Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

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.

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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.

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House in Pollença

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

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By Mark Hodson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find out more from the tourist board.

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

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Great Ape! My treetop adventure

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

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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 http://goape.co.uk/

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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.

• As well as Aldgate, Marlin Apartments can be found at Empire Square (near London Bridge), Queen Street (near St Paul’s), Limehouse, Canary Wharf and Stratford.

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.

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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.

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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 www.chamonix.com.

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.

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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.

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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…..?

New York – as good as the first time

Friday, August 30th, 2013

By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

New York is one of my favourite cities. I’ve been five or six times and once spent a short stint working there. I love the energy, the attitude, the constant change. But I’ll admit something: nothing will ever match the visceral thrill of experiencing the place for the first time. You can never get that back.

However, I did recently discover the next best thing: take your kids. Visiting a city you love through the (wide) eyes of children makes you see it anew. It also means you can do all those cheesy tourist things you thought you were too cool for.

Earlier this month I spent four nights in New York with my wife Gillian and our kids Callum, 17, and Helena, 9. Rather than seek out the latest speakeasy on the Lower East Side – as I’d done on previous solo trips – we would be heading straight for Times Square and the Empire State Building.

Here are some of our highlights.

Helena ride

Cycling in Central Park

I’d been to the park many times but only on foot. I realise now I’d only seen a tiny fraction of it. Get on a bike and you can explore the whole marvelous elegant diversity of the place. As you long as you go between 10am and 3pm, the roads are closed to all traffic apart from official park vehicles, so the biggest hazard is joggers.

We rented cycles from Bike and Roll and excitedly whizzed around the 6-mile circuit. Then we did it again, stopping along the way to enjoy the many sights. Take a picnic and you can easily make a day of it. One of my favourite spots was the Conservancy Garden (pictured below).

Conservancy Garden

 Yankee Stadium

Sitting in the sunshine watching a baseball game unfold at the home of the Yankees is a classic way to spend a summer’s afternoon in New York. We bought tickets online in the UK (about $100 for four) and painlessly collected them on arrival. Admittedly, we didn’t understand every nuance of the game, but we certainly appreciated the beer and hot dogs.

view

Empire State Building

Yep, it’s a cliche, you’ll have to queue for an hour or more to get there, but the trip to the Observation Deck of the Empire State Building remains one of the great things to do in New York. Not only are the views sensational, but the story of the construction is fascinating and the Art Deco details of the building are stunning. Even if you don’t want to pay the entry fee, you should check out the stunning lobby.

Brooklyn Bowl

Who doesn’t love bowling? And there can be few cooler places to hit the lanes than at Brooklyn Bowl, a converted warehouse building in the hip neighbourhood of Williamsburg. The interior is beautifully retro-styled with brick walls, recovered wood and neon signs. In the evening it doubles as a music venue (the B-52’s are playing soon!) and is then for over-21s only, but on weekend afternoons families can rent one of its 16 lanes.

memorial

9/11 Memorial

Judging by the numbers of people filing in and out of the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the World Trade Center, I would think this is now New York’s most visited “attraction”. We booked tickets in advance from the website (they are free, but advance booking cuts your queue time) not quite knowing what to expect. I suspected it might be mawkish or overly nationalistic, but I found it thoughtful and powerful. A museum on the site was due to open this year. When it does, the experience will doubtless be much enhanced. But even now it’s well worth a visit.

water taxi

Boat trips

One thing you must do as a tourist is get on a boat and see Manhattan’s skyline from the water. Getting yourself photographed in front of the Statue of Liberty is also pretty much compulsory. If you don’t want to be a cheesy tourist, take the East River Ferry which runs from East 34th Street to Governors Island, stopping at Greenpoint, Williamsburg and DUMBO in Brooklyn, along with Pier 11 near Wall Street. It has an open-air top deck and is an absolute bargain at $4 for single ride, or $12 for a day pass.

The only problem with the ferry is that it’s so quick and efficient you barely get time to savour the view. So for the full-on tourist experience we also took the hop-on, hop-off New York Water Taxi which departs from South Street Seaport and loops around the Statue of Liberty with stops at Greenwich Village, West 44th Street, DUMBO and Battery Park. As well as being a good way to get about, the onboard commentary is informative and fun.

jazz

Washington Square Park

The long-time home of hippies, beatniks, students and protestors, Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village is packed with buskers, eccentric characters, children splashing in the fountains and lovers under the Washington Arch. Some of the old fellas strumming guitars look like they’ve been sitting on the same benches since the 1960s. I really enjoyed sitting in the shade listening to this talented jazz band (pictured above) led by the trumpet player Ryo Sasaki.

best pizza

Eating out

Every meal is a meal out in New York. That can put a serious dent in your bankroll, so we ate cheap. One of our favourites was Best Pizza in Brooklyn – it’s funky, friendly and authentic and the 20in cheese pie costs $18 and feeds a family. It was one of the best pizzas we’ve eaten. We also loved the burgers at Shake Shack near Times Square and the salads at Square Diner in Tribeca.

Brooklyn Bridge

Walking

Tell your kids that you’re planning to spend a day walking and the response is likely to be less than enthusiastic. But just get out there and hit the streets and they don’t want to stop, except for the occasional carb-and-sugar reload. My favourite walk was across the Brooklyn Bridge, towards Manhattan, at dusk. The views are astonishing, gently unfolding as you go, suspended over the roaring traffic below.

If you can take your eyes off the skyline there are plenty of information boards explaining the history of the bridge, a masterpiece of engineering. Did you know that when construction began, Brooklyn was the third biggest city in America and 50million ferry passengers crossed the East River each year?

* We stayed at the Affinia Shelburne in Murray Hill (great location) and had a one-day New York Pass, which is a great deal if you’ve got the energy to pack four or five attractions into a single day: you can include the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock, the New York Water Taxi, a choice of river cruises, all the main museums, plus a selection of guided food tours.

For more information on New York, visit the official website, www.nycgo.com

From wilderness …

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

panorama lake of sacacomie  in quebec canada

 

… to urban jungle

view

By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

One of the things I love most about travel is contrast. That might be moving from a simple beach hut to a luxury hotel and back again, or stepping out of a gourmet restaurant to eat dessert at a noisy street stall. The jarring change of gear seems to intensify the experience.

There are few greater contrasts than travelling from the pristine lakes and forests of Canada to the beating heart of New York City, as we found on our recent family holiday. After two nights at Sacacomie, a stunning log-built lakeside hotel in the wilds of Québec, we jumped on a train in Montreal and jumped off in central Manhattan.

Sacacomie is gloriously remote. It’s a 15-minute drive from the nearest settlement, which is just big enough to justify one set of traffic lights. The hotel itself has 100 rooms but sits in 500 sq km of forest with 42km of lake front. That’s a lot of space if you want to get away from other people.

I went kayaking from the beach with my daughter, Helena, and it didn’t take us long before we found ourselves in pure wilderness: no sign of other human life, just trees and water and utter silence. It’s amazing how rare such experiences have become in the 21st Century.

Helena kayak lake long helena hat

Sacacomie has a brief but interesting history. It was opened by a couple from Montreal in the 1990s, then burned down a week later after an electrical fire. Undeterred, the owners started again from scratch with a new design but sticking with the wood structure. The remodelled hotel opened in 1998, built using 250-year-old white pine. It’s a beautiful building.

The rooms are comfortable but simple: guests are rightly encouraged to get outside and enjoy nature. There are 65km of marked hiking trails and private lakes where you spend an undisturbed morning fishing for rainbow trout. Even sitting on one of the many balconies you can see brown squirrels and chipmunks.

One of the resident guides, a former fur trapper called Gaspard, took us through the forest showing us how he would set traps for black bear, lynx and beaver. I asked if he’d eaten the animals. “Yes, of course,” he replied in a thick French accent. “Lynx is very good, better than chicken.”

One evening we joined a Bears and Beavers excursion. We sat quietly in a hide for an hour, but the bears didn’t show up for their daily feed (the first no-show in a month, we were told). The beavers, at least, were more co-operative and our guide, Marie-Hélène, showed us how these resourceful creatures dam rivers and build lodges with air vents and escape routes.

The most fun we had was driving around the forest in a couple of Can-Am Commander off-road vehicles that negotiate the most difficult terrain at speeds of 40kph and more. Callum, 17, took a turn behind the wheel and decided that holidays with his parents weren’t so boring after all.

Sacacomie also has a world-class spa and an excellent restaurant. Dining highlights included leg of elk, black “boudin” shepherd’s pie and Appalachian venison.

For the quality of the experience, prices are reasonable. A two-night stay with breakfast, lunch and four-course dinner costs from CAN $353 (£215) per person. Under-4s stay free while under-13s sharing their parents’ room pay CAN $102 (£62).

It’s only a two-hour drive from this magical wilderness to downtown Montreal, a city we’d already fallen in love with.

The journey was seamless. We left our rental car at the central train station and took a lift upstairs to the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth, a large landmark hotel in Montreal built on concrete pillars above the rail tracks. In the morning we simply took the lift downstairs and boarded our train.

on board amtrak

Amtrak 68 to New York City

There’s nothing speedy about the train journey from Montreal to New York City. Amtrak 68 – known as the Adirondack – takes 11 hours as it shuffles across the border and edges slowing down the length of New York State, skirting lakes and stopping at small clapboard stations before following the picturesque Hudson Valley into Manhattan.

America’s trains are prehistoric compared to the high-speed services found in Japan or France. On the Adirondack, the buffet car was basic and passengers do not have numbered seats. But it’s much cheaper than flying, the seats are comfortable and the views are a constant delight.

At the border the train stops and US immigration officials come through the carriages checking the papers of each passenger. I’d been told this can take up to three hours but on this occasion it was quick and efficient, the officials were polite and friendly and we were off again in little more than an hour.

The one-way ticket costs just US $65 (under-16s US $32.50). You can book direct from Amtrak and collect tickets at the station, or if you’re planning a longer trip go through the specialist tour operator, Railbookers. There is a large food court in Montreal station where you should stock up on food and drink.

subway brooklyn bridge

Arriving in New York

The train pulled into Penn Station almost exactly on time, so much easier than arriving at an airport and then having to negotiate a long taxi ride. We had booked a room at the Affinia Shelburne in Murray Hill, just five minutes away by cab. This is an excellent hotel in a great location: it’s within easy walking distance of Times Square, Central Park and the Empire State Building, but it feels like a proper neighbourhood with corner shops, delis and diners. It’s also just a few minutes walk from an East River Ferry terminal, by far the most civilised way to get around New York.

From splendid isolation in the wilderness of Québec to the heart of the world’s most exciting city, via one of America’s great train rides. That’s the kind of contrast that gets my pulse racing.

* You can find out more about Québec from Bonjour Québec.

 

10 things I love about Montreal

Sunday, August 11th, 2013

cafe Vieux M

By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

The French have an expression, “Bien dans sa peau,” which roughly translates as “comfortable in its own skin”. It could be used to describe Montreal, a city that effortlessly combines European flair with American openness.

It’s been almost 12 days since we arrived here on our family summer holiday – we are staying in Montreal’s leafy suburbs on a house swap – and we’ve all fallen for the city’s gentle charms and the Quebecois way of life.

One of the things we enjoy about house swaps is the feeling that you are not so much a tourist, as stepping into somebody else’s life. We eat at local restaurants, watch local TV and spend a good deal of time at food shops and markets, buying ingredients for picnics and evenings at home cooking for ourselves. If you want to learn about a foreign culture, don’t visit a museum: go to a supermarket.

Of course ours is a limited view. I can’t tell you anything about the nightlife of Montreal, or its wealth of hotels. But I can at least share some of the things that I’ve loved most about this fascinating city.

Olympic tower

The Olympic Park

As I live in a city that has recently hosted a summer Olympics, I was interested to see what Montreal had done with the structures created for the 1976 Olympics. The iconic tower – the world’s tallest leaning building – still looks remarkably futuristic almost 40 years on. The trip to the top on a funicular that clings to the outside is a thrilling ride and offers great views across the city. The velodrome next door has been turned into the Biodome, a walk-through simulation of four American ecosystems, from the Arctic to the Amazon, complete with penguins, macaws, beavers and Atlantic cod. As legacies go, it’s mighty impressive.

helena cycling

Cycling

America may be a continent built for the car, but Montreal is a city dominated by bikes. It is said that in the Plateau neighbourhood (see below), 90% of residents own a bike. There is also a bike-share scheme that is widely used. Cycle lanes are clearly marked and respected by motorists. And it’s easy to steer clear of roads altogether. At Ca Roule overlooking the Old Port, we rented bikes for half a day and cycled 30km along the Lachine Canal and back along the St-Lawrence River, barely straying onto the roads. Another option is to cycle around the 4.3km Formula One track.

H at Chihuly

Culture

It’s not just the mix of European and American influences that gives Montreal an interesting cultural life. During the summer months the city lays on a seemingly non-stop calendar of festivals. Hang around downtown for any period of time and you can’t miss them. Montreal also has a decent collection of museums, many of which have free admission. The Musee des Beaux Arts is a highlight. We were lucky enough to catch an exhibition by the American artist Dale Chihuly who had created several monumental works of his distinctive brightly coloured blown glass especially for this show.

fruit market

The food

In spite of its French heritage, Montreal is not a city for gourmets. The food is mostly plain – tasty and filling – with lots of burgers, ribs, fried chicken and the peculiar local dish, poutine, which consists of chips doused in gravy and cheese curds (it’s a lot better than it sounds, and is great for hangovers). Having said that, we found a lot of good, inexpensive places to eat in Montreal. There are plenty of attractive neighbourhood cafes and our favourite cheap eats included Burger de Ville and Pho Bang New York in Chinatown. If you like fresh fruit and vegetables, plus wonderful patisseries, check out the city’s food markets. We particularly liked Atwater Market on the Lachine Canal.

metro art

The Metro

Montreal’s underground system is clean, fast, efficient and cheap. The stations are attractive, some decorated with modern art, and we never waited more than a couple of minutes for a train. Built in the 1960s, the Metro has some interesting features. The trains run on rubber tyres, which cuts down noise and allows them to climb steep inclines. Between stations the track runs downhill, allowing the trains to accelerate easily, then uphill as they draw into the next station, so they decelerate naturally, making them more energy efficient. Clever, huh.

bagels

The Plateau

Montreal is a city of neighbourhoods, the most interesting of which is Le-Plateau-Mont-Royal, known locally as the Plateau. This is where you’ll find those distinctive duplex and triplex buildings with outdoor steel staircases. It’s one of the most obviously French parts of the city, but also an area made colourful by waves of immigrants, including Hassidic Jews, Portuguese, Vietnamese and Salvadoreans. The Plateau is also Montreal’s principal hipster hangout. It’s not achingly trendy, but you will find a good smattering of cool cafes, vintage clothes shops and interesting restaurants. One place you shouldn’t miss is St-Viateur Bagel, where you can buy hand-rolled bagels fresh from the oven around the clock.

beer

Beer

Another misconception: I had assumed that Qubecers would be wine drinkers. Not so. The locally-produced wine I tried was unremarkable and the selection of imported bottles in our local supermarket was unimaginative and overpriced. But never fear: that’s just another reason to tuck into the excellent local beer. In addition to the familiar Molson and Moosehead, there are plenty of Belgian-style wheat beers and micro-brewed stouts, IPAs and Japanese-style red beers. My favourite was Cheval Blanc. (Another advantage of house swapping is that you pay supermarket prices: about 60p per bottle).

planetarium

The Planetarium

Earlier this year a new visitor attraction was added to the Olympic site. Montreal’s Planetarium consists of a small permanent exhibition – including an interesting collection of meteorites – and two large domed purpose-built theatres, each offering a different show. At the first show, Continuum, visitors lie on bean bags and gaze up at an immersive artistic “cosmic poem” set to the music of Philip Glass. If that sounds pretentious, it’s not. It’s truly stunning. The second show, From the Earth to the Stars, is a more conventional planetarium experience, showing the slow-turning night sky followed by a virtual journey from Earth into outer space. This is a world class attraction.

jet boating

Jet boating

It might look like a cheesy tourist river excursion, but Jet Boating on the St-Lawrence River is an exhilarating and genuinely astonishing thrill ride. It was the Lachine Rapids that led to the birth of modern-day Montreal: so many ships floundered on the rocks that pilots were required to help them negotiate the white water, then a canal was built in the early 19th Century. Today you can experience the power of those rapids on a flatbed aluminium boat that speeds out of the Old Port. Even wearing full-body waterproofs, we were soaked to the skin. So huge are the waves that crash over your head that it feels as if the river is inside the boat. It took a long while to wipe the grins off our faces.

Downtown Montreal

Walking

For a North American city, Montreal is remarkably good for strolling. The Old Town and downtown districts are sufficiently compact that you can easily spend a whole day sightseeing without resorting to motorised transport. Pedestrian-friendly traffic lights and careful and courteous motorists make walking an easy and fun option and, if the weather turns, you can always head below ground. The so-called Underground City is said to be the world’s biggest network of covered and underground walking, stretching more than 33km and including shopping malls, cinemas, bowling alleys, skating rinks, museums and hotels. Not all are underground and some are bathed in natural light, making it possible to spend days on end without ever emerging into the street. If the weather is fine I’d recommend you stay in the open air, but it’s a fascinating phenomenon and an intriguing idea.

* Thanks to Tourism Montreal for helping to organise our itinerary. Check out their website for more inspiration.

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