On the road out of Dakar, heading down the coast, we passed through a baobab forest. The guide was fairly blase about it but I insisted on stopping and exploring. It was the first intimation that Senegal is an amazing place and, secondly, that it doesn’t quite realise it. The country continued to surprise and delight me throughout the trip, which was to the coastal province of Casamance, a bird-watchers’ paradise. What really impressed me was the people: energetic, intelligent and – above all – creative: the standard of artistry and craftsmanship was extremely high. Added to all that, you have good beaches, winter sun and no jetlag.
Mount Palomar Observatory, California
It was the hottest day of the year but as the road spiralled up the almost-1,900-metre mountain, through increasingly lush vegetation, I saw a thundercloud in the rear-view mirror, far away, over Mexico. After a pit stop at Mother’s Kitchen cafe (brilliant veggie chilli), it was on to the Palomar Observatory. The building’s vast white dome shone brilliantly against the gathering storm. Soon, hailstones the size of conkers crashed down and lightning flickered. The tour, set to booming thunder, was inspiring and the tech on show “super-cool” according to my fellow visitors. Clearing skies were the cue for a hike around the park’s forest with a stop-off at the Boucher Hill fire lookout post and its vista to the desert borderlands.
• Tours $5 adults, $3 children (5-12), astro.caltech.edu
Lake swimming, Portugal
About two hours south-east of Porto, the Castelo de Bode dam on the Zêzere River forms a vast reservoir surrounded by pine and eucalyptus forests. Nearby Quinta do Troviscal (troviscal.com) is a B&B with four rooms, amazing views and a path at the end of the garden leading down to the water: cue lazy days spent sunbathing on the private deck and swimming in the lake. Who needs a beach? The town of Tomar, a 15-minute drive away, built by the Knights Templar on the banks of the Nabão River, is a maze of cobbled streets and ancient churches, with a grand castle and convent on a hilltop.
Old Capital Bike Inn, Bangkok
Seeing Asia on two wheels is an attractive idea but scary in its crazily teeming cities. Step forward the Old Capital Bike Inn, with its fleet of well-maintained vintage bikes. New owner Jason Lim has restyled this boutique hotel in the historic quarter on a cycling theme, and runs complimentary night rides. Pedalling the stately machines, we took in the Grand Palace, a street of shops selling Buddha statues, and a park where locals were playing sepak takraw (kick volleyball). I then felt brave enough next day to borrow a bike and explore the klongs (canals) and Chao Phraya riverside.
• Doubles from £76 B&B, oldcapitalbkk.com
Akranes lighthouse, Iceland
As my friend filled his Instagram feed with views of sunrise over the Atlantic, and the mountains of Akrafjall and Esja, I wandered to the door of the Akranes lighthouse. Keeper Hilmar Sigvaldason opened it and welcomed us in. Often it’s what you can see from a lighthouse that’s the highlight but Hilmar has reinvented Akranesviti – built in 1944, and gazing down on a smaller, older lighthouse a short distance away – as an arts venue. The acoustics inside are wondrous and the sustain so memorable that it hosts intimate concerts and recording sessions, as well as being used for art projects. The peninsula scenery is striking and Akranes is just an hour’s drive from Reykjavik – via the impressive 5.7km Hvalfjörður Tunnel.
• Admission £2, on Facebook
Hotel Les Charmettes, St Malo
Hôtel Les Charmettes, east of St Malo’s old town, is in a handsome 19th-century beachfront villa, yet the decor and services are rooted in the 21st century: retro gifts on sale in the mini boutique, yoga on Saturday mornings. At breakfast we took our coffee on to the promenade and watched the vast, sandy beach fill up with joggers, paddleboarders, sailors and windsurfers. There were more people walking in the sea than swimming: longe-côte, a resistance training exercise in waist-deep water is hugely popular here. At lunchtime on the hotel terrace, there were more locals than guests ordering bowls of moules and seafood platters. In the granite-walled old town, a 15-minute stroll away, is the port where most arrivals drive straight off the ferry and on to places in Brittany or beyond, unaware of a charming little hotel beyond the harbour walls.
• Doubles from €72 B&B, sawdays.co.uk
Many British and European football fans, me included, initially, dismissed the idea of travelling to Russia for the World Cup for fear it would be dangerous, expensive and even potentially life threatening following the Salisbury attack. So much for cold-war paranoia. When I got over myself and went, I was bowled over by the grandeur of Moscow. It is as impressive as Paris, maybe more so, but with history and architecture unlike any other European city. It’s also friendly, welcoming and safe. Standing in Red Square and looking down to St Basil’s Cathedral is just exhilarating – even when crowded with footie fans and TV crews from around the world. And I didn’t have time to visit the Kremlin, the number one attraction. Next time.
Heart of Wales railway line
A few miles south of Shrewsbury there’s a little town called Craven Arms and from there a single-track 121-mile railway runs south-west through some of Wales’s most magnificent landscapes. It has been operating since 1868 but recently someone had the bright idea of an accompanying long-distance footpath that would loosely follow the line, coinciding at the stations, many of them request halts. Most of the path is now open (final completion due March 2019), allowing walkers to hop on and off the train, building day walks or longer, with nights in pubs or B&Bs in towns such as Llandrindod Wells and Llandovery.
Castello di Santa Severa, near Rome
Historic buildings in gorgeous settings tend to get turned into five-star hotels but the Lazio regional government targeted budget travellers when converting 14th-century Castello di Santa Severa. Overlooking a sandy beach 50km north of Rome, the castle has been home to nobles, popes and German soldiers over the years but now its oldest part is a hostel with dorms (€25) and private doubles (from €65). The best bit is that Santa Severa’s railway station is 15 minutes’ walk away, with trains to St Peter’s and Trastevere taking about 40 minutes, so it’s easy to combine seeing the Eternal City with days on the beach. Nearby Santa Severa village has shops for supplies to cook in the communal kitchen.
The mountain villages of Crete have a heroic history of rebellion against invaders but the flip side is a genuine warmth towards politer visitors. Elos, best-known for its lively chestnut festival and great hiking, is high among the verdant peaks of the south-west, just off the road between Kissamos and the sands and lagoons of Elafonisi. Hungry after a walk and some beach inaction, we headed to Kamares, one of its four tavernas. My family tucked into goat stew while I ate a homemade gemista of peppers and tomatoes stuffed with rice, herbs, courgettes, onion and garlic. Local wines, bread and olives, plus the obligatory glass of raki (for non-drivers) followed, all proffered with an offhand Cretan friendliness. At the organic pharmacy opposite we bought a remarkably bitter herbal tea “guaranteed” to prevent colds. Best stop-off ever.
West Country branch lines
I spent a week exploring Devon and Cornwall by train – a rover ticket allows three days of unlimited travel out of seven for £50 (nationalrail.co.uk). The branch lines are brilliant: Liskeard to Looe, Truro to Falmouth and, best of all, St Erth to St Ives. Some say St Ives is twee and touristy but I love it. The legendary light, the higgledy-piggledy streets, the beaches, the old Sloop pub, the Barbara Hepworth museum, the Tate … We ate at the Old Custom House , a seven-table restaurant that had only been open a week. The Italian-inspired small plates – octopus and ’nduja stew, ox tongue fritters (from £4) – and sunny service made my favourite seaside town just about perfect.
Maquenque Eco Lodge, Costa Rica
Costa Rica is alive with wildlife. On a rafting trip along the Rio Blanco, my 12-year-old niece and I spied sloths and monkeys in treetops and crocodiles sunbathing at the water’s edge. But a night safari in the rainforest from Maquenque ecolodge sticks in my mind. As our group crept through the trees, it was the tiny creatures that caused the most excitement: a cartoon-like tree frog, bright green with bulging tangerine eyes and oversized feet; a finger-nail sized toad; a long-legged spider weaving its intricate web. Near the border with Nicaragua, in its own private reserve, Maquenque offers an immersive nature experience. The bird life is prolific, from toucans to giant parrots. Raccoon-like coati wander in packs; turtles and caiman laze on logs in the lagoon. The wooden bungalows have terraces with hammocks overlooking the water, and there are tree houses high in the canopy for an extra-adventurous stay.
• Bungalows from £98 B&B and including guided walk, maquenqueecolodge.com
As first impressions go, Camariñas – on the outer reaches of Spain’s west coast – takes some beating. The road runs out at this little fishing town on Galicia’s wild Costa da Morte. Seafood comes straight from the trawlers moored beyond the marina, the local albariño wine flows long into the night at €2 a glass, children stay out late and there’s a warmth to the people that confounds the region’s reputation for being out on a limb and under a permanent rain cloud. When the sun is out, which it was every day for our stay this summer, families decamp to sandy Lingunde beach just north of town for raucous fun. Its white sand could fool you into thinking you’re in the Caribbean – until you dive into the water. Then you get a sense of why it’s called the Costa da Morte.
Il Vescovino, Panzano, Italy
On a road trip in Italy this summer, we stopped for dinner at the village of Panzano-in-Chianti, about 40km from Florence. We’d come from Venice, via Bologna, and would be heading down to Rome, Naples and the Amalfi coast. I’d happily been eating pasta for almost every meal so far but the homemade ravioli that evening – stuffed with leeks and taleggio cheese, with a simple tomato sauce – beat all the rest. It was dusk and we sat on the terrace of Il Vescovino on the edge of the village, savouring each little parcel and sipping chianti classico and gazing over a panorama of rolling vineyards under a peach sky.
Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Bellaghy, Co Derry
The Essex-born guitarist Wilko Johnson had been invited to Seamus Heaney HomePlace, the arts and literary centre in the village where the late bard grew up, to give a talk about how he had cheated death. I was in Northern Ireland at the time and, being a fan of both, thought this was too good an opportunity to miss. The talk was morbidly fascinating. As was the fact that HomePlace, a Scandi barn-style building, is on the site of a once heavily fortified police station. But when I walked around the permanent exhibition about the Nobel prize-winner, with his family photos, school desk, and favourite duffel coat, any dark thoughts lifted, and I fell once again under the warm and avuncular spell of Heaney’s poetry celebrating a rural upbringing in Mid Ulster.
Teshima Art Museum, Japan
A concrete dome may seem an odd highlight from a visit to Japan but the Teshima Art Museum is extraordinary – architecturally stunning and strangely soothing. It’s not a museum is any of the usual senses. Designed to look like a water droplet at the precise moment it hits the ground, it’s an incongruous sight on the small island of Teshima: a low, white mound on grassy hillside overlooking the Seto Inland Sea. The wow moment comes as you step into the empty interior. Two large openings in the roof let light flood in. The ground is dotted with tiny holes through which spring water droplets bubble up and skitter across the smooth, coated surface. There’s a meditative quality to sitting on the floor and staring as the water forms endless patterns on the surface.
• Admission £11, under 15s free, benesse-artsite.jp
You don’t need a car on Rhodes – I travelled all over the island by bus, from Rhodes Town in the north down to the southern tip. Here I found Prasonisi, or “Green Island”. Despite the name, this uninhabited cape only becomes an island in winter, when sea levels rise. In September, a stretch of sand still connected it to the mainland. On one side is the calm, flat Mediterranean; on the other, a few paces away, is the wild, windy Aegean. I walked around Prasonisi to a lighthouse on the far side, with only a few other walkers and wild goats for company. Back on the beach, I stopped for a dip – after all, there aren’t many places in the world where you can swim in two seas, two minutes apart.
Fathom Bistro, San Diego, California
After a day of hiking, kayaking and sightseeing, I needed to relax and let what I’d seen of San Diego and its Pacific coastline sink in. I couldn’t have picked a better place than this cosy bar, with diving-gear decor, on a fishing pier at Shelter Island. Fathom serves local brews (including Pliny the Elder, a double IPA of great repute) and comfort food, such as homemade sausages and hot sandwiches. I shared the idyllic spot with owner Dennis Borlek. As we talked, he pointed over the bay at the skyscrapers of Downtown, a few miles away. “The sunset’s better if you don’t look towards it but see it reflected in those buildings. It’s magical,” he said. He was right.
Bourbon Street, Amsterdam
There’s plenty to do at night in the ’Dam. Clubs come and go, some reclaiming industrial buildings or dockside warehouses. Looking for live music and good cocktails after dinner this time, we headed to Bourbon Street for blues and booze. Between taller buildings on the Leidsekruisstraat, it has been a live blues venue since 1990 but has added other genres in recent years – there’s now live music seven days a week, for around €3 admission. It was small, dark and the right kind of busy, and a mixed crowd went wild for a groove cover of Blackstreet’s No Diggity. It’s standing only, so great for an intimate gig and dancing to funk and soul into the early hours.
I’d read about overtourism in Barcelona but seeing it at first hand still came as a shock: the entire centre is as crowded and soulless as Oxford Street. Luckily, I was only passing through, on my way to an area of Catalonia that is the opposite of busy. The Ebro delta in the far south, on the border with Valencia province is a serene flatland sandwiched between the sea and the mountains, full of aquatic birds in the big blue skies,and pink flamingos lazing in the marshes, and ancient rice paddies (pictured) for which the area is famous. I cycled around the Ebro Delta natural park on an electric bike – a fun experience first for me after a lifetime of proper cycling and, oh, what a fun!. We finished our tour at Kensho, only the second sake producer in Europe, which makes it – made with local rice. I tried it paired with a plate of fat delta oysters – a heavenly combination that our group demanded more of once the tasting had finished.
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