Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

Jamaica – the ultimate in luxury hotel service?

Monday, December 16th, 2013

By Catherine Leech, Director, 101 Holidays

In the mid-’90s, the new MD of one of the UK’s luxury tour operators gave a stark and well-publicised warning that service levels in the Caribbean simply didn’t match up to those of the Far East and Indian Ocean – both of which were making (and continue to make) rapid inroads to the Caribbean’s traditional winter sun market from the UK.

Industry leaders in the Caribbean were indignant but he had a point – I’ve been fortunate enough to travel for both business and leisure to all three regions and, overall, I have found that service in the luxury hotels is generally slicker (and faster, if you like it that way) in the Indian Ocean and Far East.

However, there always was and still is one destination which, for me, has service licked in every way – Jamaica. In my opinion, reinforced with knobs on during a recent holiday there, the service in Jamaica’s luxury hotels strikes the perfect balance of professionalism, thoughtfulness and personality.

For hotels in particular, pitching your service levels is a tricky business. One guest’s great service is another’s cringe-making intrusion.

I remember walking up to an extravagant breakfast buffet table in Bali, putting a slice of pineapple on a side plate only to have it whisked from my hand by one of many waiters who took it back to the table – without a word spoken. Great service, some might think, but I felt uncomfortable – and why have a buffet if you feel your guests can’t even manage to carry a small plate…?

Similarly, over dinner in a very famous hotel in Barbados, two waiters watched closely as I drank water and wine (which they irritatingly topped up after every single sip). I was eating a bowl of seafood linguine – in the absence of a bowl for ‘empties’, I struggled to balance the shells around the edge of the bowl, failing miserably. Did the ever-watchful staff think to bring over a receptacle…? Of course not – they hadn’t been trained to do that.

Personally, I would always opt for thoughtful service with personality rather than lots of service with a bow of the head. And that is where I think that Jamaica gets it so right.

The very grand Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Illinois, has hosted five million+ guests, including five US Presidents, since it opened in 1887. I stayed there for a business meeting in the early ’90s and was gobsmacked to walk in to the restaurant to be greeted by a phalanx of white-gloved, uniformed Jamaican staff. It felt ludicrously formal and my Caymanian colleagues and I were amazed, even embarrassed. We chatted to some of them and were invited to join them at one of their church services and later enjoyed jerk pork and rice’n’peas in one of their temporary homes.

It was a magical experience but my point is that this summer-only hotel, whose reputation relied on the very best service, flew out their key staff from Jamaica each summer (at that time, most of the Caribbean’s luxury resorts closed in the summer). Kudos, Jamaica.

Jamaica Inn room service with a smileRound Hill - cottage housekeeperRound Hill

My recent holiday was split between Round Hill, near Montego Bay, and Jamaica Inn in Ocho Rios. Both hotels have been operating for 50+ years and both have long-serving staff, some of whom have been there virtually since day one.

Take Teddy (pictured at the top of the article and creator of possibly the world’s best Planter’s Punch!) – with 54 years’ service at Jamaica Inn’s Beach Bar, I watched him work alongside colleagues in their early 20s with genuine and infectious pride and joy. It was the same in every department in both hotels.

What’s more, all the management and staff in these hotels are Jamaican – the only sort-of exception is the Austrian-born MD of Round Hill, the highly respected Josef Forstmayr, but he is a proud Jamaican citizen and the General Managers in both properties are Jamaican. That is an achievement for which Jamaica and the hotels should be enormously proud. It’s not only good for local employment and personal career development, but I think it’s also great for the guests – isn’t it so much more interesting to interact with staff who live, work and take pride in their own country, your temporary home from home….?

I really appreciated the young man at Round Hill who was raking the beach at 6am and ran across with a cheerful smile and towel for me as I stepped out of the sea after a very early morning dip – it wasn’t his job and it certainly wasn’t expected. Each early morning thereafter, I found a fresh towel on the sun bed I had used that first day – how thoughtful.

I was never even vaguely nudged for a tip by anyone in either hotel.

Working in the hospitality industry is something which Jamaicans view with pride – that’s certainly not always the case in the Caribbean and it’s not even worth mentioning the UK where it is all too often looked down upon.

What floats your boat or gets your goat when it comes to service in hotels…..?

Are these the most stupid ever TripAdvisor reviews?

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

HilaryBy Hilary Wardle

In Mitch Albom’s novel The Five People You Meet In Heaven, the protagonist finds himself in the afterlife and meets five people who have significantly impacted and guided him throughout his time on Earth. TripAdvisor isn’t heaven. Far from it. But you can divide the misguided reviewers who use the site into five clear categories.

Since January 2013 I’ve been running a humour site called Tripadvisaargh that collates some of the most odd, confused and eye-opening reviews on TripAdvisor. After just a few weeks, I started to notice some very distinct patterns emerging. Here’s a rundown of the five types of bizarre reviews you’ll encounter on TripAdvisor.

1. First World Problems

This category is fairly self explanatory. These are people who are rarely satisfied with their expensive break as even the slightest flaw sends them into an over privileged meltdown.

First World Problems 2

Another version of the ‘first world problem’ reviewer is someone who is generally happy with their luxury holiday, but has one utterly ludicrous complaint:

First World Problems 1

2. Captain Obvious

The next group of reviewers are the self sacrificing men and women who decide to state the absolute obvious in an attempt to help their dim-witted, unfortunate readers. You might be surprised to hear there are no fewer than 10 TripAdvisor reviews titled ‘Just a bridge’… you know, in case we thought it was a shoe or a herring.

Captain Obvious

Others include people who are surprised to find large numbers of donkeys at a Sidmouth donkey sanctuary…

Captain Obvious 2

And this fantastic review of a butterfly conservancy in Canada:

Captain obvious 3

 

3. Too foreign

This is by far the largest subset of TripAdvisor reviews left by British people. They’re almost all written by individuals who are shocked to find their Benidorm hotel is staffed by Spanish people who serve Spanish food and- god forbid- play Spanish music. Usual title: ‘not for us brits!!1!!!’

Too foreign 1

Too foreign 2

Too foreign 3

Too foreign 4

 

4. The confusing and deeply strange

Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of these and there will be until TripAdvisor introduce a sanity test for people signing up to review on their behalf.

Confusing 1

Confusing 2

 

5. Frustrated comedians

This group of people think they should have been the next Russell Brand. Instead, they’re reduced to tapping out TripAdvisor reviews with one hand while Googling ‘hilarious one liners’ with the other.

Frustrated comedian 1

Frustrated comedian 2

Frustrated comedian 3

 

So there you have it. The five types of people you meet on TripAdvisor. Do you think I hit the nail on the head, or are we missing a key example? Let us know in the comments.

Follow Hilary Wardle on Twitter.

 

9/11 Memorial

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

memorial

I visited the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the Twin Towers three weeks ago. It’s a surprising restrained and moving memorial. The waterfalls are monumental in size and cascade downwards into an unseen abyss. As you walk around you’re encouraged to run your hands over the etched names of the victims.

I wish I was in New York today.

Would you try a home exchange?

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

ca120155a-0013 ca120155a-0002 house in canada

By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

You’ve probably heard about home exchanges, but would you give it a try? Would you take the chance of staying in a stranger’s house and – more to the point – trust them with yours?

I’m a fan of the sharing of the economy. Living in London I don’t see much point in owning a car and instead use Zipcar for short journeys and weekend rentals if we are going away for a few days. So home exchanging didn’t seem such a radical idea.

Yesterday I returned from our family summer holiday where we did a house swap in Canada followed by a few days in New York City. We lucked out with a big detached house (pictured above) in the suburbs of Montreal that has a large garden and heated pool. We arrived home to find our own house spotless. The protocol is simple: leave it as you found it, and just leave the pile of used towels and bed linen in the bathroom.

Aside from the obvious advantage of saving money on accommodation, we value the space, privacy and independence of a house swap. Separate bedrooms for the kids is particularly important if you have teenagers. I also enjoy the experience of living as locals do: shopping for food, eating in local restaurants and chatting with the neighbours. Most swappers leave detailed recommendations on the best places to eat locally. The Canadian family that stayed in our house loved our local Indian restaurants in Tooting, and we enjoyed their favourite fried chicken and ribs places.

Of course, home exchanging isn’t for everyone. Things can go wrong and some people will want more reassurance than being told they will find the house keys in the mailbox (as we were). Others may worry that their own home isn’t up to scratch, or dislike the thought of cleaning and tidying it in preparation for guests. Certainly this is the biggest pain in the butt: preparing your own house in the frantic hours before setting off on holiday, and having to clean theirs before you leave. For this reason, I don’t think it would be worth the effort if you were only going away for a few days.

Overall, though, I like the idea and I think the chart below fairly summarises the plus and minus points.

Would you try it?

 

Is a Home Exchange better than a Hotel?

Home swap holidays have exploded in popularity in recent years, but they remain less well known among many holidaymakers and travellers who continue to rely on hotels for travel accommodation. How do the two compete? Here we weigh up the pros and cons.

Home Swap vs Hotel

1. HOW MUCH WILL IT COST?

No money ever changes hands between home-swappers. It’s a process based simply on mutual trust. The only fees are the ones you pay for membership.

Even the cheapest hotels will set you back a substantial amount of money. Costs increase exponentially when you factor in extra dates or extra rooms for your family (factors that cost nothing more in a home).

£2,202Average amount of money saved by home swappers per holiday

1/3 to 1/2Cost of hotels in the average travel budget

£140Average cost of a hotel room outside the US, per night

WINNER

HOME SWAP. Home swap 1 vs Hotel 0

2. CAN I STAY ONLINE?

In today’s world of smartphones, netbooks, tablets and e-readers, every traveller expects a certain level of connectivity. Most house swap homes will have a dedicated personal broadband connection as standard, so your emails and social networks are never far away.

It’s a common bugbear – a huge number of hotels still refuse to offer WiFi as part of the package. Many charge exorbitant fees to add to your bill – and even then the connection can still be shaky.

33%

40%

Travellers who say free WiFi is their number 1 must-have when travelling

US hotels not offering free WiFi to guests (a trend seen around the world)

WINNER

HOME SWAP

Home Swap 2 vs Hotel 0

3. HOW WELL CAN I EAT?

With access to a fully furnished personal kitchen, home swappers are free to self-cater for as much of their holiday as they’d like. Self-catering allows you to budget your food, and frees you from the restrictions of timetables – especially useful if you fancy a lie-in before a relaxed brunch. But the downside is that you have to do all the cooking yourself and there’s no room service to fall back on.

Many hotels have big name chefs dictating the menu, and in-house hotel restaurants are often of an extremely high standard. Hotels also force you to eat out for all meals, which can encourage a variety of different meals (though at a greater expense).

1/3 – Proportion of Brits planning a self-catered holiday of some sort this year

Food – The biggest disappointment for most budget hotel guests

WINNER

HOTEL

Home Swap 2 vs Hotel 1

4. WHAT WILL THE FACILITIES BE LIKE?

With home swapping, you’re staying at a house that’s already been lived in. It’s set up with all the ‘mod cons’ you’d expect from your home. And if you’re swapping with a family home, you’ll handily have provisions available for young children or babies, too.

Hotels often offer en suite bathrooms and a kitchenette with a kettle. But youíre unlikely to find luxuries such as washing machines or DVD players.

WINNER

HOME SWAP

Home Swap 3 vs Hotel 1

5. WHAT WILL THE LOCATION BE LIKE?

You might not realise just how widespread home-swap holidays have become – options are available in more than 150 countries, meaning you can holiday in any climate or culture and only worry about the cost of travel.

Hotels often benefit from a handy city centre location, which will suit many individual travellers and couples but fewer families. Also look out for parking fees.

ìLiving like a localî

Third most attractive reason for home-swapping according to a 2012 survey

ìGreat locationî

2nd most popular form of praise from hotel guests, according to internet commenters

WINNER

DRAW

Home Swap 4 vs Hotel 2

6. HOW COMFORTABLE WILL I BE?

Every home is unique. Home-swappers arrive at their holiday home to find it tailored to a specific owner’s taste, comforts and requirements. The good news is, if it’s good enough for one family to live in, chances are it’ll be good enough for yours.

Hotel rooms offer varying degrees of comfort in relation to price. There’s less choice of decor, with most offering modern and minimalist designs, but more quirky ones do exist if that’s your thing.

WINNER

HOME SWAP

Home Swap 5 vs Hotel 2

Presented by Love Home Swap

  • Sources
  • http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travel-advice/9885747/House-swap-holidays-advice-and-tips.html
  • http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/travel/swap.shtml
  • http://www.businesstravelnews.com/Hotel-News/The-average-U-S–hotel-cost-per-night-in-the-second-quarter-among-Travel-Leaders-Corporate-clients-rose-slightly-from-the-same-period-last-year/?a=proc
  • http://press.hotels.com/en-us/news-releases/global-travelers-want-to-stay-connected-and-comfy/
  • http://www.cnbc.com/id/47730582
  • http://www.travelsupermarket.com/blog/holidays-all-inclusive-versus-self-catering/
  • http://www.bighospitality.co.uk/Trends-Reports/Food-most-disappointing-budget-hotel-experience-finds-survey
  • http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/8855561/Home-swapping-on-the-rise-as-Britons-tighten-belts.html
  • http://www.tnooz.com/2012/11/02/how-to/2012-traveler-rants-raves/

No photography: Why camera bans might make us smarter tourists

Friday, June 7th, 2013

Tutankhamunjpeg

By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

I’ve just returned from a visit to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo where I spent three hours utterly enthralled by the treasures of King Tutankhamen. I don’t think I’ve seen a more impressive collection of artefacts anywhere in the world, brilliantly brought to life by our expert guide, Akram “Aki” Allam.

The museum is cavernous, dusty, unkempt and in many places badly lit. But it’s a wonderful experience, and sufficient reason alone to visit this baffling and exciting city.

It’s also unusual in enforcing a strict ban on photography. No snaps are allowed anywhere in the museum building.

In an age when most people pack a camera in their handbag or hip pocket, this seems almost like an infringement of human rights. If I want to whip out my iPhone and quietly peel off a few snaps, why shouldn’t I? After all, it’s all good publicity for the museum, isn’t it? Sharing on Facebook and Twitter is only going to encourage more tourists.

But the Egyptians seem immune to these arguments, something for which I find myself feeling immensely grateful.

I admit that when I first saw the “No photography” sign I felt mildly irritated, but once I started to view the astonishing exhibits and get sucked into the amazing story of Tutankhamen, I was relieved to be freed from the urge to take pictures.

What’s more, I didn’t have other tourists with cameras pushing in front of me for a shot, apparently feeling that holding a camera or a phone gives them carte blanche to barge others out of the way.

The treasures of the teenage Pharaoh – including his iconic death mask, pictured above – are so extraordinary that the only proper response is to stand and gaze. Which is what I did.

While other tourists strolled past and made small talk, I enjoyed a long period silently staring into the eyes of King Tut, soaking up the majesty of this most intimate of art works.

It is said that in some regions of the world, people believe that cameras can steal their soul. But maybe the truth is that they are stealing ours.

Just as our ability to read is being corroded by Twitter feeds and 24-hour rolling news, perhaps the constant photographing of everything around us is affecting our very ability to see.

Maybe the way to enhance our experience as tourists is to put away the cameras and open our eyes instead. And if we can’t, then perhaps more museums should ban photography all together?

After all, it’s likely that the photos on your phone will be quickly forgotten, replaced by the next batch of shiny new digital images. Memories, on the other hand, will burn themselves into your soul, and shape who you are.

* I am in Egypt as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent with a small group of travel bloggers including Jayne Gorman of 40 Before 30 and Abigail King of Inside the Travel Lab.  The photos on this page were – of course – supplied by the Egypt Tourist Authority. Find the best time to visit Egypt.

EgyptianMuseum2EgyptianMuseum

 

Would you travel with a 20-year-old guide book?

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

egypt book

By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

I’m 30,000ft above the southern Mediterranean on a flight from London to Cairo and I’m reading a 20-year-old guide book. This might sound like a bad decision given that much of the text will be out of date, but in fact it’s turning out pretty well.

My first edition of the Cadogan guide to Egypt by the Middle East expert Michael Haag has been sitting on my book shelves almost since its publication in 1993. It is wrinkled and crumpled in places – not unlike its owner – but it’s packed with the most evocative and descriptive writing and it’s a delight to flick from one passage to another, skipping from chapter to chapter, referring to the glossary and the index in a way that you simple can’t do on a Kindle.

And who writes guide book prose like this any more?

As the sun sets over the Nile the present slips away into timelessness, and from a high window over the river you can hear the call of the muezzins float across the darkening city and you see the Pyramids at Giza glow gold against the Western Desert as they have done for one million, seven hundred thousand evenings past. The monuments of pharaohs and sultans lie within your compass, making Cairo and its environs one of the greatest storehouses of human achievement in the world.

Read that and tell me you wouldn’t like to be here now.

Print media is dying, we’re told. I read regularly on Twitter about the death of guidebooks, but there remains something fundamentally satisfying about a bound book. Particularly one that is so well written. You don’t find that kind of wisdom and muscular writing in a Kindle guide that costs £3.

And the price of quality has fallen rapidly. The cover price of my Cadogan guide is £12.99, yet you can buy a second-edition (1998) copy for £11.88 on Amazon or a second-hand copy for just 1p plus postage.

In his text, Haag quotes regularly from other writers before him (standing on the shoulders of giants?) including the likes of Mark Twain and Jean Cocteau. One of the most often quoted authors is Amelia Edwards, whose A Thousand Miles Up the Nile dates back to the late 19th Century and remains a classic.

In fact, when I posed the question on Twitter – which guide book should I take: the Cadogan published in 1993 or the Rough Guide published in 2003 – the travel writer Dea Birkett suggested I go to the source and read Edwards (I later discovered it is available on the Kindle for as little as £1, because it is out of copyright).

deab

When somebody pointed out that the Cadogan guide would now be out of date, another seasoned travel writer Matthew Teller – one of the UK’s leading experts in the Middle East – pointed out that good guide books improve with age. I have to say I’m beginning to agree with him.

matthew

* I am in Egypt as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent and staying at the Four Seasons First Residence in Cairo.

The Cary Arms, Devon

Friday, May 31st, 2013

The view from our Commodore Room, The Cary Arms

By Catherine Leech, Director, 101 Holidays

No – this isn’t a photo of the Cote d’Azur or some other resort in the Med. It was the early morning view taken through the window of our bedroom (Commodore) at The Cary Arms on south Devon’s Babbacombe Bay earlier this month.

So many small hotels peg themselves to a distinct market – ‘family-friendly’ (I’ve just returned from a night with the step-grandchildren at the Legoland Hotel which – brilliantly – takes that concept to the extreme) or as an über-romantic bolt-hole for couples.

The Cary Arms is one of the few UK recommendations on 101 Honeymoons – our editor, Jane Anderson, loves the place. It is undoubtedly romantic – but this de Savary-owned and -styled “inn on the beach”, which dates back to the 1850s, is so much more than just romantic.

The pretty terracesRose CottageCrabbing nets for the kidsDogs are welcome

For families, there are charming period cottages (with up to 5 bedrooms) scattered on the hillside as well as the spacious New England-style hotel rooms – with crabbing nets provided for younger guests. Dogs are welcome too – in the gastro-pub restaurant, on the sea-facing terrace and in a couple of the guest rooms and cottages.

I was there with my close friend, Louise, who lives in Sydney and comes over to the UK once or twice a year. We were made to feel not just welcome, but positively ‘part of the family’ by every single member of staff – and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it for solo stays, a group of friends, colleagues looking for a low key business retreat or to take over the hotel for a special occasion.

Fellow hotel guests when we were there (outside of the school holidays) ranged in age from their 20s upwards to 70s and there was always a gentle buzz in the gastro-pub style restaurant from the mix of locals, holidaymakers staying elsewhere and guests.

In other words, this clever and unpretentious little hotel works for almost everyone.

We both had treatments in the spa room – by a skilled therapist using lovely products and with a reasonable price list from £50 for an hour’s massage or 50-minute Yon-Ka facial.

The food was delicious and, together with the wine list (£19.50 for a decent choice of superb bottles), it was well priced – 3 courses with the freshest local seafood, really tasty meat dishes and yummy puds came to £62 for the 2 of us. I would drive there just for a summer’s lunch at the Captain’s Table on the deck overlooking the bay!

Early morning walk around the bay to OddicombeBeach huts at OddicombeLooking back to the hotel from Oddicombe

The hotel is a 30-minute scenic walk from Torquay (which I would charitably describe as a town which is currently ‘work in progress’) and is surrounded by the South Hams and stunning coastal walks. The hotel has commissioned a well-written booklet, in each room, which outlines 8 varied walks in the region – to suit everyone from all-day-hikers to casual strollers.

Guests can help themselves to one of the fishing rods which sit by the back door – join the locals down on the jetty and chef will no doubt cook your catch for you (it’s that sort of place). The beach in front of the hotel is pebbly but you can swim off the jetty or take the short walk around the bay to sandy Oddicombe beach.

All aboard the steam trainMitch Tonks' outstanding restaurant in DartmouthPretty as a picture - burrata, bottarga & heirloom tomatoes at The Seahorse

Matt Collins, the hotel’s General Manager, pulled a blinder with his suggestion that we take the steam train from Paignton to Kingswear (£13.50 return including the ferry from Kingswear across to Dartmouth) – for lunch at The Seahorse, Mitch Tonks’ superb restaurant on the Dartmouth waterfront.

The train rides were pure, joyful nostalgia of the Agatha Christie/Enid Blyton variety (both writers were local to the area) whilst the lunch was a pricey-but-worth-it treat. In better weather we would also have stopped off en route at pretty Goodrington Sands for a swim. I definitely recommend that you ‘upgrade’ to the train’s observation car for even better views of the coastline, River Dart and jaw-dropping approach to Dartmouth – it’s only another £1.50 each.

Back at base, Louise and I mulled over what makes The Cary Arms work so well – in our room, we loved the stick of rock on the pillow, the replenished bags of homemade fruitcake and fudge, the decanter of Sloe Gin and other little touches which showed real thought and attention to detail. But it was the attitude of every single member of management and staff that was so impressive – without exception, they were full of personality yet never ‘in your face’, thoughtful but never intrusive, confident but never cocky and – fun!

By the end of our 3-night stay in this charming and ever so slightly quirky “inn-on-the-sea” we felt as if we’d had a week’s holiday (minus the sun tan). Our previous jaunts have included Paxos, Skiathos, Cascais, Ibiza and Villefranche but, less than 90 minutes’ drive from my home in Dorset, the English Riviera was simply magical – in spite of the unseasonal weather which ranged from bracing wind and driving rain to warm sunshine with a chill in the air.

We paid for our stay – room rack rates are from £175 to £225 (low season) and £225 to £275 May to October, including breakfast. 3 nights in the biggest cottage – Rose Cottage – costs £1,500 for up to 8 adults and 1 child (excluding breakfast). Contact The Cary Arms and check out the latest offers.

Cape Verde – Out of Africa, Brazil and Portugal

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

Crystal clear waterLunch on the beach at the Hotel Morabeza

By Catherine Leech, Director, 101 Holidays

Cape Verde is one of the world’s fastest growing tourist destinations, according to a new report from the World Travel & Tourism Council. And it’s not hard to see why, as I found on a recent visit to one of the islands.

Tell most people you are heading to Sal for a week’s holiday and they will ask you a) to repeat yourself and b) tell them where it is. It’s pretty much the same for the Cape Verde Islands themselves, made up of 9 inhabited and 1 uninhabited island plus 8 islets in the Atlantic, 300 miles off the west coast of Africa (Senegal and The Gambia are the nearest mainland countries).

I have just returned from a hot and sunny week’s R&R on Sal, which I can best describe as Marmite Island – Sal is a place you will either love or loathe, with very little in between. My boyfriend and I loved this strangely idyllic island, largely because it is decidedly – and charmingly – rough around the edges.

The basics on Sal tick virtually every winter sun holiday box – a non-stop 6 hour flight from Gatwick, only an hour’s time difference, 15-minute hotel transfers, no mosquitos or other nibbling nasties, dreamy white sand beaches, crystal clear turquoise waters, no rain, a handful of hotels and lots of diverse, well-priced restaurants. I’m always loathe to describe somewhere as safe but we felt genuinely welcome and completely safe everywhere we went.

Sal itself was the first of the islands to have an international airport and is relatively developed in terms of tourist accommodation and infrastructure.

Santa Maria back streets - charm and dereliction side by sideThe Catholic church in pretty PalmeiraPalmeira street scene

The locals speak Portuguese and/or Creole, the ever-present music – often played spontaneously on the beach, in bars and in the cobbled streets of the main tourist town of Santa Maria – is a passionate blend of Brazilian, African and Portuguese rhythms (the Cape Verde Islands were a Portuguese colony until 1975 since when they have been an independent republic). It’s exotic, vibrant – and pretty scruffy, in the nicest possible way.

From that 1st Caipirinha in our favourite beach shack (€3 for a huge glass or a litre of excellent local beer) to our final lunch of caught-that-morning wahoo steak, chips and salad for €6, we were intoxicated – it felt as if we had landed in an un-manicured mix of the Caribbean, West African coast and Albufeira in the ’70s.

We stayed in the Hotel Morabeza, probably the best hotel on the island – it’s brilliantly positioned behind a stunning beach and a gentle stroll from the (beating) heart of Santa Maria. The staff were delightful and efficient, the food delicious and the rooms (and blissful beds) comfortable with particularly good bathrooms. There are 2 lovely pools and a terrific Beach Club. We could see the sea from our small balcony although some overlooked the crazy golf course and the back of another room block – I would have been disappointed. That said, if you want a pampered room-centric hotel experience with hot and cold running luxury, Sal probably isn’t for you.

The boys head off at 7amThe boys' catch of the dayMorning scene on the Santa Maria jettyA Marlin is landed, ahead of the season

My boyfriend was keen to fish – an understatement. He headed off on day one to the jetty in Santa Maria, a manic hive of activity from 6am to lunchtime – barrow-loads of shiny fresh fish, animated local ladies doing a fast trade as they scrape off scales and banter with the fishermen, and tourists crowding round when a big fish comes in. He negotiated a half day with a local fisherman for €100, split with a fishing-mad French chef. They caught 30 species between them – no tuna but they were as thrilled as two schoolboys with a new bag of colourful marbles. The big game fishing season – for marlin for example – is in the summer months and has built up a deserved reputation worldwide for good value and exciting sport.

Kite BeachBoards at the Josh Angulo Surf CentrePonta Preta beach bar - watch the surfers over a chilled beer & grilled fish

What could the Marmite-haters possibly find to dislike in Sal….? Well, it’s windy – but that makes it a) relatively cool (those with pale skins beware – it’s between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator so the sun is exceptionally strong and the wind is deceptive) and b) exceptionally attractive to wind-surfers and kite-surfers. Sal is a mecca for surf dudes who congregate with their colourful gear and dare-devil speeds off the more exposed beaches. We were mesmerised by the scene at Kite Beach, from beginners learning the ropes (literally) in the dunes to the speed merchants wheeling high above the waves – we could have spent an entire day just watching them.

I guess you could dislike the flat and arid “brown-ness” and relative lack of sightseeing opportunities – but we were there for fishing, relaxation and beach life. Anything else would have been a bonus – and there are other islands in the archipelago, such as Santo Antao, Santiago and Fogo, which are positively brimming with lush green hillsides, historic towns packed with colonial architecture, quaint fishing villages, hiking, biking and fishing.

There was a development boom in the early ‘noughties’ which has crumbled, along with several half-built or empty hotel, apartment and villa complexes but they are pretty unobtrusive (as are the mega Thomson-dominated all-inclusives which no doubt offer good value for money but which miss out on the colour and vibrancy of the main tourist centre of Santa Maria).

Our favourite beach barPercebes - delicious barnaclesSunday hang-out with live music at Angela's

There’s no fine-dining in the Michelin sense but the restaurants are varied, fun, universally spotless (kitchens and loos) and outstanding value for money. We dined almost exclusively on fish, shellfish and even the rare delicacy, Percebes (barnacles, much sought after in Spain and readily available in Sal). A strong Italian presence also meant we could indulge in authentic pizzas, toes in the sand, when we felt like a change – and work off the calories in a funky rooftop reggae bar!

We had two disappointments – we generally avoid group trips so hired a 4WD for a day (€50). However, we simply couldn’t find some of the places visited on the island tours – they are reached only by off-road, un-signed tracks. With only 50 vehicles for hire on the island and scant signage, it seems the authorities are keen to encourage escorted tours rather than self-drive – good for employment and, with a local guide, undoubtedly a better experience for visitors. We spent €33 each for a trip on the ‘Neptunus’ semi-submersible and saw……well, not a lot. The viewing windows hadn’t been cleaned and the poorly-maintained engine poured out black smoke and black soot across the water throughout.

We’re hooked and intend to return next year, probably a little later, in April, in the hope that the tuna might be in – but we’re torn between another week on Sal or a visit to one or more of the other islands.

We travelled with Cape Verde Experience – they really know their stuff (both the team in the UK and their excellent rep, Tracey who has lived on Sal for 7 years). They offer a wide range of hotels on Sal, Boa Vista, Santiago, Fogo, Sao Vicente and Santo Antao with flights to both Sal and Boa Vista from Gatwick, Manchester and Birmingham. They also arrange island-hopping holidays – inter-island transport is somewhat limited for now but it will come, I am sure.

As tourism slogans go, ‘Marmite Island’ will never catch on for Sal but it struck us, from day one, as the perfect description for this beguiling and unique island. And if you have been and loathed it, then I would hazard a guess that you simply didn’t pick the right place for you.

Catherine and her boyfriend paid for their holiday with Cape Verde Experience.

Get under the skin of Provence

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

By Dave Hanson

So you’ve been to Provence. You saw lavender fields, you took trips to the Pont du Gard and some of the major wine estates, you soaked sun aplenty at the main Côte d’Azur beaches and even made time to scoot round the three A’s: Arles, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence.

So what now? What else does Provence have to offer?

We begin with Marseille, which doesn’t always get a great press. However, if you want to get under the skin of Provençal life you should not shy away from the rough, tumble and vibrancy of France’s second-largest city.

This is a great year to visit Marseille as it is one of two European Capitals of Culture (along with Košice in Slovakia) for 2013. And what a melting pot of cultures you will find in the city.

Based on its long history as one of the Mediterranean’s primary ports, coupled with France’s previous imperial exploits, Marseille became the entry point for people seeking a better life in France.

The population is made up of Greeks and Italians who made their way to French shores from the end of the 19th century, Russians, Armenians and Corsicans in the early part of the 20th century, and North Africans (Arab and Berber) in later years.

There are cultural and gastronomic delights that originate from all these cultures. Throw in the other significant communities that have settled in the area – Turkish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Maghrebis – and the diversity has become one of this fine city’s major strengths.

This cultural heritage is brought to life in Marseille’s Vieux Port, the natural harbour where the Greeks first landed back in 600 BC. It is fronted by colourful market stalls, North African-style souks and a fish market that has been in existence for centuries. Find your way to Le Panier, a labyrinthine mesh of streets housing various artisan shops and workshops.

To sample a piece of modern life, take the short trip to the beachside Marseille Skatepark where you will see skaters ollie and kick flip their way around this great bowl of a park. You can hire a board or skates and give it a go, if you dare.

If you fancy something a little less adrenaline-fuelled, check out the Opera House, which this year has an even more varied programme than usual including ballet and contemporary dance. For something alternative, make your way to Espace Julien for opérock, Afrobeat, reggae and hip-hop.

With a host of bars, bistros and nightclubs, your evening can go off with as much of a bang as you like. For a jazz, check out the upstairs hideaway of La Caravelle, with its great portside terrace. Or mingle with bohemian types at L’Intermédiare where there are regular music sessions from Blues musicians or new bands. There are also plenty of techno, house and hip-hop bars and clubs in which you can dance your way into the next morning.

If wine is your thing, one of the finest lists anywhere is available at the too-cool-for-school wine bar / restaurant, La Part des Anges. Or if you are a fan of pastis, venture to La Maison du Pastis, where you will find almost 100 varieties of the stuff.

After a day trudging the streets, a visit to a hammam is the perfect way to unwind. La Bastide des Bains would be my recommendation: with its authentic-looking stone and mosaic interior, scent of eucalyptus and ambient candlelit rooms, it’s basically impossible not to relax.

Once you have had your fill of Marseille, it is a fair bet the countryside will beckon. And while there are many well-trodden paths through rural Provence, if you really want to get away from the tourist trails, you should get on a bike.

There are numerous options for cycling holidays in the Provence region, either in organised groups or travelling independently. Virtually any starting point will allow for varied routes that take in a fine mix of manmade and rustic delights. The countryside is varied and engaging and there are numerous hamlets and villages to cycle to and through, many of which date back to Roman times.

Commencing in the Var Department of Provence, cycling from near the impressive Cistercian abbey, L’abbaye du Thoronet – one of three such abbeys in Provence known collectively as the ‘Three Sisters of Provence’ – can lead to a rewarding cycling trip.

The natural beauty of lakes, forests and gorges complements the many ruined mediaeval castles, Gothic churches and Renaissance chateaux in the area. There are many options for excursions if you fancy a day or two out of the saddle, such as kayaking through the Gorges du Verdon which is like being in the midst of a Lord of the Rings film set.

Lakeside villages, such as Bauduen, make perfect stopping off points to refuel and relax. Cycle on beside fields of lavender (of course), poppies and a plethora of crops which make you feel as if you’re gliding through a giant patchwork quilt.

Stock up on Pompe à l’Huile (sweet olive bread), Banon (goat’s cheese ripened in chestnut leaves) and vins Côtes de Provence (local tipples of choice) and set off on two wheels to pick the perfect spot for a picnic.

* Written by Dave Hanson on behalf of Headwater.com, recommended by 101 Holidays for cycling and walking holidays across France, Europe and further afield.

Jo Whiley’s tips on family holidays

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

By Mark Hodson

My son was 14 months old before we took him abroad for the first time. As new parents, my wife and I were not very brave. No backpacking with a papoose for us.

We went to a Mark Warner resort in Corsica and had a fabulous time, which I wrote about for The Sunday Times. And the trip was given a frisson of glamour by the fact that among the guests was the Radio 1 DJ Jo Whiley, who was with her own young children. We didn’t speak with her, but ever since I guess I’ve felt a small bond (and also admired her work on the radio).

Jo Whiley now has four kids aged from 4 to 20, and counts travel as one of her passions. “It’s important to me that my children get to experience different cultures and see the world, so we try to travel frequently as a family,” she says.

As you know, we are big fans of family travel and have a site dedicated to the subject, 101 Family Holidays. So we are always interested to hear people’s tips on travelling with kids.

Jo has made a short video about her own family holidays – in her capacity as ambassador for the American Express Preferred Rewards Gold Card – and it includes a couple of useful tips. One of the best is to invest in a simple headphone splitter, so kids (or parents) can listen together to movies or music. I’ve always got one of those when I travel. Here are Jo’s tips.

For more information visit www.amex.co.uk/gold

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