28 September 2010

Visit the Bridge Over the River Kwai in Thailand

Visiting the River Kwai, Thailand

Travellers who want to visit the infamous Thai bridge built by thousands of British Prisoners Of War (POW's) during the second world war. What are the options?

We recently noticed that a huge amount of adverts offering scheduled flights to Thailand for the UK winter holiday market are being offered by most international carriers. The following suggestion is for those who choose to fly direct to Bangkok rather than other Thai beach resort airports.



Image - Tourists cross the Bridge over the River Kwai, part of the infamous Death Railway, in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
I am stopping off in Bangkok on my way back from New Zealand, and I would like to spend a few days visiting the bridge on the River Kwai, and other sites where my father might have worked as a Japanese PoW during the second world war. Are there any organised tours from Bangkok?

The small town of Kanchanaburi is about 80 miles west of Bangkok and attracts many visitors, most of whom are coming to see the bridge over the River Kwai and other sites connected with the infamous Death Railway. The museums and memorials, and especially the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery (www.cwgc.org), are profoundly moving, even without a strong personal connection.

Trailfinders has a day trip from Bangkok from £35pp.You will be taken by minibus or coach to Kanchanaburi to visit the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre. Then there is a boat ride to the bridge over the River Kwai and, after lunch, a train journey with scenic views along the river, before the drive back to Bangkok.

Hellfire Tours also runs trips from Bangkok, with a very military-history focus.

22 September 2010

Venice - there is an App for that

Guest writer Alison Chambers gets the inside track on where to go - and how not to get lost - in the maze of Venice streets.

Alison discovers that although Venice is one of the most visited tourist hotspots, it is a joy to discover that there are still hidden gems to be unearthed.

The Venice architecture biennale may not be as established as the art biennale with which is alternates annually, but it is a huge cultural event for the Italian city. This year marks the 12th architecture biennale, founded in 1975, and next year will be the 54th artistic installment.



People from every corner of the globe descend on Venice to exhibit the latest in art and architectural trends, promoting cultural champions through their own national pavilions. With so many countries and so many artists thrown into the mix, the biennale is rightly recognised as a major global arts event.

Everyone who has attended such events will know that much of one’s time is spent wandering the back streets of Venezia, wondering where on earth you are and how can you get to the Rwandan pavilion in minus ten minutes.

It was this experience that motivated us to create the Biennale App, having attended many of the events and having spoken to a wide range of Biennalistas.

Biennale App is based simply on an interactive Google map that shows where you are, where the pavilions are, what events are happening and where. It shows you where the nearest bars and restaurants are and can even save the location of your hotel, so that those at the biennale Vernissage parties can stumble their way home without getting lost.

In researching the best bars and restaurants that ultimately made their way on to the app, we came across a good number of insider tips that we’d like to share with you:

For the perfect introduction to the splendour of living in the 18th century in Venice, check out Palazzo Ca Rezzonicohttp. The Tiepolo frescoes are breathtaking.

A top top tip for great food near the Arsenale is Corte Sconta. Despite the fact that it’s off the beaten track, you have to book because it has become extremely popular with fish-loving Italians – it’s at Casa del Pestrin 3886, Venice. The best spot is a table under the vines in the secluded courtyard.

Any trip to Venice should also include a trip to Do Forni, a Venetian institution. It’s a traditional, noisy trattoria just off San Marco with ragu like one’s mother would make, if only she was Italian.

Locanda Montin comes recommended by the deeply talented stylist Lucy Berridge. As their marvellous website says: “The Locanda Montin is not a restaurant, not a place to sleep, not a bar: it’s something dear to the heart of the Venetian and foreigner alike who know the real city, feel the fascination of its waters, understand the real Venetian”. This sums up the mood of the place brilliantly.

Osteria Al Portego Venice is firmly on the beaten track, yet the kind of place that you might easily walk past because it is just on the corner of one of the many nameless warrens of streets between the Rialto and San Marco. It is a little bacaro where you stand and eat wonderful, freshly prepared tapas, using the wooden ledge that runs round the wall to balance little plates of deiciousness. Favourites include bacalao, huge envelopes of ricotta stuffed pasta, seafood salad and zucchini flowers. Wash it down with glasses of the excellent house rose.

Biennale afficionado Nicolo Scialanga, now at MACRO Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome, has this recipe for the perfect evening in Venice: “Start with an aperitivo at the Skyline BAR, on the 8th floor of the Molino Stucky Hilton – this has to be one of the most extraordinary views of Venice. Then move on to dinner at Taverna del Campiello Remer, a real little find, tucked away down a side street.

“From the Campiello (the little square outside the restaurant) there is a beautiful view of Ponte di Rialto. Finally, nothing beats a nightcap at the Red Bar Canale of the Bauer Hotel, possibly the most beautiful hotel in Venice with its modernist façade and plush interior. The outdoor terrace has glorious views over the twinkling lights of the Canal Grande and the Chiesa della Salute. And the Bauer is actually open till 1am, unlike the rest of the city.”

Venetian writer Andrea di Robilant likes to hang out at Bar Palanca on the Giudecca (the hot spot in Venice, artist colony, ex industrial part of Venice, and now booming). Pietro, the owner, serves lunch from his tiny kitchen, to a mixed crowd -- workmen come at the early shift (noon) , writers and artists working on the Giudecca come later.

The pastas are great. Try linguini with shrimp, saffron and zucchini, and Andrea is an amiable host. Customers gather again at Spritz time in the evening (a local aperitif). The view of the Zattere across the Giudecca Canal is dazzling. Worth the one stop vaporetto journey just for the view of Venice.

20 September 2010

Ruhr European Capital of Culture 2010

Germany’s former industrial wasteland has been named European Capital of Culture 2010, paving the way for an extraordinary makeover

How does the biggest industrial hub in Europe transform itself into a capital of culture? Following years of vigilant planning, the Ruhr, a region of 53 towns and cities in western Germany that was once known for its abundance of coal mines and steel mills, is receiving some much needed attention.

After the industry’s big collapse in the 1960s and 70s left thousands jobless, the community got together to form a rebuilding program, and soon the region was celebrating the coveted European Capital of Culture 2010 title alongside Istanbul, Turkey and Pecs, Hungary.

It’s the first time the award has gone to a region, and ample space (Ruhr is five times bigger than Berlin) is being utilized: construction is ongoing and the region is slowly becoming a haven for art and culture.

We’re trying to keep the industrial heritage

“We’re trying to keep the industrial heritage,” says Rainhard de Witt of Regionalverband Ruhr. What little of the coal industry remains will likely die off by 2018. In fact, there are only four operating coal mines left from 150 during WWII, but Ruhr now boasts five visitor centres, 250 festivals, 200 museums, 120 theatres and 100 concert houses – and most are making use of former industrial spaces redesigned through first-rate engineering and efficiency, the epitome of modern Germany.

Ruhr Highlights

Zeche Zollverein
Zeche Zollverein - UNESCO World Heritage site - http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/975
Ruhr’s slick 14,000 square metre visitor centre (and the location for January’s opening ceremonies) exists on the site of a former coal mine that closed in 1986, after 135 years of mining operation.

The site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2001 and has since created over a 1,000 jobs as the creative centre of Ruhr. Ample activities abound: visitors can take the ‘Path of Coal’ - a tour through heat, dust, fire and water using the latest media technology, or view the panorama film “360 degrees Ruhr” in swivel chairs. They can rent a bike and cycle the 3.5 km ring promenade, a site where waste material of coal production was once stored.

“You’ll probably be surprised because it’s so green,” says one staff member. Ride the sun wheel, which - in the course of one spin - allows for broad vistas from atop, and interior views of a coking oven below ground. Explore the Ruhr Museum, watch a theatre performance or listen to world-famous musicians in classic, opera and jazz. For dinner, walk over to the elegant Casino Zollverein where dramatic candelabras greet you in the doorway. “I feel like I’m on the set of Phantom of the Opera,” said one diner.

Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum
A mining museum with Salvador Dali originals? Unusual but true. This museum opened in 1930 and displays the underground world of mining. They claim to be the most important mining museum in the world and it has about 400,000 visitors annually.

A guided tour is a must - request the extroverted Hans-George, whose father worked as a miner for 30 years. Hans-George has passion for coal mining and will enlighten the replicated coal mine 20 metres below the surface with various tunnels and original machinery, spouting Shakespeare verse along the way.

“I think he really loves his job,” said one museum-goer. Visit the three original Dali paintings on the upper level, and then take an elevator to the top of the massive headgear, which provides a viewing platform of the region. Special exhibitions are held throughout the year.

Starke Orte
A group of Ruhr artists came together to form this exhibition in a former air-raid shelter. The exhibit, which just opened earlier this year, had a festive biergarten outside, and covers 900 square metres of space between stark cinder blocks. “It is very important to get the region together to cooperate,” said one artist. “A bunker has never been used for anything like this.” Alongside the funky art displays, walk through the original shower/toilet rooms and get a feeling for how a bunker looked during WWII.

MKM Museum Kuppersmuhle
This contemporary art museum takes up residence in a former flourmill and storage silo that was transformed into three floors of exhibit space, therefore allowing art to “breathe”. Located in Duisburg, an up-and-coming city that frames an inland harbor, this museum contains 19 million euros worth of art including famed sculptures by Alberto Giacometti and paintings by Anselm Keifer.

The warm-hued stairwell is a piece of art on its own attracting architectural enthusiasts from all over the world. Look for the banana icon painted near the entrance - a symbol from Cologne artist Thomas Baumgarten who for over 23 years has spray-painted his seal of quality on nearly 4,000 places of art between Moscow and New York City. The banana has become the non-official logo of the arts scene, and the Ruhr district will soon be honoured with the worldwide largest art-banana.

Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord
This is a massive industrial wasteland, which has been transformed over a period of ten years into a multifunctional park, open round-the-clock at no charge. At a site where the blast heat was once unbearable, you can now wander amongst young trees and climb old furnaces for views of Ruhr. The rusting buildings and smokestacks of the former Duisburg Meiderich factory turn blue, green and red in a psychedelic display created by the Pink Floyd’s former lighting engineer.

An old gasholder has been made into the biggest artificial diving centre in Europe, and alpine climbing gardens have been created in the former ore storage bunkers. At night, take a torch-lit tour through the illuminated blast furnace plant. When you’ve had your fill of the park, walk over to nearby Hauptschalthaus for dinner – a contemporary restaurant offering daily three-course menus.

Museum Folkwang
This spanking-new museum re-opened in January thanks to a generous 52 million euro donation from steel magnate Berthold Beitz, who financed the construction of the building. It holds a regular collection of modern paintings and sculpture, post-1945 art and photography.

The Museum Folkwang was home to one of the most significant collections of modern and contemporary art worldwide in the 1920s and early 1930s. On his visit to Essen in 1932, Paul J. Sachs, co-founder of the MoMA in New York City, called it “the most beautiful museum in the world”. But the National Socialist regime soon confiscated more than 1400 works of what it considered “degenerate” art. This brought a brutal end to the museum. But in a tremendous comeback, the museum will soon open “The Most Beautiful Museum in the World” exhibit reuniting the Folkwang’s pre-1933 collection for the first time in over 70 years.

Gasometer Oberhausen
Decommissioned in 1988, the future of the Gasometer was sure to end in demolition. What could be done with a giant cylindrical storage tank for gas? But the local community arose to the task, and converted it into exhibition hall which is today the landmark of Oberhausen.

Take an exterior elevator all the way to the top of this gigantic cylinder which is now known for 360-degree views of the region. On the way down, ride the Matrix-like interior elevator overlooking a gigantic 25-metre diameter moon, part of the “out of this world” solar system display.

The exhibition starts in the area below the former gas-pressure disc with enormous replicas of the sun and its planets. Large format images, obtained during the latest American and European space missions, show the solar system and its development over time. The site is also used for major concerts and special events.

Upcoming events:

2,500 events and 300 projects take place this year. For more information visit:ruhr2010.de/en

How to get there

Air Berlin, and British Airways offer daily flights to Dusseldorf located 35km south of the city.

Where to sleep and eat

Hotels in the Ruhr

Mintrops City Hotel Margarethenhole - http://www.margarethenhoehe.com/ -This design hotel is located near Essen’s historical marketplace

Alte Lohn Halle - http://www.alte-lohnhalle.de/ -This boutique hotel takes over a former coal mine, and offers 16 rooms furnished with chic early 20th century furniture

Sheraton - http://www.sheratonessen.com/ -This is a nice option in Essen, and has rooms overlooking a picturesque park and biergarten

Restaurants

Casino Zollverein - http://www.casino-zollverein.de/

Forsthaus Gysenberg - http://www.forsthaus-gysenberg.de/

Brauhaus Zeche Jacobi - http://www.brauhaus-zeche-jacobi.de/

Hauptschalthaus - http://www.hauptschalthaus.com/

Living Room - http://www.livingroom-bochum.de/

15 September 2010

Save on a UK City Break

Save on stays in city hotels - Manchester and central London


Radisson Edwardian is cutting prices on it's city hotels in Manchester and central London with the Pay, Save and Stay offer

Radisson Edwardian is cutting prices at 11 hotels in London and Manchester according to their press release

The Radisson Edwardian group (radissonedwardian.com) is cutting prices at 11 Manchester and central London hotels, including Covent Garden, with the Pay, Save and Stay offer. Prices from £75 (saving 20%), including 25% off dinner at the hotel. Valid for stays between December 19 and January 9; book before October 17.

Travel app of the week: What’s the Rate? (iPhone)

There are numerous currency apps out there, but this one’s interesting. New from Thomas Cook, it compares currency rates with the Post Office and M&S, allows you to view currency trends for the past fortnight, and to set an alert to be informed when the rate hits a certain figure. It also offers an exclusive — ie, better — rate for app users than you get in store. whatstherate.co.uk; free for the first 25,000 people to download, then 59p

07 September 2010

Formentera Prettier than Ibiza

Soft, white beaches, turquoise sea, hippy chic and definitely no nightclubs. Alison falls for the Balearic isle Formentera - visit the official tourist site
no McDonald’s and no KFC.
There’s a lovely moment towards the end of the half-hour ferry crossing from Ibiza to Formentera when the captain kills the engine and Platja de Ses Illetas eases into view. The beach, which hugs one side of the Trucador peninsula, is a long swath of dazzling white sand backed by rolling dunes, but it’s the colour of the sea that draws a collective intake of breath among the passengers. The deep cobalt and turquoise shallows are so vivid that they look Photoshopped, almost unworldly.

The island of Formentera is small (only 32 square miles, so easy to get around by rented bike or moped), mostly flat, arid and sparsely populated. A Cinderella to big sister Ibiza, it struggled to survive for centuries on fishing and salt panning, periodically besieged by pirates, until in the 1960s it was discovered by hippies and the occasional passing rock musician, among them Bob Dylan and members of Pink Floyd.
But Formentera still refuses to be harried into the 21st century. Its planning laws are some of the strictest in Europe: not only does the island have no airport —and no plans to build one, thanks very much — it also has no high-rise buildings, no shopping malls, no water parks (sorry, kids), no McDonald’s and no KFC.
The beaches are the main attraction, with their powdery sand, translucent water and a famously relaxed attitude to the wearing — or not wearing — of swimsuits. At Illetas, the only buildings are the original 1960s chiringuitos (beach bars) some of which have been converted into chic, and rather expensive, toes-in-the-sand restaurants. In recent years the dunes have been roped off to encourage the regrowth of wild flowers, with wooden boardwalks built across them so that visitors can stroll from one bay to the next.
The wildest of the beaches is Platja Mitjorn, which stretches for several miles along the south coast. It is home to Formentera’s most desirable hotel, the Gecko Beach Club, once a run-down hostel but recently renovated by a British-Australian couple, Dino and Karina Gillibrand. It’s very stylish with all-white bedrooms, hardwood decking and yoga classes on the lawn, but lacks a pool. “We’re having trouble getting planning permission,” says Dino. “We want to build one on the site of the car park. We’d also like to build more rooms but there’s no chance of that happening.”
Although the Gecko Beach Club describes itself as family-friendly, a better place to stay with children is the Hotel Cala Saona, which overlooks a secluded cove and has a pool (built before the current planning regulations came into force), a children’s playground and tennis court.
The hotel opened in the 1950s with just two rooms and became a secret bolt hole for Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, who would arrive by yacht. A series of photographs in the hotel library shows how the building and the surrounding bay have changed in the intervening years. Remarkably, it looks much the same today as it did in the late 1970s.
From Cala Saona I hiked along a coastal path that veered dangerously close to the edge of the sandstone cliffs, gazing out towards the mystical island of Es Vedra off the southern tip of Ibiza. The sunsets there were sensational.
On another day I joined a kayak safari, paddling along the shoreline to explore the many caves and rock formations. To cool off, we dived into the limpid waters. If you were to keep paddling, or walking, you would eventually reach the Cap de Barbaria, an eerily beautiful and desolate spot with a working lighthouse and an 18th-century watchtower atop a rocky promontory (I took the soft option, by rental car available from any of the usual car hire companies in Spain). The views were heart-stopping, both out to sea and down beneath my feet, where peregrine falcons swooped and swirled above the rocks.
I found the sleepy village of Es Pilar de la Mola, the other end of the island from the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it capital of Sant Francesc Xavier, was worth a visit — its twice-weekly hippy craft market sells goods of surprisingly good quality, many times better than its counterpart on Ibiza.
Es Pilar de la Mola is also home to one of the island’s best restaurants, Pequeña Isla, where I enjoyed local specialities, including ensalada payesa, made of twice-baked bread, dried fish, tomatoes, pepper, olives, oil and vinegar. My other favourite was pastel de patata — white cheese and pesto grilled on sliced potato.
The only resort on the island is Es Pujols, where you’ll find low-rise apartment blocks and a few tourist shops selling inflatable crocodiles. But even here there is plenty to celebrate. Enter the warren of back alleys and you will find some delightful bars, restaurants and boutiques, while along the beachfront is a row of varaderos, the traditional shelters built by Balearic fishermen from driftwood to house their boats, which are still passed down from one generation to the next.
According to locals, some canny fishermen were recently given a hefty sum in compensation by the EU when their varaderos were destroyed in a storm. Having pocketed the cash, they simply rebuilt the shacks using the newly available driftwood.
All roads lead back to the Trucador peninsula, a narrowing sand spit that extends from the north of the island towards Ibiza. On the west side is Platja de Ses Illetas, the pristine beach first glimpsed by arriving ferry passengers, its sugary sand lapped by gentle waves. And if you want an even more private spot, stroll across the peninsula to Platja de Llevant, where the water is so flat and clear that it resembles a vast infinity pool. The best beaches in the Mediterranean? I think so.

Original source Mark Hodson of 101 Holidays (www.101holidays.co.uk)


Other must see things on Formentera http://formentera-house.blogspot.com


03 September 2010

Less Frequently Visited French Cities

Lesser Known French Cities

When it comes to city breaks, France offers the lot: great shopping, fantastic restaurants, fascinating galleries and a wonderful café culture. But once you’ve ticked off the best, namely Paris, Toulouse, Lille and Marseille, where do you head for next?

Beyond the main hubs, there are plenty of urban gems offer a wonderful weekend away and once you’ve discovered them, you’ll want to keep coming back.

One of my favourite French cities is Troyes, just an hour and a half by train from Paris in Champagne-Ardennes. Fittingly, the old town is the shape of the champagne cork and the restaurants are a great place to sample those famous bubbles and its other regional delicacy, andouillette – a special kind of sausage.

Shoppers will find themselves in seventh heaven as Troyes offers several discount stores on its outskirts, and if you’re planning on taking your car to fill with bargains (it’s a four-hour drive from Calais), then it’s only a short drive onwards to the area’s wine producers along the route de champagne.

If too much indulgence of the retail or alcoholic variety leaves you needing forgiveness, then a trip to see the city’s churches and cathedral will be rewarded by the sight of the magnificent stained glass and gothic architecture.

Le Mans is perhaps more famous among petrol-heads than culture vultures, but beyond the 24-hour sports car race and its related museum, there’s a medieval city that is best explored on foot. Its cobbled streets and alleyways weave between ancient timber-framed houses that have starred as the backdrop to many a period feature film, the most famous of which is Cyrano de Bergerac.

The city also boasts strong links to the Plantagenet dynasty which is wonderfully illustrated by their nocturnal spectacular – Les Nuits des Chimères a series of colourful projections on the exterior of the city’s grandest buildings. Sadly the summer series is now over, but they resume during the Christmas holidays.

If you’re in search of historical hijinks before that, head down to Le-Puy-en-Velay in Auvergne where the whole town comes together mid-September for its Bird King festival. This Renaissance carnival sees 6,000 people don period costumes and masks to celebrate an ancient tradition with street theatre, concerts and parades.

As if that wasn’t exciting enough, the town (which can be reached via Lyon or Clermont-Ferrand airports) is perched on and around three giant basalt pillars and rocky outcrops and is a truly amazing sight.

Further south, Avignon makes a great short break destination for both history lovers and foodies alike. The city is easily reached by plane or TGV and enjoys a wonderful setting on the River Rhone. It also boasts several Michelin-starred restaurants, giving you the chance to enjoy the good life in a way the city’s 14th-century popes would undoubtedly have approved. You can walk off the calories with a trip around the splendid Unesco-listed Palais des Papes or by dancing - as the song suggests - on that famous bridge.

Just a short train ride from Toulouse, the town of Cahors in the Lot Valley also boasts a famous bridge that was also built in the 14th century. It spans the river Lot on a tight meander that surrounds the town. It’s a great destination for shopping, wandering the narrow streets and just soaking up the atmosphere in its cafes. Oenophiles can also indulge themselves with the area’s famous ‘black wine’ – a very dark and highly tannic red wine that is perfect for sipping alongside the region’s duck dishes.

A little closer to home and just an hour’s drive from Calais, Arras makes an interesting weekend getaway, especially for those interested in World War I history. Not far from the town is Vimy Ridge where the huge Vimy Memorial pays tribute to the 60,000 Canadian soldiers who lost their lives in World War I, 11,000 of whom are named here.

The Wellington Quarry is also worth a visit; this series of underground tunnels were built by New Zealand forces in 1916. Visitors can access 350m of the tunnels and see graffiti, signs and memorabilia from the time. If you’re heading over the Channel for the festive season, you shouldn’t miss the Christmas market with around 60 different stalls.

02 September 2010

On Your Bike - Across India

Rik Turban shares his epic trip across India - on a motorbike!

If India hasn’t shown you 10 remarkable things before lunch, you must be having a lie-in. In order to savour its cornucopia of wonders and oddities, I had decided on a road trip, a drive across the country from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, from Cochin to Pondicherry.

The route would take me through the heartlands of the south, of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, that part of the subcontinent, some would say, that is most purely Indian.

I had a week and I wanted to see how many startling contrasts I could pack into seven days — mountains and coast, backwaters and torpid plains, hill stations and temples, a sensible English driver and Indian traffic. I set off in search of the unpredictable.

Most road trips in India involve the commodious back seat of a comfy air-conditioned Ambassador and a solicitous driver, ever ready with the chilled hand towels and bottles of mineral water.

I had done this a few times and it was lovely, but I felt it was time to break out. March being a season of fine weather, and I being a man of little sense, I decided I would travel by motorcycle, in particular the august Royal Enfield Bullet, an old British model of the 1950s that is still manufactured, and much loved, in India.

In a moment of silent prayer, I relayed to the Almighty how grateful I would be if He felt able to prevent any close encounters with cows

The first hurdle was finding the outskirts of Cochin. It is a smallish Indian city, a market town, really, with a mere 1.5m people. I spent a couple of hours getting lost, while dodging rickshaws and chickens, before I spotted a bus going to Alappuzha — my direction — and followed it to the coastal highway.

Later, at a crossroads, an elderly gentle­man in command of two loose teeth waggled his head inconclusively and I turned inland, following back roads into the backwaters, a water world of islands and low tongues of land still recovering from the Flood. Humpbacked bridges took me over waterways, where men poled low canoes past laundry women pounding canalside rocks with other people’s shirts. I stayed the night at a resort on an island that seemed to float on water hyacinths.

Along the shore, egrets, ibis, cranes, herons, cormorants, terns, pelicans, coots, kingfishers, geese, fish eagles and brahminy ducks all vied for fishing rights. The next day, the Western Ghats loomed. The road began to curve and climb, the air was suddenly weighted with new scents — cardamom, cinnamon and the faint aroma of tea. The palm trees fell away and the landscape was re-dressed, first with rubber and teak plantations, and then with the velvety green of tea bushes.

In Ponkunnam I found the Hindu faithful in a state of religious frenzy. Processions of musicians and dancers were converging on a gaudy temple. Bare-chested drummers pounded furious rhy­thms, temple trumpets blared, cymbals crashed, dancers worked themselves into a sweaty trance, while the surging crowds pres­sed forward to catch a glimpse of the eye of this hurricane —semi-delirious chaps who had pierced their cheeks with metal skewers, a circus trick masquerading as an act of devotion. Bringing up the rear were a couple of dusty caparisoned elephants, which dropped great blocks of dung with an air of supreme disinterest.

A couple of hours later, I was deep in a forest of jack trees, on the veranda of a cottage thatched with elephant grass, listening to the clacking call of a malabar grey hornbill that had appeared in the canopy above, looking like an exile from Jurassic Park. I was on the outskirts of the little-known hill station of Kumily. When I went into town for afternoon tea at a rooftop cafe, the waiter had to stand guard with a broomstick to keep the macaque monkeys from rushing in to nick my carrot cake.

The next morning, I coasted down the eastern flanks of the Ghats on a series of spectacular hairpins to the hot plains of Tamil Nadu. The landscape changed gear again with startling suddenness. In a quarter of an hour, I passed from pine forests and waterfalls to palm groves and rice paddies. The land flattened, the road uncoiled and I reached breathless speeds of 50mph on the smooth tarmac surfaces.

01 September 2010

Late travel deals: September 2010

Great Britain

Good offers are available this month to some of the best, unspoilt walking country in Britain. The choice in the Brecon Beacons includes a traditional Welsh longhouse for eight with its own private spring, reduced to £600 a week with Brecon Cottages, and a restored 16th-century farmhouse with oak beams and open fires. Set in a pretty garden with views of a waterfall and the hills, it also sleeps eight and costs £450 for short breaks.

The heather is in bloom on the North York Moors, where Inntravel offers a four-day self-guided walk starting on September 12 in Sinnington and taking in Rosedale Abbey, Egton Bridge, Pickering and Goathland. It costs £370 with B&B for two nights each in a former coaching inn and family-run hotel, three dinners, maps, notes and luggage transfers. 01653 617000

On the edge of the moors and a short drive from fishing villages and the Victorian resort of Saltburn-by-the-Sea is Grinkle Park, a baronial-style hotel in 200 acres with woodland and a lake. A member of Classic Lodges, it has rooms for two for £130 a night, including dinner and breakfast, until the end of October.
01287 640515

Boating on the Norfolk Broads is on offer with Waterways Holidays. Two eight-berth 40ft cruisers based at Potter Heigham are available for a week from either September 11 or 14 for £666, when only four travel. 0845 1271020

Star productions, murder mystery dinners, a period fête and fireworks are among the events at the Agatha Christie festival in South Devon from September 12 to 19, marking the 120th anniversary of her birth. Less than a mile from her former home, Greenway, now a National Trust property, is Wild Goose House, an Edwardian cottage, which costs from £619 and is one of nine homes in the area available during the week with Blue Chip Vacations.
0844 7044987

In North Cornwall, on an estate with a notorious past, is a converted medieval barn, available for £470 for a week from September 17 with Farm and Cottage Holidays. Near Widemouth Bay, it has use of a pool and spa, indoor tennis and river and lake fishing. 01237 459889


Short haul

A two-centre holiday combining one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and a resort on the Gulf of Aqaba is on offer from £599 with Voyages Jules Verne. Fly direct from Gatwick to Aqaba on a Tuesday for three nights’ B&B in Petra , the rose-red hillside city in Jordan, before transferring to the Radisson Blu Resort Tala Bay for four nights’ B&B. The best price is for the September 21 departure. 0845 1667035

Bargain breaks to the Canary Islands with On the Beach this month include a week’s self-catering in Tenerife from £163 and in Grand Canary from £196. The first deal starts with a flight from Stansted on September 21 to stay in the Laguna Park Apartments; the second is from East Midlands airport a day later for a week in the Liberty Apartments in Playa del Ingles. 0871 9110202

Lisbon Shopping Mecca




At first glance, Lisbon doesn’t look like a shopping mecca. I hadn’t expected to go home with a case full of bargains

Holiday shopping is a dangerous business. As a rule, something that looks absolutely fabulous with gold sandals and a glass of rosé on the beach never looks quite as hot back home, in the rain, on the school run. Some clothes simply don’t travel well. This includes anything folkloristic (ponchos, ethnic scarves, clogs, lace-edged blouses, traditional jewellery); anything with a cultural-geographic theme (Viva España T-shirts, humorous depictions of the Pope) and anything too bright (let’s face it, if Britain were a colour it would probably be navy blue or, at a push, khaki — certainly not coral florals or bright yellow).

That said, if you avoid the obvious pitfalls there is great satisfaction to be had from topping up your wardrobe on holiday. In mainland Europe especially, the high street is not nearly as homogenised as it is here. Nor is all the decent stuff the exclusive preserve of Size 8 trophy wives with toned arms and the might of their husband’s black Amex at their manicured fingertips. Affordable, well-cut, quality clothes that actually fit — as rare as hen’s teeth on your average British high street — are the norm.

Everyone knows about France and Italy; but in many ways these places are past their prime. Ten years ago it was still worth the budget air fare to Milan or Turin for a few days’ total immersion in the markets of the Crocetta and the shoe shops of Via Garibaldi, where even a pauper could kit herself out like a princess. These places still exist, of course; but the real bargains — such as the 100 per cent cashmere overcoat that I bought for something ridiculous like £50 (tragically hacked off by paramedics when I shattered my arm last year, causing me almost as much pain as the broken bones) are long gone.

No, in fashion terms the emerging markets lie farther afield. This year, mid-August found me in Portugal, first in Lisbon and then a few miles up the coast near Cascais, an area renowned for its winds, waves and golf courses. I expected to spend my days pootling around by the pool, perhaps visiting a few churches and medieval palacios (including the spooky, magnificent Moorish castle at Sintra).

What I hadn’t expected was to return home with a case full of proper bargains.

At first glance, Lisbon doesn’t look like a shopping mecca. For a start, the place is plastered in graffiti. Paint covers the sagging walls of the old city like tattoos on an aged whore — there is literally nowhere the spray can will not venture. Economically, Portugal has been having a tough time, yet despite (or maybe because of) this, Lisbon is bursting with ideas — and unlike in Britain, where the smartness of a shop often correlates with the surliness of its sales staff, the service is worthy of the snootiest Jermyn Street outfitter, yet the prices are more reminiscent of Primark.

As every successful salesperson knows, the secret is to make your customer feel happy and relaxed. In Lisbon they are experts at this. When trying on shoes, for example, it is customary for the sales assistant to fit them to your feet himself. The first few times this happened I was paralysed with embarrassment; by the time a pair of ravishing red platforms in Ana Salazar (75 per cent off in the sale) were being strapped around my ankles, I was rather enjoying having a handsome Iberian kneeling at my feet. It certainly loosened my purse, anyway.

Satisfying though this was, it was my very own dashing Aberdonian husband who, prised from his copy of Matthew Crawford’s The Case for Working with Your Hands: or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good (timely reading for a man who has been known to call an electrician to change a light bulb), uncovered a gem: a fabulous wool jacket, with a scooped hem at the back and an asymmetrical lapel, that hung beautifully and cost only fractionally more than lunch at the airport on the way out.


In Adolfo Dominguez (a sort of Iberian Jaeger) I picked up a linen shirt and a long-line silk knit cardigan for €49 (£40). The local branch of Zara was a revelation: rather cheaper and with a distinctly more sophisticated edge than in the UK. Even the Apple Store seemed somehow cooler, although that may have had something to do with the air-conditioning (we were shopping in 38C heat).

I have only two regrets: that I didn’t buy the pair of utterly bonkers shaggy white winter boots in Zara that I now see were a direct rip-off of this season’s Chanel ones; and that I didn’t pack an extra holdall for the journey home.