Flying with Thomas Cook Airlines Nordics’ Airbus A321 to Gambia

Just a short review of our trip with Thomas Cook Nordic from Stockholm to Banjul, Gambia via Las Palmas in their Airbus A321 (booked trough Swedish tour compamy Ving).

When previously flying to Cape Verde with Thomas Cook Airlines, they put us in their large twin aisle A330 aircraft. Hence, I was a little surprised when we booked a trip to Gambia, which is about the same distance, but for this trip the much smaller single aisle A321 is used. Unlike the larger aircrafts, there’s only economy class onboard, but you can “upgrade yourself” with extras such as seat pairs, fancier meals and proper champagne to make the trip a bit more bearable.

Seat pairs

To get some extra privacy we pre-booked one of four seat pairs (rows 10 and 24) for about 500 sek for two, one way. The problem with these seats though is that you are right in front of the emergency exits, meaning no window, and that you, when seated on the right hand side also sits next to the crew seat. That is not a great concern, but it means that the crew will slam down next to you the few seconds before take off our landing.

Crowded for such a long flight

The plane, since not really intended for such a long flight as Stockholm-Banjul (about 9 hours), feels quite crammed. There are four lavatories – one in the front and three in the back. And since it’s a “charter” flight, people tend to drink quite a lot, and hence there’s usually a line, especially in the front.

Thomas Cook Airlines Onboard Menu

I usually like to read onboard menus before traveling, must like because I’m a total geek. But if you’re like me: here you are.

Food onboard

We opted to upgrade to a ‘Royal Meal Meat’ which is 295 sek per person. It is quite steep, but then a drink of choice (except champagne) is included, so in the end it is 130 sek (€14) more than a regular meal and a beverage – in my mind it was worth it. The Royal Meal came on a tray with ‘real’ porcelain bowls and plates, and all dishes were served at the same time. First up was a Swedish Skagenröra, meaning a shrimp, dill and mayo salad, and some sliced salmon. Both were surprisingly good, especially the shrimp salad. Warm bread was also served. Second was a “grilled”, it actually had decent charr marks, beef fillet served with green peppercorn sauce and potato gratin. As usual, the meat was quite cremated, but flavours were good. After that was a few slices of nice quality cheese, crackers and a few pieces of fruit (grapes and dried apricota). Finally a square of a really nice mint-chocolate cake that would’ve been yummy even outside of a plane. This was washed down with Nicolas Feuilatte champagne (90 sek) and Wooly Sheep Pinot Noir from New Zealand (60 sek). Credit to Thomas Cook for providing decent wine onboard!

On the shorter leg to and from Banjul, a small complimentary meal was served. Bread, pastrami and coleslaw on the way to Banjul. Pasta salad, salmon and bread on the way from.

Las Palmas Stop

Since the plane is so small, it has to land on Gran Canaria for refueling, adding about two hours to the trip. On the way there, we just sat around in the plane while refueling. On the return flight however, we had to de-board, go through passport control and security check before reboarding. As I understood it though, this was an exception due to planned service of the plane we arrived in. We kept our seats as it was the same plane model but obviously had to remove all our stuff from the plane.

Did we survive?

All in all, the flight to The Gambia was pretty much a breeze since it’s during daytime. We brought and Ipad, ate our upgraded meals and drank champagne. The return was worse though as the plane is tiny and you fly home at night, meaning you’d probably want to sleep. It was nearly impossible to find a surviveable sleeping position (and I’m not a tall person). Since we had the crew seat next to us, there was no window to lean on either for extra support. But, it is still about 8 hours of flying in total, so of course we survived, and it was absolutely worth it to visit amazing Gambia.

What to eat and must try food in The Gambia

Just got back to minus 10 degress Celsius after a week in the tiny but amazingly nice West African nation of The Gambia.

The first time I tried to visit Gambia was last year, but due to the then long-time ruler’s refusal to step down after losing the elections and the neighbouring countries threath to invade – we did not go. Last autumn we had booked another trip, but that time we couldn’t go either. But hey, three times a charm! This time we managed to make it, and what a trip we’ve had. So without further ado, here are my Gambia what to and drink eat during a week in “the smiling coast”.

What to eat in the Gambia

Situated in Western Africa, landlocked by the larger nation of Senegal The Gambia obviously is influenced by the surrounding region. Dishes like yassa, benachin and domoda are all available over the entire region in various shapes and names. Before leaving, I had read that Gambia’s somewhat famous for its food, but the sources I found were slightly biased, so I took that with a grain of salt. But I shouldn’t have, they were right – Gambian food is great. Below is what I tried, although I was not even close to try everything I wanted during my limited time in the country.

Domoda

A peanuty groundnut stew usually served with your choice of protein. I tried it with beef and chicken. Both were great and you can also have it with fish and prawn, for instance. The flavour is a little bit like Thai peanut sauce – satay, but it’s saucier and richer/meatier in flavour. This was my favourite of the different stews and sauces I tried during my visit. In addition to groundnuts (peanuts) there is also tomatoes, onion and usually from what I understood also lemon or lime. The meat is slow-cooked in the sauce and both chicken and beef versions were “falling off the bond tender”. Served with rice and veggies.

I tried domoda at:

Paradiso on the Senegambia Strip (my fav).

Senegambia Beach Hotel (on their buffet).

Yassa

Originally a Senegalese dish called yassa au poulet but now popular all over West Africa. Yassa is an onion and lemon sauce or stew that is cooked together, like the domoda above, with chicken, beef, prawns or fish. We had versions that were a little bit spicy and also ones with a hint of ginger, making the yassa taste borderline Asian wok. No matter the different flavouring delicious. Fresh, rustic and yummy. Served on rice.

Where I tried yassa:

My favourite: at Senegambia Beach Hotel’s beach restaurant (a la carte). They also have a really nice yassa wrap on their menu. Only open for lunch though.

Nefertiti beach restaurant in Banjul (buffet).

Rainbow restaurant Paradise Beach (Sanyang).

Benachin (aka Jollof Rice)

Benachin is a rice dish and it names means literally one-pot. Famous all-over West Africa under the name Jollof Rice this is a hugelt popular dish with tomatoes, onions, rice and oil that are cooked together, once again usually combined with your protein of choice. A really delicious, slightly oily rice dish which I had both with and without meat. My favourite version was with slow-cooked tender chunks of beef incorporated though.

Where I had Benachin rice

My favourite: Senegambia Beach Hotel, on their evening buffet (approx 650 Dalasi).

Did not try but heard from several sources that Kadie-Kadie was realy good and where the locals go for benachin. Only open for lunch though from what I heard and less busy from 14:00/2 pm.

Afra (aka dibi)

Afra is a quite simple, but delicious Gambian and West African dish also known as “dibi”. It is basically grilled or fried meat or chicken as well as onions that is post-grilling combined with a savoury, salty “sauce” of maggi stock cubes. You can eat it in a soft tapalapa bread (similar to baguette) or with rice.

Where I tried afra

In above picture the afra is enjoyed with beef domoda, coleslaw and Gambian meat pies at the Senegambia Beach Hotel’s dinner buffet.

Julbrew

Gambia has their own beer, made by Banjul Breweries – hence: Julbrew. Although nothing spectacular, Julbrew, is a nice, relatively light (4,7 percents of alcohol) beer that works well with the local food as well as enjoyed ice cold in the sun. Prices vary from what I saw from about 35 dalasi (€0.8) to about 80 dalasi (€1,7) in restaurants. In supermarkets/mini markets slightly cheaper.

Palm wine (aka Sum-Sum or Kill Me Quick)

Palm wine is tapped, as the name implies, from palm trees. After a bit of time resting the sap, alcohol is created and within two hours palm wine reaches about 4 percents of alcohol. If it ferments longer, up to a day, it gets even stronger. After more than a day of fermentation though, the palm wine eventually turns into vinegar. We tried both the freshly tapped stuff which was non-alcoholic and the fermented and distilled version of local ‘fire water” aka sum-sum or locally named Kill Me Quick that was about 50 percents. Strong stuff!

As mentioned above; what a great food destination Gambia is! If you like slow-cooked food, stews and rich, savoury sauces, at really affordable prices, this is a great place to visit.

Wine tasting at Domaine Chandon in Yarra Valley

During our stay in Melbourne, we spent Christmas Eve, which is the big day in Sweden, with a trip to the nearby Yarra Valley for a bit of wine tasting. Instead of snow, heavy food and Disney’s Christmas there was lush scenery, actual heat and of course wine drinking.

Based on a recommendation we went to Domaine Chandon, which is owned by LVHM, that is Louis Vuitton Moët Hennesy, eg. the French luxury conglomerate making fancy bags and of course the Moët Chandon champagne.

Splash tasting at Domaine Chandon

We opted to do a little tasting before having lunch, and paid I think $20 AUD each for a ‘splash tasting’ of five different wines – four bubbly and one red. Everyone quite delicious and we ended up buying a bottle of their blanc de blancs (eg. made with just chardonnay grapes) for our upcoming New Years Eve celebration.

After the tasting lunch was literally on the menu. We tried half of the dishes on their menu, and it was all delicious. Cheese and charcuterie boards, a trio of crostinis as well as a plate of crunchy fat chips with a good quality mayo. Paired with a glass of their aged cellar bubbly and a view over the vineyard this was another highlight of our visit, and sort of a must do if you’re visiting Melbourne.

My best ever fish and chips at Bridge Fish & Chips, Mordialloc

After five days of South East Asiaing in Singapore, it was time for the next destination. After a sort of painful red-eye flight, that was prolonged by a tropical thunderstorm, we found ourselves at the Mornington Peninsula, just outside of Melbourne, Australia.

As I have relatives there, Christmas in Australia was sort of the main goal for our trip, despite only spending five days there.

Anyway, after managing skybuses, commuter trains and finally some walking we ended up at my relatives’ house. Fortunately they had anticipated our state of mind, and fried food was on the agenda.

Close to where we stayed, there is Mordialloc. To me, it sounds like some vicious creature straight out of Harry Potter, but fortunately it’s a quite nice little suburb by the ocean that also happens to have a nice fish and chips shop. We opted for take away and brought a load of deep fried seafood goodies, chips and white Aussie and New Zealand wine and crashed down on a bench next to the ocean. It might’ve been reaching firm ground after the painful flight and all that, but this was the best fish and chips I have ever had. The calamari was ridiculous. Not even a bit chewy – soft meat, crunchy coating. The fish was flaky and with equally crunchy batter. The prawns, oh the prawns. Juicy, sweet and with a beautiful crispy coating as well. Great chips, tartare sauce (I love that stuff so much), a squeeze of lemon, and cold white wine. A red sunset for dessert. Couldn’t be much better.

Website (their page on Tripadvisor)

A night at the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore

Being my third visit to Singapore, I’ve not been able to miss the enormous, pretty-yet-slightly-ugly, structure of three buildings topped off with an ironing board, sort of.

The space ship-y structure is of course the Marina Bay Sands, a huge complex including a hotel; casino; giant shopping mall; the world’s most Instagrammed swiming pool; and, naturally, canals with gondolas.

In spite of my slightly pretensious intro, I’ve always loved Marina Bay Sands. I have a thing for futuristic, slightly over the top architecture, and MBS together with a couple of buildings in Dubai might be one of the best examples of that style.

So, anyway, third time in Singapore, and we decided to fork out and stay our last night at Marina Bay Sands.

Price for one night in a club room

After doing lots of research we decided to go for a club room, which in addition to the room also gives you a range of perks. For one night we paid around 650 sgd in total with taxes. A huge price for one night, but it was sort of worth it.

Checking in

As we arrived the Tower 1 with an Uber, we ditched the lines in the gigantic main lobby and instead entered the Sands lounge for our check in procedure. It was calm, there was free coffee, tea and water, and they made you sit down in a comfy leather chair while taking your details. We purposely arrived early (11 am) to see if we would get access to the pool or even early access to our room. Fortunately both. First they said we would get a temporary visitor card so to access the guests only infinity pool, but the moment after the room was also ready, and off we went to the 49th floor.

The room

I had hoped for a room facing the city (despite booking the cheaper option facing the ocean and Gardens By the Bay), but no luck. We could however see the city from the hallways, lounge and pool so no worries in the end.

The room had decent sized balcony, and surprisingly for such a fancy hotel there was a cockroach on it (not in the room though). Otherwise the room was meticulously clean and fresh. It was big and airy, with all the things needed such as a flatscreen TV, large bed, mini bar, free wifi and a fancy looking bathroom with both shower and a tub. Since the hotel is sort of a destination in itself, we did not spend a great amount of time in the actual room in the end.

The swimming pool

Marina Bay Sands is probably most famous for its 57th floor swimming pool. Only accessible for hotel guests (although you can sneak a peek of it from Cé la Vie Bar and the admission Sands SkyPark) it offers really spectacular views over Singapore’s skyline and a hint of vertigo as the infinity pool seems to end right at the edge of the building (which it sort of does, although there’s a bit of edge a bit further down which is only visible if you swim up to the edge). Definitely the coolest (pun intended as it was sort of cold) pool I’ve experienced. It was quite busy during our visit, but the pool is looong so there’s still plenty of space to sunbathe and swim. There’s a fair bit of selfie game going on, but less to that I anticipated. And again, the views themselves pretty much motivate the stay in my mind.

The afternoon tea

In the Club 55 lounge (as name implies located on level 55), which is included in club rooms, afternoon tea is served from around 2 pm and lasts for two hours, until 4 pm. The afternoon tea consisted of a buffet with both savoury and sweet items, but with a focus on pastries and cakes. Great macarons! You are offered coffee (including speciality coffee such as cappuccinos) or tea when you arrive, which is brought to the table. The coffee was so-so, but the buffet items were really nice.

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Evening canapées (with free champagne!)

After a brief chance to reload, evening canapées with complimentary cocktails or drinks are served from 5-7 pm in the same Club 55 lounge. We arrived pretty much 5 pm sharp and there was already a line. Five minutes later the line was quite long. We managed to get a window table which was really nice for taking pictures as the sun started to set during our visit. Like the afternoon tea, a buffet is served and is self service. This time it was more focus on savoury stuff, and they had a quite good selection of small and tasty bites such as quiches, cheese, salmon, grissinis, olives and dips. If you’re a bit greedy like us, you could quite easily have a quite filling meal.

Drinks are served to the table and they emphasised that there’s one (alcoholic) drink at a time. Greedy as we were I think we managed to drink 4 or 5 glasses each of Piper-Heidsieck champagne that was included along with a bunch of other drinks and cocktails. A great argument for the extra $150 SGD we paid extra for a room with lounge access, since “real” champagne is quite pricey in Singapore and we probably drank like a bottle each with possibly the best view in the city.

Breakfast

As a club guest you’re again entitled to breakfast in the Club 55 Lounge. Although you can also choose to have it in the lobby, OR by the pool, at Spago by Wolfgang Puck. “Why eat inside when you live in a land of that’s pretty much covered in ice and snow half year”, we thought and took of for Spago around 8 am. There was quite a few that had the same idea though, and we had to wait in line for 10 minutes or so before we were seated. The breakfast was really good fortunately and definitely worth the wait. You can order speciality coffee (included in price) but they won’t tell you, as we realised too late after a few cups of bland “hotel coffee”. You can also order your eggs according to preference, which included eggs benedicte style, meaning poached on an English muffin with hollandaise sauce. Apart from this a quite large buffet is available with high quality food – both Western and Asian. Tasty freshly squeezed juices too. A very nice breakfast for sure.

The verdict 5/5

Despite us paying pretty much the exact same price for one night at the Marina Bay Sands as we paid for our four prior nights at the Hotel Bencoolen at Hong Kong Street we actually found it quite worthwile. I probably wouldn’t stay there for an entire stay even if I could properly afford it since there’s so much stuff going on that you wouldn’t really have a chance to properly experience Singpore. But for 24 hours of feeling like a millionaire, I’d say it’s worth its price if you find a deal similar to ours (650 sgd incl taxes).

My foodie happy place: Lau Pa Sat food market

Lau Pa Sat, also known as Telok Ayer Market, is a hawker centre that has fed Singaporeans since the 1800s. Situated smack bang in Singapore’s financial district, the classic building, filled with local eateries, is one of my favourite foodie places in the world. Just sitting there, sipping on a beer, smelling the grilled satay skewers from the “satay street” next to the market while waiting for what ever you’ve ordered (there is actually sort of table service with different vendors selling and bringing food to the table). Above is satay, grilled chicken, lamb and beef skewers with peanut sauce. There are different stalls doing different kinds of satay, but all I’ve tried has been really good.

Blackpepper crab and mantou. A really nice steamed crab, woked in a spicy blackpepper sauce. The mantou buns are sort of like deep fried bread rolls that you use to soak up the sauce. So good.

Hokkien Mee. A seafoody noodle dish topped with crispy pork rinds.

Carrot cake or chai tow kway. Not containing any carrot but radish and sliced rice cake in a omelette-meets-pancake kind of creation.

Murtabak. A pancake-like dish filled with spicy, fragrant sliced chicken. Dip in the accompanying curry sauce. Mmmm.

Meat-mayo-marrow mayhem at Burnt Ends Singapore

One of 2017s best meals was at Burnt Ends Singapore, sort of an Australia meats (sorry) United States-style barbecue restaurant – in Singapore! Ranked as 10 on San Pellegrino’s Asia’s 50 best list, reservations is a must and we made ours a month or so in advance. We sat at the bar where dinner is enjoyed facing the open kitchen, and you are handed the dishes straight from the chefs while sipping cocktails and wine served by the waiters (that also serves food to the rest of the restaurant not sitting at the kitchen bar). A foodie dream more or less.

Above is the skirt steak with bone marrow and burnt onion. So rich, so good.

“Garlic shoots and gremolata”. A little bit like very thin asparagus served with a tart gremolata and a really nice mayo.

Burnt Ends’ Sanger with pulled pork shoulder, cole slaw, chipotle aioli in a brioche bun. Really decadent and delicious. Not very refined, but just plain tasty.

Beef marmalade and pickles”. Pulled beef-y marmalade with crunchy sweet and sour pickled cucumbers, on grilled sourdough smeared with mayo. So my kind of food and so delicious.

Price

Burnt Ends’ menu of the night to give you an indication of prices. We paid slightly over $200 (SGD) for two including a shared bottle of wine and water (there’s free tap water though which the servers ‘forgot’ to mention to us which was a bit annoying). Anyway, despite that a really nice dinner.

Website

Great lunch at Candlenut, Singapore

Before leaving for Singapore, I read at several places about a restaurant called Candlenut that serves Peranakan style food, sort of meaning Singaporean/Malay and some extent Indonesian food influenced and fusioned with the food of Chinese migrants. Straits-Chinese Candlenut themselves call it. They also have a Michelin star, naturally I had to pay Candlenut a visit.

As the headline implies, we went for lunch. To start we ordered their pork neck satay that came without any peanut sauce or similar. We ordered their housemade spicy sambal to have something to dip in though.

Next up was a delicious fresh, sweet, salt and sour crunchy salad with wing beans, fresh prawns, cashew nuts, lemongrass, kalamansi lime and baby radishes.

King Tiger prawns in a ‘gula melaka” coconut sauce with lemongrass and Thai basil. Giant juicy prawns and the most intense coconut flavour I’ve ever experienced. Totally delicious.

Rendang, or sort of a dry Indonesian curry, I’ve tried in both Indonesia and actually also at home trying to recreate our vacation favourite. It is a bit like pulled beef, to draw a similarity to a Western dish but with quite complex flavours of different spices cooked into the meat for many hours. Candlenut’s version with Wagyu beef ribs was very rich, for me almost too rich. But still very good flavour wise.

Last but not least, the buah keluak dessert that apparently is one of Candlenut’s signature dishes. Buah keluak is a nut from the kepayang tree and is in this dish made into a quite bitter cocoa-y ice cream. With it comes Valrhona chocolate, chilli and a warm chocolate espuma. I read a few reviews of this dessert and many did not like it. I did though. Actually, I really liked it, almost really, really liked it. A really cool way of showcasing a unfamiliar (to the Western palate at least).

What a lunch is all I can say to summarize our visit to Candlenut. Good efficient service; nice interior and ambiance, and of course great food.

Price

We paid roughly 140 SGD (including the ++) for food, a shared dessert and a cup of coffee each. We did only have tap water to drink, which was complimentary.

Website

Dinner at Din Tai Fung Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Whenever I am in a city with a branch of Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung, I tend to go there for a fix of one of my favourite dishes in the world – the famous soup dumpling, xiao long bao.

Din Tai Fung’s Marina Bay Sands branch is one of the best I have visited (maybe that’s a general Din Tai Fung Singapore-thing though) of the Din Tai Fungs I’ve visited over the world so far. The above xiao long bao pork soyp dumplings were great. Filled with broth and minced pork, then dipped in a chilli-vinegar-soy-ginger dipping sauce, they make your taste buds do the happy dance.

Almost as good as the soup dumplings is the dan dan noodles. Chewy, elastic noodles in a creamy spicy sesame-peanut sauce, sprinkled with spring onions. Mmm-mmm!

Pork buns meets Singapore’s national dish, the famous chilli crab in a – you guessed it – pork and chilli crab bun. This was quite good, although not as good as above dishes.

In the foreground a spicy cucumber salad, in the back – another all time favourite – Din Tai Fung’s Taiwanese pork chop with perfect, slightly oily, egg and scallion rice. Incredibly tasty.

Finally we tried pork and prawn gyoza. Flavour wise it was good but nothing out of the ordinary. Texture wise, however, one of the best gyozas I’ve ever had. Insanely crispy bottom, and light, slightly chewy top.

Hello, Singapore!

After a longish trip to Singapore with the new semi-nonstop (you need to disembark in Moscow but then continue on the same plane) route with Singapore Airlines, we’re now in the “Lion City”, one of my favourite food cities in the world. It’s my third visit which is a first for me outside of Europe.

As mentioned we flew in with Singapore Airlines in their premium economy class. While not amazing, it was pretty nice. And hey – we got meatballs with champagne (Nicolas Feuilatte) for breakfast.

Will make a proper review once back home, when we’ve tried them some more. But first up is four more days of food and adventures in Singapore.