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Saving Stanfords

In what has been a calamitous year on our high streets, I thought I would shine a spotlight on one of my favourite shops in the whole world: Stanfords.

This temple to travel has sold maps and books to record-beating explorers and award-winning authors, curious travellers, the world’s governments and geographers alike since 1853. And a few weeks ago, staff forecast that they could not last until spring.

In October Stanfords announced the grave threat of closure they faced after 167 years trading – if they didn’t act fast. You might have seen that they began a crowdfunding campaign, aiming to raise £120,000, the amount they estimated they would need in order to avoid shutting up shop.

I, like thousands of other travel lovers, could not sit idly by and watch them fail because of causes outside of their control. So I clicked through and donated. They had raised £63,000 at that point. It was looking good, I thought, but they’ve got a way to go yet.

Stanfords’ story

Inside Stanfords HQ, 12-14 Long Acre
Courtesy of Stanfords.co.uk

Stanfords has always been situated in and around Covent Garden, ever since a young Edward Stanford took over the Charing Cross Road premises of Trelawney Saunders, a seller of maps, charts and stationary. He had risen fast in that company’s ranks and seized the opportunity in 1853 to become sole proprietor after the partnership he’d been promised had dissolved.

Edward Stanford’s company became the only map maker in London, partnering with a man named John Bolton who ended up as Chief Cartographer for 67 years. His 1862 Library Map of London was described by the Royal Geographical Society at the time as ‘the most perfect map of London that has ever been issued.‘ I’m glad to be able to say that as a teenager smart phones weren’t around and I’m pretty sure I used maps similar to this one to navigate my way round London!

Such was Stanfords’ success, in 1873 they needed new premises, moving the shop to 55 Charing Cross and the printing press to 12-14 Long Acre. By 1885, Edward Stanford was able to retire and pass the business on to his son (give you one guess as to his name).

Under Edward Stanford II, the company achieved a royal warrant as official cartographer to Queen Victoria. The Long Acre address became a flagship shop with all enterprises under one roof from 1900. Some of their customers? Florence Nightingale, Ernest Shackleton and Captain Scott. That’s what I call a good fanbase. I could go on and on about their illustrious history, but you can read the full story on the Stanfords website.

In 1997, the only shop outside of London was opened, in Bristol. You’ll also find a Stanfords concession store inside the Royal Geographical Society building in Kensington Gore. In Covent Garden, the Stanfords flagship remained on Long Acre until January 2019 when they moved 100m across the road to a purpose-built two-floor shop on nearby Mercer Street.

David versus Goliath?

A graphic showing a small shop and a big shop building

I have to be honest here and admit that I preferred Stanfords’ old Long Acre site more than the current address. It was across more floors and suited wandering about at will, which I’m a big fan of in shops.

The new site is indeed a third smaller in size, a deliberate choice so it turns out. As CEO Vivienne Godfrey said in this BBC Business interview last year, ‘some of our regular customers were disappointed. But when I, or members of staff, explained to them that it was a question of either remaining and going out of business, or leaving and thriving, everyone understood’. With everything in the business no longer under one roof on Long Acre, the building had become too big for its purpose.

I had prepared to sound the drum for supporting independent businesses due to their losing fight against chains. However, it’s not all gloom as business forecasts for independent shops during the pandemic compared to chains has been surprisingly promising in the UK, according to a new study. They have shown themselves to be more resilient in adapting than big high street names, perhaps because changes haven’t need to be rolled out so widely or signed off by big boards.

That’s not to say that many indy shops aren’t shutting down or hanging by a single thread – they are. The high street is by no means a level playing field. After the lockdown began and all non-essential businesses were asked to close again, many independents and their associations pointed out in dismay that some big chains like Rymans and Carpetright are keeping open despite being non-essential and supermarkets such as Tesco and M&S are breaking rules by allowing sales of non-essential items such as books and clothes. It has seemed to be one rule for the chains and another for independent shops in this second lockdown.

Stanfords’ crowdfunding campaign was launched before the second lockdown was announced. When I checked on their progress this time last week I wondered if the £120,000 target would even be enough to save them. Donations had reached £94,000. Inching closer to their target, but needing more love.

I heart Stanfords

The globes on display in Stanfords, the world's biggest travel bookshop

Don’t worry, I won’t get soppy on you. I’ve actually racked my brain to recall the first time I stepped into Stanfords on Long Acre, but I can’t remember. Though I’m sure my brother and I visited with our dad on our numerous self-guided walking tours round London, in-between trips to Hamleys.

For me, it’s more that I just started popping in whenever I was passing. Then, I’d be killing time after work and make a beeline for its downstairs travel guides and travel classics table for a browse of curated picks. The huge fan was usually always whirring in one corner, lest your body as well as your mind be spirited across to the searing heat of the masai mara or the steaming humidity of an equatorial rainforest. Then, somewhere along the line, Stanfords graduated to being my number one destination not just for trip planning but whenever I was shopping for birthday and Christmas gifts, or wanted some inspiration for my own wish list.

This June, when ‘non-essential’ shops were allowed to open again, Stanfords was the first shop I revisited. I was excited to be back, though a bit glum to be the only shopper in there.

Some might say, ‘if they’re struggling to adapt, maybe let others fill in the gaps. That’s the beauty of capitalism.’

But ask yourself, where else in London would you find mini Tibetan flags, books on Captain Cook’s voyages, survival equipment and maps and globes of every size and for every need?

We would lose a lot more than just a shop if Stanfords was lost. We as travellers would be lost.

Early last week I checked the donations page again. Success! They had reached a tipping point and surpassed £120,000. At the time of writing, over 3,600 supporters have donated over £132,000.

It’s gratifying that so many people have supported a unique business like Stanfords. So much so, they decided to set a new target, £160,000, to enable them to future proof their website, digitise their archive and host bigger and better live events in the future. Perhaps you might consider a donation? Their optional rewards, from cartographic maps to signed books and tours are pretty awesome.

And look out on Thursday for a special edition of my blog, featuring the chance to win some travel goodies, all from you-know-where.

So is that job done then?

Help an indy out

Shop front of bookshop.org, a website supporting independent bookshops

Nope!

However much better than expected indy shops have fared during the pandemic, businesses like Amazon and major supermarkets will still be in our faces and within easiest reach over Christmas.

What about other independent shops? The UK’s bookshops, fashion boutiques and all great little shops selling everything in-between. They face a rocky Christmas, particularly if they can’t reopen from 2nd December, though they do have a lot of supporters to their cause. And there are ways we can all do our bit to support our favourite independent businesses.

The recent expedited launch of bookshop.org – selling books in the UK on behalf of 130+ independent book shops – is a cause for celebration. It doesn’t cost bookshops anything to feature, they can create their own store fronts on the website and the Bookshop team commits to fulfilling deliveries. It was proving so popular in the US that Bookshop launched in the UK well ahead of schedule. Instead of getting blasted on Amazon by algorithm-fuelled choices that undercuts small business, on bookshop.com you’ll only find curated recommendations from booksellers and authors, and each participating bookshop receives full profits from each book sold. How great is that!

Retail consultant Mary Portas’s Adopt a Shop concept encourages the public to each pick three shops in our local area, commit to buying from them instead of usual big online retailers and encourage our friends to do the same. It is an easy and practical way to individually do our bit to keep the small shops we love open.

And, showing for some time that independent shopping can co-exist with big business, American Express’s Shop Small campaign will be returning for another Christmas. Amex relaunched the scheme during the spring lockdown too, showing that the small shops we love deserve to be here to stay, not just for Christmas.

Featured

Food travels: the tagine

Longer read

‘Marvelling at all that had befallen him, the fisherman returned towards the city and, coming to his house with the fish, filled an earthen pot with water and placed them in it. When they began to swim about in the water, he put the pot upon his head and walked with it to the palace…’

‘“Give us proof of your excellence with the cook pots and the luxury of your dishes…”’

‘Without further delay, he got together all of his household goods; his rugs, cushions, his cooking-pots, his cauldrons and mortars, his tables and mattresses, and sold them for fifty dirhams. With part of this money he hired an ass for the journey…’

‘”I have five pots for you” I answered, “all containing admirable foods”. “Ah master master!”, cried the barber, “delight me with the sight of all these wonderful things”’.

– Excerpts from various stories, One Thousand and One Nights

Chapter One: From Atlas Mountains to country kitchen

View from Kasba restaurant over the Atlas mountains

Journalist Hamish Bowles once described Morocco in May as ‘unseasonably tagine-hot’. Well, Hamish, spare a thought for 50°C in July…

It was 2016 and I was in Marrakech for a friend’s 30th. Specifically, and unusually for me, in a luxury villa, with our every whim and culinary desire catered for by a legion of really lovely live-in locals. As I say, it was unusual for me. They prepared for us feast after feast of traditional tagines and cous cous dishes. Even as a total glutton I couldn’t keep up.

On the third day, our host/driver-/fixer Sharif took a band of us quite high into the Atlas Mountains. I had been over the mountain range before, firing through almost without pausing, but this time we stopped to meet camels, admire houses and workshops full of handmade goods and sample some excellent Moroccan food.

Rugs outside a rug merchant's shop in the Atlas Mountains
A young camel in the Atlas Mountains
Kasba restaurant sign

We ate tagine, of course, at a restaurant called Kasba. I remember sitting on the panoramic terrace tucking in, as if it was this afternoon. The deep tang of citrus and the warmth of spice as I knocked mine back – chicken with preserved lemon and olives. It was one of the most glorious gastronomic experiences of my life. Two hours cooking on a fire, gone in minutes.

When it was time to wend our way back down to Marrakech, I spotted a potter’s shop off the road. Of course, Sharif knew the owners and sellers, as he knew everyone we’d met on our excursions.

I took my time shuffling past shelves and shelves of tagine pots. Glazed and painted, plain and not glazed, subtly daubed or garish. Soon enough, a wily old seller cornered me and we prepared to duel. Well, haggle. I love negotiating in souks, markets and shops. I’m an adrenaline junkie for it. It’s also considered rude not to barter on price.

In my broken French I had great fun batting away the man’s suggested prices and in his broken English he enjoyed the challenge of trying to sell me multiple pots.

‘Why one when you can buy four?’… ‘But I’ve only got one cabin bag!’

The final score? I came in with eyes on one, and left with bags for two. I paid around £10 in total so it was a bargain, but I’d have haggled more if time wasn’t so precious.

landscape image of two tagin pots in the Atlas Mountains

When I returned home, although I thought I might keep the more classic, glazed tagine, I decided it would travel better to South America and so kept the unglazed, pure clay pot. I researched how to ‘season’ your tagine pot ready for cooking (more on that later) and wrote up some instructions to take, but I did nothing to my own one.

Four years on, reader, I am slightly ashamed to tell you that for most of its former life, my unglazed, unseasoned tagine pot lay under my bed in Brixton, rarely-touched, wrapped in old newspaper and housed in a guardian newspaper-sponsored pink Glastonbury rucksack.

When I moved down to Somerset earlier this year, it remained wrapped thus, until a few weeks ago, when I organised some of my kitchen stuff. Our country kitchen was to gain yet more gadgets and souvenirs. I tore off the paper and plonked the tagine pot down on the table. It was not a eureka moment though, it merely sat there for a few days gathering a virgin layer of dust. Progress, but I made no attempt to research tagine ingredients or unearth instructions. Was the tagine headed for another four years of unloved obscurity?

Ding dong.

An unusual delivery, a small box labelled My Little Persian Kitchen… it wasn’t something I recalled ordering.

Contents of a My Little Persian Kitchen spice kit

Two of my former housemates had gifted me a belated birthday present – a three month ‘Arabian Nights’ spice subscription. The first recipe included? A blooming tagine. And not just any old tagine recipe, but one for chicken with lemon and olives!

Finally. I had a tagine pot to prepare, tiny pots of perfectly measured spices and a reason to persevere. It was time at last to recreate one of my tastiest travel memories.

Chapter Two: a potted history of the tagine

Graphic spelling the word tagine

Before I share how I got on… facts!

ETYMOLOGY.

The word tagine comes from the Moroccan Arabic طجين ṭažin, from the Berber word tajin which refers to a shallow earthenware cooking vessel. Though in Ancient Greek the word tágēnon means a frying pan or saucepan, the Berber people are the undoubted reason for the worldwide spread of tagine cooking. Who are they?

THE BERBER PEOPLE.

Two Berber in the dunes

Two thirds of Morocco’s population call themselves, or can trace their roots back to, Berber people. Berber are indigenous to North Africa with their own language that changes only slightly across neighbouring countries. Berber see themselves as Imazighen, which loosely means ‘free people’, a nod to the nomadic way of living that characterises them. They are unified by their shared language and free spiritedness, but also by a shared history of caring for livestock, their families and cultural traditions that stretch back at least 5,000 years.

Their cooking of tagines over open fires in the past few centuries are what has led the cuisine to be so widely revered across North Africa and the world. The origin of the tagine can be traced further back, however.

ROMANS?

Triumphal arch in Volubilis, Morocco
Triumphal Arch in Volubilis near Meknes in Morocco. It grew hugely under Roman occupation. Wikimedia Commons

The Roman occupation of North Africa began in the ruins of the city of Carthage in 146 BC and ended in the 7th Century (the Byzantine era) when the Umayyad Caliphate (Islamic Government) wrestled it from them. Roman ceramics were traded widely across the empire and pieces of ‘portable ovens’ similar to tagines have been found in digs around Hadrian’s Wall in England. It’s therefore plausible that the innovation caught on in North Africa from the Romans.

THE ISLAMIC GOLDEN AGE.

Map of the Abbasid empire
A map showing the Abbasid empire. Wikimedia Commons.

Whether inherited from the Romans or not, most food historians commonly date the use of tagines back to the time of Harun al-Rashid, who ruled as the fifth leader of the Abbasid Caliphate.

His name means ‘rightly guided’, and indeed he was caliph at a time in the 8th and 9th centuries known as the peak of the first Islamic Golden Age. Multiculturalism and relative religious freedoms were the perfect conditions for scholars to be translating Ancient Greek manuscripts from philosophers like Aristotle, and on medicine and other disciplines. Could this be why the word ‘tagine’ is similar to an Ancient Greek word?

In any case, the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in 750 AD and their empire extended (intake of breath) over modern day Iraq, Syria, Israel Palastine, Southern Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia. You can find out more about this fascinating empire in a really interesting BBC4 Radio episode of In Our Time.

It doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to see how the Abbasid empire might have collided with the Berber nomadic way of life to foster the growth of tagine cooking across North Africa.

ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS.

Rows of lamps in a souk
Courtesy Naomi Koelemans on Unsplash

What about the earliest recorded mention of tagines? You’ll recall that I began this post with quotes from One Thousand and One Nights, aka Arabian Nights. Neat fact, many of the stories are thought to originate in Persia, possibly India too, from the time of al-Rashid. One clue? He features in a lot of them.

I browsed an entire copy of the book online and couldn’t find one specific use of the word ‘tagine’, and indeed only one original fragment from the time of al-Rashid survives, but nevertheless a mouthwatering collection of food does feature, as do many feasts, kitchens, cooking methods and utensils.

Chapter Three: types of tagine

Stacks of clay tagine pots on display in Morocco
Wikimedia Commons.

Tagines are and were evidently popular far beyond Morocco’s borders.

Sephardic Jewish food culture, and that of Maghrebi Jews (who can trace their North African history back over 2,000 years) involves lots of tagine making, including for Shabbat dinners and Jewish holidays. The styles prepared depend on country-specific traditions eg in Morocco using dried fruits is more common, while Tunisian stews often feature potatoes, carrots and courgettes, all diced.

I say ‘stew’ because if you ask for a ‘tajine’ in Tunisia the end result will apparently be something closer to an Italian frittata!

A traditional Berber style of tagine
A traditional Berber tagine. Wikimedia Commons.

The most popular tagines in North Africa, certainly that I’ve encountered or read about, include chicken, lemon and olive (scroll down for a recipe), lamb or beef with prune, chicken and apricot, fish with chermoula marinade, beef or lamb meatball and a classic Berber tagine, with a cone-shaped layer of different vegetables, usually over meat (above).

It all sounds big on meat, but of course vegetables are a huge part of North African cuisine and easily interchange with meat or fish. One of Morocco’s most traditional but popular dishes is cous cous with seven vegetables. Meat or no meat, the dish includes a mound of cous cous with a combination of carrot, cabbage, turnip, squash or pumpkin, courgette, sweet potato, onion.

In Persian cuisine, a khoresh is a generic word for stews from Iran and Afghanistan, often served with rice. They include aubergine and beef (Bademjan), herb stew (sabzi) and chicken with pomegranate and walnut (fesenjan).

Elsewhere, the Palestinian dish of Qidra – or Kidra – involves cooking a puree of onions in clarified butter, followed by lamb or chicken with chickpeas, rice and spices in a pot over a wood fire.

And in India and Pakistan, bursting with a kaleidoscope of regional cuisines as it is, Mughlai cuisine blends traditions of the old Mughal courts with Persian flavours.

The tagine has traditions that clearly date back many centuries and span empires. But, whether the Moroccan Berbers, Abbasid rulers or exalted characters from literature are the reason for its meteoric rise as the emperor of the one pot meal, the proof is always in the eating…

Chapter Four: a recipe for chicken, lemon and olive tagine

Excited to use the My Little Persian Kitchen spice subscription, and remembering the meal in the mountains, the first tagine I made with my prepared tagine pot was a classic using chicken, lemon and olive. It’s also known as Joojeh Khoresh in Persian cooking.

Serves 2. Prep time 30 mins & cooking time 2 hours.
(See the next chapter for how to season your tagine pot, if you’ve just bought one).

Equipment needed: a tagine pot (the size of mine or bigger), or else a cast iron cooking pot such as a Dutch oven. Or you can use a big roasting dish with a lid, or foil lid. Scales & frying pan.

Ingredient list

4-6 chicken thighs, depending on size
50g pancetta cubes or bacon, cut into pieces
1 medium brown onion, sliced
2 large garlic cloves, crushed and sliced
1 tbsp olive oil
75g green queen olives, or similar
1 large lemon, sliced width ways (unwaxed preferably)
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp saffron strands crushed slightly into 1/2 tsp sugar with a spoon
1 preserved lemon, quartered with flesh removed (look for the Belazu brand)
Seeds from 1/2 a pomegranate & parsley or mint (optional)
(For a vegetarian alternative you could replace the chicken with thickly cut portions of any of the following: carrots, white cabbage, celeriac, onion, sweet potato, courgette, squash. Instead of bacon, add a tiny bit extra salt and brown the onion more)

Preheat the oven to 160°C (140°C fan, gas mark 2, 234°F)

  1. Make a dry rub for the chicken by mixing together all the spices and seasonings, except the saffron and sugar.
  2. Coat the chicken in the dry rub.
  3. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan or heavy-bottomed large pan and add the pancetta or bacon. Sauté for a few mins until the fat starts to turn brown.
  4. Add your marinated chicken to the pan and cook until golden, keeping turning.
  5. Meanwhile, add the sliced onions and garlic and stir, coating them as they cook for a few mins.
  6. Add your fresh lemon slices and 2 cups of water (you may not need as much if your tagine pot is slightly smaller).
  7. Add the olives and the preserved lemon. Stir and then transfer everything to your prepared tagine pot, or other vessel. Be careful that the lid fits back on properly.
  8. Pop into your preheated oven and cook for 2 hours.
  9. Meanwhile, crush the saffron together with the sugar, either in a pestle and mortar or with the back of a spoon in a ramekin. And a few teaspoons of hot water and set aside.
  10. You might like to make up some cous cous or bulgar wheat to go with the tagine. Follow packet instructions for amounts, and use chicken or vegetable stock instead of plain water, to give it extra flavour.
  11. It’s optional, but if you’ve got a pomegranate to hand, cut it in half (across, not down), hold half over a bowl and bash the skin with a heavy wooden spoon. That should loosen most of the seeds easily, but expect juice to spit! Put half the seeds and a snip of mint or parsley in your cous cous or bulgar wheat, if making.
  12. Take the tagine out of the oven, place carefully on a heat resistant surface, take the lid off and pour the saffron sugar water over. Sprinkle the remaining pomegranate seeds over the tagine, along with some snipped up parsley or mint, if you have it.

Hungry for more recipes?

I highly recommend checking Christine Benlafquih out over at The Spruce Eats. She is from Casablanca and features lots of tagine info and recipes. It is from her that I learned how best to prepare a tagine dish for cooking – read on for a step by step picture guide.

Chapter Five: Step-by-step picture guide for ‘seasoning’ a tagine pot

Tagine pot before it gets seasoned
My unseasoned tagine pot

To make a tagine style meal you don’t technically have to use a tagine pot, but for me personally it’s been a proper thrill to finally get to use mine, and I can’t wait to try another recipe soon.

All tagine pots have to go through what’s called seasoning before they can be used in cooking. This is to make the clay or ceramic more durable and it also removes any raw clay taste. It’s not complicated at all, but I recommend starting at least the day before you want to cook with it, to allow you enough time for each step.

The below guidelines are adapted from Christine Benlafquih over at The Spruce Eats, with some additional notes from me.

Preparing your new tagine pot

Tagine in water
  • Soak the lid and the base in a bucket or box of water for at least 2 hours, or overnight (which I opted for).
  • Drain the water and leave the tagine to dry for a short while.
Rubbing olive oil into the tagine pot
  • If your cookware is unglazed (like mine), rub the interior and exterior of the lid and base with olive oil – a clean sponge would work. If it’s glazed, it shouldn’t need the olive oil here. (You’ll see some kitchen paper in the picture above. Suffice it to say, a sponge won’t leave little bits of tissue behind…
The olive oil permeates into the clay
  • Leave until all the olive oil has permeated the clay.
The empty tagine in the oven
  • It’s time to get it into the oven – allow up to 4-5 hours for the following 3 steps.
  • Place your tagine pot, lid on, in a cold oven.
  • Turn the oven on to 150°C (130°C fan), and set the timer for 2 hours. Be careful not to have the oven any higher, as clay will crack if subjected to high heat.
  • After 2 hours, turn off the oven, and leave the tagine to cool completely in the oven.
  • Once cooled, wash the tagine by hand in warm water with a tiny bit of soap, using a non-scratch cloth or sponge.
  • Allow it to dry fully.
Brushing the tagine's interior
  • Whether next cooking with it or storing it, use a pastry brush to coat the interior of your tagine lid and base with more olive oil.
Tagine pot brushed with olive oil
  • Leave the olive oil to soak into the clay for around an hour.
Letting the olive oil soak in to the tagine pot

Your tagine is now seasoned and ready for some tagine!

Tips to remember when cooking with your tagine pot

Tagine in the oven
  • Unless otherwise directed, use an oven temperature of no more than 160°C (140°C fan), and wait patiently for the tagine to reach a simmer. Heat diffusers are recommended when cooking on a burner.
  • Tagines and other clay cookware may crack if subjected to rapid changes in temperature. Avoid this by not adding cold food or liquids to a hot tagine, and by taking care not to place a hot tagine on a cold surface.
  • If a recipe calls to heat ingredients before transferring to the tagine pot, the clay should be fine.

Tips to remember when cleaning and storing your tagine pot

Storing your tagine pot
  • Hand wash your tagine with very mild soap and rinse well.
  • Leave the tagine to dry thoroughly, and then lightly coat the interior of the lid and base with olive oil before storing.
  • It’s a good idea to store your tagine with the lid slightly ajar so that air can circulate. I found that even doing that, the base gathered a couple of little mould patches, and this is apparently more common in the glazed kind. Just simply wash the tagine again and lightly coat it with olive oil before using.

تمتع بوجبتك – tamatae biwujbatik – Bon appétit!

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On finding joy

This weekend I had planned to share with you a journey from mountain and desert to modern stove and cooker. A tradition that dates back to One Thousand and One Nights and to the peak of the Islamic Golden Age. A joyous experience of cooking (and eating) using ancient methods passed down generations.

If you don’t mind, I’m going to go slightly off topic this week.

The US election results of the past week affect us all around the world, they don’t just concern the American people. Its outcome will shape foreign policy across the globe, not just in America. Where the US leads, many countries will follow, whether you agree that’s how it should be or not.

For that reason, I wanted to share some feelings of hope, trepidation, idealism and ultimately joy. Not just in the US, but in the UK too. You might wonder why I would feel joy when there remains such open and raw division in politics and so much work to do. Read on.

Good news.

A man who has faced great personal and political losses. Who in his 8th decade has led a moderate-progressive coalition charge to bring political leadership back from the brink. Twice the failed presidential candidate and now the President-Elect.

A woman who grew up the daughter of immigrants, who had to prove herself ten times over to gain the same kind of respect often afforded easily to others in her field. Rightly lauded as the first woman, the first black woman, the first South Asian woman to be voted in as Vice President. She is clear that she doesn’t intend to be the last.

Yesterday’s projection that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will lead America for the next four years was for me and so many around the world a huge moment.

A weight has been lifted, so the cliché goes. Whatever we have to deal with from now on, it’s just nice that maybe it doesn’t have to centre around one self-centred human being so much.

Challenge.

I say this recognising that one historic election doesn’t change the dark times we’ll all face in the weeks, months and years ahead, as Coronavirus cases continue to spiral way out of control, as do the destructive effects of climate change. Amazon.com is making its highest profits in history, while the Amazon Rainforest suffers its harshest challenges.

With a second lockdown here in the UK, travelling the world feels as distant a prospect as at the height of lockdown back in April. From our self-employed neighbours next door to the independent shop owners on our high streets, and from the bartenders and waitresses who won’t be taking our orders on holiday to the tour guides who might have shown us their beautiful corner of the world time zones away. They are fighting to keep afloat.

Division.

Right now, those of us who want the Democrats in America to succeed long term have to face the fact that the second-most-voted-for presidential candidate in history is Mr Donald J Trump.

Just under half of America wanted him back for a second term and the all-important Senate is likely to remain Republican for at least the next two years (though all eyes will be on Georgia’s senate race rematches from now until January).

So, while Biden and Harris have promised that their leadership will be for all Americans, it remains to be seen if they can bring the country closer together. It’s not just up to them though. Both halves of this divided country have got to agree that there is more value in finding common ground than there is in relishing being polar opposite of one another.

Tribes.

Late in 2019 I went to an LSE event with Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy, promoting his new book Tribes: How Our Need to Belong Can Make or Break Society.

His remarks made such an impression on me, particularly his belief that if we can bring about more cohesion within communities. His suggestion is for a compulsory ‘national civic service’ and a citizens’ assembly as a way to reduce the ‘them and us’ mentality, and improve society together. As he writes of Brexit Britain:

‘Diversity, immigration and technological progress can be hugely positive, but when they break down shared ways of life and social cohesion, it is understandable that people get defensive.’

He speaks firmly too about the extent to which social media has globalised and entrenched tribal identities, with detrimental effect.

My thoughts? There are no easy answers to the question of how to cool the cancel culture that holds court online, or the extremism of the alt-right. The lid is off. But enforcing the dismantling of Facebook’s dangerous adverts algorithm and implementing tougher guidelines on dealing with hate speech (doing so with full transparency) is a place to start.

But what about how we act as individuals?

Respect.

If you would normally resolve to yourself that ‘they behave worse than us’, perhaps it’s time to question why you have that perception. Who are ‘they’ really? And how often do any of us really take the trouble, or have the opportunity, to speak to people in real life outside of our friendship and family groups? Our perceived social groups?

I include myself in the equation when I say that we would find more that brings us together than separates us, and have more respect for each other if we shouted less on Twitter and spoke more in person. Leaning less on those whose views we already share and instead seeking out the opinions and anxieties of people we shy from or discredit.

Respect has to work both ways of course.

And we’ve got to be prepared to compromise and respect differences of opinion, or at least do more to understand rather than simply dismiss.

And practically, how to meet more people in our communities? Volunteering in the community is a brilliant place to start, even during a pandemic. I for one am looking at volunteering opportunities in my local area on the website doit.life/ours.

Why the joy?

‘When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy’ – Rumi

There was so much at stake in the US election and I followed it about as avidly as any non-American, non-politics student feasibly could. I resolved when I woke up the day after the last election not to allow myself to simply be a bystander but to educate myself more about the US election system and be as involved in spreading the word and batting down misinformation as I could be. I’ve lived and breathed the entire election cycle.

And it has been tiring.

Not just the past four million years / four years as a whole. The fear last Tuesday night, the drawn out results, the close calls, the increasingly batshit ravings of a defeated one term president who can’t countenance defeat and is probably at his most dangerous now and into January. (I’m afraid he is an exception to my rule of respect).

And yet I feel joy.

*Joy that so many wonderful campaigners and advocates and volunteers’ hard work has paid off. They were truly the difference between win and lose. *Joy and relief that election day itself went ahead relatively calmly, despite threats of vigilantism. *Joy that a state like Georgia, long a victim of voter suppression, might flip Democrat, something many dared to hope would happen. *Joy for Clayton County. Formerly represented in Congress by the late, great civil rights campaigner and politician John Lewis (a staunch critic of Trump), its votes are what pushed Biden slightly ahead of Trump in Georgia on Friday morning. *Joy in knowing that America will return to the Paris Climate Agreement, that science and reason will regain a foothold with the announcement of Biden’s Coronavirus task force (and by the way have you seen today’s excellent vaccine news?) *Joy for the end of the Muslim travel ban and a return to a welcoming immigration policy. *Joy that the next president wants to solve racial inequality, not fuel it.

Face it.

We knew these were Biden’s positions, but now he has the mandate to act on them, especially if his final electoral college tally reaches upwards of 300. We know the Biden Harris administration faces enormous challenges and pushback from Republicans, and the Supreme Court could at any point peel back the strides made towards universal healthcare and the right to choose an abortion. No illusions.

As for the outgoing president? He wants us to feel fear and discord at how close he came to re-election. It’s how he’s thrived these past years. We have to face it down with optimism and by rolling up our sleeves for the toughest challenges which are yet to come.

‘You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

_____
P.s. if you’re wondering at my choice of picture above, it was partly the catalyst for writing this piece. I deliberately waited until the election had been called to unwrap a painting I bought in September by up and coming artist Laura Gee. Its title? The Joy of Life.

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Times like these: East Germany

It’s time for part two of my time travel series. I haven’t discovered how to travel back in time, but I did chat to my mum about a trip to East Germany we made as a family in June 1991 – during a very important time in German history.

It was eight months after the German reunification of October 1990 and 19 months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of the reporters who covered the seismic events in Germany was the BBC’s John Simpson:

The fall of the Berlin Wall changed the world. It brought an end to Communist regimes right across Europe, and finished Russia as a superpower.

We wanted to see the region before it changed rapidly, as it deserved to do.

None of us had ever set foot in East Germany or East Berlin. Later, as a teenager I felt a bit embarrassed that we spent so much time in Europe when other families were flying round the world. With hindsight though it was quite exciting to seek out countries that were only just opening up after the breakdown of the Soviet Union and communist control. The beach could wait.

Read on for a Q&A with my mum (aka my ‘Mutti’) about what she remembers.

Me: You’ve always loved Germany as a destination. When did you last go before 1991?

My mum in Germany in 1981

Mutti: I think it must have been 1981, when I went with my friend Marion. It was a ten day trip to Burg Eltz (south of Koblenz on the Moselle River), Vogelsburg and Rothenburg, both about as close as you could get to East Germany at the time.

Why did you want to go to East Germany?

My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love, graffiti painting on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall by Dmitri Vrubel. Photograph by Mar Cerdeira on Unsplash

The events on television inspired us to go for a holiday beyond the old iron curtain before it all changed. To experience it for ourselves, with your uncle Ray and you kids with us. Roof rack on, and off we went!

It seemed like the time to visit. I felt a bit like a pioneer somehow. We were going into a part of Europe that had been so closed off. Everyone had read a lot about what life was like there, and here was our chance to actually be there. We would have gone in 1990 if we could have, but your brother Stephen was soon to be born and so we waited.

Where did we stay and how did we get there?

Waiting for the Stena Line ferry to take us to mainland Europe.

Our destination was a village called Waldidylle, south of Dresden. It’s very close to the border with what was then Czechoslovakia (now Czechia).

We took a Stena Sealink ferry from the port of Harwich in Essex, over to Hook van Holland – literally the ‘hook of Holland’ – that juts out west of The Hague and Rotterdam.

We drove through the Netherlands and into Germany, stopping overnight somewhere en route – I can’t remember where. With small children in tow, we didn’t want to do a whole day’s drive to Waldidylle in one go.

So we travelled over two days, but we missed the owners?

Yes, we got to Waldidylle quite late. We hadn’t realised how remote it was. You navigate by car all the way from the UK to your destination, but it’s usually the last bit of the journey where you get stuck. We stopped at a pub to ask for directions and a kind stranger showed us into the village, we followed his car.

We got to the chalet and there was a note on the door from the owners saying that they had gone back to their house in Dresden because it had been getting quite late.

Did they not leave a key for us to get in?!

No! I suppose if it was their holiday home, they didn’t necessarily know the neighbours that well.

You’d think that in a sleepy rural village they’d trust the neighbours to have the keys. Maybe I’m reading into it too much, but maybe it took a while to trust neighbours again. The infamous Stasi secret police were known for extreme surveillance techniques and for turning neighbours into spies against each other. Keeping themselves to themselves was probably quite ingrained.

Anyway, we didn’t have to sleep in the car at least?

It was quite dark, so it must have been rather late seeing as we were there in June. And there were so many trees making everything darker still. We looked around for the nearest neighbours. There was a gap between our chalet and a house nearby. Like most of the properties around, it had a sloping roof for the snow in winter, and it was bigger than the chalet.

We headed over and knocked on the door to ask the family living there if they knew of a bed and breakfast. They instead offered us their house for the night.

They were maybe in their late 40s or early 50s and they had a daughter in her teens who was at a disco that evening. Perhaps they had an older daughter who had moved out already. And maybe a grandfather too, but I can’t remember much more about them.

In order to squeeze us all in, they arranged for their daughter to stay with a friend. It’s funny the things you remember – I remember that detail, but I can’t picture the couple’s faces. We were so tired and I had you two to look after.

A quick sorting of the rooms and we had beds for the night! We all slept very soundly.

Did you speak to them much?

German text which translates as hello, how are you?

Most of the conversation was in German, it certainly helped that I can speak a bit.

I remember chatting to our hosts in German over the breakfast table in the morning. They told us that we were the first British people they had met since the Berlin Wall had fallen. That left a real impression. They mentioned the war. I remember Dresden came up in conversation, as did Coventry (both cities were badly bombed in the Second World War).

The hosts were just so nice. We offered them money for the stay, though they wouldn’t accept more than a few pounds.

They and everyone else were so helpful to us and that has really stayed with me.

After breakfast we had to get the keys presumably?

We drove 40km over to Dresden to pick them up and spent the day discovering the city. The note on the chalet door had the address of the owners we’d missed, with instructions for how to find them. No mobile phones back then!

And we spent the rest of the trip in that chalet. I can’t really remember what it looked like.

A picture featuring two photos from 1991, one of the forest of Waldidylle and the other of me standing on the Germany Czechoslovakia border
Misty trees around our chalet in Waldidylle – and me standing near the border with then Czechoslovakia
Our trusty SEAT car in the woods of Waldidylle
Our trusty SEAT and roof rack, parked by our chalet, just in view

Sadly I didn’t take a picture of the chalet itself, though you can just see it in one of the pictures of our car. It was a classic a-frame timber chalet in the woods. I only took some photos of the surrounding trees and our trusty SEAT car, complete with buggy and travel cot on the roof. Do you remember the stuffed animal heads on the walls inside the chalet?

Yes, now you mention it! I have a vivid impression of a lot of wooden furniture and some large taxidermy on the walls.

They scared you a bit I think. We covered them with sheets and blankets.

Hopefully we remembered to remove the sheets

Thinking back to the trip overall, and others in the 1990s, what struck you about East Germany compared to West Germany?

German autobahn at night
Autobahn at night by Paul Frenzel on Unsplash

Despite our preconceptions, Waldidylle itself and other rural parts of East Germany didn’t strike us as much different from West Germany.

The motorway was in quite a bad state however, even around the bigger centres of Chemnitz and Leipzig. Infrastructure was noticeably in a poorer state than the West half of the country. On later trips we could tell the disconnect between East and West German roads, especially in the Harz Mountains. You couldn’t just go east to west or vice versa, you had to take detours to get from one set of roads to another.

What the regions were known for producing was different too. East Germany and East Germans had long had to rely on more traditional crafts to earn a living, making more wooden toys for example, in contrast to the grander industry of West Germany.

We visited Seiffen, only 15km from the Czech border and across from Waldidylle. They turned to wooden toy manufacturing hundreds of years earlier when the iron mining industry collapsed. We went on a day trip and of course bought you some wooden toys.

I remember that day – it was Stephen’s first birthday. He had a jelly birthday ‘cake’ and chose a wooden toy truck, while I opted for a snazzy wooden tea set. We still have them in the house.

When the waitress realised we were celebrating a birthday, she brought out a sparkler, that was nice of her.

And here’s the famous truck. Stephen keeps it pride of place among a very select number of souvenirs he’s collected over the years. By contrast you need a warehouse for all mine.

My brother's wooden toy truck
‘Spielzeugland’ = toy land
Underside of the wooden toy truck
Note the change of stamp

Before reunification, East Germany was known as the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) or GDR in English. You can actually see on the bottom of the wooden truck that it was first stamped with GDR, before later being stamped over with MADE IN GERMANY. Interesting!

Another difference was that things did cost a lot less in the east of course; we felt the money on our holiday lasting longer. That remained the way for many years.

I remember vividly our trip in 1998 to the Harz Mountains and the Czech Republic (the peaceful dissolution from Slovakia happened in 1993). As children we couldn’t believe our ears and eyes that ice lollies were about the equivalent of 7p or, if we wanted a fancy lolly, 13p. Heaven.

We did feel a bit of a novelty sometimes on our travels in the 1990s, a British family with young children expressly choosing to enter these formerly occupied countries when it wasn’t particularly fashionable.

Buildings in Dresden
The Zwinger Palace in Dresden
The Baroque Zwinger Palace, rebuilt after the Second War War

We darted around quite a bit on our trip didn’t we – we went to nearby Meissen (famous for its porcelain) as well as Berlin and Colditz. We also crossed the East German border with then Czechoslovakia, venturing to Prague. And we spent some time in Dresden (pictured). It was infamously bombed in the very late stages of the Second World War, gutting most buildings. The photos show some of the famous buildings rebuilt after the war.

Me in Dresden
The centre of Dresden

Yes, the city left an impression on all of us.

Even Stephen, who was 11 months old at the time, thinks he remembers seeing some remaining bomb damage.

It’s possible.

Colditz

One of my strongest memories is us walking round Colditz (between Leipzig and Dresden). It was used during the Second World War to house Allied Prisoners of War (POWs), many of whom were involved in increasingly daring escape attempts as the war wore on.

I could swear I was older than 3-4 years old, I remember it as if I was about 10. I remember peering through windows as looked around, imagining some of the POWs still being inside, in their uniforms and sporting big moustaches.

Dresden, Seiffen and Colditz aside, what else do you remember from the trip?

Brandenburg Gate, still undergoing refurbishments when we visited in 1991
Brandenburg Gate, still undergoing refurbishments when we visited in 1991
Us in front of the Brandenburg Gate

I remember when we visited Berlin that the Brandenburg Gate was still undergoing refurbishment. The East German authorities removed the quadriga that sits on top as part of the renovations, after the wall had fallen. When we were there, it hadn’t yet gone back on.

Children dancing in Prague

The beautiful clothes of the children dancing in Hradčany, the castle district surrounding Prague Castle.

The Old Town Square in Prague

And the equally beautiful Old Town Square in Prague. Czechoslovakia when we visited had itself only just returned to democracy during the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Less than 1 1/2 years after our trip the country was officially dissolved and became the Czech Republic (now Czechia) and Slovakia.

Of course, we couldn’t resist visiting both new countries soon after!

Prague is an example of a city I know I’ve seen lots of, but at a very young age. Must go back one day

A watchtower at the East German border

And here I am with dad, surveying a scene of calm over East Germany.

What a time to travel!

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Times like these: Hong Kong in a hurry

Until last night, I couldn’t remember when the clocks go back and when they go forward. Well, now I know: spring forward, fall back.

If you’re in the UK, I hope you got a lie in on Sunday morning with the clocks going back, or that you did something nice with your extra hour. I wrote this post with mine!

The clocks got me thinking about past trips where time played a big role in some way.

I’ve already written about the time I got lost in the Amazon Rainforest a few years back. Hours spent walking off the right path, and then a nervous few hours spent getting back on the right path. Have a read here.

And then my brother reminded me of a trip to Rome when we were teenagers. We were too late to get into the Sistine Chapel, according to all our watches. Dispirited, we thought we would at least go and ask about opening hours the next day. As we turned a corner, we could see queues still formed outside, and then it dawned on us that we had completely forgotten about the clocks going back. We had spent the whole day one hour ahead. So we joined the queue and just made it inside.

Read on for part one of my two-part time travel series.

A (short) time well spent

When it comes to how to spend time off, one thing my friends will tell you about me is that I love to be busy. I feel guilty spending a sunny day indoors and if I’m honest with myself, although I do love to relax and I have been known to sit down on holiday, nothing excites me more about holiday planning than chalking up my itinerary.

On my way to Japan on holiday in 2018 I had planned, in one of my mad schemes, to stop off in Hong Kong en route. Not stay over, just stop off. And so it was, after 13 hours of flying and not much sleep, I embarked on a 15 hour day trip around Hong Kong before catching a 2am flight to Tokyo.

Given everything that has happened recently in this remarkable city, I count myself lucky to have spent even a short time there.

Here is a timeline of my itinerary from that day. Too much? Not enough?

08.00 / ARRIVAL

Touchdown in Hong Kong on my SAS flight from Stockholm

Landed in Hong Kong Airport on a SAS flight from Stockholm. A bit of timewasting at left luggage and freshening up. Picked up an Octopus transport card and caught the Airport Express into the city. Even this early, the humidity was toppling.

10.18 / CHURCHGOING

St John's Cathedral from the outside
The interior of St John's Cathedral

I had a quick peek inside St John’s Cathedral before travelling up to Victoria Peak. The cathedral dates to 1847 which makes it one of the oldest buildings in the city. A service had just ended and I was invited to join them for tea and biscuits, though I sadly had to press on.

10.49 / WHERE THE VIEWS ARE

Awaiting the next tram to Victoria Peak
A view from Victoria Peak

It was time to queue up and visit Victoria Peak via the hillside tram (though really it’s like a funicular). It was as busy and commercialised on top as you would expect of one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, but I enjoyed it still.

12.35 / CELEB SPOTTING

Stephen the Lion at HSBC Headquarters

As it was a Sunday, the famous HSBC headquarters weren’t open but that didn’t matter – I had really come to meet an inhabitant who lives there 24/7, Stephen the Lion. Stephen and Stitt the lions have guarded the headquarters since 1935. Interestingly, they have only been off public display three times since then, one of those times being this year, when they were damaged during anti-government protests. They have only just gone back on display.

13.12 / BREAKFAST AT LUNCH

Dim sum for lunch at the traditional Luk Yu Teahouse

Believe it or not, dim sum is more traditionally eaten at breakfast than dinner. I originally planned to have breakfast at the traditional Luk Yu Teahouse, but due to delays leaving the airport (and general heat-related slowness) I arrived for lunch instead.

It’s one of the oldest tea houses in Hong Kong, open since 1933. I accepted the huge pot of Jasmine tea on arrival, but immediately pleaded for a big glass of water too. I still don’t quite understand the concept of tea cooling you down on a hot day… but it didn’t stop me happily ordering a trio of dim sum classics – siu mai (top), char siu buns (middle) and har gow (right).

14.00 / ESCALATION

The 800m long Central Mid Escalator

I walked A LOT over 15 hours, but I couldn’t miss a ride on the Central Mid escalator. It may not look like much but it is (drumroll) the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world, covering a distance of 800m and an elevation of 135m.

14.22 / WHAT A TART

Inside the Tai Cheung Bakery
Ready to eat my egg custard tart

In the name of food, I got off the escalator early to visit the famous Tai Cheong bakery for an egg custard tart. They’re loved by many Hong Kongers and the last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, is a big fan. (Ssh, I do prefer Portuguese pastel de nata tarts, but Hong Kong’s egg tarts come a proud second).

14.37 / YOU HAVE TO WANDER

Next door to the Sheung Wan Market
Sheung Wan district
Street art
Street art
Brooklyn Bar and Grill
Brooklyn Bar and Grill
A second hand shop
A second hand shop
A mosaic showing one of Hong Kong's famous 'junk' sailing ships
A mosaic showing one of Hong Kong’s famous ‘junk’ sailing ships
Approaching Man Mo Temple
Approaching Man Mo Temple
Fabric shopping in the Sheung Wan Market

I loved the streets around the Mid-Levels and Sheung Wan areas of Hong Kong. Bars and street art collide with temples and indoor markets.

15.31 / TIME FOR A TEMPLE

Incense inside the Man Mo Temple
Lanterns inside the Man Mo Temple
Incense and lanterns at the Man Mo Temple

Man Mo Temple. My first temple in Asia. Heady in the humidity. Transfixing.

16.19 / THE PAST IS A CEREMONY

A 1st July dance event

I was in Hong Kong on 1st July, which was the day Britain gave Hong Kong up to China in 1997. I had expected that there would be some events, but I also knew that many Hong Kongers wouldn’t necessarily see this day as a cause for celebration… quite a few people were watching this dance ceremony, but I would describe the reception as fairly muted.

17.01 / A WEE TRAM

Inside one of Hong Kong's trams

Although I can’t say with much certainty that it was necessarily worth waiting 30 minutes for, I took a little trip on one of Hong Kong’s trams. The wait time was perhaps indicative of the decline of this form of public transport. Or maybe trams don’t operate much on a Sunday!

17.27 / STAR TURN

Approaching my Star Ferry in Victoria Harbour

The Star Ferry Company was founded in 1888, originally named the Kowloon Ferry Company. And it was to Kowloon I was headed, from Victoria Harbour.

18.33 / PARKING

Whitfield Barracks at Kowloon Park

For a lot of people, Kowloon is most closely associated with its Walled City, a densely populated city within a city that by 1990 housed over 50,000 people in crowded, unsafe conditions. Though it was demolished in 1993-94, the site of the walled city dates back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) when an outpost was created to oversee the salt trade. In its place, sprawling Kowloon Walled City Park.

Time starved as I was, however, I was content to visit the much closer in Kowloon Park. Pictured, one of the buildings that was formerly part of the Whitfield Barracks that were built for the British Indian garrisons in the late 19th Century.

19.08 / IN TIME FOR SUNSET

A Star Ferry in Victoria Harbour
The water around Kowloon and Victoria Harbour
Sunset over Hong Kong

Back onboard a Star Ferry, the skies looked moody as we retraced the route to Victoria Harbour. I didn’t think the sun would emerge, but it did!

19.19 / BIRDSONG

Walking along Victoria Harbour

The view back over to Kowloon, on my way to dinner. I remember being serenaded by trees full of birds, as I walked along the harbour. I didn’t’t spot them, but I could hear their competing songs.

19.47 / GIVE ME ALL THE DIM SUM

Dim sum at Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wnan

It was time again for dim sum. Specifically, Tim Ho Wan in the IFC Mall for Michelin-starred banquet. The place was heaving but I didn’t have to wait long as I was on my own.

I’m confident with chopsticks but it was still daunting, sat round a shared table next to eight strangers, with plates of slippery dim sum arriving out of the kitchen, from meat-stuffed aubergine to beef balls with bean curd. But as soon as I noticed that everyone was eating just as messily as me, I eased up and enjoyed myself.

20.40 / BACK ON THE WATER

Victoria Harbour at night
Victoria Harbour at night

Some might deem two journeys on the Star Ferry time enough time already on the water. Not me. And I knew just the place for an aperitif.

21.08 / ALL THAT GLITTERS

The exterior of the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon
The outside of the Peninsula Hotel earlier in the day
Cocktail and snacks in one of the Peninsula's bars

I blame Michael Palin for my expensive tastes.

In his first ever travel programme, Around The World in 80 Days, he stayed at the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon in 1988. Offered Champagne during a complimentary car ride over to the hotel (at 9am in the morning), he was shown to his room, complete with a well-stocked bar. It all looked so grand and unobtainable. As Palin reflected:

Inside, one enters a palace. A rich, glittering reminder that whatever excess the rest of the world can offer, Hong Kong will cap it.

And thus I couldn’t resist a glimmering visit to one of the hotel’s cocktail bars open to non-residents. Rather quiet (it was a Sunday after all), but I had plenty of time before my flight to relax. Time enough as I sipped my cocktail to contemplate whether I had any space for snacks. (And yes, reader, I can report that I took the little Peninsula olive stick home with me).

23.33 / TIME TO SAY FAREWELL

Stephen the Lion at night

Before I left for the airport, I went in search of cash. On a route that conveniently took me back past Stephen the Lion, for a final goodbye.

I would be returning to Hong Kong for an even shorter time on my way back from Japan, but that’s another story for another day.

———

NEXT WEEK: a family holiday to a country at a momentous time in its history.

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Slow ways over highways

I arrived back in England last week following more than five weeks adventuring in Scotland, and I’m slowly getting back to the indoors groove again. And on the theme of going slow…

In the past week you may have read in the news about a project called Slow Ways. It was started by self-described guerilla geographer and creative explorer Daniel Raven-Ellison, who wants to (re)connect walking footpaths and trails between villages, towns and cities across the entirety of the United Kingdom.

I signed up recently to help test a few slow ways around Somerset and Dorset, and you can sign up too if you’re interested.

I get that there are lots of benefits to using a car. I’ve spent the past six weeks finding ways to get around without one, sometimes wishing I could drive already!

But I also know how enriching the experience of walking is. Even as cars sail right on past you…

Walking is great

Footprints in the sand
  1. You see and appreciate so much more when you are on foot

If it takes you 3 hours to walk on a footpath to a destination that takes 15 minutes by car on a road, you’re going to see 2 hours 45 minutes more of the world around you, and that’s the beauty of anything slow. You’re going slow enough to really see where you are.

  1. There’s a walk (and a walking speed) for every mood

Coasts, fields, woods, beaches, town perimeters, parks, hills and mountains. Footpaths just off roads and paths that are roads; trails that are long and straight, twisty and labyrinthine, short and steep. Taken at brisk, measured, glacial, speedy, heart-pounding, lazy, hurtling speeds.

Even just writing those words I’m conjuring up some of the walks of the past year in my mind, all so different from one another. What every good walk has in common though is that it is just what you wanted at that moment; you find a new corner of your neighbourhood, you managed to work through a problem on your mind or you whiled away a blue sky afternoon somewhere unexpected. Or maybe you discover that you only want to walk there once in your life!

  1. You can stop whenever you want (and usually not cause a pile up)

Of course you can pull over in your car to marvel at a landscape, a view, outside the car windows. Road trips aren’t just about the road. But you’re unlikely to stop as many times as you are free to stop and observe while walking or hiking.

  1. You are more likely to have a walking trail to yourself than a road

And when you do, it’s marvellous! No slowing down to let a hill runner squelch by, no speeding up to overtake a band of walkers to retake the horizon for yourself. Just wandering and wondering, with all of the panorama to yourself.

  1. Walking is healthier than most of us think

I get why running is so popular, but it’s not for me. If I want to exercise and I can’t get to a tennis court or a gym, I’ll go for a fast walk.

Walking doesn’t get lots of kudos for its health benefits but numerous studies show that walking (quickly or otherwise) for 30 minutes a day has all sorts of positive effects, including reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and high cholesterol as well as boosting your immune system. This recent article from Women’s Health lists more benefits besides.

  1. Rarely is a walk just a walk

Spring is blending into summer as you cross the unmistakable aroma of wild garlic in woodland. Scan upwards in June, on the look out for fronds of elderflower, pale and lemony in colour. August appears and the blackberries are ripening, the apples on trees calling to be scrumped.

A feather just off the path from a collared dove long flown. A deer through a doorway in the trees, certain she’s alone. Dew-baubled leaves and spiderwebs greasy with last night’s mists.

Leave the car behind

  1. The Culloden Battlefield Trail

By the main road to Culloden Battlefield, there is a 4.5km trail that takes in the woodland around the Culloden battlefield site that’s owned by National Trust for Scotland.

Most visitors to the battlefield will drive there, but you can get a bus part way and then follow the main road uphill until you get to an edge of the woodland trail, part of which meanders over to the battlefield entrance.

The woodland around Culloden Battlefield

It’s a classic Scottish woodland of pines, spruce and fir, draped throughout in heather. Properly peaceful.

Trail marker

On the markers and boards, poetry and information is written in Gaelic and English. Words carry beauty too, after all.

  1. Hardy’s Wessex

I’m pretty lucky to be smack bang in the middle of Hardy’s Wessex. Thomas Hardy wrote Return of the Native five miles away in Sturminster Newton. The popular seaside town of Weymouth, much visited during school holidays, was Budmouth in many of Hardy’s novels, from Far From the Madding Crowd to Under the Greenwood Tree. And he located the Mayor of Casterbridge in Dorchester, where he lived for most of his life.

Max Gate, built by Hardy and lived in for 42 years is where he wrote one of my favourite books, Tess of the D’urbervilles. It’s around 3 miles from his birthplace, Hardy’s Cottage. Lots of people drive to both National Trust properties in one day, but you can’t really get a bus between the two. So naturally I’ve done what any Hardy heroine would, and walked down roads, over bridges, by fields and through woods to get from one to the other.

Swans in Hardy's Wessex

On a sunny day especially, the rivers and the fields have an awakening gleam to them. Hardy was a big walker, and would have seen these scenes as he conjured up the fates of his milkmaids, furze (gorse) cutters, curates and wronged lovers.

River and bridge in Hardy's Wessex

A view from and to a bridge en route to Hardy’s Cottage. Best viewed on foot or bike.

A redwood tree

The closer you get to Hardy’s Cottage, the more the landscape veils itself over you. Giant redwood trees tower, furze surrounds and hollows scoop. Until at last…

View over to Hardy's Cottage outside Dorchester

Hardy’s Cottage. Still a sweet sight 25 years after my first visit.

  1. Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides

To get onto the beach, you walk on the same road as the cars. One by one, they all pass you by. And they’ll all get to the beach faster than you, but they won’t stop to spot the little things.

Blue shell

Tiny blue shells like this (and their inhabitants) were strewn in the grass on the way to Luskentyre Beach.

An opening in the dunes at Luskentyre Beach in Harris

The dunes are extensive – and they get quite high towards the end, so be prepared to jump down!

Sand, sea and sky at Luskentyre Beach in Harris

Luskentyre Beach is vast and it takes a long time for the tide to go out. The sand is the gorgeous colour it is because it’s made from shells, not rocks. With the beach as your footpath, you can create some new sand, crunching shells underfoot.

Walking back along Luskentyre Beach on Harris
  1. Dunvegan
view over to the MacLeod Tables hills

Most people who stay on Skye will visit Dunvegan Castle, it’s one of the premier attractions. Though the castle interiors are closed this year, the historic gardens are still open.

Without a car to tie you down, you can extend your visit by heading for the Druim na creige hill for a walk that has great views of the MacLeod Tables, two flat top hills named after the clan who have called Dunvegan home for over 800 years.

And if you end the walk in Dunvegan village then you should enjoy a drink at The Dunvegan (if it’s allowed) before the next bus arrives. Slowly.

Sign up to Slow Ways here

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Shetland’s love affair with wool

This weekend should have been the start of the 11th annual Shetland Wool Week here in the island’s capital Lerwick. It has instead gone digital due to Covid. I had no idea such a week existed – until yesterday when I stepped into a peti knitting shop called Jamieson’s.

My mum has always been the knitter in the family, making clothes for me and my brother growing up and knitting herself a dazzling wardrobe of jumpers, cardigans, scarves, hats and mittens over the years.

By total contrast, I’ve never thought I really suit jumpers, and I don’t know how to knit. I just about managed two rows of a blue woollen scarf once, before mum had to step in.

Even so, as we entered Jamieson’s, closing the door on 40mph winds, I could tell we’d walked into knitwear Mecca. A colour kaleidoscope of a sweet shop consisting entirely of wool.

Scroll on for a photo story of my initiation into Shetland’s wonderful world of wool.

Spools of Jamieson’s colourful wools

Shetland, and Fair Isle especially, is famed for its wool production, its knitters and its knitwear. There are Shetland sheep all over the islands, an ancient breed that produces very fine wool. It was only a few years ago that knitting was taken off school curriculums.

Jamieson’s bag

Jamieson’s has been the leading player in the Shetland wool industry for a long time, launching as a business in 1893. Every item of clothing or spool of wool they make has been produced from yarns they’ve spun themselves from the fleeces of their flocks of these ancient sheep.

A Fair Isle patterned hooded jumper
A Fair Isle patterned vest jumper

Using a mixture of natural-coloured wools and dyed wools with names like Yell Sound Blue, Aubretia and Peat, they produce intricately patterned classic jumper styles, and also headbands, gloves and beanie hats.

My new chunky knit jumper
Me wearing my chunky knit jumper

Remember Sarah Lund in Danish drama The Killing? As I scanned rows and rows of knitwear at Jamieson’s, it seems I was destined to channel her Scandi jumper-toting style with this chunky knit number. It was a perfect fit.

Knitting in a Fair Isle jumper

Not to be left out, my mum treated herself to a hooded cardigan jumper, knitted in the Fair Isle style.

What actually is Fair Isle? The use of colour isn’t necessarily different to other styles of knitting, but the styles of patterns that are most associated with Fair Isle originated there, 67 miles from the Shetland mainland. While they share similarities with Scandinavian tradition, Fair Isle jumpers are entirely in a league of their own I think.

Royal fun fact: this painting of Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor from 1925 made Fair Isle famous.

Jamieson’s gloves
Jamieson’s Fair Isle accessories

Accessories. Hard to resist accessories when they look like this! I felt they were necessary to brighten the harsh winter ahead.

The Shetland Textile Museum

Riding high from our successful shopping spree, we made for the other main Lerwick knitwear landmark, the Shetland Textile Museum.

Looking just a bit unassuming, this building on the northern edge of Lerwick was originally an 18th Century fishing böd (or booth).

It houses some fascinating and beautiful objects, and the museum has over 600 objects in its collection.

Plaque at the Shetland Textile Museum

The böd was the birthplace in 1792 of the co-founder of P&O, Arthur Anderson.

Another royal fun fact: on her coronation in 1838, Anderson gave Queen Victoria a pair of Shetland wool lace stockings. She liked them so much that she ordered 12 more pairs, sparking a significant trend among the wealthy for such wool items and greatly increasing Shetland wool sales.

Loom from the front
Loom and rug
Loom and outfits

This loom on display was given to the museum five years ago. It was owned and used by the company TM Adie and Sons, and by members of the Jamieson family.

At its most basic, a loom holds the threads that go into making an item of clothing or soft furnishing, weaving them quicker than human hands can.

Iris rug
Gloves
Knitted berets

Here are a few of the items on display I liked the most. An iris rug, some natty gloves and lots of woolly berets.

My mum knitting

After seeing all the great knitting on show, my mum was inspired to pick up her knitting project for the first time in our trip.

My chunky knit jumper laid out
Close up of neck pattern

So I’m a knitwear convert now.

I love my chunky knit jumper and my gloves. They will serve me warmly over many future winters, and the expert, loving way they’ve been made tells me that Shetland’s wool industry is only going to keep growing.

But I won’t just be taking woolly souvenirs home with me from Shetland. I’m also inspired to take up knitting when I get back.

Jamieson’s needn’t lose any sleep though!

———

Inspired to pick up some knitting needles too? Browse Shetland Wool Week’s programme of digital events here.

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Ten things I’ve learned about Orkney

On 10th September we set sail for one of the UK’s more remote spots, the Orkney Islands.

Though situated only about ten miles from the Scottish mainland, Orkney has a Scandinavian past that makes most native Orcadians a quarter Norwegian.

Since arriving we’ve had a crash course in life on the Orkney Islands, as we’ve walked its coasts, wandered its towns and dodged its many cows.

A day on from sailing away, here are ten things I learned about life on Orkney:

1. Orkney’s flag is similar to Norway’s flag

The Orkney flag
Orkney flag windows in central Kirkwall
Orkney flag-coloured windows in
central Kirkwall

Norse people settled on the islands from around the 8th Century and Orkney was ruled by the Norwegian kingdom for 600 years.

The islands were a sort of Viking HQ, a base for raids elsewhere in Scotland.

Though rulers and raiders had such enigmatic names as Thorfinn Skull-splitter, and King Eric Bloodaxe, archaeology tells that us that the most common occupation for Vikings was farming – and one look at Orkney’s farmland tells you what a prize it must have been.

Norwegian rule wound down after 1468 when the islands were given to the Scottish Crown as part of a marriage dowry.

Orkney’s Viking age is told in the Orkneyinga Saga, a 12th Century narrative that was written in Iceland. There’s a saga centre in Orphir on the mainland, though sadly it will remain closed until 2021.

2. Hitchhiking is a no-go, for now

The road to Burwick on South Ronaldsay in Orkney
The road to Burwick on South Ronaldsay in Orkney

Before arriving we’d read that Orcadians often stop for walkers and offer them lifts.

We knew right now this wouldn’t be so common, there being a pandemic and all, but after a 6.5 mile walk down the main road on South Ronaldsay, found no drivers willing to stop – and that was completely understandable, even before the latest round of government restrictions. With a second wave imminent, it will be that way for some time to come.

Tired as we were (our coastal walk after the road hike was 10 miles!) I reckon we saw more of Orkney in those few extra hours than drivers zipping about from A to B get to see.

3. Don’t trust the grass

Grass on the Orkney coast

Perhaps it’s mysterious Orkney voles, unfinished drainage works, or escaping cows causing damage but I’ve learned the hard way that even innocently flat-looking patches of grass must be viewed with utmost suspicion in Orkney.

Within hours of walking South Ronaldsay’s roadsides, I tripped twice and my brother fell over hidden animal burrows; a few hours later l fell into a massive, shoulder high hole that had been completely imperceptible (until I fell in). Luckily I escaped with just a few grazes!

What’s more, sometimes the grass doesn’t even look real – like the fields of epic long grass we’ve spotted near the sea, smoothed by the wind as it grows (see entry number seven).

4. Cows are a-plenty

Everybody needs good neighbours

Where to start with the cows? They are quite literally everywhere. You cannot pop to Co-op for a loaf of bread or glance out of the window without noticing a field of cows somewhere nearby, lolling and munching.

As it turns out, Orkney has the highest density of cattle in Europe – up to 30,000 of them.

And with great density comes sometimes uncomfortable proximity.

Caught in the act (see my GIF, above), our neighbouring field of cows one morning escaped opposite our cottage near Stromness and proceeded on a jolly. They were eventually herded back that morning by a very subdued farmer, only for his sheep to escape the next day.

And of another memorable moment of bovine behaviour, let me just describe the moments before I fell down that hole I told you about:

A small coastal country lane, barely wide enough to fit a Ford Ka. On either side, two fields of cows, both alike in mafia-style indignity, their clans’ respective bulls braying, snorting and maddeningly mooing at each other. Leaning as far over their barbed wire fences as they possibly can, leaving very little space on the lane. We stand before this scene, frozen.

I beg my brother to change our course, try another route. The cows start to jump around, turning themselves into two story cows. They don’t seem to see us but I figure that’s because we haven’t walked directly into their crosshairs – yet.

I plead again, ‘let’s go back to the coast path, it’s a longer route, but who cares!’

My brother, getting his shit together, looks again at a nearby path with DO NOT ENTER signs across it – it swerves away from the cows and, he realises, is accessible to walkers.

Hallelujah!

In my relief, I jostle onto the flat grassy verge at the start of our new path…. and fall down a ruddy great hole.

5. There’s no shortage of seals either

Seals off the coast of South Ronaldsay
Four seal blobs

Both harbour and grey seals can be in the waters around Orkney.

Best observed in harbours or bays, they look like grey-coloured buoys, placid in the water as they survey its contents, before bobbing under to hunt.

On one walk, we saw over 20 seals on a 10 mile stretch of coastline, and I’m sure there were many more gliding around undetected.

6. Magnus means a lot

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

Magnus Erlendsson was an Earl of Orkney, born in 1080. He actually jobshared with his cousin Håkon Paulsson, who was envious of his greater popularity.

So envious in fact that he had his cook murder Magnus c1117 on the island of Egilsay.

This led to what I would describe as Medieval Magnus Mania in Orkney, something his cousin likely didn’t appreciate.

A church was built on Egilsay to commemorate the slain earl, he was made a saint a few years later and his nephew Earl Rognvald arranged for the building of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall (pictured), still completely stunning today and unique in its style and origins from other Scottish churches.

Today, visitors can walk the St Magnus Way, a 55 mile pilgrimage route around other sites of interest in the St Magnus story.

7. It gets windy

Nature’s tumble dryer

So windy, Orcadians use hardcore pegs to hang washing outside and have it not blow away. Sadly they can have cloth-ripping consequences for certain undergarments as the pegs are difficult (and painful) to take off. So long, faithful M&S pants…

8. Neolithic history is everywhere to be found

Some of the Neolithic houses at Skara Brae
Skara Brae

And it is stunning!

Many of the Neolithic sites so far uncovered on Orkney are thought to have been built or erected before the Egyptian Pyramids, or even Stonehenge. Despite a Norse influence on most place names and 600 years of Norwegian rule, the extent and complexity of Neolithic life on Orkney has been steadily revealed thanks to continued archaeological efforts.

Here are my top picks, based on what’s open right now:

Skara Brae

Skara Brae Neolithic village

Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic settlement. You need to book in advance at the moment to be able to visit (adult £7) and Historic Scotland could really use the support. It’s run really well, the houses are fascinating to walk around and pore over, and the beach just behind is wonderful for a stroll. The southern half of the bay is popular with surfers, too.

Fun fact: in its heyday, the beach would not have been so close, but erosion has created the bay. Inhabitants would instead have had supplies of fresh water from now-disappeared lochs and lochans (small lochs).

The Brodgar Stone Circle

The Brodgar Stone Circle

Part of an RSPB Reserve, the stone circle as it is now features 35 of the original 60 standing stones. Pre-dating Stonehenge by a few hundred years, Brodgar is at the heart of Neolithic Orkney.

The Standing Stones of Stenness

One of the Standing Stones of Stenness

There aren’t too many of them standing anymore, but you’ll find a small circle inland and a few opposite by Stenness.

One of the loveliest views on the island is just up-road, looking back down towards Stenness, with Brodgar in the distance. The proximity of these two ceremonial sites really shows how important the area was in Neolithic times. History right before your eyes.

Barnhouse Settlement

Barnhouse Settlement in Orkney
Part of the Barnhouse Settlement, with Harray Loch behind it

Just behind the Stenness stones is Barnhouse Settlement. It doesn’t get much press compared to Skara Brae, and we were the only visitors I could see, but its a pretty spot overlooking Loch Harray, with a chance to spot resident swans and otters (if you’re lucky).

Tomb of the Eagles

The entrance to the Tomb of the Eagles

Go mostly for the great coastal walking, as although you can see the outside of the tomb, you can’t get into it at the moment.

Fun fact: although originally named Isbister Chambered Cairn, it changed name after a book called Tomb of the Eagles was published, on account of sea eagle skeletons found inside, along with 16,000 human bones.

There are also many other brilliant sites dotted about on the Orkney Islands that you just pass here and there on walks. And many that sadly aren’t open at the moment, like the Maeshowe tomb near Stenness, with its epic stature and ancient graffiti.

9. Kirkwall hosts a barmy annual sport called a ‘ba’

A display on the game of ba in the Orkney Museum
A display on The ba game at the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall

It not being Christmas or New Year’s Day, I don’t have a first hand account of this frenzied sport, but the lovely Orkney Museum in Kirkwall (currently open Tuesdays, Thursdays & Fridays) has a display all about it, alongside numerous ba balls earned by various Uppie or Doonie victors.

Uppies and Doonies? They are two teams of Kirkwall men from either the Uppie or Doonie halfs of the town. They meet twice each year on Christmas and New Year to pass (well, fight) a ba ball from Kirkwall’s Merket Cross in the centre towards their respective sides of town. Victoria Street for the Uppies and Albert Street for the Doonies.

Five facts about The ba:

⁃ Some say there’s been a ba played in Kirkwall since Viking times.

⁃ A women’s ba match took place on Christmas Day in 1945, won by the festively named Barbara Yule. They also played a New Year’s Day match, which was the second and last game to be played by women. Too much of a good thing?

– A boys ba takes place at 10am, for under fifteens. The shortest ba took only four minutes, while the longest six hours.

⁃ In the men’s ba, consumption of alcohol is a key element of proceedings.

⁃ It has been known to regularly go on for many hours, potentially related to the previous point.

10. It is impossible to take a bad photo on Hoy

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48 hours in Inverness

** As of Monday 14th September, the ‘rule of six’ has come into effect across Scotland, meaning that no more than six people across two households can meet up (with some exceptions such as sports activities and church services). So it almost goes without saying that some of my below recommendations may now be subject to the change in rules. However, so long as you’re sticking to the rules and you’re not, for example, travelling in a group of 30 from 10 different households, you ought to be ok. **

Hello from the Scottish Highlands!

I’m writing this on my iPhone from my top bunk in the Cairngorm Lodge Scottish Youth Hostel – My brother having won the coin toss for the lower bunk…

It’s great to be back in a Youth Hostel, we spent many family holidays in them around the UK and Europe, and in 2018 I spent a memorable night in the Hi Hostel on Lantau Island, Hong Kong, on the edge of jungle. Bugs, so many bugs!

The first week of our Scottish adventure has changed around somewhat, as adventures can do.

We had planned to spend a week traversing the North Coast 500 (‘Scotland’s Route 66’) from Ullapool, gateway to the Outer Hebrides, round to Thurso, then to take a ferry from wonderfully named Scrabster to Stromness on Orkney.

But, partly due to some spanners in the public bus network (one short transfer was going to cost £94 for private hire), we decided perhaps it’s best done another year.

Instead, we were lucky enough to spend the weekend in lovely Inverness, the largest city in the Highlands.

And I thought I would share a few recommendations of things to do and see, whether you plan to visit in the future, or just pass through on the way to your own adventure.

A stay at the Crown Guest Hotel

The Crown Guest Hotel
Courtesy of Crown Guest Hotel

Rooms feature tartan touches, nice furniture and art on the walls. A night in a family room is a bargain £65 on booking.com. Note they’re not serving breakfast at the moment, but I’m told that Rendezvous Cafe does a whacking great Scottish breakfast, Comfort Foods has a vegan breakfast and Girvans do lovely brunches.

The hotel is near the Inverness Castle and you can pass it on your way down to the Ness River.

Ness Islands walk

Ness islands

Inverness, from the Gaelic Inbhir Nis, means mouth of the Ness. It’s quite a short river, 6 miles in length, flowing from Loch Ness through to Loch Dochfour.

I learned that because the Ness River has a glacial origin, meaning that there was a big catchment of water when the river was formed, it discharges a huge amount of water, one of the highest rates of any river in the UK, explaining why it’s quite fast flowing.

And the glacial origin is part of the reason for the Nessie monster myth – Loch Ness is a staggering 400m deep! Perfect for hiding monsters, real or imagined.

St Andrew’s Cathedral

A good place to start is St Andrew’s Cathedral closer to town, worth a peek inside if you have time, and there’s a labyrinth cut into the grass outside too. If you continue past the Cathedral along that side, after about 20 minutes you’ll come to a small white bridge that takes you over to the Ness Islands.

A Dolphin Spirit tour

Out with our Dolphin Spirit tour guide
Not a dolphin

Whether you see dolphins or not (and we didn’t, sob), a Dolphin Spirit tour is a beautiful way to spend 75 minutes, gliding along the Moray Firth.

If you’re lucky with calm waters or even a bit of sunshine, and you choose a time closer to high tide coming in, you’ll stand the best chance. So I’d recommend the 1pm slot.

Coming back from the Moray Firth
There are seals in this photo but you might need a telescope

We saw harbour and grey seals lolling on rocks, swimming like otters (who are also around, though we didn’t see them), cormorants stretching their wings Batman-like, lovely gannets gliding by in the light breeze, oyster catchers and sandwich terns among other birds.

A detour to Cromarty

Signs on the hundred steps walk

Cromarty is a lovely little town right on the top of the Black Isle peninsula.

About a 40 min drive from Inverness (or a scenic hour on the 26a bus), it’s got pretty cafes, art galleries and shops, a lighthouse (used by Aberdeen university to chart marine life and birds in the area).

A beautiful donations box at East Church
Nicest donation box I think I’ve ever seen.

I especially loved Cromarty’s East Church, a historic parish church under the care of the Scottish Redundant Churches Trust.

A church has been on the site for over 700 years and in its heyday in the 1700s services were so popular that a new wing had to be added, the north aisle.

Out from Cromarty headland
A World War One bunker
A damselfly on heather

With really lovely views of Cromarty Firth and out to the North Sea, the Hundred Steps Walk is a must-do if you have a couple of hours to spend in Cromarty.

It takes you along the headland – called the Sutors of Cromarty – through beautiful woodland, up lots of steps (more than 100 I felt!) and along quaint little bridges.

Detour to Chanonry Point

Chanonry Point

Anyone wanting to increase the chance of seeing the famous Moray Firth dolphins should head to Chanonry Point.

It’s on the way back from Cromarty, or else around 20-30 mins from Inverness.

There are no guarantees (as I say, we didn’t see any, sadly) as dolphins are wild creatures, but you’ve got a wonderful vantage point, and a chance of seeing seals and sea birds like terns, if not dolphins.

Fixed price menus at The Mustard Seed and Contrast Brasserie

A meal at the Mustard Seed Restaurant
Courtesy of The Mustard Seed Restaurant

Inverness loves a fixed price menu, and two of the best can be found at The Contrast Brasserie at the Glenmoriston Townhouse and The Mustard Seed

I can vouch for the Contrast Brasserie’s salmon supreme, cooked to absolute perfection and served with basmati rice, cream and plenty of steamed green veggies and crispy kale.

We went to Contrast Brasserie on a Sunday when only the a la carte is available but on weekdays the fixed price menu is £17.95 for two courses, featuring local meat, fish and other produce.

Over at The Mustard Seed Restaurant, a bright yellow converted church, their early evening menu runs 7 days a week and two courses are a bargainous £14.95.

A picnic and a wander round Culloden

Entrance to Culloden

Culloden. Know what happened? It was a decisive loss in 1746 by the (mostly Scottish) Jacobite army against British government forces that ended the Jacobite rebellion – one that hoped to have the Stuart heir Charles Edward Stuart on the throne instead of the Hanoverian George II. Charles Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, was the Catholic grandson of the Catholic King James II who had reigned Britain for only two years after his brother King Charles II died. He had escaped on a boat to live the rest of his life in exile in France – and it was pretty much the same fate for the Bonnie Prince, after Culloden.

A memorial cairn to clans lost at the battle of Culloden

Culloden Battlefield is owned by National Trust for Scotland and it costs £11/£9.50 to go round the exhibition or else it’s free to explore the heather-filled moorland yourself. If the weather is even vaguely good, there are picnic tables outside the centre, before you walk round. There are a few signs dotted about, or audio guides for exhibition ticket holders, but Wikipedia actually has a really good rundown of the battle, if you’re self-guiding as we were.

Moorlnd of the Culloden battlefield

It is hard at times to imagine that such a peaceful place could be the same place where 1,500-2,000 Jacobites died or were wounded, in the space of an hour. But, lack of bogs aside, NTS have maintained the moor much as it would have existed back in the 1700s, as farm land for highland cattle. The cows are still there, as too are some wild goats.

A memorial stone to clans lost at the battle of Culloden

If you’re not already a member, I highly recommend getting National Trust for Scotland membership. They have struggled through the pandemic, and need all the help they can get. I’ve been a member for a few years and it’s cheaper than National Trust, but you get the same access to all National Trust properties in the UK, and it costs £61.20 for a year compared to £72. NTS also handily let you pay monthly instead of a bigger sum annually.

So, why should you go to Inverness, in a nutshell? Much of Inverness’s charms may lie on the outskirts or on day trips, but the Ness River is surely one of Europe’s prettiest city rivers, and a stay nearby is a brilliant way to kick off a Scottish holiday – or adventure.

Any highlights you think should be in the guide? Let me know below!

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Food Travels: From Home

Buen Provecho. Buon Appetito. God appetit.

I’ve missed hearing those words said over delicious meals at faraway tables. I live for many things when I travel, but exploring new cuisines and trying bold, unusual flavours is the most satisfying thing about any trip – and most days revolve around what to eat, where to go and when.

Although lockdown living stopped travel in its tracks, it didn’t stop my food travels.

It has been really satisfying cooking new cuisines and making staples completely from scratch like pasta and bread, as well as revelling in making slower food, over days or even weeks.

In the first of what I hope will become a series, I’d like to share a starter, main and pudding from three different countries, considering their origin and cultural importance, alongside my takes on tried and tested recipes from favourite chefs and bakers.

Hungry? Here we go!

For starters

Empanadas

Origins

Recipes have been found for empanadas as early as around 1520, including in a Catalan cookbook, using a seafood filling. Though the Moorish influence in Spain may have brought about their creation, most people associate the street food with Argentina, where they are practically a national dish.

The word is derived from the Spanish word empanar meaning ‘enbreaded’, or encased.

Street food faves

Argentina would be the obvious country to visit for some authentic empanadas, but closer to home you’ll find Argentinian expats sharing their love for this portable snack, at Porteña in Borough Market (my fave is cheese and ham and you can get 3 for £6.60); or, at La Fabrica in Barcelona’s medieval quarter, they serve a dizzying number of fillings, from classic (including beef or spinach) to contemporary (think tahini tofu or spicy tuna).

Sticking with the theme though…

Bake your own batch of empanadas

Makes 14-16

Pastry:
I use this Jamie Oliver recipe for my pastry and then make up 500g of my own fillings. To make an egg-free pastry, try this recipe, scaled up as needed.

Filling ideas:

Chorizo and potato – boil some new potatoes whole (until they are just cooked), cool them in cold water and then dice them. Dice your chosen chorizo and fry with a little tomato puree on a medium heat. After the oil starts to ooze, add the potatoes and a few pinches of paprika and seasoning and stir frequently until everything is well coated in chorizo oil and piping hot. If you want to add some spice, use spicy paprika, or add some chopped fresh red chilli near the end.

Mushroom and two cheese – mix together some cubed feta or Wensleydale with grated cheddar, or mozzarella (or any cheese / vegan alternative you fancy). Set aside while you fry sliced chestnut, field or halved button mushrooms in a healthy glug of olive oil, a crushed and chopped clove of garlic (or some finely chopped red onion) and a pinch of saffron or pinches of paprika. Add the cheese and melt into the mushrooms. Season.

Minced pork and onions – season your pork mince with salt and pepper, paprika, cumin and saffron if you have it. Mix. Thinly slice red and brown onions, frying on a low heat with a pinch of sugar and drop of water to caramelise a bit. Add the pork mince and stir on a medium heat until the mince is thoroughly cooked. Drain any excess fat.

Then just add 1-2 tablespoons of filling mixture to each cut round of pastry (use biscuit cutters), brush the remaining surface of each disc with egg or water and fold over. Crimp by pressing down on the half moon edges with a fork. Brush with the remaining egg, or some milk or water.

Bake in a 190°C (170°C fan) oven for 25-30 minutes.

The Main

Stracci pasta in a sausage and butternut squash sauce

Stracci, what?

Pronounced stratchy, this pasta is quite different from the refined ribbons of tagliatelle or fettuccine, and the careful construction of ravioli. The word stracci literally means ‘rags’ or ‘tattered’, the idea being that the pasta shapes are roughly cut, almost torn, from a sheet of pasta, in random sizes.

It’s the kind of pasta that works brilliantly with ragù-style chunky sauces.

Origins

Of the 350+ different pasta shapes in the world (I’m discounting the Heinz ones shaped like Peppa the Pig), Stracci pasta isn’t very well known and so it’s not easy to pinpoint where it originates from.

It’s fair to assume, however, that it has a grounding in peasant cooking – as does so much of Italian cuisine.

And the origins of pasta itself? You have to begin with noodles. The earliest known, a type of noodle made from millet in China, dates from 2000 BCE, graduating by 700 CE to the kind of soft noodle we’d recognise today.

By 850 CE, the Arab world was experimenting with ground durum wheat which spread along the Iberian Peninsula. Durum wheat pasta as we might know it showed up in much-invaded Sicily by the 1100s.

The rest is history, I think we can safely say.

Fail-safe pasta dough
Using a Gennaro Contaldo recipe

The first recipe I experimented with is now the only one I use! I was put off by other recipes calling for lots of egg yolks, which do add a richer flavour and colour, but seemed overkill to me. This recipe from Gennaro Contaldo is a great all rounder, super quick to make, using two eggs. It makes enough dough for 4 people to have a healthy portion of pasta for dinner, more if the dough is rolled thinner.

Follow Gennaro making the dough here.

Ingredients: 150g 00 pasta flour (or plain flour would suffice), 50g semolina (widely available, raises the gluten content in the dough), 2 medium eggs

Method:

Weigh and mix the flours, then crack the eggs and mix with a fork. Once the egg is binding to the flour and dough is forming, tip the dough and any flour not yet mixed in onto a clean surface and with clean hands knead the dough a little; stretch the dough using your fingertips and palms to work the gluten until all the flour is fully mixed in. Wrap the ball of dough in cling film or beeswax wrap and put in the fridge for 30 mins.

Notes: No oil or seasoning is added, though you can experiment with adding a little olive oil, or a touch of pepper if you like. I prefer to use the dough as soon as it’s made, but you can keep it in a dark coloured wrap for up to a week if you need to.

Then get rolling and sauce making!

Sausage and butternut squash sauce
From Jamie Cooks Italy

This sauce from Jamie Oliver is absolutely knock out. It is perfect for the stracci pasta and majorly moreish. For a plant-based alternative, you could cut pieces of veggie sausage and use a bit more oil as an alternative – the bay leaves and butternut squash are the quiet stars of the show.

Serves 4

Ingredients: olive oil, 8 fresh or dried bay leaves, 4 quality meat (or veggie) sausages, 1 onion, stick celery, 300g butternut squash, 1 tbsp red wine vinegar, 50g hard cheese, extra virgin olive oil.

Method:

Add the bay leaves and 2 tbsps of olive oil to and heavy bottomed frying pan, then squeeze out the meat from the sausage casings into the pan, using a wooden spoon to break the meat into lumps. Slow fry on a medium-low heat until lightly golden. (Beware of spitting fat as you stir). If using veggie sausages, get them to room temperature and slice, adding to plenty of olive oil in a pan to cook.

Roughly chop the onion, celery and peeled butternut squash into quite small chunks and add it all to the frying pan along with some black pepper. Turn the heat up to medium and stir every so often to keep it mixing and cook the butternut squash. Add the vinegar and some salt and keep it cooking away.

Meanwhile, roll out your pasta dough as thinly as you can – ideally 2mm but thicker will still taste great (keeping any unused pasta wrapped up to stop it drying out).

Use a pasta wheel or small knife to cut random shapes all along the pasta sheet – think rags or stained glass window shapes.

Cook in boiling water for a couple of minutes until the pasta rises, then use a slotted spoon to transfer your pasta over to the frying pan, allowing a good amount of starchy pasta water into the pan as well.

Grate over most of the cheese, add some extra virgin olive oil and mix well so the cheese melts before serving topped with the last of the cheese.

YUM.

Pud

Danish honey cake

About

Honey has been used in cooking far longer than sugar. The style of honey cake that Trine Hahnemann features in her wonderful book, Scandinavian Baking, is based on a kind of cake that’s been part of Scandi tradition for over 230 years.

The small Danish town of Christiansfeld (towards the south of the country, near the east coast) is the home of honey cake – including little hearts covered in chocolate.

The jury’s out on which bakery produces the best honey goodness, but there are four main bakeries offering their own takes, and Xocolatl is based on the site of the first bakery to produce them.

Recipe

I enjoyed making Trine’s delightfully sweet and earthy honey cake and if I made it again I would try her alternative suggestion of just baking the cake without adding buttercream or icing – it makes great toast apparently!

Ingredients:

For the cake: 100g butter plus more for the tin, 125g honey, 3 eggs, lightly beaten, 60g soft brown sugar, 275g plain flour1, ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda, 3 tsp ground cinnamon, 2 tsp ground ginger, 1 tsp ground cloves, 2 tbsp finely grated orange zest, 200g crème fraîche

For the buttercream: 250g butter, softened, 150g icing sugar, finely grated zest of 2 oranges

For the frosting (optional): 2 to 3 tbsp orange juice, 160g icing sugar, 1 tbsp finely grated orange zest (and some extra to sprinkle on top)

Method:

Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan).

Butter a 30 x 11cm loaf tin (or similar) and line the bottom of the tin with buttered greaseproof paper, or baking parchment.

Melt the butter and honey in a saucepan and let cool a little. Meanwhile, in a separate bowl beat the eggs and brown sugar together with an electric mixer or hand whisk, until light and paler in colour.

Sift in the flour, bicarbonate of soda, and all the spices and fold in gently, then do the same with the honey mixture. Finally, fold in the zest and crème fraîche and pour into the prepared tin.

Bake for one hour. Insert a skewer into the middle of the cake to check if it emerges clean and when it does, take the cake out to cool on a wire rack.

While the cake bakes, make the buttercream in a small bowl – just beat all the ingredients until smooth. Cover and keep cold until you need it.

When the cake is cold, cut it horizontally into three with a serrated knife. Spread the buttercream on the bottom and middle layers, then reassemble the cake.

Mix all the ingredients for the frosting (if using) and spread it over the top.
Leave the frosting to set before serving.

I hope you enjoy these recipes as much as I have. And if you want to comment below with your favourite recipe from around the world, I will try and give it a go.

Sources:

https://www.greatbritishchefs.com/features/orgins-of-pasta

https://www.christiansfeldcentret.dk/en/the-history/honey-cakes-tiled-stoves

Featured

Travel in an age of travel shame

longer read (9-10 mins)

Anything to declare? Some travel shame perhaps?

I read a New York Times article recently, Shh! We’re heading on vacation, that probed the notion of travellers who normally post about their trips on social media staying silent for fear of being travel shamed by friends, family or strangers (thanks Twitter).

If you read the piece, you’ll note there’s perhaps a touch of irony in parts:

‘Aside from her husband and their two travel companions – and now, readers of the New York Times – Ms. Gaudino has no plans to tell anyone about her trip’.

Hopefully her friends aren’t that into the New York Times…

On a serious note though, how did so-called travel shaming come about and what place does it have in a pandemic? How do we travel (or view travelling) with a clear conscience right now?

Read on for my eight point ponder:

REMOTENESS

A remote corner of the world

During a call with friends in Washington D.C. the other day I mentioned my forthcoming Scottish adventure. I was very quick to emphasise that we would be travelling as remotely as public transport would allow us.

Pre-pandemic, this would be taken for what it is, a desire to get away from tourist hotspots. But there I was, not wanting to come across as naive to the risks of travelling during a pandemic.

I will freely admit that I felt slightly guilty to be admitting to travelling away from home (even within the UK) for a such a length of time, at this time.

Travel shame isn’t new, of course. It’s just morphed.

FLYGSKAM

A plane's turbine

In 2018 the ‘flygskam’ or ‘flight shame’ movement took off, championed by Swedes including Greta Thunberg’s mother, opera singer Malena Ernman. Broadly, it is a commitment to travel slower, by train or by boat for example, or to not travel at all, thereby exerting a lower carbon footprint.

On the more controversial side, it promotes the idea of flying as a shameful act, literally flying in the face of climate change. And what started in Scandinavia has had a large effect around the world.

At World Travel Market in London last November I recall the term mentioned at almost every event I attended. Many industry insiders considered flight shame a top consideration for travellers and a big worry for the aviation industry, months before the cataclysm of COVID-19 hit us.

For myself, I don’t really agree that criticising or shaming ordinary, sensible people is the best way to go about encouraging more responsible, collective action. And shaming the people who really don’t give a damn? Good luck to you!

In the sense that the two types of travel shame can be compared, it is understandable that for many of us our concern about travelling is not just whether it is actually safe enough (or carbon neutral), but what people will think of our choices.

QUARANTINING

Quarantine country checklist

Globally, according to John Hopkins University, the total number of COVID-19 cases stands at over 24.2 million (as of 26th August).

In the UK, a slowing of cases is challenged by increasingly familiar announcements of local lockdowns, as in Aberdeen and Manchester, and changes to the government’s list of air corridor countries that now require a spell of quarantine on return.

Particularly in the past few weeks we have seen hundreds of thousands of UK travellers return early from countries where cases have climbed: Spain, France, The Netherlands, Croatia, Trinidad and Tobago.

One holidaymaker who narrowly missed returning from France in time to avoid quarantining had this to say to The Guardian:

‘How does it make sense? Either you allow people proper time to stagger getting back or you say quarantine is effective immediately. A 12- or 24-hour deadline just means that 100,000 people rushed back one day earlier than us, they’re more high risk because of that, and we are in quarantine and they’re out in open spaces.’

Government mishandling of deadlines aside, there was always a certain inevitability that the creation of air corridors from the UK, a country with the 13th highest number of cases in the world, would lead to rocketing case rates in popular holiday destinations.

Despite the risks, UK tourists are highly sought after, as Portugal’s recent successful fight for an air corridor has shown. (Thinking of going? FYI Lisbon remains under tighter controls than the rest of the country, but Porto is a beautiful alternative for a weekend away, as this travel guide proves).

Given the obvious risks, what do people on both sides of the argument think?

OWN IT

Polaroid Camera

Speaking to the New York Times, Catharine Jones described spending a weekend away with her family, 3 1/2 hours north of her home in Minnesota. She hesitated about posting a picture of her family at their remote cabin, admitting, ‘I feel like vacation pictures signal to the world, “hey! This isn’t so bad!” and it has been really that bad for many, many, many people’.

So there is certainly a guilt factor in all of this. That somehow it is unfair to those who are suffering, to be seen to be having a good time.

Lauren Pearlman also spoke to the New York Times, about learning a friend had hidden her travel plans: ‘if you’re going to go on vacation, then own it and say that you are. If you don’t feel like you can advertise it, then obviously you aren’t positive it’s the ethical thing to do’.

It’s hard to argue with that sentiment. What do we hide things for, if not because we know, even subconsciously, that something is wrong? But what about the other side of the coin? The grey area of just not wanting to be shouted at, even though you feel you’re in the right?

JUDGING

Ketchum survey results

Staying in America for a moment, according to a survey carried out by PR company Ketchum, 67% of 4,000 Americans surveyed said they expected to judge others for travelling before they themselves think it’s safe, while 56% said they expected to self-censor on social media so as to avoid being travel shamed.

If we admit it, we have probably all been quicker to judge others since the pandemic began, whether it be toilet roll purchasing habits, mask etiquette or a willingness to leave the house.

Alongside these natural concerns about how people are behaving, for anyone who has been shielding or keeping indoors for longer periods, it’s understandable to feel that some have been moving too fast, too early. Sometimes, all we can be sure of is our own judgement, and that’s ok.

But the frequently signposted ‘new normal’ had to start sooner or later. Our isolation couldn’t go on forever.

MENTAL HEALTH

Rainbows

According to the Office of National Statistics, from a survey in June, one in five of us have likely experienced depression this year – that’s up from one in ten last year. There’s a lot on our minds, so it’s no wonder.

And, with a ‘mental health pandemic’ literally looming over us, on top of everything else, isn’t there something to be said for doing what we need to do for our own mental health, even if it involves hopping on a plane somewhere?

We all know that being outdoors can help combat stress. Further from the front door, the mind also has a chance to stumble on new stimuli. Take a break from technology.

But what’s good for our mental health doesn’t need to be exclusive of what’s good for our physical health, they are one and the same. And there isn’t a one size fits all way to see this crisis through, or recover from the effects.

CAREFUL NOW

Face mask GIF

As someone who experienced a particularly nasty case of COVID-19 back in March-April, I still worry about who I could have passed it on to before I experienced symptoms. I fear catching it again and unwittingly spreading it while I’m away.

However, before I set foot in Scotland, I will have a better idea of my own health, having taken a Coronavirus test as part of a King’s College study.

Obviously I hope it’s negative, but with immunity now thought to last only a few months at best, and with talk of an imminent second wave, it’s incredibly important, especially if travelling further afield, not to let once hyper-cautious behaviours slip just because we have more freedom of movement.

This article from BBC’s Medical Editor Fergus Walsh gives a really balanced overview of life now compared to the height of a pandemic, and has this to say about being careful now more than ever:

‘We all still have a role to play in curbing the outbreak. Social distancing and hand hygiene still matter. If you can’t remember how many people you are allowed in your back garden, or whether it’s OK to give two people from different households a lift to the shops, at least remember to wash your hands and not get too close to those you don’t live with.’

CONCLUSION

Speech bubble
  • Travel and migration is in our DNA – whether we’re moving countries, seeking refuge or exploring a new destination on holiday.
  • We shouldn’t feel guilty about leaving the house, if we feel safe to do so and guidelines allow it. If we don’t feel safe? That’s ok, tomorrow is a new day.
  • Our tourism and hospitality industries need as much of our support as we can give them.
  • The best responses to this terrible pandemic have been the ones that involve us coming together, looking out for one another.
  • That means doing our best not to risk the health of other people.
  • It also means a commitment not to judge others who might be doing the best they can in trying times, and whose circumstances we may not fully understand.
  • No-one is an expert on what the ‘new normal’ means exactly, and how we should live it.

So I’m going to own my adventure round Scotland and I won’t be keeping silent about it. In fact, for a few hours each week I’m planning on producing a podcast, sharing my experiences as I go. But the other 165 hours each week?

Keeping off social media and enjoying a trip for what it is, unbridled by technology… surely that’s the holy grail many of us yearn for anyway?!

Safe travels.

Featured

In My Travel Opinion: Staycationing in Scotland

Scotland postcard

There are always two sides to every story.

Take the ‘news’ today that a few restaurants in the South West have left the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, complaining of overcrowding Monday – Wednesday and empty tables the rest of the week. That’s fair enough. But from my perspective, it’s a fantastic offer and I’ve enjoyed dining out in Sherborne in Dorset a few times. What’s more, I’ve noticed both cafes to be quite busy on other days.

Meanwhile in Scotland, there are tales that a new type of tourist has been invading Scotland since July: the ‘dirty’ or ‘clatty’ camper.

The Clatty Campers

A field filled with tents
Crowded tents by Edward Paterson

I first heard about the problem a few weeks back on the BBC radio programme Scotland Outdoors. Presenters Mark Stephen and Euan McIlwraith chatted to campaigner Anne Widdop who was very quite impassioned, shall we say, about what’s going on in Morar, Western Scotland:

It started on 11th July, before the 5 mile travel ban had been lifted. We had 42 tents appear on Morar beach, basically a shanty town of tents, cheek by jowl. The road was blocked with cars and camper vans, the bins were overflowing, people dumping rubbish in every nook and cranny. After the weekend, [there were] abandoned tents, camping gear, fire pits, destroying the marram grass. And the human excrement everywhere…it’s truly awful. It really is the wholesale desecration of an internationally important habitat. The responsible, sensible visitors are already saying they don’t want to visit and they don’t want to come back, entirely due to this.

Yet, when one of the presenters journeyed over to the popular Hebridean island of Mull, he found… nothing out of the ordinary. You have to pay to travel over on the CalMac ferry, but that doesn’t stop it being a hugely popular island. Clearly, dirty camping hasn’t reached every corner of Scotland.

When I dug a bit deeper to see how related to the pandemic it was, I noticed that ‘car campers ‘, as Anne calls them, aren’t a new phenomenon in Scotland, as this report from last summer shows.

But human poop in bins is not something any local should have to deal with. Couldn’t the council be doing more to assist?

Under increasing pressure, some councils are responding. Lochbroom Community Council, responsible for the area around Ullapool on the North West Coast, announced a few days ago that they’d be increasing signage towards open facilities and putting out trowels in lay-bys, as an ‘emergency last resort’ for drivers.

The Vast Majority

Three sheep in a field
Sheep on the island of Mull

The truth is, though, that the majority of Scotland’s visitors seem to be behaving themselves. Summer is always going to be a bit of a stress on locals, but perhaps it can be slightly blown out of proportion. That’s the impression I get anyway. When I asked a friend from Dundee if she’d heard of any incidents, she hadn’t. In her view, for the most part ‘locals have a charmed life up there.’

And, despite recent calls on the people behind the popular North Coast 500 driving route to stop advertising, Scotland’s tourism business can’t do without visitors. And there are plenty on their way to drive along those roads, given how much accommodation appears to be fully booked through September.

If facilities are closed, you surely can’t entirely blame tourists when nature calls. Councils should adopt more ideas from mainland Europe and New Zealand, such as creating Aires, which are car park or farm pitstops designated for caravans or cars, often free of charge. Creating permit systems for cars in beauty spots is another idea.

But with options like this not yet a reality, VisitScotland has its work cut out for the rest of the year to encourage tourism, curb dirty camping and keep locals happy. Last Monday, its Chief Executive Malcolm Roughhead promised to step up efforts, targeting novice campers and encouraging them to use official campsites.

‘I think it’s been about people who are maybe [new] to the countryside not understanding the access code, and not understanding that we have to protect those assets’.

So, how to avoid the ire of locals, and be a considerate visitor?

1. Be responsible

In the forest on a campsite at Banff National Park
A campsite in Banff National Park. We could learn a thing or two from how things are organised in North America.

The access code that the chief of VisitScotland mentions is the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. All 135 pages of it.

I’m going to bet a haggis that few members of the public have read the entire code, word for word.

So here’s a summary:

  • Take responsibility for your own actions – eg. care for your own safety, keep alert for hazards, take special care with children.
  • Respect people’s privacy and peace of mind – eg. do not act in ways that might annoy or alarm people, especially at night.
  • Help land managers and others to work safely and effectively  – eg. keep clear of land management operations like harvesting or tree-felling, avoid damaging crops, leave gates as you find them.
  • Care for your environment – treat it with care. Don’t disturb wildlife and take your litter away with you. [And don’t shit in bins].
  • Keep your dog under proper control – dogs are popular companions, but take special care if near livestock, or during the bird breeding season, and always pick up after your dog.
  • For a slightly expanded version, check out this leaflet.

It’s just common sense really – something you all have, friends of the blog!

2. Wild camp like a wild camper

Two tents on a remote mountainside
Wild camping by Dino Reichmuth

Because of the 2003 Scottish Land Reform Act, the country has some of the best access rights in the world. This means that wild camping is easier. But common sense, and the code, state that even when wild camping, you should look to seek permission from landowners.

From what I’ve read, many locals and landowners are only too happy to assist in explaining where is best to wild camp, because it means that it’s being done responsibly, and you’ll be more comfortable too. Result.

Camping right next to a ‘do not camp here’ sign on the other hand? Not cool.

3. Support hostels

Gearrannan Hostel on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides
Gearrannan Hostel on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides

If you prefer a bed to a sleeping bag, booking before you go is pretty essential, unless you’re told otherwise. Some accommodation owners are understandably stipulating that walk-ins and on the day bookings won’t be possible.

A large part of this is down to the distance between guests that’s required under Covid regulations. As you’d expect, hostels have taken a huge hit because you can’t have strangers staying together in dorms.

But a healthy number are open for business. For groups of family or friends it can be good value to take over a dorm or even a whole hostel. Always worth seeing if there’ll be a hostel near you to support; You can search hostels across the UK via the Independent Hostels website or browse Scottish Youth Hostels, who have seven hostels open at the moment (if you include Cairngorm Lodge, recently renovated and re-opening on 20th August).

4. Go remote

Outlines of a loch and mountains in a remote corner of Mull
A remote corner of Mull

It can be hard to judge how popular or overcrowded certain spots will be, particularly given that Scots are rightly staycationing in their own country, reaching further afield than outsiders might. Google maps is quite handy for zooming in to remote locations to find off the beaten track accommodation. And even small villages can have their own websites with great local information.

So far though, I’ve found islands such as Orkney, Shetland and those in the Outer Hebrides (famous last words) to have the most availability at the moment. And I love how well-covered the islands are by public transport, helping those who can’t drive (like me).

And if you just can’t seem to find anything in a specific location, ask a host who is fully booked where else they’d recommend you try. Or go wild…

Me? From early September I’ll be up on the North Coast before sailing out to live the island life for a bit. Question is, what side of the story will we fall on?

You’ll have to wait and see – but whatever we do, I hope it’s not clatty.

Featured

Photo Story: London Revisited

My friend Poly sent me a photo last week from Brockwell Lido before a swim. Quiet, peaceful, serene. I remember queuing with my housemate Giada for five hours to get in on a hot day once. It was brutal, but as soon as we laid our towels down and jumped in the water…glorious. With a hefty pang of jealousy, I realised I miss London…

It’s been my home for 28 years but for the foreseeable future I’ll be down in Somerset. This loveliest of lidos got me thinking about the other spots around town that I can’t wait to revisit. Read on for some of my favourite places in London.

What do you enjoy most about London? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Shakespeare’s Globe

Globe Theatre inside
Shakespeare’s Globe, from the yard
Outside the globe after a play has finished
After a performance

I have honestly lost count of the number of plays I’ve seen at the Globe. Often with a cold cider in hand, standing amid a sea of Yardlings (it costs £5 to stand), admiring another brilliant staging of a play. When it’s safe to visit again, I’ll be first in line.

Current status: The Globe has got all sorts of great content on its YouTube channel, including actors reading Shakespeare’s sonnets.

London restaurants

Picasso Afternoon Tea at Rosewood London
The Picasso Afternoon Tea at Rosewood London

Far too many epic eats to ever commit to choosing my best or favourite restaurants in London, but here are three venues I really miss right now…

Lina Stores pasta and cocktails
Hazelnut and pumpkin ravioli in the foreground, and a pomelo martini

Lina Stores, Greek Street

When I next visit I’ll be asking for fresh crab linguine and a beautifully scented pomelo & basil leaf martini. I’m also excited that the Lina Stores Italian deli is back open on Brewer Street.

Roti and curries at Roti King
Roti Canai served with dhal and kari, and a side of fried veggies

Roti King, Euston

The sight of roti being made in the kitchen at Roti King is a heavenly one. They’ve just reopened for dining in, serving their roti alongside varying curries, or their classic lentil dhal.

Chicken BAO burger
Chicken bao burger and sweet potato fries

BAO London

All the baos at BAO, please! For anyone who in the past has queued on the pavement for ages getting rained on, it feels like a bit of a silver lining that it’s reservations only at the moment!

Olympic Park, Stratford

Olympic Stadium in Stratford
The Olympic Stadium

The Olympic summer of 2012 in London still feels like a dream. My brother and I were incredibly fortunate to see lots of sports including a few athletics sessions in the Olympic Stadium in Stratford. I’m sure I got laryngitis from all the cheering. The beautiful Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park outside is a testament to how well the games were thought out.

Alfred Dock

Mosaic at the King Alfred Dock
The Mosaic on the walls by the dock

In the tiny area of Queenhithe in the City of London, walk along the Thames and you’ll find a slice of Anglo Saxon history. The Alfred Dock dates from at least 886 AD, when King Alfred the Great restored English rule to London, following decades of Viking raids and disputed control.

Current status: accessible to the public, or if you can’t get there you could always watch Last Kingdom on Netflix…

Kew Gardens

Inside the Hive installation at Kew Gardens
Inside the hive at Kew Gardens
Water on leaves at Kew Gardens

A literal breath of fresh air, stunning in every season and an antidote to all of life’s stresses.

Current status: Kew has been open for a while now, though some of their indoor offerings such as their art galleries have been off limits. Can book here for Kew and its sister venue, Wakehurst.

Royal Opera House

Inside the Royal Opera House auditorium
Curtain about to rise on a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute

Beautiful ballets and epic operas. Following a huge refurb, the Royal Opera House’s airy meeting spaces, cafes and bars also make it a lovely place to hang out.

Current status: ROH has had a lot going on digitally, including this live staging back in July of new and favourite ballets and opera works, set against the backdrop of their lamplit auditorium.

BFI London Film Festival

A screening at the 2019 BFi London Film Festival

Ok, so it’s not technically one place because it pops up all over London, but it’s a bloody good festival. Red carpets, dark room Q&As and a chance to see unexpected, surprising films from around the world. London is lucky to have such a celebration of film each year. And this October it will be UK-wide as everything is going digital.

Current status: The BFI LFF 2020 programme will be announced in early September.

Wimbledon

Andy Murray serves during the Semi Final of the 2013 Wimbledon Championships
Andy Murray about to smash Jerzy Janowicz in the semi final, the year he won Wimbledon

From the moment I first walked into the Wimbledon grounds with my uncle and brother, that was it. Smitten. I’ve camped, queued, gone after work and been up before dawn. Ballot tickets are how a lot of people visit, but you can actually get tickets daily on Ticketmaster, for all the show courts. That’s how I got a semi final ticket to see Andy Murray on his way to winning his first Wimbledon.

Current status: Wimbledon cancelled the tournament for the first time since World War II so the 134th championship will take place next year instead. Double portions of strawberries and cream all round I think? Till then, there’s always highlights.

Chinatown

London's Chinatown

It doesn’t matter that it will probably take me years to earn enough points on my Loon Fung supermarket loyalty card to get money off my shopping. It always cheers me up to pace those tiny aisles and afterwards to listen to buskers along the busy street outside.

Current status: restaurants have taken a big hit but the streets of Chinatown are now dotted with tables, which is brilliant. Loon Fung supermarket has been open a while, but it’s quieter than it’s ever been; expect a temperature check and mandatory mask wearing.

Imperial War Museums

Flowers on the guns outside Imperial War Museum London
Flowers on the guns outside IWM London to mark an exhibition opening

I LOVE the museums and art galleries of London with a passion that would make Casanova look tame. As I spent 6 years working in Press and Marketing at Imperial War Museums, I had to give them a mention. IWM is in fact five museums – IWM London, Churchill War Rooms, HMS Belfast (all in London) as well as IWM Duxford and IWM North.

IWM London, where I was mostly based, reopened in 2014 after a huge refurb of its First World War Galleries. In my view, IWM exemplify what all museums should be about – fascinating collections, moving stories and diverse voices.

Current status: sadly HMS Belfast can’t reopen yet but all other sites are now back in business. I’m excited to visit IWM London soon and see Ai Weiwei’s 5 star-reviewed art installation, History of Bombs.

Liberty of London

Flowers at Liberty
Flowers from the Wild at Heart florist based at Liberty

As a teenager, I would haul myself from Harrow (Zone 5) into Central London often with the same end goal: to peek at the flowers outside Liberty and gaze at the gorgeous stationary. Nowadays my biggest indulgence is getting my hair cut in their Taylor & Taylor salon. Though it’s been a while…!

Mr Toppers Barber Shop

Mr Topper the Frog, outside one of his barber shops

Last, but never least, it’s true London gent, Mr Topper the Frog! I’ve never been inside Mr Toppers Barber Shop so I can’t vouch for their haircuts, but my brother and I play a game of sending each other a picture of Mr Topper whenever we’re passing one of their branches. Look for him on Moor Street near Shaftesbury Avenue, on Tottenham Court Road or Great Russell Street.

The great thing about London is there’s always something going on around the corner, down an alleyway or through a set of polished doors. London will always be open, and I’ll always call it home.

Rainbow over London's Southbank
Featured

Alaska: a tale of two bears

Grizzly bear in the distance at Denali National Park

This bear is a grizzly bear that was supposed to be a polar bear.

Perhaps I should explain.

Outline of the country of Alaska

We made an adventurous plan last year for our September trip to Alaska. We would go way up north to the Inupiaq village of Kaktovik on Barter Island. Each autumn, polar bears gather there, awaiting the ice freeze that accommodates their passage higher into the Arctic Circle over winter.

We booked a tour with Akook Arctic Adventures – owned by local Inupiat Jack ‘Akook’ Kayotuk – that would take us into Prudhoe Bay and the Beaufort Sea to observe as many big furry, four-pawed visitors as we could find in four hours.

This was going to be a wildlife experience of a lifetime. I had even arranged to interview the Akook team for American Airlines’ inflight magazine American Way.

Flying towards the Alaska Arctic Circle

The journey had three stages: fly from Fairbanks in Alaska’s interior to the intriguingly-named town of Deadhorse westward along the coast from Kaktovik; stay overnight with resident oil workers and scientists, then fly across Prudhoe Bay to Kaktovik.

Arctic Fox Airbnb
Signs in Deadhorse
The coastline of Deadhorse

We managed parts one and two very well, settling in to our Deadhorse Airbnb, The Arctic Fox, hosted by a researcher named Tippy. It’s the only place tourists can stay aside from the pricey Prudhoe Bay Hotel (that does at least host a gargantuan buffet every evening. We couldn’t move after).

Part three?

Fog

Fog. We woke up to a sea of thick, opaque fogginess across the town. Our flight to Kaktovik would be delayed, at the very least. The only thing we could do was wait.

Sitting in dinky Deadhorse airport for 6 plus hours, we prayed to the weather gods it would lift. We even watched almost all of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise on the lounge TV, as a sacrificial offering.

Our mutterings seemed to work. The fog lifted bit by bit as the day wore on, and by late afternoon we were allowed into the sky in our Ravn Airlines turbo prop plane.

Heading onto our flight from Deadhorse
Sun setting from our turbo prop plane

The Arctic was on our wing tips.

High up, we even caught sight of the mighty Denali mountain, spiny with snow that glinted in the slowly setting sun.

Approaching our end destination we startling circling. It was clear that cloud was thick above Kaktovik.

We circled some more.

The pilot advised us that we might not be able to land if he couldn’t get a mile of visibility. He lingered. We begged with those same weather gods. However, the sun setting faster now, and fuel running down, we couldn’t push it any further and had to fly to Fairbanks. Back into the Alaskan interior and far away from where we’d wanted to be.

The weather, and some bad scheduling luck, put paid to our polar bear hopes. Optimism blasted out of us like a frozen breeze through trees, but we couldn’t give up. We had the last days of our trip to plan all over again.

We discussed all kinds of alternative (and outlandish) plans and activities, from trying to hire our own plane to get back up north, to white water rafting, but really there was no contest: we should get to Denali National Park and see North American’s highest mountain peak closer up. Maybe spot some wildlife…

Denali mountain by Joris Beugels
© Joris Beugels
Mount Denali from the Denali train

Denali means ‘the high one’ in Athabascan Indian culture, and it’s a cool 20,310 ft tall. The mountain actually rises higher from its base than Mount Everest, meaning it’s not hard to spot on a good day! You might have heard it called Mount McKinley in the past – not that Alaskans wanted it named after the former U.S. President – but the name was officially changed in 2015, after decades of campaigning.

About those grizzlies.

First thing to say about grizzly bears, aka the North American brown bear: just because there are around 30,000 of them in Alaska, it does not mean they are down every path or lurking behind every tree. But it’s true there’s always a frisson and thrill when you’re hiking in bear country. You expect to surprise one every time you walk a trail, perhaps ending up as a fleshier alternative to the Alaskan bears’ usually berry-rich diet. In reality, bears are far too smart to hang around humans all that much, despite the headlines.

Travelling on foot as we were, and with only one full day to explore Denali National Park itself, we relied on a ranger-driven shuttle bus to take us as far into the park as we were allowed to go.

The bus was crowded when it got to our stop, so we didn’t even know that we’d get on, but get on we did. The ranger/driver hadn’t seen any bears that day, and we told ourselves not to get the hopes up.

Denali National Park

But, as the bus advanced towards the end of its route, the ranger let out a soft cry,

‘There’s a bear, it’s right down there, look!’

Far below us on the left of the road, beautifully blending in with surrounding tufts of orange-brown brush grass, a snoozing male grizzly bear.

Necks craned, cameras jostling, we all squinted for a glimpse of the bear in the distance.

‘Was he there by the curvy bit of river?’

‘No, further forward I thought?’

‘No, that’s a bush.’

‘THERE!’

Without the ranger on hand, he really would have been very tough to spot from that vantage point.

Happy that we’d seen a grizzly, however distantly, we got off the bus expecting that to be all we’d see of him.

Closer up view of a grizzly bear in Denali National Park

But here he was again.

He had sauntered away from the river towards where we now stood, still, utterly under his spell. As he mooched about between grassy clumps and thorny trees, our binoculared gazes avidly followed.

After about half an hour, he sloped off in search of food (towards two walkers who initially looked a lot closer to him than they actually were, phew) and we went our separate ways for a quick hike, turning to look now and again as the bear’s profile shrunk from view.

We were on such a high for the remainder of the trip.

While it had been a crashing disappointment to miss our date out in the snow with Arctic polar bears, we knew how lucky we’d been in Denali. To take the glass half full approach, if we had seen the polar bears, we would never have seen the grizzly!*

Now, if you go down to the woods…

Watch out for grizzly bears

*I’m still pretty p***ed we didn’t see polar bears though.

Featured

Postcard from…a Japanese heatwave

Longer read

31° degrees Celsius. 88° degrees Fahrenheit. 70% humidity. Welcome to Kyoto in July.

Or, to be specific, Kyoto in July 2018. In Japan’s ravishing old capital, and across most of Japan, a heatwave was sweeping through, the worst since records began. And there I was, on holiday with my brother.

I’d had big reservations about visiting at the hottest time of year but he was backpacking round Asia and it couldn’t really work outside summer.

We knew it would be uncomfortably hot, scorching even, but it was the humidity that floored us. From dawn until dusk, walking anywhere outside was like battling through a sauna, with a fever. Even armed with an umbrella, cold water, cotton clothes, sunglasses, hats and copious slatherings of sun lotion, the heat was so pervasive, so brutal.

Nijo-jo Castle

Midway through our stay in Kyoto we decided to visit 400 year old Nijo-jo Castle. It was built in 1603 on the orders of the powerful first Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a symbol of the beginning of one of the longest periods of peace and stability in Japanese history.

Fast forward to 1867 and within the walls of the castle’s Ninomaru-goten Palace (pictured), the 15th Tokugawa Shogun announced the end of the Shogunate, returning political control to the Emperor and fatefully restoring imperial rule to Japan.

In other words, the sort of place you’d be silly to miss on a first trip to Kyoto.

The 33 rooms of the palace are treasures in their own right, garnished with thousands of golden wall paintings, including the famous tiger and bamboo paintings in the Third Room. Then there are the so-called Nightingale Corridors that sound like birds chirping as you walk through them. It’s caused by the nails in the floorboards, rather than a way to ward off intruders, despite the myth.

Unfortunately all of this was somewhat lost on me that day. You see, I was having a bit of a meltdown.

A packed day

It wasn’t our first attraction of the day, not even our third. That’s how we Crowthers roll.

We got up early to visit the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove (underwhelming and overcrowded if I’m honest. The bamboo groves above Fushimi Inar-taisha Temple are much quieter) and then, as the sun continued its violent ascendency towards midday, we climbed the steep hill of the popular Iwatayama Monkey Park (discovering new meanings for the word ‘sweat’) to watch Japanese Macaques contentedly dive in and out of their pond, cooling down as we could not. Then, the striking Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion northwest of the city. I vividly remember the purple irises dotting the shoreline of the lake, whitened by the sun’s rays.

We ran out of water at this point.

Near the exit, we thought we’d found a fountain, like a mirage in the distance. As we got closer we realised it was a hose for watering the foliage. And it was being closely guarded.

By the time we made it to the grounds of Nijo-jo, it was mid-afternoon, the sun in its zenith and our 7-Eleven lunch bags untouched. (Incidentally, the humble 7-Eleven convenience store was a revelation to me. It’s like a Pret, Itsu and corner shop rolled into one. My brother, on a shoestring backpacker budget, practically lived there.)

Hangry

For someone whose life mostly revolves around mealtimes, ‘hungry in a heatwave’ was not a good situation to be in.

We walked through the entrance at Higashi Ote-mon Gate and carried on straight, in zombie fashion, not consulting a map. I’m not even sure I picked one up at this stage. A massive mistake, as we walked straight by a turning for the main (air conditioned) rest area in the whole site.

I won’t fill you in on the colourful language I aimed at my brother for insisting we go straight in without having lunch first, but suffice it to say, we had an argument. Stomping through the castle grounds and garden, I couldn’t see facilities anywhere. Resigned to just eating our lunch on a quiet bench somewhere, the penny dropped that we wouldn’t find any.

If you’ve ever toured any gardens in Japan, you’ll know that they’re so meticulously kept, and often considered so sacred, that eating in them is considered taboo. In fact, eating outside in general is not really the done thing.

But we were getting desperate.

I’m not proud to admit that in a fit of heatwave rage that did my body temperature no favours, I resentfully consented to sit on some shaded (but still volcanically hot) steps to eat. I did cheer up a bit when we found a cold drinks vending machine. They’re everywhere across Japan and often have bins and seating around them, as it’s also considered rude to walk with drinks. I must have bought at least three cans of Fanta in that moment.

The sun must set

So by the time we entered the Ninomaru-goten Palace, with its painted walls, its bird song and all that historical significance, we were knackered.

There was understandably no air conditioning inside the delicately decorated rooms, but few fans either. We had to keep moving along with the steady trickle of visitors and I’d be lying if I said I was taking much in. I kept thinking, ‘this would be so wonderful if I could concentrate’.

Sooner or later, however, day must make way for night. In July, the sun sets between 7-8pm so we had just enough energy to stick around and enjoy the grounds as the golden hues of the setting sun blended into shadows. We discovered outdoor sprinklers you could walk through (why aren’t they everywhere?!), before I rewarded myself with a giant matcha ice cream in the café.

And from that day onwards, we paid more attention to visitor maps…

Impossible without global warming

I couldn’t write about my experience without expanding on the implications and impact of the heatwave.

It was only when I got back to London that I realised how unprecedented it was. It got worse as July. Tens of thousands of people across Japan were hospitalised, while 1,000 died. Coupled with damaging heavy rains and mudslides in late June and early July, 2018 was a year of suffering for the people of Japan.

In 2019 a team of scientists at the Japan Meteorological Agency used a burgeoning technique called attribution science to assess the likelihood of a heatwave in 2018 in a climate-changed world versus a world without global warming and compared the difference:

‘The deadly event of the previous summer could not have happened without human-induced global warming… in a sense, these people are the first provable deaths of climate change’

Like everyone else, I hope the 2021 Olympics go ahead in Tokyo next July, despite this year’s pandemic. But I also hope that we don’t lose sight of what has to be our number one global priority – tackling the climate change emergency.

————–

With the heat here to stay for now, I put together ten tips for staying cool in extreme heat. Some are very common sense, but as I didn’t follow half of them myself when I arrived in Asia, they seemed worth including.

Featured

Postcard from…Tokyo

Tokyo 2020. As I write this, the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games ought to have been in full sway, knocking our socks off with pageantry, pride and prowess.

But, as the Japanese proverb goes, we learn little from victory, much from defeat.

And so we can all look forward to a re-staging in 2021, which will probably feel like multiple years rolled into one. Probably.

Until then, it’s not such a poor substitute to look on trips past. I’ve been thinking back to my Japan adventure, which was two years ago this month. An experience best summed up in one word: HEATWAVE.

Though I enjoyed my time in Tokyo, I must confess that, through a combination of the humidity and bleary tiredness, I didn’t always ‘make the most of things’. But I did still come across some remarkable places.

I touched down on 2nd July, two days’ sleep down. I’d left London on 30th June and en route had spent a crazy joyride of a day in Hong Kong. Instead of a layover, I opted for a night flight to Tokyo.

Like any dutiful first time visitor might, I’d planned to head to famous fish market Tsukiji straight off my flight, knowing it would soon be moving to new premises in Toyosu. But when I reached my room at the Kimi Ryokan I could no longer fight the urge to sleep. I broke my ‘no day naps allowed’ travel rule.

When I did leave the ryokan to explore, it seemed too late for Tsukiji so I settled for a wander in that general direction, without much of a plan. I later after that you could go around Tsukiji later than generally advertised. My inquisitiveness had just been lacking in the heat and humidity. I longed to be out of the sun’s grasp, nothing more.

But, as often happens in my life, food came to the rescue.

I had made a note of a small sushi restaurant on the outskirts of Tsukiji’s market. Pushing my luck as it was getting late for lunch, but with a rumbling stomach to rival a marching infantry of soldiers, sought out Sushi Katsura. Gloriously, it was – just – still open.

I was their last lunch guest. Menus are in Japanese only, but I knew that ichi means one so I swiftly pointed at the Ichininmae menu. I was sat at the counter, able to witness the itamae sushi chef’s delicate and precise handling of each piece of raw fish that I was about to receive. He exuded the calm demeanour of a man wedded to his craft.

Onto one end of a bamboo leaf went the maki roll, cut into six (the familiar kind with specks of cucumber and pepper inside), the line-up gradually expanding with each new nigiri sushi, until I had 15 pieces. Now, it’s relevant for me to say at this point that I’m not the world’s best eater of raw fish, but whatever the chef laid down I would have eaten out of politeness.

I needn’t have worried. Every morsel of nigiri sushi was phenomenal!

The palest, most delicate of ebi prawns, flush-pink and generously sliced maguro tuna, shimmering hamachi yellowtail fish. Those were the ones I knew I’d like, but even the saba mackerel (with a regal dollop of wasabi) and tako octopus nigiri were unceremoniously devoured faster than you can say arigatou gozaimasu. All thrown together with neat scrapings of gari ginger and lashings of soy sauce, accompanied with alternate gulps of miso soup and green tea.

While I might have missed out on visiting a world-class tourist attraction, here I’d encountered some of the highest quality fish from that day’s catch at Tsukiji.

A golden experience, worthy of any summer Olympics.

Featured

Photo Story: Alaska

Lately, when daydreaming about memorable journeys, my mind’s eye has flown me out to the waters between British Columbia in Canada and the southern islands of Alaska. Replaying two harmonious days sailing on the Alaska Marine Highway. Back to the sublime sunsets, vast openness and full on freedom of the open water.

The Alaska Marine Highway is a state ferry service which covers 3,500 miles of spectacular coastline, from Bellingham in Washington state via BC’s Prince Rupert and Alaska’s southern Alexander Archipelago, along the south coast to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Island chain.

And it is a hell of a ride.

In the following photo story, I’ve captured a little of what it was like sailing on our vessel the Malaspina, some of what we saw and experienced.

Sailing over the Hecate

Hecate Strait

Our journey began on the evening of my birthday in early September last year. Leaving the Canadian coastal town of Prince Rupert behind, we sailed on the Hecate Strait. The beautiful archipelago of Haida Gwaii behind us and the Alexander Archipelago in our sights.

Cherry pie with cream

Birthday pie

I was very full after a stonking great seafood lunch at wonderful Dolly’s Fish Market in Prince Rupert (chowder followed by a halibut, shrimp and crab burger if you’re interested). But I made space for some cherry pie, generously plied with whipped cream when the restaurant staff found out it was my birthday!

Sun setting on our first evening

Entering the Alexander Archipelago

Our vessel the Malaspina had entered the Alexander Archipelago, a group of over 1,000 islands along the panhandle of Alaska’s south east coast. We would reach our first island stop of Ketchikan at 1am. Fast asleep!

On board on the morning of the second day

A Glorious Day

The start of a full day of sailing and it was shaping up to be a glorious day… I even took to the deck for a morning run, unheard of for me!

The Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park

Mountain views

Although we were in Alaskan waters, views of northern British Columbia to the east trailed us along our passage. Here we glimpsed one of many mountain ranges in the Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park that stretch up towards the remote and sparsely-populated state of the Yukon.

A raven totem pole in the town of Wrangell

Wrangell totem pole

During ferry stops we were allowed to disembark, though we had to be very quick. Here, a raven totem pole made in the 1960s displayed outside the post office in the town of Wrangell (population 2,400).

For thousands of years the indigenous Tlingit people (meaning ‘people of the tides’) have called the Alexander Archipelago home. As their name suggests, the Tlingit have always been seafarers, skilled at fishing the Pacific Ocean and its surrounds.

Tlingit lands stretch beyond the Alexander Archipelago out to British Columbia, the south coast mainland of Alaska and into the Yukon.

First Nation Wrangell residents call themselves Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan after the nearby Stikine River.

A humpback whale dives
A humpback whale gliding through the water

Whale watching

Winds buffetting me so much at times that I couldn’t keep my camera steady, we at last met Alaska’s humpback whales. Why at last? Up to this point, I had only seen the brief sight of the fin of a humpback whale and her calf in the South Pacific Ocean. Over the second half of the journey, we saw humpbacks breaching and diving and gliding along. Every single spot was a thrill for me.

Sailing between Kake and Sitka in the Alexander Archipelago

Between Kake and Sitka

As the sun set so luxuriently on the second evening, we sailed deeper into the archipelago. After stopping at Kake (population 600) we began weaving our way to the larger settlement of Sitka (population 9,000).

This involved navigating eastwards round Kuiu Island and into the open waters of the North Pacific Ocean, later turning round westwards round Baranof Island.

Though Kake is quite small, it’s home to the third largest totem pole in the world. Fact! All 132 feet of it was carved in 1967 to commemorate 100 years since Alaska had been bought from the Russians.

Sunset over the Alexander Archipelago
Pastel skies above Alaska

The second evening

This is where my mind’s eye takes me most whenever my mind drifts: our second evening on the water. The softest and most serene sunset and moonlit skies I think I’ve ever witnessed.

Trees and clouds in the Alexander Archipelago
Still waters in the Alexander Archipelago

Tree reflections and mists

We’d reached our second morning. Despite inching closer to our end destination, the waters and surrounding landscapes still felt incredibly peaceful.

The Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau

Approaching Juneau

After a dreamy two days of sailing, our destination of Juneau was in sight, with its famous Mendenhall Glacier. Visiting later that day we didn’t spot the bears we hoped we might see, but instead hung out with sea eagles, migrating salmon and even a porcupine up a tree.

Two days of slow travel very well spent.

Featured

Should I stay or should I go?

Longer read

The world is opening up again. Well, bits of the world. And it’s got me thinking about where I want to go over the next few months. Read on for my opinion piece and scroll down to the bottom for some recommended destinations…

A conundrum

Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

On Friday, UK quarantine rules were relaxed for holidaymakers and returning citizens travelling via so-called ‘air corridors’ or ‘air bridges’ from 59 countries.

Countries on the list include many European neighbours (though Portugal’s a glaring exception) as well as some long haul destinations including New Zealand, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong.

Following this news, and as the travel industry asks us to travel further and wider, I’ve been asking myself something: should I stay or should I go? Do I give in to travel FOMO or join the UK staycation conga line? And if I stay in the UK, where do I really want to go?

I decided to look at both sides and weigh up my options…

Part I: travelling abroad

Inside Man Mo Temple in Hong Kong
Inside Man Mo Temple in Hong Kong

The UK government’s air bridges are one thing, but each country has its own rules. In Iceland for example visitors must take a test or quarantine for 2 weeks, and for others the relaxation of rules applies only to its citizens or those with visas. New Zealand immigration states that its border is ‘currently closed to almost all travellers wanting to travel by either air or sea’.

Meanwhile, news of what travelling abroad is actually like at the moment has been mixed.

Alongside reports of reduced numbers on flights, breezy check-ins and empty iconic landmarks, there have been less than welcome stories and headlines in the past few days: ‘Brits left sleeping on beaches after hotels found closed’, Italian beaches labelled a ‘paradise from hell’ as social distancing struggles to be upheld, huge traffic jams heading for Croatia, just as it announced a record number of infections.

And yet. There’s just nothing quite like the pull of a faraway, remote or just ‘different’ destination. If rules permit, it seems inevitable that more of us will consider heading abroad for whatever escapism we can find, whether we’re tempted by booking offers and refund promises or a bad case of cabin fever and itchy feet.

On Friday i paper reported on an Office for National Statistics survey detailing that less than 10% of UK adults are likely to travel abroad in the coming months. However, those who have so far made it abroad report tourist numbers more like April than July.

It’s a tantalising prospect, a beautiful beach or world famous landmark like the Alhambra fortress in Granada almost to yourself..

Part II: staying in the UK

Salisbury Cathedral

In the same survey, around a quarter of adults said they would be going on holiday in the UK. That still leaves a significant chunk of the UK population who are either undecided or resolute that they will stay put. Which is very worrying for the UK hospitality and travel industry, already on its knees.

However, some areas of the industry are doing well. Cottages and campsites have reported big upsurges in bookings since late June, with numerous companies reporting selling out until September. Many travel operators have needed extra time to prepare following the recent changes in government policy, which means we’ll see more availability and opportunities to travel. And as for England’s beaches…

My first post-lockdown foray to the coast was a cliff top walk between Weymouth and Lulworth in June. We struck lucky with gorgeous weather and the walk was fairly quiet most of the way. A glorious picnic on White Nothe cliff and a speedy zigzag down the steep Smuggler’s Trail, completely alone. Alone, that is, until we reached the bustling beach around Durdle Door. This was days before thousands descended on the beach, an event that launched a thousand articles on the resulting abusive behaviour and bad toilet habits.

But there’s more to the South West than a couple of insanely popular tourist hotspots. The same goes for the UK as a whole. It’s just about doing your research and getting there. The journey, not just the destination. And for me, it’s a journey that may solely rely on public transport, as I don’t drive.

But, hey, I like a challenge.

Decision made

Stockholm

I started today torn between two travel mindsets. Fearing that I’m missing out on an opportunity to discover countries in a way I probably won’t be able to again – and the same feat that I’ll miss a golden opportunity right here in the UK.

Traditional holiday destinations outside the UK need our support, but I think we have all come through lockdown more appreciative of what’s just beyond our doorsteps. There is a true excitement to exploring our own home turf, whether we find ourselves living in familiar lands, or distant.

There is a massive opportunity, too, to assess our personal impact on the planet and climate. Slower travel, like slower living, is more desirable than ever before, and I do think there is already a tidal shift in our attitudes towards reducing our carbon footprint.

Right now, the allure of what’s closest to home is strongest for me. Which is handy because I’ll be in East Sussex visiting family next week! Coastal walks, wildlife, outdoor swimming, fish and chips. Heaven.

I’ll tell you my plans for 2021 another time…

On the wish list

Galway

© Rory Hennessey on Unsplash

Galway is 2020 European Capital of Culture and it’s such a blow that a lot of their quality programming can’t go ahead, although they have permission and funding granted to extend into 2021. I had to cancel my May visit, but I hope to rebook and still make it there.

Shetland

Nesbister Böd on Shetland, © Visit Shetland

Lundy

View of Lundy © Leah Tardivel on Unsplash

Outer Hebrides

The Uists, Outer Hebrides © Andrew Buchanan on Unsplash

Can you sense a running theme?!

And some of my favourite wild places

Inner Hebrides

Fingal's Cave at the island of Staffa

They’re close enough to the mainland that you can spend a week or less exploring, which will never feel like enough time! On Mull you can live among soaring golden eagles, join a marine life boat tour and visit the basalt rock splendour of Staffa, or wander around peaceful Iona with its 1,500 year old Abbey.

I wrote a bit more about Mull in a piece on Awesome Island Getaways a few years back.

Best time: September

Hadrian’s Wall

Milecastle 37 of Hadrian’s Wall

Running 80 Roman miles long and dating back to AD 122, Hadrian’s Wall makes for spectacular walking, perhaps especially when the landscape and weather is moody, stormy. If you’re not sure where to start, Milecastle 37 is one of the best preserved guarding gateways and this walk takes you to the famous Sycamore Gap tree that features in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. And you’ll find walks along wilder sections of the wall here.

Best time: Autumn-Winter (for extra breathtaking)

The Jurassic Coast

Walking over White Nothe Cliff

The best walking in the South West, and England’s only World Heritage Site. Skirt the more crowded spots of Durdle Door, Bournemouth beach and and Lyme Regis (great as they are). Aim instead for the walk between Osmington Mills and White Nothe (which starts at the brilliant Smugglers Inn pub), which includes the steep descent and ascent of the smugglers’ path, if you’re feeling brave. Or the Isle of Portland is wonderfully windswept, and for a beach I recommend Chesil Beach on the other side of Weymouth to Durdle Door. It’s way less touristy and far bigger.

Best time: all year

Cornwall

Along the Penwith Heritage Coast

Everyone will have their own favourite corners of Cornwall and for me, the stretch of cliffs and crags known as the Penwith Heritage Coast has some magnificently memorable areas. From Portcurno beach and the famous open air Minack Theatre to the beautiful countryside around St Just and the quiet heritage of the Geevor Tin Mine. One day I’m keen to get to Lizard Point, Britain’s most southerly tip.

Best time: all year

Featured

Postcard from…the Amazon Rainforest

Longer read

When I took this photo I remember thinking that it was like we were gazing out of a window, from one powerful life source onto another. We were in remote Yasuní National Park, a protected corner of Amazonian Ecuador and we were looking out onto one of the mighty Amazon River’s tributaries, the Río Napo.

It was 9.17 in the morning and we’d soon be lost in the Amazon Rainforest.

But before I get onto that…

Adventure

The most adventurous day of our Amazon Rainforest trip began at 5am, stirred awake in our cabins by a marching band of howler monkeys. Their sound is often likened to the roar of an oncoming train. I would go further and say they sound like an entire Clapham Junction station of oncoming trains.

We had arrived less than 24 hours before at our temporary home of Sacha Lodge, one of a number of smart rainforest lodges that are popular with those who can properly afford them (i.e. retired groups) and a few youthful chancers, like us. ‘Sacha’ in the Quecha Indian language means ‘forest’ and this ‘Forest Lodge’ was launched in 1992 by a Swiss man named Benny, who had visited Amazonian Ecuador in the 1970s.

In its launch year, Sacha Lodge comprised 1,200 acres of land and six guest rooms. Benny kept the land purchases going, and today the lodge sits within 5,000 acres of land. Nearby Napo River runs at over 1,000km in length, crossing the entire length of Amazonian Ecuador and beyond, finally feeding in to the Amazon River in neighbouring Peru.

Waterways

Travel between Sacha Lodge and the Napo River is by traditional dugout canoe, carved from tree trunks in the traditional way. Still very early, we crossed inky Pilchicocha Lake – mosquito free because of the tannins in the water – with our keen naturalist guide and Quito native, Gus.

Retracing our steps along the forest-edge boardwalk, we encountered more red howler monkeys (this time launching between trees above our heads) and some almond-scented armoured millipedes. A beautiful arthropod, just going about its day.

Transferred now into an electric canoe, we coasted down the vastness of the Napo, stopping on the Yasuní boundary at a riverbank ‘clay lick’. Many birds, as well as mammals, rely so much on the abundance of nutrients and minerals in cliffs of clay like this. We saw Mealy Amazon and Blue-headed parrots, Dusky-headed parakeet and Chestnut-fronted macaws. A skittish sea of green above a silty ribbon of river.

We had made it as far along the Napo as we would be going, now within the protection of Yasuní National Park. The park became a biosphere in 1979 and later a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Pristine, in part, but also staring into a dangerous future.

Under threat

Traces of the oil industry and illegal logging weren’t too hard to spot on our travels. The gateway city of Coca along the Napo River grew out of the oil business, and we saw shady signs of industry dotted about on the riverbanks on our way to Sacha Lodge.

Fast forwarding to spring 2020, huge levels of erosion and oil spills have been reported along the Napo and Coca rivers. Bound to this sad story of erosion, Ecuador’s largest waterfall, San Rafael, disappeared in February.

Among the people most affected by a trio of threats – climate change, oil and illegal logging – are Amazonian tribes, including the Waorani. In 1990 they won the right to a reserve of land that overlaps with Yasuní, but have had to fight hard in recent years in particular to halt the government’s oil drilling agenda.

There is hope though.

Last year Waorani from Pastaza, south of Yasuní, won a landmark legal victory which means that half a million acres of land are protected from oil exploitation.

Around the same time we visited, cameraman and naturalist Gordon Buchanan lived with a group of Yasuní Waorani who venerate anaconda snakes. Despite the dangers, they search for green (aka common) anacondas, catching and releasing them (humanely) in a show of strength but also affection. With them, Buchanan uncovered one of the biggest anacondas on record, a whopping 5.3m long!

A silent race

What struck me most as we left our boat and set off walking was how varied all the plants and trees were. Sounds obvious but it immediately felt different to the ground-eye view at the more accessible Sacha Lodge. You could feel a remoteness attached to every step.

Pointy fronds, pencil thin many-trunked trees and spotty leaves, stencilled by leaf cutter ants. Trees with spindly, twisty vine-like branches or giant jagged leaves. The occasional fiery stem of a bromeliad flower, poking out among 1,000 shades of green. Casual flypasts of large butterflies like the lustrous Menalaus blue morpho butterfly, impressive and bird-like in size. Or the Brown owl moth, so called for the huge eyespots on their wings.

The further we walked, the closer together and taller everything got, embraced in a silent race to reach the canopy first. Some of the loftiest were the gigantic Kapok, or Ceiba, trees. Even the younger ones had roots the size of marquees. Immense and Jurassic, their bases looked to me like a series of dinosaur claws.

And always the hum of insects.

Creatures small and great

All four of us were covered in all manner of insect repellent, almost as if taking part in a laboratory trial. I wore Avon’s Skin So Soft spray, which features natural repellent citronello, completely coincidentally. The Royal Marines are rumoured to use it.

Mosquitoes can seem to either like or dislike your natural scent – even your blood type. I don’t think they liked either of mine much, I was barely bitten. Two of my friends, however, seemed to be top prize. Manu in particular was under constant attack from dive-bombing females (the ones who actually bite), his bloodied and ripped shirt a testament to their tenacity. Not all the wildlife was trying to eat us though.

We saw and heard four species of monkey – Poepigg’s woolly, Red howler, Golden and Black-mantled tamarin – and we caught the whisper of a highly venomous Fer-de-lance pit snake as it slinked off to even quieter depths. Spiders sometimes spotted clambering over leaves.

We crossed ways with a Yellow-spotted river turtle and False coral snake, non-venomous despite their alarming, neony colours. Meanwhile, we learned a big story about tiny ‘Lemon’ ants.

An hour into our walk we came upon a strange clearing known as a Devil’s Garden, so-called because in the mythology of the Amazon Rainforest it’s thought that evil forest spirits called Chullachaki or Chuyathaqi inhabit them, killing the plant life around them.

A clearing without trees might not seem odd, but in such dense rainforest, it is. The scientific answer? Those Lemon ants. They use their own herbicidal poison on plants and trees they don’t eat, only leaving the species they savour. Some Devils’ Gardens have been known to grow to the size of hundreds of trees with millions of ants and thousands of queens.

Although these local superstitions mean that tribes would be wary of coming into such clearings, we huddled round a colony and took turns to try a couple of the ants. Mine tasted just like sherbet.

There and back again

Enjoying such awesome encounters with wildlife, and happily ambling along as we had been for hours, we jumped down onto a shallow, rocky riverbed. One that looked a bit familiar.

With a dread realisation that trickled over us in turn, we knew we had crossed this river already, I’d even taken a group photo hours before. A hut along the trail was meant to mark a turning point but we’d missed it somehow. Our guides had suspected as much before the river, they just hadn’t let on. The four of us assumed we’d been advancing in the right direction, but here we were off-trail, having gone in the wrong kind of circle for who knew how long.

I wasn’t too worried at first. We were with experienced guides, one of whom lived in the rainforest. They had marked our route using their machetes, and we could surely retrace our steps and look again for the turning. It wasn’t too late in the afternoon.

But rainforests are fickle friends, unwilling to let you go in a hurry. And as the name suggests, they don’t really stay dry for long.

The weather was changing and sounds of thunder in the distance poked at our ears – a very unwelcome storm was approaching. We couldn’t tell how big, but we knew enough about the risk to visualise our tracks washing away in heavy rain, perhaps a night spent sheltering beside a giant tree.

When you realise you’ve ‘gone wrong’ somewhere remote, certain thoughts can seem to run around your mind carousel-like, over and over. Our water bottles no longer looked sufficient. Our last meal had been a few lemon ants. No-one outside of our group knew our exact location. Our guides weren’t smiling any more.

And rain, heavy and warm, had arrived.

But it sprang our tired limbs into action. No, it was too risky to aim to find the missed turning. Yes, it was much safer to follow our steps back and hope the storm was brief. We forgot our hunger and our encroaching thirst. We hastened to follow our guides, feeling apprehensive and increasingly soggy, but determined to walk fast and find our way back.

Found

The next few hours were a bit of a blur, as return journeys sometimes are. Nerves were jangling, hoping the weather would clear, looking for signs we had rejoined the trail, wondering if we’d retraced earlier movements yet.

Looking at all my photos from the day, there is a gap of over two hours where I took nothing, camera stowed away from the rain. It rained on us for a while, we heard thunder, perhaps even saw some lightening, but the storm worked out to be the kind that passes over quite swiftly, leaving you clothed in mist and humidity. Praise be.

By a certain point I was quite sure we’d landed back on the trail. Spotting the eerie ’Devil’s Garden’ clearing gave me a kick of adrenaline. My friend Preeti took some convincing, but, finally, at 2pm, after 5.5 hours exploring and getting lost in Yasuní National Park, we came upon a view that everyone could agree on.

We were back at the rainforest window among the trees.

Which meant we were 45 minutes from our canoe. Looking out from that window a little more wisely, and a little more thankful.

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Postcard from…the Venetian Lagoon

‘Kim, do you think we’ve got time to see Igor Stravinsky before we go?’

No, my friend and I hadn’t travelled back in time to meet the 20th century Russian composer of The Rite of Spring. We were on Isola di San Michele, Venice’s cemetery island out in the lagoon. And time was running out to explore it before the last water bus of the day departed.

You could describe the island – which is actually two islands linked by canal – as a symbol of Napoleon’s military might. He invaded and dissolved the Republic of Venice in 1797, sanctioning a few years later for burials to take place away from the oft-flooded centre of Venice. Even despots can possess a regard for hygiene, then.

In any case, the history of the island predates Napoleonic upheaval. It is named after the church of St Michael that was built there, the first Renaissance church in Venice. A monastery was home to a branch of Benedictine monks and there was even a prison on the island for a time. Different kind of home I expect.

If you look at a picture of the island from the sky everything looks so ordered, like scaled up vegetable patches. But on the ground, once through the entrance it doesn’t feel that way, and you really forget you’re surrounded by water. A very thoughtful place.

We had time to visit Stravinsky’s grave in the end, and those of his neighbours: expat American poet Ezra Pound, Ballet Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev, writer Joseph Brodsky – and Venetians from all walks of life. It’s less starry than Père Lachaise Cemetery and the map isn’t entirely accurate, but it adds to the casual glamour of the place.

As you’d expect from a working cemetary, you can’t take photos within the walls, though if you’re lucky as we were to catch a sunset on the way back, you’ll find it compensation enough.

And what if we had missed the last water bus? Well, we would have been in good company.

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Postcard from… Banff Town

Idyllic even in the rain. I loved everything about Banff National Park, from the springing deer crisscrossing our campsite to the piping sounds of golden-mantled ground squirrels all around. The misty mountains, the endless trees, even the heart-thumping thrill that a grizzly might be round any corner, searching for berries (or worse).

Banff was Canada’s first national park, established 135 years ago in 1885. Not long after, Chateau Lake Louise was built and the park’s renown with tourists was secured.

What I most loved about Banff wasn’t really the famous Lake Louise, thousands-of-selfies part though. The adventure and wilderness were the highlights, but the warm, buzzy atmosphere of Banff Town was just as memorable.

We were far away from home, but feeling at home.

We’d pass through the town on our way out to explore a lake or we’d return, exhausted and a bit muddy, from hiking a mountain trail and it would just feel like the town was giving us a big hug. A feeling that’s not easy to pin down.

The only exception to its charms? That would have to be the random late afternoon ‘lunch breaks’ all the bus drivers would take, seemingly at exactly the time we wanted to catch a lift.

But that’s the great thing about staying in any friendly country – hitchhiking!

Featured

Travel hack: beat the heat

The news continues to stream out of Japan of the unprecedented heatwave, and it makes for sombre reading. The longest and deadliest heatwave since the 19th Century!

I visited this wonderful country in the first half of July, knowing it would be hot, but astounded by just how all-consuming and furious the heat was.

I thought that this was somewhat normal for Japan, having never experienced a summer there, but as the death toll and hospitalisations have shown, it’s anything but normal.

The epidemic of heatwaves and wildfires around the world shows more than ever before the reality of a warming planet and the consequences of the throwaway lifestyle many countries have adopted over the decades. I wrote recently about small changes you can make when you travel, to help reduce your carbon footprint.

But how to deal with the matter at hand, the heat?!

If you’re travelling somewhere in the coming weeks, and the forecast is HOT, I’ve got ten top tips to cool you down. Yes, some of them are total common sense, but, honestly, I didn’t follow half my own advice when I first arrived…

1. Drink up

Eating Dim Sum in a restaurant in Hong Kong

Easy. Except, it’s amazing how often you end up traipsing about from one sight to another, without stopping to grab a drink, or to refill your bottle. I must have tried about 30 different vending machine drinks in Japan. It was level pegging between Fanta grape and Orangina for the title of most thirst-quenching drink…

2. Pack an umbrella

Umbrella in the sun

I was inseparable from my umbrella for most of the trip.

The biggest mistake I made when I first arrived was forgetting to take my umbrella out with me on day one, but when I did use, it was a major life saver. Not only are you shielded and don’t have to keep applying lotion to your face, if you’re somewhere like Japan in summer, it’ll help you when the typhoon hits too.

3. Wear a damn hat

Butterfly on my straw hat in the Japal Alps
A butterfly landed on my straw hat while I was out walking in the Japan Alps. If you don’t use an umbrella, a hat is even more essential.

4. Spread it

Good quality sun lotion, that is. It’s taken me a while to find my favourite, but I’m a big fan of Ambre Solaire sun cream. It absorbs really well and any slight greasiness disappears very quickly. Not a fan of their mist spray lotion though, that stuff sucks!

5. Number one fan

My electric hand held fan in Hong Kong
I bought this hand-held electric fan in a shop on the Peak in Hong Kong.

You cannot beat a fan on a crowded train, it can be almost unbearable otherwise. Whether you opt for traditional or electric, I recommend combining it with number nine!

6. Freeze stuff

A Dominique Ansel creation, filled with salted caramel ice cream
A Dominique Ansel creation, filled with salted caramel ice cream, from his bakery in Tokyo’s Harajuku district.

If you’re staying in hostels or self catering then you may have access to a freezer. My brother and I went our whole holiday without the brainwave to freeze some of our water overnight. I say brainwave, we used to do it all the time at school, it’s hardly new!

7. Head indoors

Inside the Kyoto Museum
I felt a bit underdressed in this gallery in the Kyoto Museum.

It doesn’t always work out, but for that chunk of time in the afternoon when you might as well be in a 100% humidity sauna, get into the nearest good museum of choice. In Japan most museums have lockers and heavy duty air con. For us they were always a nirvana away from sweltering sunshine.

8. Shop, don’t drop

Talking of air con, the best I came across was in the Landmark shopping mall in central Hong Kong (not pictured). It was North Pole cool. However, I always found, no matter how cold the air con was, it would soon lose its edge after too long, so a quick walk through was enough.

9. And spritz!

Take a water spray bottle with you. Easily found in Boots, Superdrug etc. Spritz and fan, spritz and fan, spritz and fan… in Japan they go one step further and have sprinklers. Not for plants or emergencies, but for perspiring humans!

10. Relax

A bench on an island on Lake Akan

After a few days of insane heat, you do get used to it. But, still, the best thing you can do if you’re struggling is relax and not pack so much into your itinerary… less rush = less thirst.

With these top ten tips in hand, happy humidity!

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WiFi at 30,000 feet

I haven’t posted in a while. Wedded to the new job and all that.

What has spurred me to get back to writing? I suppose you could say altitude has!

I’m writing this to you from seat 8A on SAS flight SK526, heading to Stockholm where I will change planes and continue on to Hong Kong and Japan.

Having never visited these mighty destinations before, I’m excited for what the next 18 days have in store.

Daytime flights in the sunshine are without doubt the best way to fly, and I could be forgiven for wanting only to spend the flight gazing out of the window.

However, like everyone else with a smart phone (that would be 1.91 billion of us), I’m on it far too much and it would be inconceivable on a flight to let it run out of battery and not use it for music, browsing apps or even writing lists to pass the time (it’s a great time waster if you haven’t tried it!)

Is that a bad thing? Should I spend more time looking away from my screen?

Perhaps.

With on board WiFi (and a window seat) I’m finding it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

So far we’ve flown over a patchwork pattern of Greater London towns, yachts frolicking in the sunny sea, wind farms, mere specks in the distance, and perhaps even orderly oil rigs. And now a glut of coastlines, sandy beaches and puzzle piece archipelago islands. Glorious!

Not only am I enjoying seeing it all with my own eyes, I get to share the view with others too. The best of both worlds, you could say.

So wherever you are and whatever device you’re reading this on, happy travels from up high!

View over south west London
Wind farm off the coast of Norway
The Scandinavian coast line
Flying to Stockholm
Islands off the coast of Norway
Beautiful clouds over Sweden
Forests outside Stockholm
Featured

New kid on the block: Primera Air

A Primera Aircraft used on the transatlantic route.
© Primera Air

Have you heard of Primera Air? No? Neither had I, until I looked up flights to New York on Black Friday last year.

Lured by the £325 price tag but unsure of their pedigree, I found an article written by Simon Calder about their air fares being cheaper than WOW Air, despite claims by the latter of £99 flights each way. If they were recommended by an esteemed travel writer, that was validation enough – I booked flights for a May trip to New York, my first time in the city.

Let me say first, it was a good experience. Plenty to work on to truly compete with Norwegian and the heavyweight carriers, but for what I paid, I was happy.

One thing that stood out was that the flight out to Newark wasn’t actually really Primera at all. The flight was in a slightly noisy old Boeing 757 plane and run by National Airlines – whose crew was one of the friendliest I’ve ever met it must be said!

It was obvious that Primera Air’s new planes hadn’t materialised yet, but they had made the crossing work. If I’d been stuck in the UK without a flight, that would have been a different experience altogether.

Interestingly, this has happened with another route they’ve launched. Calder has written again about Primera, and this time it’s the news that four days ago they cancelled their maiden flight between London Stansted and Toronto.

Ouch!

The reason? A ‘delay of aircraft delivery from the manufacturer’. It would seem, then, that the only plane or planes they do have are sustaining the New York route.

If you’re tempted to try out the great value London – New York route, here’s my super quick low down:

Who are Primera Air?

As they say on their website:

‘Ever since starting out in 2003 as a charter provider, we’ve strived towards one thing – excellent air travel services. Our constant attention to detail, innovative spirit and lookout for improvement’ etc etc.

What they don’t say is that they’re owned by an Icelandic company and started out as JetX. They operate out of Scandinavia mostly, as well as Latvia, where they have an operating licence. Toronto appears to be on ice at the moment, but they’ve also launched routes to Boston and Washington DC, competing with Norwegian, and WOW.

Oh, and they like emojis.

The price
You can’t really fault it – I paid £334. That’s with all fees included and a £50 upgrade each way to choose my seat, have a hot meal and throw my luggage in the hold. If I’d chosen to bring my own food and brought only a cabin bag, it would have cost me £234.

Booking and online communications
The actual booking of the flights was pretty standard, albeit I couldn’t choose a meal apart from beef so I had to sort that out with a chat bot before I flew (modern life, eh).

Online communications were pretty spartan, in my first email confirmation for example it didn’t tell me which terminal I’d be flying into, only where I’d fly out from. I googled it, fine, but the whole point of a confirmation is to confirm all the details. Emailing out an FAQ might have been handy.

As I neared 27th April, emails increased, so I’m assuming they hired some more people!

Customer service
The credit here for the great customer service doesn’t really go to Primera Air but to Swiss Air who pretty much ran their check in desk (helping hyperventilating passengers who hadn’t got their ESTAs) and to the National Airlines crew on the way out.

The crew are normally based in Florida and you could tell by their effervescent, faultless, sunny dispositions. Anyone who has ever been served by Tom from National Airlines will know how great Tom is. Case in point: I asked for a herbal tea with my meal which they didn’t have, so he got me a freebie he’d picked up at a hotel!

Coming back we were in an actual Primera Air plane with a Primera Air crew. They were nice, though dinner was served crazy late. With plenty of people asleep, I could have had almost the whole bread basket if I’d wanted.

Inflight entertainment – make your own
I was one of those people who didn’t organise myself well enough on the way out, and I hadn’t downloaded anything to watch. Why would you need to? Well, unlike Norwegian, Primera doesn’t offer inflight entertainment. Coming back I was much better prepared. I highly recommend Bobby Kennedy for President on Netflix.

The £50 upgrade – is it worth it?
I love plane food, I make no apologies for it, so that was enough to tempt me to upgrade. And the small matter of a giant four wheeled chambray purple hold case I wanted to try out…and choosing my own seat felt like a real luxury. I’m sick of Ryanair’s terrible ‘random middle seat for any single passenger’ routine, and it was nice to have an aisle seat for once.

In terms of whether to upgrade, I would say let it be dictated by whether you need extra luggage. Paying for more luggage at the airport is eyewateringly expensive, as I overheard in Newark.

Flight route and flight times                                                                                                           

I don’t know what all the fuss is about Heathrow, I actually rank Stansted as my favourite, followed by Gatwick. Great, then, that Primera fly from Stansted and land at New York’s Newark airport. It’s comparable to Stansted as you can get a train to Penn Station which only takes around 35 mins including the initial shuttle train.

How long in the air? Outward it was about 8 hours, longer than expected because of headwinds. But coming back it was 5 hours 55, which more than made up for the outward time.

You leave Stansted at 5.55pm (arrive 9.20pm all being well) and you depart Newark at 10.50pm (arrive 10.55am if you’re lucky!)

Overall verdict?

Unlike the Stansted – Toronto route, the Stansted to Newark route seems guaranteed to fly, so don’t be put off by the slightly rocky start! If you love Norwegian, you’ll get along just fine with Primera and save yourself plenty of spending money.

Let me know what you think if you choose Primera Air, and don’t forget to say hi to Tom if you meet him…

Update: on 1st October 2018 Primera Air ceased trading and Norwegian and others had to step in to help stranded passengers. The course of air travel never did run smooth…

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Climate change and travel

6 – 7 min read

I am travelling to New York for the very first time next week. The prospect of hopping across the pond on a 7 hour flight to visit friends and explore a whole new city is very exciting.

But something is weighing on me. My carbon footprint.

In addition to my transatlantic travels this year, I will be flying to Vienna and Stockholm for long weekends. And there’s the small matter of a big trip to Hong Kong and Japan, via Stockholm, alone racking up eight separate flights. I’m also travelling to Amsterdam (but with less carbon guilt – more on that later).

FACT: By the end of the year I’ll have travelled at least 25,126 miles by plane. To put that into perspective, the Earth’s circumference clocks in at 24,901 miles. 2018 will be the furthest I’ve ever travelled in one year of my life.

Meeting this landmark comes at a carbon cost. If you think about it, given that the fossil fuels we use are the chemicals from hundreds of millions of years’ worth of carbon-rich animal and plant remains, that’s a lot of carbon that humans are releasing into the atmosphere in a short space of time!

We have a long way to go to combat climate change and the growing impact humans have on the planet. So, where to start on a personal level? How can we do our bit and still enjoy world travel?

1. How big is yours?

WWF environmental footprint questionnaire results - feet
The amount I travel takes my environmental footprint above the UK average according to WWF. It is three times the world average. © WWF

To find out how big your footprint actually is, there are plenty of calculators out there, but I recommend taking the WWF Environmental Footprint Questionnaire. How I compare to the UK average and to the world average is pictured above.

Knowing that mine is only going to grow in the next few months makes me even more determined to reduce the impact I have on the planet while I’m trying to explore it.

2. Training

The Glacier Express in Switzerland
Travelling on the Glacier Express in Switzerland to St Moritz, 2013 © Kate Crowther

Think about your route, is that internal flight really much cheaper than a train, could you mix up what transport you use? I’m looking forward to taking the recently launched Eurostar to Amsterdam in May – we will enjoy seeing some of the countryside as we roll through, and 80% less carbon is produced compared to the alternative flight.

Japan’s train services are legendary and I’d be mad not to get a rail pass while I’m out there. Money and time always comes into it though. A bullet train now links Tokyo with Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. However, I’m using airmiles to fly me speedily between the two regions. The return flights are costing me £3.60!

Eurostar (yes, they are pro-trains!) did the maths to show that taking the train to Paris as opposed to flying cut carbon emissions by a staggering 90%. Since 2007 Eurostar has been making every journey their passengers take carbon neutral. That gets a gold star from me.

Hopefully all travel companies and airlines will offset all their emissions in the future, getting air travel closer to carbon neutral.

3. Going neutral

The Jungfrau summit in the Swiss Bernese Alps © Kate Crowther
The Jungfrau summit in the Swiss Bernese Alps © Kate Crowther

If Eurostar has made my trip to Amsterdam with them in May carbon neutral, how much would it take/ cost for me to do the same? First thing’s first though – how much CO2 would the flights be responsible for?

FACT: The CO2 emissions from all my 2018 flights weighs in at a whopping 6.26 tonnes. That’s 447kg on average per flight that I take this year*. Yikes.

This is the first time I’ve ever put a number to the amount of carbon produced to get me from A-Z on my travels. If someone dropped 447kg of plain flour all over my garden every time I flew somewhere, I’d see it and I’d want it cleaned it up!

And that’s a big part of the problem, a disconnect between what we do and what we see. What if Earth treated us the way we treat Earth?

4. Go plant some trees

Amazon Rainforest tree canopy
Amazon Rainforest tree canopy at Sacha Lodge near Yasuni National Park

With all of this in mind, what can we all do to get a little closer to being carbon neutral?

Pay your way

Climatecare has a simple to use calculator for assessing the CO2 impact of flights and other activities and the money you donate to offset your travel goes towards green projects around the world, from water purification in Kenya and providing solar energy in India to fuelling efficient cooking practices in countries such as Honduras, Vietnam and Uganda.

My flight to Stockholm cost 0.43 tonnes in CO2 and the amount Climatecare suggests paying towards offsetting that is £3.22*. I will be donating every time I fly to a new destination, in turn helping someone in need around the world gain better access to a way of living that is also sustainable.

Green searches

Make those hours spent searching stuff online do some good somewhere. Search engine Ecosia uses the profit made from searches on their site to plant trees. And to date that amounts to over 26 million across the world. On average it takes about 45 searches to plant a tree. I’m working on it!

Economise

Because first class and business class seats are roomier and less people take up that space, CO2 emissions go up considerably per person. Breathe a sigh of relief as you turn right.

#Plasticfree

While the act of travelling from one country to another is carbon costly, so too of course is simply doing your weekly shop. Blue Planet has reignited the debate around the shocking environmental impact our love of plastic is having on the environment. High levels of carbon go into the production of plastic, and so choosing to go plastic free whenever you can is only going to be good for your footprint. Why zero-waste supermarkets are the new, old way to shop.

Try before you buy

The atmosfair Airline Index 2017 compares and ranks the carbon efficiency of the world’s 200 largest airlines. The rankings on their website are only in PDF form (way to go) but ThePointsGuy.com has picked them apart.

So, I’m making a promise. I’m going to search green wherever I can, support green projects whenever I can and offset my carbon use by any means possible, including paying cold hard cash. I choose green, not greenhouse.

Will you do the same?

————

*Figures an estimate based on where I’m flying to and from in 2018, using the Climatecare calculator: London Stansted – Stockholm Skavsta 0.43 tonnes / £3.22 to offset. London Stansted – New York Newark 1.53 tonnes / £11.50 to offset. London Gatwick – Vienna 0.41 tonnes / £3.10 to offset. London Heathrow – Hong Kong Intl via Stockgolm Arlanda 2.73 tonnes / £20.50 to offset. Hong Kong – Tokyo Haneda one way 0.48 tonnes / £3.59 to offset. Tokyo – Asahikawa, returning from Sapporo 0.27 tonnes / £2.03 to offset. Osaka – Hong Kong 0.41 / £3.07. A total of 6.26 tonnes. Phew.
Featured

Africa on film: Makala

Kabwita Kasongo in the hills around his village in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Kabwita Kasongo in Kolwezi with the remainder of his bags of charcoal to sell

3 – 4 min read

How do you get your travel kicks when you’re not travelling?

I’ve written before about travelling and musicbut my heart lies somewhere else when I’m seeking adventure on my own doorstep  – with cinema!

Documentaries, films based on books, films not based on books – as long as they take me away from where I am at that very moment, the feeling of exploration and understanding is hard to beat. I like nothing more than to peruse the back streets of a village I’d never heard of just 5 minutes before.

And, recently, that was Walemba, a remote village in the Lualaba region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, featuring in French filmmaker Emmanuel Gras’s documentary Makala. The film won the Grand Prix at the Semaine de la Critique at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, deservedly so.

Walemba is home to 28 year old Kabwita Kasongo and his young family. Kabwita wants more for his family and the incredible level of toil he endures to make, transport and sell charcoal (makala means charcoal in Swahili) in the nearest city Kolwezi, is the beginning, middle and end of this understated and touching documentary.

Setting it apart from many documentaries of a similar nature, there’s no narration and no direct interaction with the subject.

At the beginning of the film you’re with him as he hacks a big tree down, heaving all the logs into place and tilling mounds of earth on top before he creates a fire inside the mound, the product of days and days of hard graft.

You’re with him as he loads all the huge bags of charcoal onto a bike and you follow him along his 50km route to Kolwezi, avoiding cars as he inches closer to the city, sleeping outdoors by night. During a short break, disaster happens and his bike is knocked over by a lorry, contents splayed everywhere.

One of the few times Kabwita isn’t directly in your gaze is on the outskirts of sprawling Kolwezi; the camera moves to a distance as he negotiates with bullies chancing on traders to give up money or charcoal in order to pass. But that doesn’t stop you wanting to race in and tell them to sod off.

There are hints at the personal struggle the family faces. Visiting his wife’s family en route, Kabwita brings with him some little shoes for one of his daughters who lives with them, out of necessity. He appears to have arrived deliberately while she’s asleep because if she sees him they’ll both cry.

Sounds as well as sights play their part. With little or no dialogue at the beginning, we hear only the thud thud of the machete as it hits the tree and as Kabwita criss-crosses out of his village, he encounters only the occasional fellow traveller.

But it gradually gets noisier as he wends his way closer to Kolwezi, the frequent dusty drive bys of cars and trucks slowing progress. The city at night is a frenzied kaleidoscope that you want to pull your eyes away from but can’t.

The selling of the charcoal presents its own thankless challenges, and having seen all the hard work undertaken to make it, haggling from the would-be buyers is unwelcome. The film ends after a rapturous, climactic night time church service Kabwita attends, uttering hopeful prayers for a better life out loud, as he only briefly delays his tiring journey back home.

Despite all that hard work, judging by the number of roof panels he cannot yet afford, it isn’t over any time soon, even if for us as viewers, it is.

Kabwita’s journey has been described by Picturehouse as Sisyphean, after King Sisyphus who was doomed for all eternity to roll a huge rock up a mountain, only for it to roll back down again.

I prefer to think of Kabwita’s efforts as being somewhere between Hercules’s labours and Odysseus’s 10 year journey – but far more backbreaking! It’s not fiction we’re dealing with after all, this is one man’s daily struggle for a better future and his story is one we can all learn a lesson from.

Watch the trailer here.

It’s dropped out of most UK cinemas, but if you live in Inverness you’re in luck! It’s  showing from 13th April. Look out for a DVD release from Dogwoof in the near future.

Have you seen Makala? If so, what did you think?!

Featured

Travel hack #1: when to book flights

Screen grab from the Skyscanner best time to book article

I spend a lot of my time umming and ahhhring about when to book flights for trips – none more so than this year so far, planning a summer trip around Japan, via Hong Kong.

They say that the best bit about a holiday is the journey, and for me that journey truly starts when the flights are booked – you’re not going until you pay up!

Whether to stick or switch, go for it or wait is a common conundrum among travellers browsing flights, especially when sticking to a budget.

A while back Skyscanner produced some stats about the best times to fly, including a somewhat limited selection of routes. It was interesting but didn’t have enough clout.

Momondo dazzle with pie charts and bright colours and I enjoy looking at their insights but the cost of flights they quote always seems steep – they show averages which skews perceptions. I’m flying to New York for £325 return, but Momondo quotes £790 as the cheapest average flight.

I really like Kayak but they haven’t really jumped on the stats bandwagon in the same way as Skyscanner.

So Skyscanner published their most recent update on the best times to flyon 24th January and it’s really handy!

There are far more locations to search than there ever have been (from Amman and Auckland to Seoul and Singapore) and a brand new interactive tool helps you better see at a glance the best weeks in advance to book AND the cheapest months to fly.

It’s based on two years of data and, while a few more years would increase the accuracy, is convincing enough for me that I’m not going to wait around any more – it’s time to book my flights to Hong Kong and Japan!

Bon voyage!

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Look out London: The Photographers’ Gallery

New York by Wim Wenders

Tucked away down Ramillies Street on the edge of Oxford Street, The Photographers’ Gallery is London’s best showcase for photographic talent. That is, until stiff competition arrives from Stockholm’s Fotografiska.

As shoppers jam past each other on the streets outside, a special kind of jostling takes place in this Mecca to photography, as necks crane to see what’s on display.

What’s the big deal?

The last show I went to see there was Polaroids by film director Wim Wenders. It was everything a great Photographers’ Gallery show delivers well – multiple galleries of work from a fascinating auteur, behind the scenes insight and a chance to get lost in someone else’s world. There is always something to discover, something that delights.

‘Taking polaroids was the act of making an instant memory’

The best bits?

If you go before midday any day of the week, it’s completely free and only £2/£4 any other time.

I said it’s a Mecca and I wasn’t kidding. Bring along a camera and let the work of brilliant photographers inspire you to get snappy. I ended up looking down more than I looked up:

A pair of Kickers in the Photographer's Gallery in London
Old school shoes in the Photographer's Gallery in London

Group of shoes in the Photographer’s Gallery in London

What’s on now?

On until 3rd June – two 4 star shows and some bloke called Grayson Perry:

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross – Dressers

Grayson Perry’s Photo Album

The gallery is a destination in its own right, boasting a bustling shop with easily 100 types of film on its shelves and a Café that you can while away in.

Happy snapping!

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Eat for less in Stockholm

Radish light at the Fotografiska Bar and Cafe in Stockholm

Stockholm, like the rest of Scandinavia, is really expensive, isn’t it? Well, no, it doesn’t have to be!

Fresh from a long weekend in Stockholm, I’ve researched (eaten) some of the best food on offer in Stockholm right now, and none of it breaks the bank.

Read on for my top 5 places in Stockholm for great food at pocket money prices.

A double cheese falafel pita from Falafelbaren

Fabulous falafel

Prepare to stuff yourself silly with the best falafel in Stockholm.

Falafelbaren offer plenty of ways to enjoy falafel, but the ultimate choice has to be the gut-busting falafel-zilla that is the ‘Double Cheese’ pita, crammed with freshly-made falafel, goat’s cheese, a thick wedge of halloumi and a moreish mix of pickles and red cabbage, hummus and saucy salad.

They also make their own delicious baklava, sold in great big squares, perfect for sharing with no-one…

How much? Double Cheese pita 85kr (£7.70), baklava 25kr (£2.50), organic juice 35kr (£3.15).

Where? Falafelbaren, Hornsgaten 39, 118 49.

A table of tacos, tostadas and chips at La Neta Mexican restaurant
© La Neta

The hottest tacos in town

Stockholm isn’t famed for its Mexican food and, believe me, I’ve eaten my worse ever burrito there (you can keep your gross slaw, Zócalo).

But taqueria La Neta atones for the sins of others with its cool vibe and a menu of tacos and quesadillas worth guzzling in full.

There are plenty of carnivorous fillings – try the Choriqueso quesadilla – but also lots of veggie choices from frijole beans to pumpkin flowers. The freshly-made green sauce is addictive, or test your mettle with tree chilli.

How much? Five tacos for 95kr (£8.60) or mix and match from 22-52kr (£2-£4.60) per item.

Where? La Neta Barnhusgatan 2, 111 23 or Östgötagatan 12B, 116 25.

Cinnamon bun and mocha at Fabrique in Stockholm
Semla bun in Vete-Katten in Stockholm

The art of Fika

A Swedish favourite pastime, particularly in the afternoon. It’s simply the act of having coffee and cake but it’s more than that in reality – it’s something Swedes make time for.

Head to Fabrique and have that kanelbulle (cinnamon bun) you know you want, or give a kardemummabullar (cardamom bun) a go.

Or, if you’re lucky enough to be in Stockholm before Easter, gorge on semla buns in Vete-Katten, a café that’s been open since the 1920s. Go for vanilla for a gorgeous bun packed with vanilla bean-flecked custard and cream.

How much? A cinnamon bun and coffee at Fabrique, 31kr (£2.80) and 44kr (£3.95) / large Semla bun at Vete-Katten, 46kr (£4.15).

Where? Fabrique has locations all over the city / Vete-Katten, Kungsgatan 55, 111 22.

An Alpine hot dog at Östermalms Korvarspecialist

Get your hotdogs!

Scandinavians love their hot dogs and, at hotdog stand Östermalms Korvarspecialist, they don’t come much better, or more varied.

There are 28 different types to try, from Polish, Alpine and vegetarian to Italian and Turkish, large, small and double.

Try the Alpenwurst – a meaty sausage with sauerkraut, salad and special sauce in a soft, toasty ‘baguette’ or a normal bun.

How much? A simple hot dog is 25kr (£2.20) or the Alpenwurst is 60kr (£5.40).

Where? Östermalms Korvarspecialist, Nybrogatan 55, 114 44

A fried herring burger with onions

Fried fish for under a fiver

Visit Nystekt Strömming and order the fried herring burger (strömming hambugare), dressed with pickled onion, slaw, special sauce and lettuce. I’m not the world’s biggest advocate of herring but the Scandinavians swear by it, and there’s no better, cheaper place to try it for yourself, tiny bones and all.

How much? The herring hambugare, 55kr (£4.93).

Where? Nystekt Strömming, Södermalmstorg 1, 116 46.


Know somewhere else in Stockholm with great food at great prices? Let me know and I’ll try it out next time!

You can also read my post about beautiful things to do in Stockholm.

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New in London – Aman Mojadidi: Remembering a Future

Afghan-American artist Aman Mojadidi inside his performance space
© Imperial War Museums

‘We call these fenced migrant camps “jungles”, as if they are all savages, when what they are doing is trying to escape savagery’.

I wobbled, eyes stinging in an attempt to hold back tears. Though physcially I was sat down in a performance space at Imperial War Museum London, my mind was inside what I could see projected on the wall. I was standing on a jetty, looking out to Britain from Calais, joining the thousands of refugees thinking the same thing: what do I call home and what does it mean to me now?

Remembering a Future is an intimate, collaborative performance from Afghan-American artist Aman Mojadidi taking place this weekend at the museum.

Carefully challenging his audience to express what home means to them in a ‘post-9/11’ world, Aman leads them down the path of his own experiences – racism as a kid in Florida, visiting his uncle leading the battle for Jalalabad in 1990, moving to Kabul in 2003.

Blurring fact with fiction, he presents postcards of real sites of American drone strikes – some of them beautiful landscapes that he urges us we may wish to one day see – alongside objects he has created to serve a purpose. Prayer beads from a fictitious ‘Tigers of Allah’ group, mud brick, a series of child-like drawings depicting war gradually tearing a family apart.

The performance culminates in a literal ripping apart of what we identify ‘home’ to be, in order that a new home might be built, one that we can all identify with and share.

As Aman says: ‘either voluntarily or involuntarily, because they don’t have a choice, people are trying to find their place in the world…no-one’s first choice is to leave their country, leave their home…the whole notion of “home” has changed for a lot of people’.


Aman Mojadidi: Remembering a Future takes place 10-11 February at Imperial War Museum London at 11am, 2pm and 4pm. The performances are part of the event programme for major show Age of Terror: Art since 9/11.

Tickets £6 adults or £5 concessions and exhibition ticket holders. After the performances have ended, the end result is free to view from 16 February – 27 May.


A blackboard featuring a timeline of events, part of Aman Mojadidi: Remembering a Future

© Imperial War Museums

A table featuring postcards created by the artist of areas hit in drone strikes, part of Aman Mojadidi: Remembering a Future
© Imperial War Museums
Aman Mojadidi builds a structure using mortar with audience thoughts on paper included in the mix
In a culmination of the performance, Aman uses mortar mixed with ripped up paper written on by audience members to create a new sense of ‘home’.

——-

Full disclosure, I work for Imperial War Museums in the Marketing team on campaigns including our current major show Age of Terror: Art since 9/11, on until 28 May.

I’d love to hear from you if you managed to make it along to meet Aman Mojadidi over the weekend, or would like to share where or what you identify ‘home’ to be.

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My pick of the pistes: ski resorts in Europe

The scene before us as we skied on the Smuggler's Run between Ischgl and Samnaun

Ski Sunday is on, there’s a new champion at Kitzbühel and the Winter Olympics are around the corner. The ski season is well under way and if you want some serious snow, now’s the time to plan your winter holiday.

Not sure where to go? Whether it’s a short break or a week long adventure you’re after, the best ski resort in Europe or you want to ski under the radar, read on for my piste picks.

And coming soon, look out for my review of Stockholm’s city slope Hammarbybacken, where I’ll be on Saturday.

Ischgl, Austria

Skiers heading out on the Smuggler's Run from Ischgl to Samnaun in Switzerland
A mountain in Ischgl

Catch this Austrian resort on a blue sky day and nothing beats it. Ischgl is pretty damn big, with 238km of pistes, 45 cable cars and, right now, up to 170cm of snow. It’s perfect for all levels with an excellent Ski School.

Smuggler’s Run down to Samnaun in Switzerland is loads of fun with glorious scenery all the way as you cross between the countries. It was called the Duty Free Run back when I skied it as you can bring a rucksack and stock up on cheaper alcohol and gifts in the Swiss shops six days a week.

Tempted? A week’s lift pass will cost you €278.50 and BA, easyJet and Thomas Cook fly from London to Innsbruck, from £90 return.

Hlíðarfjall Akureyri, Iceland

Dusky hues in the distance on a piste at Hlíðarfjall Akureyri ski resort
Dusk on the chair lift at Hlíðarfjall ski resort

Ski with 360° Icelandic snow views, marked only by Akureyri, the country’s second city. There are 24 ski trails, all easily toured on a day trip and the resort is at its best in the evening as snow and sky alike turn all shades of blue.

Easily the best snack wherever you are in Iceland, refuel with hot dogs to keep you going at this neat little resort.

Tempted? A day pass is 4,900 ISK (about £34) and the resort is easily reachable by car or bus from Akureyri city centre, and the drive from Reykjavik is long but stunning. Short of time? Return flights from Reykjavik start at £158.

Méribel, French Alps

On a chair lift at the Méribel ski resort in the Tarentaise Valley of the French Alps
© Annabelle Dawson

Prices are high but it’s worth it for those wooden chalets as far as the eye can see at this French Alps resort. 3 Vallées is the biggest ski resort in the world, with over 600km of pistes and 166 lifts. Méribel turns 80 this year, so expect events and activities throughout 2018.

In true Alpine style one of the activities you can try out is a ride in a TéléFondue©, a gondola fully equipped to serve fondue. Only in France!

Tempted? A Méribel-only lift pass is €282 for seven days, so you’d be mad not to go for the 3 Vallées six day €300 pass. You can reach Méribel via Lyon or Geneva, by plane or Eurostar. Flights from £40 return and Eurostar from £45 one way.

Piani di Bobbio, Italy

Piani di Bobbio at the end of the 2017 ski season
Piani di Bobbio piste at the end of the 2017 ski season

Who says you can’t combine a busy city break with some skiing on the side? Piani di Bobbio is an hour outside of Milan and looks out to the jagged belt of rock that is the Lake Como mountains.

Small but perfectly formed, the resort has 17 slopes covering 35km. The resort attracts a healthy number of snowboarders and you can also try your feet at Nordic skiing and snowshoeing.

Tempted? A day pass costs €27 (or €35 during holidays) and the best way to reach the resort is by car from Milan. Flights to Milan from London are frequent, from £40.

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Look out: Lumiere London

LAMPOUNETTE web ready

Newsflash: Lumiere London is back. And whether you know much about it or not, if you so much as stray into King’s Cross, Piccadilly, Southbank or Mayfair, you’re bound to trip into some lights fantastic.

2018’s Lumiere London is bigger, brighter and brasher (light up candy floss, anyone?) than previous years, and it remains one of the best free activities you can enjoy all year.

It’s also only on until Sunday 21st January so you’ll need to be snappy if you want in. All those electricity bills I expect.

Tempted? Download the Visit London app to plan your route and don’t forget to wrap up warm, it’s cold work enjoying good art.

Scroll for my pick of some of the loveliest Lumiere has to offer:

Frogs, part of NIGHTLIFE by Lantern Company with Jo Pocock
A hare, part of NIGHTLIFE by Lantern Company with Jo Pocock
Nightlife by Lantern with Jo Pocock. A menagerie of lit up animals in Leicester Square was always going to be incredibly popular, so bang goes the aim of this ‘secret garden’ to be a space for ‘quiet reflection’. It’s lovely though, and who doesn’t love lovely?
AETHER by the Architecture Social Club
AETHER by the Architecture Social Club. The forecourt of the huge Waitrose in King’s Cross has never seen so much action. A beautiful soundscape accompanies the installation. Elbow your way into the centre for the best view.
The Light of the Spirit (Chapter 2) detail by Patrice Warrener
The Light of the Spirit (Chapter 2) by Patrice Warrener
The Light of the Spirit (Chapter 2) by Patrice Warrener. Back at Westminster Abbey after two years and bigger and brighter than ever, the colourful imagination of digital artist Warrener has been let loose on the Great West Gate. A must see.
LAMPOUNETTE by TILT
LAMPOUNETTE by TILT. If, like me, you once bought a Tiny Tim Booklight so you could feel like a giant next to it, well now you get to feel like a Borrower in King’s Cross! Head to King’s Boulevard for your time to shine.
Harmonic Portal by Chris Plant at St James's Church
Harmonic Portal by Chris Plant. St James’s Church is usually viewed from just one angle, Piccadilly street. Plant’s work takes you to the walls of the churchyard on Jermyn Street.
DOT by Philippe Morvan in King's Cross
DOT by Philippe Morvan. Warm. Pulsing. Dotty. Streams of light set to a surprisingly spine-tingly soundtrack composed especially for Lumiere by composers Solomon Grey.
Love Motion by Rhys Coren at the Royal Academy
Love Motion by Rhys Coren. As if you needed an excuse to have a gander round the Royal Academy courtyard. A delightful animated film played on on the façade of Burlington House.
Child Hood (lion close) by Collectif Coin in Trafalgar Square
Child Hood by Collectif Coin. The best way to end your Lumiere tour. The sight of Trafalgar Square packed with luminous balloons, lit up at intervals to a throb of sounds.
Child Hood by Collectif Coin in Trafalgar Square
Child Hood by Collectif Coin, re-imagined as an abstract landscape by me.
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New in London: the Bloomberg SPACE

Another View from Nowhen by Isabel Nolan at the Bloomberg SPACE

It opened back in November so if you’re eagle eyed you’ll have beaten me to it but I visited London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE last weekend and I left seriously impressed. When even the loos are remarkable, you know you’re onto something.

Part contemporary art space and part reconstructed Roman temple, there’s a lot more to this place than appears on entering, starting with the beautifully displayed excavated Roman artefacts that you can explore via tablets (of the Samsung, not ancient, variety).

Walking literally down through history, you’ll hear the soothing sounds of Joanna Lumley introducing experts as you wait for the transfixing experience of the temple’s big reveal – the details of which I won’t spoil!

The 2,000 year old Roman temple was dedicated to the god Mithras who had a mysterious cult following and archaeologists uncovered it in the 1950s.

It was moved off site, but with the building and recent reopening of Bloomberg’s European headquarters on Walbrook street (the world’s most sustainable office), the temple has been returned to almost exactly the same space it occupied in the 3rd century AD.

It’s absolutely wonderful. And, guess what, it’s free! Make sure you book your tickets before everyone gets the memo.

Excavation finds from the Temple of Mithras
The ruins of the Temple of Mithras on display at the Bloomberg SPACE
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Happy travels!

The globes on display in Stanfords, the world's biggest travel bookshop

The midnight fever of fireworks out of the way for another year, it’s time to focus on forgetting those rubbish resolutions and plan for the important stuff instead – where you’ll be travelling.

What do I have planned?

I’ll be hoping for snow, glorious snow in early February as I visit my brother Stephen in Stockholm, checking out what the local pistes have to offer.

For the rest of the year I’ll be ticking off some big names; I’ll be taking a bite out of the Big Apple when I head to New York in late April early May for nine days, visiting friends.

I’ll spend a June weekend in Vienna, enjoying living locally in a friend’s family apartment.

Later in the year I head out to Hong Kong to meet my brother (fresh from his travels around the Himalayas and China) and together we’ll explore Japan.

Have you experienced New York, Hong Kong or Japan off the beaten track or shared experiences with locals? I’d love to hear from you!

The best way to keep up to date with my travels is to follow this blog and join me on Instagram and Twitter.

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My 2017 travel highlights

Getting ready to head up on a goldola at Piani di Bobbio

Day 365 is nearly over, but before thoughts turn to far flung travel in 2018 I thought I’d look back over some 2017 highlights.

Read on for some of my favourite photos from my travels and top tips if you’re planning your own city break in 2018.

Paris

Inside the Dior show at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Having last walked the streets of Paris eight years ago, I found myself in the city of chic twice this year and I wrote about living like a local in May.

I only made it halfway round the Christian Dior show at Musée des Arts Décoratifs and it remains one of the best shows I’ve seen all year anywhere. Catch it before it closes on 7th January.

Milan

A quiet Piani di Bobbio in April 2017

I have friends who live in Milan which means we do the things the Milanese love to do – like getting out of the city!

In the same Alpine valley that produces Bresaola air-dried beef, haul yourself and your skis up to the Piani di Bobbio, a small resort an hour outside Milan by car and perfect for a day trip.

You’ll find more tips in my blog post from April.

Porto

Looking up at the houses in the narrow back streets of Porto

Porto is a city best viewed on foot so get lost in its back streets, and don’t forget to look up!

I walked my socks off round the compact city back in May, read my recommendations for 72 hours in Porto.

Venice

Sunset over Venice from the island of San Michele

Venice was a big highlight of the year for me. We dodged tourists, jumped on water buses whenever we could and explored the canals in the midnight mist; we glided out to islands in the lagoon at sunset, found food worthy of both carnivores and herbivores and, naturally, sampled the odd cocktail or two (forget negronis, ask for ‘uno spritz’).

For the absolute best breakfast ritual (and the best crockery in town), head to Pasticceria Tonolo. Long and narrow, you might have to scuffle to find space, but it’ll have been worth it when you sink your teeth into any of their pastries.

Copenhagen

Inside the Louisiana Museum

Getting cosy with culture was easy in Copenhagen and I recently wrote about my top five art experiences in the Danish capital. A must-see if you have the time, travel 29 miles north of Copenhagen for the modern art gallery on a cliff edge, the Louisiana.

Once you’ve got a fill of great art, head back into the city centre to Hallernes in Nørreport for fully loaded Smørrebrød.

Stockholm

Cycling on Svartsö in the archipelago

I’ll be heading out to my favourite Scandinavian capital in February for some ski action and I was there last in spring, a lovely season for getting out to the archipelago islands.

Enjoy a leisurely cycle across the lengths of Utö and Ålö or challenge yourself and your bike on the rugged tracks of Svartsö.

Read more about getting out and about in Stockholm in my blog post from April.

Dublin

Inside the Guinness Storehouse cinema

It may not be so sunny in Dublin at this time of year but that doesn’t matter, Guinness doesn’t need it!

From the Bompas & Parr-designed tasting rooms and rooftop bar to the surround sound cinema and colourful brand gallery, the Guinness Storehouse doesn’t put a pint-sized foot wrong. Oh, and the stout isn’t bad either.

Sláinte and happy new year!

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An art lover’s guide to Copenhagen

A sculpture by François Rude in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket

Copenhagen, the achingly cool capital of Denmark. Home of cycling, great design, hygge and, as I recently found out, full of wonderful art.

Whether you like yours ancient or modern, Copenhagen knows how to house it, leaving even the least interested spectator impressed. If art is all about experiences, these are my pick of the top five you should have.

A sculpture of Jason and his golden fleece inside the Thorvaldsens Museum

Thorvaldsen’s Museum

A must-do for fans of classical sculpture that also happens to be non-stop Instagrammable. You may not have heard of him but Thorvaldsen’s sculptures adorn many major cities across Europe.

Look out for Jason (above), the Alexander frieze, Ganymede with Zeus’s eagle and endless colourful corridors of rooms – making for a marvellous treat of a museum. (2 Bertel Thorvaldsens Plads. Adult 70 DKK, about £8, or free on Wednesdays. Closed Mondays).

Photoraphy on the walls of the glass-lined corridors of the Louisiana Museum north of Copenhagen, Denmark

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

This international art gallery makes for a great day trip by train along a scenic route that also takes you to Kronborg castle, of Hamlet fame. The gallery is set in lush sculpture-speckled gardens looking out to sea and a series of wood and glass corridors bring the outdoors in, the indoors out.

Big names including Ernst, Hockney and Giacometti form their rotating permanent collection on display alongside enviable blockbusters, most recently 100 works by Marina Abramović. (Follow signs from Humlebæk station. Adult 125 DKK, about £15. Closed Mondays)

The stairs inside The David Collection museum in Copenhagen, Denmark

The David Collection

A labyrinth of beautiful interiors full of art amassed by one man, lawyer C. L. David. It’s no surprise that the gallery is free entry; as well as leaving one of the world’s most important collections of Islamic art behind, David also left a huge fortune on his death in 1960.

Over 12 centuries of Islamic art means you would need to devote most of a day to examining it all, so look out for special exhibitions and temporary photographic displays to pick out highlights. (30-32 Kronprinsessegade. Free admission. Closed Mondays).

Inside the botanical gardens of the atrium in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket, Copenhagen, Denmark

Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket

A museum owned by Carlsberg is probably going to be the best in the world, right? Well, not quite, but its grand botanical garden of an atrium and collection of 19th Century French art, housed in a modern wing, make it worthwhile for any art fan. Save and go when it’s free entry on Tuesdays.

On now, head to the Café for Danish artist HuskMitNavn’s cartoon take on people just like you. (Dantes Plads 7. Adult 95 DKK, about £11 or free on Tuesdays. Closed Mondays).

A painting in the SMK permanent collection in Copenhagen, Denmark

National Gallery of Denmark (SMK)

Growing up as I did with London’s National Gallery on my doorstep, other European cities have a hard act to follow. But I fell in love with SMK’s sensational French art gallery and their temporary exhibition programme is a refreshing mix of blockbuster shows and homegrown talent.

On until 7 January, Family Stories from Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing. (Sølvgade 48-50. Adult 110 DKK, about £13 or save on entry to five museums with a Parkmuseerne card. Closed Mondays).

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Adventure in Iceland: following the lights

Map of Iceland showing the route taken from Reykjavik to a farmhouse near Akureyri in northern Iceland

‘How long do your hands have to be this cold, before you get frostbite and they fall off?’

Night had fallen on a glacial February day, 493km into our journey north from Reykjavik by car. 1km to go and we were tantalisingly close to our X on the map, our remote Airbnb farmhouse in Öxnadalur, northern Iceland. But our tiny Suzuki Jimny 4×4 (world’s smallest 4×4, surely?) could take us no further.

Alone against a backdrop of darkness. Going uphill. In a snow drift. On foot. Hands so cold I thought I might need to ‘do a Ranulph Fiennes‘. But we’d found our adventure in Iceland and it was time to follow the lights.

1. A journey begunThe tiny town of Varmahlíð, western IcelandWe said goodbye to Reykjavik that morning, disappointed that we’d not seen any sign of Aurora Borealis four nights in to our week long trip. We were confident that we’d have better luck staying outside Iceland’s second largest city, Akureyri.

On a clear day it should have taken us 3.5 hours to travel the 294km to Varmahlíð, above. It took us closer to 5 hours, with no toilet breaks and few snacks. In a 4×4 the size of a large wheelbarrow, we began to experience cabin fever. This little petrol station saved lives that day.

The road past Varmahlíð, western IcelandIt really was what I imagined snow blindness to be like, hours of endless scenes like this.

2. Some luckOn our way up through north western IcelandImagine our elation when we entered into some good luck, and sunshine! Everything looked brighter and more wonderful. Our adventure up north was back on track.

DSCN5555We’d already decided (well, some of us had) that after Varmahlíð we would take the long way round to our farmhouse, via the Siglufjörður peninsula. Drunk on sunshine and photo opportunities, we decided to take a further detour, to see Hólar Cathedral. Hólar was, for 700 years, the capital of the north. Worth the extra mileage but it did cost us precious daylight driving…

3. High up near the ArcticPast Hofsós on a peninsula in northern Iceland, near the Arctic Circle‘Like driving on glass’ was the assessment of road conditions throughout the whole trip, especially true of this completely deserted peninsula route. We followed it past Hofsós (one of the oldest ports in northern Iceland) and Fell, towards our pitstop of Siglufjörður.

Sunset on a peninsula in northern Iceland, near the Arctic CircleMe making the most of the light on a peninsula in northern Iceland, near the Arctic CircleStephen making the most of the light on a peninsula in northern Iceland, near the Arctic CircleA beautifully rosy sunset heralded us as we looked out towards the Arctic Circle, so close we could almost pinch it and the furthest north we’ve ever been. For now.

4. A pitstopTower in the town of SiglufjörðurLeaving the town of SiglufjörðurWe could escape the night no longer. Finally reaching Siglufjörður, we stocked up on the essentials every adventurer and northern lights seeker needs: meatballs, sauce, chips, birthday cake.

We were still 93km away from our X on the map, and by this point running on empty. A routine loo stop on the side of a road became a rescue mission to push our 4×4 out of a snow drift ditch.

5. The last kmThe moon behind our farmhouse near Akureyri in northern Iceland.Our traumatised Suzuki Jimny parked up and luggage weighing heavily on our backs, we began the farmhouse ascent. A pair of inner gloves between me and certain chilblains.

But the moon! Everything was so ethereal and I could just make out faint shapes in the sky behind me, dancing every so often.

At the same time I didn’t have a clue where I was going and got separated from everyone else, clawing my way through a wooded area that we later discovered was way off the main track, so deep was the snow drift.

Our arrival through the snow drift to our farmhouse in northern IcelandAfter lots of clumsy phone torch holding and stabbing in the dark to find the hidden keys for the main door, we’d finally arrived at our farmhouse. Adventure complete.

But, hang on, those dancing shapes…

6. Aurora BorealisNorthern lights show as viewed from the door of our farmhouseNorthern lights from our farmhouse near Akureyri in northern Iceland.The sight of northern lights from our farmhouse near Akureyri in northern Iceland.The magic spectacle of the northern lights as they pranced and shimmered in the sky above us, rippling and darting about in every which way.

It had such a hold over us as we stood shivering in the snow. It was 3am before we could tear ourselves away.

Northern lights behind the mountain range near Akureyri in northern Iceland.Sometimes the lights would swirl over our heads and other times the luminescent colour appeared like huge spotlights from behind the distinctive mountain range ahead.

Common as the sight is in northern Iceland, seeing them in winter is never guaranteed. As some scientific opinion suggests, we may be headed for a ‘Solar Minimum’ in 2019 and the chance of seeing Aurora Borealis could reduce.

7. Was it a dream?DSCN5653 2At dawn, a completely different scene before us and, as we wiped the sleep from our eyes, we worried we may never see a show like that again. Had we actually seen them for real the night before?!

We had, and we would enjoy more shows before we left Iceland.

Catch them while you can!

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Lucky to be last: hiking in the Andes

The view from Rumiñahui volcano with one of our walking guides

Acute mountain sickness isn’t fun. Dominating the peaks of South America was going to be harder than I foresaw. As I stumbled steeply upwards at the back of the pack, our local walking guide Henry an ever-smaller speck in the distance, I asked myself: could I cut it?

We had arrived at the Secret Garden hostel in the Ecuadorian Andes less than 24 hours earlier from the country’s capital Quito, recommended by the friends we were visiting in Ecuador. Unrivalled views of Cotopaxi volcano by day and a tapestry of billions of stars by night. We had found our gateway to adventure within this most sweeping of mountain ranges.

The 4,721ft Rumiñahui volcano was the first of three hikes we would take on in this corner of the Andes. Even with the luxury of time to acclimatise to altitude, it isn’t an easy climb.

Henry’s girlfriend – second in command – did her best to chivvy me along, but my body could go no faster setting than ‘glacial’. As I inched along, frustrated that I wasn’t going to make the peak like everyone else, I turned around and it dawned on me. The view! Everyone else focused on toppling Rumiñahui but my end goal had shifted.

The Andean panorama that surrounded me deserved to be ogled at and ruminated over, its great plains and rocky crags defiant against blue skies and clumps of cloud.

Yes, I was cut out for this.

Pausing for a breather on Rumiñahui volcano
How it felt not to have to climb any higher at altitude. Until Cotopaxi the next day!
Preparing for the descent on Rumiñahui volcano
That view.
Relaxing after the ascent Rumiñahui volcano, before the steep descent
Other backpackers, most had been in South America for months, far more acclimatised than me!
Sliding down Rumiñahui volcano
What comes up must come down. Our reward for climbing so high was to then hurl ourselves wacky races style down near vertical sandy paths.