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Monthly Archives: July 2018

Trip to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a compact country, not much larger than Wales, but has ancient cities, hillside tea plantations, wildlife sanctuaries and, of course, glorious beaches.
Getting around the country is relatively simple, with a good network of buses and trains, but to get the most out of your visit the best way is to hire a car with a driver. It’s not expensive, less than £50 a day including the driver’s meals and accommodation, and it gives you the flexibility to stop whenever you want. The added benefit is that many of these drivers make excellent guides, just make sure they speak good English. You can do this itinerary in a week, but it makes sense to spend longer to give you time to linger.
Colombo
After a long flight, it’s worth stopping for a night in Colombo and the city is less than an hour from the airport. Of course like most Asian cities it’s rapidly growing a selection of high rise buildings, but it still retains much of its leafy charm, partly because investors shied away during the long civil war. Explore its narrow lanes, lined with colonial buildings to get a sense of the old Colombo and sights include the National Museum, the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple, the restored Old Dutch Hospital, and the busy markets of Pettah.
Galle
There’s new highway linking Colombo with the south and it only takes around two hours to cover the 128 Km to the city of Galle. The 18th century Dutch fort area is a UNESCO world heritage site and is the best example of a fortified European city in South Asia.
Remarkably, in spite of the boutique hotels and handicraft shops, it’s still a working town with the law courts and schools drawing locals every day. It can get hot here so walk the ramparts and get some cooling sea breezes, watching local boys leap into the ocean. The 17th century Dutch Reformed church is worth a visit, but best just to wander the narrow streets past tumbledown colonial buildings and soak in the atmosphere.
Turtle Hatchery
Heading east along the coast it’s worth visiting the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery. The beach here is a prime nesting site for turtles but locals have a taste for their eggs so they’re often stolen. The good folks at the hatchery either collect them from the beach, or buy them at the market, and incubate them until the hatchlings break out. They’re then released back into the sea after a few days. They also rescue injured turtles and you can see a few specimens here.
Nuwara Eliya
Turning north and climbing up to hill country, it’s a gruelling six hours on narrow winding roads to cover 253 km. The climate noticeably cools and the vegetation changes. It’s worth stopping at Ella, at 1,000 m, for scenic views of jungle covered mountains, notably through what they call Ella gap, a niche in the hills by the side of Ella Rock.
The road climbs further upwards and soon you’re in the cloud as you reach Nuwara Eliya at 1,868 m. This is the capital of the hill country and was founded by the British in 1846. It’s also known as Little England, since the buildings look like they’ve been transplanted from Surrey (a pretty part of South East England), complete with hedges and manicured lawns. Here hard drinking tea planters spent their leisure time, in between elephant and fox hunting trips. It still has a race course and of course, a huge golf course with an appropriate club house.
Tea Plantations
Even though the British are long gone, the tea plantations continue to thrive and the hillsides are covered in the emerald green bushes, dotted with workers still picking by hand. One of the tea factories has been imaginatively transformed into a hotel, complete with its own garden where you can try your hand at picking tea. You can taste the fruit of your labours, if you wait the two days it takes to dry the leaves. Instead I visit the Bluefield Tea Gardens Factory and see each stage of the process, of course accompanied by various tastings.
Kandy
It’s another three-hour drive and 85 km through the mist and drizzle to reach Kandy, Sri Lanka’s former capital. The town is tucked on the edge of an artificial lake, surrounded by green hills on all sides and it’s an attractive place. The big attraction is the Dalada Maligawa, or the Temple of the Tooth, where they have one of Buddha’s canines, kept hidden inside a Russian box of caskets. That doesn’t stop worshippers queuing up to see the monks opening the sacred sanctum twice a day. It’s a tremendous sight, with incense, drumming and exotic costumes adding to the sense of ceremony. There are usually cultural shows nearby with displays of traditional dancing and fire walking.
Sigiriya
Still heading north and descending to the plains, after 95 km and three hours driving, you reach Sigiriya, or Lion Rock. This Rock Fortress or “castle in the sky” was a royal citadel for 20 years in the 5th Century. It’s a massive monolith of red stone that rises 600 ft above ground and the climb to the summit is reached between the paws of a lion.
Beneath it are the remains of the Royal Palace landscaped with waterways and lakes and there’s also an excellent museum. On the way up there are well preserved frescoes depicting topless women and of course the view from the top is stunning. Signs warn of wasp attacks and they’ve been known to attack tourists, but there’s a caged shelter in the middle of the climb, just in case.
Minneriya National Park
There are a number of protected areas in the vicinity and Minneriya is known for its large herds of Elephants who gather to drink around the reservoir of the same name. It has all the ingredients of an African safari and you transfer to special vehicles to journey deep into the jungle.
I arrive in late afternoon and am rewarded by the sight of over 250 elephants milling around on the edge of the lake, some of them taking the opportunity to have an early evening bath, as the sun sinks on the horizon.
Polonnaruwa
Not far away is Polonnaruwa, the island’s medieval capital from the 11th to the 13th Centuries, before being abandoned to invaders from South India. It spreads over a huge area, fortified by three concentric walls and laid out with an irrigation system and clusters of temples and shrines. You’ll need your guide to drop you off at strategic points, otherwise distances are too great to walk.
The highlight is the Buddhist temple containing four colossal Buddhas carved out of the rock, sleeping, sitting and standing.
Passikudah Beach
A couple of hours east, is Passikudah, a small coastal village about 35 km from Batticaloa. What brings people here is its long bay, fringed with golden sands, and clear shallow water which makes it safe to bathe. The hotels are all recent developments and, although they’re clustered next to each other, are tastefully low rise and hidden in the palms.
At the far end of the beach fishermen still set out in their canoes every night using lights to attract squid, their main catch. It’s a pleasant place to relax but just be aware that it can take seven hours to drive back to the international airport in Colombo.

Trekking in Tajikistan

There is a place where the mountains stretch up to touch the sky, turquoise lakes shimmer like jewels against a dusty backdrop, and — so they say — Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander the Great, rises from the deep, dark waters on a full moon night, and grazes on the shore. History and legend here are intimately entwined, but one thing is for certain: the views alone will take your breath away in Tajikistan.
Where is Tajikistan?
Tajikistan is one of those funny places we know exists, but few people could actually place on the map. Nestled between China, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan it’s a small, mountainous state which was historically of great significance — Alexander the Great built cities here, it was central to the Silk Road, and the Great Game was played out along its rivers and passes — but in recent years it has fallen, undeservedly, into obscurity.
It’s all about the trekking
Thankfully, a new generation of trekkers, climbers, and other adventure seekers have decided it’s time for all that to change, and the Fann Mountains in northwestern Tajikistan look set to become one of the wildest and most exciting travel destinations of 2017.
Pioneering the development of trekking and tourism in Tajikistan is Luca Lässer, owner of Kalpak Travel, who fell in love with the ‘Stans whilst completing an exchange programme at the American University of Central Asia. He describes the Fann Mountains as “a magical destination [which] will quite literally take your breath away,” and as the peaks here soar to well over 5,000m, that’s no exaggeration!
The roads, often unmade, could do little more than cling to the mountainsides, rivers rushing hundreds of feet below, and a sheer face of rock above. Often I couldn’t see the sky: that required getting out of the vehicle and craning my neck back, staring straight up. The natural barrier created by the mountains was so high.
Amazing landscape
From the main road, we crossed a rickety metal bridge, rusted and barely holding together, and climbed and climbed, one hairpin bend after another. Clouds of dust blew up from the track, and on the barren slopes around us, there was little to see but scree.
But then we passed over a hump, and another bend, and laid out below us was a turquoise lake, the surface of the water glittering in the sunlight.  Around the lake, the vegetation was lush and jade green, a veritable oasis which until now had been completely hidden from view.
This lake was Iskanderkul, named for Alexander the Great. It is said that he came here whilst on campaign, and when his favourite horse, Bucephalus, died, he was buried in the lake. The shepherds will tell you that on a moonlit the ghost of this horse rises again, but though we watched intently from our campsite on the shore, we didn’t catch a glimpse of Bucephalus.
The people
Though the landscapes in the Fann often seem empty, in fact that’s far from the truth. People have lived here for millennia, and some of them have preserved their languages and cultures since ancient times. Their villages sit by the riverside, and in summer the shepherds drive their flocks to high meadows over mountain passes. And so my second fond memory is of the people, and in particular a family in Aini who took me in for the night. The concrete wall around their plot encompassed not only the family home, but also a beautifully tended garden. The grandmother of the house sat with me beneath the apricot tree, telling stories I’ll never understand. But in the warmth of the sunshine, relaxed in the company of new friends, there was no better place in the world to while away an afternoon.
Access
Unlike the Alps or the Pyrenees, the Fann Mountains are hardly easily accessible, but their remoteness is part of their charms. You won’t find yourself following another trekking party up the pass, or competing for space at the best camping spots. The attraction of this wilderness is exactly that — it’s still wild. And the thrilling thing is that it’s waiting to be explored.
Practical Information
Kalpak Travel has 13-day trekking tours to the Fann Mountains, with scheduled departures in July and August. The tour costs €1,690 and this includes ground transportation, accommodation, meals, camping equipment, and services of an English speaking guide.
There are no direct flights from the UK to Tajikistan, but there are reasonable connections from London to Dushanbe (the capital) with Turkish Airlines, Air Baltic, and Air Astana. You will need to apply for an e-visa before you travel, and this currently costs $50. No additional permits are required to visit the Fann Mountains.

Travel to Los Angeles, California

The legendary home of the stars combines sun-kissed beaches with buzzy neighbourhoods, world-class culture and several of the planet’s most famous theme parks.
L.A. is a collection of villages, each with their own unique character, and most visitors will find a Westside location – between downtown and the beach – the most convenient place for exploration. Public transport has greatly improved in recent years, linking downtown by fast and frequent bus with Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Westwood and the beach hubs of Venice and Santa Monica, while the Metro runs east to Pasadena and north to the entertainment hub of Universal City at lower prices than Londoners have to pay for Tube rides.
Hollywood
Hollywood is unmissable for first-timers, who will want to see the handprints of the famous immortalised in cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the most famous of all the ornate picture palaces which were created during cinema’s golden age. Grauman’s is still a functioning cinema where it’s great to take in a new release, and equally unmissable is the Hollywood Bowl, where every kind of music is performed in a beautiful outdoor setting from June till October.
Universal Studios
To the north lies Universal Studios, offering a great day out enjoying movie-related rides as well as a unique tour past the Psycho house and other famous film locations. Major acts play at the Universal Amphitheatre and the Greek, perhaps the world’s most beautiful and intimate setting to watch a gig.
West Hollywood
LA’s most relaxed and buzzy shopping, dining and nightlife are centred on West Hollywood, which connects Hollywood proper with Beverly Hills. Here Melrose Avenue and Third Street, running parallel, are lined with boutiques, cafes and restaurants offering something a bit different from the norm. Joan’s on Third Street has the best breakfasts, while the city’s most interesting lunch offering is the delightfully retro Farmer’s Market at Third and Fairfax, an LA institution where you can pick a dish from stalls offering everything from Balinese to Brazilian, Cajun to BBQ specialities, and eat them at communal tables in a relaxed, sun-dappled setting.
Sunset Strip
Sunset Strip, sitting on a hill at the northern end of West Hollywood, can’t be missed; rubberneck the huge billboards, have lunch or a sundowner at one of its outdoor cafes – try Le Petit Four – and enjoy the view over a million twinkling city lights as the sun goes down.
Beverly Hills
Beverly Hills, where the stars spend their money, is a great place to while away an afternoon walking the beautiful streets around Rodeo Drive. There are plenty of places to take a load off between window-shopping the designer stores; Nate’n’Al’s on Beverly Drive is a haunt of filmland’s movers and shakers, and makes some of the town’s best deli sandwiches.
Santa Monica
From here it’s a half-hour ride to Santa Monica, the biggest of LA’s seaside resorts with good beaches, a lively pier and a plethora of bars, cafes and restaurants. The Border Grill offers great Mexican food in a sophisticated, colourful setting; its signature dishes can also be enjoyed at the twice-weekly outdoor farmers’ market, a great place to shop if you’re self-catering.
Venice
While Santa Monica is a family favourite, singles and couples may prefer edgier Venice to the south. Here Main Street offers cutting-edge shops and funky cafes, while the main attraction is a wander through the canal system connecting some of the city’s most enviable homes. Muscle Beach is the place to enjoy a stroll down one of the city’s liveliest promenades. For dinner, head for Abbot Kinney Boulevard, where Hal’s is a great local hangout – ask for the burger, even if it’s not listed on the menu.
Downtown
Downtown shouldn’t be missed by foodies, who will love the Grand Central food market, where you can eat as well as browse, while culture-lovers can enjoy concerts at Disney Hall or world-class exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art. From here the road leads south to Anaheim and Disneyland or north-east to Pasadena, a beautiful town of arts and crafts houses with its own museums, charming little restaurants and elegant leafy boulevards for strolling.

Trip to Barbados, Caribbean

Name: Barbados
Location: The most easterly in the Caribbean chain of islands in the North Atlantic Ocean, northeast of Venezuela. It sits almost a hundred miles east of its closest neighbour.
Population: 285,000 (UN, 2016). The ethnic mix is primarily African descent (90%) followed by Asian and mixed races (6%) and Caucasian (4%).
Capital: Bridgetown in the parish of St Michael on the southwest coast.
Other key cities: Speightstown in St Peter, Oistins in Christ Church and Holetown/Sunset Crest in St James.
Language: The official language is English but the Bajan dialect is widely spoken.
Airport: Grantley Adams International Airport
Area: 430 sq km (166 sq miles): 21 miles long (34km) and 14 miles (23 km) wide.  It is divided into eleven parishes ranging from St Lucy in the North to Christ Church in the south.
Major religion: Christianity – Mostly Anglican but there are also 100 other religions practised.

Life expectancy:
 71 years (men), 78 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 Barbadian dollar = 100 cents is tied to the US $. US dollars are accepted island wide. Expect an exhange of $2.00 Barbadian dollars for each US dollar. Other currencies fluctuate so check with thelocal banks.
Credit Cards: Most stores and restaurants accept major credit cards and traveller’s cheques.
Banks: Banks are generally open Monday to Thursday from 8am-3pm and Friday 8an-5pm.
Shop Hours: Supermarkets are open daily from 8am and close close between 7pm and 10pm in the evenings. Other retail outlets are generally open Monday to Saturday at 9am and close at 5pm (2pm on Saturday). Shops are only open on Sunday in December.
Tax: 15% VAT is usually included in prices. Hotels will add 7.5% VAT and 10% service charge to your final bill.
Tipping: Usually 10-15%
Internet domain: .bb
International dialling code: +1246
Electricity: 115/230V 60Hz
Water: Water in Barbados is pure and safe to drink from the tap.
Temperature: Average daytime temperature ranges between 80-87°F (27-30°C).
When to go to Barbados
Barbados has two seasons: the rainy season and the dry season. The rainy season lasts from May to November. The weather is hot but there are short spots of heavy rain. The busiest time is from December to April. Rates are a little higher at this time and some hotels may require you to buy some kind of meal plan, which is usually not required in the low season.
In mid-January, the Barbados Jazz Festival is a weeklong event jammed with performances by international artists, jazz legends, and local talent.
In February, the weeklong Holetown Festival is held at the fairgrounds to commemorate the date in 1627 when the first European settlers arrived in Barbados.
Gospelfest occurs in May and hosts performances by gospel headliners from around the world.
Dating from the 19th century, the Crop Over Festival, a monthlong festival similar to Carnival beginning in July and ending on Kadooment Day (a national holiday), marks the end of the sugarcane harvest.
Getting Around Barbados
Public Transport
Public transport comprises buses and minibuses readily available. The fare is $1.50 and it is best to have the exact money ready.
Government-owned Transport Board buses are the largest on the road – blue with yellow stripes and license plates with ‘BM’ prefixes.
Privately-owned minibuses are yellow with blue stripes and license plates have ‘B’ prefixes.
Privately-owned Route Taxis are white with burgundy stripes and license plates bearing the ‘ZR’ prefix.
Bus stops fall into two categories are are marked : (1) ‘To City’ meaning that the end of the route will be in Bridgetown and (2) ‘Out of City’ meaning that the bus is driving away from Bridgetwon and will complete its route before returning to the City.
When at the bus stop put out your hand to stop the bus.
Bus terminals are found in Bridgetwon, Oistins and Speightstown.
Taxis
Regular taxis have license plates with ‘Z’ prefix. Many have set fares for most routes, but do enquire beforehand.
Mini vans have license plates bearing the ‘ZM’ prefix. As they charge their own fares be sure to ask in advance what the fare will be.
Driving around
The UK style drive on the LEFT rule applies.
Traffic at many major intersections is regulated by roundabouts. Traffic in roudabouts flow in a clockwise direction and where there are two lanes, stay in the inner lane until you are ready to exit – then move with caution to the other (leftmost) lane to exit.
You need a valid national or international driver’s licence to be able to obtain a temporary Barbados driver’s licence from Police stations, licensing authorities and authorised car rental companies. Fees are US$5 for a 2-month permit and US$50 for a 1 year permit.
Need to Know
If you buy duty free cigarettes, you will be taxed on arrival in Barbados. Each 200 carton will attract $10.10 duty free tax, $37.60 Excise tax plus and Environmental tax of 3% and a further 15% VAT.
Warning
Narcotics are widely smoked on the island but be aware that all drugs, including cannabis, are illegal. Penalties for possession can be up to 20 years. So though you may be offered cannabis on the streets and on the beaches, you accept at your peril.
Highlights
  • Tyrol Cot Heritage Village
  • Bridgetown
  • Holetown – the oldest town in Barbados
  • St Lawrence
  • Barbados Wildlife Reserve
  • Harrison’s Cave
  • Welchman Hall Gully
  • See also: What is there to see and do in Barbados

Shopping in the Milan, Italy

Milanese architecture is nothing to write home about, the streets are mundane decorated only with graffiti and apart from a few choice sights such as the stunning Duomo Cathedral, Milan is somewhat ordinary.
Yet Milan remains a popular short break destination mainly because shoppers love to travel. It’s absurd, but shopping abroad seems so much more of an event than doing it back home. The couture that makes it into your suitcase feels like a piece of wearable culture. Better still if it’s a bargain!
So, if retail therapy is what you are after, here’s where to look:
Designer Fashion
The best designer shopping Milan is within a rectangular shaped area dubbed Quadrilatero d’Oro or golden triangle. In particular the most stylish streets are Via Montenapoleone (known locally as Monteapo) and its parallel street Via della Spiga. The two are connected by Via Sant’ Andrea. It’s hard to believe that the entire length is a mere fifteen minute walk because with designers such as Gucci, Prada, Versace, Valentino and Ferragamo in Via Montenapoleone; Dolce & Gabbana, Gigli, and yet more Prada in Via Spiga; Armani, Fendi, Trussardi and Missoni in Via Sant’Andrea it’s easy to spend a whole day in this tiny section of Milan.
Fashion of the more terrestrial sort can be found in the pedestrianised area of Via dei Fiori Chiari (by the Brera museum) and in Via Solferino. There are also shops that cater for those who love to wear designer clothes for less such as shoe shops and warehouses selling off last year’s designer styles in Corso Buenos Aires, near the station. Factory outlets such as R J Outlet (Via Zumbini 37) offer good value on all the designer clothes as does Vestistock (Piazza Lavater Via Ramazzini, 11) for leather bags and shoes.
Furniture
Design lovers should also cross over Piazza San Babila – at the southern end of Via Montenapoleone – to Corso Monforte, Via Durini and the surrounding streets which are overflowing with showrooms selling fabulously designed chairs, lamps and vases.
Bric-a-Brack Portobello Road Style
The trendy area around the Navigli with its lattice work of canals just outside the centre, is Milan’s version of Portobello Road, with antiques, ethnic shops, secondhand fashion and record shops.
When to go?
The sales – saldi – happen in January and July. Expect discounts of up to 50%. These are also the times to buy the latest must-have fashion items from the new collections before everyone else.
Milan is especially renowned for its twice yearly Fashion Week which takes off at the end of February and the beginning of October. Though you may well bump into celebrities and well heeled fashionistas, it is an extremely hectic time in Milan.
Opening times are generally 9.30am-1pm and 3-7.30pm, though a number of the boutiques and larger stores stay open through the lunchbreak. On Mondays, food shops are open only in the morning, other shops only in the afternoon.
What to buy?
Depending on the exchange rate, prices in the big-name Italian designer boutiques are anywhere between 20% and 40% less than in London or New York. Shoes are worth buying too: try the two Alfonso Garlando shops, facing each other at the lower end of Via Madonnina, near the Brera or La Vetrina di Beryl (Via dello Statuto 4). If you find yourself buying more than you can carry, the designer boutiques are happy to arrange for shopping bags to be sent back to the hotel. The larger hotels, such as the Four Seasons, ensure that their guests get the star treatment by ringing ahead to fix appointments.
Bedlinen and towels are also good buys – try Frette (Via Manzoni 11), the Italian bourgeoisie’s supplier of choice. C & C (Via della Spiga 50) has beautiful silk cushions, linen tablecloths, vases, furniture and tableware. High Tech (Piazza XXV Aprile 12) is good for Alessi coffee-makers and household items.
Where to Stay?
For sheer opulence, luxury and ‘superbe’ service try Four Seasons Hotel. A dramatically reborn 15th century convent with 118 rooms and suites, the intimate Four Seasons is just a few steps from Milan’s couture houses and financial district on the exclusive Via Gesù, between Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spiga.
For a designer experience, try Hotel Principe di Savoia. There’s a free limo service to take guests to the front door of Versace, and from spring you can request Luxury Portal TV, a new service that puts guests at the top of the toughest designer waiting lists.
Fancy a townhouse experience? try at Townhouse 31. Lovely contemporary interiors adorn this 19th century palazzina.
Did you know?
  • Campari was invented in Milan in a bar called the Camparino. Unlike its legacy, the bar is sadly been liquidated.
  • The Giorgio Armani superstore on Via Manzon is the biggest one in the world.
  • The original Prada shop is in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. It dates back to 1913.
  • If you have a car, you can head to Serravalle Scrivia. An hour’s drive will reward you with a designer-outlet village with more than 150 stores including Bulgari, Moschino, Frette, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and La Perla. Prices are slashed by up to 70%.