Sunday, 19 October 2014

THE BIG SLEEP – bedtime for tortoises

It’s that time of year when certain creatures are getting ready for bed. This week tortoises around the UK will be stretching and yawning, finding somewhere warm to curl up and settling down to sleep for the winter.  Coincidentally the launch of a new teenage Mutant Ninja turtle’s movie   reminds me why my youngest son insisted we shelled out hundreds of pounds on a pair of tortoise in the first place!  And over at The Lake District Wildlife Park Margaret, the park's female tortoise, has laid 15 eggs, four of which have now hatched

What is our fascination with pets that are only awake for half of the year?

Long –term partners Shelly and Scotty are poking their heads out of their house, sniffing the October air and deciding that it really is a little too chilly for their usual stroll round the grounds.  The couple have had a good summer sun-bathing, enjoying meals on the lawn and rock climbing. But the nights are drawing in, the leaves are falling and it is looking more and more like bed-time for this pair of Mediterranean Tortoises who are preparing for hibernation 2014.
I have owned Shelley and Scotty for 13 years. They joined the family as tiny 3 month olds, no bigger than a 50 pence piece each, and they spent their first few months with us in a heated tank. Nowadays they have the run of the walled garden, their own rockery, a small wooden house and as much dandelion as they can eat. At least for six months a year. What are the advantages of owning these part-time pets?
·         Tortoises can only be bought from registered breeders, so they are not a cheap purchase. However, once you have adopted them, they are incredibly low maintenance – requiring the mimunun of attention and happy to eat garden weeds. They can also live up to 150 years so you certainly get your moneys’ worth!

·         As a travel writer I never waste a chance to spot the tortoises foreign cousins.   In Mauritius and on Prison Island in Zanzibar I have seen some giant tortoises which truly do resemble Super-Sized Scotty and Shelley. On the sleepy Caribbean island of Barbuda red-footed tortoises roam freely down the road only pausing to nibble on  a tasty leaf or plant
·         Finding the tortoises after their many hiding games is a family past time. They have buried themselves for days on end, emerging covered in soil, or have sheltered in the shed or even got into the house and hidden under the cooker, only to appear quite non-plussed and deposited back outside
·         Identifying new foods for them is a botanical lesson, we know they like dandelion but milk thistle and other common garden plants are also enjoyed. They love cucumber in the hot weather (they rarely drink water) and even the occasional strawberry
·         Establishing their gender is an entertainment in itself. We were told Scotty was male an Shelly was female, although it is difficult to tell especially with young tortoise, One  annual check with the tortoise vet revealed that Shelly has a very large tail for a female, implying that this tortoise may be more of a Percy Shelly than a Shelly Winters.  The discovery doesn’t seem to have affected their relationship
·         We look forward to greeting them next March. Christmas and New Year celebrations may pass them by, but they will have a great spring and summer in 2015

Tuesday, 14 October 2014



Despite accounting for just 0.1% of the world’s landmass, Costa Rica contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity, across four mountain ranges, 800 miles of coastline, 200 volcanic formations and hundreds of national parks, most of which is reasonably accessible from the capital San Jose.
The incredibly varied topography means you can cruise cloud forest one day, visit active volcanoes the next, and relax on a pristine white beach. Adventure experiences include zipping through canopy lines hundreds of metres long and riding the rough surf of the Pacific. Bathing in natural hot springs and living the cowboy life on a working carral are also on offer here.
But most people head here to get close to wildlife, notably cuddly sloths, white faced capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys and hundreds of tropical birds including the gorgeous quetzal – called by some birdwatchers the most beautiful bird in the world
Costa Rica prides itself on its green credentials and this, together with its peaceful democracy (it has had no army since 1948) and abundance of natural beauty has earned it the name ‘the world’s happiest country’
Where happier to get close to nature than in one of the country’s eco-lodges.  They are found throughout Costa Rica, many in lush jungle in the south near the Pacific Gulf. Increasingly sophisticated with good food, stylish accommodation in wooden cabins and the opportunity to experience nature first-hand they allow visitors to make minimal impact without sacrificing creature comforts. Early morning tours let you see the rain forest wake up and leisurely kayak tours take you past rich mangrove forests alive with snakes, crocodiles, monkeys galore, sloths and toucans and parrots.
Many offer activities including fishing, yoga and chocolate making. Using beans from the forest, the staff at one lodge, Playa Nicuesa near Golfito, which is built on the site of a disused cocoa plantation, shows guests how to peel, roast and grind the cocoa before cooking with sugar to make a delicious chocolate paste which can be rolled or formed into lovely sweets. They taste best washed down with a cup of finest Costa Rican coffee
Monteverde’s rare ecosystem is internationally famous as one of the most extensive cloud forests in Central America. At 5,900 ft., this natural sanctuary has more than 2,500 different types of plants and animals, including 400 species of birds Guided natural history walks take you through the Monteverde Reserve which is home to jaguars and pumas. There’s also a zip-line tour of the reserve where you look down on mammals such as the fuzzy martilla.    But the best   way to see the lush cloud forest and its inhabitants is by walking on hanging bridges which take you alongside the canopy of trees.
In the early 1950s, a group of Quakers from the United States left their homes in Alabama and arrived in Monteverde at a time when the region was just beginning to be settled. The Quakers, fleeing the United States to avoid being drafted into the Korean War, and attracted by the fact that Costa Rica had no army, established a simple life in Monteverde centred on dairy and cheese production. Some of these families helped establish the Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves some 20 years later. To this day they have an influence on the region, including owning hotels. The pretty town of St Elena looks like a Swiss village nestling beneath the misty mountains and has lively restaurants, hostels and bars filled with hikers and bird spotters.
The cattle ranching region of Guanacaste is also home to the Rincon de la Vieja volcano, a thermally active area. Adventure junkies will thrive on the activities on offer here from zip wires, Tarzan swings, white water rafting, canyoning, tubing  and horseback riding  after which a dip in the hot natural springs provides a welcome relief to aching limbs.  On the edge of the national park wannabe cowboys can stay at working cattle ranches with real hacienda style accommodation available and all the adventure tours on the doorstep

The Pacific Coast has some beautiful beaches with conditions that offer some of the best surfing in this part of the world.  Towns such as Nosara are packed with bright driftwood signs pointing to surf shacks and sunset bars. Beaches have an abandoned Robinson-Crusoe feel with rickety shelters constructed from wood and sticks with covers of dried palm leaves
Costa Rica also has a Caribbean coastline, which has a different atmosphere with a cultural mix of Afro Caribbean, Tico ( the name Costa Ricans give themselves) and old hippy vive. Puerto Viejo has recently become a hit with tourists and has stunning white-sand beaches, tropical vegetation and is close to parks including a Sloth sanctuary 
There are no direct flights from the UK to Costa Rica.
Iberia ( flies daily to the Costa Rican capital San Jose via Madrid.
American Airlines (020 7365 0777; and British Airways (0844 493 0787; fly via Miami. With British Airways you need to connect to an American Airlines flight
Costa Rica has two seasons; the Dry Season from December-April and the Green (Or Rainy) Season from May-November. However it doesn’t rain all the time during the Green season – showers tend to be brief - and this can be a pleasant, and more affordable, time to travel

More information:

Sunday, 10 August 2014


Children's book review


When my three boys were little, myths and monsters were always popular story-time material, although it was difficult back then to find a children's book as well presented and beautifully illustrated as Juliet Rix's A-MAZE-ING MINOTAUR which has been selected for The Summer Reading Challenge 2014.

I know they would have loved this book, which as the name suggest retells the story of King Minos' frightening monster and the labyrinth  in fascinating detail. The book works on several levels: a good story, great illustrations by Juliet Snape and the added bonus of a real maze which young readers can trace. They will also love spotting the minotaur hiding in different places on each spread

Although I approached the book from the point of view of a mother of sons - Theseus is as convincing an adventure hero figure as any more contemporary character such as Tin Tin - girls will love this book as well , especially the young princess Ariadne's beautifully drawn gowns and the colourful  palace.
Juliet Rix retells the myth with energy and pace while remaining true to the original story and the book finishes with a short piece containing information about Crete and the Minoan civilisation which puts the myth nicely in context and includes a map. Great for parents who like me were always floundering for answers when the inevitable questions came at the end of the story.
 The book is aimed at five year olds plus, but would be ideal for any primary school child studying The Ancient Greeks or those who just love mazes and monsters.

by Juliet Rix
illustarted by Juliet Snape
Published by Frances Lincoln Children's Books

£11.99 Hardback

Sunday, 13 July 2014


The Andaz Hotel at Liverpool Street has to be one of London’s swankiest hotels these days with no less than 7 restaurants and bars. Housed in the old Great Eastern Hotel it manages to retain  that old railway hotel grandeur but has a contemporary feel – the Catch champagne bar on the ground floor is regularly packed out with noisy city workers and commuters as well as the occasional  couple of old ladies from Norfolk  enjoying a day out in the capital.
Hotel restaurants can be soulless and dull, but not so the 1901 restaurant and bar. Set in what was once the Great Eastern Hotel’s original ballroom this is a magnificent Grade two listed room where you can sip cocktails and champagne at the centrepiece floating bar, underneath one of London’s most imposing original stained glass domes. It is worth coming for the setting alone, but the food is good too, based on home grown British produce but accompanied by an exciting cocktail list.
I was here to sample the ‘3 course charm’ package, organised for me by international concierge company Lime & Tonic.
As you might expect it comprises three courses, preceded by a glass of Veuve Cliquot champagne   and with just three choices for each course there wasn’t a lot of deliberating over a lengthy menu
For starters I ate Beetroot Carpaccio with mixed salad, figs, goat cheese, black radish and seeds which were colourful and satisfying for something which looked so light and dainty. My guest had the Rabbit Confit with fennel and celery mousse, cauliflower, cherry and walnut. It looked lovely on the plate and the rabbit had just the right chunky texture
His main course was a simply presented but tasty Artichoke Risotto with courgette, baby carrot, broccoli, parmesan and truffle oil. He pronounced this exceptionally tasty while I ate Plaice Fillet, pan-fried, with coco beans, chorizo and coriander. The fish had a delicate flavour which the coco beans enhanced rather than smothered and I was delighted to note that, unlike in many dining establsiheemnts in this part of London, portions are neat and not overwhelming. Not all City diners are eating for England!  
With plenty of space for dessert we relished  the Raspberry, Lychee and Ginger Cheesecake with violet liquor jelly, lavender sugar, chantilly cream and lemon sorbet which had a lot going on  but  lived up to its lavish description  and the White Chocolate Flexi Ganache- Burnt white chocolate and mandarin Sorbet, while very sweet, was a glorious ending to an evening in a really lovely setting.
 While we ate we watched the bar tender swizzle and swirl his cocktails from the centre of the room and behind me was a wine and cheese cellar where I’m told guests can partake in an evening of wine and cheese tasting with sommeliers and cheese specialists
Lime & Tonic is a ‘concierge’service which finds interesting deals on meals and activities not just in London but all over the world.
The three course charm at Andaz is priced at £30 per person for members including a glass of champagne.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014



Dire economic problems and unrest among its citizens have kept tourists away from the Greek capital over recent years, But the Athenians are keen to stress that  is all history as they make Olympian efforts to ensure visitors return to enjoy the city’s attractions both ancient and modern

Millions of travellers have seen the 5000 year old Temple of The Acropolis in Athens, and although numbers have dropped off the city is still on the must-do list for cultural enhusiasts.And now Athens is hoping to lure tourists with its other atarctions too

The mayor of Athens told a group of travel professionals at a recent convention that the city is investing 120 Euros in upgrading and improving facilities to strengthen the business economy and bring back the tourists. Already this year tourist numbers are up significantly and signs are that the trend will continue as travellers rediscover the city and its gastronomy, night life, shopping and coastal activities.

Everyone is familiar with the classical sites in Athens, but keen to see a side to the city most tourists miss, I had booked a tour with a local guide as part of the city’s This is my Athens programme, where local volunteers take a visitor on an exclusive one-on –one walking tours. My guide did not turn out to be the enthusiastic student I imagined, but a consultant gynaecologist at a leading Athens hospital who has been taking tourists around since Athens hosted the Olympics in 2004. He gave an honest and incisive view point of someone who lives and works in the city as we strolled through the streets stopping at hidden monasteries and churches.

Designer shops, fashionable caf├ęs and bars in smart squares like the elegant Kolonaki demonstrate that people are spending money here, although the city’s extensive graffiti shows that others are expressing their concerns, albeit in a colourful and artistic way. But the writing is not on the wall for Athens, as openings such as The Gastronomy Museum and the Maria Callas Museum (in 2015) and a new generation of fashion designers, chefs and artisans are attracting a younger crowd to the Greek capital


For Feta or Worse

Feta cheese, taramasalta and moussakas are the dishes that spring to mind when we think of Greek food, but there is a new wave of gastronomy especially in the capital which has seen a number of modern cafes and restaurants which bring a new twist to Athenian cuisine.

One of the nicest ways to see what is on offer is by one of the local food tours which take visitors on an eye-opening and mouth-watering adventure.

 ‘Greeks eat a lot of pies’ said Maria as we make a stop at a fragrant bakery in Psiri, the Soho of Athens, a bohemian part of town which is home to traditional coffee shops and simple stores like this one which sell Bougaza, Loukoumades and other syrupy sweet pies which the Greeks love as well as savoury pastries stuffed with spinach and cheese

Pie shops like this were once seen as an insult to women, as wives are judged by their pie-making abilities and a husband visiting a pie shop was tantamount to adultery

Restaurants breaking the mould of Greek cuisine include  the ultra-modern Tzitzikas Kai Mermigas just off Syntagma Square with its white walls and displays of retro olive oil cans and bottles On the menu is an unusual  chicken in pastry as well as baby goat and  mussels in ouzo sauce . Fellow diners range from parliament workers to big groups of friends. Athenians claim the ubiquitous Ouzo is just for tourists, so instead try Tsipouro (it’s very similar) or one of the local beers

Also reinventing Greek classics is the buzzy Melilotos in the Athenian downtown shopping district on Kalamiotou Street. The menu changes daily and is all locally sourced. Popular with lunch-time comfort food seekers, you will find hearty sausages with white beans, homemade Greek pasta and some lovely vegetarian options



The sacred rock is home to the Acropolis and Parthenon, frequented by millions of tourists every year. 

The new Acropolis museum, opened in 2009, is a light-filled, dramatic modern home for some of Ancient Greek’s most famous exhibits even if some of them are mere replicas of pieces which are in The British Museum in London. Debate continues as to whether the Parthenon or Elgin Marbles should be returned to Athens

Athens is home to a number of other museums, including the Benaki Museum, which houses about 40,000 artworks giving a broad visual record of the Greek world and the Museum of Cycladic Art

Syntagma Square, dominated by the Parliament Building, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently as this is where protests take place, but now is a good time to take a quiet stroll and see the Changing of the Guard. The Guards march their distinctive march on the hour every hour 24 hours a day in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier dressed in their costume of pleated skirt and pom poms. 

Monastiraki square is the heart of cultural Athens and with its cobbled streets criss-crossing off and its small antique and music shops makes for an interesting walk. In the background you will see the Acropolis rock and the Plaka, the oldest neighbourhood in Athens with a labyrinthine network of streets and alleys

City by the Sea.   Just 10km from the centre of Athens is Piraeus, the city’s main port, the biggest in Greece and one of the most important in the entire Mediterranean.  From here you can get to all of the Aegean islands making Athens the perfect ‘City by the sea’

 Take a mini-cruise to or just a leisurely sail around the coast on a catamaran stopping for coffee or lunch at the new Flisvos marina. Head to Hydra, an old favourite with the jet set, tiny Poros and Aegina with its temple and churches which are among the favourite stops in the Saronic Gulf A day-trip to Aegina and nearby Agistri provides the perfect island escape. Neoclassical architecture, exotic crystal beaches and some of the most interesting archaeological sites in the area make this a well spent hour's trip from the port of Piraeus.

While you are in Aegina, be sure to try their world-renowned pistachio nuts, a local product with a protected designation-of-origin classification and a main ingredient for numerous recipes and products, such as jams, sweets, pasteli and liqueurs.

For further information;


Tuesday, 18 February 2014


IF  you only buy one travel book this year, make it Christine Osborne's Travels with My Hat - an amazing and exhilarating story of one rather unique woman's travels through lands strange and wonderful
I am fortunate enough to have met the author,travel photographer and writer Christine,in London and have heard first hand some of the stories she has collected over some 40 years of travelling the world. This book brings all those together, and adds some more in what is an energetic account of her adventures in the Middle East and Africa
Christine Osborne left her native Australia where she was a young nurse with a burning desire to travel. But not for her the sunbeds and parasols of the Cote D'Azur or the well-heeled chic of the Champs D'Elysee. Instead she chose to visit Ethiopia during the 1970s famines at one of the bleakest times of its history. She chose to stay in filthy accommodation in Iraq as she explored The Middle East and Pakistan at a  time when tourists of any type were a novelty, let alone an attractive young blonde in a jaunty blue hat
Her recollection of her time spent as part of the royal press corp with HRH The Queen during her 1974 tour of the Gulf States is probably the most insightful you will ever read. But it is not just royalty but all humankind which  intrigues her, and all her stories are told with a gentle wit and a fascination for human nature and the beauty of the world
Buy it for your daughters to inspire them to travel, to write and to look at the world. Buy it for your mothers and sisters to make them smile, and for yourself to lose yourself in.
Travels with My Hat is available as an e book  through Amazon 

Tuesday, 21 January 2014


I spent New Year wih my three grown up sons trying to discover if there was a Las Vegas beyond the casinos


It means ‘The Meadows’ in Spanish, but it is difficult  to see anything pastural about Las Vegas which was recently voted their ‘least favourite city’ by a group of leading  travel writers.

True, it is short of beautiful buildings, natural beauty, world heritage sites and cathedrals (although there are any number of tacky ‘chapels’ where you can marry in haste for under $10) But stepping  back from the bling of The Strip and the ker shing of the gaming machines I admit to a  certain fascination  for  Sin City

Visiting with three grown up sons is a challenge in itself – last time we holidayed together The Boys were all under 21 and  considered minors in the USA, so none of them were old enough to drink or gamble . Now they don’t seem to want to do anything else but as we were there to celebrate the a 21st birthday of the youngest, it seemed churlish to cramp their style.

However by day two   when the sight of three  Elvises and a couple of Michael Jackson look a likes before breakfast, nonstop  one-armed bandits and wall to wall burgers were  beginning to lose their charm    I was eager to discover if there was any more (or was it less) to Vegas

And then, when on day 3 all of the boys had been propositioned before 9 a.m. (note, gaming is legal in Nevada but prostitution is not, although one wouldn’t know the latter) I vowed to find out what made this place the way it is

What better place to find out about the roots of evil in Sin City than The Museum of The Mob. Also called the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement we find it housed in the former 1920s courthouse downtown in a quiet, less frequented part of Las Vegas.  As well as charting the story of how Vegas grew from a sleepy stop on the railroad in the middle of the Nevada desert to the glitzy sleazy city it is now, it dwells on some of the unsavoury characters whose bootlegging and illegal activities helped fund the building of Las Vegas

It’s not an easy museum to visit as  it spares no detail when  confronting  the violence and harshness of ‘The Mobs’ and includes graphic images  of their handiwork including deceased victims and weapons. The gangs who began their criminal lives in the cities of New York and Chicago and who developed networks all over the USA in the early 20th century made money out of on prohibition, drug-use and prostitution.

The Museum’s key exhibit is the brick wall from Chicago’s Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929 and there is an explanation of the murder of a gang led by Al Capone’s South side Italian gang. The wall includes a 38-calibre Colt Detective revolver, the only gun related to hs shooting

Another grisly object on display is the barber’s chair where mobster Albert Anastasia once sat. He was brutally shot and killed while getting a haircut and shave

The museum is interactive, and so the three sons were able to ‘enjoy’ shooting with an FBI forearms training simulator and taking part in a police line-up where they were photographed as suspects. Definitely one for the album


Easier on the eye is the Neon Museum, which showcases Las Vegas bright distinctive signage as an art form. It is situated in Old Vegas, or Downtown where we find one of the most famous neon signs in the USA, Lucky Strike’s waving cowboy who grins down at a street of souvenir stalls and barsof Freemont Street. The Neon Museum has more than 150 vintage Las Vegas neon signs from the 1930s to the present including the Golden Nugget and the huge Treasure Island skull

Golden Nugget is one of Vegas’ quainter hotels, although it impossible to explore without walking through the ubiquitous casino The first thing we noticed about  Vegas is the number of electric shocks you get, literally non-stop and even from just touching another person.  This is quite widely documented and is caused by the dry air and the static from the carpets.  Shocking as this is, it is just one of the many side-effects of 24-hour gaming. Everything, from the cool fragrant air pumped into the casinos, carefully regulated temperatures and bright, but not too bright, furnishings are designed to keep the punters awake, alert and gambling. 


Back on the Strip, the boys take a ride on Stratosphere Hotel’s Insanity ride. It proves to be aptly named as they are spun in the open air on a mechanical arum extending over 60 feet over the edge of the Stratosphere tower.

Coming down to earth we took a more leisurely stroll from Venice to New York. Only in Vegas can you see the statue of Liberty at New York New York hotel, the Venetian gondolas and St Mark’s square at the Venetian, the Eiffel Tower at Paris and the roman statues of Caesars palace.  Of course they are not a shadow of the real thing but for a while if you can suspend belief you can imagine are in one of those travel writers’ favourite cities.