Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

Getting under Gozo’s skin

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

Catherine Leech  By Catherine Leech, 101 Holidays

Approaching Mgarr harbour

I’ve been to Gozo 20 or more times since 1980 – it’s one of my favourite places on earth and I thought I knew it pretty well. However, a recent walking and cycling holiday around this minuscule Maltese island in the Med has left me feeling I have truly got under its skin.

It’s fair to say that the ‘mother ship’ island of Malta has changed dramatically in the last 35 years, with vast resorts, attractions, busy roads and busier people but Gozo has managed to retain its sleepy rural charm, a place where the skyline is still dominated by church steeples and domes rather than high rise hotels and the economy remains firmly underpinned by agriculture, fishing and low-key tourism.

Luzzu - traditional fishing boats

Even getting there has changed not a jot – the 25 minute ferry crossing from Malta’s northern tip is part of the charm, passing the Blue Lagoon of Comino island en route to Mgarr harbour, dotted with colourful ‘luzzu’ fishing boats.

Church in Xewkija, Gozo, Malta

Gozo is dotted with honeyed stone villages, each with its own church (Xewkija’s Church of St John the Baptist has the world’s third largest unsupported dome) and surrounded by stone-walled fields, vineyards and terracing. All that is wrapped up in a coastline of sandy beaches, tiny coves and inlets, vertical cliffs and – one of the island’s most popular sites – the Azure Window, a stunning natural archway.

The Azure Window

It adds up to the perfect holiday on two legs or two wheels.

Headwater offers both walking and cycling holidays – or you can combine the two. You are self-guided but the company’s detailed route notes mean that it’s almost impossible to get lost and there’s always a choice when it comes to how far you want to travel each day.

Coastal walk - Magarr to Xlendi

Walks range from 4km to 16km – underfoot can be rocky and there are a few gentle climbs but it’s not strenuous and a decent pair of walking shoes is all you need. My favourite walk is the 12 winding kms from Mgarr harbour to Xlendi, a pretty inlet. The terrain varies from herb-scented ‘maquis’ and flower-filled fields to dramatic cliffs and azure inlets. Coastal watch towers, dating back to the Knights of St John, dot the horizon and it’s worth stopping for some top snorkelling in Mgarr ix-Xini.

Xwejni salt pans

Unless you opt to take a picnic and a dip in the sea, head to Zafiro in Xlendi for a delicious – and very reasonable priced – lunch. We struggled to pay more than €20 pp for 2 generous courses and a bottle of wine. If you’ve started out late, it’s hard to beat the freshest of seafood, served simply grilled at Mgarr ix-Xini’s beachfront cafe. It was the base for By the Sea, Brangelina’s movie (scheduled for release in November 2015) – Malta’s ‘glitterati’ have been flocking there in their gin palaces ever since.

Headwater bikesDelicious cheese pastizziSnorkelling at Ta' Kantra

The only bicycle I’ve ever owned was a Raleigh Chopper – I’m showing my age! I wasn’t convinced I would enjoy the cycling but couldn’t have been more wrong. Headwater’s top quality bikes are fitted to each customer and I quickly learned how to use the gears – and brakes! Panniers to hold water, sunscreen and other essentials (perhaps some cheesy Pastizzi or a tasty ‘Ftira’ – a kind of pizza unique to Gozo, best enjoyed hot from Maxokk Bakery in Nadur) are also provided.

Spectacular views to Ramla beach

Our 24km cycle ride from Sannat to San Lawrenz was as varied as it was jaw-dropping – we had stunning views of the red-gold sands of Ramla Bay from Calypso’s Cave, cycled past the ancient Roman salt pans at Xwejni and gawped at poignant displays of photographs, letters to Our Lady and no-longer-needed false limbs at the spectacular Sanctuary of Ta’Pinu. Yes – Gozo is fervently Catholic. Many of the older churches could be mistaken for a Baz Luhrmann movie set – think Gothic drama and Baroque splendour meets red and gold rococo in a feast for the eyes and soul.

All that exertion, of course, makes where you stay take on an added sense of purpose. You want comfort, a pool to cool off in, perhaps a spa for some limb soothing relaxation and great food. That’s where the Headwater formula is so bang on the money – we stayed in two luxury hotels.

Ta Cenc Hotel

Ta’ Cenc has long been a personal favourite of mine – single story stone buildings with gobsmacking views across the channel to Malta and the sort of warm welcome which makes you feel instantly at home. In March, it was too cool in the evenings to dine out on the terraces but there’s a superb restaurant where dinner is included in the price.

The Kempinski Hotel, in San Lawrenz, is a more modern affair but no less impressive and welcoming. The Ayurvedic treatments in the spa are particularly good and I was very impressed with the newly-refurbished Junior Suites – definitely worth the price of an upgrade.

Seafood at Mgarr ix-XxiniLook out for spectacular door knockersRikkardu's Gbejniet cheese

My top travel tips to Gozo

Head straight from the ferry for a cooling drink at the iconic Gleneagles Bar, overlooking Mgarr harbour – where gnarled local fishermen exchange stories with holidaymakers and the balcony has arguably the best view in Gozo.

The water surrounding Gozo is crystal clear. It’s a bit chilly until June – and like bath water in September and October. My favourites are San Blas (there’s a 2€ tractor ride back up the 1:2 hill if you’re too tired to manage it) and Ramla beach.

The local food is super-tasty and always served in generous portions. Rabbit dishes, hearty pasta, fresh grilled swordfish and tuna, squid, octopus and sheepsmilk cheeses (tiny rounds, known as gbejniet) are my favourites.

Gozitans take their food – and increasingly their excellent wine – very seriously. For an insight in to artisanal skills, head to Ta Mena Estate to taste traditional, own-grown foods, wines, oils and liqueurs, and stop by Ta’ Rikardu, within the Citadel walls, to see Rikkardu himself make his own cheeses. His peppered gbejniet, tomatoes, olives and crusty ‘hobz’ Gozitan bread are like eating sunshine itself.

The best snorkelling is in the inlets – Mgarr ix-Xini, the Inland Sea and Ta’ Kantra (site of the Ta’ Cenc hotel’s beach club).

Village festa - Ghajnselem, Gozo

Time your holiday to coincide with one of the village festas – a thrilling cacophony of marching bands, local food, fireworks, flags and vast crowds. Many take place in June, July and August (when it’s too hot for walking and cycling) but there are some in May and September. The Easter parades in most villages are as spectacular as they are moving.

It’s fair to say that exploring on foot and two wheels left me feeling that not only had I got under the skin of the place but also that Gozo has buried itself deep under my skin. I can’t wait to return.

Headwater Holidays offer single-centre and hotel-to-hotel walking and cycling holidays in Gozo from £957 pp for seven nights including half-board hotel accommodation, flights, transfers, detailed route notes and bicycle hire. Air Malta flies from 12 UK airports. Find out more about Gozo here.

Is Seville the sexiest city in Europe?

Wednesday, 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.


La Giralda

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.


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.


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


Performance at the Museo del Baile Flamenco

One night of luxury: Review of Lucknam Park

Tuesday, 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.

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

Friday, 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.


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?

Friday, September 5th, 2014


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.


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.


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.

IMG_3884 IMG_3964 IMG_3931 IMG_3935

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.



Great Ape! My treetop adventure

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014


Helena HodsonBy Helena Hodson, age 10

Last weekend I visited Go Ape in Crawley with my mum and dad, and my friend Alex. We had a great day out. Luckily the weather was hot and sunny so we could make the most of our day.

Go Ape is a thrilling treetop adventure. You make your way along 34 exciting crossings and five zip wires (the longest is 142m) with your friends and family. Surrounded by the beautiful, scenic countryside, whilst up in the air, the views are fantastic.

Go Ape is loads of fun (especially climbing through the air and acting like monkeys) yet completely safe, as long as you listen to the instructors and follow the rules. It takes two to three hours to complete the course and there’s a beautiful grassy area overlooking a lake where you can enjoy a picnic.

After going through the safety briefing, we were taken to a practice area close to the ground, to experience what Go Ape is like. Then we were left to do it ourselves.

When I first got in the treetops, I felt a buzz of excitement. The first zip line was exhilarating. I didn’t hold on to the rope, knowing the harness would keep me safe.

Some of the bridges were harder than others, but the extremely challenging ones had easier alternatives, but I tried all the hard options, sometimes failing miserably!

As Go Ape is not the most glamorous activity, I advise that you wear old clothes and dress appropriately for the weather e.g. a waterproof if it’s raining. Go Ape doesn’t allow you to wear flip flops, sandals or open-toed shoes, and recommends you wear boots with ankle support. Also you do need a small amount of physical strength for some crossings.

Gradually the rope challenges get harder, but you’ll be ready by then, as you will have practised with more simple crossings. Don’t worry if you’re afraid of heights, just try and go up there; maybe you’ll surprise yourself.

I had a great day out with my friends and family. I hope to return soon. To find out more, please visit


London short break with teenagers

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Empire Square View-1

By William Gray, Editor of 101 Family Holidays

Have you noticed how hotel rooms shrink once you have children? Squeeze a travel cot or a child’s bed into your average double room and the floor space is reduced to roughly the area of a bath mat. Getting from one side of the room to the other is like negotiating a soft-play area – and that, of course, is exactly how your kids treat it.

Our twins are 13 now. Gone are the days when they’d ransack the mini milk pots on the complimentary coffee-making tray and run relays up and down the hotel corridors. As teenagers, their chief priority when it comes to hotels is to have their own space and ideally not share a room with their parents. That’s all well and good if you can afford it, but we recently discovered a much better value option for a city break in London

Marlin Apartments have six locations in the city, with rates for a two-bedroom premier apartment starting at around £150 per night, or £100 per night for a one-bedroom apartment with an additional sofa bed.

We booked two nights at Marlin’s Aldgate property – a short stroll from Aldgate East tube station. Located on the 13th floor, our two-bedroom apartment had panoramic views across North London and east towards Canary Wharf. While our teens made a beeline for the floor-to-ceiling picture windows in the lounge, their vertigo-prone parents checked out the apartment’s facilities

As well as two spacious bedrooms (one ensuite), the apartment boasted a bathroom, kitchen, lounge and dining area. It had all the touches of a top quality city hotel room – wifi, posh toiletries and contemporary furnishings, but with the space and freedom of a family apartment – squishy sofas, dining table and chairs, plus a well-equipped, full-size kitchen.

Marlin offer extras, such as breakfast packs, late checkout and even an in-room spa service. Ultimately, though, it’s location that matters most on a family city break.

aldgate-01Canary South Penthouse Living Room2-1

Aldgate East Underground is just one stop from Liverpool Street Station where we hopped on a No.23 bus heading west to Oxford Street. With teenagers in tow, you won’t get far in London without a pilgrimage to the city’s shopping mecca – but the advantage of going by bus is that you can squeeze in some sightseeing en route at St Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus.

Aldgate is also well positioned for seeing some of London’s landmarks on foot. A ten-minute walk from our apartment, St Katharine’s Dock is always popular with teenagers. They love ogling the flashy yachts and launches moored along the boardwalks – especially if you treat them to smoothies at one of the dock’s many outdoor cafés.

A little further on and you find yourself on the banks of the Thames, with Tower Bridge and the Shard punctuating the London skyline in their very individual and dramatic ways.

The View from the Shard – London’s highest viewing platform at 244m – costs a head-spinning £87.80 for a family of four (and that’s if you book a day in advance). Walking across Tower Bridge, we found a Strada restaurant on the South Bank with fabulous and free – albeit river level – views – and good value family food.

When it comes to sightseeing in the area, it’s a close-fought battle between HMS Belfast and the Tower of London. We opted for the latter. A family ticket costs £59 and includes entry to the Crown Jewels and an hour-long guided tour by one of the Tower’s iconic Yeoman Warders. Ours was a particularly charismatic Beefeater, his booming sergeant-major voice rattling off gruesome anecdotes about the Tower’s 950-year history, interspersed with the kind of jokes that go down well with teenagers:

“Which way is the Bloody Tower?”

“Through the bloody arch and turn left up the bloody steps.”

Allow at least a half-day to do the Tower justice. If you’ve got the energy, other local attractions include Whitechapel Gallery and Spitalfields Market. Alternatively, hop on a riverboat at Tower Pier and take a leisurely cruise upriver to Westminster or downriver to Greenwich.

Is Chamonix the best ski resort in the world?

Monday, February 10th, 2014

skiing off piste

selfieBy Mark Hodson

Among the most popular tourist attractions in France is the Aiguille du Midi cable car in the Alpine resort of Chamonix. Last year it clocked up 450,000 visitors.

Interestingly, only a brave few of those visitors planned to ski off the top, which sits at a head-spinning 3,777m. Most take the 20-minute ride just to admire the view, which is still spectacular even on a cloudy day, because you are so far above the clouds.

The attraction is busiest during the summer months when Chamonix is a one-night stop for many Asian tourists on a whistlestop tour of Europe. This year it is likely to become even more popular with the opening of Step into the Void, a 2m x 2m box of clear toughened glass suspended 1,000m over the mountains below. It’s a thrilling new attraction, included in the price of the cable car ticket.

Step into the Void

Last month I spent three days in Chamonix in a new four-star hotel – L’Heliopic – located a few metres from the bottom of the Aiguille du Midi cable car station. Any excuse is a good one for me, because I believe Chamonix is the greatest mountain resort in Europe, and possibly the world.

Chamonix is a thrilling ski resort – better for experienced snow hounds rather than beginners or families – but it’s a lot more than that. The venue for the first ever Winter Olympics in 1924, it oozes heritage and authenticity, and it’s a real town with a sizeable year-round population. It has kind of the aura and prestige that a resort like Sochi might achieve in another 100 years or so.

The Heliopic is a stylish modern hotel newly built at a cost of €15million and exclusively featured in the UK by Inghams Holidays. The design is slick and modern – lots of grey and stone – and there’s a fabulous spa in the basement that makes a perfect apres-ski destination. There’s a ski shop, a deli and takeaway, a kids corner, wifi throughout the hotel and some attractive family rooms with cabin beds.

Chamonix is arguably the best Alpine ski resort for a short stay of two or three nights. It’s only an hour’s drive from Geneva and there are plenty of hotels rather than chalets (which often need to be booked for a week). It pays to rent a car at Geneva so you don’t spend your limited time waiting for bus connections to the various slopes.

Our small group of journalists had planned to ski the Vallée Blanche, a popular high mountain route that links Chamonix with the Italian resort of Courmayeur about 20km away. It’s a thrilling day’s outing for which you need a guide, so you can negotiate the snow bridges and avoid the potentially deadly crevasses.

We hired a guide from the excellent Evolution 2 school, who put us through our paces on the Grands-Montets. This is one of the most exciting ski areas in Chamonix, particularly if you take the cable car to the very top at 3,275m, where the only way down is a vast unpisted black run offering stunning views across the valley to the glassy blue mass of the Argentiere Glacier.

snow off piste

It was tough skiing but we were deemed capable enough to tackle the Vallée Blanche the next day. Until … the clouds came down. We woke in the morning to discover the entire valley swathed in thick cloud making the trip impossible, and – because the best thing about the Vallée Blanche is the views – frankly pointless.

Fortunately, weather in these parts can be extremely localised. So after checking the forecast on our smartphones, we jumped in the Evolution 2 minibus and drove through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmayeur.

This may seem a wild extravagance, but if you pay a little more for the Mont Blanc Unlimited ski pass, rather than the regular Chamonix pass, Courmayeur is included.

When we emerged at the other end of the tunnel, the scene was magical: brilliant sunshine and perfect skiing conditions. We booted up in the car park and took to the slopes, lapping up the rolling blues and swift reds for which Courmayeur is renowned.


We took one dramatic off-piste route from the top of the Arp cable car, a tiny ancient contraption with only room for about six people. There are no pistes at the top but the views down into the empty expanses of the Dolonne valley are sensational. It took up 1 hour 20 minutes to negotiate our way down, across a vast bowl of powder, then down steep bumps and finally onto a narrow forested track that criss-crossed a small stream.

We lunched at La Chaumiere, a gorgeous family-run restaurant with a sun-drenched terrace overlooking the slopes. The pasta dishes – all around €12 – were superb and we shared a bottle of locally-brewed HY beer which is served in a champagne bottle, packs a punch at 11% proof and costs a weighty €19.

Even if you don’t get to ski the Vallée Blanche, Chamonix won’t disappoint. To get the most from it, hire a guide and a car, get the Mont Blanc Unlimited ski pass – and be prepared to change our plans depending on the conditions.

How to do it

Seven nights half-board at the Hotel Heliopic costs from £815 per person including flights from Gatwick to Geneva and resort transfers with Inghams Holidays (01483 791 114). Flights are also available from Cambridge (+£29), Southampton (+£29), Bristol (+£29), Exeter (+£29), Birmingham (+£29), Manchester (+£39), Leeds-Bradford (+£39), Newcastle (+£29), Edinburgh (+£49), Glasgow (+£59) and Belfast (+£59).

A 6-day Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass costs from £189. The Chamonix local pass costs from £175. More details about the resort at

Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore Dubai

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

Burj Khalifa view

By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

Dubai – more than any other travel destination – divides opinion. Most people I know either love it or hate it, and that’s just the people who’ve never been. For many holidaymakers Dubai now represents the height of aspirational travel – glamorous, fast-paced and relentlessly sunny.

I recently returned from my fourth visit, and one thing I can say for sure: this is a city that doesn’t stand still.

I first stayed in Dubai about 15 years ago in a new hotel on the beachfront. My room at the back of the building looked out on endless desert and nothing else. Today from the same hotel – if it still exists – you’d barely see a slither of sand beyond miles of concrete and glass.

One of the interesting things about Dubai is the way its creators have shifted its centre of gravity, not once but several times. The city originally thrived beside the Creek, a saltwater inlet that became home to a tax-free commercial port. The streets along the waterfront still hold some attractions for tourists, including the famous gold and spice souks, and you can pay £1 to take a ferry ride across the water, as people have done for hundreds of years.

Most sunseekers now spend the majority of their time in the gleaming edifices that line Jumeirah Beach, and it’s here that you’ll find a large chunk of the tourist hotels in Dubai. Some of these are breathtaking in their ambition and scale.


In the past couple of years the epicentre of Dubai has shifted once again to a new $20billion area of high-rise development known – rather confusingly – as Dubai Downtown. This is where you’ll find the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa (pictured above) and the Dubai Mall, which claims to be the world’s largest shopping mall, with 1,200 outlets.

There are plenty of new hotels popping up in the Downtown area, including the five-star Conrad Dubai where I stayed on a recent visit. This is a slick and austerely beautiful hotel aimed primarily at business people but currently attracting large numbers of leisure visitors.

My first thought was: why would tourists choose to stay away from the beach? But after spending a couple days Downtown, and not even going near the seafront, I could see how it might make sense, particularly if you are among the many visitors taking a short stopover in Dubai before flying off to the Maldives or Mauritius. After all, the beach isn’t the most impressive thing about Dubai. Not by a long stretch.

So I stepped out of the air-conditioned comfort of my 42nd-floor room at the Conrad (where at the touch of a button the curtains part to reveal stunning views of the sun setting over the Arabian Gulf) to explore Downtown.

COnrad view

First, the Dubai Mall. Shopping isn’t a hobby of mine, but this is an impressive place, not just for the spending opportunities, but for the soaring interiors, the ambitious public art and the many things to do. There is an Olympic-size ice rink where you can rent skates and hit the ice for £9, a 22-screen cinema and an aquarium with a glass wall so big that you can see much of the marine life inside without buying an entry ticket. If you do pay up, you can take a walk-through perspex tunnel to view more than 400 sharks and rays.

The prices in the shops aren’t especially cheap compared to the UK, but the choice is phenomenal. With a huge array of places to eat, it’s not inconceivable that you could spend all day in a shopping mall. I wouldn’t, but I’m sure that many would.

As you walk out of the mall into the blazing sunlight, you come across a vast artificial lake surrounded by restaurants with outdoor seating. The skyline is dominated by the elegantly asymmetric Burj Khalifa though closer to ground level are a number of buildings apparently designed to look like authentic Arabian houses. The whole place has the feel of a Hollywood film set.

The manmade lake holds one of Dubai’s newest attractions, a choreographed fountain display that is – as you’ve now come to expect – the largest in the world. Built at a cost of $218million, it fires water 150m into the air and is illuminated in the evening – when displays are held every half hour – with 6,600 lights. It’s an impressive sight, as you can see from the video below.

And so to Burj Khalifa where a single lift takes you to the observation deck on the 124th floor, about 450m above street level. This is only just over half way up the building but it’s an exciting and fast ear-popping ride skywards, and the views are well worth the £20 entry fee. I particularly liked the virtual telescopes which allow you to switch between daytime, nighttime, live and historic views, revealing how just a few years ago this whole area was nothing but sand.

I took a taxi – one of the few real bargains in Dubai – back to the Conrad, where I spent a couple of hours sunbathing beside the pool, which is set in a walled garden on the seventh floor.

The hotel sits along a 10-lane highway that buzzes with traffic around the clock, but as the palm trees sway overhead and a DJ plays bass-heavy dance music, you’d never know it.

But then nothing is quite what it seems in this larger-than-life adult playground, a soaring city built on sand where the money comes from who knows where. Love it? Hate it? I’m still not really sure.

How to do it

British Airways flies direct from Heathrow to Dubai 21 times a week. The lead-in non sale fare starts at £528.85. Nightly rates at Conrad Dubai start from £183 room-only for a King Deluxe room, excluding 10% tax and 10% service. I was a guest of BA and Conrad Hotels.

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…..?

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