Category Archives: Building Travel

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 “rolling scones”. They came with clotted cream and various flavours of homemade jams. And sorbet cones. I don’t care much for clotted cream so I used the creamy cheesecake that was served in a white chocolate bowl instead. When offered a second helping of the scones, more rolled in.

The top rung had minted strawberry and watermelon mini-slushies which turned out to be a most unusual flavour – one worth getting used to as minted watermelon is the trend these days. There was also lovely selection of macaroons.

There are several teas on the menu and I tried their bespoke tea – Tea Rex. This is a mighty blend of strong black tea leaves and mellow green tea leaves, peony flowers, rose petals and more than a dash of peppercorns and cherry flavouring; a flavour the fiesty rock star Marc Bolan may well have liked.

Now imagine this as part of a cocktail infusion. There were six to choose from and I tried the “Little Miss Mystery”, a blend of Gordon’s gin infused with the strongly flavoured Tea Rex tea, Quinta Tempranillo, agave syrup, raspberry and strawberry puree. It’s a bit of a wow and the flavours blasted me out of my comfort zone. For more familiar sensations I ended the tea with a trusty Prosecco.

The tea lasted an entire afternoon and offered plenty of eye-candy, novelty and new adventures for the palate. An enjoyable experience especially for couples.

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.

Checking into the BA i360

Like any flight, you have to check in, collect your ticket and go through security – a sort of airport light version – a process that is guided by staff dressed in BA livery. Once passed security you get to sit on deck chairs as you watch the previous flight land. It’s quite extraordinary.

Inside the BA i360

Straddled by two BA staff, the doors slowly slide open and passengers are shown into a very spacious 360 degree observation deck. There are some banquettes for those that need to sit but most like to walk around and visually drink in the views over Brighton from various perspectives. As the pod rises the views inevitably become ever more expansive across the sea, both sides of the beach and way into the city and beyond over the Downs.

It is a serene experience with the odd chatter in the background unless, of course, you get on with groups of kids, so be sure to ask which flights are free from school outings.

Though the flight lasts around 20 minutes, it seems all over far too soon and I hardly had enough time to sip the champagne I liberated from the pod Sky Bar.

I highly recommend the experience.

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, Majorca, Spain
  2. Malaga, Spain
  3. Paris (Orly), France
  4. Lyon, France
  5. Brussels, Belgium
  6. Lisbon, Portugal
  7. Milan (Malpensa and Bergamo), Italy

The organisation also warns of long queues at Madrid, Lisbon, Lyon, Paris-Orly, Milan and Brussels.

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 from Stavanger to Trondheim, you get to see different perspectives of the scenery from the water

So, I  picked up my 2-wheel drive Mazda CX-3 in Stavanger the evening before – a car which for a mildly nervous driver like myself – seemed solid enough to steer me through some hair-pin strewn mountain roads and narrow tunnels.

With so much daylight I explored Stavanger that first evening. It’s a handsome town with a pretty harbour, wavy streets lined with white clapperboard homes. There’s a pretty lake too replete with swans, seagulls, ducks and some loitering sparrows that broke out into a frenzy at the mere hint of any bread being thrown their way.

Read also: 48 hours in Stavanger, Norway

In the morning I awoke with the birds around 5am for an early 6am start for the first leg of the trip to Loen. I braved the drizzle and got into the car with a trusty breakfast pack in hand, which I learned was a highly-prized provision since there was not a single eatery along the way other than at the odd petrol station and possibly at campervan resorts.

The ferry crossings were regular and efficient and my early start meant being able to avoid the deluge of campervans and inevitable queues that hit the road slightly later in the day.

The roads were incredibly smooth and I passed miles and miles of rocky or lavish emerald green terrain and mountains rising into low hanging clouds. It was haunting yet beautiful all at once.

At Etne it was a slow crawl at just 40kms with a road climbing up to at a 10 per cent incline taking in a mountain tunnel only to find that at the other side the elevation had dropped. My ears popped several times and before they could unpop there was another tunnel and yet another which finally deposited me into a valley where a smog had moved in. And just as I adjusted to light at the end of one tunnel another appeared. This was becoming hard work.

Langfoss and Latefoss waterfalls

Then as easily as a baby’s smile disarms you, the dramatic Langfoss waterfall, the fifth-highest waterfall in Norway did the same. I came upon it on E134 by the ÅkrafjordIt and could feel the wind created by its incredible force ruffle my hair as its massive volume of water 2,000ft fell into the Akrafjorden.

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 bar at one end, sunken arcs of seating, the DJ’s stage and at the other end of the pool there are a few cabanas that have their own jacuzzis big enough for six people.

But these are expensive (1,500 euros for six people) to hire. The cheapest option is a bean bag on the sandy area which, after an entry fee, are free to use.

It is quite a beautiful scene to walk into and one that shines in the daylight. At night it is lit up in pinks and purples and looks good against the night sky.

There are plenty of easy-to-spot waiters as they are all dressed in white. They mill around and as the beds have a waiter service you never need to wait long to place an order for a cocktail. It’s a simple menu of sushi, pizza, salads and burgers, but tasty enough.

There’s large DJ stage churning out tunes all day and as the alcohol-fuelled hours slide away, flirting couples canoodle to the sway of the music while others take to the pool, cocktails in hand to frolic, refresh underneath a fountain or simply dance adding movement to the shimmer of the blue water.

Some spend the afternoon flaked out on the bed just snoozing under a white parasol and sunbathing. While others, perhaps they were hens and stag groups, stayed by their beds drinking, nattering and giggling.

As the sunsets and the moon rises, the ambiance changes. The parasols are tied down and the music heats up for the night party. Sometimes there are famous acts such as American rapper Ace Hood and Serge Devant strut their stuff to packed houses.

Who would love the Blanco Beach club scene?

If you are a toned, tanned, on trend party animal probably between 18 to 35 (ish), have deep pockets and are into the stylish, exclusive House Party scene you will fit right in.

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 was historically the port of Cochin, a city of international traders on the Arabian Sea. Spice merchants came here from Portugal in the early 16th century, and the Dutch and British came in their wake. It retains a cosmopolitan feel, with numerous different communities having left their mark.

The Cochin Jews trace their own history back to the time of King Solomon and have their own dialect of the local Malayalam language. There are only two dozen Jews that still live there but you can visit India’s oldest functioning synagogue in the trinket-lined Jew Street in the pretty Mattancherry neighborhood, dubbed “Jew Town”. There are also Syrian Catholic churches; and festivals such as Holi, Eid, and Christmas are all celebrated with great fervour.

The city wears its rich and eclectic cultural heritage lightly. I pay my respects at St. Francis Church, the oldest European church in India, because it was here that Vasco da Gama — the man who first sailed the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope to reach India from Europe — was buried. His body was later taken back to Lisbon, but the cemetery is still divided between Portuguese and Dutch graves, a reminder of Kochi’s colonial past.

Perhaps the real beauty of Kerala is outside the cities. The Western Ghats, the north-south mountain range which runs through South India like a spine, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on account of its biodiversity. There are 20 national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and forest reserves in Kerala alone, not to mention the swathes of jade green tea, coffee, and spice plantations.

Perched in the mountains near Munnar, the confluence of three rivers, is Ambady Estate, a mist filled valley of cardamon plantations and rainforest. It’s an exceptional site for wildlife spotting: there are macaque and barking deer, Malabar giant squirrel, and, at certain times of the year, millions of butterfly.

The treetops are alive with the twittering and singing of birds. Binoculars will help you see them up close, but even with the naked eye you can identify bulbul (forest songbird), barbet, whistling thrush, vernal hanging parrot, and sunbird. Thanks to the altitude, the air is moist and cool, making it the ideal environment for a hike through the Parvathy Hills or a wander around one of Munnar’s many tea estates.

True tea aficionados should make time to visit Munnar’s Tea Museum as well. It is on the Nalluthanni Estate and is run by Tata Tea. If you’ve ever wondered what makes black tea different to green tea, or how the tea gets from the plant to your cup, this is the place to find out. You can follow the entire manufacturing process, and the story is further elaborated upon with photographs and various bits of tea paraphernalia. Tea tasting, of course, is a must, and the local Keralan black tea is especially refreshing.

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, polished cream tiled floors and pretty contemporary style chandeliers.

There’s lots of daylight too and I got a table by the large windows. This is a spacious restaurant and happily there’s plenty of space between them, so no eavesdropping. The ambience was one of decorum and professionalism with just the right amount of service intervention.

The Chef is Harjeet Singh, a tall man who trained at Bukhara in New Delhi. He then created the dishes at the Bombay Palace in Kuala Lumpur for some eight years. His latest stint at Connaught Street has lasted some 17 years and if his smile is anything to go by, he will remain there for some time yet. This is good tidings, because the food here is very good.

I started with a variety of three breads: onion nan stuffed with chopped red onions, tandoori nan, a flatbread brushed with butter and Roomali Roti, a paper thin bread which I ate with my forthcoming kebab.

These came with Tarka Dal, a lentil dish tempered with cumin, chopped onion, ginger and garlic and Paak Paner – cottage cheese cooked with creamed spinach, cumin seeds and garlic.

Then came three dishes: Dahi Batata Puri, a plate of gorgeous lentil puffs that had a tangy mix of bean sprouts, coriander with yoghurt, mint and tamarind chutney.

The second was Jaipuri Bhindi with shredded okra marinated in flour batter and fried to a crisp. The third, a kebab platter with barbecued lamb and chicken. Yes, this is as mouthwatering and flavoursome as it sounds.

Then it was Murgh Tikka Makhani. I went for this because I am a chicken fan and this was a dish of chicken morsels in white butter, cream and tomato gravy.

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, I’m back in the valley approaching Heiligenblut, my starting point. It’s taken me around five hours and has been a pleasant morning’s walk.

I’m now transferred by taxi to Mallnitz from where I tackle Stage 7 next day.

Groppensteinschlucht gorge, Austria

The trail follows the Mallnitzbach stream as it plunges through the Rabischschlucht gorge in a series of waterfalls. It’s pleasant underfoot and I have the trail all to myself. That changes as I enter the adjacent Groppensteinschlucht gorge, a popular route for day trippers. There’s an entrance fee, and I’m going in the opposite direction to most people. They’re certainly not friendly and don’t return my greetings. One person even tries to tell me it’s one way only.

The walls of this gorge are much steeper than the previous one and a system of walkways has been grafted onto the rock so you’re suspended in mid-air for most of the journey. You don’t really need a head for heights but two old men tell me at the top that it’s too dangerous to proceed. I think they’re rather over estimating the danger and there are stunning views of the various waterfalls.

Danielsberg Hill, Austria

The stage ends in the village of Obervellach, but I plough on, climbing up the side of the Möll valley to an almost perfectly conical hill, the Danielsberg. It’s been a sacred site for over 6000 years, first for the Celts, then the Romans and the Catholic Church of St. George dates back to the 12th century. My pilgrimage ends in the Herkuleshof, originally a 19th century hunting lodge but now a charming inn with excellent food.

Valbruna, Italy

That’s the end of my time in Austria, a shame since there are a total of 22 stages. Instead I’m whisked to Valbruna in Italy where I tackle Stage 4 of the Circular Route. This a major ski centre and, indeed I could just take the cable car up. Instead I climb gradually on a stony 4×4 track, gaining over 1000m, to the village of Monte Lussari. The chapel here is a major pilgrimage destination as a 14th century shepherd discovered a statue of the Madonna when he was searching for his sheep. Most people just come for lunch and enjoy the spectacular views.

Kranjska Gora, Slovenia

Next day, I hop over the border into Slovenia and start Stage 23 in Kranjska Gora. It’s Saturday and the town is packed with cyclist and hikers, all keen to get a taste of the Triglav National park, the only one in Slovenia and one of the largest in Europe.

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 Highland Railway train. The line was built in 1923 but economically it was derailed soon after. After 70 years in the sidings, it was pulled back into service by a group of railway enthusiasts.

The locomotive is engine 87 and as I watch the steam funnel out it leaves a dreamy nostalgia in its wake. So it’s surprising that the vintage styled wood-decked carriages are in fact no more than 20 years old, and some just a couple of months old. A modern kitchen serves sandwiches and of course Welsh rarebit (a version of cheese on toast) and a tea trolley does the rounds.

The journey passes through Caernafon Bay and the Lley Peninsuala, the old slate quarries and once at Bryn Gloch the Snowdonia National Park unfolds beyond. The valley narrows dramatically as we pass between mountains Moel Eilio and Mynydd Mawr.

Now it’s all alpine views and tumbling waterfalls towards Rhyd Ddu. Soon we climb to the summit of the line at Pitts Head and soon after the train begins its descent zig-zagging all the way down the hillside to Beddgelert. The top speed is 25mph so there’s time savour and digest what my eyes are devouring.

The entire length of the line is 25 miles all the way to Porthmadog, but I was disembarking at Beddgeert to make my way to Portmeirion.

Portmeiron Village

Those of a certain age will remember the cult series The Prisoner. Actor Patrick Mcgoohan, aka No. 6, was regularly chased (there were 17 episodes) by a balloon each time he tried to escape.

The 70-acre Italianate Portmeiron Village was created out of the fantastical imagination of architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. Anything that caught his fancy on his travels ended up here. Even the odd relic from film sets.

No-one lives at the holiday complex; it’s all hotels, eateries, a beach and 19 miles of footpaths through lush greenery. It took him 50 years to complete yet this unusual man never spent a night here – he was simply showing off his skills.