Diving holidays for singles

March 24th, 2015

Diving holidays for solos

Jane Herbert, Regaldive By Jane Herbert of Regaldive

Single travel is on the up, and diving is no exception. Scuba diving is the perfect activity for the solo traveller – divers are generally an inclusive and sociable bunch and the fact that you spend a lot of time underwater admiring the marine life and not uttering a single word makes for plenty of fun exchanges back on the surface.

With your certification, you can travel the world with the guarantee of like-minded company amongst fellow dive enthusiasts.

So how do independent travellers and single parents dip their toes into the world of scuba diving and ensure their valuable holiday time is a success?

Top level instruction

Learning to dive

With 70% of the world covered in water, scuba diving is the passport to a world of discovery. From the moment you take your first breath underwater, you’ll be hooked. You need to be in reasonable health and feel confident in the water but you don’t need to be an expert swimmer.

There are several ways of starting out but the best way to ensure you get the most out of diving is to learn in the warm clear waters of your chosen holiday destination. We offer learn to dive experiences throughout the Red Sea, and in more than 20 other destinations around the world including Oman, the Caribbean, Bali and the Maldives.

Would-be divers who sign up for a learn to dive course will usually find themselves in small groups of other individuals as they learn the essential basics. The most popular course is the PADI Open Water and from the start you’re with a group of like-minded new friends which is perfect for those travelling alone.

Learning navigation in the Red Sea © PADI 2013

The Red Sea, one of the most popular scuba diving destinations in the world, is the ideal place to start, with its long-established dive centres, professional trainers and access to stunning reefs, many within easy access for the learner and recently-qualified diver. Choosing a hotel that offers a dive centre on site means you don’t need to travel far and makes it easier to socialise after a day in the water.

The Camel Dive Hotel in popular Sharm el Sheikh is one of our favourites for solo travellers. It’s in the heart of this lively resort, with good value accommodation and its own excellent dive centre, plus restaurants on site.

If you’re looking for a quieter pace, consider a stay at a dedicated divers’ resort such as Roots Club in El Quseir.

The charming Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo are also popular with beginner divers and offer a warm, welcoming atmosphere that will make you feel at home.

Diving with children

Diving for single parents

Scuba diving’s buddy system means that you will always be partnered with another diver. For single parents, diving is a wonderful opportunity to share an exciting new experience with your child. It’s especially good for spending some quality bonding time with an active teenager.

Children as young as eight can learn to dive with the PADI Bubblemaker course, a great option for parents who are experienced divers and want to encourage their own children to participate in the sport.

For parents of teenagers, learning to dive together provides the ideal opportunity for kids to learn new skills on an equal footing with their parent. From age ten years, youngsters can follow the PADI Open Water Course – the only difference from the adult course is a depth limitation which changes as the child gains in age.

Marine encounters

We offer buddy diving course deals throughout the year at many resorts which mean two can learn for the price of one – an added incentive to learn to dive together.

If you’re travelling with children, consider an All Inclusive hotel to save on food and drink bills or opt for a resort that offers other activities to enjoy during your stay.

Hotels with on-site house reefs are perfect as you can build up water confidence with snorkelling and get to grips with scuba gear in shallow water. The Red Sea’s Coral Garden Resort in Safaga and the Breakers Diving and Surfing Lodge in Soma Bay both offer fantastic house reefs just steps away from the hotel. The Breakers also has the monopoly on kitesurfing and other watersports, plus two golf courses and a golf academy to keep even the most active of holidaymakers happy on holiday.

Blue Planet, one of Regaldive liveaboards

Already an experienced diver?

Many experienced divers who travel alone opt to join a liveaboard as these boats offer the chance to visit a greater range of remote and challenging dive sites. If you’re serious about your diving, liveaboards are the way to go with some itineraries featuring as many as five dives a day allowing you to really maximise your diving. We offer liveaboard trips in over 12 world class dive destinations including the Red Sea, Maldives, Indonesia, Philippines and the Galapagos.

Liveaboards are perfect for the independent traveller, as cabin spaces are sold individually with solo guests usually allocated a cabin with another single guest of the same sex (no supplement) – or even given a cabin to themselves if the boat isn’t full. With the average number of guests on a liveaboard around 18, these trips provide a great opportunity to share your holiday with a small group of fellow divers and make new friends for life – perhaps even finding a new buddy for your next adventure!

Find out more about our diving holidays for singles.

Is Seville the sexiest city in Europe?

March 11th, 2015

By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

Is there a more beautiful and seductive city in all Europe than Seville? The capital and cultural heart of Andalucia is not just the perfect antidote to the northern winter, it’s a teasing hint at how different our lives might have looked had we been born in Spain’s sultry south.

Seville is a distillation of all things Spanish. This is the city that invented tapas and flamenco. It’s home to the world’s oldest bullfighting ring, and the setting for many of the great operas from Carmen to The Marriage of Figaro. Plump oranges hang from trees in every square, and the sound of guitar and castanets is never far away.

Unsurprisingly, Sevillanos look rather pleased with themselves. On the evidence of my recent visit, they are better looking, better dressed and generally more jaunty and life-loving than the average European. At 4pm on a Friday afternoon, when most of us are still tapping away at keyboards in darkened rooms, the bars around the centre of Seville were buzzing with crowds, eating, drinking, laughing and carousing. It’s not unknown for lunch to keep going into the early hours. Were they laughing at our drab Protestant work ethic?

Plaza de Espana

Plaza de España, Seville

On a Saturday morning, the last day in February, the weather was perfect – blazing sunshine and 20ºC – and the locals were out in force. Families strolled through the formal gardens of the Parque de Maria Luisa and cycled along the banks of the Guadalquivir River. On the water was a flotilla of canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and rowing boats.

I stumbled across a wedding ceremony in a huge Gothic church in the old riverside district of Triana. The men in sharp suits and the women in hats and veils looked impossibly elegant, yet outside beer bottles were piled high on the tables of a pavement cafe. Beer, I was told, is not regarded as alcoholic, so it’s fine to polish off a couple before lunch. The drinking really starts in earnest with a fridge-cold fino, served with the day’s first tapa.

Spring is the perfect time to visit. In summer the heat in Seville reaches an unbearable 45ºC, made worse by a wind so hot and fierce it could strip paint. Only then might the locals moderate their intake by switching to tinto de verano – red wine mixed with lemonade – followed by the obligatory siesta.

Giralda

La Giralda. Even the addition of a Christian bell tower failed to diminish its beauty

One of the many joys of visiting Seville is that you can throw away your map and wander aimlessly, certain that you’ll chance upon a perfect cobbled square or some ancient blue-tiled tapas bar, where grizzled old geezers neck sherries and loudly debate the latest football scores.

At the heart of the city, the Barrio de Santa Cruz is a baffling maze of streets and alleyways so tightly packed that even the midday sun can’t peep through. One street is so narrow that it’s known as the Calle del Beso because it’s said you can lean out of your window and kiss a lover in the opposite building. In summer, residents splash water on the cobbles to bring the temperature down a degree or two. Perhaps also to stop the kissing.

If you do opt for some conventional sightseeing, you’re in for a treat. A piffling €9.50 gets you into the Real Alcázar, one of the greatest palaces in Europe, a Moorish masterpiece of arcaded courtyards, tiled patios and impossibly ornate ceilings. Peacocks strut through the magnificent gardens where, given a well-stocked picnic, I’d have happily spent the day.

Alcazar

Ceiling in the Real Alcázar

It’s a short walk from the Alcázar to Seville’s cathedral, the third largest in the world after the Vatican and St Paul’s. Inside, the two big crowd-pullers are the elaborate carved altarpiece and a bombastic shrine to Christopher Colombus which is said to contain the explorer’s remains (though a church in the Dominican Republic makes a similar claim. It’s possible Chris’s bones were divvied up at some point).

Seville’s most striking building is the Giralda – a Moorish minaret so exquisite that even the addition of a Christian bell tower failed to diminish its beauty. It is said that the Moors, who reigned over this part of Andalucia for 500 years, planned to demolish the building rather than let it fall into Catholic hands. The Christians, who had the city under siege, threatened to kill every man, woman and child in Seville if the threat was carried out. The Moors backed down and the building survived.

According to local statute, the Giralda should remain the tallest edifice in Seville, but this rule was broken recently with the construction of an ugly tall tower that is home to … you guessed it … a bank. Apparently, this was deemed to be okay because the new monstrosity stands on the other side of the river. Disappointing, but I’ll bet the Giralda outlives the bank and its hideous headquarters.

Not all modern intrusions are crass. In fact, some are quite wonderful. A case in point is the Mercado Gourmet Lonja Del Barranco, a 19th-century steel and glass building on the banks of the river that was once the city’s fish market, but latterly fell into disrepair. It reopened at the end of 2014 as a food hall packed with stalls serving a dazzling array of fish, seafood and superb modern tapas. You can’t book a table so go early to avoid the 2pm rush.

fish

Seafood at the Mercado Gourmet Lonja Del Barranco

Urban regeneration has also revived the Plaza de la Encarnación where a remarkable structure of connected towers that resemble giant mushrooms has been built on the site of a neglected car park. Designed by the German architect Jürgen Mayer-Hermann, Las Setas is said to be the largest wooden structure on Earth. Its unworldly looks only really make sense when you pay a couple of Euros to get a lift to the top. There, a curling walkway offers panoramic rooftop views, which are especially beautiful after dark.

The area to the immediate west of Las Setas is known as Soho and is slowly gentrifying. There are cosy hole-in-the-wall bars serving cheap cocktails (and one adverting beers at just 40 cents), while a fair trade eco fashion boutique sits incongruously next to a shop selling curtain accessories.

A little further west is the district of Alameda, which has transitioned from blue-collar deprivation to gay-friendly hipsterdom. On a Saturday night I drank with friends at the Gigante Bar, which had an easygoing unpretentious vibe and an eclectic crowd. It’s easy to come away from Seville thinking this is a macho monoculture steeped in the past, but there also appears to be tolerance for people who follow alternative lifestyles.

Les Setas

Las Setas at night

Next day I rented a bike and pedalled up and down the river bank, gazing at the unending parade of beautiful people. When work started 12 years ago on the city’s first cycle routes, traditionalists declared that Sevillanos would never be persuaded to abandon their cars, but now Seville has more than 80 km of dedicated paths with more planned, plus a rental scheme similar to those in Paris and London. As a result, cycle use has risen eleven fold and Seville is regarded as proof that any city can get people riding bikes if it builds an extensive network of paths.

If the sexy haughty people of Seville can potter around on bikes and thus become a little more like us northern Europeans, what hope have we of becoming more like them? Can we adopt their sultry insouciance? Should I start drinking beer in the morning and walk with more of a swagger?

According to the conventions of travel journalism, this would normally be the point in the article where I take a flamenco lesson from a black-clad Antonio Banderas lookalike. This would, of course, end in embarrassment and humiliation. So I decided against.

Instead, I watched a heart-pumping, foot-stomping show at the Museo del Baile Flamenco, which I thoroughly recommend, then I sat down to a long and indulgent dinner of classic Sevillan dishes including carrilladas (tender stewed pork cheeks), bacalao (salted cod), whitebait and absurd quantities of ham, cheese and wine.

Did I feel a little more like a Sevillano? If I’m honest, not really. But I had fun trying.

How to do it

British Airways has a new direct flight from Gatwick five times a week with returns from £82. There are many hotels in the Barrio de Santa Cruz – I stayed at the excellent Fontecruz Sevilla, a former palace converted into a smart boutique four-star, which has doubles from €139. Taxis from the airport have set fares to the centre: €22, or €24.55 after 9pm.

Our recommended tour operator to Seville is Kirker Holidays. More information from the Spanish Tourist Office.

© All photos copyright Mark Hodson 2015

Flamenco

Performance at the Museo del Baile Flamenco

Meet the boss: Alison Jago, Completely Croatia

March 4th, 2015

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlison in Monaco in 1973Completely Croatia

In our latest Meet the Boss interview, we talk to Alison Jago, founder and head honcho at Completely Croatia. Alison has worked in the travel industry since her early twenties, starting out in the trade press with Travel Weekly (then known as Travel News) on the advertising side. She has also had roles at Holiday Extras, BP Travel Trade Service, P&O Stena Line and Amathus Holidays and she helped launch Lowcostbeds to the travel trade 10 years ago. Alison has been married to “the long suffering John” for 34 years and they have two children, Henry, 24, and Ellie, 22. They moved from London about five years ago to a 15th-century rural idyll in East Sussex.

Q. Please tell us about a great holiday memory from your childhood.

I used to moan about being taken to the South of France for four weeks – yes, really. One of my brightest and best memories is of seeing the Monaco Grand Prix when I was about nine years old (pictured above). It was SO exciting.

Q. What three items are always found in your hand luggage?

My iPad, Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword and a bottle of water.

Q. If you could spend next weekend anywhere in the world, where would you go, and why?

Bruges. I have never been there and everyone says it is a beautiful city. I would love to experience the Eurostar again too so I would be killing two birds with one stone. And there’s the chocolate!

Q. Please tell us about a particularly challenging booking you have handled.

We are skilled at multi-centre holidays, however a six-centre holiday, with people arriving from all over the world, joining and leaving at different points, did keep us all awake at night. Fortunately, it all went swimmingly even though we were paddling like ducks under the water.

Q. What has been your most enjoyable holiday in recent years?

Lindos Blu Hotel – a child free hotel on Rhodes. It was so very good, to the extent that for the first time ever I am returning to the same place this year. Zen-like calm in the hotel, unspoilt beach, warm sea, amazing views and great food. It’s the perfect spot for R&R.

Q. And what has been your all-time worst holiday experience?

A timeshare resort in Malta which was so strapped for cash they were selling holidays. The room had no air conditioning and a green shag pile carpet which was filthy. The swimming pool had black mould all around it. It was literally falling down around the guests. We lasted 12 hours as we had arrived late in the evening – I phoned a contact in the UK who really helped us out and we moved to a five-star resort which was fantastic.

Q. What luxury would you take to your desert island?

Anything Clarins, or possibly Michael Bublé (is that allowed…?)

Q. What one thing would most improve people’s overall holiday experience?

Not having to consider or worry about any aspect of their travel arrangements by using a professional … and relax.

Q. Tell us your favourite hotel – one for business, one for pleasure.

They’re both in Croatia. For business it’s the Hotel More, Dubrovnik. For pleasure it’s Hotel Bozica on Sipan Island.

Q. What is the most exciting project your company is working on right now?

We’re building up our boutique Italian offering. Italy is an ideal – but not obvious – two centre tie up with Croatia.

Thanks, Alison.

6 stylish places to stay that welcome kids

February 13th, 2015

Nadine Mellor, i-escape Kids Collection   By Nadine Mellor, Editor of the Kids Collection, i-escape

The ultimate family holiday for many of us means being by the sea. Our Kids Collection has a great selection of wonderfully stylish places which warmly welcome children. These six hidden gems are sited close to the waves and cater for all ages.

Polurrian Bay Hotel

Polurrian Bay Hotel, Cornwall, UK

We really rate this Cornish coastal hotel. Not just for the cool contemporary makeover of an Edwardian building, or its wonderful sunset-facing setting on the Lizard peninsula, or indeed for the marvellous fare served in the sea view restaurant, but mostly for its superb facilities for families. We reckon Polurrian Bay suits babies, toddlers and younger kids to a T, and heap special praise on the excellent Ofsted-registered creche (you get two hours per day included in the rates, a godsend for parents who need some downtime in the spa) with its sandpit, crafts, games and music sessions. Our reviewer’s son made a fantastic cardboard space rocket, which he still cherishes to this day. Before arrival you’ll be asked which equipment they can supply – from baby baths to changing mats, potties and swim nappies – so you can travel light. There’s also a playground, a cinema showing family films, and an indoor pool with shallow section for novice swimmers. Oh and did we mention that there’s a sandy cove just below? Superb!

Masseria Prosperi

Masseria Prosperi, Puglia, Italy

Puglia (the peninsula found in the heel of the country) has been dubbed Italy’s Cornwall, and we had a great family holiday there recently. The pace is gentle, the beaches uncrowded, and even fussy eaters enjoy Italian food. We loved staying at Masseria Prosperi, a purpose-built and very chic 6-bedroom country villa (which you can take by the room or in entirety), as it has both outdoor (unheated) and indoor (heated) pools, gardens to roam in, dogs and farm animals to admire and ponies and horses to ride – the kids loved sitting on Coppa, the cutest and fattest pony ever! It’s a mere 5 minutes’ drive to the nearest large beach. Best of all was the outstanding food such as sea bass baked in salt and an abundance of wonderful vegetable dishes – the breakfasts alone were fit for royal banquets – all of it tailored to our (and our kids’) requirements. Rooms are spacious and most have outside space either in terraces or balconies. We left having made firm friends with Mercedes, Antonio and their daughters.

Palmizana

Palmizana, Sveti Klement island, near Hvar, Croatia

Palmizana is a hidden gem, far from the madding crowds on this car-free island. A laid-back family-run eco-retreat, it’s surrounded by botanical beauty (planted by the great-grandfather over a century ago), and splendidly free of modern trappings such as TVs and telephones. You stay in stone bungalows or villas, all delightfully colourful and arty (think driftwood sculptures and contemporary Croatian paintings); there’s a good range to choose from and kids under 10 stay free. There’s a shallow beach on the doorstep with crystal clear waters, the two restaurants serve kid-friendly food, and there are playgrounds and watersports nearby. We’ve returned many times and can vouch for the great sense of freedom for school-age children, who relish tearing about without restriction and in safety.

Port Rive Gauche

Port Rive Gauche, Languedoc, France

Many families prefer to self-cater when on holiday: it’s cheaper, easier if your child has particular requirements, and can be more relaxing for the parents than trying to maintain decorum in a restaurant or hotel dining room. And if you’re self-catering, a decent kitchen makes all the difference – hence our fondness for Port Rive Gauche, a collection of stylish two-bedroom apartments, which also have comfort in spades and cool light-filled interiors (plus black out blinds for a decent night’s sleep). Each has either a roof terrace or covered balcony from which to soak up the majestic views across the lagoon, cut off from the Mediterranean by a long sandy beach. We found, and our clients agree, that the location is superb, and although there’s no pool, there are boat trips to be taken, and there’s a funfair close by too. You can also hire babysitters and arrange for breakfast and seafood lunch platters to be delivered to your apartment.

Onar

Onar, Andros, Cyclades, Greece

Andros is one of our favourite Greek islands – not least for Michael, our editor-in-chief, who spent the most blissful childhood holidays there. It’s little-known, unspoiled and wild, yet an easy ferry ride from Athens or Mykonos. Set by a secluded cove, Onar‘s gorgeous boutique stone cottages, which sleep up to seven, all have private gardens or patios and sea or river views. Meals are communal under a giant plane tree, interiors are unfussy and calm, life is simple and sweet. Adventurous teens will enjoy snorkelling, fishing, jeep excursions, hiking, scuba diving, boat trips or even swimming in a natural pool fed by a waterfall. We think it’s the perfect place to reconnect with your family.

Azur Hotel

Azur Hotel, nr Antalya, Turkey

Azur Hotel is one of our very favourite choices for families. These great-value cabins and bungalows are set in idyllic lush gardens, with one of Europe’s most stunning beaches (Cirali) on your doorstep. It’s backed by dramatic mountain scenery (the pine forested Mt. Tahtali), impressive ancient monuments (the ruins of Lycian Olymbos are at the end of the beach) and even some natural flaming sulphur vents to astound sceptical teenagers. Staff are unfailingly welcoming and helpful, and the food is delicious and plentiful. We thought the 20-metre pool (with separate shallow section) a godsend for toddlers and learner swimmers, while older kids can take wooden boat trips to secret coves.

One night of luxury: Review of Lucknam Park

January 20th, 2015

Lucknam Park Hotel & Spa

By Catherine Leech, Director, 101 Holidays

When I invited my almost 80-year-old mother to join me for a night at the five-star Lucknam Park Hotel & Spa, she replied: “£80 per person for dinner – it can never be worth it, even if it has got a Michelin star.”

Raised during World War II, my mum is typical of her generation. She isn’t wired for indulgence but I persuaded her to give it a try, not least as a big thank you for nursing me for ten days after major surgery earlier in the year.

Located 20 minutes away from Bath, Lucknam Park is a haven of Palladian splendour, gracious service and gob-smacking luxury – the kind that wraps you up in a virtual cashmere blanket and makes your shoulders drop an inch on arrival.

One of the suites

Our room had jaw-dropping views of the magnificent grounds – all 500 acres of them – and everything else you would expect from a top drawer hotel. Generous quantities of Anne Semonin smellies in our vast marble bathroom, the comfiest of beds, padded silk hangers, a hand-stitched ‘privacy’ sign – hardly life’s necessities but a pure delight.

Nice touches

We whiled away the afternoon in the hotel’s spa and sunny outdoor terraces. It is one of the best spas I have experienced anywhere in the world. The pool alone is vast (it even has its own fireplace along one wall, perfect for wintry late afternoons and romantic evening swims) but there are also indoor and outdoor hydrotherapy pools, thermal cabins and outstanding therapists with magic hands – choose from a tempting menu of Anne Semonin, Carita Paris and ila therapies.

Spa pool at night

The spa building also houses the Brasserie – casual, contemporary and very affordable with a three-course set lunch costing £22.

We passed on afternoon tea – nothing was going to spoil our appetite for dinner – but we spotted several groups of friends and family in the Drawing Room and gardens tucking in to vast spreads of beautifully-presented savoury and sweet treats (£25 per person for the full monty).

Lucknam Park Hotel

There’s no doubt that The Park restaurant is grand – really grand – but there’s no stuffiness. We would have felt equally comfortable in long dresses or smart trousers and really liked how well spaced the tables are. It felt intimate without being cloyingly romantic.

Our three-course dinner (£80 per person) offered lots of choice plus scrummy, unexpected, extras – canapés with our cocktails in the garden, a tomato consomme and langoustines (perhaps all the more delicious for the element of surprise). One Michelin star doesn’t seem quite enough – the whole experience was superb.

Delicious scallopsPre-dinner drinks with MumTurbot - wow

By the time we went to bed that night, it was clear that my mum was taking to all this luxury like a duck to water. Complimentary morning tea, served in antique silver, added to the sense of being utterly spoiled and our Eggs Benedict and Eggs Florentine (always a reliable test of any hotel) were stellar.

We wandered around the gardens, chatted to the horses (the hotel has an impressive equestrian centre) and looked in on the cookery school. As we checked out, a family with two young children were checking in and finalising their mix of spa treatments for Mum, tennis coaching for Dad and riding lessons for the kids – as they headed off to explore on the complimentary bicycles. A loved up honeymoon couple were considering a private picnic lunch and an elderly couple were settling down in the library for a morning’s R&R with the papers.

As we drove out, flanked by double rows of lime and beech trees which were used in the war to camouflage Spitfire and Hurricane planes, my mum’s final words captured the essence of Lucknam Park. “That was priceless – pure theatre. Now I get it.”

Did we need it? No. Would we happily have paid for it? Hell, yes.

Find out more about Lucknam Park Hotel & Spa. Double rooms cost from £275 per night and there’s a range of spa, equestrian, cookery school and gourmet breaks.

* Catherine and her mother were guests of Lucknam Park.

10 weirdest photos from North Korea’s new official tourism website

December 4th, 2014

By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

North Korea is perhaps the last place in the world you’d want to go on holiday. The regime is repressive and secretive, and millions of its people are said to be starving. The few tourists that have made it over the border have been accompanied by minders 24 hours a day – though currently no tourists are allowed to enter the country because of fears of Ebola.

Yet the government of North Korea has just revealed a new tourism website dprktoday.com which is intended to “educate” the rest of the world about the glories that lie beyond its closed borders. Smiling children in photoshopped images give an impression of happiness and stability. Yet something is wrong: the pictures just look so weird.

1. The world’s saddest children’s playground. A tiny slide and fake grass

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2. A beach with a volleyball court. But no sand

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3. A building. North Korea has … buildings!

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4. Happy smiling children. They clearly haven’t seen the playground yet

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5. A typical North Korean road. Oh yes. But hang on, aren’t those stairs supposed to go OVER the road?

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6. Here’s a shop. This is what shops look like, right?

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7. The pavements in North Korea are pink. Apparently

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8. Great sports facilities, even though they appear to be made of Lego. Where are the people?

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9. They have gyms in North Korea. But they can’t afford shirts, it seems

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10. Fortunately, they have showers. Yes, non-believers, they have SHOWERS. No poverty in North Korea, then

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The best part of Mallorca. Just don’t call it posh

October 24th, 2014

By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

In 1929 the artist Joan Miró took his new wife on honeymoon to Mallorca. They headed not to the elegant capital Palma, but to an isolated and little-known fishing village on the north coast of the island, Port de Pollença.

In the early part of the 20th Century, the village had barely 100 inhabitants, but early visitors – including the Catalan painter Hermen Anglada Camarasa and his disciples – discovered a place of rare beauty, a long sweeping horseshoe beach overlooking a glassy bay, flanked on three sides by rugged hills.

Before Instagram, before television, before even colour photography (which wasn’t widely used until the 1960s), this was how tourism started. Artists would discover beauty spots, reproduce them in paint, and word would slowly spread.

Camarasa view of Mallorca

Ametllers en flor (1917) by Hermen Anglada Camarasa

After the artists come the writers. Agatha Christie stayed at Port de Pollença during the 1930s in an epic journey that took her to Jerusalem, Luxor and Cairo. She is said to have headed to the island’s north coast to escape the growing numbers of British and American tourists in Palma and fallen in love with this pine-scented bay.

The nascent growth of Mallorca’s tourism industry was swiftly halted by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. The island was held by Franco’s Nationalists and German seaplanes were based in the Bay of Pollença. Hotels were ordered to boot out their guests and hand their rooms over to Nazi airmen.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that tourism to Mallorca really took off – and we know what happened then. But despite the growth of downmarket resorts such as Magaluf and Arenal, the north retained its looks, and the region around Pollença is now routinely – and lazily – referred to as the “posh” part of Mallorca.

This is misleading. Although a glance in the window of any estate agency will reveal a large number of lavish villas selling for seven figures, there is nothing opulent or ostentatious about the region. Most hotels are still family run and restaurants serve traditional Catalan dishes. English is widely spoken, but so is Mallorquin, alongside Spanish.

Nor is the area marred by overdevelopment. In Port de Pollença, a promenade stretches along the perimeter of the bay. The prettiest section is to the north where there is no road and the path ducks beneath sprawling pine trees alongside a row of elegant villas. There’s a bronze bust of Camarasa, who lived on in Pollença until his death in 1959.

The promenade eventually reaches the hotel Illa d’Or where Miró and Christie both stayed. Although upgraded and expanded over the years, it retains many original features and has its own handsome charter boat, the Isabel Maria, on which I spent a gloriously lazy afternoon exploring the far reaches of the bay.

portada

The Isabel Maria moored in front of the Hotel Illa d’Or

On my visit in the second week of October the sea was 25ºC and tourists were sunbathing until 6pm. While Pollença is popular with middle-class families in July and August, the autumn crowd is very different: retired couples soaking up the rays and groups of brightly-clad cyclists on high-spec road bikes.

Cycling has a rich heritage in Mallorca, and it has long been the winter base for several elite race teams. Those picturesque hills soon turn nasty when you’re relying on pedal power and one ride – the Tramuntana Epic – starts and ends in Pollença and stretches for 168km with 2,700m of climbing.

Wherever I went in the area I saw groups of (mostly middle-aged male) bikers, sweating up hills and sipping espressos at pavement cafes. Not only does Mallorca have a well-maintained network of roads and cycle paths, but hotels and rental shops are well equipped. The Hoposa Hotel Uyal, where I stayed, had a laundry room especially for cyclists, along with a lavish breakfast buffet where budding Bradley Wiggins types could load up the carbs.

Biking isn’t the only activity on offer. There are dozens of places in the north of Mallorca where you can go canyoning, coasteering, kayaking or caving, and hundreds of kilometres of well-marked footpaths, including the GR221, which follows the Tramuntana mountains from Andratx to Pollença for 120km and takes six days to walk. In spring and autumn, Mallorca is less about buckets and spades than helmets and hiking boots. The activity season is long: only the weather between the end of November and late February is unreliable.

Cala San Vicent

Cala Molins, Cala Sant Vicenç

Just to the north of Port de Pollença, the small resort of Cala Sant Vicenç is wedged between two rocky headlands overlooking a crystalline bay. It’s a great spot for kayaking and snorkelling but walkers are also well served, with five routes leading directly out of the village. No motorised transport required.

I took one of the routes, climbing through a small pine forest and high onto one of the two headlands. I was passed by a heavily-perspiring German tourist, Werner, who clutched an altitude meter and looked like he was competing in some kind of race. He slowed to chat for a few minutes, telling me that he was on the island for two weeks, hiking every day. Where was his wife today, I asked. “She’s having a lazy day by the pool,” he sniffed. As Werner marched determinedly ahead, I felt her pain.

It took an hour to reach the summit, by which time the path had given way to boulders and tufts of coarse grass, the way marked only by cairns. The sun was a scorching 27ºC but the views across to the open sea were spectacular and the walk along the ridge was relatively easy. At one point I peered down from the top of sheer cliffs to a group of kayakers that looked like specks on the cobalt water several hundred metres below.

Hiking in Mallorca

Your author hiking near Cala Sant Vicenç

I lunched on pan catalan, that ubiquitous deliciously simple dish of bread, tomato and olive oil. A local guide, Miguel, explained that it’s all about the ingredients: a dense, brown, freshly-baked loaf, big ripe juicy tomatoes to smear over the bread, extra virgin oil and a generous sprinkling of salt. With a glass of red wine and a slice of sobrasada, it makes for a great meal.

If you like your cuisine more haute, there are plenty of appealing options. Among the best is Son Brull, a tastefully-converted 18th-century monastery set amongst vineyards and olive groves with just 23 rooms, a bar dominated by a huge olive press and a renowned restaurant, 3|65. The two-course dinner menu – with amuse bouche, sorbet, bread, oil and petit-fours – is good value at €49 and a bottle of cava from the estate grapes is attractively priced at €30.

On another evening I ate at Stay, a restaurant directly overlooking the bay where a three-course menu with wine, mineral water, coffee and chocolates was a snip at just €35.

On my last day I rented a bike. Alas, not one of those skinny lightweight road bikes, but a Boris-style banger, and I pootled the 6km to the town of Pollença, the whole centre of which is now a Unesco World Heritage site.

It was Sunday and the weekly market was in full swing: fruit and vegetable stalls, jamon and cheese vans, jewellery makers, chi-chi shops run by expats and, beside the door to the church, a pair of performing pigs. The streets were heaving and a band of buskers in the corner of the Plaza Mayor had drawn a crowd of around a hundred.

Considering this was the middle of October, and Spain is still mired in economic misery, the place was absurdly busy, both with locals and free-spending tourists. But spoilt? Overdeveloped? I didn’t think so. If Camarasa were alive today he’d not only recognise his beloved island, he’d still be able to paint many of the exact same canvases.

How to do it

Three nights half-board at the Hoposa Hotel Uyal costs from £436 per person including flights from London Gatwick to Palma and private transfers with Classic Collection Holidays (0800 294 9318). A seven-night stay costs from £704 pp. Other UK departure airports are available.

Son Brull can be booked through i-escape. Other recommended restaurants include Stay in Port dePollença and Clivia in Pollença town.

Activities in the area can be booked through Mon d’Aventura. It charges €30 for 2.5 hours of kayaking, €35 for a 5.5 hour hiking tour and €45 for a 4.5 hour coasteering adventure and speedboat tour.

For more information on the region, visit Pollenca Tourism and the Pollenca Hotel Association

Valencia: how well do you know Spain’s third city?

September 5th, 2014

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By Mark Hodson

Many people have visited Spain’s two-big-hitting cities Madrid and Barcelona, but what of its third? Some might struggle even to name it, and fewer still will have actually explored Valencia.

I recently spent a fortnight with my family staying in a village called Massalfassar about eight miles north of Valencia. It was staggeringly hot – reaching 42ºC on one torpid afternoon – but we did manage to prise ourselves away from the swimming pool to explore the city and the surrounding region.

Valencia is widely known (in Spain, at least) as home to the paella, and hosts a couple of colourful festivals: Las Fallas in the spring and Tomatina in August, which involves manic tomato throwing and is actually held in the nearby village of Buñol. For many years it wasn’t a place troubled by excessive numbers of tourists, but that has changed.

In 1957, the river that ran through the centre of Valencia, the Turia, flooded spectacularly, killing at least 81 people. The government decided to divert the river to the south and – faced with an unsightly dried-up river bed snaking through the centre – decided to turn it into gardens.

It took several decades to complete the project but now you can join the locals as they walk, skate, cycle and jog along six miles of beautifully landscaped gardens, pathways, fountains and playgrounds. The ancient bridges across the river remain, along with some new ones, several of which were designed by the Valencia-born contemporary architect Santiago Calatrava.

Calatrava was also commissioned to design the City of Arts and Sciences, a collection of cutting-edge museums that stands at one end of the Turia Gardens. This provides a new focal point to the city, a counter point to the elegant old town, which lies to the north-west.

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To orient ourselves we took a cycle tour with Solution Bike which is based in the old town. Despite the heat, Valencia is a great city for cycling – it’s very flat, has a large network of dedicated bike paths and it’s not long before you find yourselves in the Turia Gardens away from all motorised traffic.

Like all visitors, we stopped to gawp at the futuristic structures of the City of Arts and Sciences, though our guide Alvaro was keen to point out that one of the buildings was already missing all of its white tiles. Pointing at a huge wall of grey concrete he said: “They just fell off and nobody knows if the city will have enough money to put them back up again. Like all of Spain, we’re broke.”

Valencia certainly rode the wave of prosperity for the last couple of decades of the 20th Century. It played host to the America’s Cup, for which an expensive new marina was built, and the Spanish Grand Prix was held on a track around the docks (though this has since gone back to arch-rival Barcelona). Its taxpayers are still picking up the bill.

We cycled to the marina and found it a little lifeless, despite the fact it is still home to the America’s Cup teams. A few super yachts were moored up, but some of the buildings were starting to look a bit tatty. A flagship modernist building was empty. Alvaro pointed to the tiles above our heads and pulled a face. “Best not stay under here, just in case,” he said.

It was only a short ride to the beach which was much busier. Valencia is lucky enough to boast a long wide sandy beach lined with seafood restaurants and cafes. Though there are finer beaches a few miles down the coast, you wouldn’t complain if you had to spend an afternoon there.

With our bearings in place, we returned to the city on several occasions, both in the daytime and at night. Eating out was a highlight. One day we whet our appetites by wandering around the food stalls of the Central Market – a high-ceilinged modernista building – before lunching at La Pilareta, a tiled tapas bar in the old town that is so famed for its mussels that it has buckets under the bar where you are encouraged to throw your shells. These mussels are not like the big flabby mejillones found elsewhere in Spain, but a smaller and tastier local variety known as clochinas. Served in a plain broth of lemon and garlic, they are superb.

On another day we ate at Bar Cantina La Lonja Del Pescado, an atmospheric seafood restaurant in the docks. This is not some tarted up dockland area, but a working dock, so it’s fairly gritty. The food was sensational though, particularly the spaghetti with seafood pictured below.

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We spent one long hot day at the City of Arts and Sciences, which contains a science museum, an IMAX cinema and Europe’s biggest aquarium. The science museum was particularly impressive with endless buttons to press and games to play, while the movie about outer space we saw at the IMAX was entertaining, if not quite as technologically impressive as the architecture suggested.

The aquarium, Oceanogràfic, was busy with families looking to escape the heat outside and it would take a particularly jaded palette not to be wowed by the sharks, walruses, beluga whales and sea lions. I had my doubts about watching a show of performing dolphins, but I was outvoted by the rest of the family, and it turned out to be a highlight of the day.

Although Valencia remains an eccentric destination for a two-week summer holiday, it would certainly make an outstanding place for a city break in spring or autumn. There is plenty to see in two or three days, the food is sensational and the weather is reliably sunny, and if you don’t have kids in tow, you can explore the hip bars and cafes of the Ruzafa district close to the train station. Next time, maybe.

Find out more from the tourist board.

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P.S. It’s claimed the building pictured below in Valencia’s old town is the narrowest in Europe at just 109cm. The mind boggles.

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