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Monthly Archives: August 2018

90 minutes visit London

England is truly a magnificent keeper of its heritage, one that lives in the bricks and mortar of these amazing manor houses. And you can visit them. If only walls could talk:

1. Ightham Mote, Kent

Igtham Mote, Kent was hailed by David Starkey as “one of the most beautiful and interesting of English country houses”.

Six miles south of Sevenoaks, this 14th-century moated manor house is one of the Garden of England’s hidden gems. A former home to Medieval knights and Victorian society figures, it’s surrounded by the most tranquil of gardens with an orchard, small lakes and woodland walks that meander off into the surrounding countryside.

The historian David Starkey, impressed by its atmospheric central courtyard, the house’s Great Hall, crypt, and Tudor painted ceiling, has described it as “one of the most beautiful and interesting of English country houses”.

Owned by the National Trust since 1985, it’s worth a visit for the estate that surrounds it alone. Three designated walks take in all the flora and fauna of the Kent countryside, through an ancient bluebell wood or past 19th-century hopper’s huts and even the natural spring that feeds the moat.

A particular delight is to wander south, away from the house, climb a five-bar gate and stumble across one of the most charming village cricket pitches imaginable. The English countryside at its best.

Tickets: vary but up to £11 for the whole property during peak times of spring/summer.

2. Hatfield House, Hertfordshire

Hatfield House featured in blockbuster films such as Harry Poter and Shakespeare in Love

It’s all too easy to step into what was the childhood home of Queen Elizabeth I and imagine you’re on a film set.

The grand Jacobean manor house has served as the backdrop for scenes from major movies including Harry Potter, Tomb Raider, Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech.

It sits in a vast swathe of land only 20 miles north east of the capital and a few minutes’ drive from the A1, encompassing formal and informal gardens complete with a maze, a children’s farm and play area, endless acres of rolling countryside to lose yourself in and even its own 12th century church.

The house itself promises everything you’d expect; from chandeliers and tapestries to a vast library and armoury and one of the finest examples of a Victorian kitchen in the country.

But the hidden bonus here is the fabulous stable yard and the period roads and buildings that lead to it. Flanked by an eclectic mix of buildings converted from the days when the royal stud lived there, is a café that spills outdoors when the weather’s fine and sits among cobbles and a circular fountain in which children toss coins to make wishes.

Tickets: Free for restaurants and stable yard, £11 (adult) includes the west garden and park (£19, incudes entry to house)

3. Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire in the fairy tale town of Woodstock

Blenheim is an awe-inspiring 18th century country house in the heart of the fairy tale town that is Woodstock. It is the principal home of the 12th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and, more significantly, the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.

A true Baroque masterpiece, the house, seen by many as the greatest of its kind in Britain, sits amongst more than 2,000 acres of Capability Brown parkland and the most elegantly landscaped formal gardens. There’s a miniature train that transports families to pleasure gardens with its adventure playground, tall-hedge maze and butterfly house.
But everything about the palace is vast; from its 180ft library to its 67ft high hallway.

And outside, it’s on the same scale; big enough, in fact, to host events like the International Horse Trials. So if you’re looking for room to ramble, be warned: you’ll need to be fit to enjoy it fully and have serious amounts of time.

Best time to visit? Other than Spring when the daffodils are in full bloom, it’s Christmas when for more than a month the gardens are turned into a wonderland of light to create an hour-long circular walk past singing trees, a scented fire garden and lawns set ablaze by thousands of colourful fibre optics.

Tickets: Adult £24.90 (£13.50 for children over five)

4. Syon House, Essex

Panorama of The Great Conservatory and Fountain at Syon House Pic by Maxwell Hamilton

This is where the Duke of Northumberland lives when he’s in London and the closest of the country houses in terms of distance from the city centre. Built in Tudor times, it underwent a thorough transformation at the hands of the neoclassical architect Robert Adam and bears many of his hallmarks. Portraits by Van Dyck and Lely hang on the walls on what is the last surviving ducal residence and country estate, in Greater London.

Only nine miles from Charing Cross, you can quickly find yourself immersed in gardens renowned for their extensive collection of rare plants and trees, all of which surround a spectacular conservatory which dates back to the 1820s and was long known for housing plants from all over the world.

There’s even a frozen spectacle that is an ice house, built over 48 hours when the lake froze over, a formal Italianate garden and a Capability Brown lake overlooking water-meadows. So, even if you don’t want to step foot inside the house, it’s worth the trip for the chance to stroll in 100 acres of parkland and among some of the most spectacular trees in the country, including ancient oaks that date back to the 1600s.

Tickets: Syon House, Garden & Great Conservatory £12.50 (children over five, £5.50)

5. Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire

Woburn Abbey has spectacular views of the deer park

Woburn itself is about 40 minutes from drive up the M1 and about five miles south of Milton Keynes. It’s best approached from junction 12 where you can head towards Flitwick and detour off through some of the most charming villages in the county.

That’ll bring you to a small rise that opens up to spectacular views of the deer park. There’s a 20 mph speed limit to help you avoid them and enjoy the view. The Abbey entrance is on the left (the wildlife park is on the right) and, once through the entrance, you’ve a two-mile drive through the grounds, past the house, a lake and an avenue of trees to the main entrance.

Again, there’s no need to go into the house to enjoy the most relaxing of times strolling a multi-faceted array of landscaped gardens, visiting the various historic exhibitions housed in the courtyards, or taking in the scents from the orangery.

The far corner, over a wooden bridge, houses a maze and the entrance yard houses one of the most charming cafes where ducks will snap at your feet for scraps on the terrace on warm days.

Having come all that way, it’s probably worth doubling back through the deer park afterwards into the town, just for a stroll through the high street. A bonus: the car park is free.

Tickets: Abbey Gardens and deer park, £17 (£7.50 for gardens and deer park)

The Weekend in Philadelphia

The great thing about Philadelphia is that downtown is less than 30 minutes from the airport. Add that it’s only around seven hours from the UK on a direct flight with Delta Air Lines, then the city definitely becomes viable for a long weekend.
It has all the buzz of New York, but is obviously smaller and that means you can walk everywhere. There’s lots to see including the birthplace of US independence, some great art museums and a unique submarine experience.
Independence National Historical Park
Start with the Constitutional Walking Tour. It has nothing to do with your health, but takes you around the Independence National Park area, the heart of historic Philadelphia. Independence Hall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built in 1753, where the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were debated and adopted in the late 18th century is the star attraction.
Across the street is the Liberty Bell, originally in the steeple of Independence Hall, and paraded around the US for 25 years as a symbol of American independence. The park also contains the first US bank buildings and the 1775 Carpenters’ Hall, the venue for the First Continental Congress of the United Colonies of North America. At the opposite end is the modern interactive museum, the National Constitution Centre.
National Museum of American Jewish History
Just off Independence Mall is the only US museum dedicated exclusively to exploring and interpreting the American Jewish experience.
Four floors tell the story, starting with the first Jews who came from Brazil, escaping persecution by the Portuguese in 1654, through the migration of millions of immigrants from Europe in the late 19th century, to post WW2 stories of refugees from war-torn Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and the Soviet Union.
The ground floor has stories of real people and their artefacts – including Steven Spielberg’s first camera, Irving Berlin’s piano and Even Einstein’s pipe.
Independence Seaport Museum
A short walk from here is the waterfront area along the Delaware River, Penn’s Landing, home to the Independence Seaport Museum. It tells the history of seafaring in Philadelphia, but moored outside are two vessels well worth a visit.
The 1892 Cruiser Olympia is the world’s oldest floating steel warship and the sole surviving naval ship of the Spanish-American War. It was decommissioned in 1921 and is a must-see.
Below it is the 1944 Submarine Becuna which prowled the Pacific for Japanese ships, sinking three of them. A narrow ladder leads you down into the cramped bowels of the crew quarters, engine room and the torpedo tubes. It can’t have been much fun spending time underwater.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia is noted for the quality of its art collections and city’s Museum of Art is the third largest in the country. You may remember seeing it in the 1976 movie Rocky when Sylvester Stallone ran up the front steps, and there’s a statue to commemorate the occasion.
Inside there are Renaissance masterpieces, an excellent French Impressionist collection and works by Picasso, Duchamp and Matisse. The American art gallery has fine examples of paintings by Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins.
Nearby is the Rodin Museum which houses the largest collection of the sculptor’s works outside Paris.
The Barnes Foundation
If you are still craving art, head for the Barnes Foundation. Between 1912 and 1951 wealthy chemical engineer, Albert Barnes, built up this collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern paintings.
Among its 3,000 masterpieces, are 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis, and seven Van Goghs. Although it only moved to its present site in 2012, the rooms are laid out exactly as Barnes intended. He mixes time periods, geographic areas, and styles to create his “wall ensembles” which lead to a certain amount of artistic indigestion by the end of your visit.
Murals
It’s good to get out into the fresh air, yet there’s no escaping the art. This is the mural capital of the world and the city has more than 4,000 examples, painted over thirty years and still being added to. You can get a map from the tourist office but it’s more to to take a two hour Mural Mile Walking Tour and learn the stories of the people, places, and themes of each mural.
Reading Terminal Market
Established in 1892, this is the nation’s oldest continuously operating farmers’ market and is home to over 80 merchants. You can buy fresh produce, meat and seafood here but the main attraction is the wide variety of local and international cuisine. As well as a range of Pennsylvania Dutch specialties, there’s Mexican, Thai, German, Cajun, and Chinese on offer. If you just want breakfast, then there are five bakeries to keep you happy.
Frank Lloyd Wright Synagogue
Beth Sholom is located in the Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park and is the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Completed in 1959, the glazed glass pyramidal tower reflects two dominant metaphors, the tent and the mountain to convey a sense of collective sacredness. The pyramidal glass tower fills the interior with natural light and the sanctuary’s chandelier, made of panels of coloured Plexiglas resembles a three dimensional kite – Wright called it a “Light Basket”.

Climbing Gunung Merapi, most active volcano

Every now and then life pulls the rug from under your feet and leaves you lying on your back – this sibling-esque prank is often referred to as a ‘reality check’. Dangling off the side of Merapi with one hand on a fern root and the other on the arm of Khalid was my mine. I had taken too lightly to climbing the most active volcano in Southeast Asia, and when the path I was walking on suddenly gave way, it turned out to be a mentally draining, yet emotionally rewarding challenge.
Known to locals as Fire Mountain, Gunung Merapi sits on the border between Central Java and Yogyakarta in Indonesia. There have been regular eruptions since 1548, with the most recent in 2010 where 30 people died.
Our walk was to start at 4:30am, under night at Desa Deles, the ranger’s hut at 1,300 metres. By 10am that day I’d be up 2,930 metres high on the summit of Merapi.
The smell of sulfur was in the air, and our torches pierced through a feint haze that slid up the cliffside, our visibility was low and we had to mind shrub, after fern when making our way up the gentle incline.
Our three Javanese guides were trekking without torchlight, one was even in sandals, they used the moon and the stars to guide them.
When the sun rose the air felt cold and we had our first rest break. Looking back down our path we could see the vast settlement that bowed down by the foot of Merapi. It’s hard to believe that so many people still choose to live there, but locals have their reasons; ideal farming soil and religious beliefs. Many believe that the previous eruptions are a result of spirits being angered by not receiving gifts, which they offer them at the summit annually.
The sun rise rays was flowing through the trees and the hike was about to get harder, as the gentle slalom route suddenly inclined along the cliff face.
We had to wrestle with branches, and grab what we could to pull ourselves higher. We’d sometimes encounter clearings in the jungle where we could peer out, always seeing Merapi to our left.
The group of 15 people was now dwindling, as experienced hikers thought they had met their match. Even the hike leader, German Carl had suspiciously caught a chesty cough when the path started to get steeper around 2,000 metres up. In the end five of us remained, with the guide in sandals who had now fashioned a ragged towel into a head scarf that made him look like Little Bo Peep.
Those that remained were determined to conquer Merapi whether our blisters bled, our water ran out or Bo Peep lost his sandals. The steep incline under thick forest meant that we would gain altitude at a faster pace, and gradually the hills, and rice paddys below shrunk and cold streams of air came and went as we entered different air pockets. We found ourselves alone on the side of the mountain, no sign of Indonesian settlements in the distance, or anybody on the mountain top.
The ash was becoming difficult to grip with my shoes, and I found myself bouldering, up vines and branches just to follow the path. It was then that I misplaced my foot and the side of the path that I was on collapsed. Dangling off a cliff face isn’t like they show it in the Mission Impossible films; I wasn’t coolly gripping the edge of the cliff with my fingers, nor was I suspended up in mid-air like a character from Looney Toons, instead I was holding onto a fern root for dear life as Khalid grabbed my arm and yanked me back up.
Shortly after our stop at around 2,500 metres (10:30 am), we reached the dusty, dead plain of Devil’s Bazaar. This is where the locals gather every year to place their offerings to calm the spirits of Merapi. The volcano has erupted every 5 – 10 years without fail, yet the locals still make the treacherous climb to hopefully bring peace between themselves and the mountain.
With every step a rock would tumble down and ash would be kicked up into our shoes and mouth. We passed weather stations that looked like they hadn’t been touched since the Seventies, and yellowing shrubs trying to survive as we continued our walk through what felt like the world’s most depressing desert getaway. We were now face-to-face with the clouds that wrapped around our ankles and passed along the cliff tops.
The head of Merapi stood above us and the surrounding wasteland with the white haze of sulfur circling it like a halo, we had reached the final stretch.
With smoke rising from the peak we began our ascent. The remaining point was like an old pub fireplace covered in ash and dust which covered our faces as we tried to scramble up the cliffside on all fours.
It was slippery. Every step we took we fell two steps down. Even Bo Peep in sandals seemed to tire, as more dust kicked up into our faces and the wind blew the clouds and ash into our sides. But I had to see the top, and so I pushed up the cliff face, hopping from rock to rock.
Standing on the shoulder of a giant, when I broke through the clouds I was surrounded by a deep blue and the air felt clearer. Finally I had reached the summit. I clambered up to the peak, which was an uneven rock around the width of a boardwalk and surrounded by a 200 metre crater drop which was covered by eery sulfurous fumes that seemed to escape from every rock crack. I was an ant on a pen nib, anxiously looking around, watching my step. The others joined me, and we waited a while in silence as the clouds sifted through our hair, and the monster of Merapi quietly slept.
We had to get down before nightfall, and luckily our guide knew a few tricks to get us down safely and quickly, no helicopter or ski lift. With our feet we skied down the side of the mountain, kicking up dust and dislodging rocks.
It was a huge challenge, but the summit will reward you in its own special way.

Mob Museum in Las Vegas

Las Vegas Mob Museum celebrated its first birthday on February 14, 2013 and shares the day with St Valentine. It tells two stories, the Mob story and the story of the law.
Throughout the museum, there are some of the most infamous Mob artefacts, such as the wall from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the barber chair where Albert Anastasia was murdered.
Ellen Knowlton, who retired in 2006 as FBI agent in charge in Las Vegas and was at the helm of the not-for-profit museum’s organization during conception, said FBI officials have shared photographs, transcripts of wiretaps and histories of efforts to kneecap organized crime in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. She comments:

“Despite the sort of edgy theme, this museum is historically accurate and it tells the true story of organized crime.”

It opened on February 14, 2012 in a brick federal building that was the centerpiece of this dusty town of 5,100 residents when it began in 1933. In 1950, the three-story building hosted a hearing by Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver’s special investigating committee on the rackets.
The stories of mob’s biggest players including Al Capone, Whitey Bulger, Bugsy Siegel, John Gotti are revealed.
It was Bugsy Siegel who pioneered the transformation of this one-time desert stopover into a glittering tourist mecca, opening the $6 million Flamingo hotel on the fledgling Las Vegas Strip in 1946 with financial backing from Lansky.
The movie-star handsome Siegel was rubbed out six months later in Beverly Hills, perhaps because he angered the mob with cost overruns on the hotel.
Spilotro and Rosenthal were associates in the 1970s, when Rosenthal ran several casinos, including the Stardust. Spilotro was killed in 1986 and buried in an Indiana cornfield.
Organized crime was eventually driven out of Las Vegas in the 1970s and ’80s by the FBI, local police and prosecutors, state crackdowns and casino purchases by corporate interests.
The Mob was brought to justice, including Joe Petrosino, Eliot Ness and Estes Kefauver. The museum has the actual courtroom where one of the 14 federal Kefauver Hearings was held in the early 1950s.
Many of these stories have been dramatized by Hollywood in such movies as Bugsy, The Godfather and Casino. But documenting Mob history was not easy.
Dennis Barrie, who directed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the popular International Spy Museum in Washington designed the museum to show how organized crime and the fight against it shaped modern life. He says.
Entrance to the Museum costs $19.95 for adults and $13.95 for children and students.

Travel to Palm Springs, California

Crafted out of the desert, Palm Springs still rocks nearly a century after it was created. Just ask Obama. The former US President is a regular visitor and he is just one of a long list of superstars who have holidayed or indeed lived here.

Glitterati of yesteryear would escape to Palm Springs from their gruelling filming schedules to enjoy some rest and relaxation reassured that they were less than 2 hours away from Hollywood should they be called back urgently.

This is the kind of town where you can spend a swell night in Twin Palms, the house where Sinatra threw his legendary cocktail parties or rent the home on Ladera Circle, where Elvis honeymooned with Priscilla. Or take a spin along freeway Bob Hope Drive. Turn up here in January and you could spend your time star spotting when the Palm Springs International Film Festival attracts the Clooneys of the world into town.

This celebrity-imbued region and its nine manicured resorts has in recent years, become thought of as a pensioners paradise; albeit, vitamin-boosted, healthy, wealthy silver-haired city refugees. For many it’s the dry desert climate and guaranteed sunshine for at least 10 months of the year that keeps them coming back. But things are changing with swanky restaurants and funky hotels now filling up to the brim with the next generation of holiday-makers.

Things to do in Palm Springs

Palm Springs is set in a tea-cup shaped valley and is completely surrounded by mountains that rise to nearly 11,000 ft at an angle of 75 degrees. In between the peaks are 54 miles of lush hiking trails, interesting rock formations and lovely waterfalls that nature lovers adore.

You can see it all when you alight onto Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. A rotating gondola rises 8,500 feet across two and a half miles of amazing views on its way up and down. Or stay at the top to explore, as this is the gateway to the cliffs of Chino Canyon.

On ground level there is the designer shopping especially in the palm-lined, highly manicured El Paseo, dubbed the Rodeo Drive of the Desert. In the town centre the art scene is thriving. Antique shops and those selling arty interiors unfold along North Palm Canyon drive.

The Backstreet Art District is easy to miss yet worth seeking out on South Cherokee Way. A community of a dozen or so acclaimed artists have opened up shop offering an opportunity to spend an hour or so milling and perhaps buying unique artwork.

The townsfolk have cleverly turned its last century provenance into a tourist trade. It simply loves to show off its quaintly retro architecture – the largest concentration of mid-20th century architecture in the world.

Get there in December and the boutique hotels and historic inns throw their doors open for public Walk of the Inns tours. Walking from one retro-designed hotel to another gives an interesting peek into the minds of past architects and their creations from 100-year old adobe inns to Mediterranean inspired villas. I particularly loved the motel with a kidney-shaped pool and ornamental pink flamingos. Apparently, Marilyn Monroe did too.

Those with a penchant for history and culture may find the Palm Springs Historical Society of interest. It is housed in an adobe house built by John McCallum who was the first white settler in Palms Springs. It is full of antiques and Indian artifacts, tools and images. Also, check out the Art Museum and the Architecture and Design Center.

If like Obama you love to play golf, there are several to choose such as the championship Indian Wells golf course looking lovely with its mountain backdrop and water features.

Proof Palm Springs used to be the desert

I had to pinch myself to remember that this land had been desert for more than 11,000 years and by the time I had wined, dined, spa’d and tee’d off with the local trendies it dawned on me that I had no choice; I had to go on a jeep tour to get a glimpse of this region’s true nature. The tour was a fascinating drive to the lands where the Cahuilla people lived 400 years ago.

I could see the San Andreas Fault where the collision of Pacific and North American plates have created a twisted and tormented landscape that would not look out of place at the Tate. Our guide tells us that palms are not trees, they are monocots – “think grass on steroids” she said. The landscape here is phenomenal and this is where you actually get to see the palm springs.

Where to eat in Palm Springs

The town is full of designer-diners such as the amazing and plushly decorated, three-levelled Lulu on South Palm Canyon Drive.

In the town centre located on the corner of South Indian Canyon and Arenas Road the Johannes restaurant offers some truly tasty Austrian dining. The menu has a Schnitzel lover’s menu including the classic Weiner or chicken varieties alongside more unusual offerings such as Mama’s with tomato and gruyere and fonina cheese. Traditional deserts include a sumptuous strudel, tiramissu and chocolate mousse.

In El Paseo, the region’s shopping area, a lively joint is the Tommy Bahama shopping and restaurant combo – a retail recipe that seems to be popular in the US and for a little more authenticity I nipped out to the Coachella Valley to dine in the Jackalope Ranch restaurant where meat dishes are served with live entertainment in its wild west style saloon.

When to Go to Palm Springs

From January to May the weather is warm but not too hot and sunny. During the summer months, the weather can be extremely hot, but then again, some like it hot.

Palm Springs – need to know

Where to stay: Ace Hotel – a funky, retro style, motel-cum-hotel with some great mod cons and a pleasant, come-as-you-are vibe. Read our review here.