I remember being on holiday in Aspen one year, when I had an encounter with a wolf. It was late September or early October, I can’t remember which, and my husband and I were exploring the Maroon Bells just west of the pretty alpine town. The Maroon Bells is a mountain range, two towering peaks gazing out over a series of small lakes, glowing at that time of year with the golden hue of autumnal aspen trees. It was a glorious sight. The road to the Bells is a well tarmacked but winding trail that leads from the main highway through the mountains. It’s not difficult to drive, but you wouldn’t want to take it fast, and as we came back down, the mountains behind us, we were travelling slowly. Slowly enough, thankfully, to stop when a lone timber wolf stepped out onto the road ahead of us.
The wolf was a long, slender creature, with a body too long for its stature, pointed grey ears and slanted eyes that gazed up at our advancing car without a hint of fear. It stopped at the side of the road as we drew to a standstill and gazed up at up, balanced on the edge of a dramatic slope that lead to the valley floor below. And then it was gone. In the split second I reached for my camera, determined not disturb it, it buggered off anyway.
After that, I was so taken by wolves that I wanted one of my own. Only, they’re not so easy to come by in the UK, and probably wouldn’t be allowed anyway. I settled on a wolfdog – an Anglo Wulfdog to be precise.
Mac’s a cross between a Czech wolfdog and a Northern Innuit. When we first got him, the little bundle of fur that travelled home looked nothing like his lupine ancestors. Growing up with us, we didn’t see the wolf in him really, probably because he’s such a pet, but on a recent walk in the woodlands at David Marshall Lodge near Aberfoyle, we discovered just how like a wolf he really is.
It wasn’t the stalking through the forest that made us realise he was tuning into a wolf (he’s been stalking things since we got him…our German Shepherd, our sons…the occasional random teddy bear he decides needs a pouncing on), and it wasn’t the tracking through the undergrowth either (he’s got an exceptionally good nose for scent). No, it came home to us when he climbed onto a ridge at the edge of a forest trail and stood completely still, ears pointed forward, nose sniffing the air, eyes narrowed….and a female walker on the path below him turned completely white and froze to the spot.
There are more of them now, and it’s easy to see why. They’re easy to train and make great walking companions. Since many of our holidays are in the UK, walking with wolves has become a new family pastime. And it’s all thanks to that one wolf that stopped to stare on the slopes of the Maroon Bells.
I spend so much time writing about and travelling to some of the world’s most exciting and interesting places, that it can be hard to remember I actually live near one of them. Almost on the banks, in fact. I’m talking about Loch Lomond, that icon of Scottish landscape, about which songs have been sung and stories told, and also about the National Park in which it sits. In all my years of travel writing I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve written about this part of the world, and I’m so annoyed at myself that I’ve decided to change all that. So here I am, re-visiting Loch Lomond and the Trossachs in Scotland.
Most of my family are native to Scotland, but my formative years were spent in England. Our annual holiday was a fairly consistent toss-up between Bournemouth in one direction, and Glasgow in the other, and whenever our travels took us north of the border, we used the city as a base to explore as much of our old homeland as possible. One of my lasting memories was a trip to Perth because it involved driving up the old A82 (it was known by a different name back then) along the west bank of Loch Lomond.
The old road – the ‘low’ one from the song – was a tortuous and interminable road that afforded you fabulous views over the water and the distant hills, but really didn’t get you anywhere very fast. Not that we were bothered back then – our inordinately small, bright red, fully-laden Fiat 126 was never in much of a hurry to get anywhere.
It tended to crawl at a sickeningly slow pace every where it went, much like a lethargic ladybird, only without the spots. And it’s because the road was so twisty that I remember it at all. It took over an hour, maybe nearer two, of twisting turns, rises and falls, of keeping my eyes on the horizon and challenging my sister for control of the ‘sick bowl’ before we made it out the other side of the gauntlet to the safety of Crianlarich.
These days, that old road is mostly gone and the part that’s left is only used as the south entrance to the village of Luss. In its place is the much faster A82, a modern thoroughfare featuring real tarmac and relatively straight lanes, sometimes even two in the same direction. There are occasional opportunities for overtaking, something our Fiat would have scoffed at the mere thought of.
What the new road also has, that the old one didn’t, is a view. Sure, the old road was slower and a whole lot closer to the edge of the loch, but there’s only so much admiring to be done when you’re spending most of the trip comparing your apathetic Italian car to a narrowboat navigating some rapids, and willing the morning’s hash browns to remain below your esophagus.
When I eventually returned to Scotland as an adult, my first trip back along that road was filled with a certain degree of trepidation. Is it, after all, even possible to drive a car whilst being sick? When I discovered the original snake-like route had been relegated to little more than a side road, I was overjoyed. Finally I could make a safe journey up the lochside without losing my breakfast, and enjoy the views as I went.
The A82 is the main trunk road for the west of Scotland, and despite my appreciation of its new, flatter self, I have to be honest and say that the section above Tarbet is still a hazardous journey – although, thankfully short by comparison to the length the old road used to be. It’s busy every day of the week with tourists visiting Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, not mention the crowd ‘just passing through’. Not crowded-like-Glasgow-on-a-Saturday-afternoon kind of busy, but busier than any country road has any reasonable right to be.
There are certain times of the year when it gets a whole lot worse; crawling traffic caused by the Garelochhead Marches, the returning revellers from Rock Ness and groups of cyclists who don’t seem to realize that riding four deep on a 60mph road is not all that polite. (And I’m not anti-cyclist by the way. Just anti-impolite ones).
The road passes all the main villages along the way, bringing plenty of traffic into the popular village of Luss and Tarbet. At its base, the village of Balloch hugs the edge of the A82 and provides an access route around the other side of the loch towards places like Rowardenan and Balmaha, as well as the towering form of Ben Lomond that dominates the landscape from every direction. In fact, the A82 is Loch Lomond and the Trossach’s arterial route, bringing tourists to this fabulous part of Scotland in their hundreds every week. If you plan on visiting Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, chances are this is the road you’ll use. I certainly hope I haven’t put you off?
Leaving the rat race behind and heading in a new direction can be daunting for some, but the realization that life has just gotten better gives you a feeling that makes me think of that icon of the boxing world, Rocky – it’s just so good, it knocks all other emotions out cold. That’s happened to me with travel writing, and I’m not hanging around long enough to look back. No more corporate ladder, pressing deadlines (except the ones I set myself) or unreasonable bosses, and my desk and PC are ditched for a lightweight table and a laptop. But the best thing by far is the constantly changing view, as I discover a new office in different places around the world. The best places to blog are never surrounded by four walls.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved to travel and I’m never far from a pen, so it’s not as if these are passions I developed overnight. The difference is I never dreamed of doing them for a living and I consider myself lucky to be following this path. I’ve seen some sights I never knew existed, met people from different cultures and eaten dishes I’d never heard of. Always travel writing, always blogging.
Two years ago this was my first alternative office space….
We were taking a family holiday to France, travelling in an RV and exploring the route from Glasgow to St Jean D’Angely in time for the motocross. And having fun all the way. Okay, so as a travel writer you sort of have to work while you’re on holiday, but with great scenery, childish antics, loads of food and a view like this every time you stop, it’s hard to feel disgruntled about it. This trip was the one that really made me decide to go for it. The one that made me realise just how fed up I was being just another rat in an age-old race.
Since then, I’ve added to my list of best places to blog.
My travel writing has taken me here…
And here too…..
In fact, the places I’ve been to seem almost endless.
I love the fact that I can wake up one day with a new horizon, pack my pen and notepad and set off on another adventure. In my last job, posting pictures, tweeting and instant messaging were alien concepts. I’ve stepped out of the box and into the world, and I’m loving it.
There is one downside though. I thought that by travel writing I’d get some of my bucket list ticket off. In fact. it’s getting longer as I discover new places to visit and different activities to try. And when I do tick something off, it invariably goes back on in the ‘must do that again’ category. There’s really only been one place I’ve actually hated – a dreadful little hotel on Florida’s I-Drive with stained carpets, holey sheets and broken furniture – the sort of place you get out of in a hurry, even when you’re only visiting by Google Map!
The more I travel, the more I want to write. And the more I want to write, the more I want to travel. Yet suddenly that whole ‘vicious’ circle thing is so much more appealing. Especially if I get to keep adding to the list. That’s the thing about travel writing…!
So where are some of your best places to blog?
As a travel writer I often find myself in strange places, seeking out new experiences and learning the deepest darkest secrets a place has got to offer travellers, and it was from this desire to explore that I found myself heading off on a tour of Scotland’s haunted castles, notably (although not limited to) those which are now run as hotels. As a cynical person by nature, I’ve never much believed in ghosts, although I remain relatively open-minded to the whole idea. If only one would appear before me.
Not far from Glasgow, in a sleepy village called Fintry, sits ancient Culcreuch Castle, a 13th Century stone build fortress that’s now a popular castle hotel in Scotland. Built back in 1296 the castle became the seat of the Clan Galbraith before changing between families and Laird’s until its present day. Not only is it a beautifully idyllic location, and frequently chosen by brides-to-be looking for a Scottish castle wedding venue, but it also has an interesting history – and more than a passing fascination with ghosts.
Culcreuch Castle was the first stop I made on my investigative trip to visit haunted Scottish castle hotels. From the outside, this magnificent building does have an imposing look – a large stone facade, small windows perfect for firing arrows through and a parapet just large enough to be intimidating. It sits surrounded by trees on a petite but perfectly tended estate and gives away little sign that’s it’s now a hotel. Inside, and the illusion of a fortress continues, with a hall that’s more suited to an ancestral family home than a lodging and only a visitor’s book to give away its true purpose.
This Scottish castle turned hotel has more than one haunting to its paranormal ‘bow’ so it came as little surprise to find a team of ghost hunters arriving at the same time as we did. My husband and I were greeted with looks that suggested we were clearly too cynical for our new brigade of ghost busting friends, but nevertheless they gamely asked if we’d like to join them as they sought the truth behind the various hauntings that Culcreuch Castle has become famous for. And we gamely agreed.
Our first stop was the grounds themselves. They came armed with a variety of equipment from superdooper cameras to simple divining rods, while I was armed with a notepad and pen that it was way too dark to use. My husband came armed with a smile, and a willingness to try and see things from their point of view. We strolled around the grounds for a while, wandering through the pitch black shadows from the canopied trees and examining the exterior of the building in the gloom. The team were snapping away heavily, ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ over each digital image with increasing enthusiasm. They showed me some of their snaps – black pictures with flecks of bright light dotted across the screen and asked me what I thought the dots were. My answer of ‘dust?’ was less than satisfactory – apparently such things are orbs, living spirits that glow in the dark. (I think I’ve got that right?)
Our next stop was the Chinese Bird Room, one of the most intricately decorated hotels rooms I’ve ever seen, and the real reason I was visiting the castle in the first place. This beautiful room is named after its wallpaper, which was brought from China in 1723. Painstakingly handpainted, it depicts birds and flowers and the owners have taken care not to let it fade too much as the centuries have passed. It’s also the main focal point for haunted activities in the hotel, and over the years visitors staying in the room have reported all manner of eerie happenings, including the sound of bagpipes coming from the walls and the apparition of a woman clothed in white appearing at the end of the bed. I watched as the team set up their equipment – and as my husband backed out of the door and retreated to our room. When the cameras were ready and rolling, and the lights were switched off plunging us into darkness, I waited, ready to see my first real ghost. One of the team began to chant an invocation to whichever spirit might have been there, but despite his sincere pleas none of them seemed interested in appearing before us.
Next, was the dining room at the back of the hotel, a room that had to be haunted on account of the frigid temperature inside? I don’t know enough about ghost hunting to agree or disagree, but the plummeting chill was certainly something I found difficult to argue with. They decided to hold a séance, creating a circle on the floor with cameras set up round the group. I joined them, and for once was glad of the dark because I confess I find it difficult not to giggle. Despite not seeing anything appear before us I still have to admit that it was an interesting experience, sitting there in a haunted hotel, in the dark, holding hands with complete strangers and asking spirits that I’m not quite sure I believe in if they wouldn’t mind appearing before me. I’d like to think my tone of voice was sincere.
With that finished we descended to the basement bar which had once been the castle dungeons. A dungeon is, as most people probably think, where any self respecting ghost would prefer to hang out, so I was keeping my fingers crossed that something would appear before us down here. The group was keen to try direct communication, and in the absence of a telephone opted for an upturned glass on a table top – a makeshift weegie board. One by one we placed our fingers on the glass and the team began to ask questions. And the glass did move. Yep, it really did move. Yes and No answers were flooding out to every question they asked, and it wasn’t long before they’d figured it all out. A young boy had been murdered in the dungeons many years ago for something he said he didn’t do, and here he was chatting away to us and dishing the dirt. I decided it was time to leave, excused myself politely, and went to find my husband who was relaxing in our Keep Room, clearly worn out from all his paranormal investigating.
It was an interesting experience, and although I guess I am a cynic, it’s only because no one has managed to convince me otherwise yet. I would have been delighted to see a ghostly apparition or hear a voice talk to me, and although I can’t explain the reason for the glass moving I’m still not satisfied there was anyone other than the team and I in that room. That said, it was only night one, and with more nights to go, who knows what might be uncovered?
Regardless of whether you’re heading to Culcreuch Castle for a romantic stay in a lavish Scottish hotel or to visit its haunted rooms to see for yourself, what you’re guaranteed to find is superlative accommodation and a fabulously warm welcome in traditional Scottish style. I loved this hotel, and with it being so close to Glasgow, it’s a great choice for travellers looking for a luxury Scottish holiday within easy reach of everything Scotland has to offer. I would happily stay here again, in no fear of being bothered by insensitive ghosts, and I think it’s the perfect base for exploring this beautiful area.
Next stop on my haunted tour…Tulloch Castle near Dingwall, Ross-shire.
For more luxury travel ideas check our our hotel reviews here.
It’s that time of year when I start planning a break away. I hate the wet drizzle of the winter months, and the lure of foreign shores where the weather is usually warmer starts calling me. This year though, in a move that has taken my husband a little by surprise, I’ve ditched the equatorial climes for something a little different. I’ve booked a luxury hotel in Europe – we’re heading to Munich and its century old Christmas Market instead.
Christmas markets have always fascinated me. I love the idea of quaint cobbled town squares all brightly lit with flickering fairy lights and 40ft high trees. I like the idea of maybe, just maybe, catching a glimpse of real snow instead of that stuff we spray on shop windows every year and then scrape off again in January. I’m not too bothered by seeing Santa, but the tantalizing aromas of cinnamon and mulled wine certainly get me excited.
This trip is actually my birthday present from my husband. Those of you who know me will also know that my birthday is in January, so I’ve had plenty of time to get everything planned. The hardest part was deciding where to go. There are so many markets dotted around Europe that narrowing it down became a bit of a challenge, but with cheap flights on offer to Munich I decided that Germany was the way to go. Not to mention that spending less on travel will be leaving me with more to spend at the market. Munich is a fabulous place, and somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit. I actually wanted to go over for Oktoberkest, but since my husband detests beer I didn’t think I’d ever get there. To be fair, he doesn’t much like shopping either, but I guess he thinks it’s the lesser of two evils.
Munich is actually a bit of a Mecca for shopping at this time of year, and they actually have eight different Christmas markets to choose from. The most famous, the Christkindl market takes place in the old town square, Marienplatz. It’s by far the most popular with tourists, and the stalls that line the square around the impressive tree have all manner of delicious foods and wines to sell. There are Bavarian costumes on display and carol singing by gospel choirs, jugglers and mime artists and loads more (according to their website), so it’s certainly going to beat Christmas shopping online this year!
If you do decide to visit a Christmas market then there are a few things you should be aware of in advance. There are cheap tickets available to fly to most popular destinations, especially in Europe, but do remember to check your luggage allowance and upgrade if necessary. There would be nothing worse than spending a fortune on fabulous handmade presents and then having to pay extra to get them home. Also, if you plan on bringing back local alcohols or beverages, you’ll need to pay for hold luggage and not just carry-on since large volumes of liquids aren’t allowed on planes. Remember to check the dates the Christmas markets are running before you book your flights, because it’s not unheard of for some to start after Christmas day and run into January instead. And finally, if you’re looking for luxury hotels in Munich close to the main markets to avoid lengthy walks weighed down with gifts, you need to book in advance. Otherwise you’ll probably find they’ll be booked very early indeed, leaving you settling in on the outskirts of town.
I’m looking forward to my trip and I’ll post back on here to tell you all about it in December. Have any of you been to a Christmas market before?
For other great ideas about luxury travel in Europe, check out our hotel reviews here.
You might not think it as you drive up to the small, whitewashed renovated coaching inn that lies just south of the golfing town of St Andrews, but these walls have seen (and heard) a lot of musical talent over the past few years, much to the delight of tourists and locals alike. Okay, so the Inn at Lathones might not quite match Wembley in terms of size and scale, but still, its gig list reads like an A-list music agent’s resume – impressive, and long.
So why have talented artists like, Bob Catley, Peter Tork and Mick Taylor made their way to the east coast of Scotland? Well, a few years back the owner of the Inn, savvy businessman Nick White, wanted to find a niche market for his business. Something that would set his small Fife tavern apart from everything else in the area. And with music providing the perfect reason to travel, he set about turning his Inn into the music venue for St Andrews and the east coast of Scotland. And so the gig nights were born, and given the name Rocking at the Stables, or RATS for short.
It wasn’t long before the list of celebrity artists grew to a notable size, and that’s seen the venue grow in popularity as well. In 2009 it was awarded the title of UK’s Best Music Venue 2009, and in the following year The Publican listed it as a finalist. And its popularity continues to grow. This year sees the arrival of more talented artists like Lizanne Knott and Bob Cheevers, and they’ve even found the time on their gig list to open some space for one of two little-known talents as well. There have always been plenty of reasons to travel to this part of Scotland, whether it’s for the golf, historical tourist sites, or the plentiful and fresh seafood that’s a mainstay of the tourist trade here. But now there’s another reason to visit, and music fans everywhere should put the Inn at Lathones on their travel list.
Forthcoming Rocking at the Stables events in the Inn at Lathones can be found here:
And to see a full list of previous artists, click here:
It was only eleven o’clock, and I was cautiously eyeing my first ever Bellini and wondering whether drinking alcohol this early was a good idea. Not when I had an article to write and there was the promise of Champagne – Laurent-Perrier no less – a little further down the line. But the tall monogrammed glass, with its pressed peach puree and sparkling Prosecco taunted me and I felt somewhat obliged to take a sip or two. I justified it to myself with the knowledge that it was a very Venetian drink, the invention of one Giuseppe Cipriani at the original Harry’s Bar in Venice. Certainly fitting, it was also crisp and fruity, refreshing and light. Suddenly pre-lunch drinking was entirely acceptable, and I swiftly liberated the glass of its entire contents.
It was a Sunday morning on a marvellously clear day and I was on a crowded train in Scotland, heading north-northwest on the West Highland Line to Oban. But this was no ordinary train – I was seated aboard the elegant Northern Belle, sister train to the infamous Orient Express.
Around me the carriage was a hub of activity. Every seat was taken and travellers were clearly in awe of their surroundings. The interior design of the new Duart carriage is impressive to behold, and it’s not often you find yourself on such a remarkable train enjoying such a unique experience. But the views that were flashing by on either side were vying for our attention as well. The shimmering waters of the Clyde Estuary, the dark crevices of the Cobbler and its neighbouring mountains, the murky depths of Loch Long and Loch Lomond. It was hard to know where to look first.
The Northern Belle is the epitome of luxury, as you might expect from a train that bears the mark of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Stepping aboard, I had to wait a brief moment as a liveried steward in a smart maroon tunic laid a red carpet below the step of the train. My jacket was taken and stowed overhead. My ticket, in its smart brushed-leather folder was checked, and my personalised menu card was left for me to read over and confirm. It was quick, efficient and downright polite. Far removed from any rail journey I’d taken before.
The Duart is the newest edition to the Northern Belle. Once part of the Royal Household train, it’s now had a makeover and received the Orient treatment. It suits its new colours and livery, and at the front of the train, it offers space for twenty-four privileged passenger to travel in style. Every aspect of its transformation has been carefully managed over the past four years, with hand painted panels, restored woodwork and beautifully upholstered seating, there’s been nothing missed.
In fact, everything aboard this impressive locomotive screams quality and luxury. From the heavy silver salt and pepper pots, to the specially commissioned glassware and the Dudson Fine China plates which read ‘Made exclusively for the Northern Belle’, there’s nothing that doesn’t ooze originality here. And that extends to the food – but then isn’t that one of the real reasons travellers book aboard these trains? The experience, the sights…and the victuals?
Brunch began with a refreshing seasonal fruit salad ladled from a large silver tureen, and was swiftly followed by a toasted crumpet topped with a smoked salmon and scrambled egg parcel, caviar and a light drizzle of hollandaise. It didn’t last long. Fresh pastries followed soon afterwards, along with a strong and smooth fair-trade coffee.
By early afternoon we had rumbled past Arrochar, Ardlui and Crianlarich, and around Dalmally, a light lunch arrived. Roasted chicken with asparagus and a barley risotto. A glass of house Chardonnay, again, specially commissioned for the Northern Belle, was poured. We waited in Dalmally for the single track to clear, gazing out of the windows at the mountains around us. They were growing in stature the further north we went.
The landscape flattens out again as this line gets closer to the sea, passing alongside Loch Awe and the inimitable Cruachan ridge with its underground power station. Nearer Oban, the Connel Bridge comes into view. It marks the point where the ocean meets Loch Etive with such force that the current reaches a swirling, terrifying 14 knots and forms a whirlpool almost directly beneath the crossing. The waters here are home to only the hardiest of marine life and on the odd occasion, a foolhardy diver or two as well. We trundled on, the clacking of the Belle’s wheels on the track transporting us back to the Golden Age of travel. Everything was leisurely and timed to perfection.
Our arrival in Oban was marked by the haunting sounds of a bagpiper, fully dressed in all his regalia, and it was off to enjoy everything this fascinating seaside town has to offer. Seal-spotting excursions, kayaking tours, boutique shopping, and much more. You could spend a week or two on this edge of the coastline and still not find the time to experience it all.
After a visit to the Oban Distillery, one of the smallest in the country, we wandered aimlessly for a few hours, taking in the sights and enjoying the fresh sea air. Although there’s plenty to do, the excitement of our return journey was mounting and guests were returning to the Northern Belle well in advance of her departure time, such was the collective eagerness to board her again.
If the outgoing journey had been extraordinary, then it’s fair to say that the return journey continued to impress. We were welcomed on board by Jess, one of our stewards, this time dressed in black for dinner service, holding a slate tray elegantly laid with a selection of hors d’oeuvres. Duck and grape chutney crostini, blue cheese puffed pastry, and so on. Each row as mouth-watering as the next. The champagne flowed freely the minute we sat down, and almost moments after we set out from the station, dinner began. A red pepper and sweet potato soup, flavoured with just enough chive crème fraiche to ease the hidden spice, was followed at a precise, but unhurried pace, by a large medallion of beef and perfectly cooked vegetables.
The cheese board arrived as no cheese board has done before, a large slab of wood that stretched between the tables on either side of the carriage, literally groaning beneath the weight of the different, but carefully chosen cheeses. Desert was a sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream, light, airy and ineffably tasty. Coffee, wine, more champagne, petit fours…the list went on, and it wasn’t long before I was groaning every bit as much as that cheese board had been.
The service onboard the Orient trains is perfectly managed. There’s no austerity here, none of the sombreness that I had imagined there would be. It’s not an ‘airs and graces’ type of experience – unless that’s what you’re looking for. It’s perhaps best described as having a certain civility about it, a chivalry that’s not often enjoyed in today’s modern world. And that’s a pleasure that I think most of us secretly yearn to savour.
The stewards, resplendent in their immaculate uniforms clearly enjoy their work, and it shows in the manner they deal with their customers. They treat you well; give you the service you expect, but chat along when you’d like them to. They know their train, that’s perfectly apparent. Simon, the Duart’s head steward clearly demonstrated his lengthy service by answering every question with facts and figures, both about the train and the company itself. And it’s refreshing to see people take such an interest in their place of work.
I travel regularly, and as most of you will know from reading these posts, I have a bug for exploring as far abroad as I can reach, but I’ve seen my home country in a new light now. I can go so far as to say that I feel truly privileged to have been part of the Duart’s maiden trip along this line. The next time I find myself travelling that direction I know I’ll be looking towards the rails and hoping for a glimpse of the graceful Northern Belle passing alongside.
This journey is ‘bucket-list’ material, and it’s not to be relegated to Number 50 either. Jot it down and book a trip up. I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Fiona Galloway, Editor
Back when my husband and I were still dating, he suggested going away. Not in a ‘let’s-go-on-a-date-to-the-cinema’ kind of way, but in a ‘I-really-like-you-so-I-want-to-show-you-my-favourite-place’ kind of way. I thought he meant a weekend trip to Edinburgh, perhaps a tour of the castle, and a meal in the sort of restaurant that would make his wallet go into cardiac arrest. So two weeks in Florida came as a surprise.
It was a fly-drive and the itinerary was our own to organise. With such freedom it made sense to see as much of the state as we could, so we crammed over 3,000 miles into that trip, taking in every town and city we could find on our newly-aquired road map; Orlando, Daytona, Clearwater, Sarasota, Miami and Key West to name just a few. But the most adventurous by far, was the short stopover in Key West.
We stayed in the old part of town; all whitewashed colonial style buildings, swaying palm trees and water as far as we could see. It was spring break, and it was manic. Everywhere you looked pretty 18 year old college students in skimpy Roxy bikinis were strolling along palm-lined Duval Street, pretending to sip on full-fat cokes but actually trying to avoid the calories. The conch train, a popular tourist attraction, rolled by on its regular timetable, and the smell of the salt air lured wandering tourists towards the shore. We arrived in the late afternoon, and finally found, and booked into, our guest house.
The Authors Guest House is found on White Street, in the old part of Key West. The traditional part, not the modern urban sprawl that’s taken up much of the north of the island. The old part is built on a grid system, with rectangular blocks leading towards the popular main streets near the southwest of the island. The only break in its strict town planning, is when you reach the cemetery, although in an eerily strange way, it too is uniformly laid out.
The benefit to staying so far away from the main sights is that you’re forced to walk nearly everywhere you go. Travelling by car in Key West (old town) is virtually pointless since there are so few places to park anyway. But walking means you get to see far more of this fantastic connurbation than you otherwise would. The wizened old lady sweeping the paint peelings off her faded wooden porch, the local tour rep scurrying late into work, the teenagers stumbling home after a late night at one of the many beach parties. One of my favourite sights was when we came across the occasional cycle rickshaw ridden by sweating, straining men (and the occasional woman), while their passengers sat back and admired the passing view.
The thing about Key West is that if you don’t venture into the modern, shop-filled, fast-food jointed northern end, it’s actually quite a small place. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see. Our short stay here left us wishing we’d booked more time. There were restaurants we hadn’t visited, seafood we hadn’t tried and snorkeling trips we wished we’d gone on. And all that laid back semi-Caribbean feel that the Keys has about them makes it harder to rush to fit everything in. More than 24 hours here and you can’t help but fall into the local pace of life.
The main part of the town, the area tourists naturally migrate towards, is a long wide street overflowing with shops and cafes. Nearly all have a seafaring theme, whether they’re selling surf gear or local trinkets and souvenirs. A street or two down, and the harbour comes into view. By day, fish are brought into market, crates and creels tossed up noisily onto the boardwalk from the decks below. By night, the area is transformed into an outdoor myriad of seafood restaurants all touting that morning’s fresh catch.
Mallory Square provides the location for some perfect after dinner entertainment. From dawn onwards you overlook the busy dock, where imposing cruise ships line up to decant more passengers onto this tiny island than you’d think it could hold. But when evening falls, street artists take up their spot along the boardwalk, eating fire and walking tightropes to delight the heady crowd. I remember watching an incredible mime artist while sipping a pina colada at this very spot, the cool drink keeping my temperature down on what was a sticky, warm night.
If you’ve never been to the Keys, then I have to encourage you to go. These tiny islands that stretch into the ocean like a string of stepping stones to Cuba, have a lot to offer visitors. I have a few special memories of my time there. Little individual moments that will stick in mind for various reasons. My next post explains more…
The Hotel ai Mori d’Oriente has an unassuming frontage on the Fondamenta Sensa, unless you take notice of the overflowing hanging baskets, rows of flag poles, and gondola posts that reach up through the water like oversized red and white striped candy canes. Apart from all that, it’s relatively unassuming. What it definitely is, though, is quiet. It’s not one of the popular tourist hotels, and not because there’s anything wrong with it either, but the unfashionable Cannaregio district doesn’t list highly in the ’where to stay section’ of most Venetian guide books. It’s a little out of the way from the Grand Canal, and doesn’t have much of a view either.
Inside, the hotel reflects its unique past. The building was once a fifteenth century palazzo, and although it’s located on the Fondamenta, the majority of rooms actually overlook the Canale della Sensa. The Moors used to call this place home, and it was a base for their trading business, a last stop for the silk and spices that arrived by water from Turkey. The hotel has kept in touch with its trader’s roots, decorating rooms in Moorish style with elaborate reds and golds, ornate touches, traditional ornaments and bold colour schemes throughout. In fact, if it wasn’t perched on stilts in the middle of the Veneto there’d be relatively little Italian influence here at all.
It was also in this hotel that I uttered my first Italian word. Quite by accident. The word ‘camera’ in Italian does not refer to a little black box with a shutter and a lens. It refers to a room, and in a hotel, quite naturally, it refers to a bedroom. It took some considerable time for the poor non-English speaking porter to show us to our room, before I allowed him to hand back the camera I produced every time he requested it. My moment of embarassment passed quickly though, to be replaced by one of semi-euphoria. I could speak Italian.
We were there in the days before iPhone’s were invented, and as a wandering traveller (without my guidebook) I had to ask for words from anyone who had the time to listen. Our concierge probably didn’t have the time, but he still listened to me kindly, and daily, and before long I had a whole string of sentences to use. All of them were perfect for checking into any Italian hotel, so it was rather a pity I’d already done so on this trip. No matter how many times I asked ‘posso avere la mia chiave per favore?’ in a cafe, my room key never arrived.
As delightful as it is, the hotel does have one drawback - it doesn’t serve dinner. And no matter what anyone else might tell you, honeymooners do need to eat. We headed out every evening to hunt down the best in local cuisine and we came across some utterly delightful and romantic hideaways across the city. If you follow me now, I’ll show you the way….
A honeymoon is the perfect excuse for planning a holiday to one of your ‘bucket-list’ destinations, and when I was planning mine, Milan and Venice had just hit the top of the list.
The stopover in Milan was a relaxing two days, spent mostly wandering the streets of its centre, hunting out the tourist attractions without the aid of the guidebook we’d stupidly left behind, and wondering why all the shops were shut in one of Europe’s most fashionable shopping cities. We later learned the Italians have public holidays too, something I’m sure our wayward guidebook might have filled us in on.
Two days and an interesting ride on the Italian public railway system later, and we arrived in Venice. Incidentally, it’s the first time I’ve ridden upstairs on a train. I’m positive the views outside were fabulous, but it was hard to see through the creative, but nonetheless obtrusive artwork (graffiti) that was spread the length of the seven carriages.
Venice was everything we’d imagined it would be, and more. A watery maze of side alleys and main thoroughfares, with the occasional pedestrian street thrown in. People queued at the last bastion of vehicular civilization, the area on the very west of Venice proper where the road and rail connect to this stilted island, while they waited on a painfully expensive water taxi to transport them over the murky depths of the Grand Canal to whichever hotel they were heading to.
We were different, as I find my husband and I so often are when we travel. Foregoing the pleasures of the gondolas and boats for a while, we dragged our wheeled luggage northwards, wending our way through several isolated back streets and into the controversial Cannaregio district at the top of the island.
Once the main canal access to Venice, prior to the rail network finally making it across the stretch of water from the mainland known as the Laguna Veneta, the Cannaregio area (meaning Royal Canal in Italian) grew as a working district while the rest of the city took shape. It was once used to house the city’s Jewish population, who were confined to the area with high gates to keep them separated from the rest of the city’s inhabitants. Although that era has long gone, there’s still an aura that remains, although it may just rise from the narrower canals and cramped buildings that are more prominent in this area.
The walking was tough with baggage, as you might expect in a city that shuns paths, and for a brief moment – probably around the time one of the wheels on the case collapsed on the cobbles – I wished we’d gone by boat.
The Fondamenta Sensa is a long canal that runs parallel to the encircling sea, and it was here that we reached our honeymoon hotel. The Hotel ai Mori d’Oriente….