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Monthly Archives: March 2017

Club Med all-inclusive ski holiday in Chamonix

A confident skier and a beginner does not make a good coupling for a ski holiday in the Alps. One wants to scale the mountain highs and zip down with the wind. The other topples over awkwardly on the skis with every second snow plough.

Yet at Club Med this combo of holidaymaker works. The skiing (and snowboarding) experience that Club Med offers is sensational. It caters for all ski abilities from beginner, through to intermediate and seasoned.

How does it work?

Skiers are grouped into lessons of a maximum of 12 people based on ability. The groups retain the same instructor for the week who moves onto more difficult slopes as you improve. The groups travel across the domain, so there is no risk of boredom. Those that improve faster than the rest of the group can join a more competent group and those that need extra coaching will be able to get it.

None of us in the beginners group had previous ski experience, yet by day five we were able to descend a blue slope unscathed and with some competence. Seasoned skiers are taken off-piste safely with their guide and back to safety if things go wrong.

Skiers have the option to go it alone, but that would be missing the point of a Club Med holiday and of course the pleasant camaraderie of group skiing.

What about the kit?

The convenience factor is especially appealing. Their packages include all the ski hire, ski passes, tuition and transfers between the different ski slopes as well as lunch at nearby restaurants.

The company has several resorts in France and we chose to holiday at their Chamonix Mont Blanc in the Rhone-Alpes region in south-eastern France. After checking-in we were provided with a wrist band that gives access to the all-inclusive package and sent us to the bar for drink our or two.

Accommodation

The rooms are pleasant enough, if somewhat basic. The walls were dressed in a friendly shade of blue with a white trim to denote melting snow, but they are small. There is a shelving unit and a space (not cupboard) to hang clothes and a pair of curtains that don’t quite fit the windows. Oh and a tiny en-suite shower cubicle. The loo is separate.

I longed for a warming bath after long days on the ski slopes but in the absence of this luxury, the hamam, sauna and outdoor swimming pool did the trick, which is all included in the package. I managed to squeeze in an Ayurvedic massage to relieve the après-ski muscle stress in the Cinque Monds spa, which incidentally is a service that is not included in the package.

Food and drink

Dining is a major social aspect. Tables are for eight people so socialising is easy. A buffet breakfast, lunch, dinner with wine (just one style of country white and one basic red) and even cakes and biscuits at tea time were both ample and delicious. But eating in the same dining hall can get a little monotonous. Another restaurant, the Refuge offers an a la carte menu of Savoyard cuisine. With seating for just 50, getting a booking proved difficult. Those that did have the pleasure recommended the fondue, raclette (semi hard cow’s cheese) and pierrade (various meats cooked on hot stone).

Though this is highly polished ski-focussed resort, not everyone wants to ski and for those the company arranges walking groups to explore the region and the awesome alpine views.

What is Chamonix town like?

The town of Chamonix is just a minute walk away from the hotel, and is, I hate to use a cliché, as pretty as a picture. Gorgeous architecture houses a lovely range of shops and restaurants along dainty streets that fan out from a couple of pretty squares. All this is hemmed by a mountainous backdrop that is particularly stunning when the sun rises or sets and throwing off an orange hue on the mountain peaks.

The Montenvers rack railway is at the edge of town and it goes to just one destination – Mer de Glace (ice sea). This is one of the biggest glaciers in Europe. We took, perhaps foolhardily, the 350 steps to descend to the ice tunnel which looked spectacular from the station viewing points. Inside though, there was a light show that emanates from the walls and every now and again, an ice sculpture. I couldn’t fathom the point of the tunnel, but we visited it, because it was there.

Need to know

The resort has altitudes between 3 295 m and 1 050 m
46 ski-lifts ; 67 snow cannons ; Snowpark. (Grands Montets)
182 km of ski runs: 12 black ; 21 red ; 31 blue ; 16 green.

Club Med packages include return flights, transfers, accommodation, taxes and tips, all meals and snacks and an open bar drinks, afternoon tea, snacks. Also included are the ski pass, group lessons and ski hire and free access to various fitness and spa facilities. Free stay for children under 4 years.

Closest airport to Chamonix is Geneva.

Exploring the Highlights of Japan

Japan is cherry blossom, and Japan is Hello Kitty. It’s neon signs, sushi, and it’s Sony, Nikon, and Nintendo. But beyond the brands and stereotypes which Japan exports, you will find a culturally rich, and a surprisingly diverse, country of fascinating sites to explore.

Tokyo – a megacity

The chances are that any visitor will fly into Tokyo, a mega-megacity with nearly 40 million people living in the metropolitan area. The skyscrapers soar towards the heaven, and the city glitters with lights, but behind the modern veneer is a city with a long and illustrious history.

The Imperial Palace, still home to the Emperor of Japan, sits amongst formal gardens; there are numerous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples; and Tokyo National Museum and the city’s other galleries have world-class collections on show.

Allow time to walk around the city. Seek out the various shopping centres such as Ameyoko Arcade, the city’s only open-air pedestrianised market and the shopping centre at Hachiman-dori for its enjoyable mix of high and low end shopping.

Hakone – Shinto and Fuji

From Tokyo you can reach Hakone on a day trip: it’s a little over an hour’s drive away. Historically this was the site of an important Shinto shrine, the Hakone Gongen, which lies on the shore of Lake Ashi. There has been a shrine here since 757, though the current structure was rebuilt in the late 16th century.

It’s within the UNESCO-listed Hakone Geopark and the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, and the snow-capped peak of Fuji (which means “mountain” in Japanese, so you don’t need to say Mount Fuji) is just as captivating as it appears in the ancient woodblock prints.

If you have the time, go out on a boat trip on one of the lakes, visit the islands and hot springs, and hike to the Shiraito Falls, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Nagano – see the snow monkey

The mountainous region of Nagano — accessible from Tokyo on the bullet train — gets some of the heaviest snow fall in the world, and yet, remarkably, people still manage to live here. If you are interested in learning about the area’s history, walking pilgrims trails and staying in heritage pilgrims’ hostels, Walk Japan’s is the best way to explore this wintery wonderland.

If you are feeling less energetic, take a trip instead to the Jigokudani Yaenkoen Park, famed for its naturally occurring hot springs. You won’t be the only one in the pool, however, as the local Japanese macaque (also known colloquially as snow monkey) roll in the snow and then hop into the steaming hot springs to warm up!

Kyoto and the cherry blossoms

Kyoto is Japan’s touristic heartland, and understandably so. It was Japan’s Imperial capital for more than 1,000 years, and 20 per cent of the country’s national treasures are located here. Of course it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and during hanami (cherry blossom season) from late March to May, the city is packed with visitors.

This is the cultural centre of Japan, its history, arts, and people. There are an extraordinary 2,000 temples and shrines, and Kyoto is also the ideal location to learn about the art of the Japanese tea ceremony, the highly stylised Noh theatre, and ink and wash painting. Lovers of architecture and aesthetics will be in their element.

Osaka – shopping and street food

Osaka, on Osaka Bay on the island of Honshu is the country’s second largest city. Always a city of merchants, it’s a great place to shop, and it’s arguably the food capital of the world. Feast on udon (noodles), takoyaki (fried octopus), and oshizushi (pressed sushi), and expect to develop a taste for sake, the local rice wine.

Several large festivals are held in Osaka throughout the year, including Tenjin Matsuri in July, where you’ll see river boat processions and fireworks, drummers, lion dancers, and ornate floats with with plenty of people in costumes. The city has a vibrant night life especially around Dotonbori where a maze of tightly connected streets hums with bars, restaurants with extravagant facias.

Year on year, Japan is rated as one of the safest travel destinations in the world. It’s not a cheap place to visit, but what you can guarantee is that Japan will challenge and exceed your expectations, from the first petal of cherry blossom, to the very last sip of sake. It’s one of Asia’s most enthralling countries, and once you’ve had a bite of Japan, you’ll be desperate to return.

Places Experience the Northern Lights in Autumn

When most people think of the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), they imagine frozen lakes and several feet of snow. But, believe it or not, there’s a better time to go and hunt that once in a lifetime experience – autumn.

Why Northern Lights in Autumn?

For a start, it’s usually much warmer than the deep artic winter, so you won’t normally have to get kitted out in snowsuits or ski-gear. There is a chance of some snow and it’s not going to be tropical, but jeans and a heavy jacket will usually do the trick – maybe with a thermal vest underneath if things get a little chillier.

Most importantly for the avid Aurora Borealis hunter is that the snow clouds have not yet gathered in earnest and so the skies are much clearer. Cloud cover is the enemy, so the better the weather the better your chances of a sighting.

The lights are at their most frequent in late autumn, but the later you go the more the risk your hike will turn into a snowshoe trek so it’s your call.

September 21st is the start of the season so any time after that and you should be in with a good shot.

While September, October and November can produce Auroras to match any of the deep winter months there are no guarantees any time of year.

The longer you stay and the more time you set aside the higher the chance you’ll see one or more displays. We’re also currently in the liveliest phase of the eleven-year solar cycle so now is the time to seek out this fickle phenomenon.

As well as the lights, there are a wealth of other things to see that are unique to the autumn months. While in winter some wildlife are still up and about, there are so many more that are active in autumn. It’s a particularly good time for bird watching as it’s the migratory season.

The autumn colours in the forests provide an unbelievable backdrop to see the lights, as the contrast between the amber tones of the trees and green of the Aurora is simply mystical, all made more intense by the depth of the darkness that surrounds it.

Where to see the Northern Lights?

As the name suggests, you’ll need to head north to catch a glimpse of the Lights’ ethereal show but beyond that it’s up to you as there various options to choose from.

Norway

Norway is definitely a northern lights hotspot, particularly the town of Tromsø, which teems with Aurora Borealis activity when those long summer days end and autumn makes its appearance. It sits above the Arctic Circle, but is astonishingly easy to get to – less than a two-hour flight from Oslo. The town also boasts a planetarium for some more sky-based fun, and the world’s most northerly brewery for something a little more corporeal.

Finland

Finland is a firm favourite for Aurora hunters, and probably the first place that comes to most people’s minds when they start planning their trip. For a full-on Aurora experience, head to Luosto in Northern Finland to the Aurora Chalet where you’ll be given an “Aurora Alarm” which beeps once Northern Lights appear – but don’t worry, they usually don’t go off after 1am so you’ll still get some sleep! For something a bit more activity-based, head for Lake Inari, Finland’s third largest lake for spectacular hiking and camping. One of the really special things you’ll experience here in autumn is the lights being reflected in the vast lake that would be frozen solid in winter, giving you the incredible sensation of being surrounded by this magical effervescent light.

Canada

If you fancy heading further afield and your budget can stretch a bit, Canada is a great option, although the best lights are at the very end of autumn and into winter so it will be colder. The Yukon is one of the world’s great wildernesses and the town of Whitehorse is a prime viewing spot. If you decide to head out into the vast wilderness, make sure to take a guide who knows the areas, and to let someone know where you’re going and roughly what time you should be back – safety first!

Tips for seeing the Northern Lights

Make sure to get as far away from manmade light as possible, as this will dramatically reduce how well you can see the show.

Put the camera down. Too many people spend time trying to secure the perfect photo of the lights, but to get a really great photo you’ll need specialist equipment and a lot of precious time. Sure, try and get a few snaps for the album, but don’t just see the show through the lens of a camera, put it down and look up – the memories of this incredible experience will last much longer than a photo anyway.

Don’t mock the lights! Legend has it that if you point at, wave at or mock the Aurora, it’s bad luck – some say it will even come down to take you. The lights are ancient and so surrounded by myth and legend; maybe do some research into them for some great pre-trip reading to get you in the mood.

Visit The Lanzarote

Lanzarote‘s year round clement climate is the primary draw for most visitors to the island. Even in the depths of a northern European winter, the temperature rarely falls below 21°C. Add in over ninety great beaches and an abundance of high quality hotels and holiday villas and Lanzarote has all the right ingredients for the perfect beach holiday.

But this speck of Spain off the coast of Africa has more to offer than just bucket and spades alone. Thanks to the influence of the Lanzarote-born artist and architect Cesar Manrique, this little island is packed with a series of unique tourist attractions that are well worth a visit. Whatever the weather.

Timanfaya Volcano Park

The Volcano Park at Timanfaya is Lanzarote’s number one tourist attraction. Drawing nearly I million visitors last year alone. And it’s little wonder as the landscape here is literally out of this world.

This eerie and haunting terrain was created by the world’s longest ever volcanic eruption, which lasted six years from 1730 to 1736. The eruption buried, what was once the most fertile farm land on the island, under a sea of lava.

Today the scene has not changed much. The vista is populated by exhausted volcanic cones, weird, twisted lava shapes and a surprisingly wide range of earthy and organic colours and tones.

Visitors to the Volcano Park are treated to a coach tour through this surreal landscape accompanied by a commentary recording the diaries of the local priest of Yaiza, who witnessed these terrifying eruptions.

The tour culminates at an incredible restaurant – The Devil’s Diner – where food is cooked over the heat of a volcano and where guests can enjoy panoramic views of the Volcano Park.

Jameos Del Agua

Lanzarote has many star attractions. But this collapsed, 6km long lava tube, located in the north of the island close to Punta Mujeres, often tops the bill for most tourists.

The Jameos Del Agua’s popularity is attributable to the fact that this incredible natural space has been further enhanced by Cesar Manrique. He, with the help of fellow architects Luis Morales and Jesus Soto, transformed it into a stunning subterranean auditorium.

Tropical gardens, bars and a restaurant surround an underground lagoon. The atmosphere is hushed and cathedral like. Blind albino crabs – unique to Lanzarote – glisten in the water like jewels.

Visitors emerge from this underground area and encounter a dream-like swimming pool that is so opulent that it is reserved for the sole and exclusive use of the King of Spain.

Behind the pool lies a concert hall – formed from volcanic rock – with incredible acoustics. This has provided a stunning backdrop for many classical and avant garde concerts since it was first built in 1987.

The Jameos Del Agua was declared the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by Hollywood legend Rita Heyworth when she visited as a guest of Manrique. And it continues to wow visitors today.

The Cactus Garden

The Cactus Garden in Guatiza is a celebration of the plant world’s spiniest species orchestrated to perfection once again by the ubiquitous Cesar Manrique.

The site here was formerly a quarry but today it is home to over 1,000 different species of cacti all artfully arranged in terraces around this bowl shaped amphitheatre-like space.

Visitors are initially greeted by a giant, eight metre high, green, metallic sculpture of a cacti, spikes and all. This stands sentinel-like over the car park and main entrance.

This cacti motif is repeated everywhere: on door handles, in the big wrought iron front gates and in slightly more abstract forms such as in the beautiful glass ball sculpture that adorns a sinuous spiral staircase in the stylish bar beneath the restored Gofio mill, at the rear of the garden.

The Cactus Garden is a plant lovers paradise. It is located in the heart of what was once Lanzarote’s cactus country. This plant was originally grown by islanders in order to attract the cochineal beetle, which was in turn dried and crushed and used as a natural dye-stuff.

Cesar Manrique Foundation

This incredible house, built by Cesar Manrique into five volcanic bubbles, never fails to blow visitors away.

This ingenious feat of architecture was one of Manrique’s first creations on Lanzarote and was designed to illustrate just what could be achieved. Many thought Manrique was crazy for believing that Lanzarote could be transformed into a tourist paradise.

But by the end of 1968, when this creation was complete, they were forced to think again when the building won numerous international architectural awards. The rich and famous visited in droves – curious to find out more about this suddenly fashionable new destination.

One celebrity visitor – the actor Omar Sharif – was so impressed that he immediately commissioned Cesar to build him a similar style of holiday home. Manrique found the perfect site just up the road in Nazaret, and transformed an old quarry into the most incredible private residence.

But Sharif soon after lost the property in a high stakes game of bridge and left the island in a fit of pique. Never to return.

Mirador Del Rio

Whilst Manrique was very much a child of the 60’s he was no hippy preferring a natural high. This philosophy is best epitomised by his transformation of a former naval gun battery in the North of the island into the most breathtaking look out point – or Mirador – on Lanzarote.

The Mirador Del Rio sits at one of the highest points on the island – some 479 metres. And affords the most incredible views down and across to the neighbouring island of La Graciosa – just one thousand metres away across the El Rio Strait and the uninhabited islets of Montana Clara and Alegranza.

Originally, Manrique planned to create a restaurant here. The curvaceous windows of the Mirador are very similar to those he later utilised when transforming the basement of the Castillo de San Jose in Arrecife into one of the most impressive dining rooms on the island.

But today, whilst it’s still possible to buy snacks and drinks at the Mirador, it doesn’t house the grand restaurant that Manrique initially envisaged. The space is instead dedicated to framing the fantastic view.