This is default featured slide 5 title
 

Category Archives: Travel

Seven of the Most Beautiful Gardens in World

If you missed the Chelsea Flower Show and are still looking for inspiration for your garden help is at hand. We pick out seven fabulous gardens that you can weave into your next holiday.

1. Monet’s Garden, Giverny, France

It’s unlikely that any other garden will have been painted as often as Monet’s in the small French town of Giverny. Some of his most famous works were of this garden. The landscape includes archways of climbing plants and coloured shrubs, the water garden, a Japanese bridge and the water lily pond as well as beautiful patches of wisteria and azaleas.

2. Villa Lante, Rome, Italy

These gardens are the work of Cardinal Gambara whose love of outdoor living and eating al fresco was the inspiration for creating these gorgeous gardens. It is a Mannerist garden designed to surprise and comprises a harmonious choreography of cascades, fountains and dripping grottoes achieved by Tommaso Ghinucci, a hydraulics engineer.

3. Château de Versailles, near Paris, France

The grand home of Louis XIV and its exquisite Versailles gardens are nothing short of decadent. The gardens sprawl over 800 hectares of land landscaped by Andre Le Notre in the classic French garden style.

4. Sanssouci Palace Gardens, Berlin, Germany

Surrounding the former summer palace of the King of Prussia, Frederik the Great in Potsdam, these grounds are splayed out in an intimate baroque style. The king was inspired by Versailles and wanted to compete. The terraces have low grapevines and niches planted with fig trees. The lower levels have the fountains, statues, ornamental gardens and panterres and the borders are planted with a mix of colours and textures of perennials giving a lively, informal look.

5. The Majorell Garden, Marrakech, Morocco

This two-and-a-half acre botanical garden was created by French artist Jacques Majorelle in 1924. Much loved by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, they bought it in 1980. The garden has 300 plant and flower species including cacti and exotic plants, ponds, streams and fountains.

6. Kew Gardens, London, England

Kew may well be the world’s most famous botanic garden. The breathtaking landscapes and the and iconic glasshouses full of rare and beautiful plants are part of the appeal. But on the grounds there are also historic buildings, botanical art galleries and the soaring treetop walkway.

7. Bahai Gardens, Haifa, Israel

From Mount Carmel you can marvel at the botanic vision stretching downward. There are six hundred cream-hued steps through nineteen monumental water-featured gardens that cascade over the north side of the mountain, each perfectly symmetrical, with clean flower bed lines, brightly coloured shrubs and green, green lawns to die for. The tenth garden frames a colonnade and a golden domed shrine and beyond the shrine a further nine stunning gardens tumble neatly to street level.

16-day cycling in Cuba

“We were returning to the morning light” – as a famous hit song by The Herd goes, which indeed we were, as our motley crew and team leader cycled off in bright morning sunlight on a 16-day tour through the extreme contrasts of this fascinating and contradictory totalitarian state-run country that is like no other … Cuba!

The official Cuban Tourist Map describes it as having “beaches of incomparable beauty, a fascinating seabed, wide variety of scenery, cities with estimable architecture” and I might add the most potholed of roads. I do not mean to be unkind, but it has to be mentioned since my trip was cycling tour on 21 gear hybrid cycles with panniers along with an experienced tour leader, assisted by official Cuban state tour guides. Our start and finish destination was the capital Havana.

Cuba is said to look like a crocodile on the map, or a great fish swimming in the Caribbean’s blue waters. Whatever its shape, Cuba possesses a rich culture and is by far the largest of all the Caribbean Islands. The land is made up of lush mountains, rolling hills and flat plains, all covered with a fertile soil from which springs sugar, tobacco and a vast array of tropical fruits and vegetables. Cuba’s mountains, swamps and offshore keys, conceal a wealth of plant and wildlife, barely seen by natives let alone tourists.

The island’s natural riches are equalled by the charms of its people. Cubans are a mulatto race from the early days of the colony, Spanish blood mixed with Indians and black slaves, bought over from Europe and latterly French from the 20th century. All these influences created something akin to a bottle of aged rum – dusky flavour, full and intoxicating!

Much evocative prose has been written about Havana. Words do not really do it justice with its diverse architecture, wide avenues and the famous ‘Malecon’ promenade, particularly those at the city centre of Old Havana. Its magnificent decaying edifices of the colonial buildings were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. Watch with a touch of nostalgia as 40’s & 50’s American cars drive by. Cubans live and breathe music and appear to know only one volume setting…….LOUD! from distorted blown speakers and a musical style all of it’s own.

Everything seems caught in a time warp of the decadent American influence of the 1950’s. As night falls the city sparkles with life and a visit to the bars that Hemmingway used to frequent – La Bodequita del Media or the Floridity – to sample his famous drink a daiquiri is a treat.

Many visitors feel the Viñales Valley is the most spectacular sight in Cuba. Certainly it was eventful getting there, as we were blessed with monsoon rains whilst traversing the banana and coffee plantations.

The valley is set in the Pinar del Rio province, Cuba’s westernmost region, a fringe of land with the Gulf of Mexico to the north and the Caribbean to the South. The mighty Mojotes limestone outcrops provide the backdrop for the world’s finest tobacco fields, with spectacular scenes more akin to South East Asia than the Caribbean. Its’ easy somnolent pace of life provided a real tonic to the hustle of Havana. To get there we had to cycle along Cuba’s only main motorway. With little traffic, it provided a surreal experience as we idled along this vacant tarmac ribbon. This has to be the last motorway in the world where such an experience could occur.

Equally impressive is the infamous Bay of Pigs, an otherwise innocuous sandy shoreline. This is now forever recorded in historic folklore as the failed invasion debacle on 17 April 1961. Suffice to say the insitu museum celebrates repelling the 1297 CIA trained insurgents (US participation was denied at every stage), which led to a great boost in Fidel Castro’s domestic and international status. Soon after he declared Cuba a socialist one party state. A walk round the museum with the entire captured US remnant on display, is a seminal moment. It really hits home just what this unique country is all about.

We cycled on to the town of Cienfuegos, a port city 155 miles southeast of Havana. Tourism has yet to reach this town with any force and allows one to see life as it really is for Cuba laid bare. Despite the industry on its periphery, the centre is quite attractive, with pastel coloured neo-classical buildings. Travellers are now starting to use this as a stop-off point on the way to Trinidad. The focal point of the town is Parque Jose Marti, one of the grandest squares in the country. Here you will find the monumental red-domed government offices, and early 19th century cathedral with a startling gold-painted interior and a music hall (casa dela troua) with whimsical flourishes.

The huge Hotel Jagua was our base for two nights. Set on a peninsular into the bay (originally a Hilton Hotel, seized by Castro after the successful 1959 Revolution, as it had just completed construction), it served up a sumptuous colourful evening cabaret for the mighty price of 5 Cuban dollars. Cavorting mulatto dancers in sparkling G-strings and pairs of strategically placed stars, may not be most peoples’ image of socialist doctrine – but this is Caribbean communism.

The Palacio de Valle just next door to the hotel provided a very unusual dinner date. Built between 1913 – 1917, this is the most peculiar ‘neo-mudejar’ style in Cuba, an architecture using elements of pre-15th century Moorish Spain. Its’ rooftop terrace is a great place to sit in the evening and enjoy a Mojito, as the flame coloured evening sky provided a wonderful canvas for the setting sun.

Trinidad is totally beguiling, which assaults all your senses. Sugar barons, slaves and pirates have all left traces in this oldest of Colonial Caribbean towns dating back to the 1514. Today it is a world heritage site, due to its time-warp preservation of architectural jewels. Aimless wandering through cobbled streets proved especially productive in Trinidad, since dozens of street names have changed and neither map nor residents seemed sure of what to call them.

Next day, a visit to the San Luis and Sugarmill Valleys was particularly delightful. Highly recommended is the trip I took on a steam train once used in the sugar industry, which traverses the whole valley for tourists. It leaves daily from the Estacion Dragones station in the south of Trinidad. Leaving at 9.30 am and returning 2-3pm, it stopped off along the way at the old Manacas-Iznagas Tower, the iconic symbol of Trinidad’s rich history. This ‘frozen in time’ area transports you back to bygone days in the most colourful way. As I closed my eyes the whole sense of occasion and atmosphere washed over me.

Later that evening as night fell across the Plaza Mayor in the centre of town; it served up a special atmosphere of criss-cross rhythms of Cuban music to the twirling bodies of the multi-national gathering of tourists. As the live music punctuated the air, a luminescent moon bathed the whole event in that special ‘moon glow’, truly a magical occasion leaving yet another indelible image, which will long remain with me.

Another day another ride commencing on the highest section of the Sierra del Escambray (Escambray Mountains), arguably Cuba’s most beautiful range. From the village of Tapes de Collantes (built in the 1950’s), we experienced a dramatic downhill through this unique jungle of luxuriant vegetation, an area of waterfalls, river rapids and fantastic horizons. Blessed with its own microclimate, the mountains were a wonderful cool refuge from the baking Trinidad.

Over night was in Santa Clara, a town as iconic as any in this country. It was here Che Guevara had the most decisive battle of the revolution. This in turn led to the fall of Havana and the flight of Batista a few days later. Next day a visit to Che’s Mausoleum and Monument, proved particularly evocative and enthralling. In a massive and overbearing communist style, this solid concrete edifice celebrates the history of the successful Revolution, via statues, carvings and records. Inside the mausoleum burns an eternal flame guarding over the final resting place of Che Guevara and his fallen colleagues.

Mantanzas was the start of our final ‘open road’ day of riding through the Yuma Valley, surprisingly still relatively unknown to most western visitors. The town has redeeming features, worlds apart from the likes of Havana and Trinidad. Their poorly stocked shops, dusky back streets and primitive transport provide a convenient insight to the grimy real world of everyday Cuban life.

So the journey ends in Havana with time to reflect. Cuba is all of the ‘Shadows and Darkness’ of state monopolistic control. Try as it might though nothing can stop the ‘Morning Light’ bringing with it the irrepressible will and energetic drive of its people. My mind went back to dusk in the most run-down part of Cienfuegus. As I sat up high on a dumping ground overlooking the Barrios, everywhere I looked was a scene of abject poverty. Almost in defiance, childrens’ laughter rose from the maze of ramshackle streets as they danced and played. From every doorway the sound of music, dogs barking and lively chatter erupted in its own special orchestra of life. This is their microcosm, the very lungs and heartbeat of Cuba. Everywhere you see an industrious attitude, which turns ‘water into wine’; nothing is wasted but re-cycled time and again.

Tips on travelling with children

The thought of travelling with children in tow may bring you out in a cold sweat but provided you plan ahead it can hopefully be plain sailing.

From my experience, the less travelling time the better, particularly if you are holidaying with under-fives who have limited tolerance when it comes to sitting still!

There may be no avoiding travelling further afield if you have a family occasion or are planning to visit relatives but after several disastrous attempts with two little ones I have put long-haul flights on hold. Toddler tantrums are not a pretty sight at the best of times but in the confines of a small space, it can be super stressful!

TIP: Under-2’s do fly for free on most airlines (on budget airlines you may be charged), so you may be tempted to travel before you have to pay for a seat!

If flying further afield, prepare yourself for the disruption of travelling across time-zones. Kids like routine and the onset of jet lag can be extremely difficult to deal with. Some families like to remain on UK time but this can prove extremely difficult as there is no way your child will agree to go to bed when it is bright outdoors.

A few tips though if you do travel abroad, especially if it’s somewhere exotic, be sure to know when the rainy season is or if the country gets a period when extreme weather conditions, such as hurricanes, are possible. Places such as Florida and parts of the Caribbean, for example, can get torrential rain storms that last for weeks in the early autumn.

On the other hand, remember that while some countries – such as those in the Far East and Indian Ocean – have quite a long rainy season that doesn’t mean you’ll get rain all day, every day. During this low season you can get much better deals and you may only get a short, sharp tropical downpour each day while the rest of the time the sun will be out.

Also, keep in mind if travelling within Europe, August is peak holiday season time so the beaches of Italy, Spain and Portugal can be heaving. If you can travel either side of August it is worth doing so, especially as most hotel prices dip towards the end of the month.

As for the best form of accommodation, if you have younger kids I always found self-catering was the way forward. The last thing my kids wanted to do was sit in a restaurant for more than five minutes and on the rare times we have dined out abroad the frustration of spending a huge amount on a kids meal only for half the food to be wasted proved too much to bear.

Many families select their resort on the basis of its ability to offer a kids club to keep the children happy and entertained and I am certainly one of them! When researching my holiday, I always check the accommodation I choose has facilities for kids as provided they are happy, everyone’s a winner!

Some of the best hotel kids clubs I have discovered are very close to home. They include The Grove Hotel in Watford which boasts an incredible kids club, complete with its own swimming pool, endless list of activities and playground. In a bid to make it more family-friendly, Scotland’s Gleneagles Hotel has so much to offer kids there’s little chance you will see them.

On a past visit my kids took part in a baking workshop and even drove mini cars around the hotel’s grounds. And then there is the Four Seasons in Hampshire that again has everything available for kids, from its baby area to the teenage zone. The hotel even greeted my kids on their first night with their name written in biscuits!

Travel 24 hours to Moscow

The name Moscow is used synonymously with the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin, yet the city is so much more than a political city and has plenty to offer visitors.

The beating heart of Russia is a global commercial hub, a cosmopolitan metropolis with 1,000 years of history and more than 10 million inhabitants. It boasts some of the finest hotels in the world, iconic buildings, rich cultural sites, and fine restaurants, so whether you are just passing through in transit, or have a day at leisure between business meetings, be sure to make the most of the most impressive capital city between London and Beijing.
Unlike its sister city St Petersburg, the Venice of the north, few foreign visitors think of coming to Moscow. The Cold War memories of a cold, grey city still linger, but in 2017 they couldn’t be further from reality. Now is the time to immerse yourself in everything Moscow has to offer.

Must Stay
In Moscow, location is everything, and you can’t do better than to stay at the Ritz-Carlton Moscow (read our review), a stone’s throw away from Red Square. An historic hotel where the decor is inspired by the decadence of Imperial Russia, you’ll live like a Tsar in this palace. Superior guest rooms start from £225 at the weekends, and whether you’re treating yourself to fine dining in Novikov Restaurant, relaxing in the spa, or soaking up the stunning views of Red Square from the rooftop O2 Lounge, you’re not going to want to leave.

Must Visit

The Kremlin is Moscow’s fortress and it is the city’s cultural centrepiece as much as a political institution. Inside the vast fortified compound you will find three cathedrals, the Patriarch’s Palace, a church and the bell tower of Ivan the Great, and together these buildings are the holiest sites of Russian Orthodoxy — Moscow’s Vatican, if you like. Exquisite religious frescoes decorate the walls, incense drifts in the air, and every now and then it is possible to hear the sound of devotional plainsong. Here too is the Armoury Chamber with its extraordinary collection of state regalia, gold and silver plate, and jewels. Prepare to stand entranced by the craftsmanship and the wealth, the shear number and variety of sublime artefacts.

Must Be Seen At

The old Red October Chocolate Factory, a converted industrial area on an island in the Moskva River, is the coolest place to be seen. Hipsters working at Digital October, one of the city’s most successful start-up incubators, hang out here, and you can join them for a contemporary art exhibition at Red October Gallery or the Lumiere Brothers Centre for Photography. There’s a bar serving fine wines at the neighbouring Strelka Institute, a creative space hosting open lectures, conferences and film screenings, or you can pop into Urban Kitchen for a drink and a bite to eat.

Must Drink

Forget the stereotypes: Moscow has so much more to offer than vodka, though if that is your tipple of choice, you’ll certainly be in for a treat. The city’s best mixologists are to be found in the O2 Lounge on the rooftop of the Ritz Carlton hotel. Dress to impress so you fit right in, and as you stand on the terrace gazing across the city, you’ll never forget the sight of St Basil’s Cathedral lit up at night.

Must Shop

Catherine II commissioned the Italian architect Giacomo Quarenghi to build her a neoclassical trade centre after the 1812 fire in Moscow. Today the complex is the GUM Department Store, and you should come here as much to appreciate the impressive metal and glass vaulted ceiling as for the designer stores. The delicatessen displays put even Fortnum and Mason’s to shame, and the shoe and handbag selections may well prompt hysteria.

Must Eat

The Radisson Royal has a flotilla of ice breaker yachts, and every evening you can step aboard for a dinner cruise afloat on the Moskva River. The gourmet menu includes fresh seafood platters, and the hot smoked sturgeon is undoubtedly a culinary highlight.

For authentic contemporary Russian cuisine, prepared with seasonal, organic ingredients from local farms, go to LavkaLavka. Think of it as Moscow’s answer to River Cottage. Our absolutely favourite dish on the menu is the beetroot spelt with porcini mushrooms, though the duck breast with stewed plums, honey, and ginger is also a highlight for your tastebuds.

Must See The View

The 540m high Ostankino TV Tower was the tallest free-standing building in the world until the completion of the CN Tower in 1976. Built to mark the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, this iconic structure is a masterpiece of Soviet engineering and unexpectedly beautiful when it is lit up in many colours at night. The observation deck is open daily until 21.00 and on a clear day you can see right across the city in every direction.

Must Watch

No one should come to Moscow without taking in a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre, even if ballet and opera aren’t really your thing. As much as £730 million has been spent on the recent renovation, and yet if you turn up at the box office half an hour before a show, you can still pick up a ticket for as little as £3. Major productions such as Swan Lake and Cosi Fan Tutte are usually staged in the main theatre, but you can also see contemporary works and rehearsals on the New Stage next door.

Top Big Museums in Berlin

Berlin is big on museums, with hundreds dotted around the city. The city’s turbulent history is the focus of some of them, while others cover topics from around the world. There’s enough for weeks museum exploration, but when you are short of time go be sure to choose one (or more) of these.

1. Pergamon Museum

The Pergamon is one of the five museums that make up Museum Island, and is the most visited museum in Germany. It has relics and artefacts from around the ancient world, including parts of ancient cities, dug up and brought over to Berlin. The Pergamon Altar, which gives the museum its name, is probably the most famous artefact on show – an enormous 2,200-year old stone altar, with a detailed frieze depicting a battle between giants and gods. The Ishtar Gate from ancient Babylon is also fascinating to see, as are the Mshatta Facade from today’s Jordan. The Pergamon also houses the Islamic Art Museum, as well as many smaller collections of ancient artefacts.

Entry: 12 euro (18 euro gets you in to all the museums on Museum Island). Free for children under 18. 10am – 6pm, closed on Mondays. Included with Berlin Pass.

2. Topography of Terror

Germany is fairly open about confronting its difficult past, and the Topography of Terror Museum, housed in a former Gestapo HQ, tries to put that past into words and exhibitions. The museum covers the period from the rise of the Nazi party in 1933, to the end of World War II and the division of Berlin. The exhibitions combine personal stories with Nazi propaganda and descriptions of their crimes. The museum also holds the longest remaining part of the Berlin Wall, and describes life in the city during that time. The museum isn’t pleasant, and isn’t meant to be: it shows the darkest parts of Berlin’s history, so that they won’t be forgotten.

Entry: The museum is free, and open from 10am to 10pm.

3. Jewish Museum

Berlin’s Jewish Museum tells the story of 2,000 years of Jewish life in Germany. It focuses on the complex relationship between Jews and Germans over the centuries. The extensive exhibitions describe the pogroms, discrimination and expulsions, as well as Jewish involvement in the wider community and the German-Jewish Enlightenment movement, which started in Berlin and left its mark on Judaism ever since. The museum’s jagged modernist design gives a sense of discord and disorientation, with three underground tunnels, or ‘axes’, guiding visitors through different exhibitions, and an inaccessible void in between them. Menashe Kaddishman’s installation, ‘Falling Leaves’, is dedicated to all victims of war and violence.

Entry: 7 Euro. 10am – 8pm (until 10pm on Monday). Included with Berlin Pass.

4. DDR Museum

We often picture the Berlin Wall from the west, with the iconic images of Western leaders and artists speaking out against it, and its eventual fall in 1989. The DDR Museum is an interactive museum dedicated to recreating life in communist East Germany. For local children and visitors from the West, it’s a fascinating insight into the day-to-day life in East Berlin: queuing for food, spying on neighbors, prisoner interrogations and communist propaganda. A visit to the museum is a nice peek into the past, and raises as many questions as it answers.

Entry: 6 Euro. Daily, 10am – 8pm.

Trip to Seoul, South Korea

Since the end of the Korean War, the country of South Korea has been continually progressing towards its current status as a global economic force and major player in the worlds of technology and culture. Currently there are around 10 million inhabitants in Seoul, making it one of the world’s most densely populated cities.

The Han river provides calm, placid views in an otherwise cluttered city. It flows through the city with twenty-nine bridges that span its waters enabling people to shuttle from north to south of the city via trains, buses or cars.

One of the Seoul’s accolades is that it is home to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Changdeokgung, Hwaseong Fortress, Jongmyo Shrine and the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty.

Here’s a round-robin of what to do when you get there:

The Palaces

Glimpse Seoul’s 600-year-old history and culture at one of the five royal palaces built by King Taejo at the end of the fourteenth century.

Gyeongbokgung Palace, or the Palace of Shining Happiness, is considered one of the grandest. It is located on the city’s main boulevard, Sejongro, close to the Blue House, the President’s residence. It was built in 1395 and is a stunning complex. A walk through the grounds of this Joseon Dynasty palace is a walk back in time. It is connected to the Jongmyo, a Cofucian shrine to kings and queens of the Korean Josean Dynasty. English tours can be booked in advance, or simply look out for one of the ‘greeters’.

Located inside the palace is the National Folk Museum. It comprises three tall interconnecting buildings and they house artefacts, relics and paintings from the different periods of Korean history ranging from pre-history right through to occupation by the Japanese. Entry is free. Metro line 3, Anguk Station, exit 1

Digital Media City

Seoul is considered to be the most wired city in the world but most people don’t know that South Koreans were enjoying touch screen cell phones and video calling long before Apple launched the iPhone. One of the greatest examples of South Korea’s dedication technology is Digital Media City. A former massive city dump was paved over in 1993 when the height of the landfill rivaled Seoul’s neighboring mountains. In 2002 it was transformed into a sprawling network of buildings housing everything from major technology and communications firms, like LG, to museums and apartments.

The Markets

Noryangjin Fish Market

This market was established in 1927 and today remains Seoul’s oldest and largest indoor seafood market. Over 800 vendors sell the day’s catch, which ranges from delicious to downright curious. Noryangjin is a great place to sample some of Korea’s most famous seafood dishes. Purchase any item from a vendor and have it prepared for you at one of the numerous restaurants located in the basement and on the second floor. If you’re really looking for an authentic experience, order Korea’s famous sannakji (live octopus) and pair it with a bottle of Soju. The market is worthy of a visit, if even just to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the massive facility. Seoul Metro Line 1.

Gwangjang Market

Gwangjang Market was Seoul’s first market. Today, its second floor serves as a massive textile market, but the real draw is the food vendors packed throughout the main floor. Gwangjang Market is one of the best places to sample Seoul’s eclectic street and snack food options. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the famous saxophonist who is often filling this lively market with his music. Seoul Metro Line 1 or 2.

Namdaemun Market

Namdaemun Market is Seoul’s largest traditional market. Open daily around the clock, it is massive and hosts over 10,000 vendors spread through a maze of intertwining streets. Many of the shops sell handmade items. From leather belts, jewellery to ginseng, the market has a little bit of everything including camping gear. Though it is very crowded, and you will get bumped around, it’s a great place to wander, people watch and perhaps pick up a souvenir at a bartered price. Seoul Metro Line 4 to Hoehyeon Station. Tourist information line: 02-752-1913.

Yongsan Market

The Electronics Market, great for gadget nuts, has over three thousand stores housed in over twenty buildings (as well as bootleggers in tents) open from 10 til 7.30, with discounts of up to 50% over other retail outlets. You could build a computer from scratch and buy all the games you could ever want to play on it. Don’t forget to haggle if you want a great deal; some vendors will drop prices drastically, while others won’t budge.

Seoul Folk Flea Market

You’ll find everything from Korean antiques and taxidermy to military paraphernalia and all kinds of randomness. While amongst these treasures, take a minute to try some fresh honey tea that’s made with honey fresh from the comb. If that’s too sweet try a refreshing concoction of milk, Korean red ginger, honey and a plant mountain ma.  Places like these have a lot of historical significance in Korea and this particular market has been moved around more than once in its 100+ years of existence. Who knows how long it will stay in its current form, so enjoy it while you can and don’t be surprised if you are the only foreigner in the place.

Itaewon District

If you are in Seoul long enough you will likely end up here at least once. Situated near the main US army base in Korea, Itaewon attracts both foreigners and locals alike. Trendy restaurants, imported food stores, nightlife and shopping are just a few of the many reasons so many people flock to this part of Seoul. It might not be the most traditional of places but it’s a prime example of the way foreigners have weaved their way into the fabric of Korean society and what makes expat life in Korea different from anywhere else.

Must shop department store

Between Namdaemun market and the Myeongdong shopping areas is Shinsegae’s flagship downtown store. It is the place to go for top notch, if expensive, shopping. Join Korean women in the basement, in buying prepared dishes and fresh fish at the end of the day. Be sure to sample Korea’s beloved kimchi, a spicy cabbage normally fermented in huge jars dug into the earth. Upstairs, you can buy the latest designer shoes and clothes. For time out, visit the store’s roof garden. Metro line 4 to Hoehyun Station.

Explore Insadong Street

This is arguably one of Seoul’s most famous and historic thoroughfares. The main street and the alleyways intersecting it are a great place to window shop Korea’s culture. Storefronts are flanked with hanging calligraphy paintbrushes and have Korean traditional paper (hanji)
and the Korean traditional dress (hanbok) for observation or purchase. Be sure to visit one of Seoul’s famous tea houses or sample Buddhist temple food. Seoul Metro Line 3.

Go to the theatre

Chongdong Theatre, in the heart of downtown just around the corner from Deoksugung palace, offers a spectacular, dynamic show of traditional dance and music every day at 4pm and 8pm except Mondays, as well as the opportunity to try out royal costumes for yourself.

In the last few years, energy-filled and highly accessible ‘non-verbal’ shows have been entertaining international audiences. Nanta combines cooking with drumming in a comedy that sold out for a month at the Edinburgh Fringe, while Jump turns acrobatics and Korean martial arts into fast slapstick humour for all ages.

Relax in a spa

Chill out in a bath house or jjimjilbang. Dragon Hill Spa is a popular one but most neighbourhoods have a spa and many are open 24 hours with a very modest entrance fee. You can even sleep in some of them – popular after a long night of drinking. Just ask at your hotel for one nearby.

Take a hike

The city is ringed by mountains and one of the best things in South Korea is the hiking in national parks where you can also visit working, traditional Buddhist temples.

Bugaksan Mountain

Bugaksan, is the highest and most well known of Korea’s mountains. While there you can also visit the nearby Cheongwadae or “Blue House” where current President Lee Myung-Bak lives.

Bukhansan National Park

Bukhansan National Park is accessible by a metro ride and then a bus or taxi to the entrance. You can choose a short trail and get to see how many city dwellers spend their leisure time.

Seoul Seonggwak

Seoul Seonggwak is a 18.7 km fortress encompassing inner-Seoul. The fortress connects the four cardinal mountains of the city, Inwangsan, Bugaksan (the peak behind the Blue House – home of the president), Naksan, and Namsan. The hike will take a day and requires some endurance. Walking Seoul’s fortress will take you through quiet neighbourhoods and provide aerial views of Gyeongbokgung Palace. The hike is free but on site registration is required with a passport. Seoul Metro Line 3 or 4.

Best view in town

Back when Madonna’s Like a Virgin first debuted and Mikhail Gorbachev had just become the new Soviet leader; a pink glass tower known as the 63 building had just become tallest building in the world outside of North America. Today it is still the tallest building in Korea and the headquarters for some of Korea’s biggest companies.

It is also the place where you will find the world’s highest art gallery, an aquarium, wax museum, convention center, restaurants overlooking the city and a state of the art IMAX theater. The 63 Building also known as 63 City is a great spot for those traveling with younger children or those young at heart.

Must-visit museum

The state-of-the-art National Museum of Korea, the largest in Korea, houses masterpieces including a massive marble ten-story pagoda, a gold crown from the 5th century and stone dagger from the prehistoric period andlarge Buddha statues. It is arranged over three floors and has several restaurants and coffee shops. The surrounding grounds are a park with a large Reflecting Pool. Get there via subway and exit at Ichon subway exit and walk over about 400 meters to the museum. Entry is free and an audio guide costs 1000 won.

Fun by the river

The Cheonggyecheon was once a natural stream running through the heartof Seoul. In the 1950’s it was paved and made into a highway. Today it has been restored beyond its original state. The Cheonggyecheon is 8km long and its banks serve as a gallery for an array sculptures, architecture, fountainsand art. Through the year it plays host to a myriad of festivals and exhibitions, as well.

Travel to 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.

Carpathian Mountains

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.

Kolomyia

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.

Yaremche

The landscape begins to change as I climb up to the town of Yaremche at 580m. The wide cornfields give way to forested hills, wooden houses and quaint chapels by the side of the road. The River Prut runs through the centre of town in a series of rapids, and there’s a rather tacky craft market on either side of the ravine. However if you’re in the market for woolly slippers or dodgy fruit wine, this is the place for you.

Bukovel

Another 40 minutes of climbing brings me to Bukovel, the largest Ski resort in Eastern Europe at 900m. It opened in 2000 and has 16 ski lifts with roughly 30 miles of pistes, and more are promised. There’s a boating lake but otherwise there’s not much character here. A few of the ski lifts remain open and, at the top of one of them, there’s a rather terrifying Roller Coaster Zip line which hurls you high through the trees. I prefer a spot of gentle hiking.

Verkhovyna

I head deeper into the Carpathians and the roads worsen, potholes everywhere and rickety bridges to traverse. The railway arrived in the 1880’s, attracting tourists with fresh mountain air, and Vorokhta is an attractive spa town. Further on, just outside Verkhovyna, is Kryvorivnia, a Hutsul village where the movie “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” was shot in 1965. It’s nothing more than a collection of attractive wooden shacks with a restored fortified Hutsul house, known as a Grazhda, filled with traditional artefacts. It’s Sunday and the singing from inside the tiny church drifts across the valley.

Chernivtsi

Leaving the mountains and journeying East, I come to the city of Chernivtski, capital of the region of Bukovina. Also a part of the Hapsburg Empire, it was known as Little Vienna because of its architecture is similar. It’s only 30 miles from Romania and, between the wars was part of that country. The Romanians were responsible for the city’s attractive art deco buildings. Chernivtsi University, a red bricked Moorish fantasy, with a Technicolor tiled roof, was built by a Czech architect in 1882, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Khotyn

An easy day’s excursion from Chernivtsi, is the fairy-tale fortress of Khotyn, on a cliff overlooking the Dniester River. It was built around 1400 by the Moldavians but fell into Turkish hands in 1713. They kept it for another 100 years, until the Russians became the final owners. These days it’s been much restored but it’s still an impressive, with walls 40m high and 6m thick. It’s been the location for many feature films, including the Ukrainian version of Robin Hood.

Kamyanets Podilsky

Nearby is another stunning fortress protecting the bridge connecting the medieval city, built on an island, with the mainland. The 14th century castle sits high above a bend of the Smotrych River, its steep cliffs forming a natural moat. It originally had as many as twelve towers but only a few remain today. It’s still relatively well preserved, however, and is one of the few medieval constructions left in Ukraine.

Kiev

I catch the overnight train to Kiev, the carriages built in former East Germany and full of communist charm. It’s slow but comfortable, although all the windows seem to have been nailed shut.

Ukraine’s capital city has wide leafy boulevards, onion-domed churches and relatively few of those dull Soviet architectural monstrosities. Since Ukraine’s independence many of the building have been restored and repainted as symbols of national pride.

Don’t miss the 1980’s reconstruction of the Golden Gates of Kiev or the 11th-century Orthodox cathedral of St. Sophia. I like the 19th century St. Volodymyr’s cathedral which was a museum of atheism during Soviet times. The big attraction is the Lavra Cave Monastery which is a complex of religious buildings with catacombs below contained mummified bodies of former monks. Nearby is the huge Motherland Monument, known locally as “Brezhnev’s Daughter”, 62m high, dominating the skyline. It’s part of the WW2 museum and you can climb up to the mother’s hand in an interior elevator

No visit to the city is complete without a walk around the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square of the city and the venue for pro-democracy demonstrations in recent years. It’s a place of tragedy as over 100 people were killed by snipers in February 2014. As a result former President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. Today, written in large letters on cladding covering building work, “Freedom is Our Religion”, is a slogan signifying that the struggle is still ongoing.

Chernobyl

Although there’s a small museum dedicated to the nuclear disaster in Kiev, a day trip to Chernobyl is the best way to appreciate the scale of the tragedy. It’s perfectly safe, they say, and it’s around a two hour drive from the city. You pass through a 30km checkpoint before entering a 10km exclusion zone where you’re warned not to touch anything. The reactor now has a new shiny metal shell, but the town of Pripyat, once housing 50,000 workers, is slowly being swallowed by the forest. This is a ghoulish tourist attraction but a grim reminder of the dangers of nuclear power.

5 beautiful beaches in Greek Islands

Greece is famous for many things: it’s bright and exuberant culture, a fascinating and complex history, tales of legendary monsters and heros and, of course, its stunning scenery and beaches.

With thousands of islands and a diverse mainland, Greece’s coastline is the 11th largest in the world. Couple that with its hot, but comfortable climate and the glorious Mediterranean sea, and you have ample opportunity for some truly stunning beaches.

While it is impossible to tell you about every beach worth visiting in Greece, there are a few that are simply unmissable.

Navagio, Zante

Probably one of the most famous beaches in Greece, this tucked away gem can be found on the island of Zante – known locally as Zakynthos. Surrounded by steep cliff edges and only reachable via boat, Navagio owes its reputation to a wrecked smugglers’ ship that ran aground in the early 20th century and now sits on its pristine sandy shore. A beautiful place to spend the day, many tour companies also offer boat and beach parties that stop on Navagio; adding a bit of excitement for those after more than just a relaxing afternoon of sunbathing.

Red Beach, Santorini

Found on the volcanic island of Santorini, the Red Beach proves that white sand isn’t a necessary ingredient when it comes to producing a top quality beach. Covered in red and pebbles and backed by tall red clifftops, you can probably guess how this beach got its name. A beautiful and quiet place to unwind, it is the uniquely charming setting of this beach that makes it a place you simply have to experience when visiting Greece.

Elafonissi, Crete

Forget the golden coast of Australia, or the shores of Thailand, if you want a truly tropical beach, head to Elafonissi on the island of Crete. The most southern of the all the major Greek islands, Crete boasts a lot of incredible beauty spots, but none are quite like this one. A long and soft white sandy beach, its coastal waters are very shallow and have the same silky sand resting below the surface; perfect for dipping you feet into. When the sun shines, the water is a gentle and enticing baby blue and at low tide sandbars appear, allowing visitors to walk to the island just off the beaches shore. Here, you’ll find businesses offering straw roofed cabanas, sunbeds and umbrellas right on the water’s edge. Out in a place like this, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d ended up in the Bahamas.

Egremni, Lefkada

You’ll find a number of beaches around Greece with the name paradise sprinkled somewhere in their title, but for a true taste of heaven you’ll want to head for Egremni on Lefkada. A long winding shoreline, backed by towering white cliff tops, Egremni a great example of the perfect traditional Greek beach recipe. Take some pristine sand, bright white and soft on the feet, add turquoise mediterranean waters, clear and warm. Mix together with beautiful rock formations and overhanging trees, then finish with great sunset views. The result? One stunning Egremni Beach.

Sarakiniko, Milos

Located on the gorgeous isle of Milos, Sarakiniko is probably the least beachy beach you’ll ever visit. No sand in sight, instead this coastal area consists of smooth rock formations that glide down towards the glimmering Med. Here, in protected bays, visitors can swim and enjoy the crystal clear waters; sheltered from the winds and currents by the rocks, with great visibility thanks to the lack of sand grains floating around near the surface. An unusual place, the utter uniqueness of this place makes it something rather special. You’ll struggle to find a place like Sarakiniko anywhere else in Europe.

Top 5 places in Havana, Cuba

Cuba can be a lazy beach holiday if that’s what you’re after, but it’s also a multi-faceted gem of an island, boasting astonishing natural habitats and grand colonial buildings. The largest in the Caribbean, it’s also an island which owns both a complicated past and an exuberant modern-day culture and nowhere is this most potent than in the capital, Havana.

Once home to pirates, poets and gamblers, the city is now known for rum, cigars and a stomping good time. Here are some of the top highlights.


1. Old Havana (Havana Vieja)

At one time this Unesco Heritage Site was a Spanish naval port. This north-eastern section of the city dates back to the 16th century and evidence of its rich history is everywhere you look. Defensive walls still line the narrow streets, left over from pirate raids and its five European-style plazas are overlooked by Cuban Baroque facades – the most striking is the Plaza de la Catedral – and soaring spires, whilst street-level attractions like the book market and numerous cafés continue to bring in the visitors.

2. The Malecón

Five miles of seawall and esplanade divides Old Havana’s harbour and the Vedado district and is prime walking territory if you want to get a feel for the city through the ages. Pass by the famous pastel facades of the Old Havana sea front and revolutionary monuments of Máximo Gomez and Calixto García to the high-rise skyline of Vedado, traditionally a Russian area. Sunsets out on Havana bay are not to be missed.

3. Capitolio Nacional

Clearly influenced by Washington’s US Capitol building, the Capitolio is nonetheless imposing with its huge stone steps, classical wings and rising dome. This building was once the seat of Cuban Congress prior to the 1959 revolution but venture inside and you’ll now find a planetarium, the National Library and the Academy of Sciences, along with vast halls and ceilings filled with beautiful Neo-Classical decoration.

4. Parque Almendares and Parque Central

Along the river of the same name, Parque Almendares is a welcome burst of green and fresh air, a world away from the heady pace of the city. Beneath the Calle 23 bridge, you’ll find abundant plants, a miniature golf course, riverside eateries and an outdoor theatre space if you’re lucky enough to catch a performance. Old Havana’s Parque Central is a local meeting point as well as an attraction and offers some superb people-watching opportunities amongst the exotic landscaped gardens.

5. Ernest Hemingway Museum

The world-renowned traveller and writer Ernest Hemingway spent 20 years of his life in Cuba and although his connection to the place went far beyond mere residence, it’s fitting that the home where he once wrote some of his most famous works is now open as a museum. Just outside Havana at Finca Vigia (meaning “lookout house”), you can view the typewriter that produced The Old Man and the Sea, as well as the 8,000 books in his library. Plaques marking the writer’s favourite haunts are everywhere to be found in the main city and harbour areas.

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)