Ski Review

Mayrhofen – The Lowdown
Mayrhofen is one of Austria’s great ski areas with a huge array of slopes mixed with a pretty town replete with typical Tyrolean architecture and a lively nightlife.

Everyone from Eddie Izzard to The Prodigy has partied here while appearing at the Snowbombing and (now gone) Altitude festivals. And when you feel the need for a change of scenery there are plenty more resorts on your lift pass.

Crystal Ski Mayrhofen
prices valid as of 30 November 2017 – click here for updated information
Mayrhofen Ski Areas
The main ski area is reached by the Penkenbahn, a swish modern supergondola (20-plus comfy seats) from the centre of town, next to the big Sporthotel Strass with its bars, and across the road from Hans the Butcher whose hot pork rolls make a perfect lunch to push into your pocket.

At the top there are beginner runs tucked away with their own lifts while most skiers head down into the huge bowl that combines lots of charming, tree-lined runs with the likes of Harakiri, the steepest run in the Alps.

There are lifts up

Mergui Archipelago, Myanmar (Burma)

Sitting on a teakwood chair on the upper deck of the converted cargo boat, photographic location scout David van Driessche knew the ropes. “We are about to sail out of mobile reception range,” the Belgian told his partner back in Bangkok. It was now dawning on me as fast as the sun was setting on the horizon that the one-bar of signal on my phone was about to drop completely. We were off the grid, and almost off the map.

Off the grid and no WiFi
This trip exploring the Mergui Archipelago was into unknown territory for me. Would there be mobile coverage, electricity, wifi, or even air-con? I’d figured not. Yet, as the sunset below a layer of grey rain-leaden clouds and the world turned deep purple, I found some answers.

Below, on the main deck, our sleeping quarters were gazebos with rattan paneling and mahogany trim. After the diesel generator was turned off, nifty LED reading lights and cooling fans powered by the solar panels could be turned on.

We anchored for the evening, and even though we sat less than 10° north of

Portugal and Spain on the Braemar

Lisbon will be the first port of call but it will take two days sailing to get there. I wait patiently in the embarkation lounge until my number is called and then swiftly make my way to the cabin on deck 6. They’ve upgraded me and I’m right at the front with a large window overlooking the bows. There’s one double bed, enough hanging space, and dressing table right by the window, as well as two armchairs.

Braemar has three restaurants, Thistle, Grampian and The Palms and I’m heading to dinner in the Thistle. This is the largest and I’m shown to a large table with other singles who I’ll get to know very well over the next few days. There’s a choice of two starters, three soups, two salads and four main courses, plus fish of the day and a British speciality. The food is good, waiters are friendly and they keep the wine topped up.

Fred Olsen Cruises, Breamar: pool deck
pool deck (c) Rupert Parker
This is my first cruise on a large boat, although the Braemar is smaller than most, at

The Alternative Thai Island

Thailand was once the go-to place for hedonistic backpackers and budget travellers but recently the country has seen a meteoric rise appealing to all kinds of travellers especially those keen to explore the the southern Thai islands.

Phuket; much loved by expats, is a place for family holidays and weddings. Koh Phi-Phi island first came to the world’s notice back in 2000, with the movie starring Leonardo Di Caprio in “The Beach”. Koh Phangan is notorious for The Full Moon Party, and Koh Tao is a small island that is overflowing with scuba diving first timers, shops and enthusiasts.

Lesser known Koh Chang island has a certain innocence about the place with 70 per cent of the island covered in untouched jungle. Add in beaches and mountains too, and Koh Chang has bragging rights as one of the most naturally eco-friendly islands in Thailand.

Despite this, Koh Chang isn’t as offbeat as it might sound and there is something for every type of traveller. Here is a guide:

Holiday Koh Chang
White Sand Beach is the most developed beach and area of Koh Chang, and the first stop you’ll come to if arriving in a shared taxi (locally called songthaews). Expect a holiday

Road Trip Ukraine

Ukraine, the country famous for banning Hollywood Steven Seagal from visiting, is opening up to tourism with visa-free travel. Add to that direct flights from the UK and the fact that it is still remarkably good value for money, this is as good a time as any to visit. We suggest you get behind the wheel or a hire car or indeed to hop on a train.

Situated in the far west of the country, just 50 miles from the Polish border, Lviv was known as Lemburg when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1772 to WW1. That’s reflected in its quaint cobbled streets, proliferation of churches and architecture reminiscent of those other Hapsburg cities like Vienna and Budapest. Of course it also has trams, trolley buses and coffee houses. Indeed they say that the first coffee shop in Vienna was opened by an Ukrainian from Lviv in 1686.

It’s a pleasant place to wander round, with street musicians on every corner, and the Market Square in the old town is lined with renaissance houses. The elaborate Lviv Opera House still stages productions of opera and ballet and imposing Cathedrals beckon you inside. My visit coincides with National Embroidered Blouse

More Armani then Armageddon

On his intrepid trek in the Levant the acclaimed writer William Dalrymple describes his crossing from Syria to Lebanon in 1994, just four years after the end of the civil war. Struck by signs of a glitzy lifestyle already springing up beside bombed-out Beirut skyscrapers he writes, in his compelling travelogue, From the Holy Mountain:

Armageddon I expected; but Armani I did not.

Things have of course moved on, and Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, has been shaking off its war-torn image and attempting to reclaim its pre-war sobriquet as Paris of the Middle East. It offers a mezze of cultural attractions, with museums, restored mosques and churches, a vibrant café and restaurant scene, some of the coolest nightclubs in the Middle East. The streets are still manic but there are stylish beach clubs to retire to – and panoramic pools atop glittering hotels.

Hiring a hookah on the Beach, Beirut
Hiring a hookah on the Beach (c) Susie Boulton
Is it safe to visit Beirut?
Lebanon currently sees no more than a trickle of western tourists, others discouraged by political turbulence. The UK Foreign Commonwealth Office labels the no-go zones – and these I avoided. Sadly the list includes some of Lebanon’s

Festival Glam Rock

K West Hotel & Spa, once a BBC building, in London’s trendy Shepherd’s Bush area has launched a brand new Festival Glam Rock Afternoon Tea. There was a time when rock greats such Bob Marley and the Wailers, Bowie, The Kinks and Roxy Music spent time here.

On this day it was just me in search of an afternoon cuppa.

A tier of sandwhiches for tea
A tier of sandwiches for tea
And I got to enjoy a a most unusual cuppa. Tea was served in gorgeous electric blue and pink teapots and teacups on vintage record covers of different artists – mine was a Rod Stewart cover.

Rod Stewart place mat
Rod Stewart place mat
The food was a colourful extravaganza, almost psychedelic. Making my way up from the bottom rung of the tier I started on mini-clubs sandwiches of avocado, red pepper and mozzerella and ham, chicken, mustard and cream cheese – and there were no crusts.

Interspersed with these were the rainbow brioche sliders which came with beef, guacamole and mustard mayo and halloumi with piquilo peppers and tomato salsa.

There were also mini buns with carmine and poppy seeds, chlorophyll and polenta. Amazingly when I asked for gluten free, they

Road trip from Stavanger to Trondheim in 2 days

I knew it would be a nutty exploit driving 1,100-kilometres (around 684 miles) in two days along Norway‘s coastal road. So why did I do it?

Well, it wasn’t for the weather. It drizzled most of the time with the sun taking a sneaky tantalising peak through the clouds every so often. The elements teased right through to sundown at 11pm – a late sunset is a a quirk of Norway’s daylight cycle during the summer months.

It wasn’t a boozy trip either as a humble pint of beer knocks you back £12 and with just over 5 million people in a space as large as the UK, the nightlife was not exactly heaving.

And forget about the romance of negotiating winding roads at speed – the 80km/h (50 miles) limit is strictly adhered to and without any specific fine range, a speeding fine could empty the bank coffers.

Yet there are some compelling reasons: the roads are utterly superb – a sure sign of the expense and attention paid to the infrastructure – the scenery of fjords, waterfalls, mountains and lavish greenery is exceptional and with six road-ferry combo experiences peppered throughout the road trip from Stavanger to Trondheim, you get to see

BA i360 Observation Tower

Last year the Brighton Eye (akin to the London Eye) was replaced as a seafront landmark in Brighton by the British Airways i360, a 162-metre-tall vertical tower. It is located on the site of the derelict West Pier that was burned down by fire in 2003. You can still see the ruins of the pier straggling in the water just beyond.

Some have dubbed the observation pod the “donut” due to its shape, while others have been known to refer to it as something far cheekier (best left unquoted). However you call it, there is no doubt that this is a huge feat of engineering.

Taking off in the BA i360 in Brighton
Taking off in the BA i360
This is, afterall, the world’s tallest moving observation tower with an observation pod built around a central column. It is in fact a fully enclosed futuristic glass observation pod that gently lifts (the movement is hardly discernible) up to 200 people to a height of 138 metres.

Click on the image to enlarge

BAi360 pod host looking at view
BAi360 pod host looking at view
BAi360 pod and toll booth
BAi360 pod and toll booth
I couldn’t wait to have a go in it when

Blanco Beach

The Algarve is loved by holiday makers for its light blue skies, amazing sun light (I swear it has its own shade) and its golden beaches. And tranquillity.

But now you can ditch the peace and quiet and pump up the volume at the Blanco Beach Club. This newcomer to the Portimão beach adds a new dimension to day life and indeed the al fresco night life with its house-party-within-a-beach-club scenario that Nathanial the oh-so trendy head host says “will be the local answer to Ibiza”.

This is a top notch beach club looking fresh in its white-washed decor created by the elusive entrepreneur Maximillian White – hence the name Blanco. There’s a “guest” list and if you are on it (easily done; you pay the entry fee or hire a bed in advance) and you get to enter into another world armed with a defining wrist band.

There are security guards (bless them for being diligent) and a doorman-cum-bouncer. All necessary stuff in a place like this, but perhaps tone down the bouncer act a bit?

Inside, white leather round beds are dotted around the 20-metre blue-hued pool on attractive wood decking. There’s a bar at one end, sunken arcs of seating,

Rail adventure in North Wales

The hills are alive in North Wales with the cranky rhythm of chugging wheels and the whistle of coal powered trains as a stream of steam is funnelled out through their chimney.

It’s a mode of transport that hails from the early 19th century that all too soon came to the end of the line.

Rail enthusiasts have set in motion a revival of the Welsh Highland Railways and Ffestiniog Railway bringing the steamy affair of vintage travel by railway through this amazing landscape, right back on track.

I book my carriage.

My base: Llandudno
Llandudno war memorial on the seafront
Llandudno war memorial on the seafront
The seaside town of Llandudno is my base, a pretty town with a mish mash of elegant Victorian and Edwardian architecture and pleasant scenery. It stretches out from the foot of the Great Orme, a huge chunk of limestone that curves around the town. It surges up from the sea and towards the seafront and its wide ribbon of sandy beach and an even wider promenade with a war memorial obelisk as its landmark.

Search UK rail tickets on trainline

Caernarfon to Beddgeert – Welsh Highland Railway
My first rail adventure starts in Caernarfon where I alight the delightful

24 hours in Genoa, Italy

Often overlooked by sun-seeking tourists in a rush to get to picturesque Portofino and pastel-painted Cinque Terre, Genoa is one of Italy’s most underrated and historically significant cities.

Genoa alternative ©Luca Volpi
Genoa © Luca Volpi
This former maritime power has much to boast about: birthplace of world navigator Christopher Columbus, home to the prison from which Marco Polo dictated accounts of his travels, Italy’s first football team, and inventors of pesto.

Genoa’s topography, nestled between mountains and sea, means that the city is blessed with temperate weather all year round and, with direct two hour flights from the UK, it’s the perfect escape for those in search of history, culture and hearty Italian fare, any time of the year.

Genoa port
(c) neufal54
This compact city is more than a gateway to the Italian Riviera, it’s a destination in its own right.

Must stay
Reacquaint yourself with the renaissance at Vecchia Genova, a Sixteenth Century palazzo located in the historic centre of Genoa, just 300m from San Lorenzo Cathedral.

Days begin with homemade brioche and organic jam breakfasts served on the terrace and end in blissful slumber in spacious, stucco-walled bedrooms.

For something a little more luxurious, treat yourself to the Grand Hotel Savoia, Genoa’s

The bears of Katmai National Park

I was just six feet away from a 800lb giant in brown fur with huge paws and a jaw that could cause serious damage. Yet I was able to photograph this huge bear and come away safely.

It was exhilarating and it’s the type of incredible wildlife experience you can only have at the Katmai National Park in Southeast Alaska.

There are around 2,200 Alaskan brown bears that live in this active volcanic landscape that surrounds Mount Katmai and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. They are related to the Grizzly Bears found elsewhere in America.

They hibernate for around seven months of the year and lose a lot of body weight during that time. Of course they wake up hungry and just in time for the summer months when salmon returns to the Alaskan rivers in their millions. This means these bears are so well nourished they soon become plump up and often grow to be the biggest in the world.

So, the best time to be there is during the summer months when you can watch the adept way they fish, feed their cubs and teach the cubs how to fish.

They can be seen at Brooks River and even more so at

Travel Guide to Tel Aviv, Israel

I defy anyone to be bored during a short break to Tel Aviv. The high octane vibe is almost tangible and urges you to walk its streets and explore. Do so and you’ll find this is a moody city: beautiful chill-out beaches hemmed by high rise hotels and lapped by the blue Mediterranean sea and a fantastically beautiful promenade. Yet just a road or two inland buildings look in need of some love, yet the vibe prevails.

Israel – Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv Jaffa (c) israeltourism
At its commercial centre the high rises look like a New York mini-me while the ancient port of Jaffa in the south exudes charm in its yellow stone architecture and winding hilly alleyways.

Then there’s museums, markets, shopping and above all, a simply sensational foodie scene. This city has it all and, unbelievably, all packed into a compact area of just 52 km² (around 20 miles).

Check out the beaches
Grab your fiip flops because Tel Aviv is a seafront city with a Tayelet (promenade) that hems a gorgeous stretch of 12 soft sand beaches, each with its own – if somewhat insouciant – personality.

Metzizim in the north is a superb family beach with shallow waters and

The Brecon Beacons National Park, Wales

I’m in a cosy cottage at the heart of Wales. The log-burning stove is glowing and I am too. It’s been another day of healthy walking and I’m now torn between two very attractive options.

From the front window, past the playful tangle of roses, I can see the Star Inn. A few steps away through the open-plan lounge and kitchen is the equally rose-strewn garden with Welsh Dragon sausages (infused with leek and chilli) grilling in the warm evening air and views over a Brecon Beacons hillside.

Wales can be wild, with extreme activities such as climbing, canyoning, caving and kayaking, along with bunkhouses, hostels and hillside campsites. And yet it’s possible to experience the great outdoors to the full while still being able to appreciate a comfy bed in relaxed, picturesque surroundings.

Brecon Beacons National Park, a wonderworld of rounded peaks, waterfalls, market towns and tiny roads, is an excellent place for a short break, reachable in three hours from London, far less from places such as Birmingham.

The village of Talybont, halfway between the charming towns of Brecon and Talybont, is a perfect hideaway, on both the River Usk and the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, and with three pubs to go

The Dutch Golden Age in Amsterdam

Amsterdam simply bulges with culture, cuisine, coffee shops and hot pink windows yet right now the city is glowing with the shine of the Dutch Golden Age.

Roughly spanning the 17th century (The Golden Age is officially dated from 1585 to 1672) this was a time when the Dutch ruled the waves and Amsterdam saw a glorious explosion of wealth and culture.

To celebrate the Dutch Golden Age there are city-wide exhibitions from now to mid February that talk about the creativity of the time. Here’s where you can see it:

Flinck and Bol – The forgotten masters
Everyone has heard of Rembrandt but his pupils are hardly household names. This is changing with a long-awaited double exhibition “Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck: Rembrandt’s Master Pupils” showing at Rembrandt’s House and the Amsterdam Museum until February 18 2018.

Both born around 400 years ago, the pupils completed their training at Rembrandt’s House and became two of the most celebrated painters of the time. By late 1640 they had even surpassed Rembrandt in commercial output. Yet after their death they disappeared into the shadow of their master.

At Home with Rembrandt
Start at Rembrandt’s House where the master lived and worked for 19 years. Here

Camino de Santiago

Pilgrims taking the many Caminos, or Ways of St James, always end up at Santiago de Compostela and gather in the Cathedral to be blessed. A few carry on to the Atlantic Coast, feeling that this westernmost part of Europe is a more fitting end to their journey. Indeed this was an ancient spiritual route, long before the Catholic Church commandeered it for its own purposes. They were drawn to the sunset at what was then the end of the known world. That’s how it got its name – the Latin “Finis Terrae” translates as Finisterre.

Finisterre sunset
Finisterre sunset (c) Rupert Parker
I’ve already walked the classic Camino Frances (The French Way), from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago and was disappointed by the crowds of people on the trail. When I set out from the city going west, numbers are far fewer, and it’s an altogether more pleasurable experience. It’s going to take three days to get to Cape Finisterre and then another couple of days to the fishing village of Muxia, a place once sacred to the Celts.

Santiago de Compostela to Negreira
In late October, there’s a moist drizzle as I negotiate my way out of Santiago

A Budget Ski Break In Zakopane

Poland doesn’t have lots of mountains, but they make the most of it in Zakopane, nestled at the foot of the Tatras. This popular resort, around two hours south of Krakow is an appealing mix of chocolate box quaint, accessible ski slopes.

Add low prices and Zakopane makes for a value for money ski break that is a good alternative to big budget spending of Val d’Isere even if there is no real ski in/ski out option and the mountains are not especially high. The fact is you’ll find snow, mountains and nightlife to rival plenty of other budget resorts.

Budget skiing for families and beginners
The town of Zakopane serves as the gateway to the mountains, so visitors need a taxi or the use of a daily transfer service to access the ski stations.

Zakopane – Gubalowka Hill a nursery ski run
Gubalowka Hill – nursery ski run (c) Jonathanawhite
Bialka Tatrazanska is the most Alpine of Zakopane’s ski stations, with 16 kms of ski runs spread over a series of small valleys. To the experienced winter sports enthusiast that may not sound like much, but

5 Best Beaches : one for every month of the year

There’s a beach for everyone: from the stunning sands of Latin America, to the beautiful British coast, onwards to the Mediterranean’s best beach, and then down to a Pacific island paradise.

1JANUARY – San Juan del Sur Bay, Nicaragua

Suan Juan des Sur bay
Nicaragua may be a little unknown as a holiday destination but at this time of year is bathing in sunshine and you could be too on their beaches. The San Juan del Sur Bay beach has a dazzling horseshoe shape of muted beige soft sand that is overlooked by a giant statue of Jesus perched north of the bay. The waters around here are calm and very rarely get large enough to surf, making this an ideal beach for young families. For surfers, there’s the Playa Maderas a little further along.

There are plenty of fine eateries from which you can enjoy a most delightful sunset. And after sun down, there’s a fun vibe of a busy nightlife to enjoy.

2FEBRUARY – Isla Espiritu Santo, Sea of Cortez, Baja California Sur, Mexico

Isla Espiritu Santo, Mexico (c) Sam Beebe/Ecotrust
Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau called Mexico’s Sea of Cortez “the world’s greatest aquarium” because of its unique and rich ecosystem. To get up

India by Rail

The journey below can be taken as part of Great Rail Journeys India’s Golden Triangle – a 5* rail 13-day tour which includes the Shatabdi Express and the Toy Train plus excursions to Delhi and Agra with its white marble icon the Taj Mahal. Prices start from £1,995pp, departing Oct 2017 – Dec 2018.

Great Rail Journeys India’s Golden Triangle
Great Rail Journeys India’s Golden Triangle
CLICK HERE for full India’s Golden Triangle itinerary

Delhi to Kalka on Shatabdi Express
I’m at Delhi station, early in the morning, where it seems that a large proportion of the 23 million people who daily use Indian Rail have all decided to take the train. I’m taking the Shatabdi Express for Kalka, where I’m then going to catch the narrow gauge “Toy Train” up to Shimla. It’s a four hour journey and the air conditioned Executive Class is comfortable and includes a rather delicious spicy breakfast, complete with a few warming cups of Indian Chai.

Trains Crossing
Trains Crossing (c) Rupert Parker
We pull into Kalka, almost on time, and I cross the platform to board the Himalayan Queen, patiently waiting for passengers. It’s dwarfed by the mighty Express, and I completely understand why it’s known