Britain’s best manor houses to visit within 90 minutes of London

England is truly a magnificent keeper of its heritage, one that lives in the bricks and mortar of these amazing manor houses. And you can visit them. If only walls could talk:

1Ightham Mote, Kent

Igtham Mote, Kent was hailed by David Starkey as “one of the most beautiful and interesting of English country houses”.

Six miles south of Sevenoaks, this 14th-century moated manor house is one of the Garden of England’s hidden gems. A former home to Medieval knights and Victorian society figures, it’s surrounded by the most tranquil of gardens with an orchard, small lakes and woodland walks that meander off into the surrounding countryside.

The historian David Starkey, impressed by its atmospheric central courtyard, the house’s Great Hall, crypt, and Tudor painted ceiling, has described it as “one of the most beautiful and interesting of English country houses”.

Owned by the National Trust since 1985, it’s worth a visit for the estate that surrounds it alone. Three designated walks take in all the flora and fauna of the Kent countryside, through an ancient bluebell wood or past 19th-century hopper’s huts and even the natural spring that

On the Road: The Tour de France

This summer the world’s most famous cycle race pedals off from Dusseldorf on 1 July. For the next three weeks, elite cyclists will compete stage by stage as they loop around Germany, Belgium, and France. Glory awaits whoever crosses the finishing line first in Paris on 23 July. All those who come behind can at least say they completed the gruelling 104th Tour de France.

The Tour de France itself is open only to professional cyclists, but that’s not to say that you can’t get a taste of the action. You can bike the same route, or follow stage by stage as a spectator. Here are the highlights you can expect to see if you follow the route, plus our practical tips to make it happen.

Dusseldorf

The very first stage of this year’s Tour de France starts and ends in the German city of Dusseldorf. It’s a flat 13 km time trial through the city streets, mostly along the banks of the Rhine and therefore wonderfully flat. You can follow a similar route on a guided bike tour of the city, or meander your own way

Bring my date to Club Chinois in Mayfair, London?

Glitzy, spritzy, sexy and highly entertaining are the words that spring to mind when I think back to my evening at Club Chinois last week.

Located on the lower level beneath the already well-established Park Chinois jazz dinner and dance restaurant on Berkeley Street, it’s an altogether different style of evening out.

The simple brown doors are held open by a curiously dressed door man and give no hint to the immediate change of scene once you enter.

Lots of deep red, plush fabrics, smiling faces, a world apart and reminiscent of a bygone age once lived during the 30’s in Shanghai. We followed the red carpet downstairs to Club Chinois where the shimmering space stretches out to the dimly lit yet dazzling dining area.

Club Chinois is the latest creation by Alan Yau, the gourmet maestro who produced diverse and highly successful establishments such as the Michelin-starred Hakkasan and Yauatcha, Soho’s Duck and Rice and, yes, Wagamama. Yau’s vision for Club Chinois is to get away from the jarring atmosphere of modern club culture. It certainly does that.

Once seated on a purple velvet

The Best Vacation Experience Ever

Several years ago we checked for Aspen rentals online and after a fair amount of research made our choice and headed out to enjoy the Colorado lifestyle. Unfortunately for us, we apparently got hoodwinked and the experience ended up being awful. Considering we spent an large amount of money to rent a nice place, we were extremely disappointed. The experience was so bad that we avoided returning to the state until recently. That’s because I got a good tip on a company that goes above and beyond to make sure your luxury vacation is something you and your family will never forget.

The difference this time around, I think, is that this company actually owns the properties and they go to great lengths to transform a great luxury property into something that transcends your normal vacation rental experience. My family and I came away from the experience feeling like we are billionaires enjoy and an extremely exclusive property. When we first walked through the door no one said a word as we took it all in. I think we spent at least an hour just walking around and looking. There were a few wows and that’s about it. Speechless is

Hoteliers: Please don’t banish all UK travellers from your resorts

There’s always been plenty of talk about protection for holiday-makers in case holidays go wrong. But now it seems that holiday providers need protection too; from UK travellers.

According to ABTA (Association of British Travel Agents) there has been a 500 per cent increase in sickness claims since 2003 and companies have been bombarded with tens of thousands of them in the last year alone.

Many of these have turned out to be fake claims fuelled by a bevy of touts and claims management companies (CMCs) who encourage holiday-makers to become dishonest, even coaching them about how to get the “evidence” they need to make a claim. This would include eating in a hotel simply to blame the venue for the supposed food poisoning.

People have reported receiving cold calls from claim companies suggesting falsely, that “a fund has been set up to compensate for deficiencies in hotel hygiene”.

Let’s face it, it was only a matter of time before this scam was rumbled. The day of reckoning has come and we Britons have been identified as the biggest culprits and even been dubbed the “the fake sick man of Europe”.

As Nick Longman,

Road Trip through Ukraine

Ukraine, the country famous for banning Hollywood Steven Seagal from visiting, is opening up to tourism with visa-free travel. Add to that direct flights from the UK and the fact that it is still remarkably good value for money, this is as good a time as any to visit. We suggest you get behind the wheel or a hire car or indeed to hop on a train.

Lviv

Situated in the far west of the country, just 50 miles from the Polish border, Lviv was known as Lemburg when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1772 to WW1. That’s reflected in its quaint cobbled streets, proliferation of churches and architecture reminiscent of those other Hapsburg cities like Vienna and Budapest. Of course it also has trams, trolley buses and coffee houses. Indeed they say that the first coffee shop in Vienna was opened by an Ukrainian from Lviv in 1686.

It’s a pleasant place to wander round, with street musicians on every corner, and the Market Square in the old town is lined with renaissance houses. The elaborate Lviv Opera House still stages productions of opera and ballet and imposing Cathedrals beckon you

More Armani then Armageddon

On his intrepid trek in the Levant the acclaimed writer William Dalrymple describes his crossing from Syria to Lebanon in 1994, just four years after the end of the civil war. Struck by signs of a glitzy lifestyle already springing up beside bombed-out Beirut skyscrapers he writes, in his compelling travelogue

Things have of course moved on, and Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, has been shaking off its war-torn image and attempting to reclaim its pre-war sobriquet as Paris of the Middle East. It offers a mezze of cultural attractions, with museums, restored mosques and churches, a vibrant café and restaurant scene, some of the coolest nightclubs in the Middle East. The streets are still manic but there are stylish beach clubs to retire to – and panoramic pools atop glittering hotels.

Is it safe to visit Beirut?

Lebanon currently sees no more than a trickle of western tourists, others discouraged by political turbulence. The UK Foreign Commonwealth Office labels the no-go zones – and these I avoided. Sadly the list includes some of Lebanon’s premier sites and notably the colossal and remarkably preserved Roman temples of Baalbek.

But the areas I did see

Surfing in the Philippines: riding the Cloud 9 in Siargao

Before arriving in Siargao in the southeast of the Philippines, I’d spent the previous three months travelling and surfing around Australasia and Southeast Asia taking in popular hotspots like Bali and Australia’s Gold Coast, but every now and then I heard a whisper: Cloud 9.

Siargao: one of the top 10 surf sites in the world

In everyday parlance, “on Cloud 9” means feeling elated, on top of the world, but for surfers it’s more than this. Cloud 9 is the name of the most famous wave in the Philippines, and Siargao Island is regularly rated as one of the top 10 surf sites in the world. That alone was enough to make me book the succession of flights — two days in total of travelling — which would ultimately bring me to Siargao.

There are, as yet, no direct flights to Siargao from Manila, but that’s part of what has kept Siargao and its coastlines pristine. And it means that this tropical island with its warm climate remains a paradise ringed by coral reefs and sand bars and which makes it the ideal place to dive and surf.

Dive and surf in Siargao

The sea is omnipresent,

Street foods of Northern India

For many first-time travellers to India one of the greatest pleasures is discovering its amazing street food. Surprisingly, there’s infinitely more to subcontinental cuisine than the rather bland offerings of tikka masala and chicken korma.

Street food, whether sweet or savoury, fiery or mild, is eaten by all and it’s not unknown for there to be lively debate amongst friends and family about which is the best. As well as giving your stomach a treat, trying street food helps support hard-working vendors, many of whom have been plying their trade with great skill for many years. So here’s our guide to the best street food of northern India – try each one with a steaming cup of the nation’s rocket-fuel, masala chai.

1Pav Bhaji – soul food

This food for the soul originates from the western state of Maharashtra. Pav bhaji really comes into its own further north in winter however: in a place like Maharashtra, where temperatures rarely drop into single digits in December and January, winter isn’t really a thing! Toasted white rolls (the pav) are dunked into a smooth blend of mashed potatoes, tomatoes, onions, green peas,

Follow the Jane Austen trail across Britain

It’s the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death and Britain is celebrating. Even the Bank of England has produced a new £10 notewhich features a portrait of this most prolific writer.

After all who has not heard of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility”. two of her all time greats that have inspired generations of readers and indeed TV viewers.

We suggest ways to follow in this great author’s footsteps.

Jane Austen and Hampshire

Jane was born in Steventon in Hampshire. She is also buried in the county’s Winchester Cathedral. She did most of her writing in Hampshire and even penned her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, here. So, it makes sense that this county is the focal point for the Jane Austen 200 commemorations.

Start your trip at Jane Austen’s House Museum (her former home) and Chawton House Library in the village of Chawton, which is hosting changing exhibitions, talks, activities and other special celebrations up until December.

In the meantime, Winchester Cathedral is running “Tours and Tea” every month until November exploring Jane’s life and in Basingstoke.

Winchester BookBenches

Follow in Jane’s footsteps in Bath

The South West Spa city of Bath is a great place to

Festival Glam Rock afternoon tea, every day till August 31

K West Hotel & Spa, once a BBC building, in London’s trendy Shepherd’s Bush area has launched a brand new Festival Glam Rock Afternoon Tea. There was a time when rock greats such Bob Marley and the Wailers, Bowie, The Kinks and Roxy Music spent time here.

On this day it was just me in search of an afternoon cuppa.

And I got to enjoy a a most unusual cuppa. Tea was served in gorgeous electric blue and pink teapots and teacups on vintage record covers of different artists – mine was a Rod Stewart cover.

The food was a colourful extravaganza, almost psychedelic. Making my way up from the  bottom rung of the tier I started on mini-clubs sandwiches of avocado, red pepper and mozzerella and ham, chicken, mustard and cream cheese – and there were no crusts.

Interspersed with these were the rainbow brioche sliders which came with beef, guacamole and mustard mayo and halloumi with piquilo peppers and tomato salsa.

There were also mini buns with carmine and poppy seeds, chlorophyll and polenta. Amazingly when I asked for gluten free, they were able to oblige.

The next tier had the

Traveling in BA Observation Tower i360?

Last year the Brighton Eye (akin to the London Eye) was replaced as a seafront landmark in Brighton by the British Airways i360, a 162-metre-tall vertical tower. It is located on the site of the derelict West Pier that was burned down by fire in 2003. You can still see the ruins of the pier straggling in the water just beyond.

Some have dubbed the observation pod the “donut” due to its shape, while others have been known to refer to it as something far cheekier (best left unquoted). However you call it, there is no doubt that this is a huge feat of engineering.

This is, afterall, the world’s tallest moving observation tower with an observation pod built around a central column. It is in fact a fully enclosed futuristic glass observation pod that gently lifts (the movement is hardly discernible) up to 200 people to a height of 138 metres.

I couldn’t wait to have a go in it when it first opened but whenever I happened to visit Brighton, the i360 was closed on some technicality or other. The gremlins are long gone and I finally got to experience the BA “flight” last week.

Airport delays in Europe

It may be the busiest time of the year, yet the EU have chosen this moment to enforce tighter border controls. As a result thousands of British holidaymakers are facing longer airport queues and delays with some even missing their flights homes, especially those travelling home from Spain.

Why is this happening?

Following the terror attacks in Paris and Belgium the EU has put in place new security measures on April 7. The rules require countries to carry out more stringent checks on travellers entering and leaving the Schengen area, a no frontiers” zone comprising most EU countries plus Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, but excluding UK and Ireland.

Up to now Brits have been able pass through passport control easily, sometimes being waved through by merely showing the passport. Now every passport needs to be compared against the “Schengen Information System” and also against Interpol’s list of stolen and lost travel documents.

Which airports are effected?

Airline lobby group, Airlines 4 Europe said passengers can expect the longest delays in popular tourist destinations where travellers enter or leave from outside the Schengen Area. The worse hit airports are likely to be:

  1. Palma,

Most popular holiday snaps

It’s the height of the summer holidays so you can expect a deluge of “look-at-me” holiday pictures showing up across your Facebook and Instagram feeds. And most will not only look familiar but may have inspired you to do the same. There’s even a top ten trend list.

Once upon a time it was all about “hotdog legs”. We must have got bored with that because according to research by travel agency sunshine.co.uk, it’s the snap of “heart fingers” that we all want to capture, presumably in a romantic situation. We also love “holding the sun”. The latter is presumably another take on holding up the tower of Pisa snap so popular in the early nineties. Before that, well it was about finding the right postcard and having something to write home about.

Today, it seems, anything goes and the average holidaymaker returns home with a staggering pot of 316 pictures on their phone and camera combined. And many make their way into the ethernet.

But we cheat. Half of holiday photos uploaded to social media will have had a filter or some sort of doctoring applied to them before first appearing on Instagram then later on Facebook.

680 miles from Stavanger to Trondheim in 2 days

I knew it would be a nutty exploit driving 1,100-kilometres (around 684 miles) in two days along Norway‘s coastal road. So why did I do it?

Well, it wasn’t for the weather. It drizzled most of the time with the sun taking a sneaky tantalising peak through the clouds every so often. The elements teased right through to sundown at 11pm – a late sunset is a a quirk of Norway’s daylight cycle during the summer months.

It wasn’t a boozy trip either as a humble pint of beer knocks you back £12 and with just over 5 million people in a space as large as the UK, the nightlife was not exactly heaving.

And forget about the romance of negotiating winding roads at speed – the 80km/h (50 miles) limit is strictly adhered to and without any specific fine range, a speeding fine could empty the bank coffers.

Yet there are some compelling reasons: the roads are utterly superb – a sure sign of the expense and attention paid to the infrastructure – the scenery of fjords, waterfalls, mountains and lavish greenery is exceptional and with six road-ferry combo experiences peppered throughout the road trip

Blanco Beach Club review, Portimão, Algarve

The Algarve is loved by holiday makers for its light blue skies, amazing sun light (I swear it has its own shade) and its golden beaches. And tranquillity.

But now you can ditch the peace and quiet and pump up the volume at the Blanco Beach Club. This newcomer to the Portimão beach adds a new dimension to day life and indeed the al fresco night life with its house-party-within-a-beach-club scenario that Nathanial  the oh-so trendy head host says “will be the local answer to Ibiza”.

This is a top notch beach club looking fresh in its white-washed decor created by the elusive entrepreneur Maximillian White – hence the name Blanco. There’s a “guest” list and if you are on it (easily done; you pay the entry fee or hire a bed in advance) and you get to enter into another world armed with a defining wrist band.

There are security guards (bless them for being diligent) and a doorman-cum-bouncer. All necessary stuff in a place like this, but perhaps tone down the bouncer act a bit?

Inside, white leather round beds are dotted around the 20-metre blue-hued pool on attractive wood decking. There’s a

Kerala, India – is this really “God’s Own Country”?

“God’s own country” is a phrase which has been bandied around, used for locations from Yorkshire to Zimbabwe to New Zealand. But whereas in many of these locations it might be wishful thinking, in Kerala, an Indian province in the south of the country, it seems a perfectly reasonable description.

The Malabar Coast and lush backwaters certainly look like paradise, the population has the highest life expectancy and literacy rates in India, and the melting pot of different religions happily coexist. God, we can guess, would be very happy indeed.

Kochi International Airport, the gateway to Kerala, is the first airport in the world to be powered entirely by solar panels. This is quite a technological feat. The journey back in time, and to a simpler life, begins the moment you step outside the terminal building, however, as in the parking lot there are Hindustan Ambassadors (the iconic Indian car modelled on a Morris Oxford), auto-rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, and even an occasional wandering cow! Traffic on the roads is just as eclectic. The buses have to swerve around bullock carts, and if there’s an elephant in the road then everything grinds to a halt.

Kochi

Bombay Palace, Connaught Village, London W2

Indian food comes in various guises. Sweet, even sour and often very hot. Punjabi cuisine is not known for its hot dishes. It’s more about bbq’d food flavoured with generous doses of herbs, tandoori dishes and sometimes creamy marinades. And I was about to find out if Bombay Palace restaurant in a hidden corner of central London, was testament to that.

Bombay Place has quite an interesting heritage being part of an international chain that stretches from New York and Beverley Hills to Kuala Lumpur and Hyderabad.

Yet this branch is tucked away. Yes, it’s in Marble Arch in central London but it is hidden in a triangle of streets called Connaught Village, and further secreted away beneath a block of flats in Connaught Street.

The brand was started by a former fighter pilot Sant Singh Chatwal in 1920. Chatwal hailed from the Indian half of the Punjab region that divides India and Pakistan and the menu reflects that region.

The entrance is pretty unremarkable and I almost missed it. So when I walked in I was quite overwhelmed with its expansive size and plush furnishings in hues of red and gold creamy walls,

Walking the Alpe-Adria Trail

The Alpe-Adria Trail is Europe’s newest long distance hiking route and runs for 750km from the foot of the Grossglockner (at 3,798m Austria’s highest mountain), into Slovenia and ends in Italy, near Trieste on the Adriatic coast.

It’s divided into 37 daily stages, each around 20 km, although it’s possible to do the whole lot in a month it is better to do it in sections – Austria has 22 stages, Slovenia has five and the last ten mix Slovenia and Italy. There’s also a Circular Route which connects Austria, Italy and Slovenia in seven days.

I’ve only got eight days, so decide to sample the most interesting bits. I start at the beginning in Carinthia, Austria and catch the post bus from Heiligenblut up to Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Höhe, a short 30 minute journey. There had been thunderstorms overnight and dusted the Grossglockner with a covering of snow.

Pasterze Glacier, Austria

The Pasterze Glacier, the longest in the Eastern Alps, gleams in the morning sunlight and my first steps on the trail are down a steep path to the Sandersee, filled with meltwater. The path is well marked and, after crossing another lake, the Margaritze Stausee,

Rail adventure in North Wales

The hills are alive in North Wales with the cranky rhythm of chugging wheels and the whistle of coal powered trains as a stream of steam is funnelled out through their chimney.

It’s a mode of transport that hails from the early 19th century that all too soon came to the end of the line.

Rail enthusiasts have set in motion a revival of the Welsh Highland Railways and Ffestiniog Railway bringing the steamy affair of vintage travel by railway through this amazing landscape, right back on track.

I book my carriage.

My base: Llandudno

The seaside town of Llandudno is my base, a pretty town with a mish mash of elegant Victorian and Edwardian architecture and pleasant scenery. It stretches out from the foot of the Great Orme, a huge chunk of limestone that curves around the town. It surges up from the sea and towards the seafront and its wide ribbon of sandy beach and an even wider promenade with a war memorial obelisk as its landmark.

Caernarfon to Beddgeert – Welsh Highland Railway

My first rail adventure starts in Caernarfon where I alight the delightful narrow gauge Welsh