Sunday, 7 December 2014

Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk

 There are set things one does when visiting Wells, starting with a wander up Staithe Street. Staithe, by the way, means 'place where you load or unload ships', so no prizes for guessing that this narrow, almost alleylike road leads from the harbour.

Along the way, there are plenty of gift shops and women's upmarket clothing stores, but my favs are the workaday ones, like the butcher (who also sells beautiful rare-breeds sheepskins) and the grocery, with his pretty vegetables and, at this time of year, holly, out on display.

If you've been to Wells in years gone by, you'll remember there was a great hump of sand down on the beach. But, after last year's huge storms and floods, that hump has been much reduced and in fact, where once it was a dromedary, it is now a low-lying bactrian camel.

After the customary beach inspection (with the not unrealistic hope of seeing seals), we carried on walking right down to the northern end of the beach to a lonelier, but equally pretty spot, before turning in and making our way back through the pines to town.

The other must-do at this time of year is to be there for the switching on of the Christmas lights. "Watching someone turn on some lights? That's supposed to be fun?" Ah, you haven't seen them then. The great event took place in front of Howell's Delicatessen - worth visiting at any time for its selection of local produce – but on this evening they were selling pulled pork sandwiches and hot hard cider, and giving away sweet mince in filo-pastry twists. A local celeb from a regional BBC program did the honours, going up in a fork-lift type thing and making just the right level of jokes ("Come on folks, make it worth my while – it took me an hour and a half to get here. I was only 5 miles away, but you know what the roads round here are like!") and getting a good roar from the crowd at the appropriate moments. There was, suddenly, a community feel, even for those of us not from this community, and I saw what all the fuss was about.

In case you're tempted by the quaintness of it all – and who wouldn't be? – it's worth knowing that nothing comes cheap: even the beach huts start at £55,000... Still, we can all dream!

Another local must-do is Holkham Hall estate – a vast tract of land, grand Palladian house and even a village where the estate workers live – though some of these buildings have been turned into gift shops and a hotel and pub – still owned by the original Coke family, who established it back in the 1600s.

We took the local bus to Burnham Overy and walked along the estuary here out to the sea.

There is something quite raw and primordial about this landscape that defies the centuries of human occupation. I think it is this, plus the wide open skies and emptiness that make it both so soothing and beautiful. This is a wonderful place to escape the crowds that seem to fill most of the world nowadays.

So, a lovely walk along the windy beach and then back to The Victoria Inn, one of the Holkham estate buildings that is now a hotel and pub/restaurant. Fortunately, they were serving mulled wine and a hearty soup, exactly what's wanted after a bracing stomp along the coast.

There were some nice touches too, like a fabulous painting of an ostrich (a family emblem) outside the loos and, inside them, wallpaper with a repeating pattern of an ostrich with its head in the sand.

I'm including a gratuitous shot of the sunset at Holkham just because it's so pretty.

Finally, if you're visiting the north Norfolk coast between November and the end of January, you'll want to take a seal-watching boat trip from Morston quay to Blakeney Point. There are two outfits who run these. We went with Temples, but there is also Beans Boats. Our guide on the boat knew all about the grey seals that come to breed here for these three months, was happy to answer any questions and, for those of you lucky enough to have a pooch, dogs were more than welcome. In fact, there were even three boat dogs, who came around to the guests and gave everyone a happy sniff and tail wag.

The entire trip takes about an hour and the top tip is: dress WARM. It is really cold out on the water, even if you get a sunny day. So, hat, gloves, windbreaking coat, thermals and a blanket will mean you enjoy it all much more.

I don't need to tell you how cute baby seals are, but it is pretty special to see them nursing and some of the pups we saw had literally only just been born.

Within the estuary the water is very calm, but obviously, once you get round the point, it's a bit wilder and the waves pick up. Our boat went for just a quick look, so that we could see the seals all along the water's edge - quite a sight. Though there are plenty of them within the estuary too.

Afterwards, there's only really one thing to do: get yourself to the nearest pub – in this case, the Anchor Inn – and warm up over a glass of red and something off the gastro menu.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Banyan Tree Al Wadi resort

The blog of my recent stay at Banyan Tree Al Wadi is now live on the excellent We Are The City website. For a glimpse of what heaven might look like, have a read!

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Hay on Wye, Powys, Wales

"I need you to be my wife," said my friend and fellow journalist, "to road-test a tandem bicycle honeymoon with me." So, off we set for Hay on Wye, home of the annual literary festival in August, but nice and sleepy in mid-November.

Our two-seater was supplied by the very nice Luke and Anna, who run Drover Cycles, organising walking and cycling holidays – or simply cycle hire – either self-guided or led. They also provide water bottles, helmets, panniers and, crucially, laminated maps.

Have you ever ridden a tandem? No, me neither. But that's OK. It's different from single cycling in a few key ways:

1. You either sit in the front and have all the responsibility – deciding which direction, which gear and when to brake – or you sit in the back, put your head down and pedal.

2. Starting and stopping take a bit of teamwork, and you definitely need to communicate.

3. Most folks will watch as you go by.

We had opted for Day 2 of the cycle-moon, Builth back to Hay, approximately 34km (21m), so our ride was loaded into the back of the van and we were driven through the lashing rain to our departure point. Never mind, we'd both come well prepared with plenty of wet-weather gear.

Fortunately, it was entirely unnecessary, as the rain stopped at exactly the same moment the vehicle did to decant us and, after a wobbly start, off we went. The route was chosen for both its prettiness, its evenness and its quietness, so much of the time we were along a riverside path and hills were very slight and infrequent. A big bonus was that, being chatty folk, we were able to yak away to our hearts' content and hearing each other was never a problem.

Along the way we came to an egg shed, run on the honesty system. There wasn't a single house in sight and it was delightfully tempting to buy some, but as we were staying in a B&B serving just about the best breakfast ever anywhere, buying eggs would have been a bit like bringing coal to Newcastle, as they used to say...

Still, we got off to have a look and discovered a selection of interesting notices on the walls...

About halfway through our jaunt – which Hugh and Anna had no doubt planned – we came to Erwood Station Craft Centre which, as the name implies, is a repurposed old train station that's now a tea room and – yes, you guessed it – craft shop selling only Welsh-made things.

We were tempted by some of the jewellery and hand knitted sweaters, but settled for tea and Welsh cakes (a bit like flat scones) and chatting to the nice old boy who came in heavily decorated to pick up the Poppy Appeal tin.

Before we had a chance to feel we might have had enough, boom, we were back in Hay and heading up the little lane back to Drovers. Perfect.

We spent a very pleasant rest of the afternoon wandering in and out of the shops, imagining that we could empty our homes and re-decorate from scratch with all the lovely things we saw (ditto with our wardrobes!) and deciding where we'd eat dinner later (Tomatitos Tapas Bar and Restaurant – delicious and a wonderful atmosphere. Our B&B hosts' son described it as a "black hole – you'll go in there and hours will pass before you know it..." and he wasn't wrong).

A bottle of wine and many small plates later, and we were teetering back to our cosy and comfortable B&B. Right over the bridge from Hay, but absolutely in walking distance, The Start is mostly a 300-year-old cottage with slightly more modern bits (ie, 70-80 years old) added on. The owners are also keen cyclists – ask about their trip down Highway 101 last summer – and the lovely Dawn is definitely a hostess with the mostess. Her aforementioned breakfasts are simply amazing: eggs from her free-ranging chickens, mushrooms from her local foraging, veggie sausages from her own recipe (she also makes a glutin-free variety), homemade breads, plus unusual but definitely getting the thumbs-up preserves – think courgette and ginger jam, or lemon and lime chutney.

Blue skies broke through, chasing away the Welsh sunshine (aka rain!) for our departure, making it even harder to leave... At least it meant we could appreciate the Black Mountains, followed by the Brecon Beacons before hitting the motorway back to the Big Smoke.

Conclusion? Don't let the shorter winter days put you off a trip to this part of the world at this time of year: you can still pack in plenty and, best of all, you get it mostly to yourself!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Warwick Hotel Dubai

A penthouse suite at the Warwick Hotel Dubai means staying on the 42nd floor and having access to the Club Lounge, which provides – among other things, like a two-hour happy hour in the evenings – a quiet room to eat breakfast in, where a nice man will cook you any sort of omelet your heart desires.

As it's all so high up, it goes without saying that the views are tremendous: out to sea in one direction, off to the desert in the other. Or, if you dine on the 44th-floor restaurant, which is open to all, you can even eat 'on the bridge' and get views in two directions.

This bridge is a remnant from when the Warwick was part of a block of apartments and was joined to its twin next door on two levels. However, if I'm honest, that kind of height on a bridge is just a little too much for me to enjoy dinner on, so we were led to a table in the main restaurant with a great view out a window. Perfect.

Also perfect was the wine and cheese pairing/tasting, led by the very French Vincent, who did a fine job and provided a useful tip: when deciding which wine to have with a French cheese, you can't go wrong if you choose one from the same region. So obvious, once you know, n'est pas?

Dinner followed, with all kinds of delicious treats, like giant prawns in quinoa sitting on guacamole cushions, seafood tartare and trout ceviche, with sweet potato crisps which acted as the perfect foil to scoop the ceviche up with. Oysters with a pink sauce, hence their name: pink oysters. Baccalau-stuffed red peppers... All totally yum. The only problem? We forgot we'd also ordered main dishes!

The arroz negro with cuttlefish and squid ink was creamy and delicious – I'm only sorry I didn't leave enough room to finish it.

Having just enjoyed the hotel's signature Balinese massage, I'm afraid I'm going to need to go lie down... More soon!

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Banyan Tree Al Wadi, Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates

I have been a little РOK, a lot Рspoiled these last couple of days, staying at the Banyan Tree Al Wadi resort in 'RAK', as the locals call it. From the welcome, where you quickly discover all the staff are going to treat you like a favourite auntie they're very happy to see, to the moment when you're introduced to your villa Рwhich is vast and has more light switches than the Empire State Building Рto the moment when you realise that the swimming pool on the back deck is for your use alone, right the way along to the food, which is out of this world delicious (I had a vegetable curry last night that has knocked the shrimp in garlic and whisky off the top spot it's held these last 15 years or so), to the smells and colours of the desert which had me reaching for the clich̩ handbook, hoping vainly that I could avoid them all, right up to the moment a large Harris hawk sat on my (well-gloved) hand and ate raw quail, this has been an experience that I just want to savour. I just wish I had words that weren't so hackneyed from overuse.

I just wish everyone I know could see the way the desert night falls so completely and all at once, so that you're suddenly in darkness. If only I could describe adequately the very clear sunlight of the morning and the way there is an entirely different colour palette here from anywhere else I've been, all ochres, burnt oranges and grey-greens, but also startling blue and green.

I know I'm gushing, but this was quite honestly a bit of heaven on earth. The best bit? Aside from swimming in the Persian Gulf, that is? It has to be meeting and interacting with the birds of prey here. What a very special experience.

I got to fly, as they say in this biz, a Harris hawk and an Arabian owl. I also got to see a Peregrine falcon at work and learned about the very special place these birds have in this region's culture. I'm ending with this picture of me with Salma, the Harris hawk, because I'm now in Dubai, staying at the very wonderful Warwick Hotel Dubai and want to check out the swimming pool on the 47th-floor roof before it gets too late (stop hitting me! OK, OK, I won't mentioned the cheese and opera cake slices I just had with the lovely Anna Karas, alright?). But there will be more soon of this amazing-looking city, that must surely be a vision of the 22nd century.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Highgate Woods, London, and O Moinho

Back to Highgate Woods on Sunday, with most of north London also promenading through them. It was a gloomy light that seeped through the trees from a dove-grey sky. In England, there are a thousand different shades of grey days. We had to get out though: as the first day that the clocks go back for winter, it was high in our minds that we'll need to grab all the daylight we can for the next few months.

Today, however, is beautiful. Duck-egg blue sky, not a cloud and the leaves turning gently to brown. Of course, today is also Monday, so public transportation, crowded streets and... I wanted to write: the next 8.5 hours of my life traded for some cash, but that sounds so negative.

Instead, I will tell you about O Moinho, a wonderful Portuguese restaurant we found on Saturday night. Son has recently returned from Vancouver, so we wanted a good catch-up and, also, we had talked about but never actually went to the area of south London known as Little Portugal, because of its tens of thousands of Portuguese immigrants, which first started coming in the 60s and 70s.

At any rate, having failed to make a reservation at the restaurant that was raved about on the internet – and discovering there would be an hour's wait once we got there – we set off for Wandsworth Road, me ringing restaurants en route. Happily, O Moinho had room for four and voila, we were sorted.

Of course, being the only restaurant in Little Portugal was a free table made me a little worried, but there was no need. The food was absolutely delicious, with all the familiar flavours of Portugal, from baccalau to giant shrimp in garlic and oil. The prices were about average for London these days: budget £25 per head if you share starters and stick to one drink a piece. But the portion sizes are immense (see photos), and the staff so smiley and pleasant that it was all an extremely good evening.

What was not so good was hearing about the grilling son and his friend had from Canadian border control: three hours of questioning, which included having their texts read, their phone pictures looked at, and generally made to feel they were being persecuted. Apparently, this is now not an uncommon experience for people entering the country, even for a 12-day visit to family and friends, as they were trying to do. They were finally allowed in, but after a 10-hour flight and a three-hour questioning, they were absolutely worn out and consequently both came down with a lurgy within days of arriving...  Do I blame the border folks? Think I do...

And so to my own travels... I'm off to the UAE on Saturday to do a couple of stories, review stays and write a blog for We Are the City – am also hoping to do my first inspection for Maiden Voyage. It's my first time further east than the Turkish coast, my first time to the Middle East, my first time going to a foreign country I've never been to before On. My. Own. Feel both incredibly excited – I'm staying at some amazing-looking places and will be interacting with and learning about birds of prey, plus I'm looking forward to discovering new countries and meeting new people and finding out about them – and slightly... Well, nervous is too strong, but let's just say it feels as though I am pushing against the boundary of my comfort zone – but this is undoubtedly a good thing!

Will be blogging here too, so watch this space...!

Monday, 13 October 2014

Suffolk coast, England

This wasn't our first musically inspired trip (that was to Canvey Island in Essex, propelled there by 70s band Dr Feelgood – and if you haven't heard of them, then you're missing out on a treat), but it was our first to Dunwich.

Dunwich, I've discovered, is a place that even folks from Suffolk will say of: "Where?" I know this, because a musician friend from this English county said just that when I told her we'd been.

It's a little place and getting littler all the time, as a display in town helpfully points out. Back in the 1500s, it vied with London for title of biggest English port, but you can't argue with the sea, and it's been nibbling away at this spot, slowing eating it up over the centuries so that now, most of it is beneath the waves.

It makes an interesting mind picture, doesn't it? The truth is, as it's gone in inch by inch or, sometimes, foot by foot, you can be sure it doesn't actually look like Atlantis under there. Still, it's an intriguing sort of place and the local history museum is staffed by a friendly bloke who told us that he reckoned the land we were standing on had about another 100 to 150 years before it, too, would be swallowed up.

We spent some of our walk talk discussing whether you could actually get a mortgage for a property in town or whether it would make a good spot to snap up a bargain – just so long as you didn't have your heart set on passing it on – as we made our way inland to Greyfriars.

Now there's a name that, for me, anyway, conjures up another image: of a little dog in an Edinburgh cemetery, but it turns out that Greyfriars was just the name given to those monks who arrived from France in grey robes and so there are Greyfriars all over this land.

If you head through these ruins and past the sheep grazing there, you will eventually arrive at Dunwich Heath, which is very pretty and heath-like.

However, by the time we got there, we'd already walked a long way  – maybe for two or three hours? – since we'd set off that morning from Walberswick, a much-better known coastal village that has presumably sorted out its erosion problems, because one of the things it's famous for is the price of its beach huts. Numbers like 50,000 get bandied about...

Anyhoo! Enough of that, since we didn't stay longer in Walberswick than it took to park the car and find the path to the beach, which we walked along, stopped to rest on and generally enjoyed the amazingly warm sunshine for a British October Sunday from. There were even folks swimming, but then, I've had a little experience swimming on this coast myself and I have a theory about why the water's so warm.

Just along from this point, seen clearly on the horizon (though not in my picture, as it was at my back), is Thorpness Nuclear Power Station. I have it in my head that the water is warm here because it's passed through the cooling chamber there first. This is said only sort of jokingly.

By the time we hit the heath, we were pretty hungry and, even more than hungry, we were tired. We'd spent the previous night in a place that provided such a poor quality of rest that I won't waste time describing it.

However, we did have an absolutely amazing dinner at the Brudenell in Aldeburgh ( If you like seafood, this is your spot. It's very reasonably priced, most (though admittedly, not all) of the seafood is local and the chef is clearly keen on experimenting with the juxtaposition of influences. I had a crab spring roll that was served alongside guacamole and chilli jam, literally bringing together a whole world of flavours. The restaurant is right on the seafront, so there are fabulous views by day and good star gazing from the terrace by night. A definite thumb's up.

And so to lunch at Dunwich's Ship pub  ( Another good 'un, which appears to serve food all day on Sunday, so we were able to enjoy – and I mean that in every sense – quite possibly the best fish and chips I've ever had. Forget greasy, forget heavy, forget wishing you'd ordered something else entirely – this was light, just crunchy enough, with fabulously thick-cut chips on the side. Perfect fodder for an autumn day and to fuel up for the walk back to the car.

This we did slightly inland, so that we ended up walking beside a waterway through the reeds, which have been used for local thatching for generations. It was very beautiful and, at the end of the day, had an almost eerie quality, being very still and lonesome, though we did see a pair of swans. At one point, our path took us further and further into the reeds and onto a path so definitely less travelled and close to the water that we had to turn around and retrace our steps - not really what you want to be doing at the end of hours of walking.

When we finally emerged by some allotments and saw the backs of a row of Walberswick houses, we had the sense of having been saved. Hurrah for civilisation. Or something like that.

We visited plenty of other places – Sutton Hoo, Blythburg Cathedral, Leiston Abbey – but somehow this feels like enough for now. Besides, as Suffolk is officially my FBC (Favourite British County) I don't want to big it up too much or it might get crowded.