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Category Archives: Travel

Going to Mexico for Some R and R

When I started thinking about taking a family trip to Mexico, I knew that I wanted it to be a nice and quiet trip. There are times where we go on vacation and we jam pack it with all kinds of activities, but I was just not in the mood for that this time around. We have had a stressful year because of health issues, and I just wanted to look at luxury vacation homes in Cabo for the six of us. I wanted my husband and I to go along with our three children and my mom.

I knew that it was going to have to include something for the kids to do, which is why Mexico was perfect for us.

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.

The Luxurious Europa 2 Cruises Ship

“You are the chosen one,” said Ulf Wolter, the fair-haired captain, ofEuropa 2 cruise ship. He was pointing at me. “Return here to the bridge at 6pm tomorrow night just before we set sail and I’ll show you what to do”.

That was an enticing offer, especially on a ship as stylish as Hapag-Lloyd Cruises‘ newest offering. Having a tour of the bridge is one thing, every passenger can have one, but pressing the captain’s klaxon is quite another. In the meantime though, I had a medium-sized luxury ship to explore.

This was a four-night cruise, sailing from Lisbon to Lanzarote, calling at Morocco’s Casablanca and Agadir with a day at sea. It was hardly any time at all, but enough to sometimes forget that I was on a liner. The bright décor, open spaces and easy decorum reminded me of times I had spent in luxury five star hotels.

This ship, probably the most expensive liner around, is not the largest – at most it will carry 500 passengers – but it offers a huge amount of space. Their motto is “luxury is being able to waste space” and the space often show-cases works of art and paintings by acclaimed artists such Damien Hirst and Hockney.

And there’s no need for room envy on this all-suite, all-balcony liner. There are eight grades and even the smallest room is a hefty 28m2/301ft2 (the size of a studio flat). There’s plenty of room for a huge double bed, lots of wardrobe space, a living area with a sofa, as well as a desk and tablet, flat panel TV and a mirror TV in the bathroom.

Mine was the spa room defined by a whirlpool and Jacuzzi and its own sauna-cum-shower in the ensuite. The largest suites are a humungous 100m2/1066ft2 (as much space as a small house) with spa bathrooms that are larger than some double bedrooms – these are so luxurious they won’t give out the price to idle enquirers.

Though drinks are not included in the fare, there is a Nespresso machine and a free mini bar with various spirits, beers and soft drinks. Oh, and a welcome pack comprising fruit and bottle of Champagne.

Feeling as effervescent as the bubbly nectar I was now liberating into a flute, I took time to savour the moment on my veranda on the first night as we set sail from Lisbon. I soon settled on the cushioned sunbed, sipping and watching the twinkling city lights until they finally popped out of view.

In communal areas floor-ceiling windows let in lashing of light on all floors, with glass lifts to maintain the flow of light. The wide open reception area is particularly attractive decked in bright white, with comfy seating, and a small bar with a piano whose melodic tinkerings were good to hear even when just passing through.

The ship has a gym and spa, of course, and a pool surrounded by wooden decks where slumber comes easy on oversized sunbeds. From there stairs lead to the 10th floor and to a communal Jacuzzi – the centre point of a most peaceful segment of the ship.

That’s where I spent one morning when everyone else had disembarked to visit Agadir (I had been before). I sat there relaxing in the bubbling water warmed the midday sun, so serene and all I wanted to do was sleep off the lethargy in one of the cushioned pods dotted around the deck.

This is a German ship, with unfamiliar sounds of German conversations in the ether. In social areas, such as taking tea at the Belvedere, drinks and nibbles at the Sansibar (a partly alfresco bar on deck 8) or cocktail parties around the pool I found myself, sometimes comically, engaging other cruisers with smiles and body language.

At night, entertainment comprised acrobatics, dance and music, but if the entertainment was a show with a lot of chatter, I was better off tapping toes at the Jazz Club with my favourite tipple.

Though I don’t sprechen Deutsch, it wasn’t a problem service-wise. Staff are multi-lingual and this is important because this year Hapag Lloyd Cruises want to reach out to the English speaking world.

Lunchtime, for me, was best enjoyed at the Yacht Club where a waitress/buffet combo and alfresco tables on the terrace appealed.

For non-meat eaters there’s Weltmeere with its large vegetarian options and Sakura sushi restaurant which I liked so much that I joined the sushi making class on sea day. Though what I ended up with looked nothing like what I had been served at Sakura, it was a fun and a brilliant way to encourage camaraderie with other cruisers.

There are other ways to spend time, including a large screen golf simulator, lectures, wine and whiskey tastings and yoga lessons.

It’s good form to dress for dinner, and that fateful night, I’d made a special effort and headed for the bridge for my special pre-dinner role.

“You are just in time” acknowledged the captain. “You will be pressing the horn three times at five second intervals. Don’t worry, I will signal you in”.

It was simple enough, intensely satisfying and though it was all over quickly it was meaningful. After-all, I was signalling the departure from one port and beckoning in a whole new adventure, starting with a pre-dinner cocktail and ending with a day in Casablanca the next day.

Getting on board:

Cruise only fare from £3,140 per person.

Cruise-only fares include: accommodation in the category booked; full board on the ship; mini-bar in the suite; a different entertainment programme each day; port fees; and gratuities. Plus an onboard beverage credit of Euros 150 per person.

Summer Holiday Destinations For Singles Holidays

Holidaying as a solo traveller offers a unique opportunity to see and experience the world in the way you choose, to enjoy those special interest holidays with like-minded souls and to make long-lasting friendships that endure perhaps for a lifetime. And when joining a package tour with a specialist solo travel agency you won’t have to go it alone or pay a single supplement.

Hisaronu, Turkey

The all-inclusive three-star Hotel Era in Hisaronu Turkey is a small, family-run hotel exclusively for single travellers. It has just 20 en suite rooms and guests enjoy sole occupancy of a double room. It has a relaxed and friendly atmosphere and the focus of the hotel is the super swimming pool, surrounded by good-sized terraces with sun-beds for everyone. Authentic Turkish touches include the wood panelling in the bar, the hubble bubble pipe and the hammocks hanging in the gardens. A short stroll leads to small shops, bars and restaurants and a short dolmus ride leads to the Blue Lagoon.

Vidamar Resort, Praia dos Salgados, Portugal

The Vidamar Resort is located on Praia dos Salgados, a magnificent beach, seven kms west of Albufeira, backed by dunes which separate it from a freshwater lagoon and nature reserve. This five-star hotel, with a boardwalk to the beach, plus an 18-hole golf course next door, is the perfect choice for solo travellers looking for a sunshine or golfing holiday, or a combination of both! Single guests at the hotel enjoy sole occupancy of a double room and a nightly dinner table is reserved for solo travellers in the Ocean buffet restaurant. Facilities at the hotel, which is set in extensive grounds, include indoor and outdoor pools, a chill-out pool, four restaurants, four bars and a spa and gym.

Pineda de Mar, Spain’s Costa Brava

For solo travellers looking for more than just sunshine on their summer holiday, seven-night beachside breaks in Catalan Spain include authentic experiences such as a cookery workshop and escorted trips to Barcelona, Girona, the medieval hill town of Hostalric and Canet de Mar, with its Catalan architecture. Accommodation is at the three-star plus Hotel Stella & Spa – where guests have sole occupancy of a double room – which is situated just a 10-minute stroll from a huge sandy beach. Facilities include indoor and outdoor pools, a spa – with sauna, a solarium and Jacuzzi – plus a fully-equipped fitness room.

Paros & Naxos, twin-centre holiday

This two-centre holiday combines Paros – an idyllic island in the Cyclades – with its equally beautiful island neighbour of Naxos. This relaxing Greek holiday for single travellers begins with seven nights of ‘chilling’ on Golden Beach in Paros, then transfers to Plaka on Naxos for three nights, a larger resort with a wide choice of bars and restaurants. Accommodation on Paros is at the intimate beachside Villa Aeolos, while on Naxos it’s at the Aegean Land Hotel, perfectly placed for sightseeing and shopping historic Naxos Town. For water sports fans windsurf hire, scuba-diving, water skiing and wake boarding can be arranged. Transfer between islands is by ferry, a journey of around 30 minutes.

Belfast and beyond summer break

This short break of contrasts combines buzzing Belfast – with its many attractions such as the Titanic Museum and its city centre nightlife – with the pretty town of Ballycastle on the beautiful Causeway Coast where ‘must sees’ include the Giant’s Causeway. This three-night Belfast & Beyond bed and breakfast break – where guests enjoy sole occupancy of a double room – spends one night at the Premier Inn in Belfast and two nights at the Marine Hotel in Ballycastle, a small friendly hotel where single travellers will be assured of a warm welcome.

Hotel Baths With A Amazing View

With designer bathrooms quickly becoming a highly lusted-after interior design trend, the world’s most luxurious hotels have unveiled their own bath time eye candy. Imagine sinking into some bubbles looking out across an azure sea, or enjoying a soak with a chilled glass of champagne over a cityscape? Look no further as we round up our top ten hotel baths with a view.

1. 12 Apostles Hotel & Spa, South Africa

Forget whale watching from the hotel’s Leopard Bar Terrace and ignore the private cinema –Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa is all about the bath-time views. The hotel is flanked by The Twelve Apostles Mountain Range and the majestic Table Mountain, proving the most gob-smacking vistas of the UNESCO Cape Floral Region World Heritage Site as you soak in the tub.

2. InterContinental, Hong Kong

Hong Kong is famed for its dramatic skyline, boasting an impressive array of skyscrapers, surrounding mountains, beach-fringed coastlines and Victoria Harbour, which separates Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. The really city bursts to life in the evenings though, as the imposing buildings light up in an array of colours and the harbour plays host to the daily Symphony of Lights. Where better to watch than from a vast, circular bath at the InterContinental hotel? Fits two people comfortably – a perfect setting to share a bottle of champagne or two.

3. Chalet Grace, Zermatt

Keen skiers find it hard to tear themselves away from the powder slopes and the stunning mountain views at the best of times. If reluctantly huddling up in a wooden chalet at the end of each day isn’t your thing, then staying in Firefly Collection’s Chalet Grace may be just the tonic. Facing across the valley, Zermatt’s hidden gem offers heart-stopping and uninterrupted views from the deluxe bathroom – the perfect place to thaw out.

4. Raffles Praslin, Seychelles

With the nearby Anse Lazio beach often referred to as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bath with a better sandy view than from Raffles Praslin in the Seychelles. Each villa features a carefully placed bath to maximise star gazing at night or to drink in the lush green hills, white powder beach and opal-hued ocean during the day.

5. Lake Vyrnwy, Wales

Part of  Welsh Rarebits, a collection of hotels with distinction, Lake Vyrnwy Hotel & Spa surprises and delights with a view that wouldn’t look out of place in the middle of New Zealand. If there was ever a reason to visit Wales, it’s this. The bath with a view overlooks a stunning, mountain-ringed lake; there seriously is no better place to shrivel like a prune in the UK.

6. Pier One Sydney Harbour, Australia

Pier One Sydney Harbour is a stunning boutique hotel that offers bath views directly over Sydney Harbour Bridge. Epitomising ‘Exactly Like Nothing Else,’ Autograph Collection’s tagline, the hotel is a shining example of Marriott’s group of boutique, stylish properties. Book the harbour view balcony suite and enjoy a soak overlooking Sydney and the famed landmark bridge – the perfect way to start a trip down under.

7. Singita Boulders Lodge, South Africa

Did you know you can bathe in an alfresco tub whilst watching elephants enjoying some light refreshment? We didn’t either until we happened upon this South African 12 bedroom lodge, set in a wildlife reserve. Soak away your stresses overlooking the Sand River, and you might be lucky enough to spot herds of elephants drinking at its banks.

8. Hideaway Beach Resort and Spa, Maldives

There are few places better than the Maldives when it comes to ocean views, with most over-water villas on the collection of islands offering unbeatable vistas of the Indian Ocean as far as the eye can see. Hideaway Beach Resort & Spa boasts a vast number of these following a recent $50 million renovation, and also offers a personalised butler service. This popular honeymoon destination is the perfect place to order a bottle of Bolly to enjoy in your rose petal bath.Mandarin Oriental, New York

There’s arguably no better skyline than that of New York, and Mandarin Oriental‘s stateside offering boasts unparalleled bird’s eye views of Manhattan. Book the Oriental suite to enjoy a bath not only with stunning views of the Big Apple shimmering below you, but also of the city’s much loved greenery. There’s no better place to immerse yourself in bubbles in the city that never sleeps.

9. Villa Kalisha, Bali

Nestled in the lush Bali jungle, Villa Kalisha sits almost suspended about a steep gorge, overlooking show-stopping vegetation and the volcanoes of Bali. The dramatic open-air bathroom opens up in three directions, with tropical vistas in your eye line which ever way you look from your indulgent copper tub. You will never feel further from home or civilisation than you do here – perfect for the ultimate relaxing soak.

Climbing Gunung Merapi Southeast Asia

Every now and then life pulls the rug from under your feet and leaves you lying on your back – this sibling-esque prank is often referred to as a ‘reality check’. Dangling off the side of Merapi with one hand on a fern root and the other on the arm of Khalid was my mine. I had taken too lightly to climbing the most active volcano in Southeast Asia, and when the path I was walking on suddenly gave way, it turned out to be a mentally draining, yet emotionally rewarding challenge.

Known to locals as Fire Mountain, Gunung Merapi sits on the border between Central Java and Yogyakarta in Indonesia. There have been regular eruptions since 1548, with the most recent in 2010 where 30 people died.

Our walk was to start at 4:30am, under night at Desa Deles, the ranger’s hut at 1,300 metres. By 10am that day I’d be up 2,930 metres high on the summit of Merapi.

The smell of sulfur was in the air, and our torches pierced through a feint haze that slid up the cliffside, our visibility was low and we had to mind shrub, after fern when making our way up the gentle incline.

Our three Javanese guides were trekking without torchlight, one was even in sandals, they used the moon and the stars to guide them.

When the sun rose the air felt cold and we had our first rest break. Looking back down our path we could see the vast settlement that bowed down by the foot of Merapi. It’s hard to believe that so many people still choose to live there, but locals have their reasons; ideal farming soil and religious beliefs. Many believe that the previous eruptions are a result of spirits being angered by not receiving gifts, which they offer them at the summit annually.

The sun rise rays was flowing through the trees and the hike was about to get harder, as the gentle slalom route suddenly inclined along the cliff face.

We had to wrestle with branches, and grab what we could to pull ourselves higher. We’d sometimes encounter clearings in the jungle where we could peer out, always seeing Merapi to our left.

The group of 15 people was now dwindling, as experienced hikers thought they had met their match. Even the hike leader, German Carl had suspiciously caught a chesty cough when the path started to get steeper around 2,000 metres up. In the end five of us remained, with the guide in sandals who had now fashioned a ragged towel into a head scarf that made him look like Little Bo Peep.

Those that remained were determined to conquer Merapi whether our blisters bled, our water ran out or Bo Peep lost his sandals. The steep incline under thick forest meant that we would gain altitude at a faster pace, and gradually the hills, and rice paddys below shrunk and cold streams of air came and went as we entered different air pockets. We found ourselves alone on the side of the mountain, no sign of Indonesian settlements in the distance, or anybody on the mountain top.

The ash was becoming difficult to grip with my shoes, and I found myself bouldering, up vines and branches just to follow the path. It was then that I misplaced my foot and the side of the path that I was on collapsed. Dangling off a cliff face isn’t like they show it in the Mission Impossible films; I wasn’t coolly gripping the edge of the cliff with my fingers, nor was I suspended up in mid-air like a character from Looney Toons, instead I was holding onto a fern root for dear life as Khalid grabbed my arm and yanked me back up.

Shortly after our stop at around 2,500 metres (10:30 am), we reached the dusty, dead plain of Devil’s Bazaar. This is where the locals gather every year to place their offerings to calm the spirits of Merapi. The volcano has erupted every 5 – 10 years without fail, yet the locals still make the treacherous climb to hopefully bring peace between themselves and the mountain.

With every step a rock would tumble down and ash would be kicked up into our shoes and mouth. We passed weather stations that looked like they hadn’t been touched since the Seventies, and yellowing shrubs trying to survive as we continued our walk through what felt like the world’s most depressing desert getaway. We were now face-to-face with the clouds that wrapped around our ankles and passed along the cliff tops.

The head of Merapi stood above us and the surrounding wasteland with the white haze of sulfur circling it like a halo, we had reached the final stretch.

With smoke rising from the peak we began our ascent. The remaining point was like an old pub fireplace covered in ash and dust which covered our faces as we tried to scramble up the cliffside on all fours.

It was slippery. Every step we took we fell two steps down. Even Bo Peep in sandals seemed to tire, as more dust kicked up into our faces and the wind blew the clouds and ash into our sides. But I had to see the top, and so I pushed up the cliff face, hopping from rock to rock.

Standing on the shoulder of a giant, when I broke through the clouds I was surrounded by a deep blue and the air felt clearer. Finally I had reached the summit. I clambered up to the peak, which was an uneven rock around the width of a boardwalk and surrounded by a 200 metre crater drop which was covered by eery sulfurous fumes that seemed to escape from every rock crack. I was an ant on a pen nib, anxiously looking around, watching my step. The others joined me, and we waited a while in silence as the clouds sifted through our hair, and the monster of Merapi quietly slept.

We had to get down before nightfall, and luckily our guide knew a few tricks to get us down safely and quickly, no helicopter or ski lift. With our feet we skied down the side of the mountain, kicking up dust and dislodging rocks.

It was a huge challenge, but the summit will reward you in its own special way.

Beachside Holiday Resort in Alanya Turkey

If Turkey has a an exotic version of a bucket and spade seaside resort, Alanya on its south eastern coast is it. Its lovely white sand beaches are lapped by the warm waters of the Mediterranean sea and overlooked by the towering Taurus mountains. And as you follow its coastal curve and meander inward too, the mood perceptively changes from historic to bizarre, lively and amusingly, a little cheesy too.

Along the harbour are myriad restaurants, some named after celebrities such as James Dean and Elvis and an open-air segment of cafés, dubbed the tea rooms, that look onto the tens of moored ships. Some of these are private yachts and some take tourists out to sea. Smaller ones dressed in yellows, reds and orange bob on their laurels, offering a colourful eyeful against the deep blue of the sea.

One sun-scorched afternoon, I found myself on the Sea Angel, a wooden pirate ship that looked twee with its a statue of a a silver angel. With Kapten Arif at the helm I was was about to spend four-hours with a rather large gaggle of Russian, German and Dutch tourists. Party music escaped from some overhead speaker while the crew-cum-gymnasts served and entertained. The ship anchored every now and again so we could jump ship and swim in the warm sea water and as we sailed by Alanya’s rich heritage of coves and caves (Phosphorus being the most famous), crew members took to diving off them in all manner of daredevil ways. Even dolphins turned up on cue to a collective joy. A lunch of skewered chicken followed by juicy watermelon was remarkably good. Though not a sophisticated jaunt, young families and those young at heart may find this to be tremendous fun.

Yet everywhere I looked I was reminded that this is an historic town. It’s 13th century castle, built by Seljuq Sultanate of Rum on a rocky peninsula, is perched 820 feet high. It’s now an open-air museum with a palace, villas and a chapel that was converted into a mosque and is testament to a long history of invasions including the Ptolemaic, Seleucid, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires.

Built by Seljuq Sultanate of Rum on the rocky peninsula part it includes villas and a chapel that was converted into a mosque. Part of the peninsular juts out onto the Mediterranean sea and this is where “man throwing ledge” remembers the gory story of slaves being pushed to their death. Slaves would be given three stones to throw into the sea. If the stones made a splash (an impossible task thanks to the rock formations) they would live another day, if not they would be thrown to their death.

Following the winding floral stone path downwards I was stopped in my tracks by Che Sukru. Clad in just a pair of shorts, his tanned torso was bent over a hand operated juicer making pomegranate juice that he sold for couple of lira a glass. Drinking the juice in his garden café shaded by mandarin and lemon trees while chickens clucked and pottered, was an experience that was beyond quaint.

Following the path as it twisted down to ground level I was led to the now defunct but still fascinating arches of the Tersane shipyard. It serves as a museum to this bygone industry with part-built ships, maps and information describing how it may have been.

Nearby and standing to attention in the harbour is the 13th century octagonal landmark Kızılkule (Red Tower) so called because of its red bricks. Built to protect the town from attack, there are five floors each with a museum of artefacts. Climbing all 86 steps to the roof means getting sensational views over the marina and the beaches.

Reaching the town from the harbour means walking through a bizarre cat sanctuary where stray cats can tuck into bowls of food and shelter in purpose built hutches. It’s part of a serene park where fountains flow while felines and people mingle in quiet reverie.

Just beyond that is a sprawling warren of tiny streets laced with numerous of shops selling fake designer bags, clothes and shoes. Michael Korrs, Prada, Chanel populated the shelves with the odd smattering of Mulberry. It’s common to haggle and it’s impossible to resist.

Amid these streets, restaurants and bars are plentiful with Bar Street being the hotspot for a pulsating night life. It’s also round here that I lunched at Mini Mutfak, a fabulous Turkish restaurant where lamb Kofta (meatballs) never tasted so good and I simply loved the Yavalama – mint beef balls with small chick peas in tzatziki sauce.

Beyond these tiny roads is the main road, Ataturk Street named after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) a Turkish army officer, revolutionary, and the first President of Turkey who founded the Republic of Turkey. There is an impressive statue of him at the central crossroads where the Turkish flag flies at full mast. Indeed, most buildings in Alanya have the Turkish flag hanging from them.

There are long stretches of beach and perhaps the prettiest is Cleopatra beach. It’s in front of Dalmatas Cave (a tiny two storey cave with impressive stalactites and stalagmites). They say it was named after the Egyptian Queen who stopped by and enjoyed a swim in this bay. Had she done so today she could have also lazed on a comfy cabana or sipped her tipple at a choice of beach side cafes.

One day I joined a jeep tour – a convoy of 18 jeeps filled with people who were encouraged to throw water at each other. I couldn’t fathom out why but on the bright side we clapped eyes on gorgeous pine forests, banana and cotton plantations as we trucked our way through the dirt tracks of the Taurus mountains We stopped for a bbq lunch alongside Dim River and visited an old village to have a peep inside an ancient mosque.

A more sedate day out was to Dim Caye for lunch. Al-freso restaurants are stretched out over the Dim river on platforms. Some restaurants allowed diners to fish for trout for their lunch. Not so at Gol Piknik, where we were seated on cushions and served Turkish cuisine served to a backdrop symphony of a waterfall and the quacking of passing ducks. After a quick finger check of the cold water temperature and I resolved to stay on dry land, though I did spot others – adults and children – splashing and frolicking around the river flumes.

There is a weekly bazaar that takes place in town and although mostly a food and vegetable market with the odd vendor selling flags, it offered a reassuring snapshot of local life.

That afternoon I visited a uniquely Turkish venue, a local Hammam. My lack of Turkish banter was of no concern because no words needed – a knowing look at reception led to a wet sauna followed by dry heat followed by a long dip in a swirling hot tub followed by an eye-watering pummelling given by a slight lady who you’d think couldn’t hurt a fly and soapy deep clean scrub. After a short rest, presumably to recover, a lovely massage pieced me back together again.

It felt truly exotic.