t let the vast deserts fool you, South Africa is home to about 10% of the earth’s flowering species and is only country in the world with an entire plant kingdom contained within its borders – the Cape Floral Kingdom.

Flowers south africa cape floral kingdom

Blooming fantastic!

6. Sports Fanatics

There is still a lingering glow from the impressively successful Soccer World Cup in 2010 which unified South Africa in the most unexpected ways, and proved the naysayers wrong; and so many South Africans still carry golden memories of the historic moment when then newly-elected president Nelson Mandela, in his Springbok jersey, presented the trophy to our rugby captain in what can only be described as a fairytale ending to the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Sports fans will agree: there is definitely no shortage of top notch sporting sports events taking place in South Africa.

Rugby world cup 1995 South Africa

One of the most cherised memories in South African history (Source: rugbyworldcup.com)

The Comrades Marathon and Dusi Canoe marathon are other shining examples of world class events taking place annually on the South African stage. From cycling to surfing, cricket to golf – our country is increasingly showcasing its ability to plan and host successful international sporting events, and inspirational South African athletes in almost every facet of sport are flying the flag high for the Rainbow Nation. And while it may not be the world’s favorite instrument, I think we’re somewhat secretly proud of the vuvuzela!

Vuvuzela south africa

Proudly South African (Source: Heraldsun.com)

7. Affordable

The South African Rand is relatively weak against major currencies such as the Pound, Euro and Dollar, which makes it a very affordable destination. International visitors are often pleasantly surprised at the relatively low cost of hotels, food and transport. While those looking to splurge on the ultimate luxurious vacation will not be disappointed by the 5-star accommodations and cuisine available all over the country, there are plenty of affordable safari or city breaks that can match any budget.

Increasingly, South Africa is becoming a shopper’s paradise. With large malls dotting the country, and international chain stores and designer boutiques setting up shop; locals and tourists alike are finding everything their hearts desire in terms of fashion, accessories and jewelry. Ever-popular flea markets and craft stalls are still found in the cities and along the beachfronts, offering quirky home décor and ideal souvenirs.

Gateway Shoppertainment Centre in Durban

Gateway Shoppertainment Centre in Durban (Source: Flickr – South African Tourism)

Hand-woven wire bowls South Africa

Hand-woven wire bowls(Source: Umkhumbilodge.co.za)

8. Weather

South Africa enjoys a subtropical location, which in weather terms translates to hot, humid summers coupled with afternoon thunderstorms; and cooler, dryer winters that are typically sunny. It is this almost year-round sunshine that is increasingly attracting savvy travelers to South African soil. In my opinion there is honestly no bad time (weather wise) to visit SA, but planning your visit around specific activities and interests is highly recommended. For example, game viewing is normally best during the dry winter months, as the hot summers typically mean animals are seeking respite from the heat in the dense, lush vegetation. However, avid bird watchers will find the summer months the best time to view the migrant bird species. The mild months of autumn or spring can be ideal for mountain hikers, while whale-watching enthusiasts may be rewarded between July to November.

Sunny day Durban Golden Mile south africa

The beginning of a typical sunny day along Durban’s Golden Mile Source: clubviaje.com)

9. Culinary Delights

South Africa may not be the first destination that springs to mind when you think of Michelin starred restaurants, but the culinary scene in South Africa is sophisticated and thriving. As always, the emphasis is on the supply of the freshest possible ingredients of the highest quality, and there is no shortage of that in SA. From incredible seafood to succulent Karoo beef, foodies will find their full amongst restaurants catering for every craving.

Cuisine South Africa

Traditional Prawn Curry with a modern twist

The street food trend may be taking off all over Europe, but South Africa (and Durban in particular) is home to the Bunny Chow – what can only be described as the ultimate street food. (If you haven’t tried it, find our more here). From locally brewed beers, to world class coffees, and not to mention one of the most acclaimed, award-winning wine routes in the world; the South African food scene is evolving, one braai at a time.

cuisine seafood south africa

Freshest seafood, as much as your heart desires

10. Unique and Oh! So Interesting

South Africa is unique in so many ways. For starters, it has special mention in the Guinness World Book of records as the country with the most official languages – eleven! This just represents of diversity of our beautiful land and why the term “Rainbow Nation” is so apt.  Did you also know that Cape Town is the only city in the world to have its coasts in two different oceans? Or that the city which has the most trees in the world is Johannesburg? – Yes you read that correctly! While it may seem unbelievable to many, South Africa even has its own penguin colony at Boulders beach.

cape point south africa

Where 2 oceans collide: Cape Point

penguins boulders beach cape town town africa

The undeniably cute penguins at Boulders Beach

11. People

Courage, hope and perseverance are just some of the adjectives that come to mind when I think about the people of South Africa. Yes, high crime rates are noted, and the ugly shadow of Apartheid may linger; but South Africans as a whole, are a nation of courageous people filled with an insuppressible hope. Almost every traveler I have encountered on my trips far and wide, who has visited South Africa, has had only positive things to say about the people they met there. Stories of good Samaritans and friendly, smiling faces everywhere they went are the norm. For a country whose people have had to endure so much, I am still astounded by the eternal optimism that surrounds me every time I return. It makes me so very proud to call myself a part of the Rainbow Nation.

Friendly People South Africa

The friendliest faces (Source: Powerofpeace.com)

You might also like: 21 Reasons why I LOVE South Africa