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.