Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

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.

courmayeur

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.

khalifa

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…..?

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.

House exchange in Canada: bigger and better

Thursday, August 8th, 2013
House and pool

Good deal: we traded a terraced house in London for a large home with pool near Montreal

By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

When I was working full time for The Sunday Times, I wrote several articles about house swapping, but never tried it myself. Then five years ago I took the plunge. A summer holiday in Montpelier followed in the autumn by a few days in Paris and our family was hooked.

After further trips to France and Spain this summer we decided to go big and do a home swap in Canada. We lucked out with a four-bedroom detached house with a large garden and pool in the leafy suburbs north of Montreal. We’re now using it as a base to explore the city and the surrounding countryside of Quebec.

After 12 days in this house we will spend two nights in the remote lakeside Hotel Sacacomie then take a train from Montreal to New York City where we will stay four nights. Yes, it’s a big trip – the first time our family has been away for three full weeks – and that’s partly because my son, Callum, is 17 and this could be his last family holiday with us. Or at least the last obligatory one.

So how’s it going? Well, one week in and in the words of my nine-year-old daughter Helena, “this is the best family holiday ever”. In short, we are loving Canada.

Coming from a small country, it’s easy to dazzled by the sheer size and scale of Canada. Everything from the cars to the meal sizes are big (not necessarily a good thing, of course). But more than that, we’ve been impressed by the beauty of the countryside, the civic pride, the seamless mix of European style and American openness, the easygoing attitude of the people we’ve met and the efficiency of the public transport system.

I’ve been particularly taken with the outdoor attractions. We spent a day this week at Acro Nature, a treetop adventure centre an hour’s drive north of Montreal in the Laurentian hills. We had been to one of these types of places in the UK and enjoyed it, so we knew what to expect. Or at least we thought we did.

But this is Canada. Rather than a few ropes and wobbly bridges followed by a zip wire descent, Acro Nature has built a vast three-hour course high in the forest canopy, including no fewer than 21 zip wires. We were given detailed instructions then told we were on our own: getting around the course was our responsibility. If we got in trouble we could yell for help, but we were basically fending for ourselves. In a real forest.

It was challenging and exciting and fulfilling, and as we made the final descent down a 830ft-long zip wire, we all had huge grins on our faces.

Here’s Helena bombing down one of the zip wires…

In Montreal itself, we went jet boating on the St-Lawrence River. This, I assumed, would be a fun and fast family excursion. But this is Canada. It turned out to be one of the most intense and exhilarating thrill rides of my life.

That’s because these powerful flatbed aluminium boats leave the Old Port of downtown Montreal and travel to the Lachine Rapids, a treacherous stretch of white water that is central to the history of the city. It was because so many ships floundered on these rapids that a canal was built in the 19th Century alongside the river, around which Montreal flourished.

Jet boat passengers are warned to bring a change of clothes and a towel. I confess we didn’t take this seriously, thinking regular rain gear would suffice. It didn’t. We got completely soaked from head to toe as the boat plunged into the foaming surf and huge waves crashed over our heads. It was both absurd and hilarious, and I suspect it would have been outlawed in the UK on health and safety grounds. But this is Canada.

jet boating

Absurd and hilarious: jet boating on the St Lawrence River, Montreal

Also in the Laurentian Forest is Mont Saint-Sauveur, a modest ski resort that during the summer months is turned into a picturesque water park set on a lush mountainside. I have a love-hate relationship with water parks. I enjoy the rides, but I’m not so fond of the ugly concrete structures, the long queues and the bad food.

This one was different. There were trees and meadows, ski lifts to take you to the top of the rides, plenty of places where you could grab a sun lounger and sunbathe. Oh, and some breathtakingly exciting rides. One ride, Colorado, sends you on a raft down some serious rapids. Another, Viking, is a toboggan that descends 1km through the trees at speeds of up to 35kph.

This is Canada. And we are loving it.

Colorado

The Colorado ride at Mont Saint-Sauveur

* We arranged our home swap through Homelink and booked our flights with Roundtheworldflights.com. Our activities have been arranged by Tourism Quebec. Also see: 10 Things I love about Montreal.

A return to Egypt: not if but when

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

sphinx

By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

Exactly one month ago today I was floating down the Nile on a small cruise boat, exploring 4,000-year-old temples and watching timeless riverbank scenes slip slowly past under a scorching desert sun.

Egypt is now a different place, torn apart by an alarming new wave of violence amid talk even of civil war. And yet the message from the ancient stones seemed to be this: all things will pass, time will march on, order will be restored.

And when it is, I will be jostling for the front of the queue to return to this compelling, fascinating, beautiful, baffling country.

Because once you’ve experienced Egypt – its ancient treasures, its swirling energy, its warm and passionate people – you will be hooked. You will understand why last week the Association of Independent Tour Operators rushed out a press release to claim – a little rashly, in my view – that “holidaymakers should not be worried about holidaying in Egypt in the near future”.

I won’t try here to explain the political situation. I can’t. I’m not going to say when it will be safe again to visit Egypt – that’s the job of the Foreign Office (currently it advises against all non-essential travel to Egypt, except for the Red Sea resorts including Sharm el Sheikh, Taba, Nuweiba and Dahab).

But based on my own limited impressions from a short visit to Cairo, Aswan and Luxor, here a few things I believe to be true.

Egypt is one of the world’s greatest tourist destinations

Most of us learned about the mysteries of Ancient Egypt while still in school. Who is not enthralled by tales of mummies, hidden tombs and Tutankhamun? In Cairo you can stare into the boy king’s death mask and climb inside the Pyramid of Cheops, the last standing Wonder of the Ancient World.

Cruising along the Nile is surely the most evocative, relaxing and endlessly fascinating way to travel. And it’s only five hours flying time from London, with the most glorious winter climate.

Even before the latest turmoil, tourism was in pieces

The Arab Spring of 2011 created a period of uncertainty in Egypt that decimated tourist numbers. There may have been no actual threat to foreign nationals, but tourists dislike uncertainty and stayed away. This resulted in great hardship: thousands of hotel rooms lie empty, hundreds of cruise ships are moored up on the banks of the Nile, many people are out of work.

Without the crowds you will have an amazing experience

Even last month, before the latest turmoil, the huge slump in tourist numbers meant that our small group often had ancient temples entirely to ourselves. At the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where in the past you might have queued for 45 minutes for a glimpse of Tutankhamun’s treasures, we had time to linger over them, untroubled by other tourists.

Fine, you may be thinking. But Egypt will always be there. I can go in five years, 10 years time. In fact, a spectacular new Grand Egyptian Museum costing $815 million is planned to open near the Pyramids at Giza in 2015. It will have a whole building dedicated to the treasures of Tutankhamun. Let’s wait until then.

True. And yet … Egypt needs tourists before then. Not just to bolster the country’s national deficit, but simply to ensure the tens of thousands of hotel staff, drivers, guides, boatmen and market traders can earn enough to feed their families this week and next.

And if you go before the crowds return – before the coach loads of Russians and Chinese descend – you will be welcomed with open arms and warm smiles.

I am biased, of course. Last month’s trip was sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent, a luxury tour operator that employs many local people and owns Sanctuary Retreats, which has four luxury cruise boats on the Nile. In Cairo I stayed at the Four Seasons First Residence, a five-star hotel on the river bank. I sailed from Aswan to Luxor on the Sanctuary Sun Boat III, regarded as one of the finest boats in Egypt. A crew of 45 was on hand to attend to the every whim of just 18 passengers. It would make a perfect honeymoon.

Prices will be low

Egypt was already a good-value destination, but it will get cheaper still. Because Abercrombie & Kent is deeply invested in Egypt, it needs to encourage tourism and it knows that the surest way to do that is to cut prices. It has slashed 50% off the price of its cruises until the end of 2013 with an additional “safety net” – if you feel uneasy about travelling you can postpone your trip at any time for a further two years. Details here.

If you book by the end of September, Abercrombie & Kent will sell you a 7-night Nile Cruise from £995 including full board, guided tours, international flights and transfers, saving a total of 65%. Using the “safety net”, you can then defer it for up to two years.

It also has 40% off next year’s high season prices – January to April 2014 – when the same cruise will cost £1,295. Find the best time to visit Egypt.

No doubt there will be many prices quoted lower than this.

If you are concerned about travelling to Cairo – even once the Foreign Office declares it safe – you can fly into and out of Luxor in the South of Egypt. You could spend a few days in Luxor then take a cruise on the Nile.

Even if you consider yourself an independent traveller, Egypt is one country where it pays to travel with a tour operator. You will be looked after at every step of the way, with teams of experts ensuring you are rested, well fed, safe and relaxed. An experienced guide is essential to bring the antiquities to life, and you’ll be grateful for that air-conditioned minibus…

Yes, you will be hassled

Let’s be honest – you will experience hassle from shopkeepers and touts. Vendors at the ancient sites have few tourists to target, so you will be pestered. They are known locally as “crocs”, an apt nickname. One or two tugged gently at my sleeve, but really that’s not their style: charm is their usual weapon of choice.

If you want to buy souvenirs – and you should – you’ll find real bargains. Of course you will need to haggle hard, but shopkeepers are desperate to sell. Much of their stock is visibly ageing, and they need cash to feed hungry mouths. Buying that cheap trinket or headscarf can make a real difference.

For those that love Egypt, it’s not a matter of if, but when.

hatshepsut temple

Temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Luxor

vendors

Vendors descend on a tourist bus at the Valley of the Kings

temple

You’ll have temples like this to yourself

pyramid

We all know they are big, but nothing will prepare you for sheer immensity of the Pyramids

Lap of luxury

I took this six-second video on board the Sanctuary Sun Boat III

Things come together in Ghent

Friday, June 28th, 2013

graffiti boat trips

SWBy Simon Willmore

Our boat bobs leisurely though the old Graslei harbour and I notice the different shapes that comprise the Ghent cityscape. The soaring cylindrical turrets of the Gravensteen (‘Castle of the Counts’), and the gleaming conical roofs of St Nicholas’ Church, look out protectively over the waterside cafes and artisan chocolate shops, which have charming square-cornered pyramidal frontages.

I wonder if I have never noticed such variation before because I’ve never moved slowly enough to actually look around – I’m assured that this is the best way to see the city by our tour guide, and not only because of the importance of waterways in Ghent’s history.

Even the city’s ancient name, ‘Ganda’, comes from the Celtic word for ‘confluence’ – in this case, the meeting of the Rivers Scheldt and Lys. In addition, this particular tour is on an electric boat, a reminder of Belgium’s passion for the eco-friendly.

The canal boat glides elegantly past the throngs of locals who are relaxing by the water. Young people, old couples and families wave eagerly but without looking like they’re trying very hard, in a kind of continental cool that transcends age barriers.

This effortless style is epitomised by our deadpan tour guide, from De Bootjes van Gent. We sip champagne and listen to a Flemish Jimmy Carr as he points out the sights, in such a way as to rouse enthusiasm without once actually sounding inspired.

This seems to encapsulate the Belgian way of life: never too excitable or dramatic but oozing pride and patriotism. This is a city where even the graffiti features pictures of men wearing sports outfits and baseball caps – but proudly holding up local food produce in this case, a cuberdon (purple nose-shaped sweets).

quayside

For the inside track on the best food in Ghent, take a brilliantly-named ‘Nibbling Tour’ with VIZIT. The bubbly Lynn will show you the best cheeses, hams and – of course – chocolate in the city. Be sure to visit the Van Hoorebeke chocolatier near the harbour. The family-owned company has been making traditional treats, which will indulge even the least sweet-toothed, since 1982.

Stroll across the canal to the Belga Queen for a coffee on the waterfront, but don’t miss going inside to have a look around. The décor includes glass bridges and restyled industrial walkways and – this is a sentence I never thought I would say – some of the coolest toilet doors I have ever seen. The glass is transparent when the toilet is available, but becomes opaque when you lock the door.

As our boat pulls in to dock, the UNESCO’s World Heritage-listed Belfry of Ghent, the tallest of its type in the world, looms imposingly into view. Its booming rectangular structure somehow tessellates perfectly with the pyramidal frontages and the cylindrical turrets in the architecture. It seems that even dominating the skyline is done with an air of quiet grace in Ghent.

Getting there

Eurostar offers ‘Any Belgian Station’ return fares from £79. The journey (London St Pancras to Gent Sint Pieters) takes approximately three hours and requires a change at Brussels (Bruxelles Midi). For more information or to book, visit www.eurostar.com or call 08432 186 186.

Simon Willmore was a guest of Eurostar and Tourism Flanders-Brussels. He stayed at the NH Gent Belfort, where room prices start from €89 per night.

* Photos by Simon Willmore

Ghent modern

My visit to Warwick Castle

Monday, June 17th, 2013

warwick castle idiot

Helena portraitBy Helena Hodson, age 9

I went with my mum and dad to spend a day at Warwick Castle and it was amazing. The castle is huge and dates back to 1345 and there are lots of things to see and do. Here are my top five:

1.      The Archer: He was dressed in mediaeval costume, fired arrows and told us lots of gruesome stories, like how a very unfortunate French soldier was pinned to his horse by two arrows shot into his thighs. This was my favourite part of the day because the archer was very funny and a great actor.

2.      The Mighty Trebuchet: A trebuchet is a humongous catapult. First the man told us all the facts about it, like it was Europe’s largest siege machine, and when they fired it, I couldn’t believe my eyes! It travelled so far at such a high speed, it was incredible.

3.      Victorian Classroom: What I loved about this was that they told you facts while you pretend to be a Victorian schoolchild. Although I have to say, the rules were very strict! You can find it in the Vile Victorians section.

4.      Kingmaker: You go underground and walk through cellars, seeing a series of scenes (with waxworks made from Madame Tussauds) showing everybody from treasurers, blacksmiths, costume makers to the king getting ready for battle. I’m sure everyone would be feeling really excited but nervous at the same time.

5.      The Jail: Even though it was very small, I really loved it. When you came in, it was really dark and gloomy. There was a place to hang people’s bodies until they rotted away. At the end I saw a pit with nothing inside it. I saw that it was a place where prisoners were put as an extra punishment. And seeing as there was a hole in the side of the wall, that was where everyone’s poos and wees went. Gross!

Editor’s note: Warwick Castle is located in the centre of Warwick and is open every day from 10am except Christmas Day. Tickets cost from £22.80 (children £15.60; under-3s free). Save up to 25% by booking online.

trebuchet-1

Trouble in Turkey? Nah, it’s plain sailing

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

Nemesis

By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

I recently returned from a magical week sailing the turquoise seas of south-west Turkey, leaving behind the cosmopolitan port of Bodrum to discover hidden coves and pretty harbours.

As I write this – almost a month later – barricades are being set up on the streets of Istanbul. Does that mean that travel to Turkey is now a risk?

Not according to the Foreign Office which only advises “British nationals to avoid all demonstrations”. As before, there are certain parts of the country it suggests you don’t visit, including the border with Syria. Unsurprisingly. But there’s no reason not to book a holiday in Turkey this summer, particularly if you are heading for the coast.

In fact, Bodrum is 500 miles and 11 hours by road from Istanbul, further than London is from Cologne. To stay away from this beautiful and enchanting country because of security fears would be a gross error, and could have damaging effects on its people, many of whom rely on the tourist industry for their living.

If my experience was anything to go by, you won’t find any tension on the streets of Bodrum, and things will get even more idyllic when you set sail across the sparkling Aegean.

I joined a group of friends to charter a 25m-long wooden yacht, Nemesis, sailing the waters around the Bodrum Peninsula and Datca Peninsula, surely one of the most beautiful and least-spoiled coastlines in this part of the world.

We were joined by Loes Douze, the founder of SCIC Sailing, which is based in the Netherlands and operates just four yachts in the region, including ours. She claims to offer something different to the many local yachting companies, including a truly international clientele: most of her customers hail from Holland, the UK, Scandinavia, South Africa and Canada.

She also promises flexibility, freedom and the chance to travel under sail. “Most companies have fixed itineraries, so to get from one harbour to the next they can’t rely on the wind. They need to turn on the motor. In fact, some crews don’t even know how to sail,” Loes explains.

charts  dock

“We don’t have fixed itineraries. It’s up to the captain and the passengers and depends on the wind. We try to sail as much as possible. I find that people enjoy that approach.”

I certainly did. Each morning, our captain, Selo, who has worked with Loes for the past 20 years, would gather all the passengers to pore over the charts, and he would propose a route for the day. Before sunset we would find ourselves either moored up in a pretty harbour, or in a deserted bay where we could swim in the limpid waters before dinner was served on deck. There were few objections.

Another thing that makes SCIC (pronounced “chic”) unique is that Loes personally puts together the groups, and even offers a sort of platonic matchmaking service. If you try to book a week and she doesn’t feel you’d enjoy the company, she will suggest an alternative.

“My customers are about equally divided between singles, couples and groups that charter the whole yacht. I’m careful not to mix families with young children with older couples, for example. A lot of my clients have sailed with us before, and I will put people together who I think will get on. And sometimes if people don’t sound right I will suggest they don’t book at all.”

Really? She turns away paying customers?

“I had a pair of ladies who were very specific about where they wanted to go – they wanted to drink at a bar every night. I told them we don’t work like that. I don’t know where the boat will end up each day,” says Loes.

That serendipity was certainly a part of the charm. But so was the yacht itself: all polished wood, classic curves, groaning timbers and flapping sails. The cabins were small (although each had an ensuite bathroom) and the water in the shower wasn’t always piping hot, but there were plenty of sunbeds and comfortable chairs on deck. I only ever used my quarters for changing and sleeping.

At the end of the first day at sea we weighed anchor in an idyllic bay of crystalline water, framed by steep green hillsides that glowed crimson in the dying sunlight. We swam, ate a dinner of squid and sea bass, then watched a velvety black sky shimmer with stars.

The food was excellent throughout. Nothing flashy, just classic Turkish dishes and salads, all fresh local ingredients, expertly cooked.

captain  cnidos

One day we visited the village of Bozburun for the weekly market. This isn’t aimed at tourists – rather than fake Gucci handbags, you’ll find vegetables, household goods and light farming equipment. While the crew stocked up on fresh food, we bought dried cranberries, spices and nuts, all for pennies.

On another day we visited Cnidos, an ancient and abandoned city with a 5,000-seat amphitheatre set in a steep hillside overlooking a natural harbour. The road to Cnidos is treacherous, but arriving by yacht is a breeze. And the place was almost deserted. Every year 3 million visit Ephesus, Turkey’s most famous ancient site. Cnidos, by contrast, gets just 15,000 annual visitors.

Towards the end of the week, the crew moored the yacht at a quiet bay and set up a barbecue on the shingle beach. We enjoyed a torchlit dinner of skewered meats and mezes, gazing back at the shimmering lights on the yacht. It was perfectly quiet, completely idyllic, with little to tell us that we were in the 20th Century, let alone the 21st.

So here’s what I think. If you’re looking for a relaxing, slow-paced yet sociable holiday – and your idea of luxury is simple fresh food and idyllic settings, rather than five-star bells and whistles – sailing in Turkey might just be for you.

* A week’s sailing with SCIC Sailing costs from €899 (£770) to €1,013 (£867) per week including breakfast, lunch, five dinners and all drinks including alcohol. EasyJet flies to Bodrum from Gatwick and Stansted – my flight cost me £250 return. Airport transfers can be arranged on request.

** Turkey specialist tour operators recommended by 101 Holidays include Exclusive EscapesCachet Travel and Peter Sommer Travel.

The Cary Arms, Devon

Friday, May 31st, 2013

The view from our Commodore Room, The Cary Arms

By Catherine Leech, Director, 101 Holidays

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

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

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

The pretty terracesRose CottageCrabbing nets for the kidsDogs are welcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Trip To Legoland

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Helena portraitBy Helena Hodson, age 9

Legoland Windsor is bigger and better than ever because of two new attractions – Splash Safari and Drench Towers in Duplo Valley. Last Sunday I went with my best friend Talia and our dads. Even though we arrived at 9.45am and stayed until it closed at 6pm, there was more than enough to do in one day. It was an amazing day out and we really enjoyed it.

As soon as we got there, we hired some Q-bots. These are devices which you can use to reserve rides – the Q-bot does the queuing for you. It will beep when it’s your turn, meaning you can go on other rides and “queue” at the same time.

All the rides were great, but my favourites were Viking River Splash, which is an exciting water ride, The Dragon, which is a rollercoaster, and Spinning Spider, which is like spinning teacups. I also loved Laser Raiders, where you shoot mummies and skeletons with a laser gun, and the Atlantis Submarine Voyage, where you go underwater and see lots of tropical fish and sharks.

The new Drench Towers in Duplo Valley looks fantastic, with water slides and a giant brick that tips loads of water on you – I wish I had brought my swimming costume!

There is a lot more to Legoland than just the rides. There are lots of other attractions and you don’t need to queue for them. Miniland is a miniature Europe with all the main sites built out of Lego. It’s very realistic – we saw Big Ben, the London Eye and Wembley Stadium (although where was the Eiffel Tower?). I also loved the Lego animals which are spread out around the park.

On my favourite ride, the Viking River Splash, part of the fun was that when you were not on the ride, you could spray people with water jets. I managed to spray a few people in the face!

Be warned: if you go on the wet rides, be prepared to get soaked all over. Take a poncho or cagoule because the ones you buy at Legoland are £3.50 (which is quite expensive), or you can pay to stand in a whole-body dryer, which costs £2.

I liked the Driving School, but it was a bit annoying because there was not a reverse so when I had an accident and drove into the pavement, the man had to turn me round to get me going again!

When you get to lunchtime, I would advise you to bring your own drinks, as they are a bit expensive. You can also bring your own food and eat out on the grass, although the sausage sandwiches we had were yummy.

My 5 top Legoland tips

1. If it is a busy day, then buy a Q-bot

2. Get there early and go to the big rides first, like The Dragon and Laser Raiders

3. Take a poncho for the water rides

4. When you first arrive, don’t take the hill train because it will slow you down

5. Don’t forget to take your swimming costume

How to do it

Legoland is open every day until 9 September and then on selected dates until 4 November. Entry costs £34.20 for adults, £27.45 for children, if booked online. The Regular Q-Bot costs £15 per person. More details on the website. Next month (1 – 30 June) is Minifigure Month at Legoland with a Minifigure swap shop, treasure trail, meet-and-greets with Minifigure costume characters and a free Minifigure for every child.

H T Lego

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Traverse 2013: review and highlights

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

Traverse Brighton

SWBy Simon Willmore

This weekend saw the launch of Traverse, a new travel blogging conference designed for people that don’t have an entire week to spare for TBEX or TBU. Founded by Michael Ball and Paul Dow, along with a team including Dylan Lowe, its aim was to connect bloggers, PRs, tourist boards and travel companies in a two-day event at the Clarendon Centre, Brighton.

The event was slick and yet casual, with a huge amount of information on offer – almost too much, as delegates had to choose one of three talks at any one time. However, this allowed the presentations to be held on just one day, with the rest of the weekend for networking. The atmosphere was relaxed with a couple of great social events and bloggers from all over the world. For an inaugural conference, the weekend was a resounding success.

Here’s my pick of the weekend’s talks (although others that I missed looked great, too).

chat talk

Creative Travel Photography with Tom Robinson

Tom Robinson, who has had photography published in magazines including Lonely Planet Traveller and CN Traveller, says the most critical part of his job is “capturing the light”, which is easier at the beginning or the end of the day. Morning light tends to be bluer while evening night is more yellow, so bear this in mind when composing the shot in your mind.

Tom splits types of photos into three genres:

Landscape, that reflects in the location of the subject but also needs a focal point in the foreground.

Portrait, which may be a head and shoulders shot or an environmental portrait which explains who the person is. This may not necessarily need to focus on their face. It could be their basket of fish, for example.

Detail, which may be a cup of coffee or something specific to the region

He mentions the importance of symmetry in an image and the need to keep a “consistent tonal range of light” – if necessary, use a white t-shirt as a reflector to improve the lighting.

The well-known Rule of Thirds is well-explained by Tom’s more commonplace phrasing: either shoot “a lot of sky and a bit of land” or “a lot of sky and a bit of land”, choosing whichever is the most dynamic as the majority of the image. The horizon should always be straight and you need to keep the edges of your frame “clean” – that is, either keep a focal point (be it a person or an item) fully inside the image or leave it out.

For lighting effects, Tom recommends Adobe Lightroom and says the Vibrance effect is a great way to improve the interest of an image, which he always “shoots raw” (which creates an uncompressed data file on your camera and needs special software to be viewed).

For an instant improvement to a portrait shot, “put anyone next to a window” says Tom. If it means asking them to move, so be it, but be humble – and ready. By that, Tom offers great advice about approaching people he wants to shoot:

Point your camera to the ground so they know that you haven’t started shooting yet. Be direct and point to the camera to indicate you want to take a picture, but be friendly. Already have the setting at f4 or f4.5 (the lower the number, the less of the complete image is in focus so landscape should have high settings like f11) so you don’t have to play with the camera when they say yes. As you shoot, move your face back and forth from behind the camera so they can see you, and you’ll probably have a maximum of five shots to take before they become awkward – and it’s usually the first one or second image that will be the best.

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Tom Robinson is a London based location and portrait photographer

 

 

Tips for Digital Storytelling on the Road with Liz Scarff

Liz Scarff from Fieldcraft, a communications consultancy, has worked on projects for international NGOs including Save the Children UK and has helped to raise awareness for an under-reported food crisis in West Africa as well as raising funds raised for vaccine programmes. With a need to always be active online, she offers a couple of handy hints:

* Pack a four-bar power adapter so that, even if your accommodation only has one socket you can charge all your devices.

* Buy a local SIM card to avoid roaming costs – if the signal is especially weak where you are, it may be worth having  a couple of SIM cards on different providers so you can swap networks and see if the reception is stronger.

* Set up SMS updates for Twitter so you can still post even if there is no mobile internet.

Liz also mentions that it’s necessary to bear in mind the time differences between your location and your audience’s. There’s no point posting great content if nobody is awake to read it.

lizLiz Scarff is the award-winning head of Fieldcraft, a communications consultancy

 

Kirsten Alana’s Top Tips for Mobile Photography

During one of the ‘Pro Bar’ one-on-one meetings, I asked Kirsten Alana, a photographer, writer and TV host, her top five tips on mobile photography.

* Treat your smartphone as a camera. Now smartphone cameras are no longer ‘point and shoot’ devices, with changeable exposure settings and editing software, “take it seriously and you’ll be amazed what you can achieve.”

* Traditional photography methods should still be observed. The Rule of Thirds and negative space should still be considered; just because your smartphone is not a ‘proper’ camera, proper photography rules still apply.

* Know when to use a smartphone and when to use a DSLR. Kirsten Alana is so passionate about iPhoneography that she actually no longer owns a camera and simply rents one if she thinks she needs it – this includes when she’s on safari and knows that the subject matter will be far away. You need an actual zoom lens rather than just a digital zoom function.

* Much as photographers use lenses, iPhoneographers should use apps to achieve different results. Kitcam is great for editing as you shoot, use VSCO for filters, and Piction for text-over-image editing.

* For photo-blogging, collages are really effective. The Diptic app lets you put up to 10 images together in a collage, then you can sync across your devices with DropBox, ready to post straight away.

kirsten-alanaKirsten Alana is a photographer, writer and TV host

 

 

Advanced SEO with Adrian Land

Recently, SEO has gained a bad name, says Adrian Land, Head of Inbound Marketing at My Destination. However, it’s an essential part of the marketing process, because, ultimately, a higher ranking in search engines means more visits to your website – and more press trips and so more work for bloggers. He presents his rules of thumb for “Wholesome SEO”:

Firstly, it’s crucial to realise the difference between SEO and CRO (conversion rate optimisation). The aim of SEO is to rank highly in search engines, ie. ‘be on page one of Google’, and the goal of CRO is to then maximise the number of visitors that are converted into customers. (In the sense of a travel blogger, this would most likely be to click on advertising on your site.)

SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) are becoming more and more personalised, depending on your location and previous web use – this is one of the reasons mobile web is becoming so much more important, because it can use your GPS to optimise the search even further. That is, if you were to simply type in ‘pizza’ while in Brighton, you would get a list of Italian restaurants near you.

There are three types of relevance to consider when “trying to understand a searcher’s motives”: brand or navigational, which is related to your company’s name or website; transactional, linked to actions like purchases; and informational, for example “stag do in Magaluf”.

The Panda, Penguin, Venice and EMD (Exact Match Domain) updates have all affected SEO recently. The first two have served to downgrade sites with poor quality content, like those featuring keyword stuffing (adding out-of-context keywords into copy) and unnecessary anchor text (the visible text in a hyperlink). The Venice update has helped to optimise search for location, again thanks to mobile internet, and the EMD edit has taken away the benefit of just having a relevant domain name with no quality content.

Page Rank, and so website quality, is defined by the frequency you appear and ‘depth of crawl’, so web designers should make easily accessible, clean-looking sites that are easy for the Google systems to navigate. Having a strong and relevant ‘snippet’ (the title and short description that features on your Google listing) is paramount and you need to update regularly.

In terms of social media and driving traffic to your site, Facebook doesn’t help significantly with optimisation but it does help to build a community around your brand so you can create positive reviews and link building – ‘organic’ link building, in the sense of customers referencing your company. Twitter and Google+ help to broadcast your presence, but the key sites to remember are StumbleUpon and Reddit, which are, according to Adrian, hugely overlooked.

Finally, always be sure to do your keyword research. This includes interesting examples, like spelling Mallorca ‘incorrectly’ as Majorca for a British market as this spelling is more popular here. Also, for affluent New Yorkers, you may be wise to reference ‘holidays’ instead of ‘vacations’ as for the rest of America as this word is now use more often.

adrian Adrian Land is Head of Inbound Marketing at My Destination

 

 

Pitching to PRs with Ruth Haffenden

Social media is really difficult to place in the marketing / PR world, begins Ruth. Nowadays, content can be defined as ‘paid, owned or earned’, but social media can overlap – think of the difference between a guest post that you create for their website and a tweet that mentions them but is your own content.

To pitch smartly and effectively – don’t use vague phrasing such as ‘I would love to work with you in the future” – create a page on your site and downloadable file that mentions:

* Your brand: what you stand for, how and what you write

* Stats: unique visitors, page views, site subscribers, social media following (for only the channels that are significant)

* Readership: demographic, social profile, income, interest – if you don’t know this, ask your audience

* Verification: endorsements, awards, testimonials, syndications or associations you belong to

Strong examples are Wild Junket, Velvet Escape and Travels of Adam. Think of your Media Pack as your CV and your email to the PR agent as a cover letter, and tailor the pitch to each destination / hotel. Consider who the PR agency wants to represent and their objectives, plus verify that your customer bases overlap. Offer case studies and always follow up: if you have something else about the PR’s client published at a later date, let them know as it will help to strengthen your relationship.

Ruth_Haffenden2Ruth Haffenden is a social media specialist at Four Communications

 

 

Five Minutes with a Lady in London and a Legal Nomad

I spoke briefly with Julie Falconer, better known as A Lady in London, about the best use of each social media channel:

1. Facebook: use this for community building and encouraging people to engage with your brand; learn from friends and tell stories

2. Twitter: post links and pictures to amplify your branding message and drive traffic

3. Google+: interact with communities with similar interests and share content in order to assist your SEO goal

4. Pinterest / Instagram / Flickr: post different images than on your other channels, for example pictures of products to keep visual content varied

5. LinkedIn: work on partnerships, career advancement and practice networking

Ultimately, Julie says each platform deserves its own approach, even if the overall strategy is the same, and reminds us that “social media is a dialogue, not just about pushing information out”.

Jodi Ettenberg from Legal Nomads builds on this by telling us to use social media streams as a way to engage and build relationships, also mentioning Skype as channel. You should be able to show your true personality and export qualities that let people see you as a valuable voice with interesting tastes.

julie-falconerJulie Falconer is a London-based travel writer, consultant and blogger.

 

 

For more reports and comments about Traverse, follow the Twitter hashtag #traverse13

 About our writer

SWSimon Willmore’s travel writing has been published in ABTA Magazine, the National Geographic Traveller blog, and TNT. He has a degree in Civil Engineering and has written a book about his experiences living in Grenoble, and is currently in talks with publishing houses. Follow him on Twitter.

Portugal’s Alentejo is a corker

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

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Amy-DoneganBy Amy Donegan

“They are cork trees and a huge source of income for Alentejo,” replied our guide José in answer to my query about the strange-looking specimens.

Amidst carpets of green, yellow and white flowers, the cork trees are a key feature of the Alentejo landscape. Each tree must be harvested by hand-axe once every nine years, and can produce €500 worth of cork.

Post-harvest, the trees acquire a striking two-tone appearance. “We say they are blushing because they’re naked,” smiled José.

Hidden amongst groves of these mature cork trees (they really are everywhere) is Portugal’s answer to Stonehenge. Discovered in 1966, the Almendres Cromlech is one of Alentejo’s archeological mysteries dating back to the 6th millennium BC. The site is one of the largest collections of menhirs in Europe and makes a great, free family outing.

Situated approximately 130km outside Lisbon, Évora is the capital of the Alentejo Province. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986, the city is characterised by labyrinths of cobbled alleyways, a historic centre and a well-preserved Roman Temple.

cork treesstreet

A sight not to be missed, Évora’s unique Capela dos Ossos (or Chapel of Bones) lies next-door to the Church of St. Francis. Decorated with more than 5,000 human remains, the chapel was originally built by a Franciscan monk who wanted to depict the transitory nature of life. At the entrance, visitors are greeted by a chilling inscription that heeds the warning “We, the bones that are here, await yours”. For a piece of 16th Century history with a spooky twist, enter if you dare.

Originally a 15th-Century Monastery, the Convento do Espinheiro lies a 10-minute drive away from Évora. Guests are offered a host of activities inspired by the region, including wine-tasting with old military bayonets and spa treatments overlooking the Alentejo landscape. You can also try bread-making, using the same techniques that belonged to the monks who inhabited the monastery between 1458 and 1834. If you prefer basking in the Portuguese sunshine, you can always take a quick dip in the pool or visit the nearby beach. Prices for a double room start at around £130 per night with a breakfast buffet included.

A recently-crowned UNESCO World Heritage Site, the fortified city of Elvas has guarded the Portuguese/Spanish border for centuries. Throughout its history, the fortifications’ unique design has helped Portugal survive a number of sieges, most notably from the Spanish in 1658 and 1711.

Take in the spectacular views from the top of the fortifications, stand where the Duke of Wellington once fought or pay a visit to the 17th-Century aqueduct that used to provide clean water to the city’s inhabitants. Here, it is clear that history is an important part of the Alentejo culture; anywhere you go you will be (in José’s words) “immersed in the middle of it”.

A visit to Alentejo would be incomplete without some gastronomic delights. Set amidst a backdrop of Mediterranean hills, the 7,000-acre Herdade da Amendoeira (Almond Farm) offers its guests an abundance of gastronomical goodies made on site, including liquor, honey and cheese. My taste buds were tickled by the bubble and squeak-esque ‘migas’ and the ‘nuvens escondidas’, or ‘hidden clouds’ – a dessert consisting of cinnamon, caramel, egg whites, sugar and a little pinch of lemon designed to melt in the mouth. It certainly did just that.
Blushing trees, rich gastronomy and a preservation of the past; this quiet corner of Portugal has it all. You won’t find the hustle and bustle of the Algarve here, but instead, an intimate insight into real Portuguese life.

* Amy Donegan was a guest of Turismo de Portugal. She travelled to Portugal with TAP Portugal, which flies from Heathrow and Gatwick to Lisbon with return fares from £115 including taxes. Find out more about the Alentejo region.

Our editors recommend Sunvil Holidays, which offers a range of trips to the region.

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