Heidi-hi Swish Swiss Summer
The Sunday Independent
I’ve been skiing twice in my life and on both occasions it didn’t end well. To be truthful it didn’t start well either as I am catastrophically uncoordinated.
They do say though that the third time is a charm. Yeah, right. I’m lucky I didn’t come home in a full body cast, or even a body bag, the first two times so the decidedly swish and sophisticated St Moritz had been ruled out as a destination.
But of course the discerning traveller knows that there is far more to the Swiss Alps than snow and skis. I can’t speak for St Moritz in winter but in the summer it’s the ideal location for a short break or holiday.
Mind you, my opinion may have been swayed by the fact that I was staying at Suvretta House, the grandest of Grand Hotels which at first glance looks very like the Grand Budapest Hotel in the Wes Andersen film.
I’ve been to some swanky places in my time, places that scream luxury, indulgence and indeed loads of money but Suvretta House doesn’t scream anything. This is old school low key luxury where it’s all about excellent service and discretion.
For the few days I was there I inhabited a different world – one where I would not have been surprised to see Hercule Poirot stepping out of the lift. Despite the old world atmosphere, the facilities are bang up to date, and this being Switzerland, extremely efficient.
The train journey from Zurich airport was exactly the same – modern efficiency but with the feeling of going back in time to an idealised past. In my real life I avoid trains as much as I can because they’re inevitably late, overcrowded and smelly. I could happily live on a Swiss train.
The nostalgia continued when we arrived at St Moritz station where we were met by our transport to the hotel –a vintage ‘omnibus’ driven by a liveried driver.
Rather unfortunately our arrival at the hotel coincided with rain of biblical proportions which came down hard and fast for two days. Suvretta House provides a whole range of summer activities for guests including tennis, golf, biking and hiking, as well as extensive activities and care for children and teens.
The rain meant that our plans to go boating on one of the lakes nearby had to be cancelled but that meant more time to explore the large spa which on top of the usual range of beauty treatments offers a variety of sauna experiences.
The spa pool overlooks the mountains of Upper Engadine and after a quick dip I had an amazing massage that left me so relaxed and happy that not even the torrents of water falling from the sky could dampen my spirits.
Having some time to while away I sat in the vast lobby pretending I was in an episode of Poirot. It didn’t take much imagination. There were plenty of people enjoying pre-dinner drinks dressed in formal attire, the men making Daniel Craig look like a scruff.
Then I noticed the other men, the ones who were sort of idly loitering. Bodyguards! Several of them. (Two of them eschewed the traditional black suit and looked like a pair of chaps who might visit Salisbury on their holidays.)
Apparently there was a Princess staying who had taken an entire floor. Unfortunately, I’m not Miss Marple and couldn’t get any further information about the mystery princess – or even a glimpse. Believe me I tried but like I said earlier it's all about discretion at Suvretta House.
For dinner that night we donned our finery and went to Grand Restaurant which is very formal but not at all stuffy. The cuisine, was simply perfect and most of it sourced locally.
I was up early the next morning eager to burn off the calories so I headed into the village of St Moritz. The hotel has a regular shuttle bus (it's a five-minute journey) but I decided to walk. It was all downhill and took about twenty minutes. Coming back was a different story - the incline was very steep and my lungs felt every cigarette I have ever smoked.
The village of St Moritz has a fairy-tale feel and is a shoppers dream, apart from clothing, there’s an array of pharmacies (European pharmacies are places of great interest to me), a cute gift shop right beside the shuttle bus stop and one of the most amazing chocolatiers I have ever set foot in - Läderach on Via Serlas (where you will also find Gucci and Louis Vuitton). The array of goodies was endless and honest to God, you’d get fat on the smell alone. Despite trying several samples I left empty-handed because I was overwhelmed by too much choice.
Back at Suvretta House the rain had stopped and we were able to go on a guided hike. Having already clambered up from the town the hike was a walk in the park – or the fields rather. The incline is incredibly steep so our guide took us up a rambling route, easier on the legs and lungs. The views. Oh the views! This is the real reason people go to Switzerland – the combination of lakes, mountains and sky would lift the most miserable of hearts. The fields were full of wild flowers and cows, each with the traditional cow bell and our guide told us they were on their summer holidays, having come up from the valley to stay cool in the heat.
If, like me, your first introduction to Switzerland was Heidi then you’ll be excited to hear that the cabin used in the 1952 film is within walking distance of the hotel. Or you can hire an electric bike to get there. That evening we dined in Chasellas, a mountain restaurant that serves simple lunches and gourmet food in the evening. While the traditional ski restaurant is just behind the hotel it is not a climb I wanted to attempt in heels, so the hotel very kindly laid on a Tesla to ferry us up. I’m not much of a petrol head and know little about cars and I didn’t really understand the fuss about Teslas. I do now. I’ve never been on a space ship but the ride was the way I would imagine it. We glided noiselessly up the side of the mountain. If you're not a fan of cold weather, a Swiss summer break is a great way of experiencing this magnificent place.
A Cruise on Dry Land
Rhode Island & The Berkshires
The Sunday Independent
The Ocean House had me at ‘Hello’. Virtually. I arrived very late at night having crossed the Atlantic on a Norwegian Air flight from London to Boston, and then taken a car to my destination at Watch Hill, Rhode Island.
Everyone on this side of the Atlantic has heard of the Hamptons and probably think of it as posh (parts are) but The Berkshires and Rhode Island are were the real Toffs retreat, as they're more discrete.
The check-in process was swift and painless but it was happened next that made me fall deeply in love with the place. When asked if I’d like an alarm call in the morning and I answered in the affirmative I was asked what beverage I would like. Not just a disturbing phone call to get you out of bed but the comfort of caffeine.
The following day, having ingested the large flask of coffee that came with my wake-up call (no fiddly wee cafetiere here) I had a look around and the more I saw, the more I fell in love. It’s actually hard to do Ocean House justice without gushing.
The hotel is rated five-star hotel and deserves every single star, and just like many other five star properties it's fabulous and awe-inspiring but there's more to it. Small wonder 70% of guests are regulars.
In order to effect the least stress on guests the hotel operates as a ‘stationary cruise’. I particularly loved this. I love cruises but inevitably get seasick. As with most cruises tips and gratuities the contents of the minibar and snack bar are included in the room rate. And, like a good cruise I was able to open my door and without even walking out onto my large veranda could see and hear the sea. All without feeling woozy. That's what they call a 'win win' situation.
Also visible from my bed Taylor Swifts seaside retreat. (I don't think she was home, not that I scrutinized with binoculars or anything). Nor did I scramble over rocks in an effort to get a better look - mainly because they were fenced off.
When you’re in Ocean House it’s easy to forget that you’re in a commercial property. The artwork on the walls is all original (and routinely changed) and I had could have spent all my time just wandering around looking at it. Overall the experience is more like staying in a private house (owned by exceedingly rich people obviously) than being in a hotel.
In keeping with the stationary cruise theme a variety of daily activities are available to guests including watching films in the luxurious ‘cinema’ along with classes in cookery and wine appreciation. I had a go at making a pasta dish with Chef Ryan Beaudoin. It was delicious and he was good enough to give me all the credit, which I'm shamelessly taking!
Both Ocean House and The Weekapaug Inn, where I stayed next on this fantastic trip, is about a ten-minute drive away (you can take one of the Ocean House Mercedes) are part of the Relais & Chateau collection.
The Weekapaug Inn also has beachfront access and is a great place to take the kids. The main reason for this is their in-house Naturalist, Mark Bullinger. (That’s Naturalist, not Naturist, Mark keeps his clothes on). One of the activities Mark overseas – and equally enjoyable for both adults and kids, is to lead a beachcombing expedition for shells and sea glass which he then helps you turn into jewellery. I now have a beautiful necklace that is completely unique and priceless in its own way.
Mark is also an expert on oysters and oyster farming but got a bit embarrassed when attempting to explain the sex life of these molluscs. I googled and don't blame him for blushing.
While at Weekapaug I managed to drop my laptop. It sliced right on the joints where toes meet foot. The pain was excruciating but the embarrassment was worse. The staff had my foot in a bag of ice before I could swear out loud, and were kindness itself.
In an effort to combat the pain I overdid the painkillers which left me feeling extremely nauseous and with killer indigestion. I retired to my room and lay on the bed, afraid to move, lest I puke.
At that point the Chambermaid came in. I was mortified but she was so kind, she called a colleague who immediately brought medication. I was unsurprised to hear she has five kids, as she made me feel safe and cared for.
I’m happy to report that my foot was mended enough for me to end the night at the outdoor fire pit, toasting marshmallows and making S'mores, looking at the stars and listening to the waves crash nearby.
Rhode Island, the smallest of the states, became popular with the super-millionaires of the Gilded Age era. People like the Astors, Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Rockerfellers, liked to escape New York to summer in their ‘cottages’ (mansions). The Berkshires, in the mountains of Connecticut and Massachusetts similarly offered respite to theses uber-monied folk as it can be reached in three hours from either New York or Boston.
In the town of Lenox alone there are a variety of mansions originally belonging to Edith Wharton, JP Morgan’s sister and businessman John Sloan. Blantyre, the third hotel that I stayed in, was originally built by the very rich Robert Paterson and named after his mother's ancestral home in Scotland. The red brick mansion with it's turrets, towers and gargoyles set in the middle of the woods has a distinctly fairytale air. Relais & Chateau recently added the hotel to its portfolio and have been busy refurbishing it as authentically as possible.
Fans of Downton Abbey will just love Blantyre with it’s wood panelled Great Hall, massive fireplaces and spectacular chandeliers.
I stayed in the Carriage House, a short walk from the main house, where all the bedrooms and suites are different. Some suites are split-level which my inner child found very exciting.
Being one of the first guests to stay in the refurbished property I didn’t get to partake of the fine dining experience which will be in the Conservatory. However, the food in the Bistro was absolutely delicious.
As a non-drinker I have tried a variety of non-alcoholic cocktails over the years. Even as someone with a great love of sweets I’ve found most of them sugary enough to take the enamel of my teeth.
In Blantyre I finally encountered a proper grown-up Mocktail, the ‘Juniper & Tonic’ created by barman James.
When the Gilded Age ended the Berkshires became synonymous with the arts. A couple of friends and I decided we’d walk over to The Mount, the writer Edith Wharton’s home, which is now a museum. The walk didn't take all that long, (probably a little over half an hour) but it was mostly along min roads and all of us felt a bit exposed with cars and trucks zooming by. I'd recommend taking one of Blantyre's cars.
The Norman Rockwell Museum is also nearby, in the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I’ve always been a huge fan, so this was a definite must-see.
Many people remember Rockwell as a sentimental ‘American Dream’ artist who drew cutesy covers for The Saturday Evening Post magazine, but there was more to the artist.
The Museum contains several iconic Civil Rights images including The Problem We All Live With (1964) depicting six-year-old Ruby Burgess being escorted to school by four US Marshals, and Murder in Mississippi (1965) a stark portrayal of the infamous incident which occurred in 1964 where three young Civil Rights volunteers were killed. The Museum also have Rockwell’s studio, which was transported from his nearby home, in the grounds.
Both Blantyre and Ocean House are the ideal location to celebrate a significant event like a wedding, anniversary, a significant birthday, or maybe just a once-in-a-lifetime treat. Ocean House only hosts one wedding a weekend, which just like everything else there, is aimed at making guests feel as special as they can.
TAKE TWO TOP ATTRACTIONS
Fine Dining at Coast
Coast, the fine-dining restaurant at Ocean House is a five-star dining experience. There are two five course tasting menus, one for carnivores and one for vegetarians. Each course is paired with a specific wine.
Clark Art Institute
The Clark, as it’s commonly known, is famous in the art world but you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy the fantastic collection of painting and sculpture. The Institute is set in a 140-acre campus with amazing views of the surrounding countryside.
NORWEGIAN flies a five-time-a-week direct service between Dublin & Providence in summer, increasing to a daily service this winter. Fares start from EU118 one way/EU199 return, including all taxes and charges. Visit www.norwegian.com/ie or call 0330 828 0854
OCEAN HOUSE from EU337 per night oceanhouseri.com
WEEKAPAUG INN from EU291 weekapauginn.com
BLANTYRE from EU367 blantyre.com
The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute clarkart.edu
Norman Rockwell Museum nrm.org
Marbella: Adults Only With a bit of a Buzz
The Sunday Independent
Hell, as Jean-Paul Sartre should have said, is other people’s children. With your own you can shout, threaten, cajole and bribe, try any of the above with other people’s children at your peril.
If all else fails with your own kids you can run away for a Spa weekend, but you are still stuck with other people’s children right? Not at Amàre Marbella which is an adult only establishment. 'Adult only' sounds a bit porny but the Amàre Marbella is about as far from sleazy as you can get.
I was a bit worried about going to ‘Marbs’ in the first place. I don’t watch The Only Way is Essex aka TOWIE but if you have a TV you can’t escape its erstwhile ‘stars’ – a vacuous lot with small IQs, big hair and even larger egos.
This crew spend a lot of time in ‘Marbs’ and I was a bit worried that I was going to end up surrounded by orange coloured people screeching “OMG! Shut UP Babes,” at each other. So en route I treated myself to a night at the La Suite West in London’s Notting Hill/Queensway, a short taxi ride from Victoria Station where I was getting the 5am Gatwick Express the following morning.
The La Suite West is very Zen and boasts a Vegan Restaurant. After my night there and despite the early start the following morning I was in the zone for a Spa treat - even if I had to share it with TOWIE types.
Well OMG Babes, where do I begin? First of all, what the TOWIE lot call 'Marbs' is actually Puerto Banus, a good car journey away from Marbella itself. Contrary to my imaginings Marbella is a typical Andalusian town, with cobbled winding streets and pretty white white houses covered with gorgeous flowers. Thankfully there was no sign at all of 'The GC' but the BVM was in shrines around every corner.
As for the Amàre Marbella – if I thought the La Suite West was Zen this was on another level entirely. The hotel is beside the sea but also in the heart of the town. The property was refurbished earlier this year and the designers have done a fantastic job of creating a space that is cutting edge cool yet relaxing. (A pretty mean feat.)
The reception is a flowing gold oblong, which sounds like pure kitsch I know but it is gorgeous. The absence of hard lines, the white and pale blues all reflect the ocean. The 'traditional' colours are complimented by splashes of art including huge black mirrorball faces in the lobby and a wonderful silver elephant outside the entrance to The Beach Club.
The 'Club' encompasses an indoor restaurant, outside seating, a pool and additional seating on the beach. Pretty typical so far but The Beach Club has one of the best things I’ve ever encountered. Ever!
Normally when you are lounging by the pool and you want something you have to struggle up and find a waiter and then, and this is usually hard bit, catch their eye. It is one of the most unrelaxing activities known to man.
In the Amàre Beach Club, they give you a massive red buzzer when you check in and if you want to order something you just press it. The waiters all wear wristbands and the buzzers deliver small electric shocks which makes them attend to your needs super fast! OK I made up the last bit. The waiters wear little bracelets that vibrate to let them know when someone needs them. Have you ever heard the beat of it?
One of the rules of motherhood is that as soon as you sit down your child will ensure you get up again. I saw more than one woman practically kiss her big red buzzer.
I was so relaxed that I almost forgot about the spa. The staff were at pains to tell me that the spa is due for redecoration and for me to excuse it. OK, so it might not be as swish as the rest of the property but it’s still a lovely spa. The hydro pool in particular is fantastic.
Unfortunately, my trip coincided with really unusual and unseasonable weather – it rained almost constantly. However, I was so happy, in the endlessly relaxing, child free, atmosphere that I didn’t care.
In between showers I was able to pop out and explore the old town. The people were all extremely friendly and when I got my hair blow dried (for a paltry 18 Euro), I had a very amiable conversation with the hairdresser purely through the medium of mime.
The rain was so heavy that a mere umbrella wasn't going to do much for my new 'do' so instead I used the complementary ‘Bonnet de Douche' from my room. (Commonly known as a Shower Cap.) With my new headgear on I went to Fuerte Marbella, a long established hotel, to join my friends for lunch. The place was full of older couples, including a few from Belfast, who go every year. Like me they didn't care about the rain, they were just happy to be 'away'.
With my newly blow dried hair it was time to see 'Marbs' aka Puerto Banus. Yes, there was a lot of "OMG babes!" to be heard and plenty of young women in 'difficult' shoes. But I can see why they all love it so much as the shopping is great.
I'm a great lover of fake designer handbags and the Marina (wall to wall yachts) was crawling with vendors. Unfortunately these guys took pushy to a whole new level so I left them to it.
Some of the younger ladies in our group returned to Puerto Banus later that night to check out the bars. The dirty stop outs didn't get back till 4am and related that only money they’d spent the entire evening was the taxi there and back. Apparently the bars are quite happy to entice young attractive women in with free drink and they were more than happy to drink them. (Hey, I'm not judging, just jealous.)
We weren't the only group enjoying the child free facilities at the Amàre Marbella. Some like us were there for a girlie spa weekend, others were there for the culture and some just wanted to lie on the beach with their big red buzzer. Even when the rain was belting down there were a few hardy souls, under shelter with blankets clutching their buzzers and wine glasses. And with nobody around chanting "Mam! Mam! Mam!!!" on a loop who can blame them.
The Lake District: Swallows, Amazons & Fake Cake
The Sunday Independent
Once you go outside the big cities in Britain you find a country full of towns and villages that look exactly the way Americans generally picture England - town squares that predate the Normans, hedgerows, stone walls, town halls, tea shops and churches – places where you wouldn’t be at all surprised to catch a glimpse of Miss Marple, or Chief Inspector Barnaby.
Keswick (pronounced Kessick, something I’m glad I knew before I got there) in the Lake District is one of these picturesque towns. The Lake District is renowned for its rugged beauty which has inspired generations of writers including Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome and John Cunliffe (more about him later).
With it’s spectacular landscape of peaks, fells, lakes and tarns, the Lakes offer just about every variety of outdoors activity you can imagine. Not only that but the local men all sound like Ned Stark which is fitting, as this is the North!
Within an hour of arriving in Keswick, my nine-year-old son was so taken with the town he wanted to move there permanently We were staying in The Royal Oak, a cosy inn, which is right in the heart of the town and only a ten-minute walk from Derwentwater (one of the principal lakes).
Keswick is jam packed with pubs, restaurants, outdoor goods shops, fudge shops, ice cream parlours and dogs! This is a dog-lovers’ paradise, most of the local bars and restaurants including The Royal Oak welcome canine companions.
One of the first things I did was sample the famous ‘Kendal Mint Cake’. I have to warn you that it’s not cake as in gateaux (as I had imagined) but more like cake as in soap. This world famous delicacy almost defies description - the best I can do is tell you to imagine a solid block of highly sweetened toothpaste. I can see the appeal if you are stuck on the side of a mountain and very hungry but in other circumstances I think I’d rather eat actual toothpaste.
Thankfully my son and I weren’t in the Lakes to climb mountains and risk having to eat Kendal Mint Cake for a second time. Instead we were attending the premier of Swallows and Amazons, the new film version of Arthur Ransome’s much beloved children’s book.
The movie has a cast of six extremely talented children who play the Swallows, (the Walker family of Susan, Jack, Roger and Tatty (Titty in the book)) and sisters Nancy and Peggy who are the Amazons of the title. The story is a classic adventure, set in the 1930s, with the Walker children sailing to the ‘undiscovered island’ (Peel Island, Lake Coniston in real life) to camp out and enjoy themselves free of adult supervision. The Amazons, local girls, have christened the island ‘Wild Cat Island’ and initially resent the incomers.
The premiere took place, fittingly, in The Theatre by the Lake, just steps away from the jetties on Derwentwater where one of the crucial scenes takes place in the movie. It's a lovely summer family film that my son and I both enjoyed.
After hobnobbing on the Red Carpet with all of the kids, Kelly Macdonald and Jessica Hynes the following day the pair of us hung up our finery, put on our stout shoes and set off on the 'Swallows and Amazons; trail. We were ferried from Keswick to Coniston by Peter from Mountain Goat, a local man who knows his history and takes great pride in his locale. En route we passed Dove Cottage, once home to William Wordsworth.
At Lake Coniston we were were met by Nigel and Adam from Joint Adventures who were thankfully prepared for eejits – even though it was the tail end of July, it was wet and cold and neither of us had a jacket. My son also accepted the offer of a wetsuit.
There were eight of us in total, three adults, three children and the two instructors. Despite the fact that my son had never laid eyes on the other two children, a brother and sister, the three of them bonded instantly, consumed by excitement of going to the real-life Wild Cat Island. On canoes!
Once we landed the three kids were off, whooping and exploring. We were given canvasses and told to erect tents like the children in the book. (At the instigation of the kids we had an Adults Vs Children competition to see who could get their tent up first. The adults won. I’m just saying.)
Apart from exploring the island and creating a temporary camp we were all given a chance to try to light a small piece of cotton wool – similar to the way the children light a fire in the original book. Some of us managed it and others gave up but my child, displaying a rare stubborn streak, refused to move until he ignited the cotton. I doubt that since early man first picked up a flint that the art of lighting kindling has attracted such a crowd. Or such a cheer.
After paddling back our intrepid driver took us to his home town of Kendal (yes, where they make the mint so-called cake) and The Museum of Lakeland Life which has a dedicated Arthur Ransome exhibition. Now, I like a museum, but my son, being a nine-year-old boy isn’t all that gone on them. Until the final exhibit that is – a real life apothecary shop which was relocated to the museum when it shut. The child was very taken with the various drawers that had contained poisons!
En route back to the train station Peter made an unscheduled stop at a house that looked strangely familiar. You may not have heard of John Cunliffe but no doubt you are familiar with Postman Pat. This house used to be the post office and John Cunliffe lived a few doors up. Suddenly I started seeing Kendal in a whole new light, as we drove up and down hills and narrow streets I had a funny feeling of déjà vu – I’d seen some of this before, only in stop-motion form. Even the child, who at nine is too grown up for the famous postie joined in the theme music sing song. “Early in the morning, just as day is dawning, Pat feels he's a really happy man.” I know the feeling.
Harmony of the Seas: Living large on the world’s bigget cruise ship.
Anne Marie Scanlon and her son test-drive the world’s largest and newest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas.
The Sunday Independent
You get used to the screaming after a while.
Sitting in the sunshine outside Johnny Rockets diner, overlooked by balconies and across the boardwalk from Starbucks my 9-year-old son and I enjoyed burgers and chocolate shakes. We could have been in any number of holiday locations – apart from the screaming.
But, while we were on a boardwalk, we weren’t on dry land. Instead we were on the largest cruise liner in the world - Harmony of the Seas. My son and I were lucky enough to get a pre-inaugural stay on the ship and our lunch venue was right beside the exit for the Ultimate Abyss, a ten story slide, or rather two ten-story slides. The screams varied from excited and delighted to blood-curdling and terrified.
After my son enjoyed a round of crazy golf on the top deck it our turn to take on the Ultimate Abyss. As we queued up my normally gung-ho child started expressing doubts. He wasn’t the only one - we watched as more than one person changed their minds about hurtling down ten stories. When we got to the top of the queue I could see why. The entrance to the slides is all glass so you feel like you are suspended in mid-air, which is enough to make anyone feel a bit giddy.
I wasn’t feeling all that nervous as I’ve been on plenty of scary rides - usually you’ve just started screaming when it’s all over. Not the Ultimate Abyss, I was flung around corner after corner, with no end in sight. I had a good long scream. A pause. Another good long scream. Another pause. I was still in there. At this point I did get a bit panicky thinking I had died, gone to hell and I was going to be stuck in this tunnel for the rest of eternity. And then I landed.
I was so shaken up that I didn’t give a second thought to my child who was ‘racing’ me down and who didn’t appear for a few more seconds. We agreed that it was easily the scariest ride we’d ever been on. It’s definitely worth doing but not if you suffer from vertigo, a nervous stomach or are wearing white pants.
I had every intention of joining my son in the Flow Rider (a wave simulator where you can surf or boogie board) but before I had a chance he was thrown into a summersault and hurt his arm. Having stupidly forgotten to pack Calpol or similar, we headed down to the Medical Centre to get painkillers.
I really don’t want to put ideas in anyone’s head but if you are going to get sick or have an accident then this ship is the place to do it. The staff were lovely and gave my boy quite a thorough MOT stopping short of an X-Ray. (The following day they called to see how he was, which is more than your own doctor will do!) There’s also a Medi-Spa aboard where you can have teeth whitening done in a short time for a reasonable price.
Harmony of the Seas is a new breed of cruise liner (to us on this side of the Atlantic anyway). In the past the point of a cruise was usually the various destinations but this boat is a destination in itself. Cruising tends to have a stuffy elderly image but Harmony has been designed with all age groups in mind. There are countless bars and restaurants, four pools, ten hot tubs, an ice rink, two water parks, a Casino and an Aqua Theatre. (Smokers be warned, there are only two smoking areas on board and you cannot purchase cigarettes, matches or lighters.)
When we got out of the Medical Centre there was only one thing for it – go for cocktails. We hit the Bionic Bar and despite his ‘injury’ my son was well able to type into the tablet the sort of non-alcoholic cocktails we wanted. The drinks are then prepared by two ‘Robot Arms’. (The Robots have a strange work ethic, they downed tools to dance in the middle of preparing a long list of cocktails!)
The venue was mobbed - everyone from tiny tots to grey haired old ladies on walking frames, with everyone transfixed and amused by the antics of the robotic limbs. The drinks were quite lovely too.
The following morning, I dropped my son off at the Youth Zone one of the seven different 'neighbourhoods' aboard. I promised the boy I’d be back in an hour and set off to explore some of the other neighbourhoods, including the aforementioned Boardwalk and Central Park complete with 12,000 plants and trees! When I arrived back an hour later he was having such a good time he told me to leave him for another hour.
The Spa was my next destination where I had my hair blow-dried by Megan from Dublin. It wasn’t cheap – especially when compared to the price of the tooth whitening! But you can't go to see a show like Grease with bad hair.
I was genuinely shocked when I walked into 1,400 seater, two story, Royal Theatre and saw how large it is. I’ve been in ‘real’ theatres in the West End of London that were smaller. It was the first time I was truly overwhelmed by the craft. Between the layout and the original art that is everywhere the overall feeling is actually quite intimate.
We were there to see the preview of Grease which was flawless and as good, if not better, than some musical productions I’ve sat through on the ‘legitimate’ stage. Again, like the Bionic Bar, the audience was made up of people of all ages; there wasn’t an empty seat in the house and they gave the cast a fully justified standing ovation at the end.
If you are a parent the really lovely thing about being on a cruise ship is when your child comes out with that inevitable whinge, “I’m hungry,” there are no end of places doling out food. We tried several of the restaurants but never grew tired Windjammer Marketplace a huge buffet open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even my son, who takes pickiness to unprecedented levels, declared their burgers “very good, although not as good as Johnny Rockets.”
On deck 15, home of the pools, water parks and the entrance to the Ultimate Abyss there are also ice-cream machines where the kids can help themselves – so you don’t even have to get off your deckchair.
Harmony of the Seas is operating seven-night sailings around the Western Mediterranean from Barcelona from June to October. Booked directly with Royal Caribbean (royalcaribbean.ie), prices start at €1,269pp (based on two sharing an interior, ocean-view stateroom), including flights.
Elsewhere, Clickandgo.com has a seven-night Western Mediterranean cruise from €1,219pps full-board, including flights, departing September 25.
Harmony of the Seas itinerary: Barcelona, Spain; Palma, Mallorca; Marseille, France; La Spezia (Florence/Pisa), Italy; Rome, Italy; Naples (Capri), Italy; Barcelona, Spain.
Includes: return flights from Dublin/Barcelona, carry-on bag, seven nights full board, entertainment & $50 OBC (on-board credit) per person.
The Seychelles -
in Indian Ocean
The Sunday Independent 03/01/2016
Having an outdoor shower has never been on my bucket list but after experiencing the joy of al fresco scrubbing I urge you to try this for yourself. The outdoor shower was only one of the amazing amenities in my beachfront villa at the Hilton Seychelles Labriz Resort & Spa on Silhouette Island in the Seychelles.
You can actually view the beach, which is steps from the front of the villa, from the outdoor shower, which is at the back! But don't worry, the design of the individual villas allow you to see without being seen. The outdoor shower is directly behind the huge centrally placed indoor bathtub which I could have happily spent a week in. Then again, I could equally happily have spent a week in my enormous bed.
Silhouette is popular with honeymooners and you can see why; villas offer luxury and privacy alongside plenty of restaurants and pools. Dinner in the island's historical plantation house at the Grann Kaz restaurant is a must. The traditional Creole cuisine is sublime and even the most ardent of lovebirds would be glad to tear themselves away from their leaba to taste it. And if some of the lovebirds aren't feeling the love then the Octopus curry is allegedly guaranteed to put a spring back in a chap's step (so to speak). Hilton also understands breakfast, no tiny wee fiddly cups, lovely big mugs and individual carafes of coffee. Bliss!
Silhouette is only one of the 115 islands which make The Seychelles popular as both a place to get married and to honeymoon. I travelled there with a bunch of singletons to see if the sun and sand alone would be enough for us. We began our journey in Mahé, the largest of the islands which contains the capital Victoria and is home to approximately 86pc of the country's population.
Praslin island, the second largest of the islands, is home to some of the best beaches in the world. Before checking out the seaside we stopped off at La Pirogue Restaurant for a lunch of gorgeous fresh food accompanied by delicious fresh juices and milkshakes.
When you think of The Seychelles, milkshakes aren't the first thing that spring to mind but everywhere you go there are smoothies and shakes to suit every palate. As all of these are freshly made you can kid yourself that you're enjoying a health drink (until you get to the beach and have to squeeze into your swimming cossie).
If you get a chance to visit La Pirogue you simply cannot leave without paying a visit to the saucy souvenir shop next door. The Coco de Mer (the largest nut in the world) is the national symbol of The Seychelles and, rather unfortunately, bears a likeness to a certain body part. For the most part Seychellois don't take kindly to juvenile giggles and you can't blame them. However, in this particular souvenir shop they know all too well what we're thinking and just go with it. I deeply regret not buying a bunch of very rude key rings when I had the chance as I mistakenly thought I could pick them up anywhere.
I soon forgot about Coco de Mers and various body parts when we arrived on Anse Lazio beach which was voted 6th best beach in the world by the Trip Advisor website. I cannot begin to imagine what beaches 1 to 5 look like as Anse Lazio is simply stunning. There's a danger of lapsing into cliché while trying to describe how beautiful Anse Lazio is, the sand is white while the water is clear and blue. As the waves broke on the beach they waterfalled down in a rainbow of different blues and it was wonderful to watch.
Being pale-skinned I sat in the shade of a mangrove away from my sun-worshiping friends but I wasn't alone. My towel was surrounded by a large number of tiny white crabs. Now I'm not a fan of things that scuttle, creep or crawl. (I'd also like slithery and slidey things taken into consideration.) But although these creatures look like tiny aliens I wasn't bothered by them. One of them got within nipping distance of my toe and I said firmly "Too close!" and he quickly retreated. Then another crab, a bigger brown version (the white crabs turn brown when pregnant), began digging a deep hole beside me and I watched fascinated for almost an hour as she went further and further into the earth and came back up with an armful of sand which she flung away in a semi-circular pattern surrounding the entrance to the hole.
I'm in no hurry to see the best five beaches in the world (according to Trip Advisor) because Anse Lazio was utterly magnificent. Praslin is also home to the Indian Ocean Lodge, a cosy friendly place with absolutely gorgeous rooms. It's ideal for either honeymooners or families with small children - there are two couches in the bedrooms which can easily accommodate under 10s.
After a very comfortable night in the Indian Ocean Lodge our party headed to La Digue, an island famous for it's wildlife (including giant tortoises and green sea turtles) flora and fauna. The trademark Seychelles rock formations - the rocks are rounded and bear a resemblance to ossified whales, are even more noticeable than usual on this island.
Cars were banned until very recently on La Digue and are still rare so visitors have the option of walking or cycling. We wandered along the coast, over rocks and through thick plantation, passing more than one wedding ceremony, until finally we discovered an area, shaded by mangroves, adjacent to a small but pristine beach, where two absolutely gorgeous Seychellois men prepared drinks in a small shack. As they sang along to Bob Marley the pair made us milkshakes and sliced the tops of fresh coconuts so we could sample the water inside. The area was quite crowded with lovebirds and families but the laid back relaxed atmosphere made it the picture of tranquility. We were cut off from the rest of civilisation in the best possible way.
You don't have to be in love to enjoy the Seychelles because you cannot help but feel the romance.
Emirates fly Dublin to Dubai twice daily with 12 weekly connections to the Seychelles. www.emirates.ie Hilton Seychelles Labriz Resort & Spa. Prices start from €255 per night for a Garden Villa (incl.breakfast)
Kuoni (www.kuoni.co.uk) offers 7 nights with breakfast at the 4.5-star Hilton Seychelles Labriz Resort & Spa, Seychelles in a Garden Villa, including flights with British Airways from Dublin to Heathrow and Etihad Airways from Heathrow to Seychelles. From £1,830 (p/p sharing). To book please quote: IO0381 *Book by 4 Marc 2016* www.hiltonseychelleslabriz.com
Indian Ocean Lodge www.indianoceanlodge.com
Seychelles Tourist Office www.seychelles.travel
Conjure up a holiday with a difference on enchanting tour
The Sunday World
30th August 2015
I’ve been called a complete and utter witch in my time, so it was inevitable that I’d end up at Hogwarts.
Well, that and the non-stop nagging from my eight-year-old son. And if we were going, then Momo (granny), who has also read all of the books and seen all of the films, was coming too. Now I hope I’m not upsetting anyone when I reveal that Hogwarts Castle doesn’t exist as such. Our destination was the Warner Brothers Studio Tour London: The Making of Harry Potter (which is certainly a mouthful).
The WB Studios are actually outside of London and the Making of Harry Potter isn’t some place you can go to on a whim, so forward planning is key for this trip.
Trust me, this was our second attempt at visiting, but it was definitely worth the wait.
The Making of Harry Potter is approximately three-and-a-half years old and located in the Warner Brothers Studio, where the majority of the films were made.
You don’t have to be a Potter fan to enjoy the experience, but, having said that, there were plenty of them about.
Both my mother and I had read most of the books and watched all of the films available before the arrival of my son.
He, in turn, became mildly obsessed – at the age of five he used to don fake glasses, paint a scar on his forehead, use my mother’s anorak as a cape and a single chopstick as a wand. Given those details, you’d think that would qualify us as fans, but it doesn’t. Real Potter fans are hardcore. At age eight, my son thought he was a bit too old for the cape and scar, although he kept his new glasses on throughout as a tribute to Harry. All around us there were people, a lot older than my boy, dressed in gowns, various ‘house’ scarves and wielding brooms.
These are the ‘real’ fans, but you don’t have to be one of them to enjoy the tour.
You also don’t have to be a child – the Potter books are widely regarded as ‘children’s fiction’ despite the fact that they are read by all ages – and the tour was made up not only of diverse nationalities, but people of all ages.
Kids get issued with a special Harry Potter passport that contains a treasure hunt for 13 golden snitches (the wee winged globe from Quidditch) located throughout the tour and a chance to get six different passport stamps.
My son wasn’t all that bothered about looking for golden snitches, but my mother enjoyed it immensely! It was just the same with the Butterbeer, which my son insisted on getting. He didn’t like it at all, but Momo thought it was delicious.
The tour begins in the Great Hall, which had an array of delicious looking (but fake) food laid out on one of the tables.
In the following room many of the original sets, props and costumes are on display, including the Weasley’s Kitchen, Dumbledore’s Office and the Ministry of Magic.
My son was eager to see the Gryffindor Common Room and the dormitory that Harry, Ron, Seamus (the Irish one), Dean and Neville Longbottom share.
He was a bit perturbed about the smallness of the beds, which I hadn’t noticed. And indeed they are tiny – the beds were designed for the first film when the boys were pre-teens and not for the hulking men they were by the last film.
All three of us were thrilled to be able to climb aboard the ‘real’ Hogwarts Express where you can walk down the corridors, but not sit in the carriages. We had foolishly invested in the digital guides, when you really don’t need them as the exhibits are self-explanatory and there is plenty of staff happy to talk to visitors and answer questions.
The tour takes part in two separate buildings and in between you can visit the real-life Knight Bus, Privet Drive and the Hogwarts Bridge.
Despite being really excited to see all of these familiar things, my son’s favourite part of the tour was when we were taught wand-wielding. If, like me, you thought that you just pointed the thing and shouted ‘Avada Kedavra’ and blasted your opponent into the hereafter, then think again. There’s a definite art to posing, which my son took to instantly. I, on the other hand, will not be adding ‘wand pointing’ to my CV any time soon.
Of course the very best bit is when we got to walk down the ‘real’ Diagon Alley. All three of us enjoyed that immensely. My little boy said it was “brilliant”, but would have been better if he’d been able to go into Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes joke shop – but after seeing the eye-wateringly expensive prices in the official gift shop (which would even scare the pants of ‘he who must not be named’) I was seriously glad the purveyors of Diagon Alley were closed for business.
Travel: Disneyland... Where magic still reigns
Anne Marie Scanlon
The Sunday Independent
Mickey waved at me!" my eight-year-old son Charles* announced proudly. (*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.) "No silly," his friend Camilla, also eight, contradicted, "he was waving at me!" "Foolish children," I thought, rather smugly, because I knew full well that Mickey Mouse had been waving at me! Charles wasn't going to be fobbed off. "He was waving at me," he insisted, "I know because I made eye contact with him!" Then I realised that I, too, was utterly convinced I'd looked Mickey Mouse in the eye. Convinced. And there you have it, the well-known magic of Disney.
The much-disputed waving occurred at the end of the famous Disney Parade which takes place several times a day in Disneyland Paris. Old and jaded as I am, I thought if you've seen one parade . . . However, this isn't so much a parade as a spectacular, with all the Disney favourites on floats accompanied by singers and dancers. Looking around, I wasn't the only adult waving like a demon and shouting "Mickey! Over here!" My son was beyond excitement, but I was actually worse.
We travelled to the Magic Kingdom from King's Cross Station in London (allowing time to visit Platform 9 3/4, where Harry Potter begins his journey to Hogwarts) on Eurostar, which was an absolute pleasure. I imagine that's what air travel was like in the Golden Age of the Jet Set. Best of all, the train deposits you right into Disneyland Paris itself.
After checking in to Sequoia Lodge, one of seven Disney hotels on site, we headed straight to the theme parks, a short walk away. Disneyland Paris is comprised of three main areas, Disneyland Park, Walt Disney Studios and Disney Village, the last being dining and retail. There was no question where we were going first - Disneyland Park, as I've waited all my life to see the famous Sleeping Beauty Castle.
So often in life, our expectations let us down - but not this time. As we went through the Park entrance we were accompanied by five-year-old blonde bombshell Diana and her parents. Diana's mother and I kept repeating things like "Oh my God! Look! It's right there. It's RIGHT THERE!" To be standing so close to a building so iconic that we know it even in silhouette was quite something. Better yet, we got to go inside.
My son wasn't too fussed about the castle, he wanted to press on and go on the rides. There are plenty that are suitable for all ages but my boy was most interested in the scarier-looking attractions. Over the next three days, I had to 'man up' and step well out of my comfort zone. This proved to be a very good thing, as my absolute favourite ride was the Tower of Terror in Walt Disney Studios. And like it says on the tin, it's a tower and it's terrifying. There's a whole backstory to the ride - which is supposed to be a hotel elevator in freefall. An actor playing the bellhop ushered us aboard and had everyone giggling until the 'lift' dropped and our bums rose inches from our seats! I screamed my head off and loved every minute of it. Charles and Camilla thought it was marvellous. Camilla's mummy was discreetly sick when we were finished.
By contrast, the new 4-D Ratatouille ride is great fun for all ages. This attraction is adjacent to Chez Remy restaurant, where we had a bite to eat. Chez Remy is well worth seeing because of the decor (it's all seen from a rat's point of view) and even if you don't fancy a full meal just have the chocolate mousse, which is so big it's almost a meal in itself.
It may sound like a very obvious thing to say, but comfortable shoes are a must, as there is a lot of walking between attractions, and even with the Fast Pass, which allows you to skip queues on certain rides, there is quite a bit of standing and waiting. In order to have a little rest after all the excitement, Camilla's Mummy and I took our children on the Studio Tram Tour which proved a massive hit with them because of the big surprise we had in store. (I won't tell you as I don't want to ruin it).
Disneyland Paris is huge, and even staying on site, getting up early and staying late, there is just no way we could have seen everything. Visitors are provided with a map which shows the location of attractions and provides useful information about whether they take 'Fast Pass' and if there are height restrictions. By day two we were intimately familiar with Frontierland (a Western-themed area which Charles insisted on calling Tortilla Land) and Adventureland and referred less to our map. This was a mistake because after queuing for over 10 minutes to get on the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril roller coaster (and this was using our Fast Pass) we discovered that Charles wasn't tall enough.
We were both a bit gutted so we went to Big Thunder Mountain (also a roller coaster). When they poured me off at the end of the ride I was very relieved that we'd been turned away from Indiana Jones which looked far more frightening. My son loved it, so much so he made me go again.
The latest attraction in Disneyland Paris is Frozen Summer Fun. Frozen is one of the most popular films of recent years, and my son was thrilled to meet his favourite character, Olaf, in real life. At the close of business every day the park puts on a firework show at the castle. 'Firework display' doesn't really do it justice, as this is a spectacular with various backgrounds projected onto the castle, characters appear from films and fireworks go off in the sky. When Elsa started singing Let It Go, everyone joined in. It was an amazing moment, standing in a huge crowd of strangers, all of us singing the same song. It was like a football match but better, because of all the nationalities.
I hadn't expected to see the fireworks, as 11pm is way past Charles's bedtime but he, Camilla and even five-year-old Diana were all there to watch. Despite the kids not getting enough sleep they were far from cranky (as long as Diana was allowed get in between Charles and Camilla) which goes to show, there is no end to the famous Disney magic.
Prices for a two-night/three-day package including standard-class return travel with Eurostar (from London) in July 2015 start from £1,318.60, based on a family of four sharing (children aged 3-7yrs). The price includes two nights' accommodation with continental breakfast at Disney's Sequoia Lodge and three day park hopper tickets for Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios Park.
Frozen Summer Fun runs until September 13th. For information about a family break to Disneyland Paris, visit www.disneylandparis.com
Sunday Indo Living
Florida Keys: This is Not America
Anne Marie Scanlon
The Sunday Independent 14th December 2014
Dolphins, Don Draper lookalikes and a 'no headache rum' are just the start of Anne Marie Scanlon's discoveries in the decidedly tropical Florida Keys.
I wish I'd taken an umbrella to the Florida Keys.
No really. Not for the rain because when it rains in the Keys something as insubstantial as a piece of cloth on a bit of wire isn't much use to you. An old geezer with a beard and a working knowledge of carpentry is your best bet as the 'rain' is positively biblical. Miraculously, within minutes of a deluge you need a large umbrella to protect you from the sun.
Unlike mainland Florida, the Keys, an island archipelago south of the mainland, has a tropical climate and the differences don't stop with the weather. Geography, Homeland Security and the stamp on your passport say that this is America but, having once lived in the States for over a decade, to me this doesn't feel like America. This is somewhere else entirely - somewhere a little bit different, a little bit exotic and very unique.
It is not at all surprising to learn that until the last century the Keys could only be accessed via boat because the local culture, the people and, as I already mentioned, even the climate are more Keys than Florida. In the same vein, it's no shock to find out that the famous (and infamous) Key West, Mile 0 of the Keys, is closer geographically (as well as culturally) to Cuba than Miami.
You can't go to the Florida Keys and not go to Key West. Before heading to the town where Ernest Hemingway wrote and set To Have and Have Not some friends and I decided to check out some of the other, lesser known, Keys. First, let me get an embarrassing admission out of the way. When I was in my teens I thought the Keys were the Florida Quays. You can't fault my logic - water, quays… In fact Key is the Anglicisation of the Spanish word 'Cayo' meaning island, and the Keys are a series of small islands south of the tip of the Florida peninsula.
Our first stop in the Keys was Islamorada "Village of Islands" which as the name suggests is located over several of the smaller islands. Being in Islamorada was like going back in time - but in a good way.
We stayed at the Islander Resort Oceanside Villas (which as the name suggests is right on the beach).
The immediate area of Route 1 (also known as the Overseas Highway, which runs the length of the Keys) surrounding the Islander Resort was charmingly retro and reminded me of images of the Las Vegas strip in the late 50s/early 60s. I kept expecting to bump into Don Draper or Frank Sinatra in a tux. Instead of lounge lizards, I encountered a huge variety of real life reptiles which roam freely around the Keys (they are so ubiquitous, they're like pigeons in a city).
To the untrained eye, an iguana can look Jurassic Park terrifying. I am no Bear Grylls, in fact I am about as big a scaredy cat as you can find, but even the bigger lizards didn't bother me. They tend to operate on the basis that if you leave them alone they will return the favour and in no time at all you become used to them. As for the tiny little lizards, you would want to have a heart of pure granite not to find them cute. (When I finally got to Key West it was full of chickens - they're everywhere, even in supermarket car parks and to be honest I found them far more disturbing than the lizards).
Unlike iguanas, dolphins apparently really like engaging with humans.
At the Dolphin Research Centre in Marathon, a city that covers a number of smaller Keys, I discovered that dolphins are basically humans in the wrong bodies. The Dolphin Research Centre was established thirty years ago and aims to provide sanctuary for dolphins, study them and educate the public about them. Although there are shows featuring performances by different dolphins that is not the primary function of the centre (unlike certain commercial ventures you get in this part of the world). The Dolphin Research Centre told us that generally the dolphins love performing but if they don't want to, then they don't have to.
As they engaged in various stunts for an appreciative audience it certainly looked as if the dolphins were enjoying themselves but then again it's hard to tell as they always look as if they're grinning. I always thought that dolphins 'spoke' with their mouths, but no, those noises they make actually come from the 'blow hole' on the back of their neck. One seasoned pro swam right up to the edge of the pool, as close to the audience as she could get and then made some highly realistic rude noises from her aptly named 'blow hole'. When everybody laughed, she grinned and gave us a repeat performance. As someone who grew up watching Flipper on the TV it was a real treat to not only meet real life dolphins but to find out that some of Flipper's descendants live here.
The old town of Key West is the largest historical district of wooden structures on the US National Register of Historic Places. It is a ridiculously pretty and atmospheric place. You wouldn't need much of an imagination to picture pirates and other seagoing types buckling their swash, engaging in sword fights and generally being all Johnny Depp in eyeliner and breeches. It is so picture perfect it is almost a theme park, but crucially it stops just short of Disneyfication.
By the same token, it doesn't take much of a leap to picture the ghosts of those same jolly fellows wafting around the old town. But why picture it when there's a chance to actually see some ghostly action on David L Sloan's Key West Ghost Hunt.
I approached this ghost-busting tour with mixed feelings - desperately wanting something to happen but at the same time terrified that it would. At the start of the tour David - an engaging, friendly chap and one of the least creepy looking people I've ever met, told us that the name Key West comes from Cayo Hueso - the island of bones, as long before European settlement the original inhabitants used the island as a graveyard. That might have chilled my own bones on a cold November night but it's hard to feel a shiver down your spine in 32° heat.
Everybody was issued with some sort of ghost hunting device and my divining rod went completely do-lally at times as we explored various places with a bit of 'history'. Along the way we encountered some odd and inexplicable drops in temperature and a couple of bumps in the dark but nothing too terrifying. In fact everyone was having a great time as the whole experience was simply great craic as you cannot help but be engaged by David's obvious relish for the paranormal.
O yes, great japes until we arrived at our final destination, the Eaton Street Theatre, which used to be a church. There is nothing particularly spooky about this building but soon David's 'electronic voice recorder' went into overdrive and we were instructed by a disembodied voice to "leave" several times.
It was unnerving to say the least, but not as unnerving as when I noticed my friend's palm was coated with a black substance a bit like soot.
"Where did that come from?" She shrieked. "I didn't touch anything!"
The reason why the theatre has so many ghosts? In the days when it was a church it was burned down twice and several people, including children, died. Oh by God I felt a shiver then and it had nothing to do with the air con.
I could have done with a stiff drink only I don't drink. Shame really as Paul Menta of the Legal Rum Distillery claims to have produced a 'no headache' rum. My friends were certainly impressed by the flavours. Menta is originally a chef and has not only opened the first (legal) distillery on Key West but has perfected the art of 'Chef Distilled' - approaching rum making like he would any food recipe and focusing on the ingredients.
While the distillery, on the site of a former rum-runners and subsequent Coca Cola bottling factory, is well worth a visit, Menta himself is a fascinating character. I defy anyone, male or female, regardless of their sexual orientation to spend more than five minutes in Menta's company and not fall a little bit in love with him. Also, for the non-drinkers, he makes an absolutely fabulous ginger soda.
Hair salons are sacred places and as such they are always closed on a Sunday but not in Key West where Bobby Shop was open for business on the Sabbath Day. As I gratefully had my humidity induced frizz blown out I noticed a sign. "The higher the hair, the closer to Jesus." That pretty much sums up the Keys for me - tongue in cheek, self-aware, a little bit old fashioned and above all great fun.
Florida Keys - Take three
Located on Sunset Key, Latitudes Restaurant is well worth a visit as it offers a memorable fine dining experience. You can only reach the restaurant via a ten minute boat journey (on a rather fancy ferry) Eating amazing food al fresco, whilst watching the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico is a unique experience. The lovely staff even gave me a disposable cup to take my drink on the ferry back. Now that's class!
No visit to Key West is complete without having your picture taken with the concrete replica of a buoy at Southernmost Point on the corner of South and Whitehead Streets. The concrete marker was installed 30 years ago because the original sign saying '90 Miles to Cuba' was stolen so often. Go as early as you can as it's a popular attraction and you really don't want to spend too long queuing in the heat.
You cannot visit the Keys without sampling the famous dessert. Visit Kermit's Key Lime Pie Shop in Key West for all things Key Lime (including Key Lime Pie on a stick) or Bobby Stoky's fabulous beach restaurant Marker 88 in Islamorada where you can sample Key Lime Baked Alaska. Everything in Kermit's shop, apart from the pies, is bright green. Real Key Lime Pies are yellow!
Florida Keys - Factfile
Aer Lingus flies daily from Dublin to Miami via Chicago in partnership with United Airlines.
For more information about the Florida Keys see: www.fla-keys.co.uk
Islander Resort, A Guy Harvey Outpost: www.guyharveyoutpostislamorada.com/
Parrot Key Resort: www.parrotkeyresort.com
Chef Bobby Stoky at Marker 88: www.marker88.info.
Latitudes at Sunset Key: ww.westinsunsetkeycottages.com/latitudes-key-west.
Dolphin Research Center: www.dolphins.org. David L. Sloan's Key West Ghost Hunt: ww.keywestghosthunt.com/
Kermit's Key Lime Pie Shoppe: www.keylimeshop.com/
Key West First Legal Rum Distillery: www.keywestlegalrum.com
Nature and bargains - what's not to like?
The Sunday Independent, 13 July 2014
For a while now, Lanzarote has been ever so quietly and discreetly positioning itself as an upmarket destination. Last year, British Prime Minister David Cameron spent the Easter recess at Playa Blanca in a visit that was anything but quiet or discreet. If Cameron was trying to prove that he's just an ordinary bloke he called it wrong. Far from high-rise hotels and hen parties, Lanzarote is a place where you can now rent a yurt - and nothing says middle-class respectability quite like a yurt.
Poor Dave is a bit late to the party, Michael D went to Lanzarote last year (without being papped every five minutes) and Bertie went several times when he was Taoiseach, and no wonder, as Lanzarote was voted 'Best Beach and Sun Destination' for 10 years in a row by the Irish Travel Industry. Like Dave, I stayed in Playa Blanca in the south of the island. Unlike Dave, I don't have access to a private villa so instead I tried the five-star Princesa Yaiza Suite Hotel Resort. I could have happily spent my entire time within Princesa Yaiza, as it has everything you need with eight restaurants, five bars, eight outdoor pools and shops. Families have the option of staying in their own block, where suites have self-catering facilities. There's a handy supermarket right outside and prices are laughably low.
Breakfast on the terrace of the Isla de Lobos Restaurant, considered one of the best on the island, is the perfect way to start the day and enjoy spectacular sea views. Directly under the Isla de Lobos, the Thalasso Center Princesa Yaiza spa is a temple to pampering. I opted for a full body massage and despite nodding off during the treatment (possibly the soothing scent of Aromatherapy Associates products), my neck and shoulders were totally unknotted for the first time in years.
Having only ever tried so-called 'tapas' in pubs, I was a bit reluctant to try out Tapas, the resort's Spanish restaurant, but the food was light, delicious and amazingly fresh. I was especially taken with Canarian 'Wrinkly' Potatoes served with Mojo, a spicy sauce. I celebrated my birthday in the Japanese restaurant Kampaii, where you eat at the hotplate and the chefs put on a show as they cook - good theatrics, great food.
Princesa Yaiza is right on the beach and adjacent to a shopping centre (there's two Irish bars if you are feeling homesick). Another five minutes' walk along the clean and well-maintained stone boardwalk brings you to the heart of Playa Blanca. While there are plenty of shops both along the seafront and in the town itself, including fabulous shoe and handbag emporia, I wasn't too tempted.
Lanzarote is very humid which you don't notice so much outdoors because of the breeze. Without air-conditioning my hair frizzed up and left me looking like Sideshow Bob. Luckily, Playa Blanca is not short of hairdressers and I got a great blow dry for €16. (The in-house hairdresser at the Princesa Yaiza is a little bit more expensive but still quite reasonable).
One of the reasons for the increasing popularity of Lanzarote with the yurt-renting classes is that despite the fact that almost the entire economy is based on tourism, it remains mostly unspoilt. For this, we have artist Cesar Manrique to thank. Manrique was that very odd thing in public life - a true visionary. During the 1960s, when other places were keen to exploit their climate and make a fast buck, Manrique lobbied successfully for Lanzarote to keep development sympathetic to the island's culture, and his vision is an integral part of the destination's appeal. There are no high- rises and most buildings are painted white - a striking contrast with the black volcanic ash landscape which is uniquely patterned by honeycombed walls protecting vines.
Manrique's hand can also be seen in Timanfaya National Park the logo of which, El Diablo, was designed by him. 'Park' usually means grass and trees, but Timanfaya is the complete opposite, as it's a large desolate volcanic wasteland. It doesn't sound like a fun day out but really this is a must-see and was one of the highlights of my trip. You can have a sun holiday in any number of places but travelling through acres of volcanic rock and ash is a totally unique experience. The landscape is stunning, quite literally out of this world. As you move further into the park it is harder to believe you are still on planet Earth.
Timanfaya was mainly formed during the 18th Century, when about 30 volcanoes spent over six years erupting. Entire villages were lost to the lava or simply abandoned by the populace. With the constant eruptions, craters forming, lava flow and a pervasive ash cloud that prevented crops from growing it really must have seemed like hell being visited on earth. (Remember the chaos caused in 2010, and that was only one volcano.) The circular El Diablo Restaurant (also designed by Manrique) in the middle of the park provides spectacular views and serves up food grilled using heat from the volcano. Park staff provide demonstrations of how hot the ground is by using water, dry bushes and the hands of any plucky volunteers. I agreed to hold some rubble in the palm of my hand but didn't manage more than a few seconds before yelping and flinging it away. And that's the stuff on the surface.
From marvelling at nature's magnificence in Timanfaya, you can indulge some baser human instincts at the Sunday morning market at Teguise. This is my kind of place where you can buy a lovely scarf, a T-shirt for the child, a jar of Mojo and a knock-off designer handbag and still have change from €50.
Be sure to haggle for your handbag. As imitations go they're not all that, but if like me you just like pretty then this is the place for you. I bargained down a beautiful Teal 'Prada' bag from €30 to €18 - it's probably worth even less but the haggling is great craic. As the stall holder stuffed my purchase into a carrier bag he whispered conspiratorially.
"Lady, lady, don't say I do this deal for you." So you didn't hear it from me, all right?
Sovereign Luxury Travel (0044 843 770 4526, www.sovereign.com) offers a week at the five-star Princesa Yaiza from £1029 per person departing 11 September. Price includes return flights from Belfast, private transfers, 7 nights B&B in a Junior Suite and a complimentary bottle of Cava and chocolates on arrival. For details of Princesa Yaiza Suite Hotel resort see www.princesayaiza.com. Visits to Timanfaya National Park and Teguise Market can be organized with www.jumpytours.com. For more information on Lanzarote see www.discoverlanzarote.com
- See more at: http://www.independent.ie/life/travel/europe/nature-and-bargainswhats-not-to-like-30424732.html#sthash.PE2OAIQH.dpuf.
See below for more images
Capitol time in Washington DC - without bumps in night
The Sunday Independent 27 April 2014
HOLY water isn't something that I think about very often but, after my trip to Baltimore, Maryland on the East Coast of the US (south of Philadelphia), I will never leave home without it again. Late at night in my room at the Lord Baltimore Hotel in downtown Baltimore, I wanted nothing more than a bottle of sacred stuff – except for, perhaps, a priest.
When I checked in to the Lord Baltimore, I knew it had been built in 1928, was on the National Register of Historic Places and had recently been refurbished. I had no idea it was also a famous haunted house. After a chance conversation in the lift, I made the mistake of googling the haunted history of the venue. According to the internet, the place is hoaching with supernatural entities – like some sort of Connolly Station for the paranormal.
Despite being scared witless, I'm almost disappointed to report that I had a thoroughly good night's sleep – the bed was extremely comfortable, so much so, that I slept through the alarm the following morning. In the cold light of day, and with some company, I ventured up to the 19th floor, where most of the alleged ghosts appear. It was about as spooky as Dunnes on a Saturday morning.
Downtown Baltimore has been undergoing a rejuvenation programme, but it is still more The Wire than Williamsburg. That's not entirely a bad thing. Fans of the famous show should visit now, as in about five years the transformation will probably be complete.
Baltimore is also home to one of the best restaurants I've ever eaten in. Waterfront Kitchen is a seed to plate enterprise which sources ingredients that are as local and as seasonal as possible. The restaurant itself is beautiful, with fantastic views. The staff were lovely, the food amazing (best meatloaf I've ever tasted) and it was packed out on a dreary Tuesday lunchtime.
Approximately one hour's drive and a world away from Baltimore, Washington DC (District of Columbia) needs no introduction as it's the star of real life politics as well as countless films and TV shows. I've visited DC several times before, but it's a town I never tire of. This was my first stay in the plush Mandarin Oriental which is within walking distance of Capitol Hill and the Smithsonian Institute. To be honest, the hotel was so nice and the staff so lovely (genuinely nice, not servile and grovelling) that I was tempted not to set foot outside at all. It didn't help that the in-house restaurant, Muze, run by Chef de Cuisine Mark McDonnell from Dublin, serves absolutely delicious food. The Kobe Beef Sliders were so yummy I would have had them again for dessert – which is the highest praise I can think of as, if left to my own devices, I'd only ever eat sweets.
DC is such an iconic city due, in part, to the fact that it was designed from scratch. After America won the War of Independence against the British, the new country needed a capital. The city was founded in 1791 in an obscure area of swampland on the Potomac River. The location was a compromise between North and South and, it's also rumoured, because it was only an hour's horse ride away from first President George Washington's home, Mount Vernon in Virginia.
The city was designed by French architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant who based the layout on the grand cities of Europe, and you can see the Parisian influence in the broad boulevards. DC is a pedestrian's dream, but if you don't fancy walking, the Metro is clean, safe and easy to negotiate. (The ticket machines for the Metro are not at all easy to operate – save time and ask for assistance.)
Everywhere you look there's a recognisable sight: the Washington Monument (the splendid 555 foot marble obelisk on the Mall), the Capitol building with its familiar white rotunda and, of course, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, better known as the White House.
Apart from the 'big ticket' sights, the Navy Yard area, just south of the Capitol, is a must for a guided tour or, at the very least, a trip to one of the area's numerous trendy bars and restaurants. The district has only fairly recently undergone gentrification and used to be, according to our tour guide, "urbanly challenged". I've since conducted some informal research and the general consensus is that "urbanly challenged" means countryside. What I think our guide was trying to say is that this area was, until recently, 'economically deprived', 'no go' and a 'kip'.
These days, there are still vestiges of the old neighbourhood around but you'd want to be fairly flush to purchase one of the pretty, brightly coloured Victorian row houses, distinctive for their Germanic 'square' bay windows that give the area its very quaint appeal.
Barracks Row and Eight Street SE are liberally scattered with uber hip bars and restaurants. The area is also strewn with uniformed personnel from the Navy Yard itself and the Marine Base.
An exceptionally photogenic example of the latter was standing at the corner of Eighth & L, guarding the Commandant's House (famous for being built by the Marines and being one of the least attractive historic buildings in the area). Despite the fact that it was freezing and it had begun to snow, the young man had his sleeves rolled up and looked as if he was enjoying a balmy day. I was impressed. And yes, quite smitten. I had no choice but to make him pose for photos with me.
Usually, the weather in DC is fairly temperate but my arrival was accompanied by an unseasonal blizzard (they occur once every four to six years). Having been to the city several times before, I wanted to do something different so I'd already booked the Monuments By Moonlight Tour which takes you around night-time DC.
The trolley tour departs from Union Station which in itself is worth seeing because it is so pretty and should be the template for train stations everywhere. The Lincoln Memorial (which isn't even a hundred years old yet) looks spectacular at any time of the day, but at night, lit up, it really is something special.
I would highly recommend this tour. Our tour guide and driver David was fantastic, providing us with knowledgeable and entertaining commentary. After an hour or so, we were one of the very few vehicles on the road, and probably the only tour, as the snow was falling thick and heavy. Towards the end of the journey, David announced, "And to your right you can see the White House."
There was a short pause and then the entire trolley erupted with laughter as all we could see outside was blurry whiteness. Not to be defeated, intrepid David made an unscheduled stop and let us out to get pictures of the home of the leader of the free world. When we arrived back at Union Station, there were very few taxis around so David drove everybody back to their individual hotels in the trolley – giving us additional commentary as we went. Such honest to God decency in a lovely town that's well worth a visit.
United Airlines' non-stop service from Dublin to its Washington DC hub, Dulles International Airport, is operated by Boeing 757-200 aircraft. Visit www.united.com or call 1890 925 252.
Fares start from €572 for outbound between November 1 to December 17, 2014.
Prices are from €607 for outbound between April 1 and June 24 and August 23 to October 31, 2014.
Fares start from €970 for outbound between June 25 to August 22, 2014.
All above fares are inclusive of tax and charges.
For more information on the Capital Region USA, visit www.capitalregionusa.co.uk
Lord Baltimore Hotel – www.lordbaltimorehotel.com
Waterfront Kitchen – www.waterfrontkitchen.com
Mandarin Oriental, DC – www.mandarinoriental.com/washington
Monuments By Moonlight – Old Town Trolley Tours – www.trolleytours.com/washington-dc
Sacred sights and so much Moor
The Sunday Independent – 04 August 2013
My friend Mike cannot pass an old church without going in to admire the architecture. Within minutes, he can tell when the building was erected and point out all later modifications. I quite like old churches myself and, although I don't share Mike's enthusiasm (some would say fanaticism) for ancient ecclesiastical sites, I'm always up for cultural and historical expeditions.
When I went to Andalucia, the region of southern Spain famous for golf and horses, I did not envisage spending much time on the cultural and historical beat. Instead, I imagined myself relaxing in shaded citrus groves, sipping fresh orange juice and admiring the handsome caballeros on their fine Andalucian steeds.
Not that I was disappointed. I did spend rather a lot of time under trees heaving with fresh fruit, eating local olives and watching fit, beautiful men riding fit, beautiful horses and having fantasies worthy of EL James. What I hadn't bargained on was the rich cultural history of the region.
The area is positively swamped with old churches and, even if you are only in the area for the sun, the golf, the horses or the caballeros, you would be doing yourself the biggest disservice if you did not go to see the Real Colegiata de Santa Maria Church in Antequera and the cathedral in Cordoba. Both religious sites are in cities that are often, like the churches themselves, overlooked by tourists – an awful shame as both places are a little bit magical.
The Cordoba cathedral is a must-visit for everyone, not just the Mikes of this world, not least because it lies within the walls of a mosque. In 711, the Moors took control of Cordoba and made it a new province – Al-Andalus – and, in 785, work began on the mosque. The original building was extended three times to cope with the expanding Muslim population of the city and is now one of the biggest in the world (22,400 square metres) and considered one of the most important Muslim monuments in the West.
The mosque alone would be spectacular, with its splendid pillars, Islamic arches and stonework but within its walls lie three full-size chapels – including the cathedral – each from a different era and in a different architectural style.
The entire building is like a time machine showing the various shifts in culture, fashion and religion in the area. Cordoba itself is picture-postcard pretty, with labyrinthine alleyways, citrus trees growing everywhere and gorgeous courtyards bedecked with flowers (geraniums are especially popular as mosquitos allegedly hate them).
In Antequera, the Real Colegiata de Santa Maria Church, located at Plaza de Santa Maria, was the first Renaissance church constructed in Andalucia. Building began in 1514 and ended in 1550. The building is situated high on a hill overlooking the town, and among the gorgeous views is the striking limestone crag known as La Pena de los Enamorados – The Lovers' Leap. The name comes from a local legend about a doomed love affair between a young Christian man and a beautiful Moorish girl who, when they were forbidden to see each other, hurled themselves off the precipice. The really odd thing about The Lovers' Leap is that it looks uncannily like the profile of a Native American and, even more uncanny, there is no legend explaining this.
Within the now deconsecrated church there is a short video which dramatises the history of the building itself and the local area by telling the story of a young apprentice who arrives to work on the structure in 1515. Details about the history of the area and the principles of architecture are shoehorned into the story in a way that makes the presentation pure cheese.
However, I enjoyed it so much I watched it twice and, despite the non-subtle storytelling, I actually learned far more than I would have from a dry rendition of the facts.
Part of the reason why I recommend a visit to this particular church so much is because, apart from the amazing views, the management have shown their awareness that not everyone is a church buff and have incorporated a bit of flair and imagination in presenting history to the casual tourist. Apart from the video, they have an actress presenting a short monologue about the doomed lovers who leapt to their deaths, both in Spanish and in English, which had my companion in tears (she's a love-buff).
If the views from the plaza aren't enough for you, you can climb to the top of the tower or, alternatively, you can fortify yourself in the cafe while looking down upon the recently excavated Roman baths. I can't really explain what it was about Antequera that charmed me so much – perhaps it was the wild horses casually trotting up the steep streets, or just the sheer amount of history crammed into a relatively small space but, despite the whole town being practically vertical, I loved it. It was almost Spain by Disney – almost but, thankfully, not quite.
The bigger, well-known cities of Andalucia are not without their attractions either. In Seville, the capital of the region, the Royal Alcazar (a Unesco World Heritage Site) is a former Moorish fort and the oldest royal palace in Europe still in use (it is the Spanish royal family's official residence in Seville).
In 1995, the Infanta Elena, eldest daughter of King Juan Carlos, held her wedding reception here. You can't blame her – the palace is one of the best remaining examples of Mudejar architecture and is absolutely stunning. The gardens, too, are entrancing and the Alcazar is definitely a sight worth seeing.
When you are finished in the Alcazar, pop across to Seville Cathedral to see the tomb of Christopher Columbus. Well, it might be Chris, or it's possibly his brother, or it could be a cousin – the jury is out, but really, who cares who's buried there as the tomb, just like the cathedral, the Alcazar, and Andalucia itself is well worth seeing.
Many airlines operate flights directly from Dublin to Malaga and Seville.
For more information about the region see any of the following websites:
Turismo Andalucia (www.andalucia.org), Turismo Sevilla (www.turismosevilla.org), Turismo de Cordoba (www. cordobaturismo.es) Costa del Sol Tourist Office (www.visitcostadelsol.com), Turismo de Antequera (www.turismo. antequera.es), The Spanish Tourism Office (www.spain.info).
Anne Marie Scanlon
A selection of Travel Features written by me.
Cruising in the Mediterranean: All at sea with my own butler
By ANNE MARIE SCANLON
Sunday July 08 2012
Even a lifelong cynic like me cannot deny that there is a great deal of romance about taking a cruise. There's something about going to sea and sleeping aboard a ship that really encapsulates the idea of 'getting away from it all'. Mind you, I've never fancied climbing aboard one of those super-cruisers that carry thousands of passengers. So the Silversea Silver Spirit, which carries 540 passengers, and is like an elite boutique hotel, was perfect for me. I know 540 passengers sounds like a lot but, instead, the ship is small enough to get around without feeling overwhelmed while big enough not to feel cramped. As Goldilocks might have said if she took to cruising, it was 'just right'.
The two biggest misconceptions about cruises are that they are populated entirely by honeymooning couples and ageing Americans. Okay, yes, ageing Americans were adequately represented aboard the Silver Spirit but the passengers were a very eclectic bunch, including travellers from Australia, Canada, South Africa, Japan, South America and pretty much every country in Europe. Instead of loved-up couples, there were quite a few solo travellers and families with both teenagers and younger children.
The ship itself is a home away from home (if your home contains top chefs, butlers and full-time cleaners that is). I loved the fact that I could visit a number of different places including Spain, Italy and France, without the attendant hassle of having to pack and unpack at every port of call. It was a bit like being a rock star, travelling by night and waking up every day in a different place and, indeed, having my every whim catered to. When I first boarded the Silver Spirit, I was overcome with the feeling that I'd strayed into an Agatha Christie book. The reception area and adjoining bar are decorated in an art-deco style reminiscent of the golden age of travel in the 1930s and I fully expected to see Hercule Poirot enjoying a tisane. (Hercule was not aboard but by the end of the voyage we were all a bit Poirot-shaped as the food was both plentiful and delicious).
My suite which, while modern (a flat TV embedded in the mirror in both bedroom and sitting room), also had a distinctly art-deco feel and the bathroom was just perfect. Hercule himself couldn't have found fault with it because, despite looking like it belonged in an earlier, more glamorous age, the amenities were thoroughly modern, with a massive power shower and a huge bath that doesn't take hours to fill.
If the suite, with my own private veranda, wasn't luxurious enough (and it was) I had my own butler to attend to my every need any hour of the day or night. He brought me breakfast in bed every morning and repeatedly polished my sunglasses! Apart from certain wines, premier spirits, cigarettes and cigars, everything is included in the fare.
I have to say I'm a big fan of the all-inclusive holiday as it means you can act like the Queen and stop carrying cash and also go for a meal without an undignified Mrs Doyle-style tussle about who is going to pay at the end.
There is so much to do on board that you need never set foot on dry land at all if you don't want to. Apart from the various bars, restaurants, casino and duty-free shops (only open when the ship is at sea) there is a full agenda of on- board activities arranged every day and entertainment every evening.
I would have been more than happy to spend my days lounging by the pool and trying out the three whirlpools one at a time but I did sign up for a couple of shore tours. The tours cost extra and unless you have a burning desire to see something specific on the agenda then you'd be just as well to get a map of the town from the concierge and make your own way around. I have to say the shopping in Ajaccio, Corsica (birthplace of Napoleon) was great. Be warned, though, if you fancy shopping rather than just sightseeing; go in the morning as most of the destinations on this cruise have a siesta in the afternoon.
You can't go on a cruise and not discuss the food. On our first night, we had a poolside barbecue. I'm one of those miseries who associates the BBQ word with semi-cooked sausages. Despite being surrounded by luxury and butlers I got it into my head that the poolside barbecue would consist of some fella in an apron serving up badly cooked burgers on a bun.
Instead, it was a feast of epic proportions and not to be missed. I'd also highly recommend having dinner at Hot Rocks restaurant where you cook your own main course at the table. I know it sounds rubbish -- who wants to go to a restaurant to cook their own dinner? That was exactly my thinking but not only was it a lot of fun, the meat was amazingly good and it was a fabulous meal.
For those who want to offset the effects of so much temptation, there is a gym and a number of fitness classes run daily. And, of course, there's a spa.
Spa treatments are extra but entitle you to use the amazing thermal suite, with hot-stone beds and give you access to the private spa deck where you can relax in the Jacuzzi and enjoy the view.
The only major problem I had with the Silver Spirit is that they wouldn't let me take my butler home as a keepsake -- and now I'm reduced to polishing my own sunglasses.
Silversea offer voyages across all seven continents and features luxury cruises to the Mediterranean, Caribbean, both Polar regions and over 400 destinations in between. Silversea offers cruises from Lisbon to Monte Carlo (8 nights) starting from $5,668 inclusive (all prices are in US dollars). Further details can be found at www.silversea.com.