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Northern Belle; The Orient Express on Scotland’s West Highland Line

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

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Dudley Zoo and Castle, Dudley, England

As you drive into Dudley you can’t help but notice the impressive ruins that stands atop a solitary mound. It’s noticeable because beneath the ancient defence lies an urban sprawl of hotels, housing estates and modern shopping precincts, all shiny and industrialised, compared to what used to be the stronghold of Dudley Castle.

Many years ago, the fortification was home to the Lords of Dudley, and with their title, wealth and power, came conflict and war. Their castle became a much fought over prize, and over the years it garrissoned troops, was visited by Queen’s, and ultimately destroyed by fire. Now, it’s a home of a different kind, with the animals of Dudley Zoo taking up residence in its grounds.

The zoo is somewhat of a marvel to behold. From first glance it might not appear too impressive. There’s little to see as you walk through the gates and up the sloping path apart from a few flamingo’s and a spider monkey or two, but as you reach the summit of the mound, which is all but invisible from the roadway, you suddenly realise that there’s far more to see here than you first thought.

The reptile house is home to some remarkable species of endangered snakes, as well as a Monitor lizard, a creature I’ve always wanted to see. Bears were sleeping on wooden slited beds, oblivious to the peering eyes around them, siberian tigers wandered beneath our feet, and a pair of snow leopards displayed their remarkable agility, bounding into the trees and settling precariously on branches just so they could stare back at us.

Dudley Zoo is fairly user-friendly. There are two enclosures, one for Lemurs and the other for Penguins, where visitors can walk through their habitat, passing within close quarters of these remarkable animals. It’s not quite hands-on enough that you’re allowed into the hunting dog enclosure, and grooming lions is strictly off the menu as well, but for visitors who really do want to step beyond the glass, Dudley offers a ‘Be a Zoo Keeper for a Day’ programme, to give you the chance to do just that. And there’s a real emphasis here on conservation as well. Many of the animals you’ll find here are well down the endangered list, some virtually extinct in the wild.

Once the walking, the ‘oohing’ and the ‘aahing’ is all done, a small fairground area will keep kids occupied for a few hours more, and a coffee hut isn’t too far away to help renew parents vigour as well. Surprisingly, we spent a whole day wandering these paths, and it captured the interest of our two young boys for the whole time – a rare achievement indeed.

For accommodation choices near Dudley Zoo, take a look at one of Candidtraveller’s favourite hotels, the DeVere-owned Village Urban Resort Dudley. It’s literally at the bottom of the hill and within a short walk of these remarkable animals.

Healthworks Spa, Village Urban Resort Dudley

In the depths of the Village Urban Resort Dudley, secreted behind a contemporary dark wooden door and low lighting, is a little piece of paradise in the form of Healthworks - a wonderfully relaxing spa that serves hotel guests as well as local West Midlanders. Healthworks, which has been there since the hotel opened, offers an extensive array of relaxing and rejuventating treatments, along with some unique ESPA products designed specifically for them.

I visited this underground haven a week ago when I had the pleasure of staying in the hotel. The treatment menu is what a non-spa-goer like me might call ‘exhausting’. There were endless choices that I had spent hours scanning the evening before, wondering for the most part what half of them were. Words like ‘thalassotherapy’ and ‘phytotherapy’ are as alien to a busy person like me as simpler words are, like the term ‘relaxation’ for example, something I’ve long since forgotten the point of. So when I arrived the next morning, ready for my treatment, I still had no idea what I wanted to try.

I chose a facial, a word I at least comprehend, and met Marcia, possibly one of the most outstanding therapists I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. She explained the process of the facial I was going to have, and how it would identify problem areas of my skin, before going on to do just that. She’s a little like a matron (and I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course), scolding me subtley for not wearing enough sun protection and for failing to exfolitate as often as I knew I should, but at the same time she set about giving me the best facial treatment possible. Over the next hour I was pampered, massaged, cleansed, sprayed and more until it was time to leave, and I glided out with a renewed sense of wellbeing and a face that smelled of lemon trees. All rather nice indeed, if I do say…

There’s a Healthworks spa in several of the DeVere locations around the UK, and over the next while each of them is getting a makeover of their own. They’ll soon be rebranded under the name Viva Urban Spa, and my guess is that they’ll be even more luxurious than they currently are.  If you find yourself in the West Midlands, perhaps enjoying one of the many other pleasures that Dudley has to offer, I strongly suggest that you book yourself into Healthworks for a few moments of sheer indulgence and a little bit of time to yourself.

Village Urban Resort Dudley, England

The Village Urban Resort Dudley sort of took me by surprise. I’m not sure what I imagined it would look like, but when a hotel is situated in the middle of the industrialized heartlands of the English West Midlands, urban luxury appeal doesn’t usually spring to mind. It was clear that my fanciful impression was way off the mark the minute we turned into the Dudley’s private car park. The modern building before us, entirely devoid of smoking chimney stacks or wrought iron gates, is a thoroughly contemporary design, despite being in its 12th year. And stepping inside, it quickly became clear that the Village Urban Resort is possibly one of the best named hotels I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.

Before you even make it to your room, you’re greeted with a modern pub and grill, an up-scale restaurant and a Starbucks coffee shop. Downstairs, a fitness centre makes up much of the lower level with a large swimming pool and a gymnasium that puts most local sports centres to shame. Next to it, and for the hotel’s less energetic guests, a modern and relaxing spa offers tranquillity and solitude from the outside world. And don’t forget the function suite, regular monthly entertainment evenings and live music on a Friday night. It truly is a whole village in one neatly-packaged, fashionable box.

Upstairs, and the bedrooms are equally well-appointed. Dark woods and bold colours create the urban feel that works so well here, and the images of local attractions and landmarks that appear throughout the hotel are a welcome touch. We had the privilege of staying in two connecting rooms, and when you’re travelling with kids and you’re in dire need of sleep the extra space is a definite bonus. And of course, two rooms in the Dudley means two televisions, keeping the children’s channel blissfully out of earshot.

It’s hard not to be impressed. With every detail so well thought out, peaceful and incredibly comfortable rooms (I’m not a towel thief, but if I could have taken that mattress away with me, I would have) and modern bathrooms with showers that give you so many options you’d be in them all day, you can’t help but love this hotel. My only reservation was the glass-fronted bedroom furniture. Sure, it looked great, but one hour of constant assault by two little boys and their sticky, chocolate-covered fingers (see my post on Cadbury World for that explanation), and they weren’t looking so shiny.

The thing about the Dudley is that this is a truly family-oriented hotel.  Staff told me that their kids love coming to work because there’s plenty for them to do. Families around us were evidently enjoying their stay, and even our own two children, normally an embarrassing handful to take anywhere, were on relatively good behaviour. But even when they weren’t, the staff simply smiled and helped out. That included an episode of bribery when we ate at the Verve Bar and Grill – something along the lines of ‘if you’re quiet for your mummy and daddy, I’ll give you some Smarties for later.’ Talk about all-round great service!

And it’s not just the overnight guests that have fallen for the appeal of the Dudley – the locals appreciate what they’ve got here too. The leisure facilities, spa and eateries are all firm favourites in the surrounding area. The hotel also has great connections with local attractions, and the General Manager, Darryl Holdnall, has obviously built up excellent relations with other service providers. They’ve gone on to provide packages that include entry into some of the area’s most popular visitor sites, taking all the hassle out of planning your break away.

It all adds up to one great Resort, and a great family experience that’s really worth the visit.

The Dudley isn’t too far off the M6, the main arterial route through the UK, making this a fantastic location for visitors to anywhere in the surrounding region, as well as a great place to stop overnight on a journey to either end of the country.

Verve Bar & Grill, Village Urban Resort Dudley

After travelling all day, and with two hungry kids in tow, I feel tired and considerably underdressed. I’m sitting in a contemporary booth in the Verve Bar & Grill restaurant of the Village Urban Resort Dudley, and I’m wearing jeans, a T-shirt that barely made it through a sticky visit to Cadbury World, and a pair of trainers. Around me, diners have at least made more effort than I have, and they slip into the elegant surroundings in smart casual wear and considered accessories. Our accessories are two children, a couple of stuffed lizards courtesy of nearby Dudley Zoo (not real ones), and my husband’s indiscreet chocolate stain. Bournville, if you must know.

The Verve is one of those restaurants where all of the above don’t actually seem to matter though. It may have an appealing, modern menu, decidedly crisp napkins and a wine menu that a Sommelier wouldn’t shake his head at, but none of that makes it pretentious, and even our trainer-clad family, too exhausted to change for dinner, is heartily welcomed in.

If you have a passion for food and you like the sound of a tasting plate with olives, ciabatta and balsamic oil, Eggs Benedict with homemade hollandaise, and chicken liver parfait, then this is a restaurant for you. Although the menu is far from extensive, it’s well conceived and very well executed. Mains include roast chicken and creamy garlic mash, and salmon and asparagus with crushed potatoes. Kids won’t be disappointed either, and favourite children’s meals are presented with a little bit of DeVere flair. This is dining in style and comfort, yet it manages to offer a unique blend between high-brow service and relaxed family feel, something that’s relatively difficult to achieve.

There are three menus to choose from here. The A La Carte, with some interesting options, including a tempting Sea Bass dish or choice of steak has something for everyone, but there’s also a set menu to choose from, and the promotional 2 Dine for £29 menu.

If you can’t decide, and that’s perfectly possible, the staff at the Verve are happy to give you some recommendations. I left my choice of starter and glass of wine up to Matt, who really couldn’t have chosen better.

It took us over two hours to eat that night, something our family, always on the go as we are, doesn’t normally achieve. I can only put that down to the relaxed atmosphere and attentive, but unobtrusive staff, as well as the delightful food. Incidentally, if you’re staying in the hotel, the Verve is also where you’ll have breakfast every morning – with a range of cooked foods, cereals, fresh fruit and continental pastries to decide between.

To read more about the Village Urban Resort Dudley, follow this link, and to visit their website, click here.

Garden Restaurant, Stone House Hotel, England

Dining at the Garden Restaurant is both enjoyable and surprising, in equal measures. When I visited on a busy Friday evening with my husband and two young children, I was delighted to discover that we weren’t relegated to a ‘child-friendly’ section of the dining area – you know, the furthest corner of that upmarket restaurant, where you’ll be less likely to annoy other guests with the inevitable chaos that ensues from dining with toddlers in tow. Especially noisy ones like mine. The Garden Restaurant, however, seemed entirely non-plussed, and seated us dead centre in the middle of the restaurant, and right on top of a (probably very expensive) woven rug. A great sign that they cater well for children, but I don’t envy their cleaning bills much!

The design and decor of the restaurant lends itself to fine dining, and the menu prompts you in that direction as well; you won’t find pies and deep fried chicken for dinner here. What you do get comes as a bit of a surprise, but a very pleasant one at that. Fine dining, without the fine portion sizes.

The children’s meals arrived first, which is always helpful for parents and very much appreciated, but forget the run-of-the-mill ‘bangers and mash’, because the Garden Restaurant doesn’t do things that way. The sausage and mashed potatoes that landed in front of my 4 year old could have fed an army of 4 year olds…for a year. The gravy, which tasted fantastic, was real onion gravy – but it had two downsides; firstly, my husband kept eating it, secondly, my 4 year old picked the onions out. Still, the majority he consumed a fair amount, and for a fussy child, that’s a pretty good result. My 3 year old had a pasta dish that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an authentic Italian trattoria, and again, portion control was more than adequate.

We tried the chicken liver pate and the melon starters, before moving on to a gammon steak and a duck breast with orange mains. Everything was cooked well, and a favourite sign of mine that a chef knows how to cook, is ordering duck and getting it with perfectly rendered skin. I don’t do flabby duck breast – trust me! The meal was relaxing (or as relaxing as it can be with two under-5′s causing mayhem), so we eventually settled for coffee and dessert in the private gardens outside, which was a delightful way to end the meal.

It’s clear that the restaurant of the Stone House Hotel is a firm favourite with locals. It’s location, which is right off the main road, is still isolated enough to give you a feeling of solitude and privacy but there’s a very welcoming and homely feel that is an obvious attraction. The terrace and garden area is well used, and I suspect that the long warm summer evenings make this the perfect spot for a lazy summer lunch or an after-work drink.

Check out our review of the accommodation at the Stone House Hotel, part of the Oxford Hotels and Inns group, by clicking here.

Stone House Hotel, England

The Stone House Hotel in Stone, Staffordshire, is a welcoming and relaxing location for travellers to the area. Just a short distance south of historic Stoke-On-Trent, with its endless potteries, factories, cycleways and history, and only a few minutes away from popular family fun parks like Alton Towers, this hotel makes an ideal base for touring the area.

As the editor for Candidtraveller, I visited the Stone House Hotel recently to see what it had to offer, and I was far from disappointed. There’s nothing I like better than good customer service. Forget a hotel’s star rating, because a true reflection of the service you can expect to receive becomes obvious the minute you step up to reception to book in. Personally, I’d rather be treated well in a three star hotel, than completely ignored in a 5 star resort, and that’s exactly the kind of great service that my family and I received when we arrived at this Oxford Hotels and Inns property on a busy Friday afternoon.

The hotel was once a family home, and it’s clear to see that it would have been an elegant country house in its day. The interior stylings certainly lend themselves to the original design of the hotel, and the Garden Restaurant in particular has an air of the old fashioned about it (that means elegant, not stuffy). Some of the rooms in the new wing are a standard, modern design, without the trappings of the original part of the house, but they’re exactly what you’d expect to get in a good 3 star hotel.

Taking the family means staying somewhere that caters well for children. It’s all very well planning things to tire them out during the day, but if they make it back to the hotel with excess energy you’ll need to have something there to entertain them.  The Stone House Hotel has a swimming pool and gym, both ideal for older (and much older) children. Ours were fascinated by the internal garden, with it’s winding paths and natural ‘dens’ to hide in. So fascinated, in fact, that they played away for hours, leaving us a little downtime to enjoy a coffee on the terrace and take in our surroundings.

The Stone House Hotel is right on the main road into Stone, but where it’s situated means you barely hear any noise from the passing traffic, let alone see any. And from the garden in the back, there’s a gentle hum to let you know the road is there, but you’ll only really notice it if you’re trying to.

The hotel is clearly a popular venue for weddings, and the Friday evening we stayed was no exception. The function room upstairs had been taken over by the wedding party who had the benefit of the private gardens for their photos and champagne reception, but even with the large number of guests, the hotel still didn’t feel overrun. Another great feature of the hotel is it’s proximity to the M6, the main arterial route through Great Britain. The hotel is so close to the motorway (without actually being in walking distance of its populated lanes) that it serves as an ideal stopover for travellers making their way to or from Scotland. In fact, if you’re travelling to Scotland via London for the Commonwealth Games in 2014, this is the ideal location to take an overnight break from all that travelling.

All in all, this was a great stay at the Stone House Hotel. We were well looked after by helpful and friendly staff, something that’s top of my list wherever I stay. If you’d like to read what we made of the hotel restaurant, then follow this link here.

More information on the Oxford Hotels and Inns, or to book a stay at any one of their hotels, can be found here.

Lastly, I’d like to say a big thank you to Lily, the very smiley receptionist, and to Jess, who looked after us wonderfully well at dinner and breakfast.

Hotel Reservas Sandos San Blas, Tenerife

It was late evening by the time our plane touched down at Tenerife South airport, and like most travellers we were far from overjoyed at the prospect of a long transfer to our hotel.  Luckily for us, though, we’d chosen to stay at the Sandos San Blas, a five star resort hotel only then minutes or so from the airport.  It was possibly one of the shortest and most relaxed journey’s I’ve ever taken on a package-style tour.

I was travelling to Tenerife with my friend, Lynsey, to check out the new luxury Sandos hotel.  Designed like a stand-alone resort, this fabulous accommodation sits on the coast a little to the west of Tenerife South, edged between some private golf courses and a very unique nature reserve.  In fact, the hotel helps sustain the work carried out on the nature reserve and staff conduct guided tours through the volcanic landscape several times a day.

The hotel itself certainly met my expectations.  The entrance hall is somewhat confusing to begin with, and you come across the reception desk almost by chance, but everything after that is well laid out and intricately planned.  Designed in two long stepped-down sections, the apartments descend either side of the hotel’s five swimming pools, stretching out towards the sea.  Each room has a balcony or patio that looks inwards, but they’re angled enough that you’ll always have a view, and they boast comfortable furniture, relaxing beds and even the bathrooms are worthy of their five star accolade.

Dining in the Sandos San Blas means eating buffet-style, which is typical of most package deals I suppose, but while I normally reserve judgement on daily buffets, dreading having to eat the same food seven days a week, I can confirm that not only does the Sandos offer you a choice, but it’s a great choice.  Locally caught fish, fresh seafood, meat carved at your table and so on.  The occasional themed evening pops up now and again, but on the whole the food is fresh, tasty and interesting!  If you really can’t manage all seven nights on buffet food, then the hotel does have a ‘proper’ restaurant to enjoy.  The Proa Restaurant sits in a unique wooden-slatted building at the end of the resort, overlooking the pool and just a stone’s throw from the pebbled beach.  The food served here is definitely more gastronomique than in the main restaurant and you can forget the large portion sizes you’ll be used to from the buffet.  Fresh lobster is always on the menu, fois gras might make an appearance, and the deserts are nothing short of fabulous creations.  If you’re on the all-inclusive plan, you can get one evening booked in the Proa free of charge.

We spent our week lying by the pools, enjoying unimited cocktails from the pool bar and watching the more energetic tourists over-exert themselves on the outdoor climbing wall and beach volleyball court, but to take a break from the hotel, not that you’d ever really need one, we headed out on a few coastal walks to stretch our legs.  Sandos San Blas is ideally located for the best that Tenerife has to offer.  A fifteen minute bus ride takes you into Playa de las Americas, where we whiled away one afternoon on a scuba diving trip on a nearby reef, and another bus journey arranged by the hotel took us to the Teide National Park, where we tried to avoid sunburn on the craggy slopes of the Canary Island’s most famous volcano.

But seriously, you really wouldn’t need to leave the hotel if you didn’t want to.  The bars are open late every night (or early morning), the evening entertainment is really quite good, and the on-site spa and gym take care of your hollistic and exercise needs.  Although we were travelling as friends, families, couples and groups all seemed to be enjoying the same experience we were having, so no matter what type of holiday you’re looking for, the Sandos San Blas is going to be a great choice.

We booked our trip separately, but you can arrange a holiday to this outstanding hotel with a range of popular tour operators.

Written by:  Fiona Galloway, Editor

Dine at the Boathouse, Cameron House

Part of the Devere Group of hotels, Cameron House is one of those iconic locations that attracts travellers from around the world, keen to enjoy not only its sumptuous facilities, but also the stunning surroundings of Loch Lomond.  And as you might expect, a hotel of this standard doesn’t let itself down when it comes to its dining options either.  With no fewer than five bars and restaurants, you could dine differently every day of your stay here.

The Boathouse is likely the least well known of the restaurants, partly because it’s not attached to the hotel itself.  It’s one of those intimate places that guests who are ‘in the know’ tend to head for, tucked away at the marina and edging onto the hotel’s private golf course.  It’s a small bolthole – a relaxed open-plan space where good food is served by friendly staff throughout the day.

The menu here is not extensive, but it is eclectic and there doesn’t seem to be a particular theme.  You can go All-American with a burger the size of a large baked potato and wedge-cut chips that are to die for, go Spanish with a paella that showcases Scotland’s freshest seafood, or experience Italian with a penne pesto pasta dish with fresh parmesan cheese. In most restaurants, that amount of choice would lead to an element of brand confusion, but here it actually works – the menu may be short, but it’s carefully chosen, and I’ve never yet visited with a guest that hasn’t been able to find something they like to eat.

If the weather is favourable then outside dining is an option as well.  The terrace is gently lit at night, and the view extends over the small marina and its jetty’s, complete with an array of yachts and cruisers, to Lomond Shores at the foot of the Loch.

The Boathouse at Cameron House is one of the best kept secrets on the banks of Loch Lomond, but I’m happy to get the word out there just so more discerning diners can enjoy what it has to offer.  And for members of the Devere club, you also enjoy a discount off your final bill, which was 20% the last time I looked.

Get Fresh in Las Vegas

Welcome to the middle of the Nevada desert, home to the bright lights and big fun of notorious Las Vegas.  With such a liberal attitude to entertainment the city has earned itself the arguably well-deserved title ‘Sin City’, and it features regularly in Hollywood movies with equally relevant scripts.  But let’s not dwell on the glitz and hype because under the bright lights is a real city, with real people and real places to go.  If you bypass the endless wedding chapels (apologies to all you romantics out there), manoeuvre around the Blackjack tables and wend your way through the sea of slot machines in search of the less obvious side to Vegas, you’ll uncover one of the newest and most exciting restaurants for miles around – and it’s still on the Strip.

Oyster with Tequila - another favorite

Located in Aria, a new hotel complex on Las Vegas Boulevard, Sage is an American diner with a difference.  When Chef Shawn McClain moved from Chicago, he brought with him an ethos which involved using only farm-fresh produce, and seafood with truly sustainable sources.  Now, perhaps these concepts together are a bit of a novelty for the inhabitants of a desert where water would be scarce were it not for the formidable Hoover Dam but, nevertheless, McClain’s philosophy has certainly taken off.

Opening at 5pm and closing at 11pm (but don’t bother going on a Sunday when it doesn’t open at all), Sage boasts a temptingly written menu which excites the appetite as much as the food itself.  With a starter of Maine Lobster Ravioli costing $20, and a New York Strip weighing in at $49, this won’t be the cheapest of the local restaurants, but if you can persuade that part of your conscience which has a firm grasp on your wallet that this farm-fresh food is so good for you that it’s worth every cent, then let go and enjoy the heavenly experience of perfectly cooked, melt-in-the-mouth beef and scrumptiously tasty shellfish.

And just to ensure your niggling conscience doesn’t get the better of you, relax in the chic yet comfortable surroundings and take the edge off with one of their hand-blended cocktails, made with fruit that has received the same VIP treatment as the rest of the produce.  This high-roller menu is competing, elbow to elbow, with the best restaurants in the city, so grab a reservation when you arrive and make plans to savour some of the best food in town.

Written by:  Fiona Galloway, Editor

Real Marina Hotel; A Real Portugese Haven

The Algarve region of Portugal attracts British and European holidaymakers by the plane-load, but although it’s a popular destination for tourists, the majority make their way to the lively resorts of Albufeira and Praia da Rocha and avoid the quieter areas of coastline.  On our last trip we ventured in the opposite direction, heading just east of Faro to the lesser known fishing town of Olhao, curious to see what it had to offer instead. The area has that distinctive run-down European feel that you often get in underdeveloped towns; a mass of construction work in the background, dried ground where the sun has burnt away the remains of the grass, and old men with pipes and creased, tanned faces, whiling away the hours on dockside benches.

Our hotel for the short break was the Real Marina which sits on the water’s edge, overlooking the masses of yachts bobbing away quietly in the protected harbour in front of us. The hotel is very new. So new, in fact, that the trees planted out front are yet to grow. It’s actually two buildings; the main building forms the hotel, with the restaurants, bars, pool and spa facilities, and the building next door provides residence-style accommodation for travellers who prefer to go self-catering. The hotel appears a little out-of-the-way, but in fact it’s just a short walk into the centre of town where boutique shops abound, and a taxi ride to the hotel is thankfully quick.

It’s modernity does somewhat mask any traces of Portuguese life. The modern glass and marble decor is a far cry from the warm terracotta we’d normally expect from anywhere within a stone’s throw of the Mediterranean Sea. But what it lacks in traditional appeal, it more than makes up for in elegance and sophistication. We checked into a large corner suite that came with an enormous bed, two bathrooms, three showers and a sitting area with a sofa bed. It was tastefully decorated and well thought out. Outside, a long balcony wrapped itself around our room on the corner, and afforded us fantastic views across the marina towards the nature reserve beyond.

We tried the restaurant on the first evening, the Restaurante Do Real, and were so enamoured by the service and quality of the food, that we tried it every evening after that as well. Fresh seafood featured heavily, but that wasn’t surprising considering the market was just a five minute stroll away. The hotel pool is somewhat unusual – a balcony pool built over a car park – but while you’re lying back on a lounger and relaxing in the Portuguese sun, it’s easy to become oblivious to the comings and goings beneath you.

The Real Marina is indeed a superb hotel.  If I’m being honest, we picked it entirely by accident, but for believers in serendipity, this certainly fits the criteria.

By:  Fiona Galloway, Editor

Go Ape in Edinburgh at Beescraig

Apparently, jumping out of trees is additctive.  Who’d have thought?  So when I was invited back to try another Go Ape course, this time at Beescraig near Edinburgh, I litterally jumped at the chance (no pun intended, sorry!)

This course is hidden away in the remote Beescraig Country Park just outsie Linlithgow, although it’s incredibly easy to get to by car.  And the course, although slightly shorter than the Aberfoyle layout, seems to be that little bit more challenging.  I don’t know whether it was the fact that some of the zip lines seem as if you’re stepping off into thin air more than the last zip lines I tried, or whether it was the taller trees swaying in the wind that gave it a more daring feel, but my knuckles were definitely that little bit whiter than they had been before.

Beescraig has very varied challenges to try, and as with the Aberfoyle course, they often give you the option of going ‘easy’ or ‘extreme’.  I’m proud to say I was extreme the whole way through the course, although I was certainly or a tortoise on those sections than a hare.  (And before anyone points it out, yes I know they don’t climb trees!).

It was a superb day.  The group ahead of us came dressed for the occasion in cave dweller outfits that brought a smile to everyone’s faces…especially when they hopped onto the zip slides.  It’s somewhat unusual to see a club-toteing, potato sack wearing figure flying through the trees.  Our instructor, Jo, was competent and fun and let us get our feet off the ground pretty quickly once she was happy we had learned the ropes (there I go again!), which is great when you’re as impatient as I am.

Without doubt this is a fantastic way to spend a few hours, and it acts as a great workout as well, so for all you mummy’s who want to become a bit more yummy, ditch the gym and head to this fabulous Go Ape rope course for some extreme outdoor exercise instead.

Check out our last post to see how the ropes all work….  Go Ape Aberfoyle.  And can I just say that none of these pictures are of me.  I am nowhere near that graceful!

Candidtraveller loves Go Ape!

Glen Nevis Caravan and Camping Site, Fort William, Scotland

The Glen Nevis campsite in Fort William is by far and away one of the very best campsites I’ve ever stayed in, and that’s saying something coming from a self-confessed ‘Wild Camper’!  Located in the dramatic Glen Nevis valley, and surrounded on nearly all sides by the tallest of the UK’s peaks, the campsite sprawls its way from the nearby town and heads off into the wilderness.

Whatever you’re looking for in terms of facilities, you’ll find here.  From the impossibly clean toilet and shower blocks (with real taps instead of those stupid buttons you have to press every 6.5 seconds!) and the well-stocked shop, to the tidy pitches, numerous electrical hook-ups and even the opportunity to use Wi-Fi, this is one campsite that has it all.

It’s not quite glamping, because we’re not talking ultra stylish here, but what does make this campsite so perfect is the fact that everything is so neat, clean and within easy reach.  You don’ t have to travel far to find a major supermarket, the site is licensed so you can go ‘out’ for a drink, and if you want to wander off site for an evening beverage or two, a few hills and a couple of stiles away is the renowned Ben Nevis Inn, with its fabulous fare, live music and friendly atmosphere.

The site caters for everyone, whether they’re stopping in with an articulated motor home or walking in off the mountains.  It’s pet friendly, child friendly, disabled friendly, and just basically friendly in every other way you can image.

If you’re looking for a popular, well-managed and perfectly maintained campsite in the Scottish Highlands, then the Glen Nevis campsite in Fort William is the one for you.

Candidtraveller loves the Glen Nevis Caravan and Camping Site

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Nevis Range Mountain Resort, Fort William, Scotland

Everything you’d ever want to do or see on a mountain.

Heading to the Scottish Highlands means that you’re going to see mountains.  Lots and lots of mountains.  Running down the west coast of Scotland is an outstanding collection of peaks that attract and inspire everyone with a love of the great outdoors.  And where better to head for to take advantage of this stunning landscape than by visiting Fort William, the outdoor capital of the UK.

Just a short drive northwards from Fort William is a mountainous outcrop known as Aonach Mor.  Located almost right next to its better known cousin, Ben Nevis, this mountain is the site of the famous Nevis Range Mountain Resort which hosts some premier events throughout the year, from the Fort William World Cup Downhill Championships to the FIM Trials Championships and more.

It also happens to be one of the premier activities destinations for those of us who are mere mortals and who can only dream of being that good on two wheels.  From the cross country and downhill biking trails, to the skiing and snowboarding in the winter, this fabulous piece of mountainside heaven has something for everyone.

We visited a couple of weeks ago to check it out and were delighted by what we found.  The facilities offered include a very necessary gondola system that takes visitors around half way up the mountain in a short, comfortable ride.  At the mountain station you’ll find the snowgoose restaurant, which serves fabulous coffee and delicious home baking, a small souvenir shop and a kids playarea, which is great for keeping youngsters amused after the excitement of the the gondola.

There are a couple of fabulous viewpoints to walk to up here, and the vista really is quite something, although you do have to remember that you’re halfway up a mountain at this point and with the weather so changeable you should make sure you’re dressed properly for the occasion.

Back at base level we visited the cycle shop and the newly built Pinemartin Restaurant for a light lunch of pannini’s.  There’s a lovely terrace out at the back and we sat out in glorious sunshine (a change from the cloudy start we’d had to the day) watching some young riders practising their art on the skills section.

The Nevis Range Mountain Resort has a whole variety of activities to enjoy here.  There’s a high rope course, a selection of forest walks, plenty of cycling routes that range in ability level and much more.  The staff here are friendly and helpful and our visit was a real pleasure.

The candidtraveller team are delighted to recommend the Nevis Range as a fabulous place to visit.  Click here to be taken directly to their site: http://www.nevisrange.co.uk/

The Langham Huntingdon, Pasadena, Los Angeles, California

Part of the Langham group of hotels, The Langham Huntingdon and Spa Hotel in Pasadena is an outstanding spa hotel located in the Los Angeles suburbs with superb views over the San Gabriel Mountains.  This hotel epitomises luxury at every turn, with an elegant facade, high-end furnishings and tasteful decor. 

The hotel offers 23 acres of beautiful grounds that house a myriad of treats for its discerning guests.  Floodlit tennis courts, swimming pool, pool bar, golf course and even bicycle hire is packed into an area that is perfectly hidden from the equally well manicured private lawns of the surrounding San Marino locale.

Every room is beautifully furnished and comfortable, and our modest Lanai room was still more opulent than most 5 star hotel rooms I’ve had the pleasure of staying in.  The perfectly white linen, Italian marble bathroom and french doors onto the private balcony made the room delightful, peaceful and secluded.

The Langham Huntingdon is known as a spa hotel, and although I didn’t try any of the treatments while I was there, it’s no surprise that it plays host to visits by the rich and wealthy.  This is a place you can come and relax in tranquility, although you pay a price to do so.

The bar is a wonderful mix of traditional stylings with a contemporary feel, and the doors open onto a boarded outdoor space that is a fabulous place to while away the evening.  Waiters deliver a range of interesting cocktails swiftly and without intrusion, although the extensive beer list is sure to be an enticement for plenty of its visitors.

Our visit to this hotel was a near perfect as any flying visit can get, and the taste of hospitality we enjoyed here was enough to make us wish we’d stayed for considerably longer.  One of my favourite touches was the obligatory car valet service.  At first I felt a little irritated by the mere fact that I was forced to use a service without choice, until I realised that with parking so limited the valets were taking cars right off the grounds and parking some distance away before walking back, so I quickly changed my tune.  What I will say in its defence though, is that I was regularly impressed by the speed of the service and the civility of the valet staff, who even went to the trouble of turning on the air conditoner before bringing the car to us, or placing two complimentary bottles of ice cold water inside on particularly hot afternoons.  Service like that I can definitely live with.

Without doubt The Langham Huntingdon and Spa hotel in Pasadena is one of the finest hotels I have stayed in, and I would be delighted to return there someday.

This hotel receives a great recommendation from the candidtraveller team.

Dollar Car Hire, Denver, Colorado, USA

Dollar Rent A Car has got to be one of the most famous car rental companies in the USA.  There are outlets in every airport, and almost every second block in each major city.  They offer the same standardised service, as well as a great range of vehicles to choose from.

On our last trip to the states we chose to go with Dollar, arriving at nearly 11pm after a very long journey from the UK.  The office was easy to find, with free shuttle buses leaving from the main terminal, and once we reach their stand there were plenty of staff on duty to help get through everyone who was already standing in line.

The vehicle we had was booked was a standard SUV, but because they had so many in stock they offered us an upgrade, free of charge.  And so, off we went, after signing for our prepaid receipt, to pick up the largest vehicle we had ever driven.

The parking lot was teeming with vehicles, and polite attendant strolled along with us and led us to the ‘upgraded SUV’ section where we were allowed to take any one of the vehicles we liked!

At the gate, our documentation was checked and the car registration number entered into a computer, and away we drove.  It was cheap to hire, easy to book, although perhaps not so cheap to run – even in the USA, the price of fuel is no match for a gas guzzling Chevy Tahoe, so if you’re on a budget, can I suggest you either decline the upgrade…or don’t drive uphill!

All in all, a good experience, and worthy of a positive review from the candidtraveller team.

Borthwick Castle, Scottish Borders, Scotland

This Borthwick Castle hotel is the epitome of ancient luxury, the very walls, crumbling from Oliver Cromwell’s attempted invasion, filled with a rich history and tales of fleeing Queens and ghosts.

The main hall of Borthwick Castle

I stayed in this fantastical luxury hotel in the picturesque Scottish Borders a few months ago, revelling in first real stay in a genuine castle.  I was there to seek out the ghost for an article I was writing, but I couldn’t help but lose focus on my task while I was surrounded by such a location.

The history of Borthwick dates back over 600 years, and encompasses legendary visits by Mary Queen of Scots.  The interior is much as I imagine the castle would have looked in those days, with thick stone walls, gaping fireplaces filled with roaring flames, and tapestries hung from the galleries.  The Minstrels Gallery is even still there, and the charming housekeeper played up a quaint tune or two on her flute at the culmination of our meal.

The twin turrets of Borthwick Castle

The bedroom I stayed in, which incidentally is meant to be the haunted one, was the aptly named Red Room.  The ghost of a young girl is said to haunt these walls, and her image is meant to be clearly seen on the stone mantlepiece.  I could certainly see an outline that could have resembled a figure, but I guess I’m not cynical enough to believe in its reality.

The four-poster bed was more than comfortable and perfect if you’re booking in for a romantic stay, but what really got me was the size of the bathroom.  It was tiny, with a shower curtain that clearly didn’t stretch all the way across, and the door to the toilet was nothing more than a curtain hung across the gap.  Somehow, though, all this is acceptable when you realise that the incredibly thick stone walls would have been impossible to fit a door to anyway.

Access to these rooms is via a steep, circular stone stairway, and if you continued up, you’d come to the room that Mary Queen of Scots stayed in all those years ago.

The view over the surrounding countryside is incredible, and despite it lying only a short distance from Edinburgh, you can see very little built up area from the small windows.  Weddings are frequently held here, and it’s no wonder really, given its impossible perfect location and fairytale setting.

Borthwick Castle is a fabulous hotel that has certainly earned the title of luxurious.  It comes highly recommended by the candidtraveller team.

Loch Lomond Seaplanes, Loch Lomond, Scotland

A stunning Scottish island tour from the comfort of a seaplane.

My sister-in-law had been booked flights on a seaplane leaving from Loch Lomond, and with her partner suddenly unable to go along for the ride, she asked me to step in and hold her hand…quite literally, seeing as how she is terrified of flying.  It crossed my mind to ask why she’d booked the flight in the first place, but her white face and terrified expression kept me from rubbing it in.

The seaplane is run by Loch Lomond Seaplanes and is kept overnight on the Loch, making its way to the shore at Cameron House in time for each tour.  I didn’t even know where we were going to be taken when I turned up and waited on the grassy slopes for my sister-in-law to arrive.

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Seaplane Terminal (Andrew Wood) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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The 10 seater seaplane we went on...

The seaplane seated around 10 people, including the pilot, but there were just five passengers for our trip, which turned out to be around the islands.  For me, that was great because there was none of the usual tousle for a window seat, although I think my companion may not have been as pleased as I was about that.

The take off was surprisingly smooth, despite the water being a little choppy, and before long we were circling the lower end of Loch Lomond, taking in the distant view of Ben Lomond to the north, and looking out towards the Clyde in the south.  It was surprising to see just how close the different bodies of water, from the lochs, to the rivers, to the seas, all looked from our new perspective.  Distances that would normally take us an hour to drive were suddenly closed in a matter of minutes as we headed off in an easterly direction to explore the closest islands.

Loch Lomond from the air

We passed Arran, Rothesay and Bute, before heading over areas like Garelochhead, Arrochar and beyond.  And when we circled Ben Lomond from beneath the height of the summit, frantically waving to the isolated walkers trudging up it’s barren upper slopes, we were given a real feeling of the sheer size of one Scotland’s most famous mountains.

The landing was impressive, and no more bumpy than an Easyjet flight coming in to Glasgow International (at least, the last Easyjet flight I was on anyway), and by the time we stepped off the plane and onto the floating pontoon at Cameron House, even my sister-in-law had a smile on her face.

Loch Lomond Seaplanes offer a glass of Champagne at the culmination of the flight which is a nice touch and certainly adds an element of luxury to the occasion – although I couldn’t help but think that perhaps it would have been better to offer it to all the nervous passengers prior to take off!

The tours take in various places in a certain radius, but it is also possible to book them to fly you to some of the more remote locations of Scotland rather than take the train or drive.  It’s certainly a novel way to get around.

Loch Lomond Seaplanes gets a seal of approval from candidtraveller.

The Clachaig Inn, Glencoe, Scotland

The Clachaig Inn, a stunning restaurant and hotel in the heart of the Scottish countryside.

Located at the foot of the Aonach Eagach ridge, and across from the Pass of Glencoe’s Hidden Valley and Bidean nam Bian, one of the highest Munro’s in Scotland, is the delightful Clachaig Inn, a whitewashed stonebuilt tavern that offers some of the best Scottish hospitality that I’ve ever enjoyed.

The Clachaig Inn is legendary in these parts, and further afield as well.  It offers a wonderful mix of bars that cater for sunday drivers and muddy hillwalkers alike, live music, cask conditioned ales and a Whiskey counter to die for.

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The Clachaig Inn on the old Glencoe road (james denham) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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The Clachaig Inn, the best little Scottish restaurant and hotel in Glencoe

When I last visited, just a week ago, the place had changed since I had first sat in their ‘boot bar’ (the section that the weather-worn walkers tend to migrate to) and feasted on a spicy chilli that I still haven’t quite forgotten.  On this occasion I was considerably drier and had swapped my cumbersome rucksack for a husband, two kids, and a scarily large German Shepherd.  Concerned that the policy might have changed, I asked the girl on reception whether dogs were still allowed, and if so, which bar they could get into.  She looked at me as if I was an underager trying to get in without ID, before smiling…

‘Anywhere you like!’

‘Really?’ I asked, ‘He’s a big dog?’

‘Really!’  She said.

Even so, I found myself trying to disguise him as he loped through the door, just in case I’d misheard.  I needn’t have worried.  Inside were more dogs than you’d find in a kennel, and once we’d chosen the biggest table we could find, he was stretched out underneath and out of the way in no time.

The food in the Clachaig Inn is fabulous.  The fish and chips I ordered was perfect, and my husband’s haggis tasted great as well – well worth the cheeky slap I got for stealing a second forkfull!  The kids had fish too, and what wasn’t good enough for them was certainly good enough for the dog.

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Glencoe and River Coe (Doug Lee) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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Pass of Glencoe, the view from the Clachaig Inn

During the winter this place has a lovely feel to it - I remember warm log fires and wood burners blazing throughout – but even though the heat wasn’t needed on this perfectly sunny day, it was still a comfortable, relaxed setting and it’s easy to see why mountaineers, hillwalkers and Munro baggers like to wind up their days here.  The Clachaig Inn also caters well for motorcyclists, caravanners and campers, and with accommodation available from bedrooms and a campsite, to self catering properties as well, you could truly immerse yourself in the stunning Scottish countryside with this as the perfect base.

And I have to add that one of the improvements is the fabulous little kids playarea outside, so if you’re passing here on a long journey it’s a great place to stop for some lunch and to allow the kids to let off some steam.

The Clachaig Inn comes highly recommended by the candidtraveller Team!

Kids Animal Seat

I can’t get my kids to sit still.  They have what I like to call, the ‘bouncy’ gene.  And trying to get them to remain even semi-motionless for more than two nano seconds tends to leave me exhausted, exasperated and downright drained.  So, most occasions, I don’t bother.  But when we’re trying to have a nice family BBQ outside the tent on a weekend away, it can become a little more important to keep them close to hand.  It saves me having to split my time between flaming coals and errant children.

Kids Frog Foldaway Camping Seat

Now, it may sound silly, but it was only after I bought them both an animal seat from Go Outdoors that I finally got some semblance of control over them.  Clearly the novelty aspect of sitting on a brightly coloured animal chair was sufficient to keep them in check.  Of course, we do still have to mediate between the occasional fight over who gets the Frog seat and who’s turn it is to sit on the Tiger, but that’s a small price to pay for a few moments of relative calm.

Aside from the fact that these chairs are really cute (you can get a Tiger and a Pig as well), they are really light and fold away perfectly, making them easy to transport and carry.  Definitely a great buy, even if only for the sanity they provide.

This Frog chair, and it’s pals, get the nod of approval from the candidtraveller Team (and two little boys…)

Sky Hotel, Aspen

Rating: Truly Outstanding
Reviewer:  Nomad
 
I rolled up to the Sky Hotel in Aspen for a quick break on what was a very lengthy journey between Denver, Colorado and Las Vegas, Nevada.  And, Wow!  What more can I say?  Apart from ‘I wish I was staying for longer!’
 

Double room in the Sky Hotel, Aspen

 
The Sky Hotel is one of those quintessential ‘apres ski’ hotels – y’know, the kind you see in the movies…  Lots of beautiful people sitting around a roaring fire after a day on the slopes, wearing furry jackets and leg warmers.  I’m not a skier by the way, so I wholeheartedly apologise if my perception is somewhat dated, but beautiful people they all were, even if the legwarmers were nowhere in sight. 
 
I’m told that this hotel is a celebrity favourite, and frankly it’s not hard to see why.  The rooms are beautifully appointed, in a quirky but fun sort of way, the mini bars contain the usual alcoholic and chocolate treats, but also include oxygen and ski googles, which I’ve never seen in a hotel bedroom before.  I wonder if the summer hikers can purchase walking poles and blister bandages as an alternative?
 

Lounge bar, Sky Hotel, Aspen

 
The cocktail bar has an extensive menu,  most of which have deliciously weird or rude names, so try ordering them after you’ve already drunk a few.  You’ll end up in giggles.
 
I stayed in one of the double rooms and spent my only night there sprawled in a luxuriously comfortable bed.  Loads of the rooms on the ground floor have a doorway that opens right onto the street (although it’s not exactly the main road), so you can come and go as you please. 
 

Exterior of the Sky Hotel

 
The staff in this luxury hotel are as warm and welcoming as the decor, and they were happy to help me regardless of my query.  The reality was that there weren’t any problems while I was staying here, and even on check out I was asked if there was anything else they could do to help get me on my way safely.  Fantastic service.  If they could have shortened my impending 13 hour drive I would have been delighted!
 
The Sky Hotel, Aspen gets a fabulous thumbs up from candidtraveller.

Lochy Holiday Park, Fort William, Scotland

Rating: Great
Reviewer:  Nomad

I stayed in the Lochy Holiday park a month ago with my husband, two rampant children (both under the age of 3) and brother-in-law.  We were there for a weekend of mountain biking in the fabulous Fort William area.  At least, the big boys went mountain biking.  The little ones only got as far as the bottom of the trails!

Lochy Holiday Park is a privately owned site that caters for most types of self-catering accommodation.  You can choose from well appointed cottages, lodges, static caravans or the good old campsite.  The facilities are great though, whatever you choose.

One of the Lodges for hire at Lochy Holiday Park, Fort William

On this trip we stayed in a wooden style lodge, with a double room, twin room and bunk beds.  There’s plenty of room to relax and the lounge was big enough to accommodate us all in the evening.  Perhaps the best bit of the lodge holiday was the outdoor decked area attached to the lodge, which gave us an outstanding view of the Nevis range mountains.  Truly superb, and went down well with a glass of chilled white wine.

The park is situated close to Fort William town centre, so getting things you need is pretty easy, but if you do run out of the essentials, there’s a small shop on site that should see you through.  It’s also got a great little kids play area that’s overlooked by some of the lodges.  Perfect for keeping the children entertained.  At the bottom of the park is the River Lochy, a beautiful pebble lined river that’s supposedly good for fishing.  The only thing I fished out of it were my kids, so a word of advice to parents…take a spare change of clothes for the little ones.  Apparently the words ‘only up to your knees’ doesn’t mean much when you’re under 3!

The view towards the Nevis Range from Loch Holiday Park

The staff are very pleasant, both when you’re booking as well as upon your arrival, and it truly does have a family feel to it.  The lodge was ready for us earlier than the planned arrival time, and was perfectly clean and tidy.  Helpful maps will get you around the site without getting lost, although it isn’t really big enough to cause you any problems, and there are the usual washing facilities to make use of.

And if any of you out there are fans of events like the World Cup Downhill Mountain Biking Championships, then this accommodation is ideal because the free shuttle bus practically leaves from the park’s front gate.

You can’t go wrong with a stay here, and the only downside is the ever-present midge to feast on you in the evening.  But hey, what do you expect…it’s the west coast of Scotland!

Happy Camping!

The Bellagio, Las Vegas

Fiona Galloway: EditorSo, my hubby and I have seen the Ocean’s films, and laughed our way through The Hangover, and eventually figured that we might as well go and see the city for ourselves.  Las Vegas, the city of sin, was our next destination.  We rolled up to the Bellagio in our fantastic Cherokee with the essential air conditioning turned up full blast, and was greeted by a smiling valet who took my keys, unloaded my luggage and disappeared with my rental car into the city streets. (The parking in Vegas is at a premium – must be something to do with needing as much space for slot machines as possible - which all means that if you don’t take the valet parking you may find yourself hauling luggage for blocks).

bellagio luxury hotel las vegas

The marble clad foyer of the Bellagio is impressive.  The glass ceiling art is inspiring, and it’s bright colours are only just eclipsed by the bright lights of the arcades that are clearly visible from the check-in desk.  The girl who booked us in was friendly and helpful, and it was great to see that there were hardly any queues, even though the luxury hotel was packed.

Our room was easy to find, and on the seventh floor with a view over those famous fountains and the Las Vegas strip, we were very happy indeed.  In fact, if you switched on the flat screen TV in the room (I forget which channel) it played the music that the fountain display was set to every fifteen minutes when they switched on.

Our bed was a gorgeous King in a large, spacious room, decorated in warm tones of brown.  There was a chair by the window which gave a fabulous early morning view of the sunrise over the Eiffel Tower!  The bathroom in these rooms is heavenly.  A great big soaking tub which was big enough even for my husband’s 6’3″ frame to stretch out in, a separate glass enclosed shower and his and hers sinks on a white marble top.

Throughout our visit, we were continually impressed by this hotel.  Dining options were plentiful, the staff were always friendly and smiling, and despite it’s size the hotel was perfectly clean and tidy.  I sometimes feel that you can get lost in large hotels, and that you become less of a person.  Y’know…you’re just another face in the crowd.  But the girl who cleaned our rooms knew us by name and even left us an extra chocolate for our evening coffee.

It’s no surprise that the Bellagio is a popular choice – it’s certainly famous enough – but for ordinary folk like us this hotel is enough to make you feel that little bit more special.  Definitely worth a stay, in my humble opinion.

This hotel gets the candidtraveller vote!

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