Chilling out in Penang

The past year has taken me to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, The Andaman Islands, Bali, New Zealand, French Polynesia and Japan. Some of this has been for work (one year I’ll run a retreat in Bali and actually have time to add on a holiday after), others have been slow boat trips, some a bit of both.

Yes I am a little behind in the travel blogging malarky!

When my elderly father needed some winter sun but wasn’t really up to travelling all the way across the world, a compromise was hatched. A week in one place. A luxury hotel in Penang. Time to actually enjoy the pool. Great local food, But most of all, plenty of time to relax.

 

The E & O

There is so much love on the internet for this grand dame. My father first stayed here in 1951 and was keen to see it again. Though the old wing still stands (soon to close for refurbishments), we stayed in the five year old ‘Victory Annex’ sympathetically built in the same architectural style.

Apart from a few visits to the 1960’s in ground pool and some casual dinners on the terrace at Sarkies Corner, most of our time was spent in the new wing.

Highlights of my stay:

  • Choosing the local breakfast options: char keow teow, murtabak, roti and curry, nasi lemak or soup with noodles. Sure, there are pancakes, omelettes and all the usual Western fare as well but in Asia I eat local favourites when possible. It’s always the best!
  • Chilling out by the pool: the infinity pool on the 6thfloor of the Victory Annex is stunning. Though some days, if there was the slightest breeze, the poolside area became strangely gusty and the water temperature was too chilly. Not to worry, the old pool next door stays deliciously warm.
  • Happy hour in the Planters lounge: despite suggestions to the contrary on a well-known travel site earlier in the year, free drinks and nibbles are still served to hotel guests between 5 – 6 pm each day. While the drink range is limited, the staff were generous with refills. The food also got replenished a number of times.
  • The bathroom: travelling with my sister we really appreciated such a spacious bathroom, especially twin vanity units to spread our toiletries out. The beautiful deep bath was delightful.
  • Coffee at sunrise: one room facility I made the most of was the espresso machine.  I could start the day with a coffee made just the way I like it (double shot espresso), while watching the sun come up from our balcony.

We also enjoyed checking out the small arcade of shops on the ground floor, including getting some shirts made at the tailor (sure there are cheaper tailors in Penang, but proximity made fittings and adjustments so much easier).

 

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Georgetown food

Penang is famous for its food. The assam laksas and cendol in particular. After sampling the culinary delights of Malacca a few years ago I couldn’t wait to eat authentic Nonya food again.

We ate at a number of “coffee houses”. These are often chaotic, mini food courts with different vendors selling a single specialty. You choose your main dish(es), sometimes paying on ordering but often just when it’s delivered to your table. Another trader will offer you a drink (being a Muslim country, these are mostly non-alcoholic) and if you’re lucky there might be a cendol stall as well. Getting a table, or grabbing a stool, can sometimes be challenging but turnover is fast. Servings tend to be small, so you can graze to your heart’s content.

 

 

The best laksa was at this place

 

These are rushed and not particularly comfortable affairs (my elderly father found the noise and stools a bit challenging) but a flavoursome experience of local life.

A couple more comfortable options we experienced were Mews and Jawi house. Both are air conditioned, with generous serves and great service. We ate prawn fritters at both (note these were classed as entrees but we struggled to share between three), which turned out to be a delicious local treat. Jawi House has an interesting heritage in a traditional house, with the food reflecting the rich cultural history of the area. This includes a Persian style lemuni rice, like nothing I’ve ever tasted before (AU$3.50 serve). After eating so much seafood on our trip, I enjoyed the medley of three vegetarian curries, including seasonal okra (Au$4). The menu and prices are aimed at tourists but they’re happy to serve a spicy sambal on the side if you want a little heat.

Due to one of us not feeling their best we only got a local meal, on average, once a day. They were all good but not as stunning as I remember from Malacca. So I’ll buck the trend and say that despite the food being good in Penang, for a foodie foray I’d still pick a long weekend in Malacca as the winner.

 

Penang Art

Georgetown has a thriving street art culture, but don’t expect to see anything edgy or overtly political. Much of it has been curated for tourism, no doubt with Instagram in mind.

Heading out on foot, during the cooler part of morning (or early evening) is best. Though you can grab a trishaw if necessary. The earlier you go, the greater your chance of getting shots of your favourites without others blocking your view.

 

 

Beyond Georgetown

Disappointingly we couldn’t manage a day trip to the national park, which was my number one out of town pick. But we did make it to a number of the other tourism-worthy sites. There were a few hits and misses but always good to see more of the island.

The WWII museum, an open-air site of what was reportedly a concentration camp (not everyone agrees about the details of this colourful history). I’d give it a miss, unless you’re particularly bored or have a fascination for gruesome details.

Penang Botanical gardens. Super manicured and a disappointment compared to similar ones (probably the best thing about Kandy, Sri Lanka was their garden). Entry is free, but there’s a cheap and easy golf cart to tour the grounds, which suited our elderly traveller.

Entopia – a surprisingly enjoyable experience for all ages. Beautiful, modern butterfly “farm” and reptile displays. Worth a visit.

Penang Hill. Take the new cable car to the top and have a wander. The views of the island are worth seeing. We discovered a short buggy tour and explored the hill a little further. Ours was worth every ringget, with a cheerful and informative driver. If energetic, walk down the thousands of so steps to the Botanical gardens.

Tip: If possible go to Penang Hill midweek, when the queue for the cable car is considerably shorter. We’ve been told that waiting times Friday – Sunday and public holidays can stretch to well over an hour. This is likely why you can buy a more expensive ticket to jump the regular queue. We only had a 15 minute wait mid-week but if choosing the non-fast track option, you’ll likely stand in a cramped compartment.

 

Getting around

For short distances, Grab (the local ride sharing scheme) is the most economical way to get around. Unlike Uber (which has been banned in the area) you don’t need to register a credit card, as you pay each driver the quoted fare in cash. The 25 minute trip to the airport came in at less than AU$8, about a third of the price of a taxi. However, if going further afield you’ll need a local sim and I’m not sure how easy it is to get a homeward trip from other parts of the island. If you’d like to hire a driver for half a day, the going rate for a blue (more luxurious) taxis that the E&O favours is around MR50/hour. Otherwise, taxis are metered but we found the cheaper, red taxi drivers more likely to want to haggle despite the regulatory signs inside the cab saying such a practice is illegal.

I hate to play the comparison game again, but unlike Malacca’s brightly decorated and well-loved trishaws, the Georgetown ones were incredibly shabby, expensive and powered by elderly men, many of whom looked like they were on their last legs. The hotel quoted RM45 – 50 a ride, likely a standard rate aimed at a 30 min sightseeing trip. For our threesome, that’d mean two tri-shaws costing around AU$35  for a 10 minute ride back to the hotel. Our ten minute Grab ride (arranged by the lovely manager of Jawi House) cost a tenth of this.

 

The best three hours

At the end of the week our time was up. Living in a different country to the rest of my family, my homeward flight left a few hours later. With three hours post check out, in the hottest part of the day, what to do?

The E&O generously offers card access to the 6thfloor (pool, gym, spa, poolside terrace and Planters Lounge) if they can’t accommodate a later check out time. There’s a basic shower in the pool bathroom with no amenities but there’s a better one with soap and shampoo in the small gym.

I chose a quick walk into Georgetown for a final laksa and cendol at one of the busiest Jelan Penang coffee houses (the locals often refer to it as “Ais Kechang” corner). Being a Saturday lunchtime the corner premises was totally rammed but I snared a seat at the coffee house next door, that fortunately shared the cendol stall. Eating in, I managed to dodge the 30 person long queue waiting patiently outside for their favourite icy treat!

In the morning, I’d scoped out the in-house spa menu. The hotel offers a 10% discount to guests and there are also some generous multi treatment packages. A one hour aromatherapy massage was closer to Sydney prices than the ones on the street of Georgetown. But a treatment was the perfect use of some leftover currency, so I splurged on spending my final hour or so before departure in the cool luxurious environment of Panpuri Spa.

My only regret is I didn’t do so earlier! Not only was Panpuri a beautiful space, having had a previous massage career, I was impressed by the professionality of the staff following all the correct protocols around history taking and draping. What’s more the treatment was spot on, beginning with a kaffir lime, herbal footbath. The massage was up there with one of the best and was incredibly relaxing. What’s more the in-room shower was kitted up with everything I needed to head to the airport clean and refreshed. The private chill out space to relax after was equally delightful.

 

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Malaysia is not every Antipodean traveller’s preferred Asian destination. Those seeking cheap beer and endless beaches tend to choose Bali or Thailand. But for a restful week in a beautiful hotel, with good in-house and local food on offer, Penang hit the spot.

 

No need for disclaimers as this holiday and reviews are independent (but if the E&O Group would like me to further explore any of their hotels, let me know!)

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Japan for coffee addicts

July 2018: The great news is that in the past two years, coffee culture has continued to spread in Japan! But be prepared to DIY if travelling beyond the major cities. See below for updates.

 

When it comes to finding a decent cup of coffee in Japan, as the saying goes, there’s some good news and some bad news.

The good is you can get amazing coffee big cities, like Tokyo and Kyoto.

The bad – you will usually have to wait til at least 10 am (often midday or even later) for your first hit.

For the caffeine-sensitive coffee lovers like me, that second revelation posed a bit of a challenge during my recent trip to Japan. I’m more a savour-a-strong-espresso before breakfast kind of gal, rather than drink it all day and keep it coming!

Like coffee, breakfast is a late affair. Beyond the 24 hour diners (where you order and pay for your meal at a vending machine before being seated), or rice balls from convenience stores –  finding that first meal of the day can be challenge for travellers.

I didn’t risk the beverages in either of those early morning options, nor the machines that vend a can of hot or cold coffee. Though did resort to using some supermarket bought pour over ground coffee bags a couple of times.

But there were some standout coffee shops, though they had little or no breakfast options.

 

Tokyo

Frankie is right at home in hipster Shimokitazawa. I spied it on the first night and thought it had a very familiar look. Straight out of Melbourne like the owner, this café not only makes exceptional coffee but also an assortment of Australian cakes and slices to go with your flat white. Coffee is Allpress (and they also sell Aeropress’s if you want a lightweight travelling companion).

Opens most days at 10 am (just look for the queue of Australasians waiting to get in). Check the website, as their hours have recently changed.

400Yen for your long black or flat white.

155-0031 Setagaya-ku, Tokyo Kitazawa 2-chome, 12-15

http://www.frankie.jp

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Shimokitazawa is a great suburb for coffee lovers, at least for the ones who don’t need a hit early in the day. All theseplaces looked amazing, just maddening closed when I needed a hit. If staying in this neighbourhood again, I’d pick up an Aeropress from Frankie and stock up on freshly ground beans around the corner at Maldive

 

Sarutahiko in Ebisu is unique in its offerings. This tiny café has great music, outstanding coffee and a (single) breakfast option. But add free Wi-Fi (another rarity in this technologically advanced country) and wait for it – 7.30 am opening (weekdays, 10 am weekends) and its worth booking your next Airbnb in this area.

 

240 yen for excellent house brew (hot or cold), 450 for most other coffees.

Great news: They’ve rolled out more locations across Tokyo.

Tip: The granola breakfast set with their signature drip/cold brew coffee is a great way to start the day. (They’ll let you sub hot chocolate is coffee isn’t your thing).

 

Kyoto

100% Arabica has “good coffee” written all over it and it didn’t disappoint. This light and airy coffee haven with the ubiquitous blonde wood fit out off the main drag in the historic Higashiyama area, was a mere two blocks away from where I stayed. Best of all they open at 8am. The perfect time for a caffeine hit. Though not so good for my tea-drinking companion as this place serves coffee and nothing else.

The Tokyo-born owner loves the stuff so much that he bought a coffee plantation in Hawaii. 100% Arabica has three locations in Kyoto, and a handful more sprinkled around the world.

87 Hoshinochō, Higashiyama-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 605-0853

http://www.arabica.coffee/#cafe-kyoto

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Sentido: Another gift from the caffeine god, was stumbling upon this small cafe. Not only does it open at a reasonable hour but, unlike 100% Arabica, they have a small breakfast menu (and serve other beverages). From memory there were only a couple of options, toasted banana bread with the world’s tiniest but well formed cube of butter, or a small bowl of cereal with fruit and yoghurt.

The espresso was perfect and the toasted banana bread made a nice snack to go with it (thank goodness for the rice balls!)

While searching Sentido’s address I came across a blog post that mentioned the owner learned to make coffee while living in Melbourne. No wonder it was so good!

1F Nippo Karasuma Bldg, 445 Sasaya-cho, Kyoto, Japan, 604-8187

Open: 7:30am – 7:00pm Monday – Friday, 8:00am – 7:00pm Saturday (closed Sunday)

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A note of Japanese addresses: the non-consecutive street numbers can be very confusing, that’s because they’re numbered in the order they’re built. A “pocket Wi-Fi” (a phone sized mobile modem) and Google maps, will save you hours of confusion when hunting for your first fix of the day.

 

July 2018

How lucky am I to go back to Japan for a second visit in two years? Forewarned, I travelled with my trusty Aeropress and my favourite blend from Caffe Bianchi.

But did I really need to bring the hardware?

Version 2

 

This trip took me to Osaka, Yoshino, Kyoto, Kanazawa and Tokyo. Coffee-wise it was a mixed bag.

In the big cities we stayed in hotels. All provided some kind of drinkable coffee. This varied from drip coffee bags in the room, or self-service espresso at the breakfast buffet or in the lobby.

While Kanazawa appears to have the beginnings of a coffee culture, our Airbnb (one of the few still operating since the law changed in Japan in June 2018) came equiped with a hand coffee grinder and drip coffee.

 

Ryokans

Staying in a traditional ryokan in Yoshino is a totally kettle of fish. While the food was lavish (oh my goodness, that’s another post entirely) and there was a wide variety of green teas on offer, coffee was entirely DIY. Fortunately, a flask of hot water was provided with the teas each morning.

In Yoshino at the height of summer there were very few tourists, and only a small number of restaurants open for lunch. Nothing appears to open for dinner, not even for a nightcap.

If you’re heading to a small town, or staying in a traditional guesthouse, bring your own coffee!

Vending machine coffee

It’s hot and sticky in most parts of Japan from May through to September, so I got the hankering for an iced coffee. While I chickened out of the vending machine option last visit, I fully embraced the odd cold, black coffee from a vending machine. The caffeine content seemed light on but was full of flavour.

The trick is finding the right can: hot/cold, black/white, sugar/unsweetened.

There are a number of reviews online to help you find the right brew in a can for you, or just be brave and choose the one that you think is right. After all it’s only a dollar or two.

 

Yutenji, Tokyo

The suburb we called home for almost a week has a number of coffee shops, most opening at a reasonable hour. As I was equiped with both the Aeropress and a free espresso machine in the foyer of our hotel, outsourcing wasn’t entirely necessary.

 

Rough Laugh Coffee

We tried a couple of the local coffee spots but this one a clear standout.

Open early (9am) most mornings, the single handed barista not only cranks out a fine brew and plays great music but he also makes a mean bagel.

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153-0052, 2 Chome-15-5 Yutenji, Meguro
Open 9 am til late most days except Tuesday.

 

 

 

 

 

Machu Picchu: 10 tips for a trip of a lifetime

For many, Machu Picchu is synonymous with “bucket list”. I’ve never been anywhere that has elicited such envy on social media. To be honest, I visited this awe inspiring historical site almost by accident.

Experiencing the Incan citadel was certainly a highlight of my Sth American odyssey. Here are my tips to make the most of this once in a lifetime experience.

  1. Book your ticket in advance. The UNESCO listed site is limited to 2,500 visitors a day and tickets are not available at the entrance
  1. Bring your passport. This is also needed for entry to the site. Since you have it with you, don’t forget to get the Machu Picchu stamp that is available just inside the gates.
  1. Get a guide. This truly enhances the experience. You’ll shortchange yourself if you see the site without learning the history. They also know how best to avoid the crowds and get the postcard perfect shot.
  1. There’s no shame in catching the bus. The four day trek to Machu Picchu is a rite of passage for many. It’s a tough walk, especially on the second day, topped off by freezing nights under canvas and even colder showers. Sacred Valley hotels can book a day guide, for a full day walk along the last section of the track. Or just catch the train to Aguas Calientes and jump on the bus the scours the hillside to the site’s entry.
  1. Miss the morning crowds queuing for the pre-dawn bus and go in the afternoon. Most tourists don’t realize that seeing the sunrise from the Sun Gate is a logistical impossibility, unless you’re trekking (and are a fast walker). For everyone else, even though the site opens at 6am (often later by the time the staff arrive and open the gates), the photo opportunity is well and truly over by the time you’ve completed the 90 minute ascent. The afternoon is usually the quietest time to visit and your best chance to take photos unmarred by crowds.
Where are all the people? The best time to visit Machu Picchu is actually in the afternoon

Where are all the people? The best time to visit Machu Picchu is actually in the afternoon

  1. Altitude is rarely a problem. While Cusco, the gateway to the region, is 3,400 m above sea level Machu Picchu is a mere 2,400 m. Altitude sickness is unpredictable and indiscriminant but it’s the flight into Cusco that’s a greater culprit.
  1. Take a sunhat rather than beanie. Even in the heart of winter, while the thermometer dips below zero overnight it’s often in the high 20s c during the day. There’s no shade at Machu Picchu and panting, overheated tourists kitted out in thermals is a common site.
  1. Drink water, but not too much. Speaking of overheating you’ll need to bring your own water, as there are no shops inside the historic site. Nor are there toilets so it’s a delicate balance. While people often plan an all day visit for their once in a lifetime Machu Picchu experience, for most mortals this will necessitate trekking back to the entry gates at least once. Not an easy feat, battling against the flow of tourists on often narrow tracks.
  1. Enjoy the region. Peru blew me away. From Lima to Lake Titicaca it’s full of wonderful sights, tastes and experiences. Cusco, Sacred Valley and Aguas Calientes (the closest town to Machu Picchu) are all worth exploring. Spending a few days enjoying the landscape between Cusco and the Mountain is also a great way to minimize the risk of altitude sickness.
  1. Do it now. With a new airport slated for Sacred Valley in the next couple of years, allowing fly in and out visits in a day, tourist numbers are expected to rise to 20 million by 2020. This is unsustainable and far exceeds UNESCO guidelines. According to local guides, if you want to visit Machu Picchu and actually walk through the site– do it before 2018.

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Six of the best: Chiang Mai

Snuggled within the ancient walls of the old city, it’s hard to believe that Chiang Mai is the second largest metropolis in Thailand. In the far north of the country, near Laos and Myanmar borders, Chiang Mai is a cool oasis in summer but even in the humid, rainy season offers a relaxing holiday destination.

Beyond the elephant camps, Hill Tribe villages and docile tigers, you can spend a month in this city without getting bored. Here are six of my best Chiang Mai experiences.

1. Noodles: There’s so much more to this food group than Pad Thai. You’ll find the regional specialty Khao Soi (curry noodles) on the menu from breakfast through to dinner. I’m of fan of ‘big noodles’ of wide, luscious rice noodles ‘massaged’ with soy and other sauces, served with stir fried tofu and vegetables.

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2. Markets: Chiang Mai’s markets are legendary. From the local produce markets that pop up everywhere to the massive Warorot markets, locals and tourists alike love them. Without a doubt, the sprawling Sunday Walking Market on Ratchadamnon Road is the best – great food, interesting wares and lots of happy Thai people enjoying their weekend ritual.

3. Wander through the back sois (lanes). Off the major streets lie dozens of meandering laneways. Observe local life and stop for a drink or meal at one of the many unnassuming cafes (like Natures Way and Peppermint café, open all day with free wife, fresh food and friendly service).

4. Hire a driver. We were driven in a spotless modern taxi for the day for a mere 1500 baht (~ Au$50, shared between three). If you want to do something other than Hill Tribes, elephants, rafting or zip lining – do your own research first and make a wish list. Our driver was a little resistant to our plans at first (so remember to negotiate itinerary as well as price before sealing the deal) but we managed to get him off the track for a swim in a waterfall and lunch at a health spa out of the city.

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5. Follow the monks. Take an early morning walk to watch the sunrise glint off the wats, monks walking the streets to collect offerings or to just sit in the grounds of a temple and listen to the chanting. My favourite pre-breakfast walks includes the river, being the only farang at the San Pakoy market and catching the sunrise at Wat Chedi Luang.

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6. Relax. As a massage slut from way back, I was in my element sampling the full spectrum from foot massages at the walking markets, to cheapies and luxurious spas.

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Coffee – an espresso to rival any in Melbourne.

Massage – go for broke and book a package, you won’t regret it.

Map/tips – you’ll never get bored with a Nancy Chandler map (but remember to check the website for updates)

Vegan/vegetarian visiting Chiang Mai – read my top tips.

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The Highline: the happiest mile in NYC

The number one recommendation from almost everyone I know who’d visited New York in the last couple of years was a unanimous, “walk the High Line”.

 

The most loved mile of NYC, has only been open for four years. It didn’t take much for me to join the legion of fans. The High Line had me at my first glance in Gansevoort Street.

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It’s hard to explain what makes a chunk of elevated rail line exciting. It’s a park, art gallery, café and general hangout. What’s more there are extraordinary views of the Hudson River, iconic architecture and one of the most dynamic city skylines in the world.

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I managed to walk five lengths of the High Line while in NYC and caught its many moods including a sunny Sunday stroll, midweek dash uptown and a perfect summer’s evening. Each time the park was populated by locals, visitors, date night couples, singles escaping their pokey rooms grabbing a bench and watching videos on their phone (and free wife). There were families, tourists and downtown diehards who rarely roam more than 10 blocks from home.

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What I loved the most: wild flowers, Chelsea Thicket, blossoms scenting the night, art everywhere and even the furniture. But equally it was what neighboured the park: glimpsing lives lived cheek and jowl, night clubs, restaurants, homes, graffiti, street scenes, the Empire State building but most of all the modern architecture. The curves of HL23, the Standard Hotel straddling the path like an open book and Frank Geary’s IAC (especially for the golden hour at night when it’s see through) are the new landmarks in the city.

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Every visit deepened my enjoyment of the High Line but our last one topped the lot. It was a stunning, June night, sated on great food and a proseco or two at a neighbourhood bar (West Village bless your organic cotton socks – restaurants and bars to die for AND an apartment a mere two blocks from the High Line!). Up the Ganesvoort stairs, even Hoboken and Queens looked magical across the Hudson, dressed in glittering lights. The warm air was perfumed by flowers in full bloom, music pulsed from exclusive penthouse clubs and the pop up eateries buzzed. I swear every single person was grinning ear to ear, with the full on sensory emersion.

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The High Line is barely more than a mile but it has to be the happiest mile in the city. It certainly gladdened my heart. Sure it doesn’t have the achingly wide spaces of Central Park but I’d take the grit of downtown over the exclusivity of Fifth Avenue any day.

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Brooklyn food and fleas

Not the jumping, biting kind.

Just across the bridge from Manhattan, Brooklyn has some of the best vintage and food markets in the state.

First stop, the Saturday flea at Fort Greene.

Some vegan ‘noodles’ as a palate cleanser.

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Followed by mahi-mahi tacos, that green apple salsa was a revelation.

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And everyone should have a rhubarb and Thai basil soda, at least once in their life (twice even better!)

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Then we hopped the subway to Wiilliamsburg, to catch Smorgasburg before it closed.

A market snuggled next to the Williamsburg bridge with million dollar views.

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For an ice cream.

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Mr Berrington could fool an omni – blackberry/chocolate a stellar combo on a hot day.

Don’t forget to check out the undercover weekend market on 7th Street on your way back to the subway. Full of new and used clothes and art, plus the cutest little toilet totem in town.

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