Wednesday, 15 January 2020

How to spend three days in Malta

Malta is a good place for a short break, especially if it's not high summer. In summer, I have been assured, it is busy and crowded and very, very hot. The upside is you can go swimming in the sea, but as I've also been told, everything's more expensive then. So, really, if you want to actually see Malta, winter is a good idea.

Malta is three islands – Malta, Gozo and Comino – which make up the archepelago. The nicest of the three, if you're not crazy about hyper-development, is Comino. This almost completely undeveloped island is the smallest and, at last count, has three inhabitants and one hotel. Which sounds just about perfect to me.

Gozo's Inland Sea
Gozo still has a fair amount of what you might call 'countryside'. That is, land that is not built over, and it also has a lovely little inland seawater pool, where you can be taken by small boat through a crevice in the rockface out to the real sea and be shown some interesting rock formations and, with a lament in the boat owner's voice, the spot where the Azure Window, a famous rock arch, once stood. Sadly for Gozoans, it collapsed and disappeared overnight during a storm in 2017.

Comino's blue water
If you're only in Malta for three days, one of them must be spent on a boat cruise that leaves Sliema docks at 10am, takes you up the Malta coast to Gozo for a mini-van trip around this island, and then on to Comino for a contemplative wander to gaze at the extraordinarily blue water, before bringing you back about 5pm. There are a number of companies touting for your attention to do this along the Sliema waterfront, so which to choose? I went with Luzzu Cruises, which I would recommend. Useful to know: there is a long enough stop in Victoria, the capital of Gozo, to eat lunch in one of the local cafés.

Valletta steps
Another day should be spent in Valletta, Malta's capital. The best way to approach it is by water ferry, which runs regularly from both Sliema and Three Cities on its other side. It's a small city and walker friendly, so you can see plenty without trudging too far.

St John's Co-Cathedral
For a full day, try seeing St John's Co-Cathedral for its sheer brilliance of decoration; starchitect Renzo Piano's city gates for the pleasure of a bit of new that actually fits with the old; a visit to the Saluting Battery (try to make this for 4pm if you want to see the canons go off); and, my favourite, take the tour of Casa Rocca Piccola, an absolute gem of a 16th-century palace where the family still lives. The tour takes a very reasonable 45 minutes and, while you wait for it to begin, you may sit in the courtyard garden and enjoy the company of a talking parrot and a (silent) turtle. What makes the tour so enjoyable, aside from the pure nosiness of having a look round someone else's home, is that the tour guide – a woman named Patricia – manages to convey the history of Malta through the story of a single family.
Casa Rocca Piccola's parrot

A Valletta pastry shop
When you get hungry you will have many places to choose from and, as Malta is famed for its food, even small, touristy spots seem to serve surprisingly good dishes.

In winter, both the ferries and the local buses cost a very reasonable €1.50 per trip. Hang on to your bus ticket though, because it's good for two hours, meaning you can hop on a second or even third bus within that timeframe without paying more.

A Mdina 'street'
Your final day could go like this: an hour's gentle horse ride (I went with Bidnija, based solely on the fact they will come collect you and take you back again afterwards), followed by visiting Mdina, a wonderfully intact former capital of Malta. The stone is so yellow and bright that my pictures of the place look as if they've been put through a filter, but there was no need. When you get to Mdina, if you're hungry after your ride, head straight to Fontanella's Tea Room for the best cake on the island and the best views. They also serve a good pizza.
Lovely old shop fronts in Valletta

Sunday, 3 November 2019

The extraordinary Canadian Rockies

Getting out of Calgary in a rental car, after a nine-hour flight from London, is no mean feat. Everything is slightly... gonzo. Have we been on this road too long? Was that our turn-off? But eventually we are spewed out onto a quiet highway with rolling countryside on either side, in no way giving a hint as to the drama of the scenery that's to come.

The first time I've seen peanut butter in a little packet 
First stop, because it's only a two-hour drive from the airport, is Banff. People love Banff. Everyone we spoke to there had moved from somewhere else and had come for a week or two and never left. I wish I could have liked it more, but it's mostly a main street lined with hotels and souvenir shops. You can also buy outdoor gear, and there is a movie theater and supermarket, so there are hints of real life going on but, wih its cutsey façades, it looks very much like Disney had a hand in building it.

There are also scads of tourists promenading up and down that main street. A lot of these, I couldn't help noticing, were Asian and, to a man, woman and child, were all wearing box fresh North Face, Superdry and Helly Hansen from head to toe. In fact, there were so many, that they were part of the ambient scene, along with the signs announcing pizza, coffee and ice cream outside the shops.

What's amazing about Banff, though, is that once you're there, you're already in the National Park and it's surrounded by incredibly high mountains you can see from everywhere. You need to buy a pass to drive in and, if you're staying more than a day, it seems you get sold the year-long one (have just remembered we left ours in our rental car - dang...) which costs Canadian $134. It also means wildlife sightings are on the cards and on our very first night we spied three elk grazing outside our bedroom window. So exciting. Thrilling, even, that these wild animals are just roaming around town.

Best things to do in Banff:
1. Take the gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain. Great views, lovely restaurant and, if you're feeling energetic, you can do the walkway over to the another nearby peak.
2. Eat dinner at the Silver Dragon Chinese restaurant. Best Chinese food I've had since I don't know when.
Looking for the missing canoer
3. Visit Lake Minnewanka. Don't laugh. Yes, I know the name is similar to something naughty, but it turns out 'minne' or sometimes spelled 'minni' is an indigenous people's word for water. Not sure what the wanka part means. Take the boat trip out into the lake. We had a fantastic commentary and learned why we wouldn't be seeing wolves (they're far too fast and clever), why fire can be good for an environment (allowing a more diverse forest to grow where, say, a dense carpet of pine trees was before) and also a sad tale about a young man who'd gone out the week before in a canoe by himself and hadn't been seen since. His canoe was found a few days later.

Enough of Banff for now. Off to Jasper, which means driving the Glacier Parkway. What a treat. So many glaciers, so many beautiful views. We were there in October and it snowed as we drove along, which gives you an idea of how early winter comes here. The images of the intensely wild landscape stay with you for a long time afterwards, as does the solitude as there were few other cars along this stretch.

Jasper is much more of a true town, with a diner-type restaurant in the center for breakfast, a supermarket, plenty of tat shops, but none of the Disney-fication of Banff. We were very lucky and got to stay at the Fairmont hotel here, a vast complex of cabins, main building, spa and pool, all set around a very pretty lake. Our cabin reminded me of the house in the Dick Van Dyke Show. Sort of retro, lots of wood panelling... Anyway, we looked right out on the lake and could easily have just moved in.

Top things to do in Jasper:
1. Take Estelle's food tour. You'll be taken to four restaurants and eat a dish with a drink (alcoholic unless you ask for otherwise) at each one and you'll also be given a potted history lesson on Jasper, learn about its quirks and come away feeling full, entertained and enlightened. Let her know when you book if you're a vegetarian, coeliac or have an allergy.

 2. Drive out to Maligne Road and just keep going. Crucially, go early in the day and drive slowly. This is where we saw two separate moose families and another animal we haven't been able to identify. It most resembled a fox, but not with the coloring of any fox I've ever seen or can find on the internet. Black tail, reddish body, black and yellow face. Just trotting along beside the road. No picture.
3. Go up the Jasper SkyTram. Amazing views of the mountains stretching off to the horizon, a nice café with a million-dollar vista and a gift shop at the top. Also walking possibilities if you're inclined.

Next stop Lake Louise and the Fairmont hotel there, where we had been happily upgraded to a lake-view room. It's around this point that I stop having enough superlatives to describe how beautiful and astonishing the landscape here is. The color of the water – like a super-blue, which I discovered is the result of glaciers grinding the surrounding rocks and then the rock 'flour' that's produced is washed down by snow and rain and suspended in the water, reflecting the light – is like nothing else I've seen anywhere. The temperature of these lakes is so bitterly cold though, that even in high summer you can't swim in them and very little lives in them.

Lake Louise
Top things to do in Lake Louise
1. Whatever time of year it is, take the gondola at the ski resort up to the top. As well as yet another nice café, there's a funny little stuffed-animal room and more of those incredible mountain views.
Emerald Lake
2. Drive to nearby Emerald Lake and take the 5.3km walk around the perimeter. You'll mostly be on your own, unlike at Lake Louise itself, and every so often there's a little information sign, explaining what you're looking at in the landscape. Reward yourself with hot chocolate at the cafe when you've completed the circuit.
3. Gaze at the lake!

On our way back to Banff and, ultimately, Calgary and our flight back to London, we stopped off at the Glacier Experience by the Athabasca Glacier. We were hoping to get one of the buses that take you right on to the glacier, but they were cancelled due to the high winds. We did do the other part of the 'experience', which is to go on the Sky Walk, a seemingly simple walkway built out over the valley. However, it's an unnerving experience because the floor is glass and it's a loooong way down... Not for the faint-hearted.

Athabasca Glacier

Friday, 19 July 2019

Dubrovnik light

The title of this entry could be read as a double entendre. That’s because I didn’t ‘do’ Dubrovnik – I took no tours, went into no museums or exhibitions. What I did do though, was fall in love with this wonderfully restored gem of a town and stayed in the most gorgeous hotel. In fact, when it was time to go home, it was a bit like leaving home. I got all homesick and sad about it. 

I also want to mention the actual light: it’s bright and clear, and bounces off the sea and makes the whole place sunshiny happy. 

The stay was the five-star Hotel Bellevue, part of the Adriatic Luxury Hotels group, who own some of the most luxurious, top-end stays in Croatia, so they know what they’re doing when it comes to comfort and spoiling their guests. The Bellevue is a complete reinvention of the Communist-era hotel previously on this cliff-hugging spot. Every room and suite looks down on the private beach and out to sea, and comes with a terrace where it’s incredibly easy to while away the time just watching boats go past and birds swoop around. 

Of course, you can’t stay in your room the whole time, even if it’s so nice it almost seems a shame to leave it. There’s a great restaurant terrace downstairs, where they’re just waiting to feed you, as well as a bar, where they’d very much like to serve you a cocktail or two, plus a spa offering relaxing treatments… But really, best of all is that beach and the lounger-side service, should you want it.

You’re about a 10-15 minute walk, depending on your speed, from King’s Landing – sorry, I mean the old town of Dubrovnik. It’s mostly downhill, with some great viewpoints and fabulous old stone-built mansions in the Venetian style to ooh and ahh at as you pass. “I’ll have this one. No, that one. No, wait, the one over there,” you may well find yourself thinking. The thing is, any of them would be a treat.

Once in the old town, a couple of things to keep in mind: it will be crowded and it will be crowded. There is now a law limiting the number of cruise ships that can dock in the bay at any given time, in an effort to keep the hoardes down, but it’s still extremely full. Not so you can’t walk, but you will never find yourself either alone or with less than about 50 or so people about. You can still appreciate the beauty of the place and, what was quite remarkable, is how there is no looming ‘new’ town anywhere in sight, which makes it extra special.

Here is what we did do there: walked straight down the main street, looking left and right, through various covered bits and then out to the harbour. Here you will not have to look to be presented with at least half a dozen stalls selling trips to the local islands. Don’t wait: just hop on the next one going. The islands are beautiful, but so is the journey to them. The trip we took gave us about 20-30 minutes on three of them and a couple of hours on the final fourth, which was just right and meant there was time to swim, sunbathe, get a drink and meander back onto the boat. All the trips also serve lunch, which is a bit of salad and your choice of either fish or chicken. I can’t speak for the chicken, but the fish was perfectly fine and there’s much fun to be had throwing bits of fish skin or heads to the waiting seagulls, who catch it midair.

The final thing to say about this visit is that I left my phone and therefore my camera at home. Yes, by mistake. And so for the entire two-night stay I only managed to take one photo, from our balcony down to the beach, when I borrowed someone’s phone. 

Ibiza without clubbing

San Antoni
The one cocktail I had
What? Really? Not even once? Not even if Eats Everything, a DJ you meet on the flight over who’s playing Amnesia, offers to put you on the guestlist? Nope. Maybe I would have fallen in love with the whole scene. Maybe I would even now be stocking up on glowsticks and planning my next trip to the White Isle. 

Up north
But it just doesn’t appeal. The whole rave scene came at the wrong time for me to jump on its bandwagon, but that’s OK. I genuinely don’t feel as if I’ve missed out. So why, you might be asking, go to Ibiza? Isn’t the whole point of the place to get off your face and dance to EDM with thousands of other people all night long, before sleeping it off to the pop beats being broadcast across the surface of the slightly too-chilly hotel pool the next day?

Well, I’d been told that, away from the clubbing hotspots of San Antoni, Ibiza Town and Platja d’en Bossa, there was a whole other Ibiza. One that was beautiful and worth visiting. “Go north!” everyone said before we went. “Go to Formentera!”

So that’s what we did. 

What did I learn? That – unless you actually leave the island – you’re never really very far from thumping dance music. Sure, there is some beautiful countryside in the interior and some very pretty views out to sea along the coast, and there are positive things about the place, but mostly it really is geared up for the 20-something party crowd. Or, flipside, the slightly older well-monied holidaymaker. Still, if you’re keen on going and don’t want to hit the clubs – or maybe you can combine your all-nighters with a bit of exploring – here’s what we did that I’d recommend…

The smallest of the Balearic Islands and a charming ferry ride from either Ibiza Town or San Antoni away, makes it a perfect day trip destination. In fact, I liked Formentera so much that I would go back there and just skip Ibiza altogether. It’s probably what Ibiza was before the Brits hit and brought the clubs. Sandy roads meandering through herb-scented, scrubby countryside; pretty, unspoiled beaches; sleepy towns… The thing to do here is hire scooters, little 50cc-ers with no gears, so it’s just stop and go. Tootle off and see where you get to, because wherever you end up will be perfectly nice. The sea was always glass clear, the beaches never too busy and that scented air – pretty amazing. The only downside was having to leave. 

Etxeko at Bless Hotel
This was a gastronomic blow-out. One of those places where they say it’s an eight-course tasting menu, but by the time you’ve had the amuse-bouche and the palate cleanser and the petit fours, you end up eating for a very long time and, even though it never looks like much food arriving at any one time, by the end of the evening your stomach is bursting out over the top of whatever waistband you were shortsighted enough to put on a few hours ago. 
Everything came looking like a picture, nay, a masterpiece, full of pretty colours and arrangements on the plates. At the next table two Real Madrid players and their WAGs were seated, all looking gorgeous and glamorous, and we felt like we were somewhere. Not cheap (€100 a head), but what you might call a destination dining experience.

Finca La Plaza
La Plaza
It’s not the food that will draw you here, but the setting. Tucked away in a pretty courtyard behind the main square of Santa Gertrudis, which is pretty much slap-bang in the middle of the island. 
It’s such a charming setting and, if you come for dinner, candlelight gradually takes over from sunlight as you chow down on some surprising combinations. Ravioli with burrata, creamed courgette, mint and tomato wasn’t my favourite dish of the week (sorry!), but the side of mashed potatoes were amazing. So smooth and light. I could have eaten just them and the starter of grilled artichoke and been very happy.

The Giri's garden
The Giri Café
This one is further north, in Sant Joan, a sleepy little town you could easily drive through almost without noticing. However, there’s plenty of free parking and it’s worth stopping for lunch. This is another one where eating in the garden is what makes it. Yes, there are plenty of veggie and vegan options; yes, it has a seasonal menu and the food is nice. But it’s sitting next to the growing tomatoes you might be eating in the next 10 minutes, looking out over fields towards the hills while you bite into your falafel burger that will have you lingering here, mulling over whether to order that avocado cheesecake.

Publicity stunt for David Guetta
OK, I know I said we didn’t go to any clubs, but I’m not sure a proper grown-up, daytime-focused beach club counts. The music here wasn’t blaring, but discreetly in the background; the vibe was very chilled, with a few families who’d brought their grandmothers and toddlers along (but not so many that it felt like a kindergarten) and, best of all, we had the best meal of the week here. A whole seabass between two that was moist, flavourful and hard to stop eating. Also olive-oil sautéed potato and courgette slices. There was a starter (quinoa somethings) and desserts, but I was too full by then to eat any more. After that, we practically crawled out to the daybeds and collapsed to read cheap paperbacks and do a little people watching, the best of which was a parade of gorgeous young things promoting a David Guetta night (nope, not even tempted).

Las Salinas

Yes, the salt. There is something about a salt mountain that’s just so… I don’t know how to put the feeling into words. You just want to gaze at it and get all the feels. Really. So, yes, do buy some Sal de Ibiza while you’re here – you’ll find it sold in just about every shop you go into, even if it’s a clothing store – but also, go to the salt works, which have been producing the white crystals since, oh, about 800BC. You can drive right in between the salt flats and up to the hill (I know, I said mountain, but I exaggerated). The area just south of the airport (does the engine exhaust drop on the stuff?) has now been declared a national park and is definitely worth going to look at. Assuming, that is, you like looking at pools of incredibly salty water evaporating in the sun. Which, apparently, I do.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Three days in Prague at Christmas

Ah, Christmas in Prague. Sounds delightful, doesn't it? The markets, the lights, maybe an icing of snow to make it all picture perfect and fewer crowds due to it being a family holiday...

Stop! Now imagine the sound of screeching brakes or maybe a record needle coming off vinyl in a scratchy, fast way. That first imagining wasn't all off-beam, but the idea that we might be the only crazy folks just mad enough to go city-sightseeing in possibly Europe's most photogenic capital at Christmas? Unh-unh. In fact, I'm pretty sure half of Asia was there with us, but never mind, it was still fantastic.
With just three days you'll be busy, but you can still hit the highlights and, as it's such an easy place to get around (its public transport has been rated the best on the continent), you won't spend any time getting lost.

Of course, for a good visitor experience, you'll want to allow for wandering time. You know, those hours when you walk out of your hotel with only a vague idea of where you might like to end up and just see where your feet take you. You'll see so many beautiful Art Nouveau buildings and interesting details, that after a while you'll probably stop saying, "Look at that one!", because really, they're almost all incredible.
Much of the city was built at the beginning of the 20th century, when architectural decoration was the name of the game, so for building buffs like me, there's plenty to catch your eye and just enjoy. But where to go when you're ready to see stuff?

Of course, you'll go to Charles Bridge – everyone does – but it doesn't have to be your first stop. In fact, we ended up on Svatopluk Čech Bridge, which is wonderfully decorated with suns on top of lampposts and angel statues at all four corners. Truthfully, this was my favourite Prague bridge for all its wonderful details and – bonus – it's not crowded. In fact, there's hardly anyone on it at all.
You'll also go to Old Town Square. We couldn't seem to get away from it – whenever we turned a corner, it seemed we were heading back toward it. Which is fine. It's a lovely place and filled at Christmas with the biggest of the twinkly markets, selling Gluhwein (mulled wine), decorations, sausages, woolley novelty hats, trdelník (aka tunnel cake), thick socks and, helpfully, providing a viewing platform so you can take those all-important selfies with the church behind you. It's also where you'll find the Astronomical Clock, which was deemed so beautiful and perfect that its maker had his eyes gouged out so he couldn't make another. 

The best thing we did was get to grips with the trams, which isn't hard to do, especially if you've got Google maps on your phone. Put in where you're going, then let it do the hard work for you of showing which tram to get from where. They're cheap for single journeys, but we splashed out on a Prague Card (not cheap at €60), but meant we could hop on and off any form of transport at will, and also got free or discounted entry at most of the sights. 

In winter the sun sets early (obvs), but this isn't a bad thing. Just make sure you wrap up warm and then hop a tram to the bottom of Petrin Hill on the Castle side of the Vlatava river. From here you board the funicular (always a fun way to travel) up. You can get off halfway, where there's a restaurant, or simply stay on to the top. Here you'll find three fabulous things. 

First, Petrin Tower, a one-fifth size Eiffel Tower built shortly after the Paris original. Of course, you can climb the steps to the pinnacle or be lazy like us and go into the café at the base for simply the best hot chocolate of your life. So thick a spoon practically stands up in it and so chocolatey it ruins for you forever.

Next, visit the Mirror Maze, built for an exhibition in 1926 and still tons of fun. Plus, it's housed in a very sweet castle-like building (free with your Prague Card!).

Last, but not at all least, the Observatory, where we found incredibly enthusiastic staff who were more than happy to move the telescopes and refocus them so we could have a peek at the tree in Old Town Square. Ah, there it is again...

Another day, hop on a bus to the top of Castle Hill. You'll have to do a little walking, but as it's all downhill it's pretty easy. Your Prague Card will get you into most of the buildings here for free and if it's winter, you'll be glad to get inside, as it can be bitter. When you've finished, leave the hoards behind and walk down past the little vineyard down into the Little Quarter, where more beautiful houses and palaces, many open to the public, await. There's a little park here next to the river, called the Kampa, where you'll find Werich Villa. It's home to a collection of modern art and, also, a very popular cosy cafe, which makes a nice stop.

Here is where I tried white hot chocolate for the first and, most definitely, last time. I was so intriqued by the idea of it, but the reality was so sweet it practically went over the top of the arc and into sour again. No thank you. But pleased to have given it a go. I also had a Prague bun: a sweet thing wtih a rich, creme anglais-type gush inside. Mostly what made this such a highlight was the local Praguers, all clearly enjoying the treat of meeting there to eat and talk. 

Outside in the Kampa another local tradition was going on: Even in the freezing cold, families and friends were meeting for stand-up picnics. Plastic containers of sweet treats and sandwiches, plus Thermoses of Gluhwein, with dogs and children running about. Hardy folk!

Finally, a dinner suggestion: The Eatery, in the Holesovice area. A tram ride, but an easy one, to get to this off-the-beaten track (for now) residential area that is slowly emerging as Prague's hipper neighbourhood. There's a good vegetarian selection, as well as meat and fish; you can sit at the bar and watch them cook while you eat or have a table; and it's all quite delicious at a very reasonable price - think €€, which is good for Prague.

Another night, take one of the dinner cruises along the Vlatava. Yes, a tourist thing to do, but still, a nice way to see the city from the water and eat at the same time.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Israel for first timers

"I've been skiing," said our taxi driver. "I said, 'I just want to rent your skis for a couple of hours.' The lady said, 'We only rent by the day.' So I said, 'OK, I'll pay you for the day, but I will bring them back in a couple of hours. I just want to go up and come down one time.' 'What about lessons?' she asked. I said, 'I'm an Israeli. If I'm going to do something, I just do it'." Here he broke off in his story to laugh. "I didn't know where I was going, so I just followed these two guys up to the top. When I got to the bottom, there was a little crowd waiting for me. Turns out, I'd gone down – what is it called? A red? A black? A hard slope, anyway – and they all wanted to see if the crazy Israeli would make it down alive." More laughter.

Thus we met our first Israeli in Israel.

Now I want to dispel some myths.

First, the one that says Israelis are rude. I found them to be friendly, helpful and chatty. Straight talking, sure, but rude? No. You can never sum up millions of people under one description, but during the week I was there I didn't encounter any rudeness.

Second, Tel Aviv's Bauhaus district is small. Absolutely not. In fact, there isn't so much a 'district' as a city filled with these lovely buildings all over the place, interspersed with skyscrapers and markets.

Third, before we went, I read a lot on the internet about how tricksy it is to go from Israel to the Palestine Territories and back again. We encountered absolutely no problems doing this. None.

If you only have a week, as we did, here is one way to fill it:

Spend the first two nights in Tel Aviv. We stayed at the Vera Hotel, on Lillianblum, which is pretty bang central – that is, near lots of cafés, restaurants and, crucially, Anita's ice cream parlour, which is on the corner of Pines and Shebazi streets. Best things about the Vera are free wine and bar snacks at any time, lovely roof terrace, friendly staff, great breakfast and its commitment to showcasing local producers, whether that's the decoration, the produce it serves or even the toiletries in the bathrooms. We were there during its soft opening, but it looks as if a spa is on the cards and, interestingly, there are rooms for under $100 on the ground floor, making it accessible to a wide range of wallets.

During your days, go to Old Jaffa, which is the fascinating oldest part of the city. A tour guide isn't a bad idea, just to get some background info, but you can wander by yourself and pick up the vibe. There's cool street art, like Ran Morin's Floating Orange Tree, and some great harbour-side seafood restaurants.

You'll also want to wander Carmel Market, which sells every kind of fruit and vegetable under the sun, or so it seems, plus baklava, breads, candies, cheese and non-edibles like menorahs and Stars of David, as well as crosses.

All the while keep your eyes peeled for the beautiful Bauhaus buildings and, of course, head to the beach, which stretches for some 8.5 miles. It's technically divided up into different bits, including Dog Beach, with doggy showers and such like; Separate Beach, which has female and male days for the religious orthodox; plus plenty of stretches, like Jerusalem Beach, where you can hire loungers and umbrellas by the day and just hang. In fact, if you hang long enough, a waiter will come from one of the beachside cafés and take your order. Not a bad way to spend a few hours and the water is crystal clear clean.

At night, eat at the Cuckoo's Nest, which is a restaurant (have the tempura prawns and fries), bar (anything with gin seems to work), performance space, antique emporium, doggy shop (as in, for all your dog's needs – coats, boots, collars), art gallery, rooftop bar, plant-sale space, all leading off a central semi-covered courtyard in a half-ruined building. In fact, if you've been to a Budapest ruin bar, you'll find yourself comparing the two.

Your second night, go the other way and eat at Rendezvous, an upmarket corner spot near the Vera (and Anita's) serving house-made bread that's good enough to be a meal all on its own. Tip: book a table if you want to sit outside.

It occurs to me I'm going too slowly for a blog, so I'll pick up the pace.

You've now been in Israel for two nights. It's time to move on to... Banky's Walled Off Hotel. It's in Bethlehem, the other side of the wall and Checkpoint 300. And now to dispel a few more misconceptions...

If you read everything on the internet, you'll believe that somehow you're not supposed to go here or that you'll have trouble finding it or that google maps will lead you astray... None of this was our experience. We took the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. You buy your ticket as you board, the journey lasts about an hour and deposits you at Central Station. From here, it's a two city-bus journey to Checkpoint 300. Google was perfectly useful in guiding us to bus stops and suggesting which bus to take.

The second bus, which brings you right to the checkpoint, was full of men, old and young and every age in between. There was one other woman on the bus aside from me. Did it feel threatening? Did it feel edgy? Not even a little. But it was packed. On the other hand, we did choose to do this journey toward the end of the working day and they were returning home to the West Bank, so this was to be expected.

When you get off at the checkpoint, my top tip is: do NOT get in an unmarked car which offers you a lift. You will be fleeced. Simply walk through the checkpoint – foreigners are pretty much waved through – and then get in a real taxi the other side for a journey that shouldn't cost you more than 10 ILS (about £3). Just say Walled Off and all the taxi drivers know where it is.

The Walled Off is a wonderful hotel. Full of quirks and interesting things, like a hidden door that leads to the nine guest rooms, waiters in red waistcoats and an almost David Lynchian dynamic. Each room has been individually curated, presumably by Banksy himself, and you are given an inventory to check off, to deter you from nicking stuff, which was something of a surprise, but I guess Banksy's a bit of a Midas and they don't want people profiting by their stay.

Also in the hotel is a gallery (not Banksy's work) and a little museum, chronicling the troubles the Palestinians have endured. Top tip: take the Green Olive tour of nearby Aida Refugee Camp. By the way, this is not a camp with tents, but buildings that mostly went up 70 years ago and people have been living here ever since. Your guide is a local man who will share his family's story and the story of the camp, and it's fascinating.

We ate dinner in the hotel – pizzas – and breakfast the next morning, which was vast and served on lovely old Victorian china. We then took a taxi tour – that is, a taxi driver took us, no real 'tour' as such – to Jericho, where we walked around Hisham's Palace (basically the ruins of a place that must have been vast and grand) built about 734 CE. There was also a stop at Zacchaeus's tree, mentioned in the bible as the place where Jesus spoke to the tax collector. And, at last, the great treat: the Dead Sea.

Another myth to be dispelled. This is not a place for a refreshing dip. Remember, you are below sea level, so it's very hot. The immersion happens in a designated place, that has changing rooms, showers, a café, a couple of shops and many, many steps down to the water. The water itself is almost slimy and viscous. Of course, it does what you hope it will and holds you completely buoyant. I tried lying front downwards and it just popped me up again, so that really, the only way to be in it is to sit in it, but this isn't relaxing. There were people smearing themselves with the mud, which is meant to be so good for you, but I started to feel the need to get out fairly quickly. Tip: bring a towel and try to take a shower before you leave the compound, or you will feel sticky and itchy all the way home.

We had one more night at the hotel, but ate dinner down the road at one of the restaurants recommended by the reception staff.

Not being churchy people, the stand-out site in Bethlehem for us was the graffiti on the wall and if you want to add to it, there's a helpful shop – named Wall Mart – next door to the hotel that will sell you spray paint, face masks and even offer stencil classes.

Jerusalem is a completely different kettle of fish than Tel Aviv. Where Tel Aviv feels a bit like New York, with lots of cool kids on their laptops and folks getting around on electric scooters, Jerusalem is like the frowning uncle making you feel bad for being boisterous. Of course, it's very beautiful as well, and fascinating, but the old city, even on a Friday, is packed. My favourite bit was watching the woman near the Wailing Wall, whose job was shouting at people who took their phones out. "No pictures! NO pictures! Put that away. I said, PUT THAT AWAY!" What a great job. Just think of all the aggression you could release...

We stayed two nights in a hotel that had looked so promising on the web and, while the staff were very nice and it was a beautiful building in a lovely residential area, I won't give its name away as they couldn't seem to rid the bathroom of someone else's hair.

Our other big destination in Jerusalem was Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. While we were queuing up to get a map, a man and woman in front of us were asking the older woman at the desk to check something for them and she was turning the pages of a big notebook, scanning down lists. They looked anxiously on.

This is not a place you visit lightly, but it must be visited. I felt its pull all the way from England. In the actual museum building (there are many other buildings and gardens there, honouring and recording and illustrating and remembering the horrors and the people who died during this terrible time), I came upon a panel about Kurt Weill, the German Jewish composer who left Berlin in 1933 after being persecuted by the Nazis and who eventually settled in America – next door to where I lived as a teenager. He died before I was even born, but his widow, Lotte Lenya, still had the house when we were there, and it was both startling and comforting somehow – like seeing an old friend – to find him in the museum.

I also saw the couple from the map queue again, going into a glassed off room where a lady sat with more big notebooks and a couple of computers. "We're looking for our father...," the woman said, as the door shut softly behind her.

Day two in Jerusalem was taken up entirely by a tour to Ein Gedi, Masada and the Dead Sea (again) run by an outfit called Tourist Israel. Our guide was a Texan named Brian and while this was initially slightly disconcerting (shouldn't he be a local person?), he was bursting with more information than he had time to tell us and he did his best to cram as much history and inside gen into us as he could.

First stop was Ein Gedi, an oasis in the desert which was extraordinary for three reasons. One, there were ibex's just wandering around near the path, nonplussed by the groups of people oohing and ahhing at them. Two, the beautiful waterfall and brilliantly clean-enough-to-drink water. Three, the desert rabbits, who were impossibly cute.

Next up was Masada, the site of a massive stand-off between the Jews and the Romans, with incredible far-reaching views over the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea to Jordan. Tip: bring water.

Finally, back to the Dead Sea, where the rest of our party scrambled into their swimsuits, but we sat it out by a conventional pool on sunloungers. Yes, I know, how many times do you get to go in the Dead Sea, right? But once seems to have been enough for me.

And so back to Tel Aviv for the final night, which was spent at Fabric, another new hotel with yet another fantastic roof terrace to hang on and absolutely the best breakfast spread we encountered the whole week. We had an amazing dinner at Abraxas North, which is a celebrity chef owned place with sharing plates that are actually big enough to share.

Our final day had us wandering through Carmel Market one last time, meandering down a crafts market we stumbled on and going to the beach for a last hit of sun and sunshine. Fabric very kindly let us come back to use their rooftop shower and change for the trip home.

"You liked Israel?" our (different) taxi driver said on the return to Ben Gurion Airport.

"Loved it," I said.

"Ah, you'll be back."