Thursday, 14 November 2013

CHARMING SHARM - EGYPT'S RED SEA GEM



As the Foreign office gives the all-clear for travel to Egypt, I fled to the lively Red Sea Resort of Sharm El Sheikh for a welcome burst of winter sun.

Best known for its fantastic diving, Sharm has grown up over the last few years into a sophisticated destination with lovely winter tmeperatures and a vast collection of resorts ranging from five-star luxury to small family friendly hotels.

I was staying at The Savoy, one of the area’s top hotels which also owns the Sierra next door and the Royal Savoy, an even more exclusive hotel. It also includes an array of exclusive villas which I was invited to inspect. The Villa  Queen Farida and Cleopatra are fabulous, opulent and spacious houses which you can hire for private use.I understand various international royal and celebrity families have stayed there.

But for me, the Savoy is perfect for now. Travelling with a group of close female friends for a change, we found everything we wanted here, starting with the welcome massage which relaxed us after the flight. Although at five hours, the flying time from London Luton makes this a leisurely ‘medium haul’ holiday.

Once settled, we tackled the serious business of indulgence. The Savoy has 414 rooms, including twin triple and family rooms.  The beach stretches along the beautiful coastline and there are also 3 adults’pools and two for children. This is a fantastic place for families, even though we are without them on this visit.  Theres a Kids Club and playground, plus film shows and discos.

But the Savoy’s crowning glory is Soho Square, the rather unlikely name for the complex which sits in front of the resort. Very unlike its namesake – the rather unassuming little square off London’s Tottenham Court road – this is a glitzy collection of restuarnts (they range from Japanese to Italian, Egyptian to Chinese) activitis which include the rather invongruous ice-skating, bowling and even ‘dancing waiters’ and bars. After a lovely evening spent in the decadent sounding Caligula restaurant in the Savoy (its designed to look like a Roman brothel and serves ‘Hot Rocks’ – meals cooked on piece of sqyare stone at the table) we head to the Ice Bar in the square for frozen vodka in ice glasses served from an ice bar. Cool
And we also found time for camel riding, quad biking, a boat trip with snorkelling and an evening Bedouin feast in the desert.

FACTS:Monarch, the scheduled leisure airline, operates flights to Sharm El Sheikh from London Gatwick, London Luton, Birmingham and Manchester airports with fares, including taxes, starting from £57.27 one way (£176.26 return) (lead fares summer 14)For further information or to book visit www.monarch.co.uk

Packages include bed and breakfast at the Savoy Hotel including  flights from London Gatwick,  leaving on 29 March 2014  are :  For 2 adults £681pp or 2 adults 2 children £793pp

FOOTNOTE:From next year the Savoy will be offering Yoga holidays which will include daily yoga sessions covering both beginners and advanced yoga  More to come!



 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, 1 November 2013

FEEDING HUBBY TO THE SHARKS - A BAHAMIAN ADVENTURE

My husband and three sons all enjoy scuba diving. Sadly the boys were not old enough for the Shark dive in Nassau, so we let Dad be the guinea pig. Here's my report......
 


I say goodbye to my husband of 25 years as he dons his wetsuit and prepares to dive into the ocean to feed sharks. He applies a dab of sun cream to his nose  “Mayonnaise for sharks,” I think.

The setting for the experience is Stuart Cove’s in Nassau, the Bahamian capital.  Just down the coast is the worryingly named Jaws Beach.
 Stuart Cove, it turns out,  is a person, not a place, and his claim to fame (apart from sending humans to the sharks on a daily basis) is that he taught Sean Connery to dive. Ladies’ pulses went racing during  the opening sequence of Goldfinger where 007 appears wearing a fake duck on his head and  unzips his wet suit to reveal perfectly styled hair and a white tuxedo, but  I find myself dwelling on Sir Sean’s  heart-stopping confrontation with Larco’s killer sharks in Thunderball

The sharks  waiting for lunch at Stuart Cove today are not  the killer variety but Caribbean Reef Sharks (although Bahamian waters lie in The Atlantic Ocean) Kate, the jolly guide, gives a short talk to the divers, describing the display sharks make in anticipation of their meal. “Sharks are excited by the sight of blood,” she tells us, and demonstrates how she will be waving some bloody fish around to get them to perform For her meeting with these Draculas of the deep she is wearing a strange outfit of chain mail over her wetsuit to protect herself.  Looking like some underwater Sir Lancelot she instructs the divers that they must group in a circle on the ocean floor with their heads bowed, as if taking part in some pagan ritual. They must keep their arms by the side all the time and, she stresses (unnecessarily, I feel) “Don’t chase the sharks”

The female sharks are strapping girls, weighing in at 400-500 pounds and 8 to 10 feet long.

The males, she adds, are about 6 foot and have two penises

 

Husband surfaces some time later in one piece, but looking slightly inadequate after an afternoon spent with the well-endowed boy sharks.

He describes some 40 or so sharks swooping around him, brushing against his arm and leering at him with their macabre bared-teeth grin. At the bottom of the sea was a rusting abandoned cage, the owner of which one hopes has lived to dive another day

 

We hail a taxi to drive us back to downtown Nassau. The driver enquiries how we have spent our afternoon and the steering wheel shudders when we tell him. “Shark and DIVE” he enunciates slowly. “Thems two words I don’t care to hear in the same sentence”
 
I originally wrote this piece for REAL TRAVEL magazine  

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

STRICTLY AWFUL - MY CARIBBEAN SALSA CLASS




With Strictly Come dancing back on TV, I was reminded of a wonderful Caribbean experience in Puerto Rico's old San Juan


LEARNING  TO SALSA IN OLD SAN JUAN
‘If you can walk you can dance,’ said Raffi the salsa instructor although he looked sceptical as our group shuffled in. Raffi teaches salsa   to’ anyone and everyone’ from judges and accountants to students, tourists, locals and visitors alike, and he claims it can change lives. The power of the dance can, he says, turn the friendless into party animals and the lonely into Red hot lovers. An eco-lawyer by day, he has taught hundreds of people to salsa, and our group was his latest challenge.

 
Although the debate still rages as to who invented the salsa, the Cubans or the New York Puerto Ricans, (Nuyoricans)there’s no getting away from it in the streets of Old San Juan,  Puerto Rico, and with the beat pulsating from every doorway, its impossible to keep your feet from tapping.

 Our first salsa session took place upstairs at old San Juan’s Noyorican café which is tucked in an alleyway of San Francisco Street. Many a famous face has  shaken a leg here , including the Rolling Stones who apparently inisted on coming here to experience the laid back atmosphere, the great music and, of course, the dancing.
For those who are beginners to the world of dance, Salsa is  said to be one of the more accessible forms of partner dance  and is the salsa dance is, in essence, no more than a step forward and a step back, with a rock in between.  Raffi mades it look effortless as he spun his lithe partner around the room.

After this mesmerising demonstration, Raffi started to put us through our paces. The dance is done with three weight changes (or steps) in each four-beat measure. The beat on which one does not step might contain a tap or kick,.. One of the steps is called a "break," which involves a change in direction. When we reach this point,
Raffi shouted ‘prepare’ as a cue for us to be ready for the turn. Desperately trying to mimic his smooth moves and effortless twirls, we lurched gracelessly around the room. But Raffi allows us some false moves and, taking each of us in turn, passes on a little of his stylish kno-how. By the end of our lesson, we can execute a passable salsa.

 It hadn’t changed our life, but we left with slightly more rhythm than we arrived with and headed downstairs to see how it really should be done. In the Nuyorican, dozens of gyrating bodies were hitting the floor at the famous café, The live music is infectious and the salsa party continues well into the small hours.
If you can walk you can dance, claims Raffi. But after an evening of salsa dancing  at The Nuyorican, you cant necessarily walk that well. We stumbled home to bed and dreamt in Latino.

 

We were experiencing a taster session, but to learn to salsa in style Raffi’s classes come in  a series of 10 sessions which typically last 1 hour 45 minutes.

 

Nuyorican Café

312 San Francisco

San Juan

Puerto Rico

Phone

787-977-1276

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

LORD LICHFIELD'S CARIBBEAN - ON SHOW IN LONDON


An exhibition of fabulous photographs taken by royal photographer and friend of the Caribbean the late Patrick Lichfield, is on show in London.

 The son of Viscount Anson and Princess Anne of Denmark, Patrick Lichfield - the 5th Earl of Lichfield - was the Queen's first cousin once removed.  He had a lifelong love affair with the Caribbean, and travelled around the islands snapping glamorous people and stunning vistas until his death in 2005 at the age of 66.  

 

He was devoted to his Mustique home, Obsidian. a typical ‘gingerbread house’ built in charming Caribbean style after the designs of Oliver Messel. With beautiful whitewashed wooden walls decorated with turtle shells, a stunning view of the sea, the sprawling six bedroom house had pretty tiers of lower bedrooms, terraces, orchards and two cottages tumbling down the hillside.
When not staying there himself with his three children or friends, he would rent the house out to the likes of Hugh Grant and Pierce Brosnan.
The photographs on show at The Little Black Gallery in Chelsea, London is the first exhibition of his Caribbean images and represent all genres of his photography; landscape, portraiture, fashion and nudes.  Some of the pictures have never been seen before. They reflect the passion he felt for the islands and show some of the people and places that made the Caribbean his spiritual home

 
Patrick Lichfield's Caribbean is at The Little Black Gallery, 13A Park Walk, London SW10 0AJ from 29 October - 7 December. www.thelittleblackgallery.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, 25 October 2013

FOOD TOURISM - DO WE TRAVEL TO EAT?


 
New research has shown that food tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors for the discerning traveller.Enjoying local food and drink is becoming one of the dominant ways that Brits interact with a local culture,  according to a survey by Caxton FX. While 14% of people said that they spend most of their budget for a holiday experiencing tourist attractions and going on day trips, a staggering 53% said that eating out in local restaurants was an essential part of experiencing the local nuances while abroad.

Top tourist destinations tend to have unique gastronomy that is rooted to their origins, and this research proves that Brits are some of the most experimental and gastronomically curious of all Europeans, putting food as a consistent factor that contributes to a good holiday.
This should be good news for anyone heading to a winter sun holiday in Barbados this November.World renowned chefs including Marcus Samuelsson, Jose Garces and Anne Burrell are set to return to the Caribbean island for the fourth annual Barbados Food & Wine and Rum Festival, 22 – 25 November 2013.
Marcus Samuelsson - the man who made Ethiopian food sexy - is one of my favourite chefs. His Red Rooster restaurant in New York's Harlem is regularly packed out and is one of the few places which manages to combine African, European and American cuisine

MOTHERS RUIN REVISITED - MORE GIN HITS THE CAPITAL


 

In 1751, artist William Hogarth published his satirical print ‘Gin Lane’, which depicted disturbing scenes including a gin-crazed mother, covered in syphilitic sores, unwittingly dropping her baby to its death down some cellar stairs. From such gin sodden debauchery to the glamorous Martini bars of ritzy hotels, London has been the spiritual home of gin for centuries and the affair continues with a new generation of brands and drinking establishments throughout the capital In the last decade or so enthusiasm for interesting gins has grown, and with it, the number of small distillers such as  Portobello Road, a small outfit boasting its own 'Ginstitute', a tiny room above the Portobello Star dedicated to the history and scientific understanding of gin.

Mini gin distillery Sispsmith in Hammersmith has open days  and tasting evenings, although I hear they are currently booked through into the new year

And last night I met another gin - Butlers’s Gin a new, British, artisan spirit produced in Hackney Wick, East London. A smooth yet refreshing fusion of juniper, lemongrass, cardamom and citrus notes, Butler’s Gin has a light, crisp character which is set to become the drink of choice for the cognoscenti, bringing something extraordinary to every occasion.

Ross William Butler is The Butler. A designer, brand developer and lifelong gin obsessive, Ross spends much of his time on his speedboat Fletcher, enjoying the waterways of South-east England.  It was on Fletcher, whilst moored in London's Docklands one summer, that The Butler developed his first batch of gin.  This small personal venture swiftly grew as friends and acquaintances tasted its delectable aroma.

Originally inspired by a Victorian recipe, the gin is placed in a 20-litre glass jar with infusion bags containing fresh lemongrass, cardamom, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, fennel, lemon and lime. After infusing for 18 hours it is hand-bottled.  

Ross was handing out the gin at the delightful Hackney Heart, a lovely pop-up shop . gallery and creative space on hackneys Mare Street.

 Originally intended as a medicine, gin became suddenly affordable in Britain due to changes in the duty levied following the accession of William of Orange to the throne. French brandy prices went through the roof, a great many small-scale gin distilleries were established across London and by the early years of the 18th century what had become known as the Gin Craze was truly out of hand. In the first third of the 19th century, advancements in distillation eventually allowed for the mass-production of pure spirits using "continuous" stills. These spirits were then re-distilled to make "London dry gin", the defining stipulations for which are still in force today: it must contain no added sugar, be flavoured primarily with juniper and a minimum of 37.5% alcohol by volume.

With the discovery that quinine was effective against malaria the colonial officer class began to drink the new "tonic water" enlivened with gin. Now enjoyed in fashionable circles, the rehabilitation of mothers' ruin was complete, with the added bonus that the antimalarial tonic water actually worked.

The perception of a link between gin and glamorous living received another fillip in the jazz age. The drinking of cocktails and the culture around them grew and flourished even during American prohibition, and President Roosevelt's first act upon signing the paperwork which repealed the alcohol ban was to mix a martini, using plenty of gin, vermouth and olive brine. The growing popularity of gin cocktails provided the distillers with another challenge: the fruity juniper and citrussy coriander seed flavours which work so well with tonic water are not always ideal in a cocktail

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

MINOR DILEMMAS - TRAVELS WITH MY SONS



 


I am walking down Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, followed by three youths wearing hoodies. They are right behind me, muttering and swearing. They are breathing down my neck. I can smell their sweat.

They are my sons.

 

 

This is our last Big Family Holiday. The Boys are aged 20, 18 and 16. So before they flew the nest, we flew them to California, where under 21s are not allowed to drink alcohol. The challenge was to find out if all the family could enjoy themselves in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas while respecting the local laws regarding minors. Would the boys be too old for Micky Mouse, too young for Caesar’s Palace?

 

Luckily many attractions in California reduce even mature adults to the level of children. By the time we reached The Simpsons’ Ride at Universal Studios, Los Angeles, we had practically turned into Homer, Marge and co.

 

In San Francisco, the hippy trail on Haight Ashbury was strangely intriguing to a generation conceived 20 years after The Summer of Love, but the boys’ favourite stop was at the sobering island penitentiary Alcatraz. We escaped The Rock for milk shakes on Pier 39.

 

Leaving California behind, we drove through the Mojave Desert to Las Vegas, stopping en route at Calico, developed in 1881 during the largest silver strike in California. Now a ghost town, it is a quaint and rickety taste of the old Wild West where grown men and big kids alike can play at cowboys.

 

Las Vegas is where Peaches Geldof married ,aged 19. ‘There probably wasn’t anything else to do’ empathised my sons.  Although bouncers kept them away from the gaming machines and the bars, star struck teenagers found the buzz and bling of Vegas addictive enough on its own.

Flying home across the Grand Canyon, we agreed that although alcohol-wise this region  is as dry as the desert for the under 21s, we all got a kick out of California and Las Vegas.

 

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Cooking with Omega at True Blue Bay, Grenada

One of the great things about visiting the Caribbean is the opportuntity to taste and enjoy the many flavours of the islands. The freshness of the produce such as locally caught fish and the tropical colours of the fruits add a dimension to the trip that  enhances the experience. So, Ive enjoyed conch in The Bahamas, jerk chicken in Jamaica and sampled souse in St Kitts. But for spices, its got to be Grenada. Its not called the Spice isle for nothing. here we find nutmeg, cinnamon, mace and very conceivable pepper, each with their own distinctive taste. On a recent visit i stayed at True Blue Bay resort in the south of Grenada where among other things, I enjoyed a  cookery session with the chef Omega who taught us how to make delicacies such as plantain baked in orange ginger and fish and callaloo fritters.  Omega, pictured here, was thorough and entertaining teacher and the proof of the dishes was certainly in the eating, which we did with gusto!
The hotel is decorated in vibrant tropical colours and there is even a Nutmeg Colada on the cocktail menu

Saturday, 20 April 2013

ON THE MARLEY TRAIL

JAMAICA - ON THE MARLEY TRAIL

A trip to Jamaica to see two of  reggae icon Bob Marley’s homes and his final resting place took us to  through the  colourful capital of Kingston , the lively beach resort of Ocho Rios and the fabulous countryside inbetween.
To follow reggae legend Bob Marley from cradle to grave takes about 2 minutes, stepping from the house where he lived as a child to the mausoleum where he is laid to rest in St Ann, in the north of Jamaica. We chose to start the reggae trail in Kingston and then took in Jamaica’s lush interior en route to Ocho Rios, but the highlight of the trip was the music.
Everybody on the five-hour Zion Bus tour taking us from Ocho Rios to the Bob Marley Mausoleum, Nine Mile., was singing. The tour includes lashings of rum punch and videos of Bob’s concerts, which made it impossible not to join in. The village of Nine Mile in the rural parish of St Ann is where Bob Marley was born and where he is buried, along with his half brother. His body is encased in a large square tomb covered by a simple cloth.
The site is treated with great reverence and loyal fans come from all over the world to lay tributes to Jamaica’s most famous son. A stream of fast-talking Rastafarian guides, most of them claiming to be close family friends, gave us endless detail about Bob’s life,. They say sometimes Bob’s mum, Nessa, will pop out to say hello but she wasn’t around the day we went.
Bob’s final resting place is twice the size of the house he occupied when young, which is next door.  The small house is painted beige with streaks of red, yellow, and green. - The colours of the Rastafari.
We had started our journey 80 miles south in Kingston, where even Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were photographed playing the bongos outside the Bob Marley Museum, during their whirlwind tour of the Caribbean . Their Royal Highnesses joined Bob’s widow Rita Marley at a mini concert staged in the grounds and they are said to be keen reggae fans. The museum is housed in Bob Marley’s old house and recording studio on Hope Road.
Kingston is not always top of the list for visitors to Jamaica but is well worth a visit before embarking on the journey to the big beach resorts of the north. We found it perfectly safe to wander around the historic centre, crammed with 17th-century buildings; see some Jamaican art at the National Gallery and some tropical blooms at the Royal Botanic Gardens.
A couple of doors from Bob Marley’s museum is Devon House, which was built in the late 19th century by George Stiebel, Jamaica's first black millionaire. It has some pleasant restaurants off the courtyard garden, but we settled for a couple of patties on the lawn.
Before heading north to the beaches, from Kingston we took a ride out into the dramatic Blue Mountains which form the backbone of the island. There I came across the Twyfords; a British couple who 30 years ago made a home perched in the mountains and grow their own coffee using traditional methods.
The interior of Jamaica is also a heaven for bird watchers, and houses a number of fabulous eco-lodges and rainforest tours. Lime Tree Farm in the Blue Mountains is a quiet retreat, about an hour and a half's drive from Kingston, where you can taste great home-style Jamaican food such as traditional breakfasts of breadfruit and fresh ackee - spicy callaloo soup, fried fresh fish
Three thousand feet above sea level, the Blue Mountains are popular with artists and birdwatchers that come to see hummingbirds or the rarely spotted Jamaican lizard cuckoo
We stopped for lunch at Strawberry Hill, owned by Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records and credited with bringing Marley’s music to the masses.
Blackwell’s Island Outpost operates a number of high-end resorts in Jamaica which include Strawberry Hill and Goldeneye, the previous home of Ian Fleming where all the James Bond books were written, is among the most exclusive of these resorts.
The famous James Bond beach can be found at Orcabessa, just 20 minutes from the hustle and bustle of Ocho Rios. When we eventually arrived in ‘Ochy’ as it is affectionately known, we found Orcabessa and took a guided waverunner tour which passed Goldeneye, as well as a number of other impressive residences of the rich and famous. Bob Marley, who died aged 36, never lived to see such luxury, but James Bond Beach is also home to many international and local concerts, including the Bob Marley Tribute, which takes place throughout the year.
Away from the Bond girls and the many all inclusive beach resorts that dominate the coastline, Jamaica, which is the 2nd largest island in the Caribbean, has a huge personality. Despite is lively reputation; it is one of the safest destinations in the Caribbean. Jamaicans are the Liverpudlians of the Caribbean, they love nothing more than wise–cracking, and although reggae is taken very seriously here, most other things aren’t.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

ROCK STARS - CARIBBEAN PETROGLYPHS

  Long before the planes, the cruise ships and the tourists ever came to the Caribbean; long before the region was settled by the British, or even discovered by Christopher Columbus, there was a civilisation on the Caribbean islands, then inhabited by native Arawak Indians that through their rock art can still be appreciated today.

Caribs, Arawak, Siboney. Kalinago - these early inhabitants lived on the Caribbean islands from around the time of Christ to 1650 AD (approx).
Although little remains of their ancient culture, they left their mark in a range of fascinating stone carvings (petroglyphs) which still exist on many islands including Anguilla, St Vincent, St Kitts, Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe  and Grenada. These mysterious drawings provide an insight into the early people of the islands and their beliefs, and are currently being studied by archaeologists from all over the world

But you don’t need to be an archaeologist to appreciate these carvings. As well as giving us a glimpse of the past, the petroglyphs are all visible in beautiful locations dotted around the islands
ST KITTS
As you approach the entrance to the Wingfield Manor Estate, you will find fascinating Carib Petroglyphs. These drawings show two of the original carvings drawn by the Caribs, perhaps depicting images of their Zemi or gods.

Anguilla
   Based on archaeological research we now know that, in common with many other                Caribbean islands, Anguilla was first occupied by indigenous peoples as early as 1500 B.C. At least two of the sites identified thus far in Anguilla can be attributed to this era, referred to by archaeologists as the "Preceramic" or "Archaic" period.
The Fountain on Anguilla is a cave filled with Arawak-carved petroglyphs. Recently, some 40,000 Amerindian artifacts have been uncovered on the island... A few of the local residents are in the process of compiling an inventory of  the remaining undisturbed sites, so tread carefully when checking them out

Where to see them
The cavern is in The Fountain National Park which comprises 14.46 acres of land located in the north east of the island on the western side of Shoal Bay. The Fountain Cavern is a large limestone cavern located on a ridge at about 70ft above sea level

St Vincent
Thomas Huckerby, an archaeological surveyor and British missionary on the islands of St. Vincent and Grenada first revealed the St. Vincent petroglyphs to the outside world in his 1914 American Anthropologist article: Petroglyphs of St. Vincent, British West Indies. There Huckerby commented: “Throughout the West Indies archipelago, there is nothing of greater archaeological importance than the St. Vincent petroglyphs”

Where to see them
North of Kingstown, lofty terrain rises before descending to the water. Here you can see the massive Carib Rock, with a human face carving dating from A.D. 600, but the locals say it looks as if someone painted it yesterday.



Puerto Rico
The Taino or pre-Taino site in southern Puerto Rico provides new information on Indian life in the area before the arrival of Columbus, from sacred rituals to eating habits. Tainos were the first Indians that Columbus met during his voyages, and they migrated from mainland several centuries before he discovered the New World.

The lady carved on the ancient rock is squatting, with frog-like legs sticking out to each side. Her decapitated head is dangling to the right. That's how she had been, perfectly preserved, for up to 800 years, until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came upon her while building a $375 million dam to control flooding in southern Puerto Rico.One interesting petroglyph depicts a human figure with frog legs. The frog appears to have been a figure of fertility to the Taino Indians. The creature was identified with feminine qualities and figures prominently in petroglyphs and pottery designs.  There were also several tombs in which the bodies were located face-down with the legs bent at the knees, a pattern detected for the first time in the area. "The plaza may contain other artefacts dating from 600 A.D. to 1500 A.D., including piles of refuse from daily life," said Rivera.

Where to see them
The ancient petroglyph of the woman was found on a five-acre site in Jácana, a spot along the Portugues River in the city of Ponce, on Puerto Rico's southern coast. Among the largest and most significant site ever unearthed in the Caribbean, archaeologists said,  it includes plazas used for ceremony or sport, a burial ground, residences and a ‘midden mound’  - a pile of ritual trash.


Some of the Taíno words were borrowed by the Spanish and subsequently by the English languages, and are modern day reminders of this vigorous race of people. These words include barbacoa (barbecue), cacique (chief), canoa (canoe), and huracán (hurricane).

Grenada
Pearls, on Grenada's Eastern Coast has been described as 'the most important archaeological site in the Caribbean’. This area was a major stopping point for the Kalinago nation as they travelled northward from the Orinoco River basin in South America.

The Kalinago were drawn to Pearls by its rich soil, fishing, and natural resources. Their religion was based on the seasons and their cyclical patterns. The dry season was considered the men's domain, because their skills of hunting and gathering were in demand at this time. This was represented in pottery and other art by the bat, a creature which was more prevalent during the dry months Conversely, the wet season was regarded as 'feminine' in nature, a fertile time for growing crops and maintaining stability.
Other symbols commonly used by the Kalinago included owls (representing the underworld) manatees (once inhabitants of Grenada's bays and inlets), simple face designs, suns, moons, and cosmological figures.

Where to see them
The Pearls site is located on the windward eastern coast on rich agricultural land along the north side of the Simon River. The site is about one-quarter mile inland from the Atlantic Ocean



Work on all these sites continues as historians discover more and more of the rich history of the region. What do they mean? Whether a form of ancestor worship, or simple boundary markings, they are certainly not to be regarded as mere curiosities. In some locations they represent the only intellectual remains of the ancient inhabitants.
While visitors are encouraged to appreciate the carvings close up, measures are also in place to protect the petroglyphs, so when taking a rock tour of the islands, respect the work of these people who lived here long ago and contributed to the unique heritage we can appreciate today.


Tuesday, 12 March 2013

WHEN HORRY MET FANNY - Nelson's Nevis

A silk cotton tree stands at Montpelier Plantation on the Caribbean island of Nevis marking the spot where a young Admiral Horatio Nelsonmarried local beauty and widow Fanny Nisbet
They were married  in 1787. A copy of the marriage certificate is on display at the Saint John Figtree Parish Anglican Church and the cotton tree still stands on Montpelier Plantation, from where it is a short trip to Saddle Hill Fortress, Nelson’s lookout point for spying on enemy ships
Nuestra Senora de las nieves (Our Lady of the snows), was the name given by Columbus to the tiny island of Nevis as he thought the cloud covered peak looked like snow. One of the wealthiest and most prized of the colonies along with its sister island St Kitts, Nevis grew wealthy and became a model for the plantation system based on sugar production and slavery
As well as the fascinating Nevis Heritage Trail, which gives an insight into the cultures and historical influence to be found here, the tiny island of Nevis has all the sights and experiences that one expects from a Caribbean destination, but without the crowds who flock to more sophisticated tourist offerings. Beautiful beaches, hiking trails, water sports and golf are all here.  You will spot the cheeky Green Vervet monkey as you travel around the island, as well as colourful hummingbirds, lizards and mongoose.  In addition to some fine dining restaurants at establishments such as the Four Seasons there  is also a lively vibe and great food at beach bars such as Sunshine’s,  Chevy’s, and Double Deuce at the pretty Pinneys Beach. Try local dishes such as chicken and ribs, or freshly caught fish such as snapper and mahi mahi, washed down with cold beer and the sounds of live calypso
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Plantations
Scattered across the countryside, the stately ruins of old sugar plantations rise from amongst the cane fields, a physical reminder of days gone by when St. Kitts and Nevis was renowned for sugar production.  Many of these elegant plantation houses and their sugar mills have been converted into charming boutique inns, where guests can enjoy serenity and relaxation while sipping a cool cocktail – preferably rum based. Nevis is certainly not the place to come for high rise hotel chains and all-inclusives.

Nevis has a number of such  inns including Montpelier plantation, a Relais & Chateaux property and Nisbet Plantation, an historic plantation house situated right on the beach .


Wednesday, 20 February 2013

AT HOME ON DOMINICA - HOMESTAYS AND LUXURY STAYS




Dominica’s Waitukubuli National Trail is the first and only long distance hiking trail in the Caribbean traversing the entire island. I am here to walk the walk , or at least some if it, and I am braving the rain in the rainforest to do so.
In a region saturated by tourism, Dominica remains one of the hidden gems of the Caribbean. It is dubbed the “Nature Island” due to its abundance of natural splendours: 365 rivers, the second largest boiling lake in the world, a lush rainforest, volcanoes, mountains, waterfalls, hot springs, and black and white sand beaches. Much of the island is protected under national parks, one of which has been given UNESCO World Heritage status. Dominica is a paradise for divers, birdwatchers, nature-lovers  and hikers.

Named after the indigenous name for Dominica (meaning “tall is her body”), the Waitukubuli trail runs for 115 miles from the south to the north of the island and is divided into 14 sections. Hikers are able to complete one section per day so in theory it will take two weeks to cover the entire trail. It traverses forest reserves, national parks, old slave routes, ruins of plantations that once processed sugar, coffee and limes, small farms and country villages.
 With  tropical raindrops falling on my head, I’m completing section 10 and 11, Colihaut to Syndicate, which finish in a refreshing and fragrant walk through a banana plantation. The trail is the brainchild of Bernard Wiltshire, a passionate Dominican environmentalist who persuaded the British Development Division to fund studies the trail. He claims to have been inspired by walks across the Pennine Way when he was in the UK, although it is hard to see any similarities. Even the rain smells different.

As a reward to my tired legs,  I am spending the night at Secret Bay, a boutique eco-luxury development of just four villas and bungalows. The secluded accommodations are nestled within the lush rainforest canopy, surrounded by trees with the Cario River, the Caribbean sea, two swimming beaches and a sea cave below.

Secret Bay’s distinctive villas and bungalows were conceptualised by award-winning Latin American architect Fruto Vivas  to minimize the  impact on the environment and bring the outdoors in. Vivas is the father in law of owner Gregor Nassief who used to visit the eponymous Secret Beach as a child.
The one- and two-bedroom villas feature indoor/outdoor living rooms, bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms, outdoor showers, a private pool or Jacuzzi and an expansive veranda with panoramic ocean views. Secret Bay’s two storey bungalows are luxurious tree houses perched in the canopy with floor-to-ceiling glass windows on both levels with stunning views

At Secret Bay, they say ‘the Villa is the Hotel’ and personal yet inconspicuous service is a speciality. There is no reception or restaurant but the  villas are fully-equipped with modern facilities  and staff are on hand if needed to organise massages and yoga classes, or even book a private one-man jazz concert in the villa

The town of Portsmouth is nearby and the capital of Roseau one  hour away.
My stroll around Roseau takes in  the old French quarter, Roseau cathedral and one of the best-preserved collections of 18th century Creole architecture in the Caribbean including former home of author Jean Rhys, whose atmospheric novel Wide Sargasso Sea and many of her other works draw reference from her early life on Dominica


Kalinago Territory
Dominica is the only Caribbean island with a population of indigenous Carib Indians (around 3,000); known locally as the Kalinago – and interested in finding out more about their lifestyle I opted to spend the last night of my visit experiencing the new home stay programme. Designed to provide visitors with an opportunity to experience the unique heritage of Dominica’s first settlers, the scheme also allows the residents of the community to benefit from the tourism sector.
My hostess Regina greets me at the  door of the traditional house she has built herself, where I shall be staying overnight. Farmer Regina  has travelled to London, Canada and the USA as a free trade ambassador for Dominica’s banana business. She tells me about the produce she grows; dasheen, cassava, yams and sweet potatoes and explains the way the Territory works. It is collectively owned with an elected chief and there is a strong sense of community here.
There is no flushing toilet in this house and the facilities are basic, but it is clean, the food is fresh and plentiful and Regina is a fascinating dinner companion.
In the middle of the night I can hear the rain battering on the galvanised roof and I awake at about 5a.m.  to the sounds of local workers chattering in Creole. Regina tells me  the Kalinago language died out because of colonization, but Creole is still widely spoken and even local news programmes are broadcast in the language


Nearby at the  Kalinago Barana Aute , a village built to showcase the Kalinago lifestyle, manager Kevin Dangleben tells me that given a choice of three levels of homestay accomoodation ;  traditional lodging in a hut, simple accommodation such as that at Regina’s, or a home with more modern facilities, few visitors select the modern option. People from other  parts of the Caribbean have been particularly keen to stay here, he explains, attracted perhaps by the simple, relaxed way of life that has largely died out on the islands

I complete my tour with a boat ride down the Indian River, black crabs scuttling along the river banks and iguanas watching me curiously from the trees. The sun comes out at last and a rainbow arches across the Dominican sky.


GETTING THERE
British Airways offer return flights from London Gatwick to Antigua from £615.76 return including taxes/fees/charges. This is for travel departing up to mid-July and from mid-August onwards.  Visit www. ba.com/antigua or call 0844 493 0787

LIAT www.liat.com operates a regular daily service to Dominica (Melville hall airport) from Antigua. Flights take about half an hour

STAYING
Secret bay
www.secretbay.dm
rates range from $378 to over $1,000 per night depending on the unit and season.

Homestays with local families and small guest houses are available as an accommodation option on the Waitukubuli trail
www.waitukubulitrail.com
For details of Homestay in Kalinago territory see www.kalinagoterritory.com
For information on the island visit www.discoverdominica.com

Saturday, 16 February 2013

FIT FOR AN EMPEROR - ELBA

ABLE I WAS
Elba is FIT FOR AN EMPEROR
 The island of Napoleon’s exile is more of a paradise than a prison

In the summer the British head for Tuscany in their thousands, lured by the classic Italian combination of sun, scenery, fine food and wine. But the Italians themselves head for sleepy Elba, ‘Tuscany’s island’ with its 150 spotless beaches, romantic villages and mountains made for hiking and cycling. A National Park of outstanding beauty, tiny Elba is perhaps best known for being the place of Napoleon’s exile. Now it is gearing itself for the crowds who are expected here in 2014, when the 200th anniversary of this event will be celebrated

Deciding to find out for myself what the Little Emperor had to put up with, I have made my way to Elba via Pisa airport where I  pick up a chubby retro  Fiat Cinquecento hire car.   Elba’s capital, Portoferraio, is a ferry ride away. The bustling port town  is home to Napoleon’s former city residence which today is a museum in the throes of renovation for the 2014 celebrations.  Napoleon had his own theatre here too, the pictureseque pink fronted Teatro Vigilante,a gift to his sister and  the only theatre on the island.
Although 19th century cartoonists portrayed Boney perched on an Elban cliff looking sulkily out to sea, it seems he actually had quite a comfortable  time of it here.  He was given the title Emperor of Elba and allowed to rule its 110,000 people as well as live in some rather smart mansions. I found his country villa at San Martino still standing grand and secluded behind wrought iron gates, set in fragrant pine filled grounds and, these days at least, overlooking an exclusive hotel
Napoleon  is rumoured to have left  the heat of the capital to enjoy trysts with a Polish mistress at the picturesque chapel of Madonna Del Monte, close to the town of Marciano. He also favoured the healing waters to be found in this part of the island .I locate the so called Fonte Napoleone pure spring at the foot of Monte del Capanne near the pretty medieval town of Poggio, one of my favourite places on Elba. Poggio is pedestrian and so, abandoning  the CinqueCento, I walk the winding cobbled streets with houses painted the colours of pink and yellow gelati. Stopping for a fresh seafood salad and a cold glass of Tuscan wine for lunch I conclude there are worse places to be in exile.

Poggio and Marciano are a short drive from my Elban base, the 20 room Hotel Ilio. The new boutique hotel is in Capo Sant’Andrea, a seaside hamlet and one of the most fashionable retreats in Elba, located on the north-west coast of the island. Hotel Ilio was founded by Guiseppe Testa in 1959 and is still family run, now being owned by his son Maurizio. Though the main building is 150 years old, the hotel is modern and sophisticated, and Maurizio, a tourism specialist who lectures in the off-season, is an enthusiastic host. Meals are served on the open terrace overlooking Capo Sant’Andrea, with the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks below.  Chef Giancarlo Pollidini cooks dinner to a standard that has been widely praised by Italian food critics. Red mullet and ginger pasta, followed by grilled wild Tuscan steak and a side dish of tomato gratin, and finally a plum frangipane tart are washed down with Tuscan  wines come from the Ilio’s own cellar.

Down at the harbour, a group of weekend divers from Florence are  gesticulating around  Il Careno  Dive Centre whose dive master Andreas  is oranising a short boat journey to the steep drop offs and wrecks close to the shore.   Some of the clearest Mediterranean waters are be to found around Elba, so it’s a top destination for snorkellers and SCUBA divers, and smart weekenders from the Tuscan mainland make this a favourite spot.
Away from Sant’Andrea, the tiny Fiat battles valiantly up and down the challenging twists and turns of Elba’s mountainous terrain, taking me from dizzy heights where I pass energetic hikers and cyclists, to the St Tropez-like elegance of Porto Azzuro with its yachts and ritzy restaurants. Elba is an affordable alternative to Sardinia or Corsica, with many of the same attractions (great beaches, climate & food), as well as history, but  tuscany’s island has  a slightly old fashioned, slower  way of life., ideal for those who enjoy the simpler pleasures in life.  Which is probably why Napoleon couldn’t wait to escape.



 For more information on Elba, to book taxi transfers, ferry tickets and car rentals, www.visitelba.com





Saturday, 2 February 2013

PANAMANIA - CARNIVAL CAPERS


As Shrove Tuesday approaches, major cities in the world are gearing up for carnival. Until last year I was a carnival virgin, but decided to dip my toe in the carnival spirit - quite literally as it transpired - in the Central American country of Panama.
 Like Rio in Brazil, Panama parties like there’s no tomorrow on the days surrounding Shrove Tuesday with dancing in the streets, parades of colourful floats and the crowning of beautiful leggy carnival queens dressed in sequins, fishnets and feathers.
Panama’s carnival dates back to colonial times and is celebrated in several provinces including Coclé, Herrera and Los Santos
But I was right in the thick of it in Panama City. Called la Jumbo Rumba, Carnaval  de la City, the festivities began with the coronation of Queen Stephanie and her two attendant ‘princesses’ who then appeared in various changes of costume throughout the five day celebrations
Over 150,000 people flocked to the City’s coastal strip each day to dance, sing, eat drink and – get soaked. Each morning at 10 the culecos begin as hoses from giant tanker trucks were turned on the crowds.
Drenched but happy, everyone continued to cavort. Children contributed to the chaotic atmosphere by spraying bystanders with water pistols or shaving foam as the scenes became increasingly surreal.
A woman walked by with a tray of toffee apples on her head , swaying between balloon vendors and people dressed as zombies or witches on stilts. Somewhere in the crowd a man was dancing with a blow-up doll
The final night of carnival was celebrated with fireworks and live music provided by Panama’s  favourite singer, Ruben Blades, whose rendition of the song  Patria (Fatherland)which many Panamanians consider their second national anthem, had the crowds in tears.
The Queen and princesses reigned serene (and were among the few onlookers who kept dry) throughout the weeks’ antics


Carnival cuisine
After partying till dawn revellers require a hearty breakfast. The Full Panamanian – desayunos (breakfast) is a plate groaning with cholesterol.
I stopped off at the roadside café La Hacienda on the road to Capira  with my bleary eyed fellow carnival animals. First order was for coffee, which in Panama is called Panama Joe. The tortillas were a bit of a surprise, not Mexican-style but deep-fried corn batter topped with eggs and cheese, something akin to huevos rancheros. Hojaldras, deep-fried bread sprinkled with powdered sugar like a Panamanian doughnut, seem to be another common breakfast staple.
There is perhaps no dish more emblematic of Panama than the sancocho, a chicken stew made with a starchy root called name.Sancocho is said to put strength back into your body after a late night out, which describes most nights during carnival time
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Panama Canal
A visit to the historic Panama Canal, said to be one of the Wonders of the World, is a must of course. Escaping the madness of carnival, a morning spent watching majestic ships pass through this staggering feat of engineering was strangely calming. The Panama Canal is 80 kilometres long from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and a ship takes about 8 to 10 hours to cross it.
Panama Canal was excavated in one of the narrowest and lowest parts of the mountainous Isthmus of Panama, linking North and South America. Open every day of the year, it is possible to see 5,000,000 ton vessels rise and drop more than 50 feet in the locks as they make their way over the isthmus from one ocean to the other.  The Miraflores Visitors’ Centre is only 15 minutes from downtown Panama City and has interactive exhibits explaining the workings of the canal and its history.
A boat trip from the canal across Gatun Lake provided a glimpse of local flora and fauna including monkeys and crocodiles, and the opportunity to cruise out to visit some indigenous peoples who live here such as the Embera Indians who welcomed us with traditional dances and music.
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Portobelo
Portobelo, in Colon, once the greatest Spanish port in the region, is where one can still see the remains of forts which preserve the memory of attacks from famous pirates such as Henry Morgan and Francis Drake, whose is buried beneath the sea here.. I stepped inside the church, Iglesia San Felipe, which now houses the Black Christ statue.  Nobody knows exactly how or when it arrived in the tiny community of Portobelo on the Caribbean coast. Some put the date at around 1658. But the stories of miracles surrounding the eight-foot wooden statue of the Black Christ are enough to overwhelm the village with tens of thousands of pilgrims every October 21.
 Some walk the 53 miles from Panama City, thousands walk the last 22 miles from Sabanitas, and many crawl the last mile on hands and knees to worship before El Nazareno, one of the names given to the Black Christ by locals.


Back in the city, I gaped at the innovative Frank Gehry-designed Bio Museo, a space celebrating ecological diversity which opened last year. Panama City's new Cinta Costera (Coastal Belt) creates a green stripe of waterfront paths that finishes in Casco Viejo, a stunning historic neighbourhood rebuilt after decades of neglect. The old town vies with old Havana and San Juan for authentic colonial Spanish charm and the architecture of Casco Viejo which was once left to fade and crumble is now attracting artists, writers and former ambassadors who have homes here.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

FROM NASSAU WITH LOVE

Fast cars on a slow island.

Bahamas Speed Week revival is a re run of a glamorous event which  took place  in Nassau from 1954 to 1966, traditionally in the first week of December when it brought together stars from the USA and Europe in an end of season play off

After years of planning and hoping, car enthusiasts from the Bahamas and around the world received the support they needed to revive the Bahamas Speed week in December 2011, and  it returned last year as an annual event in the racing calendar.Trophies were awarded, champagne corks popped and car owners competed. This year a Bocar XP-5, a Cooper Monaco CM/4/59 and a DeLorean DMC 12, among others, sparkled in the Bahamian sunshine, all brought by ship from the UK, the USA, and Europe.
Chief executive of Bayford Oil Group Jonathan Turner carried off the Best Car in Show award for his Jaguar C Type. His is the second name on the magnificent solid silver trophy, the first being Wal-Mart chairman Rob Walton who won the cup last year with a $7-million Maserati 450S .Austrian Andreas Mohringer brought his lovingly preserved1953 red Ferrari 375 MM Pinin Farina Spyder, the only one in the world .Simon Arscott with his 007 style Aston Martin DB5 took several silver cups home to New York.

One of the original competitors in the 1950s, Sir Stirling Moss enjoyed the revival so much last year that he made another appearance at Speed Week this year, driving his with his wife Susie in his red OSCA

There are over 700 Bahamian islands, ranging from tiny uninhabited cays to Great Providence itself, home to Nassau and its glitzy neighbour Paradise Island.
There’s plenty to discover here and Nassau itself is one of the coolest capitals in the region. Not only has it got a 1970s disco number named after it (Funky Nassau) it has connections with the infamous Pirate Blackbeard as well as royalty and is home to Stuart Cove, where Sean Connery learned to scuba dive for his 007 underwater scenes.
The Bahamas were used extensively as locations for Bond films. Much of Casino Royale was filmed on Paradise Island it was no coincidence that the Bahamas Speed Week Concours d’Elegance line up took place in 2012 at the exclusive Lyford Cay Club which just happens to be home to Sir Sean, who obligingly joined the drivers for lunch.





Judith in a Gold Leaf Lotus elan Sprint driven by Lorina mcLoughlin