Peace in our time

I’d not seen so many Union Jacks since William married Kate. The patriotism was remarkable – even more so given I wasn’t even in England. There were flagpoles on the porch of virtually every house on this tidy estate. Yet there were no signs of celebration – just an eerie stillness. Neat gardens – the lack of litter quite remarkable – and no sign of children playing out in the street. But this was a Sunday morning. Maybe everyone was at church?

I was in the midst of Belfast’s Shankill estate.

It might mean little to readers under 30, but for those of us who grew up in Britain in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Shankill Road, together with the neighbouring Falls Road, were rarely out of the headlines. This was the district at heart of ‘the troubles,’ as they were called.

The fact that more soldiers died here than in the Bosnian, Afghanistan and Falkland wars combined seems to have been overlooked by the British politicians – and press – who referred only to ‘the troubles’ during more than 20 years of mindless bombings, shootings and cross-party retaliations.

For many years after the peace treaty was signed in 1998, Belfast was considered a ‘no go’ area for British tourists – indeed there are still those who prefer to give it a wide berth. But sitting in the quaint old Crown pub on a Saturday evening, being regaled with dirty jokes by a trio of septuagenarians I’d never clapped eyes on before, I got a real flavour of the Irish spirit – and the ‘craic’ for which it is so well known. Paddy (aka Kevin) didn’t care what nationality or faith I was. He was just happy to share the craic and see that I was spending my cash in his country.

Tourism is now taking off in Northern Ireland – in the past two years, the number of hotels has doubled. This is thanks in no small part to the popular Game of Thrones series, filmed in a variety of locations around Northern Ireland.

You can now take tours around the film locations – there’s even a 66-metre tapestry depicting the series on display in the Ulster Museum which, when finished, at 77 metres, will be longer than its inspiration – the Bayeaux Tapestry. Well worth a visit – and it’s free.

On a short break to Belfast, a visit to Titanic Belfast is also a must.

The Irish are rightly proud of this great engineering feat and the exhibition dwells heavily on the skill and expertise which went into the vessel’s construction and less on the failings which led to its notorious sinking on the maiden voyage from Southampton to the USA.

But it was the Black Cab tour that left the most lasting impression of my weekend in Northern Ireland. Following an IRA raid on the Northern Bank in December 2004, there were reports of stolen cash being ploughed into assets such as pubs, restaurants – and black cabs. Some of the brains behind the daring robbery no doubt dreamed up the idea of the Black Cab tours, for there are dozens of them at a time cruising round the streets of Shankill and the Falls.  Make sure you book one.

I hadn’t realised that the Protestants still light towering bonfires on Orange Day, burning the Irish tricolor flag at the top – just so the Catholics in the Falls Road can see it above the towering monstrosity ironically dubbed ‘The Peace Wall.’ Nor that this wall – 2.5 miles long and with five sets of gates, is still locked each night at 6pm and closed all day on Sunday, in a bid to keep the two factions apart.   And, at 15 metres tall, it is higher than the Berlin wall ever was.

Today, Belfast looks no different to any other city.  No lasting evidence of the streets razed to the ground and houses blasted skywards by car bombs. Just the countless gable ends with their imposing murals which bear tribute to those who were interred. It’s a sobering but enlightening experience.

With the help of a pen obligingly supplied by the Irish black cab driver, I added my brief message to the Peace Wall, joining names like Tom Cruise, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I’d never encountered legalised graffiti before. But then I’d never been to Belfast – and looked at life from both sides of the Peace Wall.

Only here for the (rein)deer….

When a mutual friend hit her landmark 50th birthday, eight of us gleefully boarded a Virgin Atlantic plane and jetted off to the city that never sleeps – New York, New York.

Ten years on, the question was – how to top that?

The decision naturally had to come from the birthday girl who, after several hours of dedicated research, informed us that she wanted to see the Northern Lights – and the best vantage point was Tromso, in Northern Norway.

Given that temperatures rarely rise above freezing in Tromso in December – we all gave a little shudder at the prospect but buckled down for a very different adventure. All for one and one for all and all that.

Mutually frozen friends!

There are direct flights from Gatwick to Tromso with Norwegian almost daily and it takes just 3.5 hours to reach the frozen North. Most other airports stop off at Oslo which can mean doubling the length of the journey – but I’ve spent time in worse airports. Stepping out of the plane onto Nordic soil – or, rather, snow – we felt a tad like we had entered the land behind CS Lewis’ famous wardrobe!

There were no roads to be seen – just a vast expanse of the white stuff  and the silence was almost as chilling as the temperature. However, the welcome was undeniably warm at the Radisson Blu Hotel, overlooking Tromso’s pretty little harbour.

The Polar Museum

Tromso is home to the fascinating Polar Museum, which tells the story of the many brave Arctic explorers who have set out from here over the centuries, armed with little to protect them from the elements – and the polar bears.

The town also boasts the magnificent modern Arctic Cathedral. Constructed in 1965, it contains one of the largest glass mosaics in Europe, added in 1972 by artist Victor Sparre, and is a sight not to be missed. Whilst this part of Scandinavia is famed for its midnight sun, it’s a very different kettle of (smoked or salted) fish in the winter. With just four hours of daylight, this really is life in the twilight world.

The streets seem eerily deserted, with tourists forming the larger part of any pedestrians. But with temperatures this cold, most are tucked up warmly indoors, sampling the excellent local cuisine or warming wines – or out on one of the many excursions which you just have to take if you come here.

Tromso Cathedral across the bay

Husky sledding, whale watching and visits to a reindeer farm are among the most popular – although feeding these lovely beasts prior to tucking into a casserole containing their relatives might not be to all tastes. Whale watching – as with Northern Light spotting – is a bit of a gamble. We were fortunate to see shoals of both humpback and Orca whales, playing joyfully in the ocean not far from our boat.  However, it’s worth taking the boat trip into the Arctic Circle just to admire the stunning scenery, while contemplating the challenges the locals face in getting to work, school – or even their nearest grocery shop!

Whales in the chilly Arctic

The trip to see the Northern Lights, however, was less of a success. With a light smattering of snow falling, our guide advised us a sighting would be rare this particular evening – although he was happy to travel two hours each way to Finland to do his best to find them!  Four went for that option – and enjoyed a lovely outdoor barbecue under the stars – while the other four found a cosy bar in Tromso, sampled some warming red wine and repaired to bed, several hours sooner, feeling equally happy!

Scandinavia has never been cheap; our wine was the equivalent of £9 a glass and the barman who served us with eight coffees and eight brandy chasers the following day didn’t bat an eyelid at presenting us with a bill for £120!

The other cost you need to factor in for a trip of his type is the amount of thermal clothing, warm gloves and woolly hats you will need to buy!  Although the crew aboard the whale watching boats do provide full bodysuits, you still need plenty of layers to keep out the icy blasts.

On the plus side, our hotel booking was described as Bed & Breakfast. However, with hot soup and bread served at lunchtime and a hot and cold buffet early evening, all included in the price, the trip was pretty much all-inclusive.  Perhaps just as well. (Although we did allow ourselves and indulgence at one of the many local restaurants and were not disappointed, even if the price tag did top £100 a head)

The most memorable moment of the whole trip was, however, plunging into a steaming hot rooftop jacuzzi at our hotel, having first had to run across the freezing cold -10°C patch of decking to get to it!

Wearing our woolly hats and gazing up at the clear, night sky, we had to conclude it was better than midnight in Margate – Northern Lights or not.

#Norway #Tromso #reindeer #northernlights #polarmuseum #frozen #RadissonBlu

Andean Adventures

It’s 11am and I’m on a train, 3,800 metres above sea level, dancing to ‘Johnny be Good’ played on pan pipes.
I’ve not been taking hallucinogenic drugs or cocaine – although I have, admittedly, had one Pisco Sour and drunk quite a lot of Coca Tea.
The tea – which almost cost Peru’s football team captain Paolo Guerrero his place in the last World Cup squad – is the most common antidote to altitude sickness which can affect tourists who aren’t used to the literally dizzy heights you encounter in the Andes.
Alcohol, on the other hand, is not recommended. Oops. (Well, it was only the one Pisco Sour.)
Mention Peru to most people and they immediately respond with ‘Machu Picchu.’ It’s like saying the UK is ‘London.’

CYyP1f0ERMua5vlUKHmgXwPeru is a country of spectacular contrasts – the bustling capital of Lima houses one third of the country’s 30 million people, while Arequipa, the second largest city a further 1.5million. Both are a must once you’ve flown 11.5 hours to get here. 
Cusco – the magnet for backpackers wanting to walk the Inca Trail – is Peru’s third largest city with a mere 500,000 people, which means an awful lot of indigenous people still live in remote rural communities, surviving on their self-sown foodstuffs, the odd cow, sheep or alpaca – and a donkey to carry surplus produce to market, where they barter for other essentials. It’s this side of Peru you really need to see, not the commercialism of Cusco.
The country folk thrive on a home-grown diet supplemented by natural herbs and remedies and, if the guides are to be believed, Peruvians discovered antibiotics long before Alexander Fleming stumbled upon penicillin. Layering potatoes with grass and leaving them to rot results in a foul-smelling substance capable of curing pretty much all ills….
At a village school on the Socca Peninsula, 35 miles south of Puno, the children happily recite the English alphabet and count from 1 – 10. But, as their teacher explained, “They have no idea where England is, are unlikely to ever go there and are fascinated to see white faces in the classroom.”

oVX0J1-JQR2N6tCiCYm0JQThey look amazed when we show them on a map and explain how far we’ve flown. In such a poor economy, they will be lucky to even make it to Lima.

It’s not only young backpackers who flock to South America though – most new-age explorers are actually older-age.
They’ve been and done the Far East so South America has become the latest ‘go to’ destination.
Val and Nick, from Auckland, New Zealand, were in their late 60s and had organised their three-week tour themselves.
“Pick your destinations, plan the route, book the hotels and then the tours. We reckon we saved 50% doing it that way,” advised Val.
Indeed, with a decent guide book, you can get around many of the major sights yourself and taxis are cheap. Plenty of companies will supply a private minibus and personal tour guide, however, should you feel you need a security blanket. Coltur Peru proved particularly good.
The standard of hostels and hotels is exceptional too, as is the food. At the Barranco Backpackers hostel in the eclectic Barranco district of Lima, you can get a private room for £37 or share a dorm for £9.
At the other end of the scale, the Libertador group, which owns some of the best hotels in South America, has rooms on a private island on Lake Titicaca. They also have properties in several other main cities. In Cusco, at the Palacio del Inka, the manager takes you on a guided tour of the hotel explaining how the Incas built it as a fortress in 1432.

cusco hotelDiane, 60, from Blackpool had just retired – and wanted to celebrate. “I’ve always wanted to visit Peru and now, thanks to my lump sum, I can do – while I’m still fit and well enough.”
The other ‘must do’ in Peru is to take a ride on the Titicaca Train, which is where I came in (before I went off the rails).
This steam-pulled Pullman is the Peruvian answer to the Orient Express and plies the narrow line twixt Puno and Cusco four times a week – twice in each direction. Such a rare sight is it that even the llamas and alpacas look up from their grazing to see what the fuss is all about.

train cropped

The 11-hour journey through the towering mountains, some snow-capped, passes right through the middle of the market at Juliaca, where the train rubs shoulders with stallholders selling everything from herbs and spices to car tyres and power tools. Andean women, in hats, shawls and thick tights, sit beside the tracks, knitting in the sunshine.
The train’s musical entertainment – pan pipes, ukelele, electric guitar, sax and drums – soon has everyone up and dancing.
Then it’s time for a fashion show of pure alpaca garments, before a three -course lunch, with wine. Afternoon tea plus copious amounts of agua sin gaz – you need it at this height – are all included.
As the train pulls into Cusco half the passengers are snoozing.
The rest of us are looking forward to a hike up Machu Picchu. Well, it has to be done, doesn’t it?

#silversurfing #travel #libertadorhotels #selectlatinamerica #retirement #southamerica

 

Woah – I’m going to Barbados!

The worst thing about Barbados is that perishing earworm.

Thanks to Typically Tropical and their 1975 hit (hit?), I spent the entire week on this idyllic Caribbean island waking up with Captain Tobias Wilcock and the entire crew of Coconut Airways.

Still, I suppose that was a small price to pay for constant temperatures around 30C (yes, day and night), turquoise blue seas and the calming sound of waves crashing on the shore, right outside the bedroom window.

2017-11-19 15.05.50

Barbados is one of the southern-most Caribbean islands and consequently tends to miss many of the hurricanes which have been known to ravage the likes of Domenica and Haiti, further north. A magnet for Americans and Europeans alike, it has developed a reputation for fabulous food and luxury, VAT-free shopping.

But if your wallet doesn’t stretch to Vuitton and Versace, it’s still possible to enjoy a taste of the Champagne lifestyle on a beer budget.

By swapping one of the many all-inclusive, all-singing, all-dancing 5* hotels for a self-catering apart-hotel, you get the freedom to sample local fare from the seclusion of your patio, saving those all-important dollars to splash on a gourmet supper (or two) when the fancy takes you.

2017-11-15 15.13.37

If you’re a return tripper and happy to hire a car or use local cabs to get around, there are some real bargains to be found, too, on Air BnB.

You can get a private bedroom in a typical Barbadian home for as little as £29 a night and a 3-bed apartment with pool for just £84. Car hire is around £35 a day.

Of course, if you want to join Simon Cowell et al on the island, you’ll need to add a few extra noughts to your room rate.

Even if you’re not a rum drinker, it would be a sin to visit Barbados and not try the local rum punch. You can get them in all the bars, from about 5BD, but, if you can tear yourself away from the sun for a few hours, you might want to sample the delights of a rum tour – priced according to how much of the stuff you want to imbibe in the process.

Being a mere 21 miles long and 14 miles wide, you can easily tour the island, and most of its key sights, in a day.

But, being an island, many of its attractions lie offshore; it’s a magnet for divers, snorkelling in the calm waters off the West Coast is a must for those of a less adventurous disposition – and, for everyone, the opportunity to swim with the island’s native turtles is a must.

A note of caution:  choose your boat operator with care. After ours ‘broke down’ the first day – we didn’t believe them until we saw the state of it – it eventually dropped anchor in the middle of nowhere. Certainly not near any turtles, unless you were a really strong swimmer.

Kinda ironic to get back to the hotel and find them swimming right off the shore. You live and learn!

Another not-to-be-missed experience is the Friday night Fish Fry at Oistins, on the South West coast.

In sharp contrast to the laid-back manana kind-of service you get in many parts of Barbados, the Fish Fry sits somewhere between a drive-thru MacDonalds, a sprawling food court and a street market, with random entertainment from the local beat-boxers.

2017-11-18 00.27.42

Swordfish, dolphin fish (not to be confused with real dolphin!), flying fish, tuna and shrimp number among the numerous locally-caught species you can sample here, accompanied by things such as sweet potato and plantain.  A night out for local families just as much as for tourists, it’s a ‘must see’ to get a sample of typically tropical (oh no – not them again!) life.

If you’re brave enough, hop aboard one of the multitude of reggae buses which ply the main routes at the rate of around one every three seconds; it’s just US$1 (or B$2) per trip – but be prepared for a white-knuckle ride as drivers veer around the corners, keen to get as many folk on board as they can manage. You’ll rub shoulders with the locals – literally. I guess it’s the equivalent of the 7.20 from Paddington to Victoria……

Don’t be put off by those doom-mongers who warn you to be careful venturing out at night. Bajans are, on the whole, a massively friendly bunch and you’re less likely to come to harm than you will in any UK town or city after dark. Obviously, keep your wits – and your wallet – about you, just as you would at home and don’t invite temptation.

The four-hour time difference between Barbados and the UK makes it easy to join those who hit the beaches at 6am. Never before have I witnessed such ‘sunbed-bagging’ at this unearthly hour! However, the early morning is one of the most pleasant times to enjoy the beach – before the burning sun makes anything beyond a gentle stroll a distinctly sweaty experience!

So, if you’ve seen enough of Brixton town – or anywhere else – in de rain, you know what to do!

 

 

It’s not all grim ‘oop North’!

Did you know there’s a River Kent? But it’s not in the Garden of England – it’s 400 miles further north, in the Lake District.
As a northerner who has lived in the south for the past 20-odd years, it never ceases to amaze me how many folk have never ventured further north than Birmingham (if as far as that!)

Northerners regularly visit Devon, Cornwall, Dorset, Kent …….so how come so few southerners wait until they are nudging retirement before they head for the hills of Scotland, Northumberland, Lancashire and the Lake District?

When they do, they all agree that the scenery is stunning.
OK – so it rains a lot, but that’s why it’s so green and pleasant….

Take the right wet weather gear, a sturdy pair of walking shoes and you’re all set to explore ‘the frozen north.’

Pubs and all but the poshest of restaurants in the Lake District expect people to turn up looking a bit bedraggled from time to time, so you’ll be in good company if your neatly-coiffeured locks are not quite so well ‘coiffed.’

Of course, the ideal way to see all that the Lakes has to offer is to get out and about, braving the elements, during the day – but return to a relaxing retreat of a country house hotel, with roaring log fires and fabulous food of an evening. That way you can still pack your posh frock and enjoy the best of both worlds!

Serious walkers tend to head for the towering crags of the Langdales, but gentle strollers and softer southerners (!) might prefer the less strenuous slopes around Windermere, at the more accessible southern end of the Lake District National Park. (It’s also closer to the M6 if you feel the need to escape.)

Bowness, on the shores of Windermere, is a mere six miles from the aforementioned River Kent. Surrounded by stunning scenery, it’s also a similar distance from Tarn Hows, which offers one of the most spectacular views in the Lake District. It’s under an hour from the M6 which makes it an appealing location for weekend breaks all year round.
After an invigorating nine-mile hike in the woodland around Tarn Hows, beginning and ending at Beatrix Potter’s old haunt of Hawkshead, it’s easy to see why so many people head here, come rain or shine. The Sun Cottage café is renowned across the globe for its amazing cakes – but tread with caution: the portions are enormous!

 

Bowness itself is a great place for retail therapy once you’ve hung up your boots, being home to an abundance of art galleries and chic, independent shops. It’s not all Wainwright books and camping shops either – although there are a fair few! Treat yourself to some super fashion items, sheepskin rugs, stunning pieces of art and beautiful, unique pieces of jewellery.

You won’t walk far to find fine restaurants either – and service with a smile.

It’s what northerners do, you see.

The recently-refurbished Hydro Hotel, at the heart of Bowness and with suites overlooking the lake, is but a stroll from all the shops and restaurants.
Now part of Squire Hotels, it first opened as ‘The Windermere Hydropathic Establishment’ in 1881. Its Turkish baths were noted for their unique heating system and the elegance and grandeur of the era is still much in evidence in its high-ceilinged bedrooms, spacious lounge areas and wide-corridors.

If you’ve not had sufficient exercise running up and down a few mountains, it also has a small gym and heated indoor swimming pool – the perfect place to relax those muscles after a hard day’s hiking.

The 1881 restaurant – acknowledging the hotel’s origins – is a delightful setting for breakfast, where my (very experienced high-living) travelling companion dubbed the hearty three-egg breakfast omelette the best she’d ever tasted – high praise indeed!
And I must admit, my bacon was among the finest I’ve ever come across – lean and meaty, accompanied on the ‘Full English’ plate by locally-sourced sausages, free range eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes and beans – and the obligatory black pudding (you’re oop north, remember!).

Locally-sourced food is much in evidence on the dinner menu, with lamb rump, pulled pork and sirloin steak from nearby producers; sharing platters pay homage to the Italian staples of mozzarella, pesto and Parma ham – but also Bury black pudding! Most main courses come in between £8.95 and £14.95, with starters around £5.75. With room rates starting from £62, what’s not to like?

Squire Hotels have set out to change perceptions that Lake District hotels are expensive. For those of us acclimatised to southern prices, these kind of price tags appear excellent value for money.

Still some cash left over to buy Kendal Mint Cake, in fact!

 

#lakedistrict #hawkshead #bowness #windermere #walking #squirehotels #suncottage

 

 

Cape Verde – the new Caribbean?

“No stress”.

A beaming smile, brimming with optimism, radiated around a set of pearly white teeth.

Indeed, there was no stress – apart from this young man, owner of said teeth, who was hell-bent on selling me some of the wares from his mother’s stall….. or, failing that, his grandmother’s…… or maybe his aunt’s?

It mattered not – all the stalls were exactly the same.

I didn’t want – or, indeed, need – a wooden turtle or sand painting declaring prominently the words ‘Cape Verde’.

But to escape the sales banter (which would have gained the approval of any car salesman), I agreed to purchase a beach bag (you can never have too many) and a handful of hair combs that I could scatter among friends and family as marginally useful holiday ‘souvenirs’.

unspoilt beach

Cape Verde comprises 10 tropical islands in the Atlantic Ocean, 450 km off the west coast of Africa. Perfectly placed to find all-year round sunshine!

With a currency fixed to the Euro, politically very stable and fantastic beaches, it is the next up and coming destination. The problem is it has been up and coming for quite a few years now and is still in need of some serious investment.

The islands are littered with part-built apartments and half-constructed hotels – and, consequently, deserted beaches.

If you are happy to chill out in the sunshine, read books and sleep, this is the perfect location. If it’s sightseeing you’re after, don’t bother to read on. Go elsewhere.

There are only four ‘main’ roads on the largest island of Sal. A short drive from the main resort area of Santa Maria are the salt pans at Pedra de Lume.  Nestled in the crater of an extinct volcano, the salt pans – once the lifeblood of the island – are no longer commercially viable. Instead, they have become Cape Verde’s answer to the Dead Sea: the chance to float weightlessly in the mineral-rich waters which will rejuvenate your mind and body and knock 20 years off your life. Allegedly.

volcanic rocks and rugged coastline

You can still feel the heat from the 5 million-year old volcano on your feet as you wade into the waters – even though it has been dormant for the last 3,000 of them.

Jose Luis Garcia Cuevas, Area Director of the Melia Hotel group on Cape Verde, believes that the islands and their burgeoning hotel business will be a magnet for low cost and budget airlines within six to 10 years, making this idyllic outpost more akin to its nearest neighbours, the Canaries – and the new Caribbean, only closer and more affordable.

With a flying time of only six hours and a two-week all-inclusive holiday in a five-star hotel still possible for under four figures, the Cape Verde islands are ideal for sun-seekers who really do want to get away from it all.

The beaches – a short stroll from the black volcanic rocks – are heavenly and the island of Sal is a dream for lovers of water sports and one of the top three kitesurfing locations in the world, alongside Fuerteventura and Haiti. It also offers some dramatic diving opportunities.

From the beach at Murdeira, you might even be lucky enough to spot dolphins at play. And, between July and November, make sure you visit the turtle sanctuary to see these magnificent protected species laying – or hatching – their eggs.

Cuevas came to Cape Verde from his home in Lanzarote to manage the Melia Tortuga which opened in December 2012. Plans were already in the pipeline for the Melia Dunas Beach, which followed in October 2014. The Llana Resort and Spa opened at the start of this year, completing a very acceptable hat trick for the Melia group.

Described as ‘an adults-only paradise right on the beach’ the 5* Llana has a luxury ‘bikini beach’ bar and restaurant complex within a man-made lagoon. Its rooms and suites have spectacular sea views and standards are all you would expect – so much so it hit the No 1 spot on TripAdvisor within months of opening its doors.

Cape Verde has a little over half a million inhabitants (tourists excepted) and has established its own Tourism and Hotel School to ensure that the locals get the very best training in order to provide the exceptional service today’s discerning travellers expect. (Melia Hotels employ 95% local people.)

With its all-year round temperate climate, it is perfect for the holidaymaker, but not so great for the locals. The hot, dry summers and hot, dry winters mean nothing – yes, nothing, grows on the island. The few cows, the odd donkey and passing goats look painfully malnourished.

Thankfully, bulging cargo ships dock daily at the tiny port of Palmeira bringing an abundance of fruit, veg and meat from the Canary Islands and further afield which means the main hotels offer some of the best and most varied food you will find anywhere.

With the thought that Cape Verde could soon become the next Tenerife, you could do worse than pack your bags and head for this Atlantic idyll sooner rather than later.

No stress.

 

 

The Boat to the Isles

There may have been a sign saying ‘not suitable for expectant mothers and people with heart, back or neck conditions’ – but I doubt it.

Fortunately, being the wrong side of 50, I certainly wasn’t pregnant, wasn’t aware I had a heart condition (to start with) and my long-standing back problem has been ‘in remission’ for the past couple of years.

However, it soon became apparent that the 45-minute boat ride from mainland Malaysia to the much-lauded Perhentian Islands was not for the faint-hearted. Nor for anyone with any of the aforementioned health issues.

This was no gentle cruise across crystal blue seas. It was a 50-knot marathon in a 30-foot speedboat driven by a man on a mission. Or on drugs. For one who baulks at the tamest theme park ride, this was nothing short of hell. A bit like its adrenalin-fuelled namesake, once committed, there really was ‘No Way Out.’

So began my mid-life introduction to the world of backpacking.

092As the crazed craft bobbed and lurched, I became painfully aware that most of the vertebrae in my spine were slowly being realigned.

The problem with visiting the Perhentians – popular with backpackers and a must for divers – is that there is no other way to approach this cluster of coral-fringed isles, off the north eastern coast of Malaysia.

The country’s main airport is a day’s drive away in the capital of Kuala Lumpur and, although there is a small internal airport at Kota Bharu, you can’t fly to these islands. So, unless you fancy swimming or rowing the distance, you’re at the mercy of the boat operators in Kuala Besut.

But the journey does mean you get away from the crowds which head for the more-easily accessible and more commercialised island of Langkawi, on Malaysia’s west coast, or its nearby Thai sisters.

If you’re an adrenalin junkie, it might add to the thrill. But one serious word of caution. Many speed boats operators don’t follow safety rules so beware of overloaded boats. They safely hold about 12 passengers – not 20.

Because of their inaccessibility, the Perhentian Islands still remain largely unspoiled; the soft white sandy beaches are edged with lush tropical palms and frequented by sizeable monitor lizards, squirrels and the occasional monkey.  However, this means that most of the accommodation lags well behind even Asian standards so you need to have a tough stomach – and not just for that boat ride.

Hygiene standards apart, the food is awesome – and cheap as the proverbial chips.You can get a plentiful meal for four for under a tenner.

059Rice and noodles abound, as you might expect, but Western food has – sadly – found its way onto the menu of most beachside bars. But don’t wait until you are hungry before deciding to eat – service can take up to two hours at the most popular cafes!

But this is a laid-back kind of life…. It’s almost too much effort to roll out of a beachside hammock to take advantage of the fantastic diving opportunities and excellent snorkelling just yards offshore.

Both snorkelling and scuba diving are accessible directly from the beach in many places – ideal for we less-confident swimmers who hate the prospect of plunging into the oceans from a boat. You don’t need to be an Olympic standard swimmer either to swim out from Flora Beach to the aptly-named Shark Point to find yourself surrounded by sharks of varying sizes, sea turtles and spectacular coral reefs. And the water is so warm, you don’t need to wrestle with a wet suit.

Diving is relatively inexpensive, costing RM70-90 (£12-£13) per dive and there are an abundance of companies offering their services.

Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil is by far the busiest beach on these fascinating islands and a magnet for young backpackers who party the night away, watching fire dancers and listening to Ibiza-style music into the wee small hours.

If you prefer the prospect of snoozing throughout long hot days which roll seamlessly into long humid evenings, then flip-flopping Crusoe-style to the nearest beach bar, head for Perhentian Besar instead – but it will mean another of those pesky boat rides.

Water taxis from one island to another are cheap – in line with everything else, really.If you are a backpacker on a budget, you might find the accommodation here expensive.  If you’re used to 5*, however, it’s ludicrously cheap.

A beach-side log chalet for two, complete with en-suite bathroom and shower (hot if you are really lucky) is around £30 a night.  Basic, but it does the job.

Because of the eastern monsoon, the season in the Perhentians is short, starting in June and ending in late October.

The climate is hot and humid but the ‘chill’ factor of these islands more than compensates – the only challenge is getting there.

The Secret Diary of a SatNav Virgin aged 50 3/4

Sorting through my late father’s bits’n’bobs, I came across ‘The Open Road’ – a handy little guide to driving in Britain before the advent of Sat Nav and, indeed, the M25.

Chapters include ‘Getting out of London (with map)’ and ‘Crossing Big Towns’ – like Manchester and Birmingham. It comments: “The motorist or motor-cyclist on a long journey for pleasure generally arranges to miss as many big centres of population as he can.”

For those who find themselves unavoidably lost in one such ‘big town’ The Open Road proved invaluable. “It is useful for him to know the names of the main thoroughfares through which he will have to pass to reach the open country again. Information of this character will be found below…..”

Quite how one was meant to study the guide while negotiating Piccadilly or the Bull Ring, I know not – but it did get me thinking about my first encounter with SatNav, something we all take for granted today.

The experience caused me to pen a piece titled ‘The Secret Diary of a Sat Nav virgin, aged 50¾’; (in deference to a certain Master A. Mole who would empathise, I’m sure.)

For those still grappling with modern technology – and there are a few of us left – the following extract might provide some comfort.

Being a bit of a technophobe, I had religiously resisted the urge to join the sat nav generation.
If the likes of Christopher Columbus and Thomas Cook had the courage to sail uncharted waters with little more than the sun to help them – was with a risk the world was flat and they could drop off the end – surely I could manage a few kilometres in France without joining Tom Tom, Garmin and the rest of his Merry Men in their quest for route perfection?

It was only when a helpful – and much younger – trip advisor strongly urged me to beg, steal or borrow a sat nav before venturing onto foreign soil (“as you’ll find yourself in the middle of nowhere, at a crossroads, with no signs….”) that I felt the need to comply. Sadly, I do not have the courage of Columbus.

I should have heeded the warning signs – and the road signs – as soon as we set foot on foreign soil.

Whilst not well-versed in driving on the wrong side of the road (or the right, depending where your loyalties lie), as a booze cruise regular, I am familiar with the coastal roads around Calais. It was with some alarm, therefore, I found Jill-in-the-box sending me not in a southerly direction, but straight towards the Eurotunnel terminal. Without passing ‘go’ (or collecting 200 Euros).

Mistake number one. I had entrusted the said sat nav to my No.1 navigator – in this case my teenage daughter. This girl can work every gadget and gizmo from the i-phone to the x-box (and every other letter of the alphabet in between) so I reckoned a bit of simple GPS would be as easy as ABC.

It was – except that she had accidentally entered ‘home’ (for the home page) and this was exactly where it was trying to take us. Right back through the Eurotunnel – to good old England!

Having cautiously extracted ourselves from the lorry park at San Gatte, and re-set the sat nav, we were on our way.

Over the next two weeks, it took us on a magical mystery tour which included a grass track through the Foret de Compiegne (God knows why they chose this location to sign a critical peace treaty; I’m surprised the signatories were able to find the place without the benefit of GPS….), a one-track residential road complete with traffic-calming road humps, down lanes designed only for farmers and agricultural machinery – and into a private drive.

I alternated between shouting obscenities at our additional passenger, hell-bent on getting her own way, to worrying she had gone to sleep on the job, when we encountered long periods of silence and junctions which she seemed happy to ignore.

The worst periods of conflict arose when she blatantly disagreed with what I thought appeared to be perfectly reasonable road signs heading in the right general direction of our journey. But that was when the worst problems arose. Disagree with a sat nav at your peril, I discovered……

I began the holiday thinking a sat nav was going to become my latest ‘must have.’ By the end, I wasn’t convinced.
I can now sympathise with the convoys of Eastern European lorry drivers who find themselves victims of abuse on our country lanes. Posters in rural villages declare “Ban the lorries!” Locals wave their fists in anger at the drivers, whom I now realise are mere innocents in the game of getting from A to B.

It’s the sat navs that should be banned. Give the drivers a good old-fashioned map and a compass and all will be well.

 

 

 

What to do when the filling falls out of your sandwich.

I’ve been meaning to set up this blog for some time. The problem is, I’ve been too busy travelling…..

Which got me thinking. (I mean, what else is there to do on a long-haul flight once you’ve watched all the films which appeal, read the obligatory in-flight mag and drunk enough wine to ensure you get a decent snooze?)

More of we over-50s are spreading our wings than ever before – and certainly much further. The advent of Spanish holidays was always an anathema to my dear departed Dad, who insisted there was ‘plenty to see in the British Isles without having to go abroad.’

I don’t entirely disagree with him – we have some wonderful scenery in the UK. It’s just a pity we don’t get the wonderful weather to match. (But I’ll save my recollection of a wet two weeks in Wales for another occasion.)

Dad did relent a little in his later years – but never got much further than Malta.  And only then to rekindle his wartime memories.

I guess we are fortunate. Not only do we have more disposable income than our parents – in some part due to their thrift and well-intended philosophy of ‘leaving something for the children’ – but we are also healthier, live longer and are able to enjoy life in ways our forebears  would never have considered.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that those of us who have been caught up in the so-called ‘sandwich’ generation – stuck between caring for kids and ageing parents – relish the prospect of spreading our wings and flying at the earliest opportunity.

As any parent will tell you, empty nest syndrome can be a bit of a bitch. You spend all those years running around after your precious darlings and then they have the audacity to grow up and leave!! Not only are you left with an empty bedroom (or several) but an empty diary. Mum’s taxi is off the road, the school run is a thing of the past and all those hours spent watching football / ballet / brownies*  open up like some massive, yawning cavern.

Around the age of 50 or 60, you’re also likely to find your parents shuffling off this mortal coil, if they haven’t already – and being orphaned is not to be relished, at any age.

So it is that those of us old enough to be grannies and grandads – even if we aren’t – seek new experiences and adventures.

And not just to the Spanish Costas.  Did you read about the 89-year-old Russian grandmother who started travelling to discover new countries and cultures at the age of 83?  She recently returned from Vietnam and Israel.

I’m not planning waiting until I’m 83 – just in case I don’t live that long.

So, TTFN …..I need to start planning my next trip!

*insert as appropriate