Category Archives: Travel

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 vibe here, with many families, couples and some backpackers. You can choose from many hostels and resorts on the beachfront and along the main road, you’ll find banks, supermarkets, and restaurants. The beach is split up into a north and south section with plenty of room for sun loungers, umbrellas and deckchairs.

Party Koh Chang
Lonely Beach is the place for solo travellers or partygoers in Koh Chang on a budget. The area has been likened to Khao San Road in Bangkok, although a lot less crowded and commercial. You’ll find lots of food vendors, tattoo studios, clothes shops, restaurants, bars and a couple of nightclubs here.

The beach itself is actually located prior to the lively area of Lonely Beach around only 15 minutes walk (or two minutes on a scooter) away. Even though you might think the island has as many people as any other Thai island, it doesn’t. The parties in comparison are small, and many people end up hanging around the area that precedes Himmel Bar.

Authentic Koh Chang
Bang Bao Pier Koh Chang
Bang Bao Pier (c) Laborant
Bang Bao was once a quiet small fishing village, although now popular with travellers, it still keeps its authentic set up and appearance. The fishing village is built in traditional fashion along with its interconnected piers, almost like a mini lost pirate colony. Worming your way around Bang Bao’s wooden networks you’ll come across guesthouses, markets, bars and restaurants. There are many restaurants but we recommending checking out Barracuda Restaurant for a real quirky and cosy dining experience.

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 Day so everyone is sporting one, men and women alike.

Outside the old town, the 18th-century Lychakiv Cemetery has ornate tombs, chapels and shrines plus a special section dedicated to those who are still being killed in the armed struggle on Ukraine’s Eastern borders. Most Ukrainians I speak to believe that it’s Russian mischief making and can’t understand why their former ally is making trouble. Central and Western Ukraine show no signs of the war, so travellers shouldn’t be alarmed.

Click on the image to enlarge:

Lviv Lychakiv Cemetery
Lviv Lychakiv Cemetery (c) Rupert Parker
Lviv – Embroidered Blouse Day
Embroidered Blouse Day (c) Rupert Parker

Carpathian Mountains
Carpathian Mountains
Carpathian Mountains (c) Rupert Parker
The Carpathians form an arc running roughly 1000 miles across Central and Eastern Europe, making them the second-longest mountain range in Europe. They occupy the South West of Ukraine, separating the country from Romania, with the highest peak, Mount Hoverla, reaching over 2000m. Life carries on here much as it’s done for centuries and during the Soviet period was left almost untouched. Even guerrillas fighting their Russian oppressors stayed holed up here for years.

Carpathian Orthodox Church
Carpathian Orthodox Church (c) Rupert Parker
Kolomyia
Kolomyia Easter Egg Museum
Kolomyia Easter Egg Museum (c) Rupert Parker
It’s a three hour drive across the Ukrainian steppes to Kolomyia, famous for the world’s only Pysanka or Easter Egg Museum. Of course it’s built in the shape of a giant egg and houses an impressive collection of intricately decorated specimens from all over the world. Nearby is another museum dedicated to the Hutsuls, the largest ethnic group in the Carpathians, scattered through both Ukraine and Romania. It’s an excellent introduction to their culture with an exhibition of ethnic costumes, arts and crafts.

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 premier sites and notably the colossal and remarkably preserved Roman temples of Baalbek.

But the areas I did see were completely relaxed and unthreatening, with an apparent easy ethnic mix. In rebuilt Downtown Beirut you could be in any smart European capital – albeit with some restored Ottoman-era facades. There are glossy shops, sophisticated restaurants and stylishly-dressed Lebanese living life to the full. Go at sunset to the achingly cool rooftop Iris Bar, overlooking the Med, to witness the hedonistic lifestyle enjoyed by the youth of Beirut.

Unmissable landmarks in Beirut
Muhammad Al-Amine Mosque
Al Amine Mosque (or Hariri Mosque), Beirut
Al Amine Mosque (or Hariri Mosque), Beirut (c) Susie Boulton
Beirut my sightseeing starts at the Muhammad Al-Amine Mosque, a city landmark with its dazzling blue dome and lofty minarets. Although I’m covered from head to toe I’m told to don a huge black-hooded cloak – a stark contrast to the scantily-clad Lebanese ladies shopping in the designer boutiques a stone’s throw away.

Sursock Museum
Sursock Museum, Beirut
Sursock Museum (c) Susie Boulton
I head to Christian East Beirut to see the Sursock Museum in the affluent quarter of Achrafieh. This elegant Italian/Lebanese 1912 mansion reopened in 2015 after a major overhaul and is now a cutting edge 21st-century cultural institution, devoted to modern and contemporary art.

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 were able to oblige.

The next tier had the “rolling scones”. They came with clotted cream and various flavours of homemade jams. And sorbet cones. I don’t care much for clotted cream so I used the creamy cheesecake that was served in a white chocolate bowl instead. When offered a second helping of the scones, more rolled in.

The top rung had minted strawberry and watermelon mini-slushies which turned out to be a most unusual flavour – one worth getting used to as minted watermelon is the trend these days. There was also lovely selection of macaroons.

Festival Glam Rock Afternoon Tea – K West Hotel & Spa
Festival Glam Rock Afternoon Tea – K West Hotel & Spa
There are several teas on the menu and I tried their bespoke tea – Tea Rex. This is a mighty blend of strong black tea leaves and mellow green tea leaves, peony flowers, rose petals and more than a dash of peppercorns and cherry flavouring; a flavour the fiesty rock star Marc Bolan may well have liked.

Now imagine this as part of a cocktail infusion. There were six to choose from and I tried the “Little Miss Mystery”, a blend of Gordon’s gin infused with the strongly flavoured Tea Rex tea, Quinta Tempranillo, agave syrup, raspberry and strawberry puree. It’s a bit of a wow and the flavours blasted me out of my comfort zone. For more familiar sensations I ended the tea with a trusty Prosecco.

The tea lasted an entire afternoon and offered plenty of eye-candy, novelty and new adventures for the palate. An enjoyable experience especially for couples.

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 different perspectives of the scenery from the water.

You may also like: From Oslo to Bergen, and the spectacular scenery in between

Ferry Crossing
Ferry crossing
So, I picked up my 2-wheel drive Mazda CX-3 in Stavanger the evening before – a car which for a mildly nervous driver like myself – seemed solid enough to steer me through some hair-pin strewn mountain roads and narrow tunnels.

Click on the image to enlarge:

The lake in Stavanger with birds
The lake in Stavanger with birds
White clapper board homes in Stavanger
White clapper board homes
With so much daylight I explored Stavanger that first evening. It’s a handsome town with a pretty harbour, wavy streets lined with white clapperboard homes. There’s a pretty lake too replete with swans, seagulls, ducks and some loitering sparrows that broke out into a frenzy at the mere hint of any bread being thrown their way.

Read also: 48 hours in Stavanger, Norway

In the morning I awoke with the birds around 5am for an early 6am start for the first leg of the trip to Loen. I braved the drizzle and got into the car with a trusty breakfast pack in hand, which I learned was a highly-prized provision since there was not a single eatery along the way other than at the odd petrol station and possibly at campervan resorts.

Early morning ferry
Getting on the ferry
The ferry crossings were regular and efficient and my early start meant being able to avoid the deluge of campervans and inevitable queues that hit the road slightly later in the day.

The roads were incredibly smooth and I passed miles and miles of rocky or lavish emerald green terrain and mountains rising into low hanging clouds. It was haunting yet beautiful all at once.

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 it first opened but whenever I happened to visit Brighton, the i360 was closed on some technicality or other. The gremlins are long gone and I finally got to experience the BA “flight” last week.

Checking into the BA i360
Like any flight, you have to check in, collect your ticket and go through security – a sort of airport light version – a process that is guided by staff dressed in BA livery. Once passed security you get to sit on deck chairs as you watch the previous flight land. It’s quite extraordinary.

Inside the BA i360
Straddled by two BA staff, the doors slowly slide open and passengers are shown into a very spacious 360 degree observation deck. There are some banquettes for those that need to sit but most like to walk around and visually drink in the views over Brighton from various perspectives. As the pod rises the views inevitably become ever more expansive across the sea, both sides of the beach and way into the city and beyond over the Downs.

It is a serene experience with the odd chatter in the background unless, of course, you get on with groups of kids, so be sure to ask which flights are free from school outings.

Though the flight lasts around 20 minutes, it seems all over far too soon and I hardly had enough time to sip the champagne I liberated from the pod Sky Bar.

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, the DJ’s stage and at the other end of the pool there are a few cabanas that have their own jacuzzis big enough for six people.

But these are expensive (1,500 euros for six people) to hire. The cheapest option is a bean bag on the sandy area which, after an entry fee, are free to use.

It is quite a beautiful scene to walk into and one that shines in the daylight. At night it is lit up in pinks and purples and looks good against the night sky.

Pool side scene at Blanco Beach Club, Algarve, Portgual
Pool side scene at Blanco Beach Club
Blanco Beach Club at night, Portgual
Blanco Beach Club at night
There are plenty of easy-to-spot waiters as they are all dressed in white. They mill around and as the beds have a waiter service you never need to wait long to place an order for a cocktail. It’s a simple menu of sushi, pizza, salads and burgers, but tasty enough.

Waitress service at Blanco Beach club, Algarve
Waitress service
There’s large DJ stage churning out tunes all day and as the alcohol-fuelled hours slide away, flirting couples canoodle to the sway of the music while others take to the pool, cocktails in hand to frolic, refresh underneath a fountain or simply dance adding movement to the shimmer of the blue water.

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 narrow gauge Welsh Highland Railway train. The line was built in 1923 but economically it was derailed soon after. After 70 years in the sidings, it was pulled back into service by a group of railway enthusiasts.

Engine 87 on Welsh Highland Railways
Engine 87 on Welsh Highland Railways
The locomotive is engine 87 and as I watch the steam funnel out it leaves a dreamy nostalgia in its wake. So it’s surprising that the vintage styled wood-decked carriages are in fact no more than 20 years old, and some just a couple of months old. A modern kitchen serves sandwiches and of course Welsh rarebit (a version of cheese on toast) and a tea trolley does the rounds.

The journey passes through Caernafon Bay and the Lley Peninsuala, the old slate quarries and once at Bryn Gloch the Snowdonia National Park unfolds beyond. The valley narrows dramatically as we pass between mountains Moel Eilio and Mynydd Mawr.

Now it’s all alpine views and tumbling waterfalls towards Rhyd Ddu. Soon we climb to the summit of the line at Pitts Head and soon after the train begins its descent zig-zagging all the way down the hillside to Beddgelert. The top speed is 25mph so there’s time savour and digest what my eyes are devouring.

Welsh Highland railway
Welsh Highland railway
The entire length of the line is 25 miles all the way to Porthmadog, but I was disembarking at Beddgeert to make my way to Portmeirion.

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 most opulent lodgings. This five star hotel was established in 1897 and has long been a favourite amongst old Italian aristocracy. Soothe your sightseeing-worn limbs in the hydro-pool on the terrace or at the on-site spa.

Must visit
Following a large-scale regeneration project in the early 1990s, the old port or Porto Antico is now an oasis of waterfront restaurants and bars, complete with a panoramic lift, a tropical rainforest biosphere and Europe’s largest Aquarium.

Genoa arcade street
(c) Samueles
But, to experience Genoa at its most enchanting, wander around the tangle of narrow alleyways named “Carruggi” which unfurl behind the port and lead to impressive palaces like the Palazzo di San Giorgo, formerly one of Europe’s first banks and before that a prison for Venetian captives such as Marco Polo.

One of Genoa’s most splendid streets is the 250m long UNESCO protected Via Garibaldi or “Street of Kings”, a completely pedestrianised street lined with magnificent Sixteenth Century palazzi.

Genoa Piazza de Ferrari
Piazza de Ferrari (c) Kreactiva
Two of the most illustrious palaces – Palazzo Rosso and Palazzo Bianco – are now art galleries housing works of art from old masters, including Van Dyck, Caravaggio and Veronese. Take the glass lift to the panoramic roof at Palazzo Bianco for one of the finest views in the city.

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 Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park catching sockeye salmon in June and July and silver salmon in late August and September.

Getting there is an adventure in itself. I had to catch a small four-seater plane and the Beaver floatplane I was in skimmed over the emerald green expanse of Southeast Alaska and ended with a smooth landing on a calm and glassy Lake Naknek finally coasting up to a sandy beach at Brooks Camp.

If I was nervous about arriving at Katmai National Park I was more nervous about getting there in small plane with only one engine.

Bear & Floatplane c Jim Chamberlain
Bear & Floatplane (c) Jim Chamberlain
I knew any adventure to Alaska, even in the summer, would be weather dependent. I was there in late July and was lucky that it was warm, partly cloudy with patches of blue sky peeking through the cloud cover.

I couldn’t wait to get my camera out of my backpack and get going but first I had to attend “Bear School” by a Park Ranger before before continuing my trek to the bears. This lasted around 30 minutes and we learned about the bears and their habits and especially how to keep all of your parts intact. The rules of engagement are simple and easy to follow. Testament to that is that I still have all my parts even after having a very close encounter on the trail.