Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Potatoes and asparagus - for pudding?

In France, invariably something new.  Whoever heard of potates and asparagus as a dessert? It's on offer at the Hotel les Prateaux, in Noirmoutier en Ile. Local bonotte potatoes which, in the manner of Jersey Royals, are much prized by cooks across France, and the asparagus are each whipped into a kind of mousse and servved with grapefruit anf dark chocolate. To tell the truth I wouldn't have idenntified the vegetables in a blind tasting but  the overall impact made it worth overcoming my initial scepticism. The island of Nomoutier, once linked to the  mainlad bya causeway which was submerged at high tide but now connected by a bridge. is off the coast of the Vendee region. The hotel is a few minutes from the sea which, with temperatures this week soaring into the high 30s, is almost as warm as the Mediterranean. It.s too hot to walk so a little vigorous swimming is esential  if you are to make it past teh main course and cheese to that extraordinary pud.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Favourite hotels: lost in paradise at the Banff Springs

Number 10 in an occasional series on special hotels

A striking image, taken by a photographer at the Banff Springs Hotel, shows the Hollywood star Ginger Rogers, perched on a rock, sketching a native American of the Stony tribe – in his full feathered headdress. It sums up at a glance the extraordinary history of this Scottish baronial-style pile in the Canadian Rockies, which has played host to a list of celebrities from entertainers to Kings and Queens. They have included bandleader Benny Goodman, Mickey Rooney, Marilyn Monroe, the Queen and her father, King George VI.

 I doubt they would have reacted as my wife and I did on one visit. The Banff Springs is possibly the only hotel in the world where you can have a marital just trying to find your room. It is a hugely confusing warren of corridors, sweeping stairways and little alcoves. We’d arrived late from London, where it was already about 3am. It was never going to take much to spark the flames. We had been given directions at the front desk but she couldn’t remember and I hadn’t paid attention. But we got there in the end and any residual irritation was quickly soothed by the gracious understanding of the staff when we retraced out steps to start all over again – and the comfort of the accommodation. Even if we had woken grumpy next morning we would have been cheered by what must be the finest buffet breakfast I have encountered in a lifetime of travelling - from cereals and fresh fruit to pancakes with maple syrup and crispy Canadian bacon, it groaned with just about anything that took your fancy. The Banff Springs is in Alberta, in the Banff National Park. It was conceived originally as a way to attract passengers to the Canadian Pacific railroad. It's so huge that it has no fewer than 12 place to eat – or 13 if you count the ice cream counter. They include the Waldhaus, which serves Bavarian style food, the 1888 Chop House (that being the year the original hotel opened), a sushi bar and an Italian Restaurant. And there’s the spa. I’m not a great spa fan. Usually I have to be dragged to them by my wife – but I must concede that I wouldn’t need to be coerced into spending more time in this one. Besides the usual opportunities to breathe cleansing air, lose gallons of sweat and be massaged, there are all manner of pools and waterfalls of different temperatures. For some years the hotel has been part of the Fairmont luxury stable. Its has its own golf course. You need never leave it in the evenings. You’re unlikely to feel you’re missing out on the action – and given its extraordinary pedigree, it is remarkably unstuffy. Though it has 770 rooms it seems to swallow them easily. It's A good place, after all, in which to get comfortably lost.

Friday, 26 June 2015

View the interiors of Loos

Adolf Loos, that is. The architect. Guided tours of three properties he designed in the Czech Republic city of Pilsen are now available. With more than a tinge of sadness, as it was for Pilsen’s eventually doomed Jewish community that he did much if his work after moving there from Vienna in 1907. 
The Brummel House

The tours sound riveting. Loos was a revolutionary who promoted the idea of clean lines and uncluttered surfaces as a reaction to the fussiness of much 19th and early 20th century design. The former apartment of the Kraus family on Bendova Street has a salon and dining room with glass clad walls that provided multiple reflections of guests. Dr. Josef  Vogel’s apartment on Klatovska Street has been refitted with exact replicas of his family’s furniture. And most spectacular is the Brummel house on Husova Street, converted and extended in its entirety by Loos and containing the original furniture he designed. 

Tours in English take place once a day on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets can be bought at the Tourist Information Centre on the Republic Square.  Tickers for a tour of the first two apartments described above cost around £6 or £4.50 for seniors. Brummel house tours cost about £10 or £8 respectively. 

Because they involve getting to upper storeys the tours are not suitable for travellers with limited mobility.

Walking trips to Haiti launched

Expect long haul tour operators to show increasing interest in Haiti. Some time ago I announced that tourism was set to help the Caribbean country overcome its troubled recent history. Following years of political unrest and the 2010 earthquake which caused so much devastation and grief the giant Carnival line had announced its intention to develop a cruise port on the island of Tortuga, just off the north coast. with the estimated creation of over 900 jobs. Now Ramblers Worldwide Holidays is to launch guided walking packages there, combining them with visits to the neighbouring Dominican Republic. The itinerary will include the Citadelle Laferriere, the largest fortress in the Americas and part of UN World Heritage Site. It was built on a high summit early in the 19th century by Henri Cristophe, a prime mover in Haiti's slave rebellion. The Haitians placed 365 cannon there as a defence against the French, from whom they has wrested independence - though the feared onslaught never materialised. Prices start at £3199 for 16 days on half board.

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Monday, 22 June 2015

Greece - snap up deals but take cash in case

Heading for Greece? The crisis drags on. Will Greek banks have to clamp down on withdrawals? What should you do about money?

The obvious precaution is to take plenty of cash and split it between you to reduce the risk of loss or theft. If you've any choice in the matter, pick a hotel with in room safes. Maybe check how much cover your travel insurance provides. To get the best rate - and the euro has crept above 1.40 to the £ this week  - consider ordering in advance for collection at the airport.

Will plastic be accepted? There is a possibility that at some point ATMs may not function, though the immediate danger appeared to have receded and one credit card company notes that it would be possible for banks to continue allowing the use of foreign debit cards. Credit cards should be accepted - but as payments go into the bank accounts of traders including restaurant, bar and hotel owners they may be much keener to be paid in hard cash. 

Should you cancel your holiday? No. Provided you take note of these precautions there's unlikely to be serious disruption. If the worst come to the worst there won't be sudden switch back from the euro to the drachma. Greek life must go on. Besides, they need your money more than ever. 

Lourdas Beach
Meanwhile - unsurprisingly - there are some pretty good last minute Greek holiday deals around. For example, Sunvil has knocked up to 40% off the price of some mid-July packages. The best saving is on a week at the Lourdas Beach apartments, right on the sea in south Kefalonia, with flights from Manchester on July 11 - down from £679 per person to £409. The equivalent holiday from Gatwick is down from £624 to £489. There are also big reductions in the price of holidays in Thassos and south western Crete.

Favourite hotels: an auberge for runners and riders

Number 9 in an occasional series on special hotels

The first time I stayed in the pretty village of Le Bec Hellouan the voie verte came as something of a surprise. I came across it whiole striking out across the green Normandy countryside on a run and took it in a southerly direction, towards Chateau d’Harcourt, covering several traffic free miles past lush meadow on a lovely even surface, shaded by trees.  

The voie verte is part of a former railway line. At present it runs for some 25 miles from Pont-Authou to Evreux via Le Neubourg.  But there are plans to extend it to the northwest, as far at Pont-Audemer.  If you take bikes with you to France or – like me – pack the running shoes wherever you’re going, l’Auberge  de l’Abbaye in Le Bec Hellouian is a lovely place to stay.

A comfortable day’s drive from Calais it’s a creaky, 18th century property set back from a quiet main street. Its ten rooms have renovated bathrooms and free wi fi. A three course dinner – which could include asparagus in pannacotta, roast veal with peach sauce and a dessert – for around £20. 

A stone’s throw away is the Abbey de Notre Dame du Bec, founded in 1034, which supplied two Archbishops of Canterbury in the 11th century and had provided Bishops of Rochester and various abbots to English religious institutions.
You could pedal gently to the medieval Chateau d’Harcourt, venture a little further to the magnificent 17th century Chateau du Champ de Bataille  or go all the way to Evreux with its enormous cathedral dating from the 11th century.  

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Favourite hotels: Tallinn's Savoy Boutique Hotel

Number 8 in an occasional series on special hotels

As I awoke on the final morning of my stay at the Savoy boutique hotel in Tallinn water was dripping gently from a light fixture in the bathroom. Though it was of little consequence to me I reported it to the front desk, lest it should play havoc with the electrics. When I checked out I was presented with a gift, splendid in its originality as an apology. It was a loaf of dense Estonian black bread*, just made to be eaten with something as sharp as a soused herring.

The previous evening I had eaten with colleagues at a Georgian restaurant in the old heart of the city. It was a Sunday and there seemed little point heading for a bar, so we repaired to the hotel for a nightcap. The bar was closed. There were, after all, no other drinkers. But they took pity on us and produced cold beers in any case. It's touches such as these that make a good hotel. 

The Savoy is housed in a building from around the end of the 19th century. It has a marble staircase with an elegant, curved, wooden bannister. My room looked out on a square which could be a little noisy on a hot weekend night - and if you suffer from even the slightest mobility problems you should perhaps ask for one with a shower. My bath had probably the highest sides I have encountered. But on the plus side- unusually - the amenities included bath salts along with the shampoo and other extras.There were slippers and fluffy robes and while the bedroom was a fairly compact it had well chosen, operand style furniture, free wi fi, a safe incorporating a powerpoint for laptops or other devices, and a hair dryer. Breakfast was an excellent buffet, including fresh fruit and yoghurt, boiled and scrambled eggs, bacon and pancakes - and good coffee. The hotel has its own restaurant.
However, its the ambience of the Savoy that makes it such a good choice - and its location. It's only a short stroll to the old town, the remains of whose walls date mostly from the 14th century. Minutes away are streets rich in baroque buildings, the superb historical museum - and a wide range of shops and restaurants. 
Ancient defences

Rates are surprisingly modest for such a comfortable, convenient property. posted rates starting at £93 - including breakfast - for midweek stays in late June.
*Estonians have countless recipes for black bread, which is often baked at home. You can see one at