In need of a proper break, but don’t want to get on a plane? Or have you only got a free weekend instead of a whole week? Then a luxury staycation is for you. A change of scenery can do wonders for the psyche and really recharge the batteries – just what most of us need when the winter blues set in and the summer holiday couldn’t feel further away. We’ve brought together a selection of five amazing hotels in the Pride of Britain Hotels Group, each with that something special. Whether you’re looking for an amazing spa break, superb gastronomic offerings or just somewhere the whole family can relax, take a look at our guide.
Sydney is a magical city, made up of a series of harbours linked by silky blue ribbons of sea. With a great food scene, abundant cultural hotspots and a classic Aussie laid-back vibe, it’s a city break unlike any you’ll have had before. Katie Thomson heads down under.
Australia is a sort of bewitching cousin to most of us Brits; in looks and lexicon we are strikingly similar (minus the tans and healthy physiques), but that is where the similarities come to an abrupt halt. Australia is decidedly bigger, bolder and more bronzed, a vast country with three time zones, its own microclimates, killer animals both great and small and the cultural phenomenon that is Barbie and beer time. In a sense, we are two nations, divided by a common language. Australia’s major cities are very familiar to us, with Sydney’s iconic harbour views taking the top spot – so much in fact, that many incorrectly assume it is the capital city.
It certainly has all the makings of a capital: iconic architecture, a bustling business district, a vibrant and eclectic food scene and stunning botanical gardens. What sets it apart though is that incredible Aussie lifestyle of sun and sport right in the heart of city life with easy access to the sand and sea. Bondi Beach is perhaps its most famous sandy stretch, which offers amazing views and the chance to dip in the iconic Bondi Baths. Sydney’s coastline features a series of outdoor pools offering a unique swimming experience surrounded by ocean and sky and the Bondi Baths have been a landmark of the beach for over 100 years.
Whilst I do love a great hike or swim, which Sydney offers in abundance, owing to myself and my partner’s glutinous inclination, most city trips we head on revolve around eating so naturally that’s the first thing we research on any trip. Once again, Sydney is certainly no slouch in the food department and the choice was more about prioritising the places we didn’t want to miss. On the first morning of our trip, we headed out of our hotel and down to the station to navigate the metro system with our newly purchased Opal cards, which are the equivalent of the London Oyster.
We were headed for the original Bills restaurant in Darlingshurst. This is where the enigmatic chef, writer and presenter started to create his unique Aussie fusion cooking style as this was the first café in what has now become a worldwide franchise. When it opened in 1992 local by-laws meant that the number of seats they were allowed were limited, so the communal dining table was born and has now become a much-copied aspect of many cafes. We enjoyed a great brunch there of ricotta hot cakes with banana and honeycomb butter and gravlax with avocado, kale and poached eggs. It was a great nutritious start for our busy day of sightseeing and luggage chasing (our luggage at this point was enjoying its own holiday in Auckland – a lesson was learnt about always carrying a toothbrush and a clean pair of undies).
After that we strolled past the lovely Hyde Park to Kings Cross station to head down to Circular Quay. From my time living in Venice, I’ve learn that a great way to get to grips with the geography of a harbour city is to get out on the water – this is also where you can find some of the best views without jostling for viewing space! From the Circular Quay we were able to board a ferry to Darling Harbour, allowing us some great views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge on the way. Darling Harbour has a real buzz to it, with waterside restaurants spilling out onto the pavements and great decorations celebrating Mardigras.
Darling Harbour is the place to go for all the major attractions in the city and is very family orientated. It is home of the IMAX Theatre, Madame Tussauds, the Aquarium and the Wildlife Sydney Zoo. It is a tourist centre, but it is a really lovely place to just while away some time even if you aren’t heading to the big attractions. If you find yourself in Sydney on a Saturday night from October – February, head to Darling Harbour for a stunning firework display, reflecting dazzlingly on the water below.
You may choose to eat in one of the restaurants in the Harbour, but like many tourist traps, you will find that the prices are inflated and the choice is limited – and you’d really be missing out on what this city has to offer. Instead we headed toward Reservoir Street on Surry Hills to visit Sugarcane. The Surry Hills area is a real hotspot of culinary invention and diversity, with a range of restaurants for every taste and budget. Sugarcane, an Asian Fusion restaurant, is immediately welcoming, with communal tables and low lighting creating a soft buzz, even on a cold and windy Monday night. The exposed brick walls are decorated with Thai street art and from the ceiling many silk bags embroidered with elephants are suspended creating a cosy feel. The food was just how I like it – lots of little intriguing plates which excited the tastebuds and left us guessing about just how they created such complex flavours. Standout dishes were the tortilla crisp with crab, apple and mint, a wonderful crispy pork coleslaw and delicious Malaysian roti with curry sauce. It was an excellent meal and I would have eaten there again had we had the time. After that we retired to our hotel, the Meriton Serviced Apartments in Zetland (www.meritonapartments.com.au/sydney/zetland), as we had an exciting day planned.
Being nature lovers at heart, and wanting to see a bit more of the rugged scenery we knew Australia was famous for, we had an early start as we headed a few hours out of the city to experience the wonderful Blue Mountains. After a fairly overcast day the day before, we were really pleased to see the forecast had improved, meaning we would have great visibility – vital for taking in the expansiveness of the scenery. Our guide was unusually perky for the time of day and before long he had us geared up for some serious sightseeing.
Before heading out of town we were shown some of the lovely sandstone buildings, all with the inevitable caption from our tour guide “this here, beautiful…built by convicts”! Sydney is full of historical buildings and getting to see a side of it we ordinarily wouldn’t was really special. The United Kingdom had for a long time been sending its convicts across the Atlantic to the American colonies. That trade was ended with the Declaration of Independence by the United States in 1776. Overrun with prisoners, Britain decided in 1786 to found a new penal outpost in the territory discovered by Cook some 16 years earlier. The colony was at first to be titled “New Albion”, but Captain Arthur Phillip, the man charged with establishing the new colony, decided on “Sydney” in recognition of Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney and his role in authorising the establishment of the settlement. During the Mid-19th Century, when the convict transportation ended, the city has transformed from a colonial outpost into a major global cultural and economic centre that we recognise today.
I can’t tell you much about the rest of journey as I was snoozing away but in no time (in actuality about 2 hours) we had arrived at the cable car that would take us across the valley with a beautiful view of the famous Three Sisters rock formations. We were suspended about 200 metres above the forest floor, meaning we could see wild cockatiels flying beneath the suspended car.
This part of our trip was when we began to get a better understanding of Aboriginal culture. Unlike New Zealand, where the relationship between the indigenous people and those of European decent is more harmonious, there is historical tension that modern Australian’s are still trying to dissipate and may wrongs they are trying to right. The Three Sisters are a part of this Aboriginal culture, and their myth enthralls visitors. The legend goes that three sisters, Meenhi, Wimlah and Gunnedoowere turned to stone by their witch doctor father Tyawan to try and save them from the terrifying mountain beast ‘the Bunyip’. After he changed them, Tyawan found himself cornered by the Bunyip, forcing him to turn himself into a Lyre Bird. Everyone was safe, but Tywan has dropped his magic bone, the source of his power. The Three Sisters stand silently watching him from their ledge, hoping he will find the bone to turn them back to Aboriginal girls. As you look at the Three Sisters, you can hear Tyawan the Lyre Bird calling his daughters as his search for the lost bone continues.
This magical story only adds to the amazing sense of mystic surrounding these mesmerizing mountains. After riding the cable car, we headed deeper into the forest. The mountains and valleys themselves are actually coated with rainforest – the name Blue Mountains deriving from the blue haze that rises from the gumtrees as they warm up from the sun. The effect is stunning, as was our view spanning 120 kilometres into the horizon. Here we were able to understand the vastness that Australia is known for, its unconquerable wilderness. After the cable car we were able to ride the steepest downhill train (52 degree angle if that means anything to anyone!) for a tour of the mining shafts and tunnels that cover over 100km in the valley.
We then headed to the Featherdale Wildlife Park, giving us a chance to get up close to some of Australia’s most iconic animal residents. As well as seeing a nursery of koala (who’s name interestingly comes from the Aboriginal name for them which means ‘no water’ as they get all their liquid from gum leaves), we were able to feed kangaroos and wallabies, see rare birds like the Cassowary, catch glimpses of snoozing wombats, watch the Tasmanian Devil make its tracks around its enclosure, come close to a three metre saltwater croc and see the wonderful echidna hobble around its pen. After learning so much about the flora and fauna of New Zealand it was really lovely to learn about Australian conservation efforts and see some of these famous inhabitants.
After our wildlife encounters, we were driven down to the docks (via the impressive Olympic Park) so we could take a ferry back to Circular Quay. We headed through the waters until Sydney’s famous skyline was visible. Because of time, we weren’t able to attempt the famous Harbour Bridge climb, so it was a treat to be ferried underneath it for a unique view.
Our foodie appreciation of Sydney ended with a meal at Sagra, an Italian restaurant in Darlinghurst. We knew it was going to be good because there was a queue out the door and the portions were just on the boarder of pretentiously small (don’t come too hungry but expect dazzling flavours). The menu is a small one, with a handful of starters, mains and desserts. We opted for the grilled sardines with raisins and almonds, ox heart tomato salad with goat curd, ricotta filled tortellini and pappardelle with chicken liver. The standout dish was the tomato and goat curd salad – it tasted extraordinary, like tomato flavour distilled to its most heady summer flavour, complimented by salty-sharp cheese and metallic basil. We finished off with the tiniest but most delicious cheese board and walked back to our hotel to pack for the next leg of the journey to the USA.
If you want to visit a place where you can access all that we know and love about Australian culture – the great food, weather, lifestyle and natural beauty, you’d be hard pressed to find somewhere that encompasses it all as well as Sydney. With something to offer every kind of traveller, it’s a stop not to be missed on any Australian adventure.
Words and a selction of images from Katie Thomson
We arrived on the glorious South Island via the Cook Straight, a stunning journey through the stretch that joins the north and South. We had our first taste of the dramatic scenery of the South that we’d heard so much about when we spied the long limbs of the Marlborough Sounds. These are the sunken valleys of the Tasman Sea, which according to Maori mythology, are the prows of the sunken war canoes of the mountain Aoraki.
We headed from the port town of Picton into Motueka so we could better explore the Tasman coast. The steep, wooded hills and small quiet bays of the sounds are sparsely populated, as access is difficult. Many of the small settlements and isolated houses are only accessible by boat, which is just why we decided to explore it with a Wilsons kayak tour from Kaiteriteri beach. We paddled up the coast toward the magnificent split Apple rock, a perfectly spherical boulder said to have been split down the middle by two warring Maori gods. On our paddles we saw the ‘rough-faced shag’ (also known as the king cormorant, but aren’t we all pleased we know both names!), a rare breed of seabird which is protected by the Department of Conservation. If you want to see lots of the coast, you should consider the boat trips, which can take you much further up the coast then you might go on a kayak.
We then started to make tracks down the meandering West Coast toward Charlestone. On our drive we stopped at Cape Foulwind, and being British I assumed we were in for a whiffy bay. Fortunately, we found out the origin of its name – it was so named by Cook for its strong winds which made landings difficult. The Cape is a haven for wildlife including native fur seals and penguins. With stunning panoramic coastal views it was a magical place to hike in the dusky hours.
The thing you’re told about New Zealand is that for its land mass (roughly the same as the UK), it has a population of only 4 million. But what does that mean in quantifiable terms? And can you really see the impact of this? In the North Island you could be forgiven for thinking there is a real hustle and bustle in the place, but in South Island the real drought of people suggested in these statistics becomes clear. The West Coast is one of the largest expanses of land but houses less than 1% of the population. It’s common to drive along and not see another car for 30 minutes, and the signs saying ‘no fuel for 100km’ aren’t kidding. But that remoteness, that freedom from people is exhilarating and magical. In an overpopulated world, to enjoy a view of glowworms or a colony of birds completely alone is something very special indeed.
After a stunning drive down the coastal highway, our next destination was Hokitika, the physical and spiritual home of New Zealand’s famous green jade. We had read about Hokitika Gorge, a river with a special swing bridge spanning its powder blue waters, so we trundled off to discover it. What we found was a mesmeric body of water, rippling with colours ranging from cloudy turquoise to milky white. It felt like we had wandered into a fairytale, which was only disrupted by a swarm of sandflies, bringing me on to my top New Zealand tip, always wear citronella!
A drive through the West Coast is full of parallels, which was especially evident as we left the leafy hills and sub tropical forests of the coastal road to head towards Franz Josef glacier. The Kiwis are spoilt for choice, with the equally stunning Fox Glacier nearby, but we elected to explore the larger of the two. Having heard so much about the beauty of the upper ices, we decided the best way to explore had to be a helicopter hike. We were prepped for the flight, lead out to the heli pad and taken up through the mountains and close to the ice ridges of the glacier. Then we landed straight on the ice, donned our crampons and started to climb. The ice itself was beautiful, with fast running water carving its way through the white ice (we took a sip too and it was utterly delicious!). Most spectacular were the deep ice caves, marbled in dark blue and often reaching depths of up to 40 metres. We were also able to see the glacier in action, seeing ice break from the ridge with a thunderous roll through the valley. It was raw natural power and we felt truly in awe of our surroundings.
The next morning, we eased the soreness from out muscles with a walk around the lovely Lake Matheson and a breakfast at its cafe with a view of the glorious Mount Cook emerging from the clouds (I always believe in the restorative powers of pain au chocolat). From there, we began the drive to Wanaka, a gorgeous lakeside town, surrounded by hills. Our stopover wasn’t long as there was a triathlon which had flooded (in Kiwi terms) the town with people, so we just took in the ambiance and headed for Queenstown early the next morning.
Queenstown is one of the biggest towns on the island; an adventurer’s paradise, it’s as beautiful as it is exhilarating. Whatever your adrenaline-seeking desire, you’re sure to find something to excite. One activity everybody should try is the Shotover jet boat, which thunders through narrow mountain passes and inches of water for a truly breathtaking ride – even the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge loved it on their recent tour!
Queenstown is known for bungee jumping, skydiving, paragliding, and, (gulp) canyon swinging. The latter is what we opted for, thinking it was a less extreme bungee – how wrong we were! The swing involves a 70 metre freefall followed by a 130kph swing across the canyon we had boated through the day before. Certainly not for the faint hearted, one go was more than enough for me! After our bone-shaking swing, we headed toward the sky gondola to see a different view of the city. The beauty of Queenstown is often overshadowed by the adrenaline activities, so taking time to see the tall ridges of the Remarkables mountains and the lake is certainly worthwhile. As is becoming a child again and going on the sky luge – essentially tobogganing with wheels on a downhill concrete track – completely unique and bonkers and so enjoyable.
From Queenstown, we were to travel to a place that seemed so mystical and isolated that it couldn’t possibly exist in in the modern world: Milford Sound. These ancient Fiordlands are only accessible through a stunning drive over mountain passes and single carriageway roads, 4 hours from Queenstown. Inconceivably vast, these ranges and waters run for miles from the heart of the mountains to the Tasman Sea. We opted to tour the area in two ways – first was kayaking on the basin for two hours to try and conceive the scale of the place, then we cruised it on a boat, allowing us to get far further, spotting seal colonies on our way. This is a truly magnificent area, and whatever time you can give to it, to explore it and learn about what makes it special will be truly unforgettable. Don’t forget to ask your guides about the Milford Sound moose either!
Accommodation is a little scarce in this area, so book your lodgings and activities well in advance. We stayed in a Riverview Chalet in Milford Sound Lodge, which was a magical experience. After uncharacteristic dry weather in the sounds, we were lucky enough to see the valleys come alive after a night of rainfall. The previously plain and rugged rock face visible from our sun terrace was transformed into a mirage of hundreds of little waterfalls, replenishing the river at their feet.
From Milford Sound we returned to Queenstown for a stopover, before driving on to one of New Zealand’s most famous beauty spots – Mount Cook or Aoraki, the highest peak of the Southern Alps. According to Maori legend, Aoraki was a young boy who, along with his three brothers, were the sons of Rakinui, the Sky Father. On their voyage around the Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother, their canoe became stranded on a reef and tilted. Aoraki and his brothers climbed onto the top side of their canoe. However, the south wind froze them and turned them to stone. Their canoe became the Te Waka o Aoraki, the South Island, and their prows, the Marlborough Sounds. Aoraki, the tallest, became the highest peak, and his brothers created the Ka Tiritiri o te Moana, the Southern Alps.
Of all the views in New Zealand, the approach to Aoraki is one of the most iconic. You may never see a lake so pure and beautiful as Lake Pukaki, pictured at the start of this article. It is astonishingly blue and clear and I can’t think of a single view in the world that rivals it. The Mount Cook area has lots of different hikes for all fitness levels. We opted for the Hooker Valley Trail, but those with more time and inclination should try the Red Tarns walk, known for its beauty.
We reluctantly left Mount Cook, bound for another incredible beauty spot – Lake Tekapo. As well as a wonderful lake, the area is known for its family activities. Lots of people take dips in the crystalline waters or head to the hot pools of Tekapo Springs. The walk to Mount John Observatory is also worthwhile. It tests your fitness but the views are absolutely worth it – and can motivate yourself with the thought of the fabulous cafe at the top! After Tekapo we drove to Geraldine, a tiny town but one with amazing night skies. I have never seen a more perfect night sky – the Southern Cross shined as brightly as diamonds and we could make out the cloudy outlines of faraway galaxies.
From the relative seclusion and wilderness of the Southern Alps, we headed for the big city, Christchurch. This is perhaps the most ‘English’ of all the cities in New Zealand and it bears a lot of resemblance to towns in the home counties. Sadly, Christchurch is still struggling to come to terms with the devastating earthquake which tore through it in 2011, destroying and damaging many of its buildings, including the tower of its iconic Cathedral. We visited to see a friend teaching out there and made sure to take in the famous Botanic Gardens with a caterpillar tour, before exploring more of the city. Because we had a car, we decided to drive out to the charming town of Lyttelton, which has a glorious bay for swimming and lots of wonderful fish restaurants. If you have more time, get out to Akaroa, a stunning bay known for its marine wildlife.
From Christchurch we headed north, for what was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the trip. Kaikoura, a fishing town perched halfway between Picton and Christchurch, is a haven for wildlife as it sits next to a monumental oceanic shelf. This shelf channels nutrient dense water, attracting a plethora of sea birds, including the mighty albatross, super pods of dolphins, seal colonies, sperm whales and pods of orca. The beauty of animal interaction in New Zealand is that most of it is completely wild, and this was the case when we swam with a pod of gorgeous dusky dolphins. We were taken out on a boat for this natural interaction, where it was our job to be interesting and exciting to make the dolphins take an interest – not easy in a double wetsuit and flippers. We sang through our snorkels, and when a dolphin was close enough, the aim was to catch their eye and duck dive with them. No doubt the dolphins wondered who these ungainly black blobs were, but they did seem to find us interesting, effortlessly snaking between us to find a willing playmate. After the swimming was done, they escorted us back through the water, riding the bow waves of our little boat and showing us their prowess.
Our ride back to the shore was a quick one as the captain warned us of a looming Antarctic storm, whose progress we could see like a grey wall swallowing the coastline. We made it back before the worst of the wind and rushed off to hunker down in our cottage for the night.
The next day had another encounter with wildlife, this time an 18 metre long sperm whale. These incredible creatures are the apex predators in the area, hunting at depths of 2,250 metres for prey, it is the second deepest diving mammal in the world. We sped out by boat into the choppy surf, stopping at intervals to try and locate where our whale may come up for air. We spotted it at the surface as it went through the atmospheric changes and breathing processes it needs to be able to dive again for prey, waiting for the moment that that famous tail would emerge from the water to start its colossal dive. You may never find yourself in an area as magical as this for spotting wildlife, so it really is worth taking every opportunity you can to see it.
As we began our drive to the airport, my partner and I discussed what this trip had meant to us. What we felt we got out of it, how we understood the places we’d been and how we could even begin to process the beauty we had seen. How can you sum up such an incredible country? Probably with the feeling that you need to get back there as soon as possible after you’ve left. This is a place where the people are happy and friendly, so willing to share with you their experiences of the country they love. It is a country where you can enjoy all the conveniences of modern life, but still find nature in its most raw and beautiful state. In truth, its a slice of Eden that must be your next adventure.
If you think you’d like to follow a similar route to ours, here listed are each of our stops in order.
- Ferry from Wellington to Picton, overnight stay in Motueka nearby
- Motueka to Charleston, via Westport for supplies
- Charleston to Hokitika, via Pancake rocks
- Hokitika to Franz Josef Glacier
- Franz Josef to Wanaka
- Wanaka to Queenstown, over the Crown Range
- Queenstown to Manapouri (tiny village two hours from Mildford Sound if you don’t fancy the drive in one go)
- Manapouri to Milford Sound
- Milford Sound back to Queenstown
- Queenstown to Mount Cook – book accommodation early
- Mount Cook to Lake Tekapo to take advantage of Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve for star gazing
- Lake Tekapo to Geraldine
- Geraldine to Christchurch
- Christchurch to Kaikoura
- Kaikoura back to Christchurch to fly to Sydney!
Where we stayed:
Motueka: Accent House B&B – well appointed rooms with their own private terraces and a homely feel.
Charleston: Air BnB – we stayed with Donald and his dog called Dog on his farm. Very rough and ready, but in a wonderful setting with its own bank of glowworms.
Hokitika: Shining Star
Franz Josef Glacier – Mount
Wanaka: Another Air BnB, this time with Joy and Ian who provided us with a lovely private room and a continental breakfast for a reasonable price.
Queenstown: We had three nights in Queenstown, one was spent in the Islay Cottage B&B, a rather eccentric but charming B&B with stunning countryside views. The other spot was a Top
10 holiday park on the Shotover river just out of town, fairly basic but functional.
Mount Cook YHA – really well equipped and well placed for the Hooker Valley Trail Walk
Tekapo – We were just outside in the Top 10 Holiday Park in Fairlie.
Geraldine – A superb Air Bnb stay with Yanna and Steve in a lovely self-contained bungalow.
Kaikoura – Lobster Inn – a great little bolt-hole to experience life in this laid back town.
Fitness and nutrition tips from Powder White to maximise time on the pistes this season
Regardless of skiing ability, there are several elements that will affect performance on the slopes, as the body adjusts to different climates, altitudes and exercise intensity levels. The average skier burns up to 3,000 calories during six hours of skiing and can lose up to five pounds of weight in a week.
There are easy changes that can be incorporated into a daily routine prior to and during a ski trip to ensure performance and recovery during the trip are maximised. With the ski season just around the corner, Fraser Ewart-White, Director of Powder White an independent ski tour operator, shares his top tips on how to stay energised on the slopes.
Build fitness ahead of your trip
Try and build up a cardio routine in the run up to your holiday. Attempt some type of exercise three times a week for a minimum of 30 minutes each day. Cycling is one of the best exercises, as it engages the same muscles used for skiing and boarding. A cross-trainer, available in most gyms, is also a great option. Focus on building core strength and endurance with squats, lunges and planks.
Skiing can be a challenging and tiring sport, so it’s really important to start the day with a nutritious and energy filled breakfast. Most catered chalets offer guests hearty breakfast options such as freshly prepared eggs and bacon. The protein and fat in eggs takes longer to digest than carbs, releasing energy slowly throughout the morning, keeping rumbling tummies at bay.
Dehydration is accelerated at altitude compared to at sea level. It’s important to drink plenty of fluids throughout the day whilst skiing, which will help to combat headaches and fatigue. This also helps control calories, energise muscles and keeps skin looking great. Keep in mind that alcohol can hinder your performance on the slopes and can also contribute to dehydration. Try and limit après ski to a few drinks (we know it’s hard!).
Take a lunch break
A lunch break is essential and a great opportunity to take selfies against the stunning scenery backdrops. Try to avoid heavy, greasy meals such as burgers and fries. Opt for something healthy that will provide protein and replenish lost carbohydrates. A protein bar is an effective (and portable) solution to mid-afternoon dipping energy levels. Once back at the chalet, canapés make a great start to any evening and are a good pick-me up after a hard day on the slopes. Powder White offers guests a range of healthy canapés to choose from such as smoked salmon blinis, before a three-course home cooked dinner.
Know your limits
Many injuries occur towards the end of the day, when tiredness sets in and the snow becomes slushy and the light can get flat. Start and end the day on slightly gentler slopes, this will act as a warm up and warm down period. Once back at the chalet stretch out your quads, hips, and hamstrings to keep your muscles supple and ready for the next day. For real indulgence a massage from the comfort of the chalet will do wonders.
This season Powder White has introduced a new package, perfect for those who want to maximise their time on the slopes. The Powder White Complete package will transform a skiing amateur into a pro as they take on the extreme challenges of the slopes. The package is available in Meribel and offers five three-hour specific ski skill sessions. This includes everything from learning how to complete the perfect carve turn, to learning the Winter Olympic sport of mogul skiing as well as off-piste skiing, freestyle in the park and taking on cross-country skiing. The package costs £949 per person and includes seven-nights in a fully-catered chalet in Meribel, advanced ski hire only (not including ski boots or helmet) for six days, Three Valley Ski Passes for six days, and five three-hour sessions.
On the other side of the world lies a slice of Eden on earth. With turquoise water descending from glaciers to lake shores, mountain tops dimpling the clouds and dense forests packed with climbing vines and silver ferns. This is of course New Zealand, a land so pure that the spirit of nature itself seems to run through its veins. It is a country whose creation story is filled with tales of giants whose mighty battles in love and war pushed the mountains from the ground to the sky and forged the Great Lakes in the spaces where they lay.
This wonderful country lives in the shadow of its mighty neighbour Australia, but for its diminutive size, it offered so much to a visitor. Our deputy editor Kate Thomson was able to spend three weeks in this majestic country, and loved it so much that she is splitting her journey into two accounts. Here you can read all about the wonderful North Island.
Auckland and The Coromandel
Our trip to New Zealand was part of a longer journey across a couple of continents, so we arrived after a short stay Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur.
My partner and I arrived in Auckland feeling a little jet lagged but so pleased that our three week journey through this special country was about to begin.
We took the airport bus (easy as pie to get and may come complete with a driver singing into his microphone as ours did) to the city centre. Our home for the night was the very comfortable Auckland City Oaks – an absolute haven compared to the more basic surroundings we endured in KL. After a shower to wash the plane fug away, we strolled into the city in the early afternoon.
Our visit to the city fell on the eve of Waitangi Day in February, a national holiday, so the streets were buzzing with people ready to make a start on their long weekends. We strolled around the base of the sky tower and then on to the harbour side to see the water and sails that the city is so well known for. Top tip: Auckland might as well be called the Windy City so don’t wear a loose skirt unless you’re planning to re-enact some classic Monroe – I speak from experience!
Auckland is a wonderful place to spend a few days if you can find time to explore the suburbs too. Unfortunately our stay was only a stop over as we were intent on seeing the rugged shorelines New Zealand is famed for as soon as possible.
We woke early ready to make for the Coromandel Peninsula, a stretch of land out toward the north east of the island. As we began to drive though, it appeared that many Kiwis had also decided to make for the beach to celebrate Waitangi weekend. (this was the only bit of traffic we would see on our whole trip!) Luckily, after passing through the towns of Thames and Te Puru, the traffic started to peel off and we could truly enjoy the drive. Varying from coastal stretches right up into mountainous twists and turns, the drive was spectacular and worth doing for its sheer beauty.
The drive alone was enjoyable, but we were heading to a very famous attraction, the Hot Water Beach. At low tide, the beach fills with visitors armed with spades who come to dig baths in the sand which fill with hot spring water. It was remarkable, with different parts of the beach bubbling up at different temperatures. We thought we would buck the trend and head for the lovely expanse in the middle that no one had cultivated into baths. That’s when we saw the steam rising from the ground and felt the rush of near boiling water over our feet followed by the cool sea water. Reminded of our lack of local knowledge, we decided to take the cuckoo approach of gently stepping into other people’s pools! Another must visit spot in this area is Cathedral Cove. From beautiful Hahei Beach you can walk to Cathedral Cove, where a naturally formed archway deserves photographic attention. If you are exploring the North Island, make time for the Coromadel, a magical place and well worth a visit.
After our complete tour of the circumference of the peninsula, we started our drive to Hamilton. It’s a lovely place but after a very satisfying curry we were straight to bed as we had to be up early the next day for the next adventure.
Caves and Culture in Waitomo and Rotorua
The next activity on the agenda was a visit to the renowned Waitomo Caves. Famed for their constellations of glowworms and formations of age-old stalactites and stalagmites. We opted for the three cave combo, which included the glowworm caves themselves, plus two other remarkable caves discovered during the early twentieth century. Those with fears about the dangers of the myriad of stalactites above our heads were quickly soothed with the knowledge that no major fall of the limestone had occurred in millions of years. So strong are the caves in structure that they have withstood the many earthquakes that occur on this geographical fault line – can we say that of many of our man-made structures?
The guides were excellent, weaving the Maori creation stories through the scientific explanations and peppering it all with wonderful dry Kiwi humour. We learnt why the glow worms glow – it is a bioluminescence which attracts prey and is created by essentially, their poo. The sun really does shine out their….
I digress. It was a wonderful morning, but was only the start of our adventure into Kiwi culture. New Zealanders are a people truly proud of their landscape, in love with the mountains, seas and the rivers and connected in a deep way with the spirit of the land. Maori or not, it is something that unites them all. That and a special love for Captain Tackles himself, All Black Captain Richie Mccaw. Our education about the history of the land and its original settlers was to continue when we arrived in sulphur city Rotorua. There we took part in a Hangi (a Maori feast) along with a cultural evening where we learnt about the way in which the Maori carved out their existence. As well as the practical basket weaving from flax, hunting and carving, we were also shown the games that helped prepare the children to become great fighters and the wonderful dancing and singing that is so resonant and timeless.
Rotorua is best known for its thermal pools and geysers, so if you have time visit Hell’s Gate, a centre where you can see the dazzling array of coloured mineral pools and see the raw thermal power of the steaming cliffs, throwing boiling water metres into the air. You can also indulge yourself with a cleansing spa treatment, using the mud form the pools which is known for its health benefits and skin soothing properties.
If you are going to tour around New Zealand in only three weeks, be prepared for more of a boot-camp than a holiday, with early starts and lots of walking. If, like me, that’s your poison, then keep reading as that’s pretty much the theme here!
Anyway, we left our lovely accommodation in Rotorua (the Fernleaf Motel) with the promise of the fulfilment of a great trip keeping us going. You see, we were off to Hobbiton. For those uninitiated in the world of Tolkien (and more pertinently Sir Peter Jackson in this case), this is the home of the Hobbits, the Shire, in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit Trilogies. We were able to explore Shire’s Rest, the beautiful and functional Hobbit vegetable gardens and the lovely lake. We sipped a pint in the Green Dragon and saw the main event, Bilbo’s home Bag End. The guides again were charming and funny, telling us anecdotes of the filming and of course tales of the folk who come to the set dressed as elves, hobbits and orcs. My partner and I realised that there are those that enjoy the films and those that are fanatical, and very happily we reside in the former of the two camps.
After Hobbiton we ventured back into Rotorua for a little activity to get the heart pumping – zorbing. Known over here as OGO balls (www.ogo.co.nz), we decided to try out rolling in pairs, first down a straight hill and next down a winding path which had us tossing and turning inside. Unlike options in the UK, the balls are filled with water meaning you slide around much more easily but don’t end up going head over heels. It was exhilarating and turned my partner Henry into a giddy, giggling monster who just didn’t stop smiling.
After this, we began our drive to the shores of Lake Taupo. On the way you can visit the incredible Huka Falls, where you can witness the phenomenon of natural hydro power – more than 220,000 litres of water per second. The Waikato River, New Zealand’s longest river which feeds its biggest lake, moves gracefully north from Lake Taupo between banks 100 metres apart. Just before the Huka Falls it enters a shallow ravine of hard volcanic rock. The effect is nature’s large-scale equivalent of a fire hose feeding into a very fine nozzle.
As we continued the drive we experienced even more spectacular scenery. Both the drive itself across the more rugged terrain of North Island and the shimmering blue as the northern-most shores stretched into view took our breath away. As we drove on we saw a place to pull up and paddle in the water. It was one of those divine pinch-me moments where we just couldn’t really take in the magnitude and beauty of what was around us. The day was not done however, and we still had a long drive past the south shores to our home for the night, a B and B in the shadow of the magnificent Mt Ruapehu. It was a pretty perfect day that brought together all the things that compelled us to visit the country – the adrenaline activities, our appreciation of NZ in cinema and the astoundingly beautiful scenery that seems to shift with the shadows and sun.
We stayed in lots of different types of accommodation over our trip, from 5* hotels to roadside lodges. One triumph for us was Air Bnb and I have to mention one amazing place we stayed – Berry’s Bush Lodge in Okahune. Although it was remote it was so worth the drive. It was at the top of a hill with panoramic views of the country side and unblemished bush surrounding it. Our host Michele provided the most amazing breakfast including homemade ginger yoghurt, bread and jam, raw milk from her cow, and eggs from her chickens. It was a little slice of heaven.
After a heavy breakfast (we basically cleaned the poor woman out) we went for a quick hour hike through the forest surrounding her house and then got ready to drive to Wellington. The wonderful thing about New Zealand being that there’s nothing that can kill you lurking in the forest (just things that annoy you, hello sandflies!).
The drive went really quickly – I even took the wheel for a time and before long we were arguing about how to get to the hotel. We found it by complete chance but were able to check in to the Bolton Hotel. Still in hiking attire, we quickly ran upstairs to change into clothes more befitting of our new swanky surroundings. That evening we strolled into town (we got a lot better at finding the route in the end) and enjoyed some food at the Five Boroughs diner before heading back to plan for the next day.
World’s Coolest Little Capital
Wellington is a marvellous place. It has all the buzz of a capital with the associated trappings – great independent food outlets, art galleries, clothes shops and bars – but without even a hint of big city isolation or coldness. Each street thrives and buzzes, spilling over with exciting places to explore. It’s a pretty wonderful thing when you have to eat only small bites at each establishment because there are so many you want to try.
We were up and out early with one destination firmly in mind: the iconic Fidels on Cuba Street. With big soul and bigger portions, this is an ideal breakfast spot frequented by tourists and locals alike. One thing we quickly understood was that the eating in Wellington is very good indeed. Surprisingly too is the coffee – New Zealand is known for it’s excellent blends and roasts and we really got into the cafe culture as we sipped our way around the city. After a belly-busting breakfast at Fidels, we waddled over to Te Papa, the National Museum. Te Papa, meaning ‘our place’ in Maori, tells the incredible story of this beautiful country, it examines its geology, ecology and the philosophy of its people over many generations. It was a truly fascinating insight into what makes New Zealand such a beautiful country but also the difficulties that come with living on a tectonic fault-line. Some of the most interesting exhibits include a collection of sea creature skeletons, ranging from their smallest native species of dolphin to an adolescent sperm whale. They also have a fully preserved giant squid which reminded me of those strange alien autopsy tables in sci-fi shows.
All of that learning obviously makes a person hungry, so we stopped at the highly rated Ti Kouka Cafe to grab some of their famous salted caramel cookies and some drinks to enjoy on the harbourside. The sun was shining and life couldn’t have felt much better.
We took a leisurely stroll home before heading to the Fish Shack for another amazing meal (there’s a theme developing here isn’t there…) before catching American Sniper at the pictures. It was a fantastic day in what is a very special capital city.
Catch up with us next time as we continue the adventure to the South Island…
Words and photos from Katie Thomson
Our top stays:
City Oaks Hotel, Auckland: This hotel is really competitively priced for relative luxury. Although it’s a little out of the centre, the rooms are spacious and very comfortable.
The Bolton Hotel, Wellington: This stunning hotel is conveniently placed to explore the city, but is away from the noise and bustle. The rooms are sumptuous and really well equipped for tourists on a long trip – a washer dryer is a real godsend!
In both my flight to Kuala Lumpur preceding this and to Auckland from there I enlisted the services of Holiday Extras. They provided access to the business class lounges in both airports which made the long haul process much less arduous. After a day in a very humid KL, it was so invigorating to have a shower in the lounge before a 10 hour flight. Hire a car to make the journey yourself and try and be as flexible as possible. If you travel during Chinese New Year like we did hotels do book up quickly so be prepared.
Here we talk to Ben Fogle who is known for his passion for animals and wildlife which has taken him all over the world.
He has presented numerous programmes and writes regularly for the Sunday Telegraph and the Independent. He has also written numerous bestselling books. Ben campaigns tirelessly for conservation, the environment and animal welfare, is an ambassador for WWF, Medecins Sans Frontiere and Tusk, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the President of the Campaign for National Parks.
He has recently appeared in the series ‘Ben Fogle: New Lives in the Wild’, so we took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his adventures and found out about his latest book ‘Ben Fogle, Labrador, The Story of the World’s Favourite Dog’.
From your experience in filming the series, is there a common factor as to why people chose to leave civilisation behind?
They are all people who have realised their dreams. Many of us may have fantasised about cutting ourselves off from the grid but these are people who have actually done it. They are universally content. They are happy because they have done it.
You’ve been everywhere around the world, are there any stand-out locations which you could not see yourself living in?
Tristan da Cunha in the south Atlantic is a pretty extraordinary place. As is Pitcairn and Papua New Guinea. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to more than 70 countries.
Describe the most life-threatening situation you’ve been in whilst filming and would you hesitate to do it all again?
I have had plenty of life threatening experiences over the years from capsizing in the middle of the Atlantic to being attacked by wild Nile crocodiles while filming underwater in Botswana.
Having met numerous individuals during the course of the series, who are the standout people and why?
I think Galsheen from Restoration Island in Australia rates as one of the most fascinating. I loved his story and he even looked like Robinson Crusoe.
Do you think self-imposed exile is a good thing?
Absolutely. I love the idea as we are all too inextricably linked to society. Sometimes we need to take a step back to take a step forward.
Is there a common personality trait amongst all these people who shun civilisation?
They all have a confidence to walk the walk but few of us have the confidence to actually do it. By and large they all have a contentment, verging on happiness. No what ifs? They’ve realised their dreams and aspirations.
Do you think you share that trait? If not, do you admire it?
Hell yes. I’ve been marooned on a remote island for a year myself. All of my expeditions are arguably a form of self imposed exile in which I’m forced to ration my resources, just like our wildmen and women – I’d love to live as they do.
Who are your heroes?
The usual suspects. Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen and Thesiger. The old school pioneering explorers who lay the foundations for us all.
If you were trapped on a desert island (or chose to live on one), what would your necessities be?
Family. Not much else matters when you have young kids. I love to teach them how beautiful the wildness can be. Don’t be scared of it. Embrace it. Where Bear Grylls likes to emphasis the battle between man and nature, Wildmen celebrates the beautiful relationship.
What was your most challenging moment while filming the series?
We had pretty tough conditions in Alaska. But the Philippines was the most uncomfortable. I don’t think heat likes me very much. It makes for slightly uncomfortable but fascinating viewing. I am always amazed that these people are prepared to let me into their lives. They’ve often gone to get away from people.
How did filming the New Zealand episode compare to other locations? Were there any unique challenges/issues?
New Zealand was one of my favourites. Down near Milford Sound the family were very special. I loved the dynamic. The house and the lifestyle. It was all pretty idyllic.
How about people that you met on your way while working on Where the Wild Men Are – what pushed them to change their lives so drastically?
A change of life and a change of pace. They were all driven by making their lives simpler, not easier. They all wanted to cut their ties to the commercial and financial grid and ween themselves from the material world.
What’s the most difficult part when they take such a decision?
Often there is no going back. Many have sold everything to relocate in the wildest corners of the world. The reality is that once you severe your ties it’s very hard to get back on the ladder.
Have you had an influence on the choice of stories that you would go ahead in the programme?
We have a team of researchers who find our ‘wildmen’ I have been lucky enough to travel to more than seventy countries in the last ten years.
Which ones were the most shocking and difficult to understand?
None were shocking. Some were harder to understand. The unifying factor is that they are all happy. Many of them have a tough life in the wild but they still prefer it to the city.
What impact did that experienced have on you?
I spent a year living on a remote island myself. I have always dreamed of doing it again with my family. I’m often envious of their way of life.
Which part of such life would you actually appreciate and like to incorporate to yours?
Living in a wild place. I currently live in the middle of London but I want a big landscape.
Ben has written a social history of Labradors, and how they have become the world’s most beloved dogs. Many of our readers may recall his black Labrador, Inca, who famously accompanied him on numerous journeys and adventures.
Labradors are native to Newfoundland, where they worked side-by-side with fishermen, then brought to England in the 1800s by English ships. Labradors are popular as a family companion and also excel in hunting, tracking, retrieving, guiding and rescuing.
In this unique history of the Labrador, Ben investigates what makes them so special and why they are considered so trustworthy – 30% of dogs used as guide dogs in the UK by The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association are Labradors. They have an extraordinary capacity for companionship, intelligence, work ethic and loyalty.
Exploring their origin, early characteristics, their use as gun dogs, as therapy dogs, as police dogs, as search and rescue dogs and last – and absolutely not least – as family pets, Ben draws on the extraordinary experiences we have encountered with Labradors to tell the story of a dog breed which has captured our imagination and love for hundreds of years.
Labrador: The World’s Favourite Dog by Ben Fogle is available now.
Life is often a series of circles. Sometimes you do not realise at what point you joined them and indeed where they might take you.
About a year ago my wife and I ventured north to the Lake District. The purpose of our visit was to meet the parents of our daughter’s boyfriend. As we do not live in that part of the world and our daughter had explained that the Lakes are spectacularly beautiful we thought we would stay in the Sharrow Bay Hotel on Lake Ullswater on the first night before completing the social part of our visit.
The Lakes are, as our daughter described them, and the Sharrow Bay is a particularly fine place to base yourself. Sitting in the hotel lounge and enjoying a glass of wine in front of a roaring log fire seemed to be the perfect way to relax after a long drive. A couple wandered into the lounge and asked if everything was to our liking and had we travelled far. We explained that we had motored up from the West Country and that the hotel was lovely, so much so that we were thinking of writing about it in the magazine. It turned out that the gentleman concerned was the owner of the hotel and he further explained that he was building a small portfolio of properties. After a few minutes he asked whether we would be interested in doing a review of another of his hotels in the West Country, Ston Easton Park. We had both heard of it, but rather embarrassingly neither of us could quite point it out on a map! Some months later as we prepared to take up this kind invitation we were astonished to find it was only fifteen miles from our house, why had we never been here before?
You enter the hotel’s grounds through a magnificent set of gates and and drive through equally magnificent parkland. The parkland surrounding the house was designed by the famous 18th Century landscape architect, Humphry Repton. Repton first visited the house in November 1792 and by March 1793, he had produced his ‘Red Book’ giving his recommendations for the landscape of the park.
As the hotel comes into view you are struck by its beauty and perfect proportions. The original house appears to date back to Tudor times however the structures as they can be seen today, were built around 1739 and towards the end of the 18th Century, the East and West Wings were added. The Hippisley family made Ston Easton Park their home from 1544 and continued to live here until 1956. After the Hippisley family relinquished the property, it changed hands a number of times before it eventually fell into disrepair and narrowly avoided a demolition order.
Thankfully, under the ownership of the Rees- Mogg family, the house had extensive work done returning it back to its former glory. The house was first opened as a hotel in 1982 by Mr and Mrs Smedley and today, as mentioned earlier, it is part of a small private collection of hotels, including Sharrow Bay and The Forbury in Reading.
Fortunately all the renovation work has been done in such a way as to maintain the character of the building. The hotel has only nineteen bedrooms, so you will never be part of a crowd and the level of service reflects this. The luxurious rooms at Ston Easton Park are so much more than just somewhere to rest your head – the antique furnishings and works of art combine perfectly with the bold Ston Easton Park and lavish fabrics, and contemporary touches have been carefully interjected into these historic rooms whilst ensuring that the decor remain true to the building’s grand past. The bathrooms are equally as impressive and every room has complimentary WiFi access, LCD TVs and DVD players. In addition to the 19 rooms is The Gardener’s Cottage, a three bedroom hideaway in the beautiful gardens on the banks of the River Norr, offering an idyllic private retreat.
In addition to spending a sublimely comfortable night we were also in for a culinary treat. Under the guidance of head chef Daniel Moon the restaurant is gaining in reputation as one of the finest places to dine in the Bath area and it can only be a matter of time before this establishment gains its first Michelin star. Daniel creates exciting dishes combining modern British cuisine with experimental and imaginative new ideas. He also works closely with local suppliers and the hotel garden team to source only the very best local produce including almost 60% of the fresh produce which comes straight from the hotel’s own kitchen garden. From the first mouthful of the bacon and shallot brioche the meal was a tour de force. We thoroughly enjoyed Daniel’s ‘Five Course Tasting Menu’ which was exceptional.
We can give you a ‘taster’ but you really have to go there to experience the outstanding skills that he brings to your table. Exquisite – probably one of the finest dining experiences we have ever had. Even as we were enjoying our food Daniel was in the dining room discussing the requirements of a young couple about to celebrate their wedding at the hotel, and it seemed to us that this willingness to both communicate and please was fundamental to this restaurant’s burgeoning reputation.
The restaurant is also open for lunch and a rather delicious afternoon tea. If you feel you would like to learn some of Daniel’s culinary secrets there are a series of cooking demonstrations throughout the year, though be aware they are incredibly popular so book up well in advance.
The hotel also has an events team to help you organise weddings or other personal celebrations. The backdrop of the hotel’s fabulous buildings and gardens can provide wonderful photographic opportunities.
No stay at Ston Easton Park could be as enjoyable without the wonderful team who work tirelessly to ensure that everything is as it should be. They are blend of professional courtesy and approachable friendliness. The smooth running of the hotel is ultimately the responsibility of Oscar the house spaniel. He is there to welcome you and even if you have had a long journey or just a tough day he will help put a smile on your face. If you bring your own dog he will ensure that they soon learn it is their break too!
If you are considering going away this Christmas, Ston Easton Park should be on your list. Peter Thomson To find out more about this fabulous venue please visit www.stoneaston.co.uk. or telephone 01761 241631. Ston Easton, Bath, Somerset BA3 4DF Our room with a view
When it comes to sun, sea and sand holidays the Algarve is one of Europe’s undisputed kings, thanks to over 200 kilometres of sandy beaches, bath-temperature seawater and a string of vibrant and welcoming resorts.
This region was once the pioneering heart of intrepid global expeditions (the Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthagians and Romans all used it as a base for maritime exploration) and the site of epic battles between Christians and Moors.
There is much more to the Algarve than sun-drenched beaches though; visitors are rewarded with world-class golf courses, chic hotels, historic towns and rich North African and Western art and architecture.
One of the main reasons for the Algarve’s popularity. Twenty-three 18-hole golf courses and a climate perfect for playing year round make the Algarve one of Europe’s premier golf destinations with dramatic sea views, challenging putts and luxurious golf resorts. For experienced golfers the Penina Championship Golf Course, at Le Meridien Penina Golf & Resort in the west of the region, is one of Portugal’s most venerated courses. Nearby Vale de Pinta is another of the western Algarve’s championship courses. This one, however, was firmly designed with a broader skill base in mind. Different teeing off points make it suitable for everyone from beginners through to scratch golfers. Heading east, the Old Course and the Victoria are also championship courses. For novelty golfing value, however, you might want to check out the Royal Course, where golfers have to clear three cliffs as they play its famous 16th, par 3, hole. If, like this writer, your golfing skills aren’t up to it, you can always head for Vale de Lobo and try out the crazy golf before dinner – great fun for all the family!
Coastal menus are dominated by fresh seafood and shellfish. Starters include sopa de peixe (fish soup) and gambas (prawns), with everything from crabs and tuna to swordfish steak and lobster offered as a main course. To taste something typically Algarvian plump for the cataplana stew of shellfish, spicy sausage and pork or bacon.
Those looking for fine dining are spoilt by the number of options available – just follow the Michelin stars. The only restaurant in the Algarve to be awarded 2 Michelin stars, Vila Joya has a stunning location to complement the stunning food. With one star each, Willies in Vilamoura, Henrique Leis and São Gabriel in the Golden Triangle (Almancil, Vale do Lobo and Quinta do Lago) are also a must, though you shouldn’t forget to try Casa Velha either! For fantastic beach-side dining, try lunch at the legendary Gigi’s in Quinta do Lago.
The obvious starting place is Faro, where the charming old town fans out from the striking 13th century cathedral. Enjoy the panoramic views from the cathedral tower across the rooftops to the lagoon and nature reserve.
Heading west, the resort of Lagos boasts fine sandy beaches, rocky coves and secluded bays, as well as an appealing historic centre, a stretch of medieval walls and an old fort.
Continuing westward, the coastline becomes progressively wild and rugged, as the European continent rushes towards its climatic rendezvous with the Atlantic swells at Cape San Vicente, mainland Europe’s most southwesterly point.
Tavira is an idyllic historical village, where a sprinkling of traditional whitewashed buildings, baroque churches and a ruined castle flank the tranquil Gilão River. This sleepy backwater’s other big drawcard is the Ilha de Tavira. Reclining just offshore this laid-back beach oasis is blessed with golden sands and crystal clear seawater. The Algarve boasts another gem in Silves, where whitewashed homes adorned with ornate tiles tumble towards the Arade River through narrow cobbled streets. Perched protectively above the town, the rugged castle and its sweeping views are a constant reminder of Silves’ distinguished past as the former capital of Moorish Portugal.
For the Family
As a family-friendly destination the Algarve is hard to beat. Many hotels and apartment complexes were built with children in mind and boast swimming pools and tennis courts. On the beach, children can claim their own patch of white sand with a flag-topped sandcastle. Thrilling water parks, innumerable beach based watersports, mini-golf (see above!) and child-friendly golf courses help to keep all the family happy.
When to Go
The Algarve is a great all year destination for golfers – the weather rarely drops below 15°C, whilst July and August temperatures peak in the early 30°Cs. September is a great time to visit – the temperature is a near constant 28°C and you won’t have packed family holiday crowds to contend with either.
Where to Stay
The options are almost limitless. The Golden Triangle remains a firm favourite, with regular visitors most likely to opt for one of the beautiful, and reliably consistent, villas. First time visitors can’t go wrong with the stunning Quinta do Lago hotel, a Leading Hotel of the World, where prices start from around £280 per night.
Faro is an easy destination to get to. Flights from Bristol, Manchester, London and Birmingham can start at as little as £100 return in September.
Falls, Faroes and fjords – just the title conjures up so many images, and a quick look at the atlas told me that it was likely to be a very exciting cruise indeed – with perhaps a bit of bumpy weather on the way. Well, one prediction was right – it was a very exciting cruise. As for the weather, the seas were, for the most part, totally benign with what nautical types call ‘light airs’ – which means not enough puff to ruffle your hair – hardly what we associate with the rugged North!
We sailed from a very sunny Dover and spent a couple of relaxing days and re acquainting ourselves with Fred Olsen’s MS Braemar – a small and comfortable ship with a great crew and a great following, returning feels like booking back into your favourite country hotel – but one which, Tardis like, whisks you off to places new, and so it was.
The Faroe Islands are, as our Faroese guide said, ‘In the middle of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere’ and the weather was typically Faroese – wet and windy. However it did not deter us one bit as we all had our ‘sensible walking shoes’ as detailed in our shore tour guides – and we are British after all, so a bit of rain and a squall wasn’t going to deter us! Sailing into Torshavn gave us glimpses into these wild and beautiful islands situated between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, approximately halfway between Norway and Iceland. With a history as rugged as the mountains that dwarf the tiny turf roofed houses, the Faroese economy relies unsurprisingly on fishing and that is reflected in the numbers of boats big and small – and the amazing seabirds wheeling and cawing in the wind, the bird watchers were thrilled and able to name each and every one, the rest of us just enjoyed their company.
Torshavn, the capital, is charming and a great place to explore, even in the rain and in fact, post explore, we had a snug time settled in a warm cafe, with the obligatory rug to throw over us in case it got really cold, inhaling the smell of warm baked bread and fresh coffee and watching the Faroese world go by. Lots of purposeful chaps in oilskins and fit, lean families with a bikes and walking boots – the diet of fish is obviously a healthy one.
Next port of call Reykjavik – blue skies tempted us off the ship as soon as the gangplank was down and we spent the morning enjoying this exciting and beautiful city. Icelanders are not early risers apparently as most of the shops were shut until at least 10am but we found it rather exciting to be there as it woke up and were rewarded by the quiet streets. The Harpa Concert & Conference Centre, blocks of reflecting glass cubes, was an example of how a really well designed building works on a number of levels. It houses the concert hall, two restaurants, tourist facilities and some great shops – and lots of people wandering around with cameras and dazed expressions as they gaze at the stunning interior. There also seems to be a penchant for racing up the staircases, must be an Icelandic thing!
The Blue Lagoon beckoned and so off we went over the lunar landscape to splash about in the warm, geothermally heated waters – with optional mud packs dispensed form buckets dotted about and a general air of restrained jollity. The dirth of people at the swim up bar was probably more about the prices than any sense of sobriety but it was a great experience and a ‘bucket list’ ticked.
Back on board and off to Isjafjordur, further north and with a real feeling of being a long way from home. We took a trip to the Hesteyri, about an hour’s small boat ride – and even more isolated. Hesteyri was once inhabited by a few hardy souls, but conditions were so tough that it was abandoned and is now a nature reserve – and totally captivating. The island was covered in wild geranium, angelica and wonderful orchids of every hue. We had a guided walk with Iris, whose husband’s family own the handful of houses there and who stay there just for a few weeks every year, it was astonishing and wild and beautiful and I am so grateful to have experienced it.
More excitement with geysers and waterfalls from Akureyri and then farewell to Iceland and hello Norway but not before a little diversion…
Another joy of small ship cruising is that, as happened to us, the Captain can suddenly say ‘Well, we have calm seas and time so tonight we will cross the Arctic Circle and see the island of Grimsey home to 100 people and one million seabirds – it’s not on the programme, but we will do it’ And so we did, clustered on deck drinking hot soup and watching the incredible light – day light at past 11pm – with seas as glassy as a mill pond and the odd passing whale making an appearance, memorable indeed!
The contrast between these isolated places, and life on board was marked – the joys of cruising in a small ship allow you to visit smaller communities and also to dock in the heart of places you visit rather than being moored in the middle of a container terminal or indeed moored at sea and having to take tender boats to see your destinations– this gives you a real feel of being in touch with where you are and even for those people who stayed on board, the snow-capped peaks, pretty towns and rugged terrain would leave an impression.
This cruise was also special in one particular and unique respect– for the first time ever all four ships in the Fred Olsen fleet were getting together in one port – to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Fred Olsen who, with his three brothers, bought their first ship in 1848. Great excitement as the ships met up and we sailed in file, with Braemar leading, into Bergen. A sunny, sunny day in the rain capital of Norway was a blessing and inter ship rivalry commenced with tug of war competitions and treasure hunts, visits to our friends in the other ships and, for me, a spectacular helicopter ride over the four ships, up into the mountains and over the beautiful city of Bergen. As we sailed out in line abreast later in the evening people stopped on the bridges to wave as the ships formed a star formation and a fire ship sprayed diamonds of water in tribute. This was a spectacular climax to a spectacular trip but with more Norwegian ports to come we enjoyed the delights of Stavanger and Eidfjord before sailing home to Dover with a camera full of pictures and a head full of memories.
Cruising allows you to visit so many places without the need to fly, drive, pack and unpack and with the added delight of wonderful food, wonderful service and a crew that really do exceed expectations. The experts who put these cruises together do a huge amount of research so that shore tours and visits give you options from highly active, kayaking and trekking, to more sedentary trips, the choice is yours and as ever you can join in the on board activities or shut the world out on deck with a book. I, like many other people, joined the queue at the future tours desk, French Rivers for me next year – new brochures out, new places to see and our favourite ship to take us there.
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” ― Ernest Hemingway
Words and photographs by Angela Cave