Take a hot dip in The Secret Lagoon. All pictures by Ruth and Evan Brindle and Ragnar Th/Visit Reykjavik

Iceland has the WOW factor

Tuesday, 30 October

Guest writer Ruth Brindle takes a short break in the land of ice and fire

My first visit to Iceland was in 2001 during a stopover on my way to Orlando In Florida. At that time my overwhelming image of Keflavik Airport was that it was small with few facilities and a freezer full of frozen reindeer meat the most enticing offer in the shop.

Fast forward to 2018 and things couldn’t be more different. This time I was in the country for a long weekend of discovery and things have moved on.

Tourism has boomed and between 2010 and 2017 has increased by an amazing 440 per cent.

The American connection is still there as many of the passengers on my WOW Air flight are stopping off before boarding connecting flights to cities all over the States. Also there can’t be many airports where you are assured that even if your plane is delayed on arrival in Iceland, your connecting flight ‘will wait for you’!

Keflavik Airport is still small, but perfectly formed with all the modern facilities – coffee bars, restaurants and shops - that discerning travellers demand. I was very impressed with the service on our two-hour budget flight with WOW.

It was fun, efficient and friendly. I loved the small touches such as the notice for the bell to alert staff which read ‘put a ring on it’ and the sick bag with its Vomit-Meter putting ‘the pilot’s jokes’ at the bottom of vomit-inducing things to ‘our competitors’ prices’ at the top.

 

We had opted to hire a car and stay in an Air B ‘n’ B apartment 10 minutes’ drive outside the city centre, which proved a good choice as we had a lot of space, a bedroom each, a full kitchen and a big TV.

After half an hour’s easy drive from the airport we met our host at the apartment and she quite generously said we could use any food in the house. This proved very valuable indeed as we discovered just how expensive Iceland is.

Breakfasts and packed lunches sorted. You have to factor high prices in when planning a visit here but my advice is that it’s worth it.

On our first evening we were keen to see Reykjavik so we took the short drive, helped by our phone sat nav, into the city centre. Parking is sparse, but possible on the streets and in car parks in the capital which feels more like a town in size.

Finding places to eat is easy and we opted for a restaurant near the centre. Very nice fish (cod of course) and chips and a burger and chips, no alcohol cost the equivalent of £50. Welcome to Iceland prices.

As it was raining very heavily we opted for an early night before heading out on the tourist trail around the Golden Circle the next day. This is a 147-mile tour of three of Iceland’s most spectacular sights.

Of course, there are many organised coach tours to choose from if you don’t want to drive but I would say consider hiring a car. The roads are good, not busy and you have the freedom to stop, admire or visit other places along the way.

We used the sat nav on our phones to get around and it was consistently brilliant although it did sound weird hearing all the amazing, complicated Icelandic words pronounced in an English accent.

But whatever mode of transport you choose you will experience so many “wow” moments along the way. As we set out on the road south west of Reykjavik on the ring road we passed changing landscapes of strange black lava expanses, impressive mountains, fields of purple lupins, herds of horses, farmland, clouds of steam rising from thermal fields and the eerie peaks of volcanoes rising in the distance.

Truly amazing and awe-inspiring, other-worldly and beautiful. Our first stop was at Pingvellir the site of Iceland’s first parliament and also where two continental tectonic plates collide.

It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s easy to see why. This place was used for the national assembly of Iceland between 930AD to 1798. Looking out from the vantage points you can clearly see the cracks and faults caused by the continental drift.

You can wander along the biggest – Almannagja – which is canyon-like. The one downside of this first stop on the route was a plague of tiny flies which we and our fellow tourists struggled with. Those in the know had insect beating nets over their heads!

Next on the list of stops was Geysir a geothermal field where you can watch the spectacular explosions of boiling water and steam and where the earth constantly bubbles. Yes, it’s a tourist trap but well worth it.

The biggest geyser known as Strokkur gives a performance every five to seven minutes sending a spout of water 30 metres in the air so doesn’t disappoint. Another, Blesi, is surrounded by a turquoise pool.

I was impressed by the way tourist visits to these natural wonders are set out by the Icelandic authorities. Even though the route is followed by hundreds of people each day, in cars, coaches and minivans, there’s easy and clear access and plenty of facilities for those who want and need them without being over the top.

Those with mobility difficulties can safely enjoy these awesome natural sights too. Then, having watched several great gushes with obligatory shrieks of delight it was time to go on to Gullfoss waterfall.

This is actually two waterfalls with water tumbling along a gully carved out over thousands of years. The upper waterfall has an 11 metre drop and the second has a spectacular drop of 21 metres. There are various vantage points where you can stand and marvel at the sheer power of the water often crowned with rainbows forming in the mist above. Spectacular. By this stage on the Golden Triangle tour you start to run out of superlatives.

The basic tour can take around five hours, but on a self-drive basis expect to be out all day as you stop multiple times along the way at other stunning locations along the way. It’s worth mentioning at this point that Iceland in the summer is the land of the midnight sun. This makes the sightseeing opportunities far greater if you have the energy to keep going during seemingly never-ending daylight.

A very worthwhile detour from the Golden Triangle and not too far off the main route is to the village of Fludir, 25 minutes off the ring road. We were totally fascinated to peak into one of the large greenhouses where tomatoes and peppers are grown using heat from geothermal water.

And at the Farmer’s Bistro www.farmersbistro.is next door we were treated to some delicious mushroom soup (from their own mushrooms grown indoors) by charming owners Georg and Emma who gave us the history of the farm which also produces other organic vegetables. It was great to meet them. Icelanders are super laid-back and friendly.

The men are the embodiment of their Viking past and, a bonus for us, everyone speaks English. But it wasn’t time to leave Fludir yet. After a tiring day of sightseeing we couldn’t wait to dip in the hot (36-40 degree C) natural spring water at The Secret Lagoon in the village. It was magical, soothing and uplifting.

This is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland – created in 1891 – and recently renovated. It also has its own tiny Litli Geysir that can be watched from the pool. Definitely NOT a swimming area. You can even end the evening with some fish and chips. Not to be missed www.secretlagoon.is

Suitably relaxed it was time to head back to Reykjavik. It was late but I couldn’t resist staying up until midnight when it was still light – a strange experience. On the second full day it was on the road again along the south coast for about two-and-a-half hours to the Solheimajokull glacier.

An unmissable stop along the way is to see Seljalandsfoss waterfall with a 60-metre gush of water. Beautiful. Solheimajokull is easy to find and you can just park up and take a stony but not difficult walk to overlook the tongue of the glacier. It’s quiet and not too busy with tourists and a sight quite unique.

Don’t expect pristine white and blue colours, but an awesome ice and black ash monolith a mile wide in parts. It’s free just to stand and stare but you can book walking and climbing tours on the ice at reasonable prices.

You are not allowed to go it alone. The nearby Eyjafjallajökull volcano is the one that erupted in 2010 causing widespread havoc for airlines. Although there has been word that another eruption could happen in the near future, volcanoes and all seismic activity in Iceland is highly monitored, so it is perfectly safe to travel around the area.

As it was my birthday that day we also made for the ominous sounding Black Beach near the village of Vik where puffins nest in the high rock cliffs and dangerous, powerful waves pound the volcanic sand and rock shoreline.

Just off the coast you can see the unusually shaped rock arch of the Dyrholaey Peninsula. The small restaurant beside the beach was the perfect place for a celebration meal.

The surroundings were not lavish, more like a café, but the food was sumptuous, including the freshest and most tender cod I’ve ever tasted and a hearty, traditional lamb soup. Washed down with a glass of wine looking out at the wild and Romantic view, however, it was hard to beat. It was a long drive home, but we’d been rewarded with unforgettable memories.

On the last day it was time for a whistle-stop walking tour of Reykjavik home to around 200,000, two thirds of the country’s population. It’s charming, accessible and pretty. We headed up the hill to the highly distinctive and beautiful Hallgrimskirkja Church. You can get panoramic views from the top of the church tower.

We were also lucky enough to be treated to some uplifting music played on the giant pipe organ – 15 metres high – that dominates the interior. It was a delight to wander around town, browse the small shops and we discover a really interesting flea market down by the old harbour.

But even here don’t expect to find a bargain – prices are still high. Although there wasn’t time on this visit for us you can book whale watching and puffin tours from here. Reykjavik has many and varied museums and the Vikin Maritime Museum is in this area.

The Reykjavik City Card is a must for discounts on entry to many of the city’s attractions and services including city buses, the National Gallery of Iceland, the Photography, Settlement, Art, and Open Air museums, the ferry to Videy Island (home of Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower), the city zoo, family park and the many city thermal pools as well as discounts on restaurants, tours and other attractions.

Discovering the history of this amazing place gives you a high level of respect for the Icelanders past and present. You might be surprised to learn that hot dogs are popular here and Baejarins bestu hot dog stand near the harbour is famous for its lamb hot dogs and popular. Prices range between £2 and £8.

When in Iceland it is highly likely, like us, that you will become quite comfortable and indeed addicted to the idea of a bit of hot bathing. Don’t be put off by the rule of having to shower naked (female and male changing rooms are separate) before you take a dip with swimwear on! Noone here is embarrassed or self-conscious. In the city there are an amazing 18 thermal pools.

One local I quizzed recommended Vesturbaejarlaug and Arbaejarlaug but Laugardalslaug is the biggest. We discovered a free hot spring experience, however, on a geothermal beach just minutes from our accommodation that was brilliant. Nautholsvik was created in 2001 as a health and fitness centre.

Some brave souls were cold-water swimming, but when I gingerly waded out into the cold sea I soon found the water at about 12 degrees C too much to stand for long but definitely stimulating.

Even our North Sea seems warm by comparison. A quick dip back in the hot water was more soothing. This was a fitting and refreshing last experience in Iceland and we’ll be back - this place is addictive.

 

FACT FILE

The Reykjavik Loves city card for either 24, 48 or 72 hours can be bought from the tourist centre in the City Hall, Reykjavik. Prices between £24.50 to £42. More information about the city, accommodation and tours from www.visitreykjavik.is

How to get there WOW air flies from London Gatwick to Reykjavik twice daily and from London Stansted daily. Prices start from just £29.99 one way including taxes (WOW Basic package).

It is Iceland’s ultra-low-cost transatlantic airline offering cheap fares, a modern fleet with the lowest emissions and the biggest smile flying to 38 destinations across Europe, North America and Canada with Airbus A320 and Airbus A321/A330 models. For more information or to book, visit www.wowair.co.uk or call 0118 321 8384.


The Scenic Crystal is a jewel in Scenic River Cruises crown

Culinary traditions and fine cruising on European rivers

Wednesday, 10 October

Professor Ian Cooper, international business author, speaker and travel writer discovers some traditional dishes whilst cruising from Budapest to Amsterdam with Scenic River Cruises onboard the Scenic Crystal

“It tastes like kissing an ashtray”, warned our guide as I sat down to bravely sample a glass of ‘smoked beer’, in the German town of Bamberg. Actually, he was wrong, it didn’t taste that good!

My wife and I are aboard the ‘Scenic Crystal’ a luxury river cruise ship, on a 14 nights epic adventure from Budapest to Amsterdam. On this trip however, I am not just here to report on the ship and the destinations.

No, my journalistic brief is much more calorific: to identify and experience some traditional food and drink from a number of the places we visit. Some of them are memorable for all the right reasons, others however, like the ‘smoked beer’, I will try to forget and definitely won’t be sampling again.

Our sanctuary for this culinary challenge, was a sumptuously comfortable air-conditioned stateroom. It was spacious, bright, modern with a giant double bed, luxury toiletries, fluffy white towels and robes.

Additionally, there was a complimentary mini bar with drinks and snacks; a safe; large TV; plenty of storage space; an ingenious and stylish balcony and a very smart bathroom.

We also had our own personal butler, though in truth I couldn’t think of what I needed him for. Two weeks sleeping here was positively decadent. Why would we ever want to leave our cabin?

Despite the temptations of our accommodation however, I had my ‘food and drink’ mission to accomplish. It wasn’t difficult to get started, because as we sailed away from Budapest, the Scenic Crystal’s executive chef was keen to show off to his 130 dinner guests, with Hungary’s most famous dish… ‘Beef Goulash’.

It was of course served with dumplings and the Hungarian magic ingredient, ‘sweet paprika’. In Hungary they are prone to add Paprika into whatever they can! A gentle and scenic cruise along the Danube, past Bratislava brought us to Vienna, a city famous for its stylish coffee houses and pastries.

Perhaps the most well-known is the ‘Café Sacher’, where they serve the ‘Sacher Torte’, a rich chocolate cake with a hint of apricot. With a delicious cup of Wiener Melange (a special coffee), the torte was even better than I had hoped. I would publish the recipe, if it wasn’t a trademarked secret. I did ask for it, but my request was declined with an inscrutable smile. Another food highlight in Austria, occurred during our visit to Salzburg and a special private ‘Scenic Enrich’ event.

This time a ‘Sound of Music’ concert high up in the mountains where Julie Andrews sang the famous title song. Here we listened to the wonderful tunes from the movie and of course ate a generous portion of traditional ‘crisp apple strudel’.

That was my journalistic food tasting for the day accomplished. In that setting it had never tasted so good. Given that I was on a quest to find some weird and wonderful food and drink items, I was intrigued to be told, that in Durnstein a small village in the magnificent Wachau Valley, I would have the opportunity to sample what they called ‘Rabbit S**t’!

Yes, you read that right. Let me explain: Durnstein is famous for its apricot products, including very small apricot balls covered in chocolate. These are marketed as ‘Rabbit Shit’. Not difficult to see why, but despite the name, quite delicious. When we weren’t out and about eating and drinking, we were onboard, pretty much doing the same thing.

Nobody goes without food on a Scenic cruise and the temptations are always available. Wander into the very smart lounge, with its bright, airy modern and relaxing feel and you can pretty much indulge yourself in as many cakes and ice creams as you want. One of the highlights of the day of course is dinner.

The multi-course choices, with appropriately accompanying wines, served up beautifully by table staff who remember your name and preferences is very much a masterclass in restaurant guest service. It is worth mentioning too, that those with vegetarian tastes and other dietary issues are also incredibly well looked after.

There are no formal evenings. All meals are served together with open seating. You can sit anywhere and with whomever you want for any meal. After dinner there would usually be some sort of onboard entertainment.

During our two weeks we enjoyed a classical violinist; a leading zither player, folk dancers and we always had the Scenic Crystal resident musician and singer who would perform. Cruising through Germany, I was still on the look out for things of special food interest and when we stopped to explore Nuremberg, I discovered what the city is famous for. Gingerbread!

Yes, Nuremberg is one of the world’s largest exporters of this. For those who were interested, there was even a special Scenic trip to learn how to make traditional Gingerbread.

A little further west in Rudesheim, home of the amazing Siegfried’s Musical Museum, we sampled what is known as the famous iconic specialty ‘Rudesheim Coffee’. This little diabetic inducing cocktail, is served in specially shaped white and maroon mugs with no handles. It contains three sugar cubes onto which is poured a double shot of the local Asbach brandy.

This is then lit to make it hot and caramelise the sugar. Strong coffee is then added and the whole drink is topped off with vanilla sweetened cream and chocolate shavings. I won’t be trying it again!

Finally, two weeks after we started and no doubt several pounds heavier, we arrived at our final destination of Amsterdam. Well, we all know of the city’s fame and reputation for tulips, bicycles and ‘red lights’, but what about the food?

Believe it or not, it is the special Dutch fries that both the locals and tourists alike are standing in long lines to buy. However, these are not just any fries. They are thick juicy cut fries called ‘patat’, which traditionally come in a paper cone with a huge choice of tasty topping options. If you fancy giving them a try, ask for a dollop of peanut satay sauce, mayo and onions, or a 'patat speciaal' for a mix of curry ketchup, mayonnaise and onions.  

As I sat on the plane for our 40 minutes flight back to London, planning my diet after all the quirky food and drink I had tried, a profound thought struck me. That travel and food are actually inseparably intertwined, and that what we eat and drink is very much a pathway into the culture, history, traditions and social dynamics of the places we visit.

FACT FILE

Scenic River Cruises' 15-day Jewels of Europe cruise between Amsterdam and Budapest are priced from £3,495 per person based on twin sharing Standard Suite. It includes amongst other things, return flights with transfers; all food and drink everyday; Scenic Enrich / Freechoice excursion options; personalised butler and gratuities. 2019 Sailing Dates: March to November.

For booking information call 0808 301 4521 or go to https://www.scenic.co.uk/

Full Itinerary available at https://www.scenic.co.uk/river-cruises/river-cruises-europe/stc/7861-jewels-of-europe

Café Sache: https://www.sacher.com/en/hotel-salzburg-en/culinary-en/cafe-sacher-salzburg-2/


The fabulous Slovenian ski resort of Kranjska Gora. All pictures courtesy of Jan Henderson

Small is beautiful at the Slovenian ski resort of Kranjska Gora

Travel journalist and winter sports fan Jan Henderson visits the picturesque Slovenian ski resort of Kranjska Gora

My first real awareness of skiing probably started with Ski Sunday in the late Seventies, with the excitable and incomparable David Vine waxing lyrical about fearsome downhill skiing in the Alps – and he frequently seemed to be broadcasting from such improbable and exotic-sounding places as Crans Montana and Kranjska Gora. Well, it’s taken nearly 40 years, but I finally got to ski in Kranjska Gora earlier this year… and it was worth the wait!

It’s a tribute to the pretty little Slovenian ski resort that they are still hosting regular FIS World Cup downhill events there – with the massive growth in the sport and the corporatisation of the whole international ski racing scene it would have been no surprise to find out that Kranjska Gora had long since been edged out of the limelight in favour of bigger, brasher, steeper venues.

Needless to say, I’m no downhiller – but I am pleased the resort has kept its World Cup status against the odds, and without compromising what makes it such a delight to ski and visit. For Kranjska Gora, nestled in Slovenia’s Julian Alps and close to the borders of both Austria and Italy, is primarlly a resort for beginners, early intermediates and families.

That said, the resort’s modest 20-odd kilometres of scenic tree-lined slopes are beautifully kept and offer a lot of variety. Steer clear, obviously, if you want to pound the miles and ski different slopes and pistes every day for a week – but if you are a competent skier on holiday with a mixed group or a young family there is still plenty here to savour and enjoy.

The steeper slopes are at the Podkoren side of the mountain, and with a couple of black runs – one of which is the World Cup slalom and giant slalom run – and some decent reds and blues, there’s enough to keep most intermediates happy. The ski school is excellent, so it could be a good opportunity to book some lessons and get some expert and friendly help on brushing up your technique.

And for kids and beginners of all ages, the resort is perfect – with the help of the helpful, English-speaking ski instructors, there are plenty of nursery slopes to get the basics and then a variety of friendly blue runs reaching up into the trees and served by drag or chair lifts to build up confidence and technique. It’s a far cry from the often impersonal and daunting learn-to-ski experience at some of the giant French ski resorts – and if the kids are relaxed and happy that’s got to be good news for mum and dad!

Although the resort is low at 838 metres and the top station at about 1600 metres, the snow conditions are usually good – certainly when I visited last March the pistes were all in perfect condition, and well groomed too. With 75% of the resort covered by snow-making equipment, they also have the ability to make up for any lack of natural snow.

There’s no getting away from the fact that a ski holiday – especially a family one – can quickly become a very expensive business, but in Kranjska Gora it is about as cheap as you are likely to get. In 2017 the Post Office Travel’s annual Money Family Ski Report compared the cost of six days’ equipment hire, lift passes and lessons, as well as the average price for lunch on the mountain, for a family of four at a variety of resorts across the Alps. The Slovenian resort topped the value-for-money chart and was one of six resorts surveyed where local prices had dropped year on year, reducing the impact for skiers and snowboarders of the fall in the value of sterling following the Brexit referendum.

Crystal are currently quoting typical in-resort costs of a cup of coffee €1.50, small beer €2, glass of Coke €2.50, burger and fries €6 and pizza €7 – that’s amazing value when you consider you could well be paying €8 for a coffee and €10 for a plate of fries in a big French, Swiss or Austrian resort and those savings can really make a difference for a young family on a week’s holiday. Small wonder that Kranjska Gora is popular with the Italians and Austrians, who are happy to pop over the border for some good value skiing!

The hotels and restaurants in resort are also welcoming and very good value. Our party stayed at the comfortable Hotel Kompas, a little under 10 minutes’ walk from the foot of the pistes – family-friendly with a good buffet selection for breakfast and dinner, it also has an indoor pool with separate kids pool, wellness area with sauna, hot tub or Turkish steam bath (extra charge) and a kids play room. For the adults there’s a well-stocked bar that maintains the Kranjska Gora value-for-money theme – we enjoyed generous cocktails served up by the friendly barman for less than €5 each!

There’s little in the way of on-the-mountain restaurants, but a good variety of establishments offering pizzas, burgers, barbecued meats and local specialities strung along the foot of the pistes – so something to suit most tastes, and, again, remarkably good value.

If you tire of skiing, a visit to the area’s other main claim to fame is a must – just up the valley and round the corner from Kranjska Gora is the stunning Planica Nordic Centre, which houses one of the biggest ski jumps in the world. Planica is actually eight ski jumping hills, ranging from small training jumps to the huge jump that regularly hosts World Cup events and saw the first-ever 200m jump, by Finn Toni Nieminen in 1994.

The whole area has been totally upgraded and also hosts a 566 metre long zip wire next to the flying hill. It was closed when we visited, to my relief, but we went up the chairlift to the top of the main ski jump and peered over to look at the dizzying drop – massive respect to the fearless souls who plunge down it…

Safely at the foot of the jump is the impressive Nordic Centre, which hosts an amazing indoor cross-country ski facility, wind tunnel where you can experience the feeling of flying, and a fascinating museum that chronicles Slovenia’s long and proud history in the ski jumping tradition. Well worth a visit.

David Vine was excited to be in Kranjska Gora all those years ago, and so was I – a resort full of enjoyable surprises, unexpectedly good skiing and great family value. If you are looking for a family ski holiday or one with a mixed ability group that won’t break the bank I recommend you put Kranjska Gora on your shortlist.

 

KRANJSKA GORA FACT FILE

Jan Henderson travelled to Kranjska Gora with Crystal Ski Holidays (www.crystalski.co.uk; 020 8610 3123) who offer a week’s full board at the four star Hotel Kompas in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia from £619 per person (based on two sharing) including flights from London Gatwick to Salzburg and transfers (price given is for departure on 12 January 2019). Direct flights available from all major UK airports.


The Douro Queen sets sail

'Gilbert & Sullivan’ on the Douro

Professor Ian Cooper, international business author and travel writer discovers the traditions of Gilbert & Sullivan on a Saga Travel Douro river cruise...

Which of the following would you choose to do: listen to music, sample some of the world’s best port wines, or enjoy a leisurely cruise? 

Here is some really good news. On the ‘Gilbert & Sullivan On The Douro,’ Saga Travel river cruise that my wife and I were lucky enough to check out recently, you don’t have to choose at all. You can do them all!

Our seven nights Portuguese adventure began with a short flight from London to Porto and an included seamless transfer to the Douro Queen river cruise ship, chartered by Saga Travel. 

It is a fact that in the last five years, the popularity of river cruising has massively increased. This positive trend has given river cruise operators however, the business challenge of how to differentiate their respective offerings. Saga Travel’s answer has been to create a range of special interest musical river cruises, to give an additional dimension and focus to the overall experience.

Iconic Bridge in Porto built by student of Eiffel

Without question it works. As we leisurely cruised the spectacularly scenic Douro Valley, past the terraced vineyards, we were entertained with two lectures and five concerts about the life and music of Gilbert & Sullivan, all professionally delivered by onboard performers Leon Berger and Carol Anne Wells.

They were both superb. Baritone Leon Berger, particularly known for his Gilbert & Sullivan repertoire, has guested with the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, and with many touring companies, singing over 100 operatic roles. Additionally, for several years Leon was also a collaborator with the late Donald Swann, performing in several of his operas and he is now archivist and editor of his music.

Pianist and singer, Carol Anne Wells, with her duel interest in classical and light music is well known as one of Britain’s first ‘crossover’ artistes. She has performed worldwide, on TV and radio and at many concert venues including the Royal Albert Hall. Commenting on one of her solo piano medleys, a listener commented: “she plays the piano as though it is an extension of her soul”. When not performing on for Saga holidays, she also has her own ‘Magic of the Movies’ multi media presentation. 

Our entertainers shared the traditions of this influential 19th century musical double act with great authority and fun. We heard how WS Gilbert, the librettist, wrote the witty often ‘topsy-turvy’ words and composer Arthur Sullivan wrote the music for their wonderful and influential operettas, initially brought to the stage in 1881 by producer and impresario Richard D’ Oyly Carte.

 

The beautiful Mateus Palace

Sitting in the ship’s lounge, cruising down the Douro drink in hand, we heard songs from Gilbert & Sullivan’s first joint venture Thespis and of course from all the major well known shows including: Trial by Jury; The Sorcerer; H.M.S. Pinafore; The Pirates of Penzance; Patience; Iolanthe; Princess Ida and many others. 

We also heard about George Grossmith, the lead performer in most of Gilbert & Sullivan’s big shows and a real superstar of his generation. The final concert looked at the influence of Gilbert & Sullivan on other performers such as the works of Tom Lehrer and Flanders & Swann. 

Both performers were always accessible to chat with cruise guests and to share their personal knowledge and enthusiasm.

 

Steps down at Lamego

When we weren’t enjoying the music, we were out and about discovering some of the beautiful and fascinating highlights that lie along the river Douro and beyond. Saga Travel had included several excursions. Amongst others these were:

Lamego - to see the elaborate Shrine of Our Lady Of Remedies, which is set atop nine steep terraces overlooking the town. We had free time to explore this impressive baroque church and the more adventurous and fittest amongst us had the opportunity to walk down into the city using the ornate staircase. Actually, no mean feat in a record heatwave of 46 degrees, especially as there are around 700 steps! Thankfully we didn’t have to walk up them!

Castelo Rodrigo - a small medieval village with a stunning hilltop location. The village is surrounded by a fortified wall and the view over the valley is dramatic. 

The history of the village is also particularly interesting. When the Jews were forced to convert or leave Spain in 1492, a number came to this village. You can see the marks on the houses of Jewish families, as well as the vestiges of a Mikvah (Jewish ritual bathing house).

Quinta do Seixo - After a ‘white knuckle’ coach ride up the mountain, with sheer drops and hairpin bends, we finally arrived in one piece at the Sandeman Port Winery at Quinta do Seixo. Here we enjoyed a tour of the estate, followed by an opportunity to taste two of their port wines. We definitely needed the drink to give us courage to face the coach journey down!

Salamanca – This was a highlight of the excursion programme for many. With its ornate sandstone architecture, Salamanca across the Spanish border, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site particularly famed for its old university buildings of golden-coloured stone and its famous cathedral, built in two parts.

Mateus Palace  - Remember Mateus Rose wine and the distinctive shaped bottle? Well, our excursion took us to visit the gardens to the palace, which gave its name and image to the brand and label. Other than that, ironically it has nothing to do with Mateus Rose wine. This is one of the loveliest country houses in Portugal and the immaculately manicured designed gardens hugely impressive and enjoyable.

PortoOur river cruise journey began and ended in Porto, Portugal’s second largest city. Here we visited yet another port wine manufacturer for the obligatory tasting and had the opportunity of a panoramic coach tour. Despite the horrendous traffic, we still managed to visit both the Cathedral and the famous Porto train station.

 

Scenery along the Douro river

The Estacao De Sao Bento, in Porto is listed as one of the most beautiful train stations in the world and attracts many visitors. It is not difficult to see why. The atrium, worth a visit even if you don't have a train to catch, is covered with 20,000 ceramic tiles. These depict scenes of Portugal's history, including various battles and royal events.

Overall cruise verdict? Well the music was first class, the scenery magnificent and there was a wonderfully friendly atmosphere onboard. Additionally, Saga Travel really understand their guests and look after them very well indeed. The arrival and departure day support was excellent and the onboard Saga escort Daniella, literally mothered everyone, always remembering any special needs. 

As regards the ship however, this Azul owned vessel chartered by Saga Travel, does not have the gloss, choices and service finesse of some of the more modern river cruise ships, operated by the leading specialist river cruise brands.  

TRAVEL FACTS

The Gilbert & Sullivan On The Douro Cruise includes: 7 breakfasts, 6 lunches and 7 dinners, included travel insurance, UK travel service, return flights and transfers, drinks reception and Captain's dinner, entertainment and activities on the ship, expert host, Gilbert & Sullivan talks, five onboard performances from your host and guest musician, Saga Cruise escort on board.

The Price: From £1,549pp departing 31/07/2019 for seven nights from LGW 

Contact: Saga Holidays 0800 300 400 or visit https://travel.saga.co.uk/cruises/river/where-we-go/the-douro/gilbert-and-sullivan-on-the-douro.aspx

Saga also offer general cruises on the Douro and other special interest river cruises too: https://travel.saga.co.uk/holidays/holiday-types/special-interest-holidays/music.aspx

Carol Anne Wells - www.carolannewells.co.uk


The Hotel Formentor is an exquisite Majorcan hideaway

Formidable Formentor… a spectacular and exquisite Majorcan hideaway

Guest writer Ruth Brindle discovers a luxury hotel in Majorca made famous by Hollywood royalty.

As if the sea view from my exquisite room is not enough romance for me, looking through the Hotel Formentor’s plush coffee table book about its history lays out its romantic beginnings with a capital R.

In 1928 an idealistic arts patron Adan Diehl decided that this spectacular spot on the northern coast of Majorca on Pollenca bay would make an ideal location for a hotel to attract artists, writers and performers. And he was right. Charlie Chaplin, Agatha Christie, Winston Churchill and Spanish Royalty have stayed here. Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier honeymooned at the Formentor and a special suite is now named after her.

Even today a connection with the arts remains with the annual Formentor Sunset Classics open-air concerts that have attracted artists such as Dame Kiri te Kanawa, Daniel Barenboim and Lang Lang. This is a truly spectacular event and worth booking early for as tickets go fast.

Music royalty of a different kind, including Lionel Richie have also performed at the hotel and Mick Jagger has stayed here too. 

Looking out over the now lush and verdant gardens with their palm trees and vivid flower beds – not least the most fantastic wisteria arbours I’ve ever seen - it’s hard to realise that this hillside was once completely bare. It’s really beautiful and a haven of tranquillity.

The Spanish hotel group Barcelo, the current owners, has thankfully paid great attention to the Formentor’s history while adding the luxury facilities and service that 5 star guests expect. It forms part of the group’s Royal Hideaway collection of top hotels. 

I felt like I was staying at a millionaire’s luxury villa with just a few select guests despite its 122 bedrooms and suites. If you really want to feel you are the only ones enjoying this luscious location there are six villas in the hotel grounds to choose from.    

Getting to the hotel takes an hour by car from Palma airport through the spectacular Sierra de Tramuntana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along a road with many hairpin bends and jaw-dropping views to amaze along the way. 

It attracts cyclists from around the world, a group of US enthusiasts were staying at the Formentor, and you can join them if you have the energy. Indeed there are many activities you can book here, including a guided trek off the beaten track around the rugged coast.

There is a popular lookout point as you climb up towards the hotel – Mirador Colomer. If you don’t like heights it’s not for you, but a great place to really appreciate the landscape.  

While my intrepid companions donned walking gear and set off exploring this area on an organised trek on one day of our weekend away, I felt that enjoying the hotel’s beautiful surroundings was a more attractive option for me. 

There are two outdoor pools, tennis courts, mini golf and it’s an easy stroll down to the beach where two of the hotel’s four restaurants offer everything from pizzas and burgers to a full-blown, laid-back lunch of paella washed down with the tipple of your choice. 

It’s a small public beach but you can hire comfy loungers serviced by the hotel with towels and umbrellas where you can enjoy some quiet moments. The sea is sparklingly clear and a delight to swim in. 

I can also recommend hiring one of the new, indulgent Balinese cabins near the hotel pools with a double bed, changing room, shower, robes, towels, sun loungers and even a TV. Book a massage to get the full luxury feeling. Sheer bliss.

Many activities both on land and sea are easily accessible from the hotel and I spent a special few hours on a traditional, wooden Majorcan fishing boat trip around the bay before enjoying a snorkel session then cheese and snacks washed down with local wine produced by our captain Damia. 

Another daytime outing to a family-run, artisan textile company Teixits Vicens, established 160 years ago was fascinating. We were given an insight into an ancient art as we watched the handmade linen/cotton cloth being made in many different designs. 

In the shop you can buy anything from cushions, to bags to deck chairs in the bright and bold  Mediterranean colours, www.teixitsvicens.com  

Next on the agenda was a visit to another family business, this time an olive oil producer. Solivella, which offers tours and tastings, produces several different flavours from its crops and exports around the world, www.olisolivellas.com   

But it’s the hotel itself and dining beside its many spectacular views that are the true stars of the Cap Formentor show. Enjoy your pick of a plush breakfast, lunch or dinner buffet on the hotel balcony at the El Colomer restaurant or choose an exquisite a la carte meal at El Pi.

The hotel prides itself on using local produce as well as vegetables from the hotel’s garden and, of course, fresh seafood. Then finish off the night being serenaded at the piano bar and you’ll never want to leave.

 

Travel Facts

Rates at Royal Hideaway Formentor start from £197 (223 euros), price based on two sharing on a complimentary B&B basis. For more information or to book please visit www.barcelo.com 

Norwegian serves Palma-Majorca year-round with up to six flights per week from London Gatwick on modern aircraft offering all passengers free Wi-Fi. Fares start from £29.90 one way / £62.50 return at www.norwegian.com/UK or dial 0330 828 0854.


Cycling on the cobbles through Bardolino's old town

Lake Garda… an Italian paradise with ice cream 

Guest writer Professor Ian Cooper, international business author, speaker and travel writer discovers there’s more to Lake Garda than just magnificent scenery…

I'm in Bardolino on the eastern side of Lake Garda, with my wife and friends. We are here to explore Italy’s largest lake, talk about our grandchildren and boast about how many pills we take!

No scenic clichés do the lake justice. Its stunning beauty has been an inspiration to some of history’s most famous literary figures. Tennyson, Byron, Dante, have all had their say about the lake and DH Lawrence, who lived and wrote here for a while, described Lake Garda as a “lake as beautiful as the beginning of creation”. However there is much more to Lake Garda than just soaking up the sun in this paradise with ice cream!

A lakeside view of Lake Garda

The first place we explored is Bardolino, our base for the week. We are staying in the unpretentious but sophisticated 4 star Nettuno hotel located just metres from the lakeside promenade and just five minutes walk into town. Gathered around a tiny harbour, and located just 25 kilometres north of Verona, Bardolino is an elegant tourist town, that has managed to retain its distinctively Italian character. It is vibrant; flat and easy to walk around with excellent stylish shopping; a mile long  market by the lakeside on a Thursday; a huge choice of reasonably priced restaurants and quite literally a 'gelataria’ on every street corner.

With a small population of just 7,000 people and buildings that date back to the 9th century, Bardolino is now driven by tourism and wine. More than 70 vineyards operate around the hills that surround Bardolino's shores, and particularly well known is the full bodied red that shares its name. Of course, in the interests of journalistic research I had to sample a glass of ‘Bardolino Classico’. The verdict? Good enough to decide I should sample it most nights! 

One of the advantages of Bardolino is its location in the middle of the eastern side of the lake and by far the most congruent way to get around is by boat. Just a gentle 10 minutes stroll from our hotel is the ferry stop and from here it is possible to experience a cruise in the sunshine to check out several resorts.  Here are a couple I recommend.

One of the Lake Garda ferries

About an hour north lies Malcesine. The ‘must do’ here is the Malcesine Monte Baldo cable car, which reaches an altitude of 1760 meters. The glass enclosed cabin carrying up to 45 people slowly rotates offering a 360° view and the sensation of flying. 

Despite my dislike of heights, I braved this attraction, even occasionally opening my eyes! On a clear day, for people who have their eyes fully open the whole time, I am told you can see Riva in the North, to Peschiera del Garda in the south … a breathtaking panorama.

Another boat trip, this time to the South of the lake is to the very popular resort of Sirmione. The historical centre of Sirmione is pedestrianised, with its narrow winding lanes busy with tourists most of whom are again tucking into creatively flavoured ice creams. 

The town is dominated by a thirteenth-century castle, the Rocca Scaligera. The ruined Roman Villa Romana, at the end of the headland is large and impressive. The poet Catullus had a family home in the Sirmione area, so historically this site has been associated with him, and known as the Grotte di Catullo ('caves of Catullus'). 

The perfect way to see Lake Garda is by bicycle

So what else is there to see and do at Lake Garda if you really want to get physical? The two most popular activities are walking and cycling, and there are miles of safe pathways around this part of the lake. Renting a bike is easy and cheap... just €4 for a half day from my hotel. 

 I decided to take on and conquer the picturesque lakeside cycle route from Bardolino to Garda. At around six miles there and back, this was short enough for me to cope with, yet long enough to fool myself into believing I was getting some real exercise. 

There is the old saying about never forgetting how to ride a bike, but I obviously had! It is around 25 years since I had sat in the saddle for any length of time and it showed. 

My wobbly first 100 yards gave me several close encounters with hedges, trees, and several small children who were far more proficient on their bikes than I was. However, once I got my balance and nerve back, I was off like an Olympic cyclist.

Riding in the warm sunshine at the side of the turquoise lake with the heady aroma of honeysuckle in the air was simply bliss. A wonderful experience and I even stopped for a dip in the lake. 

Another great advantage of staying in Bardolino is its easy access to the historic and fascinating city of Verona, just 35 minutes away by public bus. Apart from the tacky and crowded ‘Juliet’s balcony’ attraction, Verona is also the site of many important historical landmarks and tours of the city are available. 

For music lovers, Verona is also home of course to the famous Verona opera in the massive amphitheatre and this season’s repertoire includes Carmen and Aida. Whatever you see this is a marathon musical experience that you will always remember, if only for the backache! An important tip here, if you are sitting in the famous stone steps, make sure you take advantage of the cushion hire facility.

To get the most out of Lake Garda you also need somewhere to relax in comfort, so it was great that our hotel was perfect for re-charging our batteries. The very welcoming 63 room hotel Nettuno was simply idyllic. The food and service was fantastic and the highly efficient and very entertaining Maitre d’ was always willing to get the chef to prepare special meals for those with special dietary requirements.  

Sadly, our week at Lake Garda, had gone much too quickly. We had run out of grandchildren photos and it was time to come home, but not before a final ice cream, and an attempt to try to capture the perfect sunset picture. Lake Garda is definitely one of those places you can return to and always find something different to do … and another flavour of ice cream!

 

Travel Facts

 

Flights: Professor Ian Cooper and his wife flew with easyJet from London-Gatwick to Verona, flight time just 1hour 45 mins, costing £228 for two people return with one hold bag: www.easyjet.com

Jet 2 also offers flights to Verona from both Manchester and Leeds-Bradford – www.jet2.com

Nettuno Hotel: A twin / double bedded room bed and breakfast costs from approx £170 in what they call a Comfort Room. Rooms are of a high standard and have air conditioning, in room kettle / a safe / mini bar. For further information: www.hotelnettunobardolino.com/en

Verona Opera: For further information about this season’s opera programme visit: www.arena.it/arena/en