About Helen Jackson

Helen Jackson works for HMRC and moved from her native Yorkshire to London 24 years ago. She lives in Walthamstow with her partner and is passionate about using local shops and services in an attempt to protect its multi-cultural flavour. Travelling is her passion. Helen recently spent 6 months in South and Central America. She has also travelled extensively around the world visiting the Far East, Middle East, Africa, India and Europe. Helen’s love of food combines well with travelling and after taking a course in food writing at Leith’s, she is writing a Central American cookery book. Helen writes a weekly online food column for the West Essex and East London Guardian series of newspapers. Helen is a keen cook and a mystery diner. She also enjoys genealogy, entering food and travel related competitions and is learning to play the piano.

Irritating Things About Hotels

angry hotel roomThe weather at home has been diabolical. You’ve saved hard all year for your two weeks of sun, sea and sand, you want to chill and relax, but how likely is this? I suspect most of us think flying is the most difficult, stressful part of our holiday, but what about the hotel you’ve so carefully chosen? How likely is it to raise your blood pressure?

Having recently spent three months travelling, many of the places I stayed in failed to get the basics right. Here is my personal list of irritations.

The welcome – you arrive at your hotel reception hot, sticky and tired only to be faced with so many simultaneous issues even the most proficient multi-tasker is challenged. The form you need to complete requires your passport to be retrieved from the bottom of your bag, you’re asked to produce a credit card for extras whilst trying to listen to the fast patter about meal times and location of the pool. If you’re lucky, you’ll be juggling a cold flannel and welcome drink.

Lighting – why is there always a sequence for switching on and off the huge number of lights? If you don’t suss it quickly, you end up recreating the sound and light show at Egypt’s Karnak temple every night before you go to bed. There’s always one light bulb that doesn’t work and lighting levels are generally insufficient for reading anything but a large print book.

The safe key – having got to your room, you find the safe and a sign saying, “key available at reception for a deposit”. So, you traipse all the way back to reception when you’re invariably in the room furthest away. One safe I encountered required my fingerprint to open it, or not as was generally the case.

The safe location – why is the safe always in the most difficult location at the bottom of a dark wardrobe requiring you to get on hands and knees to open it?

Wi-fi – once everything is safely stowed, you try to connect your lap-top but realise you need a password, which after looking at the information sheet, is “available from reception”. Why don’t hotels automatically provide safe keys and passwords without being prompted? And why is it, that the more expensive the hotel, the more they charge for wi-fi?

Double rooms for one – when you’ve paid for a double room, which usually means that two people will spend the night in it, why is there only one chair even when there’s ample space? And why only one suitcase rack – how many couples travel with one suitcase between them?

Bathrooms – a constant source of irritation. I cannot count the number of times when I’ve started the week with three face-flannels only to find they disappear one by one. My towels will be replaced, but not my flannels. When I hang up my towels to be kind to the environment by saying I’ll use them again, why do they ignore me and replace them anyway? And having being let down so many times, one of my “must pack” items is a universal sink plug.

The loo – I appear to be very unlucky, as invariably during a week-long holiday, my partner end up with his hand in the cistern to either stop the constant dribble of water or get the thing flushing properly.

Well, having got that off my chest and feeling much better, what about your thoughts on the most irritating things about hotels? It could be something general (I’ve not even mentioned ‘the lift’, ‘fixed coat hangers’ and ‘towel sculptures’), or a splendid one-off irritating experience.  The winner might even win a one night stay at my least favourite hotel at their own expense.

Image reproduced from theage.com.au

Christmas Indian Style

Bringing in the catch in Cochin

Bringing in the catch in Cochin

We resolved months before December that Christmas was going to be different. Instead of driving 200 miles up the A1 from London to Yorkshire on a dark, wet Christmas morning, we’d be being chauffeured on a warm, bright sunny day up through the tea plantations to Munnar in Southern India. We hoped to leave all the Christmas trappings behind in London. Did we succeed? Well partly . . .

Christmas Eve was spent in the Brunton Boatyard Hotel overlooking Cochin’s harbour. It was wonderful to have a bath and watch the boats out of the window at the same time.

The bath at the Brunton Boatyard

The bath at the Brunton Boatyard

A sunset cruise seemed the ideal way to finish the day but we didn’t anticipate the extra guest, Santa Claus, who boarded the boat with us. Although the day had been warm and sunny, it was an overcast evening and the sunset was somewhat disappointing.

Whilst changing for dinner, there was a knock on the door. I expected the housekeeper wanting to turn down the bed with a ‘pillow chocolate’, but no, it was a group of stanta hatted, hotel staff singing carols and delivering invitations to their Christmas Eve gala dinner which they’d been setting up in the garden grounds all day.

Hotel staff singing Xmas carols

Hotel staff singing Xmas carols

We declined politely as having read marvellous reviews of the Malabar House Hotel, reputed to be one of the best boutique hotels in India and its ‘classy, movie star cool’ restaurant, the Malabar Junction, I’d booked a table well in advance from England. I envisaged a small, luxurious, intimate restaurant and was therefore rather shocked to be led into a large, open-air courtyard set up with enough tables and chairs for 100 people. We were led through the gathering diners to a small table at the front beside the stage where three musicians were playing traditional Indian music.

At least this group played traditional Indian music

As we waited for everyone to arrive, we looked at the menu on our table to discover a six course set dinner (veg or non veg) which included roast turkey in mushroom sauce with rosemary roast potatoes and ‘our special Xmas pudding with vanilla sauce’. As we settled down with a reasonably priced bottle of Grovers Estate wine (made in India in conjunction with the French), Santa Claus arrived and introduced the Anglo-Indian choir of Fort Cochin who sang traditional carols throughout the evening. Once I’d got over the shock, we thoroughly enjoyed our meal.

Following an early Christmas Day breakfast of dosa and sambal we left at 9am for the four-hour drive to Munnar. Although it was only 80 miles, the roads were narrow, steep, winding and rutted but the scenery was amazing.

Tea Plantations

For Christmas Lunch we squeezed into a small café recommended by our trusty guide book and chose potato curry (Rs 6) and beef fry (Rs 25). We sat surrounded by locals and soon realised that everyone was eating with their fingers. Fortunately we’d ordered a couple of chapattis which we used in the absence of cutlery, to scoop up the curry as we hadn’t managed to perfect the technique of rolling the rice into balls with fingers. With a couple of fresh lime sodas, our lunch came to less than a pound.

The traditional Christmas afternoon walk was through Eravikulam National Park with its spectacular views of the Western Ghats. We were also fortunate enough to see, albeit at a distance, a couple of Nilgiri tahr a rare, but almost tame type of mountain goat.

A walk in the park

A walk in the park

Our hotel for the evening was the Government run Tea County Hotel and although not as luxurious as the other hotels on our trip, it was perfectly comfortable and didn’t appear to recognise Christmas. We sat on our terrace to watch the sun go down over the hills in front of us and opened the duty free champagne we’d been carrying around with us since leaving London. As it got dark, all the shrubs and trees lining the long driveway were lit with small fairy lights, their only concession to Christmas and a truly spectacular sight.

A buffet dinner of various curries, followed by the lighting of a bonfire which toasted us in the cool, hill-top air was a marvellous end to a very different Christmas.

Malaga: Don’t Just Pass Through

Malaga beach and town

Malaga beach and town

Being a holiday snob, I like countries that have a totally different culture, require at least a five-hour flight and a couple of inoculations. And as I have an aversion to talking to people when I’m away, I don’t want to encounter fellow Brits. So when I won easyJet flights to Malaga I wasn’t exactly excited.

How long should we go for? A friend referred to Malaga as ‘a bit of a dump’ suggesting it should only be regarded as a gateway to more interesting places like Nerja or Ronda. Would a long weekend be too long?

I asked the Saturday Telegraph for advice. Their response: stay in Malaga but explore the surrounding mountains, coast and historic towns like Granada and Antequera by bus and train.

However, having bought the Rough Guide to Andalucia, we decided there might be more to Malaga, so as our flights were free, we splashed out on an eight-night trip at the five-star Vincci Seleccion Posada del Patio. It was centrally located with a roof top pool for cooling off at the end of the day. In its LeDiner restaurant, dishes were paired with a specific Moët & Chandon champagne. Did you know the best fizz to accompany a hamburguesita is Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 2002 Blanc? Our basket of breads (ciabatta, cebolla, tomate and olive) was accompanied by small plastic ‘drippers’ of olive oil and three flavoured salts: chocolate, not as bad as it sounds, herb and pimento. To follow, we went for something a bit more ‘grown up’ than burger and fizz.

Our favourite outdoor bar, d’gustar, in the shaded Plaza de las Flores was near our hotel. It was ideal for an aperitif (two glasses of cava for under 8 Euro and complementary tapas) on the way out or night cap on the return. With a number of other bars in the Plaza, it was also great for people watching.

Paseo del Parque

We found so many things to do. On our way to La Farola lighthouse, we walked through the lush gardens in Paseo del Parque. At the redeveloped marina with its boutique shops and restaurants, we boarded the Vision Submarina for an hour’s tour of the marina and surrounding area.

Malaga Marina

We visited Alcazaba fortress, now a museum, and the linked Castillo Gibralfaro reached by a very steep incline of steps and mainly shiny paved walkways. A small kiosk at the top provided reviving cool sodas whilst smugly watching people alighting from taxis and buses to avoid the climb. After the small museum of soldiers’ clothing, weapons and dummies dressed in period items, we entered the ruined castle with fabulous views across the port and city.

The view from Castillo Gibralfaro

The view from Castillo Gibralfaro

After checking out the 130 paintings in the Museo Picasso I discovered I wasn’t a fan and at his birthplace, the Casa Natal Picasso, the audio guide narrative didn’t match what we saw.

The bullring, ‘Plaza de Torros la Malagueta’, was almost empty. I’m not sure I could sit through the gore of a bull fight, but I could imagine it being a spectacular sight. After climbing to the top of the stadium, we made our way to the museum and its 3 rooms full of posters, bejeweled outfits and capes: pink not red and yellow on the other side. The matadors were obviously stars and very small.

Worthy of Strictly Come Dancing!

I particularly enjoyed Museo Carmen Thyssen, a relatively new and modern art gallery where I easily spent a solitary couple of hours with only the guards for company. Here the audio guide was brilliant with lots of information about the most important works of art.

A more quirky location was the English Cemetery with its fascinating history of how non-Catholics, suffered the indignity of a burial upright in the sand until their necks were below the tide line. When the bodies started to surface in the water, the British Consult William Mark, persuaded the authorities to bury the bodies in what became known as the English Cemetery.

We could not leave Spain without a visit to a flamenco show, Kelipé, held in a very small, dark room in the bowels of a shopping centre. Our seats, on the front row and virtually on the dance floor, were fortunately near the door as it was extremely hot. The guitarist and male and female dancers were excellent and there was lots of clapping, stamping of feet, wailing (singing) and sweat pouring down their faces.

Getting into the grove!

Museo Vidrio y Crystal de Malaga, the Museum of glass and crystal, was an unexpected delight. Arriving early the pleasant man who sold us our tickets turned out to be the owner and our guide of his magnificent house. The rooms contained glassware, stained glass windows, paintings furniture and all manner of objects. Many were from Britain and Ireland and the first items we saw were a pair of stained glass windows by William Morris who was born in our home town of Walthamstow. As the windows were mounted at body height we were able to get up close and see the detail and repairs. The display was extensive and the final highlight was a huge gallery of coloured glassware covering one wall.

A stunning display of glass

A stunning display of glass

At the Museo del Vino we had a self guided leisurely tour reading about the grapes, soil types, different wines across the Province of Malaga and the wine making process. Our tour ended with sampling a red and a yellowy white which were not really to our taste, but as the glasses were generously filled, our 10 Euro was well spent.

As the weather was so good, we walked the twenty minutes to the beach, hired a couple of sun beds and spent the day topping up our tan. We didn’t have to walk far along the 9.5km promenade before hitting a plethora of restaurants and bars for lunch.

Nicaragua – “Contra” to Expectations

“I love my country, but I love Nicaragua more.” This phrase was frequently heard whilst travelling throughout Central America.

Prior to setting off, our knowledge of Nicaragua was pretty limited: we’d read travel guides but relied on a travel agent to ensure our itinerary included the most interesting destinations. More knowledgeable friends worried about our safety bearing in mind the country’s recent turbulent past in terms of political unrest and civil war.

Expectations were mixed as we crossed the Costa Rican/Nicaraguan border at Penas Blancas/Sapoá, particularly as Eduardo, our Costa Rican guide, pre-warned a chaotic experience was in store. Having dragged our bags across the rickety, disused railway bridge, Guillermo (call me William) provided a warm welcome. He eased us surprisingly quickly through the crowds and formalities. On asking how he’d managed this he replied “I told the border guard he looked a little hot, and suggested he buy a cool soda with the money I handed over”.

Nicaragua has much to offer and we found it one of the most diverse countries in Central America. Granada and Leon, both previously the country’s capital and with a history of bloody rivalry, are now colonial havens but with different characteristics.

Granada, our favourite, not only had a traditionally Spanish style central plaza and catedral, but beautiful cobbled streets teeming with life. And unlike many Southern and Central American cities, it was safe to walk around even at night. A horse- drawn carriage took us around the many churches, including Convento y Museo San Francisco, the oldest in Central America, with its plethora of wide-ranging artefacts. We also tried our hand at rolling cigars at Donna Elba and had an excellent one-hour massage at Seeing Hands, a charity training blind masseurs, for a bargain $15.

Leon was literally one of the hottest locations in the country and a more political, feisty place with lots of attitude. An elderly ex-revolutionary with no English took us painstakingly around the hundreds of photographs of fallen heroes in Galeria de Héroes y Mártires. He coaxed us onto the rusting, corrugated roof for stunning views of the plaza and catedral. Unfortunately when I was on the catedral roof later, I stepped backwards into thin air and, like a cartoon character hung motionless, until falling flat on my back. This resulted in a badly grazed shin and bruised dignity.

We took the choppy, 60 minute crossing from San Jorge to Isla Ometepe. The ferry, brought over from Holland, wasn’t built for tropical climes as it had heating rather than air conditioning. As the windows were sealed we were advised to sit on the open top deck. Two volcanoes dominate the figure of eight shaped island: Concepción is active and the tallest at 1,610m, whilst Maderas is smaller. We escaped the heat in Museo el Ciebo to view petroglyphs, coins and Pre-Colombian pottery. We swam in Ojo de Agua: two huge open-air pools, surrounded by big old trees, which were filled with a constant stream of thermal spring water from an underground well.

Nicaragua’s 50+ volcanoes dominate its landscape and influence everyday life. Mombacho, in the cloud forest, was grey, cool and misty but on the way down we enjoyed a tour of Café les Flores coffee plantation. At Masaya, one of the most active, there were stunning views and strong, sulphurous smells from the smoking crater and signs advising “park facing the exit” in case urgent evacuation was required. We also encountered many road-side signs with a running person and the words ‘ruta de evacuacion’.

Another boat trip, up the Rio San Juan, took us to the impressive El Castillo, where in 1780 a young Horatio Nelson took the fortress only to find that the Spanish had actually left it to him to share with the mosquitoes. Most of his command perished. Later on an evening caiman spotting trip, our intrepid boat guide donned a cap with lamp, jumped from the canoe into the river and after some frantic thrashing in the water, emerged with a three-foot mini-crocodile for us to stroke and photograph. It was gently returned unharmed to the river.

There are over 83 protected areas covering 20% of the country and we were lucky to experience so much of the wildlife, birds and flora. During a hike around Indio-Maize forest reserve our guide impressed us with her howler monkey impersonations, which led to the monkeys literally pelting us with almonds in an attempt to shut her up. On Isla Juan Venando we saw crocodiles, crabs and other crustaceans. Whilst we missed the Olive Ridley Turtles laying eggs on the beach, we saw captured wild iguanas being released into a pen to protect them until they laid their eggs. In contrast iguanas were being sold illegally on the road sides: they’re meant to be a delicacy and aphrodisiac.

A trip on Lago Nicaragua, took us around its 365 Islets, many of them privately owned with luxury homes. One in particular was home to three friendly monkeys, Pancho, Lucy and Junior. When Pancho had been swinging from tree to tree in an attempt to impress Lucy, he’d hit an overhead power line and fried his tail. This did not stop him from jumping into passing boats for photographs and treats.

Everyone we encountered was friendly and genuinely keen for visitors to enjoy their country. We arrived on my partner’s birthday and on the way to our hotel William asked casually if we liked beer. On arrival at San Juan del Sur, he pulled up outside a beachfront restaurant and treated us to celebration beers. I was not forgotten: having visited Granada’s ChocoMuseo I told William ”women would rather have chocolates than flowers on Valentines Day”. When Valentine’s Day arrived three days later, he presented me with a box of local truffles: something my partner failed to do.

We also found a self depreciating sense of humour when describing their cuisine: “you can have rice and beans, beans and rice, or mixed beans and rice, three times a day”. To be fair, it was more varied, but only just! We fared better with drinks. El macuá, a blend of light rum, guava and lemon juices with sugar was an excellent pre-dinner cocktail, whilst the award-winning Flor de Caña rum was the perfect night cap. Toña and La Victoria beers were pale and refreshing in the heat of the day.

Our accommodation was varied: Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Eco Lodge, described by Lonely Planet as “the very best hotel in Nicaragua”; Hotel Victoria with small, simple wood panelled bedrooms had exemplary service; Villa Paraiso remembered for winds, midges and breakfast magpies; and El Convento, a former convent, with lush gardens and antiques everywhere.

The New York Times recently published “The 46 places to go in 2013”, with Nicaragua featured at number 3. We’d certainly agree that after “fighting its image as a land of guerrilla warfare and covert arms deals”, “Nicaragua’s moment, might finally have arrived”. Try it and you might find yourself saying “We love England, but we love Nicaragua more”.

Honduras: The Most Dangerous Place in the World?

“Since the June 2009 coup d’état that led to the exile of then president Manuel Zelaya, visitors have been deterred from Honduras by reports of high crime and general insecurity” – so reported the Telegraph recently. Although San Pedro Sula is often dubbed “murder capital of the world”, we were undeterred despite flying into the capital a few days after reading that a man from Southend had been fatally shot after resisting having his camera stolen.

We headed straight out to the Caribbean side and The Lodge at Pico Bonito, nestling at the foot of the National Park. We arrived late, tired and a little apprehensive only to be welcomed with cold flannels and a tray bearing fruit punches and a bottle of rum. The Lodge was full of serious American twitchers with a huge array of very expensive tripods, binoculars and cameras: the gangs of San Pedro would have had a field day. We kept out of their way, mainly because they were usually returning from their early morning excursions and having lunch, when we were getting up for breakfast. We hiked the Mermaid Loop, climbed down to Las Pilas waterfalls to swim in the cool water and climbed up Toucan Tower for bird watching.

Pico Bonito Waterfalls

Twenty minutes away on the Eastern coast were the Bay Islands with warm Caribbean waters. We snorkelled around the closest island, Cayos Cochinos, known locally but less attractively as Hog Island and virtually had the waters to ourselves.

Setting off for snorkelling

Having pre-dinner drinks in the bar, we were asked if we liked our gin and tonic stiff. Bearing in mind my headache the following morning, our reply should have been ‘no’. A relaxing morning around the pool soon put me in the mood for trying the local beers.

Beer Tasting

On our way to the country’s Maya ruins, a 5 to 6 hour drive, we visited Lancetilla, the second largest botanical garden in the world. Here imported bamboo trees made a huge cooling arch on a hot day and our guide explained the labeling system for the plants: poisonous (black), medicinal (red) or green (where the wood could be used). Once again, we didn’t encounter a single tourist. but there were lots of mosquitoes.

Lancetilla

We drove through palm and pineapple plantations and eventually passed back through San Pedro Sula’s outskirts. where our taxi driver advised us we wouldn’t be stopping.  On the approach to Copan Ruinas, we were warned there were 300 curves and bends, so a nap seemed appropriate, but only to keep the car sickness at bay.  Copan Ruinas, near the Guatemalan border, is a small town with lots of narrow cobbled streets, bars and restaurants. Twisted Tanya was great for happy hour cocktails whilst at another nameless bar, we sat on the only tiny pavement table for a pre-dinner glass of wine. At Pizza Copan, an American expat called Jim, cooked brilliant pizza whilst Carnitas Nia Lola provided $10 bottles of vino and a local dish of cheese and bean fondue served in an anafre, a clay pot. The two waitresses made a feature of carting everything from single beer bottles to plates and anafre on their heads to a large noisy group upstairs. In contrast, San Rapheal was a gentle spot where we shared three cheeses, home-made bread, crackers and olives. The Honduran equivalent of the Women’s Institute were meeting at the back and we must have said “buenos tardes” at least thirty times as they passed by. Copan’s ruins are one of Central America’s major sites and mark the southeastern limit of Maya dominance.

Copan’s Ruins

Our guide Neddy, regaled us with tales of Eighteen Rabbit (the 13th Maya Ruler) and let us wander the excellent museum, with its full-size reproduction of a temple, on our own.

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Nearby Las Sepulturas was less developed: peaceful and quiet.
Neddy also escorted us on a ‘neddy ride’ up to Hacienda San Lucas, a small out of the way guest house.

Riding up to San Lucas

Not being a natural horse woman, the ninety-minute ride took its toll on my rear, especially the final up-hill climb. But we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Copan river valley and a glass of home-made lemonade.

The view from San Lucas

It was in Copan Ruinas that we had our most frightening encounter. We stopped in a small supermarket to buy water before heading back to our hotel after dinner. A group of loud teenage boys entered and on looking down, we saw one of them had a magnum in a holster. The leader looked at us menacingly but simply mentioned how much we’d caught the sun.

Addicted to Colombia… But Not on Drugs

I love the Caribbean’s warm blue seas and powder-white beaches but hate huge, impersonal all-inclusive hotels where, having no will power, I invariably put on half a stone in two weeks. So, after a hectic three-month trip around South America, we chose to spend our final days on Providencia, a little known Colombian island surrounded by the Caribbean Sea. We flew from the capital Bogota on an18-seater Cessna, firstly to San Andreas and then on to Providencia, a small, primitive island with a 20km coral barrier reef.

Sunset at Providencia

Sunset at Providencia

In 2011 Colombia was one of the world’s largest cocaine producers and we were therefore not surprised to be comprehensively patted down by rubber gloved policeman before boarding. Our flight was shared by a large family of small hobbit like people and a dog. On arrival, assuming we’d have to wait for our 11kg bags to be unloaded, we gallantly let everyone off first. This was a bad move as Immigration involved one girl reading out passport details to another who laboriously typed them in using one finger. Only the dog seemed to have no trouble. It took 30 minutes for us to be processed and the police, who were waiting to physically search us and our bags, were getting impatient. They decided to give one bag a cursory glance leaving the one with the  the duty-free gin intact.

On arrival at the hotel Sol Caribe, in Freshwater Bay, we disappointingly discovered it had a stony beach. The only positive thing about it was a large fridge instead of a mini bar and a small supermarket next door stocked with Sauvignon Blanc (SB): which after months of red Malbec and Merlot was a real treat. We quickly decided to change to the small, laid-back Hotel Sirius in South West Bay, but not before raiding the supermarket of all its SB, all 11 bottles. The Sirius was small, pretty basic and without TV, internet and mobile phone access but our room fortunately had a fridge big enough to hold the 11 bottles of SB. Its selling point was that it was literally on the beach, and this time it had beautiful sand. As the majority of guests went out diving each day, we had the four sun-beds and entire beach to ourselves. Our days involved reading, watching the fishing and scuba diving boats go in and out, having frequent sea dips and drinking our SB as the sun set. Saturday was the highlight of the week with local horse racing along the beach and we stood in the ‘sea stand’, knee deep in warm water, as the horses galloped past and watched the frantic betting. The only restaurant within walking distance served cheap fresh lobster, seafood and beer. It was utter bliss.

However, Colombia has much more to offer. Cartagena de Indias felt very like my native York (but lots warmer), with its city walls, narrow cobbled streets and laid back atmosphere.  We learned the difference between a privateer and pirate in an underground museum at Catalina corner where for 7,000 peso (£2) we discovered the history of the walls in both Spanish and English. We read that Sir Francis Drake was actually a privateer, not a pirate, as his trip had been endorsed by Queen Elizabeth I. It was a cooling experience in the heat of the day and surprisingly empty.

Cartagena

Cartagena

Nearby we investigated 23 dungeons built between 1792 and 1796 in the city walls, which were more than 15m thick. The vaults were used by the Spaniards as storerooms for munitions and provisions before being transformed into a jail. They’ve now been converted into shops and one is a bar full of bull fighting memorabilia. In the evenings, we feasted on cerviche in shaded courtyards once cruise ship crowds disappeared and took romantic horse and carriage rides as the sun set. This cultural city is also noted for the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts which next year runs from 30 January to 2 February 2014.

Botero's Gordita

Botero’s Gordita

We were also introduced to Fernando Botero’s naked reclining woman, Gordita, in the Plaza Santa Domingo and liked it so much, that when we moved on to Colombia’s capital Bogota, we visited the Museo Botero to look at lots more ‘fat friends’ as well as works by Picasso, Dali and Freud. In the Museo del Oro we were locked in a huge, circular vault and pitched into total darkness before 8,000 gold pieces were dazzlingly illuminated. If visiting Colombia is out of the question, I’d recommend visiting El Dorado at the British Museum from 17 October to 23 March 2014.

Museo del Oro

We also visited Casa de la Moneda, an original mint, tracing the history of currency and Museo de Trajes Regionales displaying traditional costumes.

One of Bogota’s highlights was the Sunday steam train to Zipaquirá. We got to the station early, but a throng of noisy Colombians were already excitedly milling around. A guard shouted a long list of instructions in fast Spanish about what to expect. He caught us looking bemused, so when he’d finished, he sidled up to us and said in perfect English, ‘just follow me’. The carriages, as old as the puffing engine, had grand leather seats. Announcements flowed thick and fast but a young girl sitting behind us interpreted. The two hour, 20 km journey passed in a flash. We were entertained by lively, loud jazz and soul bands who strolled through the carriages and vendors offered plantain-wrapped tamales, Colombian tinto (coffee), the ubiquitous empanada and huge, creamy-white merengons (meringues). On reaching Zipaquirá we headed for the Catedral de Sal or Salt Cathedral, an underground Roman Catholic Church built within the tunnels of a salt mine, 200 meters underground in a Halite mountain.

Steam Train

Whilst Colombia may be one of South America’s least well known countries, I’d recommend you go now, as it may still have a reputation for violence and drugs but we found it intoxicating enough without the need for narcotics.

Venice: It Started With A Cornetto

Venice

On telling friends we were weekending in Venice, they all related two recent Italian travel stories: British holidaymakers being charged €64 (£54) for four ice-creams in Rome and Italian tourists being billed £85 for four liqueur-laced espresso coffees in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square. We were already well aware of the ice-cream story as my partner, Roy, had won our Easy Jet flights with a corny limerick in the Saturday Telegraph: Google “telegraph travel those costly cornettos” and you’ll see what I mean. We were determined not to be caught out in the same way.
We flew from London Southend, named by Which? as the best airport in Britain, despite it still being under construction. Check-in and security were a doddle and Lakers bar quiet until the arrival of five hen parties and two stag groups. Fortunately, the boys headed for Amsterdam’s red light district and the girls for tapas in Barcelona.

Whilst the airport experience was good, the same cannot be said about the late flight time and we didn’t arrive at Marco Polo airport until 8pm. Wanting to avoid the sleek and speedy water-taxi transfer (said by Rough Guide to be “the most expensive form of taxi in Europe”), we headed for the water-bus at €13 each. Unfortunately we just missed the fast Arancino orange vaporetto to Rialto Bridge and as the next one wasn’t for an hour, we took the slower Blu route. We didn’t have long to wait but after everyone had disembarked, the boatmen disappeared off for what I suspect was a quick fag break before we were allowed on. As the luggage had to be stacked in order of disembarkation: this was not an Easy Jet speedy boarding experience. We eventually arrived, tired and hungry at the alternative San Zaccaria pier at 10.30pm.

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We’d decided to get a taxi to the hotel, not realising central Venice is traffic free. Whilst I navigated the alleys using my trusty flexi map, aided by light from passing shops and bars, Roy trailed in my wake humping the bag over the many stepped canal bridges. By the time we found Hotel Bruno, all the neighbouring bars and restaurants were closed except for Crazy Pizza, a small take-away next to the hotel. This provided wonderful, thin but firm, slices of Margarita Pizza for €2.20 each which we ate wandering down San Lio. We later discovered Trip Advisor rated it 85 out of Venice’s 1,066 restaurants. The next day we discovered La Boutique del Gelato on the other side of the hotel which provided my evening fix of ice-cream for €2.50. The hotel location, sandwiched between pizza and ice-cream, was my idea of bliss.

Hotel Bruno

Hotel Bruno sandwiched between pizza and ice-cream

We visited the must see sights of Piazza and Basilica di San Marco, Rialto Bridge, Doge’s Palace etc, but found them horrendously crowded and so we simply wandered and explored the maze of narrow alleys and streets. We stumbled across beautiful bridges, with their queues of gondolas, and small, sunny palazzos where we stopped for due bicchiere di vino bianco per favore. When learning a new language it’s always best to start with the basics: ‘two glasses of white wine please’ and ‘thank you’.

Instead of being steered into guide book recommended restaurants, we ate at interesting looking places we stumbled upon. Barco da Fiore was tiny with high wooden stools, a few wooden tables and benches and lots of locals. The huge range of vino was served either from oak barrels or the bottle and on the bar was an equally huge range of chicheti. We shared a mixed plate of arancini (rice balls), caponata, anchovies and roast potatoes and although it had to be eaten with plastic knives and forks, was delicious and reasonable.
We discovered Vinaria Nave d’oro a small shop selling wine from huge barrels decanted into 40 cent plastic bottles by hose. We bought 1.5 litres of a reasonable Pinot Grigo for €2.50. With a couple of rolls from a nearby bakery we had a superb and reasonable picnic feast. It’s just a shame there’s not more benches in the town where you can enjoy an al fresco lunch.

Decanting the Pinot Grigio

Decanting the Pinot Grigio

I was very undecided about whether to splash out €80 on a 40 minute gondola ride. One minute I thought, “I can’t possibly be in Venice and not go on a gondola” and then having seen them lining up to go under some of the bridges, it seemed a waste of money. The deciding factor was our trip on the Grand Canal No 2 Vaporetto where for €6.50 each, we rode for an hour. We were lucky to get outside seats at the front which provided us with lots of photographic opportunities. However, as I still felt something was missing, we took a traghetto (gondola ferry) from one side of the Grand Canal to the other for €2. It was full of locals and instead of two romantic seats, was standing room only. But at least I can say I’ve been on a gondola.

The Gondola Ferry

The Gondola Ferry

How would I rate my trip to Venice? The September sun shone through out, we came back with decently priced Murano glass souvenirs for Christmas presents and Euros in our pocket. Finally, to mangle a few film and song titles, if you can stay far from the madding crowds, in a city that does sleep, you won’t look back in anger.

Sleeping on Ice

An ice bed

A night in an Ice Hotel in Swedish Lapland seemed like an unforgettable way to celebrate a special birthday.

The adventure was eagerly anticipated but tinged with trepidation. It was impossible to imagine sleeping in temperatures of minus 5 degrees on a bed made from ice.

We opted for the unconventional husky sled transfer from Kiruna airport to the hotel in Jukkasjarvi. I’d had visions of an elegant sleigh pulling us gently along with us all being ensconced under fur rugs. The reality was very different.

The huskies getting ready

On leaving the small airport terminal, we were greeted by loud barking huskies and taken to a nearby shed to prepare. We donned enormous all in one ski suits over our normal ski clothes, black terrorist type balaclavas topped by ‘Deputy Dawg hat’ with furry ear flaps. Black leather boots and long leather gauntlets completed our outfits. Our luggage was put into enormous sacks and transported by road in the vans which had delivered the dogs. We were not an attractive sight and apart from height, you couldn’t tell the four of us apart.

Not a glamorous look

We sat astride the long, low wooden sledge in height order with the tallest at the back, our feet tucked on the runners. The twenty dogs got into position: in pairs and in line according to experience and age. With a ‘mush, mush’ we were off. The dogs were obviously very fit and ran surprisingly fast. In places the track was rutted or steep and it felt like being on a roller coaster.

There was snow everywhere and the scenery was breathtaking. After 40 minutes, my toes started to feel chilly and I was grateful to see the hotel in the distance. It was absolutely stunning.

Checking in at reception

On the introductory tour, our guide told us that each year the hotel is sculpted from ice cut from the Torne River. Everything, including walls, ceilings, chandeliers and beds are made from ice.

The ice chapel

The ice chapel

There was even a chapel for weddings with a difference and translucent sculptures everywhere. The unique ice suites were all different and sculpted by different artists. One had a telephone box, another life size statues of the four Beatles. Our suite was amazing; a ‘room’ within a ‘room’. It included a small hall with ice benches covered by reindeer skins and a staircase leading to a mezzanine bed.

The carving of an animal

Day visitors are banned from rooms at 7pm and we were able to open our duty free champagne, which was obviously well chilled, in the privacy of our room. Dinner in the main hotel was excellent with desserts served on plates made from ice. Fortified by nightcaps from the Absolut Icebar we felt that we couldn’t put off the inevitable any longer.

We changed in the warm area and walked the short distance to our ice room dressed in pyjamas with snowsuits on top. After safely negotiating the stairs, we shed our snowsuit and boots and wiggled into our double sleeping bag (with individual liners) without standing up because the ceiling was four foot high. Not the easiest of tasks! Probably because of the effort involved, I slept considerably well despite waking at one stage feeling rather warm and claustrophobic!

We were woken up at 8am and served hot lingonberry juice in bed. The adventure was over. We had survived and thankfully my main fear had not been realised: I hadn’t needed the loo in the night!

The hotel information was absolutely right: it was an “ice-night to remember” but probably one not to be repeated.

Wine on the Rhine

Michael Korn not Mick JaggerIt was a sunny lunchtime but I was trapped in a dark, underground state-cellar with 150, aged Australians.

After an average meal, I was forced to clap and sing to cheesy songs (think ‘Que Sera Sera’) by a strutting, lederhosen clad, German blonde-bombshell who appeared to think he was Mick Jagger instead of Michael Korn (see left).

Was this a nightmare?

Would I wake up?

Unfortunately I was awake and on a day trip to Freudenberg from our Rhine river cruise from Nuremberg to Amsterdam.

Despite the fact I’d been tasting splendid German wines amongst vines in the morning, I badly wanted to escape and retreat to the peace and quiet of my cabin.

This was our first foray into river cruising, but we’d been tempted by the ubiquitous Viking advertisements sponsoring ITV Mystery Drama although we eventually booked with Scenic. We were somewhat apprehensive about our trip as we’re very independent travellers who shun company and prefer to do our own thing. It started well. London City Airport, a 20 minute cab ride from home, was small and friendly with all formalities being dealt with quickly and simply. In Nuremberg, our transfer was equally straightforward, although by coach rather than my preferred private transfer. We were greeted by the extraordinarily friendly manager Svetlana, whilst Brigita, pressed us with flutes of chilled champagne. Our personal butler, Enache, escorted us to our cabin: we’d been advised to go as high as we could afford, and as near the front as possible. We discovered a spacious, well equipped cabin and bathroom with L’Ocittane toiletries and state of the art shower with coloured disco lights. The small balcony had a sliding window in case of chilly weather and there was a HD TV incorporating internet, radio, DVDs to amuse us.

The first day’s itinerary tempted us with a Bavarian beer experience at 6pm, the regular port talk about the following day’s activities at 6.45pm, and a 7pm dinner. We’d tasted two beers and realised that if we didn’t miss the final two, we wouldn’t have time to dress for dinner. We wondered when fellow travellers would change out of their day shorts and t-shirts. At dinner, we realised they hadn’t and Roy’s two summer suits, remained unworn. This was disappointing as he’d been looking forward to our butler pressing them every day (a freebie as part of the ‘top-deck’ gang). So much for the DVD showing elegantly clad couples.

Food was exceptional: fizz accompanied breakfast and the four-course dinner was free from the dreaded buffet. As neither of us have huge appetites, we opted for a sandwich and fruit lunch in the bar rather than the formal restaurant affair. Dinner was served promptly and rather early 7pm but at least it had free seating. As most tables were large, communal affairs, we quickly learned to be on our starting blocks after the port talk finished to bag one of the few tables for two. This wasn’t difficult bearing in mind the age and condition of fellow travellers who had a flight of steps to negotiate. We were usurped one night but spent a delightful evening with Australians, Stella and Don. Stella was of Chinese descent and an extremely young-looking 76 who taught ‘oldies’ to play card games to keep their minds active. Don, two years older, and paralysed down his right-hand side since birth, had been one of her ‘oldies’ but romantically they’d settled down together.

Our top-deck cabin entitled us to dine one night at ‘La Rive’ a degustation tasting menu with galley views. Each sumptuous course was presented with an appropriate wine, great fun.

A billed highlight of the trip was dinner and medieval entertainment in Marksburg Castle. Scarred by the state-cellar lunch, we ducked out fearing Michael Korn dressed as William the Conqueror. Instead, dinner on ship was in the Italian Portobello restaurant where to our horror, we found three large tables set. As those dining were either too ill to leave the ship (more of this later) or social misfits like us, Roy was despatched to sort it out. However, the sick people were worried about infecting others and soon the large tables were dismantled.

The Top Deck - exactly how we liked it - empty!

The Top Deck – exactly how we liked it – empty!

The daily itinerary, delivered at turn-down with a pillow chocolate, could have filled our days from the early-riser breakfast at 6.30am to late-night snacks at 10.30pm. On-board entertainment showed us how to make ‘swan towels’ and blow glass, whilst lectures about the European Union and German history provided more cultural stimulation.
Stunning German Villages and Vineyards

Stunning German Villages and Vineyards

Off ship, we stopped at small previously unheard of German villages with narrow, cobbled streets, old but well maintained buildings with colourful window boxes and a plethora of interesting looking bars, restaurants and small shops. In some, like Wurzburg, we docked in the centre of town allowing us to do our own thing instead of following the guide and table-tennis bat. In Rűdesheim, we had to board the dreaded coach for the short journey into town. Once dropped off, we escaped to freedom. Electronic gizmos with headphones enabled us to either tune to the guide speaking into their microphone or be self-guided by GPS. Ironically we struggled to use them and reverted to an old-fashioned map and book, whilst the oldies used them with ease.

We’d arrived on the ship half way through a 13-night cruise and discovered many passengers had developed and spread some kind of lurgy: a debilitating chesty cough and cold. On our first night a passenger was admitted to hospital, the following day an elderly lady collapsed at breakfast and a doctor came on board in Amsterdam to tend the sick. Through constant use of hand sanitiser, we stayed well until our final day when Roy brought home a souvenir of one of the worst colds he’s had.

So, would we repeat our experiment? We’d certainly think about it but we’d like the company of slightly younger passengers, less full-on, forced entertainment, tables for two and more flexible eating times. Then it really would be the perfect trip.