Category Archives: Building Travel

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 a good term.

We spent our vacation enjoying the home and exploring our surroundings. Did I mention there are people available to take care of any issues that you have? If you need something, they’ll get it for you with no questions asked, and they get it fast. You’re made to feel like you’re a king in this property. It really puts any other types of vacation rentals or hotel style living to shame. I can’t imagine ever thinking any other rental is going to match this experience. We’re already planning on visting another location where this company owns a property.

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 feeds the moat.

A particular delight is to wander south, away from the house, climb a five-bar gate and stumble across one of the most charming village cricket pitches imaginable. The English countryside at its best.

Tickets: vary but up to £11 for the whole property during peak times of spring/summer.

2Hatfield House, Hertfordshire

Hatfield House featured in blockbuster films such as Harry Poter and Shakespeare in Love

It’s all too easy to step into what was the childhood home of Queen Elizabeth I and imagine you’re on a film set.

The grand Jacobean manor house has served as the backdrop for scenes from major movies including Harry Potter, Tomb Raider, Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech.

It sits in a vast swathe of land only 20 miles north east of the capital and a few minutes’ drive from the A1, encompassing formal and informal gardens complete with a maze, a children’s farm and play area, endless acres of rolling countryside to lose yourself in and even its own 12th century church.

The house itself promises everything you’d expect; from chandeliers and tapestries to a vast library and armoury and one of the finest examples of a Victorian kitchen in the country.

But the hidden bonus here is the fabulous stable yard and the period roads and buildings that lead to it. Flanked by an eclectic mix of buildings converted from the days when the royal stud lived there, is a café that spills outdoors when the weather’s fine and sits among cobbles and a circular fountain in which children toss coins to make wishes.

Tickets: Free for restaurants and stable yard, £11 (adult) includes the west garden and park (£19, incudes entry to house)

3Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire in the fairy tale town of Woodstock

Blenheim is an awe-inspiring 18th century country house in the heart of the fairy tale town that is Woodstock. It is the principal home of the 12th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and, more significantly, the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.

A true Baroque masterpiece, the house, seen by many as the greatest of its kind in Britain, sits amongst more than 2,000 acres of Capability Brown parkland and the most elegantly landscaped formal gardens. There’s a miniature train that transports families to pleasure gardens with its adventure playground, tall-hedge maze and butterfly house.
But everything about the palace is vast; from its 180ft library to its 67ft high hallway.

And outside, it’s on the same scale; big enough, in fact, to host events like the International Horse Trials. So if you’re looking for room to ramble, be warned: you’ll need to be fit to enjoy it fully and have serious amounts of time.

Best time to visit? Other than Spring when the daffodils are in full bloom, it’s Christmas when for more than a month the gardens are turned into a wonderland of light to create an hour-long circular walk past singing trees, a scented fire garden and lawns set ablaze by thousands of colourful fibre optics.

Tickets: Adult £24.90 (£13.50 for children over five)

4Syon House, Essex

Panorama of The Great Conservatory and Fountain at Syon House Pic by Maxwell Hamilton

This is where the Duke of Northumberland lives when he’s in London and the closest of the country houses in terms of distance from the city centre. Built in Tudor times, it underwent a thorough transformation at the hands of the neoclassical architect Robert Adam and bears many of his hallmarks. Portraits by Van Dyck and Lely hang on the walls on what is the last surviving ducal residence and country estate, in Greater London.

Only nine miles from Charing Cross, you can quickly find yourself immersed in gardens renowned for their extensive collection of rare plants and trees, all of which surround a spectacular conservatory which dates back to the 1820s and was long known for housing plants from all over the world.

There’s even a frozen spectacle that is an ice house, built over 48 hours when the lake froze over, a formal Italianate garden and a Capability Brown lake overlooking water-meadows. So, even if you don’t want to step foot inside the house, it’s worth the trip for the chance to stroll in 100 acres of parkland and among some of the most spectacular trees in the country, including ancient oaks that date back to the 1600s.

5Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire

Woburn Abbey has spectacular views of the deer park

Woburn itself is about 40 minutes from drive up the M1 and about five miles south of Milton Keynes. It’s best approached from junction 12 where you can head towards Flitwick and detour off through some of the most charming villages in the county.

That’ll bring you to a small rise that opens up to spectacular views of the deer park. There’s a 20 mph speed limit to help you avoid them and enjoy the view. The Abbey entrance is on the left (the wildlife park is on the right) and, once through the entrance, you’ve a two-mile drive through the grounds, past the house, a lake and an avenue of trees to the main entrance.

Again, there’s no need to go into the house to enjoy the most relaxing of times strolling a multi-faceted array of landscaped gardens, visiting the various historic exhibitions housed in the courtyards, or taking in the scents from the orangery.

The far corner, over a wooden bridge, houses a maze and the entrance yard houses one of the most charming cafes where ducks will snap at your feet for scraps on the terrace on warm days.

Having come all that way, it’s probably worth doubling back through the deer park afterwards into the town, just for a stroll through the high street. A bonus: the car park is free.

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 through the Old and New Towns. The parks and tree-lined promenade by the riverside are particularly pretty, and a great way to ease yourself into cycling, especially if you’re not terribly fit.

Liège

Stage 2 of the Tour de France is a long distance stage: 203 km from Dusseldorf across the border to Liège in Belgium. There are two short climbs along the way, and you’ll see a great deal of western Germany’s countryside as you cycle.

Though this section of the route is not overly arduous, you will be spending a lot of hours in the saddle. It’s essential you wear the right shorts or tights to avoid chafing. Jack Wolfskin’s Gravity Flex Tights are stretchy and breathable, and importantly are also waterproof — helpful for the unpredictable weather in Northern Europe!

When you arrive into Liège, don’t be deceived by the first industrial appearances. Climb the Montagne de Bueren steps for a rewarding city view, and treat yourself to a well-earned beer at the top.

Troyes

Cycling and drinking wine may not always go together, but there are few things more pleasurable in life than biking through French vineyards. The organisers of the Tour de France know that well, and so Stage 7 runs 213 km through the vineyards of Burgundy from Troyes to Nuits-Saint-Georges. Champagne and Rosé des Riceys are just two of the local specialities: you can also keep your energy levels up with Troyes andouillette, Chaource cheese, and Prunelle de Troyes, a particularly potent prune-based liquor.

Bergerac

Competitors in the Tour de France take a much-needed rest day in the Dordogne before starting on Stage 10, the 178 km leg from Perigueux to Bergerac. The terrain here is a little hillier, but the rewards for visitors are ample: the famous cave paintings of Lascaux, truffles and foie gras for the foodies, and the attractions of Bergerac.

Bergerac’s Old Town looks as if it was made for tourism. The timber framed houses are medieval, there are lively markets in the squares, and you can wander along the bank of the Dordogne River down to the historic quay.

Rodez

By the time you reach Stage 14 (182 km), you’ll need to raise your game. The hills here might look photogenic, but as they rise higher and higher, your legs will start to burn.

Be grateful that you’re on a modern, lightweight bicycle. The first time that British riders competed in the Tour de France was in 1955, and their equipment and clothing looked very different indeed. The Wearwell Cycle Company, who sponsored riders in that first British team, have relaunched their collection in 2017, combining a hint of 1950s vintage style with the latest materials and designs. You can look the part whilst riding in complete comfort.

When you do get to Rodez at the end of the stage, inevitably you’ll be exhausted. Once you’ve recovered, do allow some time for sightseeing, however. Rodez’s cathedral is a masterpiece of gothic architecture; there’s an excellent circular walking tour around the Old Town; and the local park, Domaine de Combelles, covers 300 acres.

Salon-de-Provence

The longest stage of the tour, Stage 19, runs through the lavender fields and olive groves of Provence. It might look utterly idyllic but it’s tough on the legs, especially in the first part of the day. Even the pros are hard-pushed to complete the 223 km in under 17 hours.

You are heading for Salon-de-Provence. This year is the first time that the Tour de France has ever been through, though the town is a regular feature in other long distance road races such as the Paris-Nice Peloton. Come here to visit the 12th century Château de l’Empéri and the tomb of Nostradamus in the Saint-Laurent Collegiate Church. If your trip coincides with the Du son au Balcon festival in August, you’ll also hear the central square pulsing as DJs mix the latest tracks from the balcony of the town hall.

Paris

Everyone’s heard of the Maillot Jaune — the yellow jersey — of the Tour de France, and on the final race day, that’s what is on everyone’s mind. It’s considered bad form for other riders to don that colour shirt, but if you want to feel like a winner on your own bicycle ride, by all means flash some canary yellow.

The 21st and final stage of the Tour de France is from Montgeron through Paris to the Champs-Élysées. It’s a 103 km ride and when the roads are cleared for the race, classed as a sprint. If you’re competing with the Parisian traffic, however, your pace will inevitably be curtailed.

It’s in Paris that the excitement of the race builds to a peak, and where as a spectator you’ll find the best vantage points. Arrive in good time if you want a spot on the Quai d’Orsay or Pont Alexandre III; you stand a better chance in the grounds of the Grand Palais where there’s rather more room.

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 banquettes aside a gold mirrored table, it wasn’t long before a lady wearing a trench coat and a pink bob hair-do indicated to say nothing. Then she whispered “have you brought the money”.

Beside her was an opium smoking vixen who passed by every so often, as did a pair of usherettes selling who-knows-what. All were smiling knowingly. It was ridiculous but so funny. And unexpected.

I double-checked and no this wasn’t a Mayfair speak easy – we were blending into the entertainment. Huge columns of gold leaves reached from wood floors to carved wood ceilings, while subdued lighting and well-mixed DJ music in between acts, all worked to create a highly ambient boudoir-style décor feel.

Food is delicious and as appetising as its heritage would suggest. The style was a blend of Chinese and French dishes that were ideal for sharing. It was a tad dark, so I had to get my iphone torch out to get a better look at the menu. I felt less embarrassed when I saw others doing the same.

Throughout the evening a tapas of entertainment come and went, sometimes a singer – a Sam Cooke sound-alike, or a sexy lady who comes out of a suitcase with an array of magic tricks and even a suggestive flamenco dancer.

It seems anything goes, entertainment-wise. But a word to the wise: it becomes more raunchy as the night wears on. If your date is faint of heart, choose an early evening dinner booking and move on.

But my date was enthralled. So after dinner, we gave up our table and we stayed on milling by the gilded bar for a long, heady night drinking cocktails (from £15 each). Mine was a Mochito and Manhattan served by suave men in white tuxedos. His, a tomato juice – he was driving.

From this vantage we continued to watch the show and chatted happily to others who, like us, had also slipped into a sort of nirvana.

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, managing director of Tui – the parent company of Thomson and First Choice – so succinctly said: “it’s totally embarrassing”.

Mr Longman, who was the first to create a black list of fake tummy bug claimants, said: “A hotel will have customers from four or five markets of Tui and it will only be the British Tui customers who are complaining.”

Recently a hotel in Greece fought back. One British couple from Darlington found themselves facing a £170,000 counter claim by the Greek resort hotel after making a food poisoning allegation. The couple later withdrew the claim saying that they only did it when contacted by a claims company.

The industry is now toying with ideas to deal with this “British problem” and this may well result in banishing UK travellers from all-inclusive resorts leaving all of us with far less choice – and having to dole out more dosh too; remember how bogus whiplash claims made insuring our cars more expensive?

Spanish hoteliers have come out fighting saying that bogus claims by British tourists have cost them £42 million. It turns out that the Costa del Sol, Costa Blanca, Costa Dorada and Benidorm have seen the highest number of scams.

In the meantime the Hotel Business Federation of Mallorca wants Brits barred from popular all-in breaks saying that if the compensation culture is not stamped out it will only allow UK sun-seekers self catering and bed and breakfast accommodation.

The group’s president Inmaculada Benito told Spanish newspaper Diario de Hora: “The only way to address this once and for all is by taking drastic measures.”

Since spring 2016 travel firm Tui has recorded around 15 times more illness claims than in previous years. They are typically worth around £3,000 to £5,000, sums that are often more than the cost of of the actual holiday.

But this has a knock-on affect as the operator has to revert to the hotels to claw back some of the money paid out. Naturally this leads to friction leaving hotels feeling hard done by, unsupported and reluctant to welcome UK visitors.

Operators such as Tui and Thomson are now inclined to stop selling to the British market. Tui’s Nick Longman, said “There’s a distinct risk that if this carries on as it is unabated, the hoteliers will say to us either ‘We don’t want to work with the British market at all’ or ‘We’re not going to offer you all-inclusive’.”

Thomas Cook’s UK managing director, Chris Mottershead, also warned that the scam could lead to the end of such holidays. ”It’s a very serious situation because it has the effect of stopping all-inclusive holidays for the UK market,“ he said. ”It has the potential of putting hoteliers out of business. They will stop British customers coming into their hotels.”

I applaud the effort made by ABTA, the Association of British Travel Agents who have launched the “Stop Sickness Scams” campaign urging the government to legislate in order to curb the incidence of bogus claims.

Easy money for one, means banishment and higher holiday prices for all.

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 inside. My visit coincides with National Embroidered Blouse Day so everyone is sporting one, men and women alike.

Outside the old town, the 18th-century Lychakiv Cemetery has ornate tombs, chapels and shrines plus a special section dedicated to those who are still being killed in the armed struggle on Ukraine’s Eastern borders. Most Ukrainians I speak to believe that it’s Russian mischief making and can’t understand why their former ally is making trouble. Central and Western Ukraine show no signs of the war, so travellers shouldn’t be alarmed.

Carpathian Mountains

The Carpathians form an arc running roughly 1000 miles across Central and Eastern Europe, making them the second-longest mountain range in Europe. They occupy the South West of Ukraine, separating the country from Romania, with the highest peak, Mount Hoverla, reaching over 2000m. Life carries on here much as it’s done for centuries and during the Soviet period was left almost untouched. Even guerrillas fighting their Russian oppressors stayed holed up here for years.

Kolomyia

It’s a three hour drive across the Ukrainian steppes to Kolomyia, famous for the world’s only Pysanka or Easter Egg Museum. Of course it’s built in the shape of a giant egg and houses an impressive collection of intricately decorated specimens from all over the world. Nearby is another museum dedicated to the Hutsuls, the largest ethnic group in the Carpathians, scattered through both Ukraine and Romania. It’s an excellent introduction to their culture with an exhibition of ethnic costumes, arts and crafts.

Yaremche

The landscape begins to change as I climb up to the town of Yaremche at 580m. The wide cornfields give way to forested hills, wooden houses and quaint chapels by the side of the road. The River Prut runs through the centre of town in a series of rapids, and there’s a rather tacky craft market on either side of the ravine. However if you’re in the market for woolly slippers or dodgy fruit wine, this is the place for you.

Bukovel

upert Parker

Another 40 minutes of climbing brings me to Bukovel, the largest Ski resort in Eastern Europe at 900m. It opened in 2000 and has 16 ski lifts with roughly 30 miles of pistes, and more are promised. There’s a boating lake but otherwise there’s not much character here. A few of the ski lifts remain open and, at the top of one of them, there’s a rather terrifying Roller Coaster Zip line which hurls you high through the trees. I prefer a spot of gentle hiking.

Verkhovyna

I head deeper into the Carpathians and the roads worsen, potholes everywhere and rickety bridges to traverse. The railway arrived in the 1880’s, attracting tourists with fresh mountain air, and Vorokhta is an attractive spa town. Further on, just outside Verkhovyna, is Kryvorivnia, a Hutsul village where the movie “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” was shot in 1965. It’s nothing more than a collection of attractive wooden shacks with a restored fortified Hutsul house, known as a Grazhda, filled with traditional artefacts. It’s Sunday and the singing from inside the tiny church drifts across the valley.

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 were completely relaxed and unthreatening, with an apparent easy ethnic mix. In rebuilt Downtown Beirut you could be in any smart European capital – albeit with some restored Ottoman-era facades. There are glossy shops, sophisticated restaurants and stylishly-dressed Lebanese living life to the full. Go at sunset to the achingly cool rooftop Iris Bar, overlooking the Med, to witness the hedonistic lifestyle enjoyed by the youth of Beirut.

Unmissable landmarks in Beirut

Beirut my sightseeing starts at the Muhammad Al-Amine Mosque, a city landmark with its dazzling blue dome and lofty minarets. Although I’m covered from head to toe I’m told to don a huge black-hooded cloak – a stark contrast to the scantily-clad Lebanese ladies shopping in the designer boutiques a stone’s throw away.

I head to Christian East Beirut to see the Sursock Museum in the affluent quarter of Achrafieh. This elegant Italian/Lebanese 1912 mansion reopened in 2015 after a major overhaul and is now a cutting edge 21st-century cultural institution, devoted to modern and contemporary art.

National Museum

Directly to the south, and right on the former ‘Green Line’ separating East and West Beirut, is the National Museum, home to a superb archaeological collection, much of it heroically saved by staff from destruction during the civil war.

Special places along the coast

Lebanon is such a tiny nation you can base yourself in Beirut, and make excursions to other attractions. Jeita Grotto, 18km northeast of Beirut, is a colossal cavern of stalactities and stalagmites which would thrill even the most jaded speleologist. On the coast at Jounieh the Téléférique (cable car), dubbed the Terrorifique, climbs steeply up to the heights of Harissa. Here a striking white statue of the Virgin of Lebanon commands spectacular coastal views.

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, wherever you go on Siargao. When you lie in bed, you hear the waves breaking on the shore. When you walk out, it is always in view. And when you want to hop from one picture-perfect island to the next, the only way to do so is by boat.

But back to Cloud 9, the raison d’être for my trip. Its thick, hollow tubes make it ideal for surfing, especially from November to April when the waves have plenty of swell. These extra inches of water lift surfers comfortably above the reef, which otherwise lurks perilously close to the surface of the water.

I sailed out to Cloud 9 from Siargao Bleu with a handful of other surfers, our boards, and a clutch of hangers-on who would sit on the beach and watch. The boat was wooden, styled like a traditional fishing boat, but with a roaring motor onboard. We dashed across the tops of the waves, bouncing up in the air when we hit one straight on, then crashing back down with a thunk. It was scarcely past breakfast, but still a few beers were being passed hand to hand. The anticipation was building.

Turning into the bay, half a dozen surfers were already riding Cloud 9. They must have headed out at daybreak to get the waves to themselves. The boat had a shallow enough draft to pull close to the beach, so we kicked off our sandals and and paddled the last few metres. The water at most was knee-deep.

Walking along the monsoon-battered pier takes you past most of the coral and to within 200m of the peak. The air temperature was already warming up, and though the water was still cool, dropping into it hardly made us flinch. Unlike at the bitterly cold surf spots of northern Europe, here there wasn’t a wet suit in sight.

It was time to ride Cloud 9, and I faced it with slight trepidation. It’s not a ride for beginners (there are plenty of easier waves nearby), as you have to be confident and nimble on the surf board. Professional surfers compete on Cloud 9 during the annual Siargao Cup, an international surfing competition, and they make it look effortless. I can assure you: it’s not!

But there’s something about riding this wave which makes it top all others. The speed and height of Cloud 9 definitely provide an adrenalin kick, but its joy is also in the wider context. It’s in the warmth of the sun on your face or your back, the clarity of the water, and the fact that when you fix your gaze ahead, it falls on a tropical idyll.

Surfing is hungry work, and by mid afternoon I was worn out and starving. I staggered back up the beach to meet our boatman. Whilst I’d been surfing, he’d cooked up a veritable feast. Freshly grilled tuna, caught just hours before, is the sort of ingredient which culinary heaven must be made from. Accompanied by steamed rice and huge slices of pink-red watermelon, it was Philippine cuisine at its freshest and finest.

Almost too full to move, let alone get back on a surfboard, we made our way back to the boat. Unlike the morning when we were in a rush to reach Cloud 9, now there was no such hurry. The boatman sensed this, and we motored back at to Siargao Bleu at a considerably more leisurely pace.

Approaching the resort, the boatman cut the engine and the boat began to drift. The broken water settled, and looking over the side we could see probably to a depth of 15 metres and quite possibly more.

Tropical fish, stingless jellyfish, and sea snakes swum about, completely unperturbed by our presence. Encouraged, we grabbed snorkels and masks, and slid ourselves overboard. The water was so clear we could see every detail of the creatures around us, admiring their colours, form, and agility. It felt like an aquarium, only this time we were inside the tank and could reach out and touch the fish.

Tourism development is a balancing act. If you don’t create enough infrastructure, enough opportunities for things to do, then people won’t want to come. On the other hand, if you build too much, and visitors come by the thousand, you can damage the environment, spoiling the places and experiences which made it a desirable destination in the first place. Thus far, Siargao has got the balance right. Of course there are bigger, brighter, and more luxurious resorts in the Philippines. But what they gain in facilities, they lose in atmosphere and quality of experience. The purpose of a tropical island retreat is to get away from other people, to appreciate the beauty of the sea and the sand, and to feel at peace. When you swim or surf, you don’t want to be competing for space. Thankfully, in Siargao you won’t have to.

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, and peppers (the bhaji) – with lashings of butter having been mixed into the bhaji before serving. Hearty and – possibly – healthier than your average street-fare, pav bhaji is pukka (first-class) grub!

2Panipuri

Panipuri, also known as golgappa, is probably one of the region’s most common street foods. In fact you can find varieties of this ubiquitous treat across India, and its exact origins are hotly contested. If you already know some Hindi you may recognise the words pani and puri, meaning water and bread respectively.

Don’t be put off; this isn’t as dull as it sounds. To make it, hollow puff-pastry balls are fried and then filled with a green-coloured spiced and peppery water, potatoes and chickpeas. It may look unusual and slightly messy to eat, but it’s very refreshing on a hot day.

3Gajar ka Halwa – food gets you hooked

Grated carrots might not immediately sound like the most promising of starters for a sweet dish, but we promise one bite of this Mughal-era treat will have you hooked, even if eating mounds of it probably won’t improve your eyesight! Throw in some dates, almonds, raisins and sugar, pour in milk and gently simmer until it’s all absorbed, and you have the makings of an excellent pick-me-up if all that exploring has tired you out.

4Fried Duck

If you’re travelling to the north-eastern state of Assam, then kudos to you fellow explorer! With such a keen sense of adventure and independence, you probably don’t need much advice on what to eat. But just in case, we recommend sampling some fried duck at a road-side stall. The people of Assam are confirmed carnivores, so you’re sure to have an authentic five-star experience without the eye-watering bill at the end.

5Jalebis – food worthy of a wedding

As distinctive a feature of the streets of north India as rickshaws, stray cows and chai stalls, these golden, glistening pieces of deep-fried syrupy goodness are the stuff of dreams for those with a sweet tooth.

Jalebis were brought from the Middle East and adapted over time –with spectacular results. They are a firm favourite at weddings and festivals, although we suggest not indulging in more than one or two if you plan on doing anything else for the rest of the day.

6Kachori – food to keep you going

A Rajasthani classic, kachori are fried pastry discs which may be filled with lentils, potatoes, onions, or green peas, garnished with spices and often accompanied by a rich tamarind chutney.

Fairly light on the stomach, kachori are ideal snacks to keep you going as you take in the palaces, forts and markets of Rajasthan.

7Shakarkandi chaat – filling food

While you’re out exploring, or if you’re on a carb crawl, see if you can spot someone standing by a basket of sweet potatoes mounted on a stand, with lemons arrayed in a circle around the potatoes.

Heated by the coals burning below, a nutritious portion of diced shakarkandi (sweet potato) with lemon juice and masala will quickly quell any stomach rumbles.

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 get to know Jane Austen, where she lived between 1801 and 1806. The city’s perfectly preserved Georgian architecture remains unchanged from the streets depicted in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

Visitors can step back in time with a free downloadable audio walking tour of the city In the footsteps of Jane Austen, that includes extracts from her novels and letters, which brilliantly describe Bath as it would have been in its Georgian heyday. Be sure to stop off at the Jane Austen Centre, located in a Georgian town house just a few doors down from where she once lived and home to an exhibition of costumes, manuscripts, and film clips to bring the author’s world to life and explore the city’s influence on her work, as well as the all-important Regency Tea Rooms (£11 per adult and £5.50 per child).

And for true enthusiasts, visit between 8-17 September to join the largest gathering of Jane Austenenthusiasts at the Jane Austen Festival. Previous years have seen fans donning full regency garb at the Grand Regency Costumed Promenade, meeting their very own Mr Darcy at the Country Dance Ball, and dancing their sense and sensibilities away at the Regency Costumed Masked Ball. 2017 will see the 17th edition of the annual festival. Tickets on sale now.

Explore Jane Austin’s seaside sojourns in Lyme Regis

n to have visited and loved Lyme Regis. In her letters to her sister Cassandra she described walking on the Cobb and tellingly her last novel Persuasion was set in the Dorset seaside town.

It’s easy to explore the area especially with a guided tour with Literary Lyme who offers a several walking tours of Lyme Regis and the Jurassic Coast that follow in the footsteps of several authors who lived or visited Lyme Regis. In the mix is a visit to the Golden Cap, the highest point in Southern England, which features in a film adaptations of  Persuasion – 90 minute tours cost from £10 per person.

Literary Trails and film buff locations in Berkshire

Jane Austen went to school at Abbey Gateway, Reading between 1785 and 1786. It was the only time in her life she lived away from home.

To get an insight explore the area on a Readipop Reading Literary Trail, a free walking tour developed by a group of young locals, as part of a heritage project called Reading on Tour to uncover Reading’s hidden history.

Film buffs may like to visit the 18th-century Palladian mansion of Basildon Park. It had two roles, one as Mr Bingley’s house, Netherfield and the other it was the dreamy location for Darcy and Elizabeth’s first meeting in the 2005 production of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett and Matthew MacFadyen as Mr Darcy.

With both its impressive exterior and many of its indoor spaces featuring in the lavish production, Basildon is instantly recognisable to fans. Entry to Basildon Park costs £14 per adult; £7.50 per child.

Movie tours and your own Regency House party in Kent

The Austen family had many links to Kent and Jane’s father was born, attended school and later taught in Tonbridge where a Jane Austen Walk. The author travelled often within the region stopping off in Dartford and a regular guest at Godmersham Park near Ashford, where her brother Edward lived.

Goodnestone Park Gardens, Kent

Jane and her family were regulat visitors to Goodnestone Park and gardens. Set amidst 14 acres of 18th century parkland, the house retains a lot of original features from Austen’s time taking guests back to the dinners and dances she would have attended there.

As well as being home to Austen’s heritage, Kent is home to a number of locations for well-known film and TV adaptations of her books.

BBC’s adaptation of “Emma” starring Romola Garai and Johnny Lee Miller showed off the idyllic village of Chillham, which represented 18th Century Highbury and Squerryes Court in Westerham, which doubled as Emma’s family home.

The Keira Knightley big screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice also found its home in Kent with Groombridge Place in Tunbridge Wells providing the perfect visualisation of the Bennet’s family home. Visitors can take in the gardens and enchanted forest year-round (from £10.95 per adult and £8.95 per child).