Gabriella Le Breton

An experienced and imaginative freelance writer
specialising in skiing, cruising, adventure and luxury travel.

Today in the life of a travel writer

 

When I tell people I’m a travel writer, it invariably sparks some gentle abuse followed by a series of questions about how I get away with being paid for being “on holiday”. I frequently think I have the best job in the world, but budding travel writers be warned: it’s a career that pays more handsomely in experience than cash.

 

The travel editor of a national newspaper hit the nail on the head when he described travel writers as “Champagne paupers” – when I'm researching a feature abroad, I might be sipping Dom Perignon in a sumptuous chalet after a day’s heli-skiing but, when I'm back home, chances are you'll find me scouring the shops of Clapham for bargains... 

 

The purpose of this intermittent blog is, therefore, to share the ever-changing routine of a travel writer – both the highs and the lows - with those curious about the reality of this extraordinary job.  

 

 

11 April 2017 

Why travel writers write

You know you've left it too long to update your blog when a) nine months have elapsed since you last wrote an entry and b) a reader offers to write a blog for you. Yes, I have been spurred into action here by Marcin Remarczyk, who read a feature of mine in the Financial Times about monoskiing in Val Thorens, was inspired to try the sport himself and then shared his experience with me. 

 

Despite my long absence from this blog, I have been busy: I've written and published The Ultimate Ski Book; become a kayaking addict, exploring the rivers and coasts of Kent and Normandy; visited and reviewed some 30 hotels in Kent for The Telegraph; tried monoskiing in Val Thorens and ski racing in Hintertux; joined a Freeriding Camp in Engelberg with professional freeriders; tried out the newly lift-linked St Anton am Arlberg ski area; spent an entire month driving and skiing around the Alps in a VW campervan; been ski touring in Kitzbuhel; and visited the iconic ski village of La Grave, which faces an uncertain future. 

 

In the midst of all this travelling, skiing and writing, it's hard to find time to keep up with my feature deadlines, let along this blog. And it can be hard to keep in mind just why I do this magical, experience-rich and income-poor job, other than to travel and ski as much as possible. So it was brilliant to receive an email from Marcin, who is the real reason my fellow travel writers and I do continue with our dying art: to inspire people to try out something new. I hope you will enjoy his guest blog: 

 

Monoskiing with limited skiing experience – an account from the war zone, by Marcin Remarczyk

Even more unique than you think

Stepping into the only ski school to offer monoski lessons in Val Thorens (and believe me, there are plenty of ski schools), I am being met with curiosity and amazement alike from the two friendly ladies as soon as I mention the M-word. You could be forgiven for forgetting that this is one of the world’s key monoski hubs. As I start arranging a lesson, I am asked about my ability on Alpine skis. My answer to this question turns the mood in the SkiCool office to sheer bewilderment. Both women try, passionately, to discourage me from getting onto the monoski since I'm not an experienced Alpine skier. At this stage even my French friend Valerie, who had monoskied many years ago, decides to break ranks and agrees it's a bad idea. Frankly, this only motivates me more to try it out for myself.

 

So, having booked the lesson, next stop is monoski hire. And you guessed it, there is only one place from which to rent a monoski in all of Val Thorens. You get the sense monoskiing is a fairly exclusive pastime… Bumping into a fellow monoskier appears even less likely than encountering another one of the rare Saabs I drive on Surrey roads back home.

 

Arriving at the ski rental shop in the heart of the village the inevitable question about my (lack of) Alpine skiing experience is asked early by the no-nonsense gentleman behind the counter. Although I have to admit that over the next few minutes we manage to build some kind of rapport. “Do you know Jeffrey’s Bay?” he asks. I'm about to respond “Yes …” as I have spent much time in South Africa and know Jeffrey’s Bay as a favourite amongst surfers but he’s already moved on. “People know that there are sharks and they still surf, thinking nothing will happen …. and then there’s a shark attack … and they lose legs or arms.” This is his disconcerting response to hearing I am eager to learn to monoski despite my limited skiing experience. I am sure you agree it’s a rather odd analogy. One that might work to discourage others, but didn’t work with me…

 

Finally onto the ski

So, the morning in late March arrived and, somewhat forebodingly, the weather turned into cloud and fog after six uninterrupted sunny days. Was this now the final attempt to stop me from getting onto the monoski? Perhaps, but it was too late…  Equipped with one ski and two poles I greeted Jérôme, one of Val Thorens’ rare monoski instructors, who introduced himself with a friendly “Call me J”. It seems we were both rarities: I was his fifth monoski student of the season. Yes, fifth!

 

From the very start, monoskiing gives you a special sense of occasion. It feels different, perhaps slightly peculiar, but is bags of fun. And it does not seem to matter that you fall every few seconds, you get up and try it again because it is simply hilarious. The key challenge – and what Jérôme says is so counterintuitive - is trying to convince the brain to follow instructions rather than its own survival instincts. By the time you process this, it’s usually too late and your face is already in the snow. The fact that Jérôme, sorry J, and I garnered so much attention from other skiers and instructors only reinforced to me the unique place monoskiing has in winter sports.

 

An hour or so on the monoski was just enough to make me take some turns without falling. However, am I glad to have done it? Absolutely! And I would have not done it had I not read Gabriella’s compelling article about Val Thorens’ revival and its monoski tradition in a December issue of the Financial Times Weekend. Merci Gabriella!  

 

 
 
 
4 July 2016

From April in the Alps and May in Devon to June in the Cotswolds and July in Kent

Judging by the fact that my last blog was posted in March 2016, some three and a half months ago, you might be forgiven for thinking I'd fallen off a mountain or given up my day job. Happily, neither of these are the cause for my radio silence, which is simply the result of a maelstrom of work combined with the full-time fun & games of being married, living and working in a building site, and never quite finding time for my blog.

 

So, here's an update on what I've been up to recently. Rather than send you to sleep with a monologue, I'll skip over some brilliant trips that deserve infinitely more detail that you'll find in features running in newspapers and magazines soon.

 

April in the Alps: I always adore April, which offers up warm spring ski days as well as early hints of the summer to come. My April saw me visit the freshly renovated Haus Hannes Schneider in Stuben, a sleepy hamlet in the St Anton am Arlberg ski area. The childhood home of Johannes "Hannes" Schneider, one of the world's most formative ski pioneers, the house has operated as a small restaurant for years and has long been a favourite of mine while skiing in the area. When I heard it had closed, I was gutted. When I heard that a couple of Americans had bought it and were turning it into a plush chalet, I was furious. When I was invited to visit, I was intrigued. And when I got there, I rather unwillingly fell in love with it.

 

Fortunately, the Americans in question have immense respect for Schneider (more, in fact, than many locals) and they worked with the owner of Lech's Hotel Kristiania, Gertrud Schneider (no relation to Hannes), to renovate his home in a stylish, artistic yet unpretentious fashion. Dotted with black and white photographs of Schneider, the chalet is crammed with intriguing pieces of original art, fabulous designer furniture and quirky details. In short, it quickly became my absolute favourite chalet in the Alps. It's great timing to launch a plush new chalet in what could be regarded as a St Anton backwater, because this winter Stuben will benefit from high-speed chairlift links to the St Anton ski area, which will become Austria's largest lift-linked ski region.

 

April by the Lakes: The end of April saw me head for warmer climes, the beautiful Lakes Como and Garda in Italy. I could wax long and lyrical about this trip, which was easily one of the most enjoyable in my career,  thanks in no small part to being loaned a Maserati GrandCabrio to navigate my way around… What a treat it was to burn around the winding, scenic lake roads in such a beautiful, roaring and quintessentially Italian set of wheels. I also had the opportunity to stay in the best hotel I've ever stayed in, Villa Feltrinelli. You can read the full account of my trip very soon in Elite Traveler magazine but, in short, if you can warrant spending £850 for one night in an hotel, do it, at Feltrinelli and you'll never regret it.

 

In May I spent a magical few days in Salcombe, Devon a place I've loved since I first started spending summers there aged 14. Then, inspired by my Arctic Marathon in February, I hauled myself around London for Walk the Walk's annual MoonWalk, discovering that walking a full marathon around the city in one night proved a far greater physical challenge than Nordic skiing a marathon in the Arctic.

 

In June I enjoyed three days in the tranquil, watery idyll that is Log House Holidays in the 

Cotswolds. The name of this family-run enterprise doesn't really do it justice, calling to mind simple lumberjack huts rather than eight impressive timber lodges dotted on the shores of a lake in 140 acres of landscaped nature reserve, complete with private hot tubs. It was so brilliant that I've booked the largest lodge, Mayo Landing, for a weekend in June 2017 to celebrate my 40th birthday (you have to book far ahead as the place is deservedly popular). When a penniless travel writer spends her own money on a holiday, you know the praise is heartfelt!

 

In the meantime, I've  been visiting various hotels in my local county, as the Kent expert for the Telegraph's hotel section, The Hotelegraph. Kent is enjoying a period of well-deserved attention for its superb food, beer and wine as reflected by one of my locals, The Sportsman, winning the prestigious title of the UK's Best Restaurant 2016. As a newcomer to Kent (known as a DFL, or Down From London), I'm thoroughly enjoying getting to know                                                                                                          my 'hood, proving that you don't have to roam far to reap the benefits of travel. 

 

 

24 March 2016

Getting under the mink-lined skin of Courchevel

During a press trip to Courchevel earlier this week, the phrase "Everything happens for a reason" came up frequently. It was particularly apt on this occasion for several reasons but, primarily, because a sudden onset of intense abdominal pains with fever and D&V upon arrival in Courchevel on Saturday meant that I a) got to spend a lot more time than usual in my hotel; b) learned to ski gently, on piste; and c) actually enjoyed lazy, two-hour ski lunches. While these might not be radical experiences for the typical ski holiday-maker, they generally are when you ski for work on action-packed press trips and ski somewhat obessively, loathe to miss a second of valuable ski time. 

 

 

I was in Courchevel to visit the new hotel White 1921, the latest boutique offering from the uber chic LVMH group. Wedged between Louis Vuitton and Dior in the heart of town and a short stumble onto the pistes, White 1921 is every bit as sophisticated, luxurious and beautiful as you'd expect. However, it's also surprisngly low-key: decor in the 26 bedrooms is contemporary minimalist but comfortable, with quirky little wooden toys adding a dash of humour. I loved the low-lit Grand and Petit Salons, where simply excellent breakfasts and afternoon teas are served by the young, fun and efficient staff. Sure, the little Ski Shop, run by the suave and knowledgable Benoit, stocks swanky LaCroix skis and cashmere Bogner ski tops but Benoit is clearly unfazed by brands and entirely dedicated to sorting you out with the best kit for you. Oh, and he helps you struggle into and out of your ski boots each morning and afternoon, which is rather nice.  

 

 

It's hard to put your finger on it but, basically, White 1921 feels more like a home than a hotel. And this is not what I was expecting from a swanky new Courchevel hotel. Not at all. And, although I wasn't exactly physically comfortable during my stay, I could not have chosen a better spot in which to be forced to stay in bed for hours on end, looked after by attentive and caring staff. 

 

Feeling considerably better the next day, I was issued with some snazzy LaCroix skis by Benoit, which were about half the width of my usual fatties. Skiing gently on Courchevel's famously manicured pistes with intermediate skiers under azure blue skies, thoroughly enjoying the nippiness of my skis, I came to realise why people love this kind of skiing. It was great! I was actually carving properly, moguls felt effortless, and working on my technique was really good fun.

 

And then there were the lunches... For once my appetite for rest far exceeded my appetite for food, which was a crying shame given the quality of cuisine offered by La Soucoupe and Cheval Blanc. And, sitting on sun-drenched terraces surrounded by beautiful people quaffing Champagne was a rather lovely way to recuperate from happy mornings pootling around the pistes. All in all, feeling a bit under the weather actually enabled me to see, and enjoy, Courchevel for what it does best: flattering piste skiing on top-notch skis, indulgent lunches and, if you want it, unpretentious luxury (with plenty of excessive luxury should you want that!). It's a way of skiing I could definitely get used to, particularly on these long spring days...

 

 
 
5 March 2016

Everyday women (and Jim) achieving extraordinary things in the Arctic

I love my job. It enables me to travel to exotic climes, stay in swanky hotels and enjoy experiences that I couldn't possibly afford on the income it generates. Over the past week, on assignment for The Telegraph in Swedish Lapland, I've loved my job even more than usual: it's given me the opportunity to travel deep into the Arctic Circle, test myself physically by backcountry Nordic skiing over 70km in three days, and spend a night sleeping on ice at the original Ice Hotel. Most importantly, however, this trip enabled me to meet 19 truly remarkable women, and one brilliant man, and become part of the Walk the Walk family.

 

Walk the Walk is a grant making charity dedicated to raising money and awareness for breast cancer causes. Celebrating its 20th birthday this year, Walk the Walk is the "baby" of Nina Barough, herself a breast cancer survivor. Astonishingly, the charity has raised over £100 million (and counting) to date. In addition to this crucial monetary contribution to fighting breast cancer, Walk the Walk has another invaluable impact on the daily life of women (and men) across the country. The charity raises funds by inviting supporters to take part in challenges, from half and full marathon night-time walks in cities in the UK (wearing decorated bras to highlight the breast cancer cause) to marathon distance walks along the Inca Trail and cross-country ski marathons in the Arctic. Participants raise sponsorship and are issued with impressively detailed and achievable training plans in advance of each challenge. In this way, Walk the Walk not only encourages and enables supporters to embark on memorable adventures but also to incorporate walking into their daily life. 

 

I don't have the luxury of going into depth here about the magical experience of travelling along The King's Ski Trail with the brave women and man who formed our Arctic gang; you'll have to wait for my Telegraph feature to be published I'm afraid. Suffice to say, I feel deeply privileged to have been able to join the adventure and to have shared it with such special people.

 

I was one of few participants who had not already taken part in at least one Walk the Walk event - husband and wife team Jim and Gill (pictured here with me during our husky taxi ride to the airport) are taking part in no fewer than nine events this year and have raised nearly £30,000 for Walk the Walk over the past few years through the many challenges they've completed. It would appear this is a highly addictive endeavour… Thus you find me freshly signed up to the May 2016 London Moonwalk (which has already raised £294,841 and counting), the second of what I hope will be many more Walk the Walk adventures to come.  

 
24 February 2016

SKI BUDDY/HONEYMOON IN ZERMATT

What does a ski journalist do for her honeymoon? Ski, of course! Fortunately my new husband (I'm still growing accustomed to that word, apologies in advance for repeated use of it here) is as passionate about skiing as I am, so planning what to do for our honeymoon was an easy decision to make. What was less obvious, however, was our choice of buddymoon - going on honeymoon with buddies rather than a deux, as is more typical.

 

For those of you who have been through the process of organising a wedding, you'll know it's quite a mission... Even our relatively small wedding required huge amounts of "wedmin", leaving us both wondering more than once why we didn't just elope. However, it was a magical whirlwind of a day that I wouldn't change for the world. Indeed, we're both still up on cloud nine two weeks afterwards, a feeling of elation (and mild hyperactivity) that made the choice of a buddymoon perfect for us. After all, we live in the countryside and rarely see our friends, so were eager to be amongst them as long as possible! 

 

Departing on Monday after the wedding, we met up with a bunch of friends in Zermatt, kicking off the buddymoon in suitable style at the swish new 1818 restaurant. Regaling our buddies with tales of the wedding was the perfect way to relive the day, and keep the magic alive for a bit longer, further helped by finding our bedroom at the Le Petit Cervin hotel strewn with rose petals and boasting heart-shaped swan towelgami. 

 

We'd planned a rather active trip out in the Alps, plotting to ski tour from Zermatt to Alagna and back, with the occasional helicopter drop to help us along the way. The whole thing was masterminded by a new tour operator on the ski scene: Peli-ski. By no means new to travel, Peli-ski is the winter branch of the long-established Peligoni Club, a hip complex on the Greek island of Zakythos comprising a club house with spa, pools, bar and restaurant as well as swanky villas and a watersports centre. With so many loyal summer customers clamouring for tips on how to plan their winter holidays, Ben Shearer, director of the family-run business, took the plunge and launched Peli-ski. 

 

Admittedly, just because you can organise awesome beach holidays it doesn't automatically follow that you can piece together equally brilliant ski trips. However, what sets Peli-ski apart from other ski tour operators is that the small team truly knows its ski stuff and its intention is not to sell a particular chalet or destination but to create a bespoke winter holiday for guests they've known for many years. As the enthusiastic young Shearing said over an apres-ski beer: "We want to open people's eyes to what's possible in the mountains, to dare to risk the unknown, safe in the knowledge they have our support. We want our guests to treat us a bit like Google meets TripAdvisor - a real person they know and can trust to deliver a holiday that will surprise and delight them."

 

Anybody who has had the pleasure of visiting the Peligoni Club in Greece will have met Ben - he lives there throughout the season, running his family business with vigour, passion and dedication. As we were piecing together our ski buddymoon itinerary with Ben and his ski expert, Hamish Gordon-Lennox (previously at Scott Dunn), it was apparent that they were truly listening to our group's desires, not trying to shoehorn us into a bog standard ski trip. We were eager to ski tour as much as possible, wanted to stay in mountain huts, and indulge in the odd helicopter drop. The itinerary they created for us ticked every box. They liaised with a specialist ski shop in Zermatt to bring in ski touring kit, sourced two excellent Mountain Tracks ski guides and even booked in some fabulous lunches in Zermatt's legendary restaurants.

 

The only thing Peli-ski couldn't book in advance was the weather. And, much like on our wedding day, it didn't really behave. Strong winds messed with my hair here in England and closed the lifts at the top of Zermatt, meaning we couldn't ski across to Cervinia on the first day of our trip. This had knock-on implications for the whole itinerary and required extensive debates with our Peli-ski hosts and the guides. Despite the fact that the stormy weather ultimately resulted in us doing no ski touring, only completing one (fantastic) heli-drop and never making it across to Alagna, we had a fabulous trip. Peli-ski and the guides quietly got on with making alternative plans each morning, afternoon and evening, providing us with options in a calm, positive way. Winter plans made in the Alps are always subject to change but the way in which Peli-ski responded to Mother Nature's fickle behaviour certainly proved to me that this is an outfit destined for success, and should be on the speed dial list of any flexible, adventurous traveller looking for something different. But then, as Ben said: "I believe in inspiring people to want to do something, not telling them to do it." 

 

 

26 January 2016

Getting to know Verbier with a Great British Explorer, Tom Avery

It’s not often that you get to spend the day skiing the breadth of one of the world’s best ski areas with one of the world’s most successful explorers, and then listen to him chat about his expeditions over oysters and Champagne that evening. However, book a ski holiday with Ski Verbier Exclusive, co-owned by explorer Tom Avery and long-established Verbier chalet expert David Pearson, and that’s exactly how you could spend your holiday.

 

I’ve just returned from three action-packed days in Verbier, staying in Ski Verbier Exclusive’s stonking new property, Chalet Chouqui, with Tom and some fellow journalists. Set in the Ruinettes area of Verbier, just below the Savoleyres ski lift and a 3-minute drive from the Medran lift, Chalet Chouqui is all about restrained luxury. Don’t get me wrong, there are two connected chalets comprising a private cinema with red leather reclining chairs, a low-lit bar well-stocked with complimentary tipples, a 15–metre indoor swimming pool, outdoor hot tub, games room, eight beautiful double rooms and a bunk room. Furthermore, there’s a team of chefs worthy of equal praise as those whose food I was feasting on in Courmayeur a couple of weeks ago (see my blog below). And yet, despite all these bells & whistles, Chouqui’s classic interiors, with fragrant larch wood, furs, tweed and pony ski galore, and unpretentious air make it extremely easy to settle into. Actually, with prices starting at £1,500 per person per week, it's scarily easy to settle into…

 

Just to be clear, when you book one of the seventeen properties in the slowly but surely expanding Ski Verbier Exclusive portfolio, you don't automatically get access to Tom Avery. It is, however, possible to book prime time with this humble explorer, author and adventurere extraordinaire, if you wish. With several seasons in Verbier under his belt, as well as the North and South poles and more mountain ascents than you can shake a ski pole at, Avery not only knows how to deliver a storming after-dinner talk but can also show guests some of Verbier's best-kept secrets. And, for both Avery and Pearson, this is the essence of Ski Verbier Exclusive: delivering luxurious accommodation and superb service but also enabling guests to scratch deep below the surface of the resort they love so much.

 

Over the three days we were there, under the expert guidance of the Performance Verbier instructors (including Toby Mallock pictured here, neatly photobombing my picture of Verbier from the Col de Mines), we enjoyed the empty slopes of Bruson and skied the entire breadth of the Verbier 4 Valleys ski area, covering 50km of pistes and 6,847 vertical metres (thanks to the Ski Line app for those stats!). We also dined in little-known restaurants like Brasserie 1 in Le Chable and Le Bois Sauvage in Les Masses (the very western end of the ski area), both of which have former Ski Verbier Exclusive chefs at their helm. Having eaten in a fair few mountain restaurants in my time, I can safely say these are two of the best I've had the pleasure of passing a sunny afternoon in for a very long time. It was a real eye-opener for me, particularly as I would have claimed to know Verbier pretty well before my stay with Ski Verbier Exclusive. As Avery says: "I like to duck the rope every now and again, and to help our guests to do the same. Safely." 

 

 

 

20 January 2016

From dry run to real thing

It's been far too long since I've written here - my last adventure was my honeymoon dry run and now I'm writing with just two weeks until the real thing! Suffice to say, life has been exceptionally busy in the intermin. I'm happy to report, however, that I've been back in my favourite environment, the Alps. I kickstarted my season last week, a little late this year but in true style, with the Mountain Gourmet Ski Experience in Courmayeur, Italy. 

 

Hosted by leading British ski tour operator Momentum Ski, this remarkable event involves some of the greatest chefs in the UK and, indeed, the world - Heston Blumenthal, Marcus Wareing, Sat Bains and Clare Smyth - cooking up a storm for 60 guests with some skiing dotted in between feasting. Here are some excerpts of a feature I've written about the event for In the Snow magazine. The full feature will run shortly, so you can read the entire account there. 

 

"Standing on top of the bar, wrapped around a stripper pole, Heston Blumenthal peers through his trademark glasses to pick out his next victim. Wielding a bowl like a Frisbee, albeit brimming with gigantic slabs of ice cream, he hurls it across the room at the "lucky" recipient. Unlike the previous guest, who caught Heston's airborne gift, this one misses entirely and the bowl crashes into the wall, splattering ice cream everywhere, including the pear tarte tatin it was destined for. DJ Niko, specially flown in for the evening from Verbier, switches up the music to Zorba the Greek and crockery starts flying through the air. Welcome to the Mountain Gourmet Ski Experience: an eye-popping insight into the mad world of Britain's best-known Michelin-starred chefs at play. 

[...]

The following morning, most guests squeeze in a couple of hours' skiing with instructors laid on by Momentum Ski before rolling into a "wine tasting lunch" at the cosy mountain restaurant, Chateau Branlant. [...] Just hours later, we're back up on the mountain, swaddled in ski kit (worn over our glamorous evening attire, obviously), ready to be whizzed to a nine-course gastronomic dinner at La Chaumière by a herd of snow mobiles. Hurtling up the hill, our path lit by flaming torches dotted alongside it, is somehow more memorable than the journey back down over six hours later after (amongst others) Sat's stupendous crab salad, Clare's delicate salmon and Marcus' unforgettable steak…

[...]

Come here with an expandable stomach, a sense of humour and love of fun and food, and it will prove the best £4,000 long weekend money can buy." 

 

 

As a kickstart to a ski season (and a wedding diet...), the Mountain Gourmet Ski Experience was hard to beat. Mornings spent skiing on fresh powder followed by langorous lunches prepared by exceptional chefs and evening spent zipping around the mountains on snowmobiles for gourmet dinners. What's not to like? Oh, and a special mention for these delicious Aperol jelly shots served by the team at the Royal e Golf hotel, something I'm determined to try at home - definitely safer than trying to replicate Heston's nitro cocktails... 

 

 

 

 

28 August 2015

Honeymoon dry run?!

Eight years ago, almost to the day, I set foot on my first cruise ship. I was in Athens and the ship was Windstar Cruises Wind Star, a 148-passenger, four-masted ship more akin to a luxury yacht than my preconceived idea (nightmare) of a cruise ship, and we were bound for Istanbul. I confess to being extremely nervous about what the week would bring but my week aboard completely converted me. Last week, sixteen cruises later, I boarded Windstar’s motor yacht Star Breeze (212 passengers) for an almost identical voyage, travelling with my fiancé. This was his first cruise and he his trepidation about the week exceeded mine eight years ago...

 

Regardless of how relatively small a cruise ship is, and even if it's called a yacht, you can't escape the fact that there's a yawning chasm between cruising and chartering a private yacht. Yet, after just a few days aboard Star Breeze, and being dwarfed by ships in ports expunging thousands of passengers at a time, the fiancé was asking the question uttered by countless small ship cruisers: “Why isn't there a word for this that better distinguishes it from big ship cruising?” Smaller ships can access smaller ports; create an intimate onboard ambiance; eliminate queues for dining and disembarkation; and offer small, bespoke group shore excursions. In the case of Windstar, the last include private gulet cruises from Bodrum, guided tours of Ephesus with lunch in a charming hilltop village and, included for all passengers, a traditional Greek dinner in Rhodes with local musicians and dancers. Star Breeze further proved that small doesn't make for dull - you barely compromise on the facilities of much larger ship, with spacious cabins, three bars, three restaurants, ample deck space and an excellent spa.

 

Not only was I intrigued to sail with Windstar again now that I had some cruise experience under my belt, I also wanted to find out whether it had changed since being bought by the American company Xanterra, known for its active US resorts. Word is that the new parent company was bringing a younger, more athletic crowd to the cruise mix… Sure enough, the average age of my fellow passengers was much lower than it was on my first Windstar voyage, helped by the presence of several (refreshingly well-behaved) children. When the crew set up the water sports marina off the back of the ship in Mykonos and Bodrum, there were plenty of takers for the wake boarding, kayaking and snorkelling, and the complimentary bikes made it ashore despite the roasting Greek heat. I am often one of the youngest guests on a ship but on this trip there were several couples in their twenties and thirties, looking just as content as the fiancé and I were. I also found the vibe onboard more casual than my first Windstar cruise – no formal nights here, just a lively sunset deck party with a BBQ, live music and dancing from the crew and many of the passengers.

 

I really wish there were a word that better describes the experience these small ships offer that might dispel the less appealing “cruise” connotations that simply don't apply. Until that word comes about, you'll just have to trust me that thirty really isn't too young to consider popping your cruise/yachting cherry. And that you're never too old to appreciate great 'towelgami'... 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 June 2015

In the Land of the Thunder Dragon

They say good things come to those who wait: this has certainly proved the case with Bhutan, a country I've longed to visit for 18 years, ever since first hearing about it from fellow travellers in Nepal. "The Land of the Thunder Dragon", also known as The Lost Shangri La, was rumoured to be the most pristine and culturally well-preserved kingdom in the Himalayas, a place that didn't have roads until the 1960s and where a ban on television and Internet was only lifted in 1999.  

 

However, almost as legendary as Bhutan's pristine landscapes and cultural heritage was the cost of visiting the country. Each visitor to the Kingdom had to pay a daily tariff of $250 (with a hefty daily supplement for solo travellers) and was further required to travel with a guide, which definitely put off backpackers looking to explore the country. As a policy, Bhutan's "high value, low impact" tourism has been a success, limiting numbers of travellers to those who truly want to visit, and can afford to, and preserving Bhutan's unique culture. However, the daily tariff rules are somewhat confusing - they vary with the seasons, are often absorbed by hotels (your daily tariff should include your accommodation, guide and access to attractions) and disadvantage solo travellers while favouring groups of three or more. Speak to a travel agent or hotel reservations team for enlightenment!

 

Regardless of how much money you spend in Bhutan, staying in simple "fooding and lodging" hostels, basic homestays or luxury hotels (COMO Hotels have two fabulous properties here, Uma Paro and Uma Punakha, both of which I stayed in - you can read my full review of them in the Evening Standard soon), you're guaranteed a truly extraordinary experience. Every single Bhutanese person I met over the course of the week was friendly, welcoming, well-informed and justifiably proud of their country. And what a country… Dwarfed by snow-capped Himalayan mountains, rice paddies glow luminous green in the sunshine with splashes of crimson and purple provided by rhododendrons at higher elevations near Paro and bougainvillea in the lower valley of Punakha. Over the course of an action-packed five days, our superb guide Karma whisked us up to the legendary Tiger's Nest monastery, playing local folk songs on his wooden flute along the way; recounted tales of Buddhist monks and deities in temples lit by flickering butter lamps; took us biking along a glacier-fed river to watch oxen ploughing rice paddies; and walked with us across countless suspension bridges bestrewn with prayer flags.

 

One afternoon Karma walked us to the remote hamlet of Bali where the architect Zowe Palep lived in the 15th Century. In designing the stupendous Punakha dzong, Bhutan's second oldest and largest fortress-like ruling and monastic centre, Palep is largely responsible for what went on to become Bhutan's trademark architectural style: white-washed mud buildings with low roofs and large eaves as well as intricately carved and painted arched wooden windows. Set against dense pine forests, these large buildings will typically hold several generations of one family and are strangely reminiscent of Swiss chalets. We chatted for a while with a local couple as they sifted buckwheat through bamboo baskets and their grandchildren, including a small albino girl known affectionately as 'chilip' or foreigner, played with a football amongst the chicken, kittens and dogs. This part of a Bhutan appears unchanged over the centuries, testament perhaps to the country's strict tourism laws. However, change is happening here, and fast, in the more urban areas. The capital, Thimphu, is awash with shops selling Western clothes and mobile phones; cafés serve Danish pastries and American cookies with free WiFi. So, my advice would be to visit this fragile Kingdom now, before it's robbed entirely of its innocence and children start demanding dollars from you rather than a smile and a wave. 

 

 
2 May 2015

Flying high in Iceland with Eleven Experience

Despite my unbridled passion for skiing, I sometimes find myself wondering what all the fuss is about when it comes to heliskiing. Admittedly, this is usually when I’ve just enjoyed a superb descent accessed by a few hours of ski touring up a mountain and I’m feeling physically fit and slightly Mother Earthly smug. Yes, generally speaking, I’m all in favour of “earning your turns” as opposed to taking the rich man’s option of being dropped at the top of different peaks to simply ski back down.

 

However, when I was invited to test out Eleven Experience’s heliskiing outfit in Iceland, I confess my holier than thou attitude melted quicker than snow before the spring sun. I have been fortunate to have already put a couple of Eleven’s fabulous properties to the test, staying at Scarp Ridge Lodge in Crested Butte, Colorado two winters ago (read my Telegraph Ski review here) and Chalet Pelerin in France in February. Travelling with Eleven Experience is all about upping the ante, not only in terms of laidback luxury and comfort but in terms of adventure. Cat-skiing on a private mountain in Colorado; heliskiing and helifishing in remote pockets of Iceland; bonefishing in the Bahamas; private boat trips along Amsterdam’s canals: it can all be arranged for you and is typically included in the (not inexpensive) accommodation prices.

 

The concept of Chad Pike, senior managing director of the private equity firm Blackstone Group LP and vice chairman of Blackstone Europe, Eleven Experience is essentially his property portfolio and a reflection of his passion for the great outdoors. Pike's plush lodges, chalets and town houses are staffed by experienced mountain and angling guides, cooks and managers selected by him for being similarly passionate, driven and unpretentious. Pike first came to Iceland to fish, tipped off by Orri Vigfusson, the green capitalist who established the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF) to halt the decline of salmon. Lured in by Iceland’s fish, Pike discovered its heliskiing and was equally hooked. He bought an old farm, Deplar, which he’s in the process of transforming into a typically impressive Eleven pad, running a small heliskiing operation based out of nearby Siglufjörður meanwhile. I like a man who ensures his ski guides and helicopters are running smoothly before building some pimping accommodation. And, while Deplar Farm is being completed, Eleven has booked out a comfortable hotel in Siglufjörður, the Siglunes Guesthouse, for the heliskiing season (April through May), bringing in a superb chef to keep standards high.

 

But enough about all that – what’s the skiing like? In a word: remarkable. Set to a backdrop of Iceland’s elemental and truly monumental mountains and fjords, with the ocean glittering on the horizon, simply standing on the remote peaks the helicopter drops you is awe-inspiring. Add to that light powder; narrow couloirs; vast open powder bowls; and peaks that haven’t just not been skied that day/week/month but possibly never before and it’s probably the best skiing I’ve ever had in my life. Of course it’s wildly expensive and there’s always the chance that the weather will close in and you’ll spend more time kicking your heels in the lodge or touring up the mountains rather than being up in the heli but that’s the nature of heliskiing. And somehow, it just seems to make it even better when you do get to ski.

 

 

 

 

20 March 2015

Colorado Hat Trick: Breck, Vail & Aspen

There are some who might argue that one shouldn’t mention Vail and Aspen in the same breath, let alone include both Colorado heavy hitters in one blog. Situated just two hours’ drive apart, the two resorts famously divide opinion, although only really amongst those who have a particular reason to love one (i.e. they do or have lived there). For the neutral bystander, however, both offer vast amounts of ski terrain, consistent snowfall, ample sunshine, slick lift systems and superb customer service. Aspen is a picturesque old town at the end of a canyon complete with a rich Victorian silver mining heritage while Vail offers a large, purpose-built largely pedestrianised resort allegedly modelled on a Tyrolean village (actually more Bavarian). Vail offers 5,289 acres of lift-linked terrain (although reaching its legendary back bowls does require a fair amount of travelling by chairlifts and traverses) while Aspen’s 5,246 acres are spread across four separate mountains, requiring a bus ride to get between them – of up to 20 minutes to reach the largest mountain, Snowmass.

 

Given that I was fortunate enough to live in Aspen for two years back in 2000, I can’t really present myself as an entirely neutral bystander, so I’ll point you to this article in The Telegraph by Dave Watts, one half of the duo behind Where to Ski & Snowboard, in which he explores the pros & cons of the two Colorado stars in far more depth. What I can say, however, having spent much of the first half of March in the two resorts, is that they both offer a truly superb ski experience. And actually, as you might have noticed from my title, I didn’t limit myself to two resorts but spent a few days in Breckenridge as well – the most popular American resort with UK skiers.

 

Although I just missed the generous snowfall that blanketed Colorado on 3 March, experiencing the ensuing “sun storm” instead (wall-to-wall blue skies and sunshine for the following fortnight), the snow held up brilliantly. With the exception of resorts like Deer Valley and Park City in Utah, it’s hard to beat the mountain safety, piste maintenance and grooming offered in Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen. When I attended the Breckenridge Ski Patrol morning meeting pictured here on the left on the Friday of Spring Break (with 20,000 skiers anticipated on the mountain that day), the concentration was palpable. The chat about bombs, Code Zeroes, windslab and lips was at times incomprehensible but I was transfixed and highly recommend the new Mountain Guiding Programme, which enables visitors to ski with a qualified guide and sit in on a Ski Patrol meeting.  

 

Yes, I’m biased but I genuinely do find it hard to fault the skiing in any of these three Colorado resorts. They each offer oodles of varied terrain from immaculately groomed cruisey runs to hike-to steep & deep ones. And, as you can see from this picture of Vail, they're not exactly crowded, even during peak Spring Break holiday. The lifties positively beam at you as they organise their short queues and help you onto the chairlifts. The restaurants might be bigger and brasher than their rustic Euro equivalents but they offer large portions of healthy salads, tasty stir fries and sushi (and not so healthy burgers & pizzas). Thanks to the hard-working Ski Patrol teams, there is no “off-piste” but avalanche-controlled, closely monitored backcountry terrain that’s swept for people at the end of each day, making challenging skiing safer. Ski in Aspen and you might find yourself chatting on the lift with extreme skier Chris Davenport and his kids or the Olympic snowboarder Chris Klug. You could enrol your daughter in a dedicated girls’ ski class created by the inspirational Lindsey Vonn in Vail and take a ride on North America’s highest chairlift in Breckenridge. Oh, and there are great big peanut butter cookies everywhere. And I just can't resist a peanut butter cookie… 

 
 
22 February 2015

Rediscovering simple pleasures in Norway

As you'll know if you've read some of my previous posts, I'm fortunate enough to stay in some of the world's plushest hotels and chalets. So, when my boyfriend planned a week's holiday for us in his native Norway, he decided he couldn't compete with the luxury properties I've become accustomed to and plumped for the opposite end of the spectrum: his uncle's log cabin, without electricity or running water, in the midst of dense, snow-choked forest miles from the nearest town. I confess I was slightly concerned about the cold - it weighed quite heavy on my mind as I revelled in the hot showers of ultra luxurious hotels like the Kulm and Carlton in St Moritz the week before, but am always up for a bit of wilderness, so packed my thermals and head torch and practiced my stoic, cheery smile.

 

The photo to the right shows you what was our home for a week - a picture of rustic perfection. A short snowshoe walk from the dirt road that we were usually the only ones to use, the cabin comprises a small bedroom and the main room, which we heated using an old wood-burning ceramic oven. This was also where we melted snow for our tea and "baths". Our only visible neighbour was the old sheep barn pictured below - we didn't see another person in our 'hood the whole time we were there although we did see plenty of animal tracks in the snow made by local hares, foxes and wolves.

 

Our days were spent snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and downhill skiing in the gently rolling hills around us, with a hugely fun day bombing around the slopes of Hafjell, a decent-sized resort near Lillehammer. As the evenings drew in, we prepared suppers of fresh salmon, prawns, salad and rye bread by candlelight and chattered away for pleasant hours. Those evenings are, without a shadow of a doubt, some of the happiest travel experiences of my life despite, or probably because, of the lack of electricity, water, phone coverage and Internet. We all need trips like this from time to time to remind ourselves of how little we actually need to be content, and to refresh our perspective on what's truly important in our lives. The tricky bit is to keep hold of that perspective once you're back in "civilisation". Perhaps I should build a little outhouse in my London garden so I have to don snowboots and a down jacket each time I need to visit the loo...

 

 

 

 

8 February 2015

Reliving my youth in LAAX with Powder Byrne's "gappies"

Given how much I love my job and how fortunate I am to travel, and particularly to ski, for a living, it’s not often that I feel deeply envious of others in a similar position. However, sitting in a bar in the Swiss resort of LAAX chatting with ten British youngsters the night before last, I confess that the green-eyed monster rose up within me. Bursting with the vibrancy of youth (the youngest was 19, the oldest 26), all but the three “gappies” (gap year kids) are qualified ski instructors teaching and living in LAAX. The gappies are several weeks into Powder Byrne’s season-long Piste 2 Profession course, which I was in town to get a taste of.

 

Powder Byrne is a high-end UK ski operator initially founded by Rory Byrne in 1985 to get strong skiers, and particularly corporate ski groups, out into the Alps ripping powder. However, as Byrne grew older and created a family, his pace of skiing slowed down and so the focus of Powder Byrne changed, pandering more to the needs of wealthy families looking for seamlessly organised ski holidays. Not only does Powder Byrne charter its own planes into smaller airports like Friedrichshafen (for Lech and Zürs) during February half-term to save its guests muddling around with the masses, it organises transfers, in-resort shuttles and ski tuition for young children (AKA Yetis), 10-14 year-olds (Snozone) and teens (PowderZone). Turned out in their dapper PB outfits, the resort staff are unfailingly well-spoken, polite and enthusiastic – they’ll book you a ski lesson, drive you to dinner, make your lunch reservations, you name it.

 

However, two things interested me in particular about Powder Byrne. First, the fact that its guests account for nearly 40% of all ski traffic into LAAX, a huge statistic for a relatively small and low-profile company. This appealed to me particularly as Flims, one of the three villages incorporated in the rebranded LAAX resort, is where I skied as a child and I’ve always had a soft spot for it as a result. Second, the Piste 2 Profession gap year course. In short, this full-season course (December through April) takes gap year students (several of them former Yetis, having grown up skiing with Powder Byrne) and puts them through a remarkably diverse season of tuition. All things going well, the “gappies” emerge in April with their BASI 2 ski instructor level qualification and several days’ experience instructing with an instructor job at the LAAX Ski School essentially guaranteed for the next season. During the course they also work with the local ski patrol, in the ski rental shop and behind the scenes at the resort’s major ski and snowboard events and spend a day or more learning climbing, ice-climbing, ski touring and snowboarding skills.  For many of them, the season is their first time living away from home, so additional skills come in the form of learning how to cook, share a house and clean. All in all, it’s a crash course in life and, more specifically life in the mountains. It’s got to be one of the most holistic and vocational gap year programmes I’ve ever come across, particularly in the ski industry. If it had been around when I was planning my ski seasons, I would have been there like a shot. 

 
6 February 2015

Skiing, Chemmy, Verbier: a holy trinity

After just two and half days’ skiing in Verbier with four-time Winter Olympian Chemmy Alcott and freeride queen Bella Seel, my legs ache in places I barely knew existed. The insides of my knees, my inner thighs and my glutes have been rudely woken from a deep slumber following my efforts to keep up with the UK’s most successful female downhill skier and a former professional freerider.

 

It’s not often you get the opportunity to ski with two such inspiring athletes but I was fortunate enough to join Chemmy and Bella on the first of a couple of on & off-piste weekends that the dynamic duo launched this winter. Together with a handful of fellow Londoners, I met them in Verbier, the resort where Bella has spent ten years instructing and knows like the inside of her hand, for a weekend of intensive ski training - and equally challenging partying.

 

Crashing the party early during a heavy snowstorm, I joined Chemmy and Bella for an afternoon’s unofficial powder bashing through the trees. Seeing them hurtling through tiny gaps in the trees and bouncing effortlessly off powder pillows, whooping with glee all the way, was a lesson in how to have fun in a whiteout. Keeping up with them was nigh on impossible and had me skiing harder than I have in several years.

 

Fortunately for my legs, the pace was slower the following day when the real instruction started. Hot off the back of a night that started with cocktails in the W Hotel and ended with a burlesque dancing show at the funky Etoile Rouge nightclub, via dinner at Le Rouge, I was extremely grateful for Chemmy’s measured approach to our on-piste day. It’s quite surreal watching a figure so familiar from Ski Sunday (in her racing days, not only in the current series as a presenter) talking to you and giving you drills on the pistes. The following day, I focussed on my off-piste skills with Bella, who really put me through my paces with an intensive morning of tight turns and arm work. You can read more about the weekend in my feature due out in The Telegraph soon but, in the meantime, if you’re up for an intensive, fast-track route to ski improvement (and a hangover), book yourself in for the next weekend, 6-8 March.  As you can see from this photo of me at the top of Mont Fort taken by Chemmy, I was having a pretty jolly time.

 

 

To finish, just a few words of praise for that old Verbier stalwart, Le Farinet, which was taken over by the British digital entrepreneur Lawrence Jones last autumn. Loyal followers of Farinet feared that Jones might jazz up the place too much and loose its boisterous, seasonaire vibe but I can vouch for the fact that it's lost none of its fun but gained plenty of style after the first stage of development. The bar appears little changed on first viewing although Jones showed me photos of just how much stripping back and structural improvements were made before the winter. Five bedrooms on the floor directly above the bar have been replaced by a slick breakfast room and some of the bedrooms have been redone already - think reclaimed timber walls, lime and red accent lights, vintage pony skin and leather armchairs and standalone baths. Yes, you can still hear the throbbing tunes emanataing from below but if you're in town to party as hard as ski, Farinet is the place to be.  

 

 

29 January 2015

On finding there’s more to St Moritz than just the glitz

Generally speaking, I prefer smaller, grittier ski towns to ritzy big ski resorts. When asked what my favourite resorts are, I’ll rattle off places like La Grave and Solitude well before Zermatt and St Moritz. However, when I was persuaded by a couple of American travellers in Nepal to do a ski season in Aspen (as opposed to Verbier as I was planning), I realised that a resort I’d essentially dismissed as all glitz and no backbone actually had a lot more to it.

 

Similarly, spending time in St Moritz again over the past few days has shown me that it really does pack a punch beyond the fur shops and jewellery boutiques. Sure, it takes excess to special levels and it can be hard to take people seriously when their sunglasses and fur ear muffs are bigger than their heads but it’s got some really fabulous skiing and a great vibe. In a January week when many European ski resorts are pretty dead, offering discounted lift passes to incentivise people to visit, St Moritz is positively buzzing. I was able to ski the FIS World Cup piste still stained with its lurid blue markings the day after the world’s finest & fastest had graced its fluid lines. While army troops cleared away the medals stage up on Corviglia, more of them were furiously building marquees on the lake below St Moritz and preparing the “turf” for the White Turf snow polo tournament which kicks off this weekend. And, in the midst of this hive of activity was the reason for me being here: the Gourmet Festival.

 

Now in its 22nd year, this annual festival sees local chef Retho Mathis gather together some of the world’s finest chefs to treat visitors to extravagant gourmet dinners, high teas and gala events held at St Moritz’s various 5* hotels. In celebration of 150 years of British tourism to St Moritz, this year’s festival was a celebration of Great Britain with nine of our top chefs cooking their hearts out for our benefit: Angela Hartnett, Atul Kochhar, Jason Atherton and Nathan Outlaw to name just a few. This was truly a celebration of British cuisine, and one I’m honoured to have attended. To stand in the Kempinski on the opening night, sharing a room with such famous chefs with eleven Michelin stars between them, was really something. Sampling two of their dishes over the course of the evening was even better J

 

With each chef assigned to a different hotel, visitors can then chose to enjoy an 8-course tasting menu by the individual chefs or take part in a Gourmet Safari, whereby they’re shuttled between the hotels to sample a course in each property, dining in the kitchen with the chefs. Unsurprisingly, the safaris are hugely popular and sell out quickly. I was fortunate enough to feast on both Angela Hartnett’s food at the Carlton and Atul Kochhar’s delights at the Kulm. Both were sublime celebrations of food which I’ll treasure for a long time – and have to ski hard to work off at my next stop, Verbier.

 
27 January 2015

Revisiting Les 2 Alpes

It’s six years since I was last in Les 2 Alpes and I’ve visited some 45 different ski resorts in the intervening period. However, it made a big impression on me then and did again on this visit. And not just because I enjoyed my first ever parapenting experience: within 45 minutes of arriving in Les 2 Alpes, I was dangling below a parachute miles above the town. It was a truly remarkable few moments, something I've dreamt of doing for many years and it totally exceeded my expectations. Floating above a cloud bank, we whirled around on the air currents in utter tranquility, marvelling at the beauty of the mountains around me. Then, as we descended into the tip of the cloud, rainbows were everywhere to be seen and the air was full of sparkle - truly magical. 

 

But back to why I'm a Les 2 Alpes fan: first off, there’s a lot of skiing to be found here – the pistes are extremely well groomed, numerous and varied and there’s a tonne of off-piste with seemingly endless lift-accessible options. Secondly, having picked my way around ice sheets, grass patches, rock gardens and shrubbery in Klosters, Val d’Isère, Tignes and La Thuile over the past few weeks, the snow in Les 2 Alpes, particularly on the pistes, is the best I’ve experienced all season. This has plenty to do with the fact that it was bitterly cold – down to minus 20 the day before yesterday – and the fact that it goes up to 3,600m up on the glacier. Thirdly, the lift system is good and being improved upon with plans for the retro “white eggs” gondola to be replaced next season. In the meantime, a new blue piste is being completed that will take skiers from the top of the ski area to the village and there’s also chat of a monster cable car linking Les 2 Alpes and neighbouring Alpe d’Huez in 2019. It’s very exciting to hear about resorts making significant investments like this although I’m selfishly less keen on Les 2 Alpes’ rumoured purchase of La Grave next year, as so much of La Grave’s appeal lies in its rustic, old school nature.

 

And when it comes to nightlife, Les 2 Alpes is anything but old school. In fact, this is a resort in which I feel instantly ancient. Herds of onesie-clad youngsters throng the pistes here, hailing predominantly from Britain, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Belgium. When not hurtling down the slopes they’re downing shots along the strip of bars, restaurants, hotels, shops and the odd tattoo parlour that line the main street linking the two old towns of Mont Lans and Venosc. It’s unashamedly rowdy, inexpensive and fun - I wish I’d known about it 15 years ago.

 

I also wish the winter had been better to us this year and delivered sufficient snow to really get involved with Les 2 Alpes’ off-piste terrain. Local man Damien Albert, who works closely with the excellent European Ski & Snowboard School, runs regular freeride camps out of the resort, which sound right up my street. So, the next time I come to Les 2 Alpes, I’ll book myself some time with Damien and remember to pack my onesie.

 

25 January 2015

Can the Americans beat us at our own chalet game?

 

It’s a punchy move for a young American company to barrel into the heart of French chalet land and try to improve on what us Brits have been doing really rather well for the past few decades. But a new chalet has opened this winter, Chalet Pelerin (pictured here on the left), that’s set to teach even the most established British chalet operators a thing or two.

 

Eleven Experience is essentially the R&R property portfolio of self-made gzillionaire Chad Pike: a selection of gorgeous homes dotted across the globe from Colorado and the Bahamas to Iceland and Amsterdam, where he likes to chill out with his family. Being the sharing type, Pike opens up these beautiful homes to Joe Public, complete with his hand-selected team of ski guides, fishing guides and chefs. It’s a fantastic concept and one that works particularly well in Crested Butte, Colorado where Pike also owns a mountain nearby where guests go cat-skiing each day in blissful isolation.

 

 
 

One of the latest Eleven properties to open to the public is Chalet Pelerin in the hamlet of Le Miroir near Sainte-Foy, 20 minutes’ drive from Val d’Isère. The chalet itself is nigh on perfect: four large double bedrooms, a kid’s bunk room, a fabulous open plan dining and living area with double-facing fire, a TV/games room and a superb spa area. Located right at the top of Le Miroir, it affords fabulous views over the hamlet and across the valley and offers a blissful sense of isolation. What really sets it apart though is the boot room (I kid you not - you can read more about it in a forthcoming feature I’m writing about the world’s best boot rooms) and the fact that everything is included in the Eleven Experience gig, from food & wine to lift passes, use of custom made Wagner skis, guiding, transfers, a professional photographer to take shots like this one on the right – even a day of heliskiing. Pike also owns a charming ‘alpage’ or mountain hut, to which we snowshoed up one evening from the chalet to enjoy a night of fondue and even cheesier dancing in candlelit perfection. Unsurprisingly, all this doesn’t come cheap but, if you want your ski holiday to get up to the eleven amp rating, you just have to suck it up and pay out, so start saving. 

 

 

15 January 2015

Blog Triptych - La Thuile, Megève & Klosters all for the price of one!

It's been a particularly hectic month with so much travel - and Christmas & New Year in between - that I haven't found the time to write blogs while I've been on the road. So, here you find my first blog triptych, a three-for-the-price-of-one if you like: one blog, three resorts.

 

December: On the verge of ordering two beers last month in one of La Thuile's après-ski bars, my boyfriend and I realised that credit cards weren’t accepted and neither of us had any Euros on us. Kicking ourselves, we apologised and made to leave but the bar lady waved off our lack of funds, insisting that we simply return the following day and pay then. Pouring our beers, she dished out a vast bowl of crisps for us before returning to her conversation with the local lift operators.

 

This kind of trusting hospitality is rare anywhere in the world but I’ve certainly never experienced it in a ski resort. However, La Thuile surprised me on many levels when I visited it a couple of weeks ago as you'll see if you read my review of the resort, and its very first five-star hotel, the Nira Montana, in the Telegraph here.

 

 

 

After La Thuile I headed across the border to France to enjoy some magical pre-Christmas time in Megève. This picturesque and decidedly ritzy resort was founded by Baroness Noemi de Rothschild 100 years ago to serve as a playground for her rich, royal and famous friends and remains the domain of the wealthy. Given its low altitude (the slopes reach from 1,113m to 2,350m), an early season visit to Megève is always going to be risky but, given that this was the warmest December in a century, I was fresh out of luck as far as skiing went: the resort still hasn't opened all of its pistes yet. Donning hiking boots rather than ski boots, I explored the terrain thoroughly, soaking up the winter sunshine from the terrace of the brand spanking new Folie Douce and the long-established favourite, l'Alpette. Yes it was disappointing but, if you've got to be in any resort without skiing, Megève is probably the best, with non-ski activities galore and uneabtable people watching. And I was staying at the idyllic Les Fermes de Marie hotel, in the divine chalet pictured here, so was uncharacteristically happy to simply luxuriate in the comfort of my pad.

 

 

January: early in the New Year, I nipped out to Klosters to check out Haus Alpina, a plush penthouse apartment owned by power couple Chrissie Rucker (The White Company) and Nicholas Wheeler (Charles Tyrwhitt). Initially bought and decorated for their own use, they decided to make the chalet available to Joe Public this season for the first time - allegedly to keep their talented chef Jimmy and his charming partner Tracey busy. In fairness, I doubt whether they need the extra income…. The apartment is the quintessence of refined taste and elegance: the palette is exclusively white, cream and grey, with roaring fires, over 50 (White Company) candles, lush woollen curtains and fur throws and cushions keeping things warm & cosy.

 

Although the snow wasn't plentiful, we enjoyed some off-piste routes with our brilliant guide, Kurt Ladner from Absolute Powder. Alternately bemused and flabbergasted by the lack of snow, unprecedented in his 23 years of guiding in Klosters, his determination to sniff out small pockets of snow saved our trip. Our visit coincided with the first Skiing With Heroes ‘Business Challenge’, a two-day inter-business skiing competition designed to pitch skiers of different abilities against wounded Veterans, which will form a central part of the charity's mission to help the vets restore their confidence and find full-time employment. It was inspirational to see these heroes hurtling down the slalom course - and partying in the Chesa Grischuna piano bar afterwards :-) Fingers crossed they'll have more snow for next winter's Challenge.

 

9 December 2014

What to do in a ski resort when you can't ski

Last weekend, I heard a lot of chat along the lines of: “When I was a child, there was snow up to the rooftops/from early October/higher than the church’s onion dome.” I was in Lech, a picture-perfect Alpine town in Austria’s Vorarlberg region which, together with its neighbour Zürs, typically captures some of the greatest and most consistent snowfall in the Alps. On this occasion, however, the magical white stuff was seriously lacking. I was due to be there for the winter opening weekend but, just a day before leaving London, the lift company pushed opening back by a week – the “pistes” were still pastures. As locals come to accept that sparse snow and late starts to the ski season are becoming more frequent, their eyes mist up and they recall snow-thick winters of old.

 

Delayed openings are rife across the Alps this season and many tour operators are handing back cash to clients who booked “snow guaranteed” pre-Christmas holidays. However, temperatures are set to drop this week with snow having dumped down on the Alps last night and today. And the inspirational freeride skier Lorraine Huber told me while I was at the Snow & Safety Conference in Zürs (an annual event attended by international ski industry professionals with seminars about avalanche safety, technology and freeriding) that there’s always more snow around a new moon, so she’s crossing her fingers for 22 December.

 

So what do you do in a ski resort when there’s not enough snow to ski? It’s a dilemma European resorts are having to respond to increasingly frequently, and Lech delivered with a live concert on Friday from a local band, a Christmas market in Zürs on Saturday and a slightly scary Krampus show (an Austrian tradition based on the legend of Saint Nicholas). The resort also hosted the afore-mentioned Snow & Safety Conference and a media summit. There were plenty of people out on the winter walking paths, cyclists taking advantage of the snow-free roads and shoppers snapping up bargains at the start of season sale in Sportalp and less bargain basement deals at the glitzy Strolz department store.

 

Fortunately, we were staying at the divine Hotel Gotthard, run by Clemens and Nicole Walch in the former family home of Clemens' grandmother. They whisked us up to the family cow shed up in the mountains for a wine tasting, took us on a tour of Clemens' impressive bakery below the hotel (think mouth-watering festive pastries, wholesome loaves and strudels of every variety imaginable), and introduced us to Lech's resident wood carver. There was also time to swim and make the most of the hotel's impressive spa. So, while the lack of snow was a disappointment, it did show that it's quite possible to have a great time without skiing - if you pick the right resort and hotel. 

 
13 August 2014

Bali Blog 2: The Bukit Peninsula

After five remarkable days at the COMO Shambhala Estate, it was time to move onto my next destination: The Mulia on Bukit Peninsula, a rugged limestone peninsula which is joined to Bali by a mere sliver of land just south of Bali’s Denpasar airport. The Bukit has intrepid surfers to thank (and perhaps to curse) for being launched into the public eye for the exceptional surf and beaches found on its south-western coast. Even a non-surfer like me has heard of the waves at Uluwatu while passionate surfers from around the world dream of riding the waves at Padang Padang, Balangan, Bingin Beach and Dreamland.

 

The Mulia, however, is located in Nusa Dua on the east coast, a long strip of beach named after the two islands that lie in the bay flanking it. The name Nusa Dua traditionally referred to the entire eastern side of Bukit Peninsula but has increasingly come to refer to an enclave of luxury hotels and a golf course that line the beach for some 10 miles. It’s easy to understand why this area has become so popular: the beach is long and sandy with gentle access into the sea (certainly not to be said of the west coast) and the only big waves you’ll see are far off in the distance. The hotel enclave has three imposing entrance points manned by guards, which makes it feel a little like you’re being corralled but also gives peace of mind following the bomb attacks in Bali in 2004 and 2009.

 

The Mulia, Mulia Resort and Villas is the newest property on Nusa Dua, having opened in December 2012. The complex combines The Mulia (an oceanfront 111-suite luxury affair) with Mulia Resort (526 more affordable rooms) and Mulia Villas (108 rental villas) sprawling across 75 acres of land. The gardens in which it sits are lush and fragrant while the private beach is religiously raked and scoured for rubbish each morning by some of the property’s 3,000-strong staff. It was almost instantly decorated as Conde Nast Traveller’s 2013 Best New Hotel in the World in its annual Hot List.

 

The property is built on a truly monumental scale (the picture to the left is the view from my terrace), which I confess came as a surprise after the intimacy of Shambhala Estate. And it’s no wonder: Mulia Resort alone comprises multiple restaurants, bars and shops, countless public seating areas, three chapels and extensive conference facilities in addition to a series of swimming and hydrotherapy pools surrounded by peaceful gardens and terraces, which lead out to the beach. There’s also the superb Mulia Spa, a destination in itself (read more about that in my forthcoming Tatler and Hip & Healthy features), tennis courts, a gym…

 

The place to stay for peace and quiet is undoubtedly The Mulia. The suites are palatial, tastefully decorated in contemporary style and virtually all boast uninterrupted ocean views. There’s a vast terrace with a double day bed, table and chairs and a private Jacuzzi as well as a

standalone bathtub strategically placed to enjoy ocean views from. Guests here have the services of a butler, can enjoy breakfast and afternoon tea in the dedicated Lounge, and have exclusive access to a large pool flanked by private cabanas. The Mulia’s private beach is eschewed by all but a sprinkling of European guests, so, even though the hotel was virtually full, I was the only one swimming in the ocean and using a lounger for all but a few hours of each day.  

 

Staying at The Mulia is a lot like having a top suite on a large cruise ship: you can enjoy the quality, diversity and hubbub of the restaurants, entertainment and spa that could only exist on such a behemoth, safe in the knowledge that you can always retreat to your tranquil cocoon when you wish. It lends an almost surreal sense of intimacy within a very large space. But what really made The Mulia special for me was the friendliness of the staff, who were unfailingly smiley, helpful and amenable, even when the crazy English people asked to eat their breakfast outside, have fresh milk in the minibar, went swimming in the sea and asked where they could park the motorbike they’d hired to scoot around the Bukit on…   

 

 

9 August 2014

Bali: dream location for surfers, honeymooners, yoga lovers, adventure seekers, spa bunnies & more 

When you tell people you're going to Bali, they typically ask whether you're a surfer or a honeymooner. Having surfed on just three occasions and travelling with a relatively new-found boyfriend, I didn't fit into either group yet, as I discovered over the past 10 blissful days on the Indonesian island, non-surfers accompanied by non-betrotheds will also find Bali utterly beguiling. My trip was one of two halves: the first spent in the tranquil hilltop retreat of COMO Shambhala Estate near the artsy town of Ubud and the second in The Mulia, a vast hotel complex on the Nusa Dua beach on South Kuta island. This blog will cover the first half, with a second blog to follow with details of the second half.

 

I was inspired to visit Bali after hearing about the COMO Shambhala Estate and one of its team, David Melladew, an accomplished instructor of diverse martial arts. One of David's manifold martial arts skills is qigong (pronounced chi-gong), a practice of aligning the body, breath and mind to cultivate and balance 'qi', or life energy. A few years ago, I was brutally assaulted by a gang of girls in London. The attack left me badly hurt and feeling vulnerable long afterwards, so I looked into taking part in a self defence course. However, the venues I visited here in London were unappealing and only seemed to reinforce my feeling of being a victim. When I heard about Shambhala's Be Active programme, which incorporates a wealth of activities such as pilates, yoga, meditation and qigong with spa treatments and super healthy food, it struck me that this was a truly holistic environment in which to heal and strengthen.

 

I was not disappointed. 

 

Whether you need to heal after an experience like mine, escape the pressures of work, kick-start a healthy life regime, or simply enjoy being active on holiday, COMO Shambhala Estate is the place for you. From the second I stepped out of the car, following a 27-hour door-to-door journey from London, I was enveloped and invigorated by the property's restorative sense of calm. The air is scented by frangipani, magnolia and ylang ylang trees as well as hibiscus, jasmine, tuberose and gardenias, which grow across the 22-acre estate. There are 25 rooms and suites, spread across five "residences", built around pools and designed with different elements as a focus (Clear Water, Sound of Fire, House of the Earth, Forest in the Mist and Windsong). Meals are exceptional, using local organic produce where possible and served in one of two restaurants, in your residence or the privacy of your terrace. The spa is one of Bali's finest, with secluded treatment pavilions perched high above the Ayung river. I could go on about this magical spot but suffice to say, the four days I spent at Shambhala Estate are among the best of my travelling life. 

 

If you can't make it out to Bali right now, or maybe just want to dip your toe in the water first (although trust me, you really want to be dipping your toes into the infinity pool above), you can sample the expertise of some of Shambhala's visiting consultants here in London. I was able to learn about the art of "rolfing" or structural integration from expert Jeffrey Bomes while he spent a fortnight at the COMO Metropolitan Hotel. Jeffrey explained and showed how his method of manipulation realigns and balances the body by lengthening and repositioning the body's fascia - the protective layer of connective tissue around our muscles. In just one hour (a course of ten is recommended), he was able to pick out areas of tension and pain that I've allowed to build up for years and have begun to take for granted, leaving me feeling slightly pummelled yet energised. I also enjoyed a session at the Metropolitan with the celebrated intuitive counsellor Susan King, who blew this cynic away with her ability to seemingly look into my past - and future - with uncanny accuracy. These are just two of the specialists who you might be fortunate enough to be able to meet while staying at Shambhala, helping to restore your equilibrium in the most tranquil and holistic surroundings imaginable. 

 

 

 

 
15 June 2014

Finding my inner runner with Profeet

I am not a natural runner. I blame it on my bad knees, bad trainers and big boobs, on the fact that I always get stitch regardless of what breathing technique I use, that it's too hot or too wet or too hilly or too cold or that it's just plain boring. Fundamentally, however, I recognise that my lack of zeal for running stems from the fact that I'm just not very good at it. I look at natural born runners, bouncing around Clapham Common like gazelles and I admire and hate them in equal measure. Not only do they have the skill but they have the drive to get out there - I'm already bored of pounding asphalt (and believe you me, I pound the hell out of that pavement) by the time I've run the half mile from my flat to the Common.

 

However, I do enjoy running along mountain trails and have been known to run for hours with gay abandon in the right environment - zipping up and down mountains in Chamonix, Verbier, Aspen. So I do have an inner runner hiding deep within me. And she's about to be called upon for an important mission: Race for LifeCancer Research UK's Race for Life is a series of 5k and 10k women-only fundraising events, one of which I am taking part in with a group of girlfriends. All of us have lost, or come uncomfortably close to losing, a loved one to cancer. Joined by this and our shared passion for skiing, we'll be taking part in the Race for Life in Regent's Park on 27 July as Ski Bunnies vs Cancer, complete with ski & bunny accessories. Our Just Giving page will be up & running shortly for your generous donations!

 

In order to help dig out my inner runner, I went to the Profeet shop in Fulham. Specialists in sports footwear and orthotics, there's nothing these guys (sorry, technicians) don't know about your plates of meat and how to make them work better for you in trainers, hiking boots or ski/snowboard boots. My last trainers were bought for about £15 in a retail outlet village 9 years ago, so I figured that a visit to Profeet for some new ones would inspire me and leave me with no excuse not to start training for the Big Race. There was also an in-store Women's Running Evening last week: perfect timing. These events are held at the Fulham store quite frequently and are ideal for any female interested in starting or improving her running. Together with about ten other ladies, I enjoyed complimentary drinks & nibbles as we picked up invaluable training tips and serious inspiration in the perfectly toned shape of private trainer & triathlete extraordinaire Simone Dailey; learned about the importance of selecting the correct footwear from the Profeet team; and were fitted for a Moving Comfort sports bra. There was even a goody bag with a handy trainer bag, discount voucher and little gel sachet things that I'll be saving for next month's race... 

 

I had my shoe fitting before the evening started - a 20-minute professional fitting is offered free at Profeet with any shoe purchase and involves being properly measured and filmed trotting on a treadmill to assess your gait and shoe needs. An hour-long full fitting delves deeper into biomechanical analysis and costs a reasonable £40. I was fitted by the charming Bernie from Austria, who looked disturbingly like an extreme athlete but managed to contain his laughter admirably when I started wobbling around on the treadmill. He's fitted me with a pair of these Mammut cross trainers, which I genuinely look forward to putting to the test on the grassy bits of Clapham Common and in more exotic, mountainous climes.

 

So, may the running commence and cancer - be very afraid! 

 
 
 

 

11 June 2014

Perfume, travel & Harrods 

As a travel writer, it's not often that I get to attend the launch of a new perfume but I am particularly partial to the scents and travel lust of the quintessentially British perfumer Linda Pilkington, the petite olfactory genius behind Ormonde Jayne. From the moment I first met Linda several years ago, I've been captivated by her passion for fragrance and her gritty determination to perfect every product she crafts, from her scented candles and perfumes to rich body lotions and soaps. As a traveller, I swear by the neat Ormonde Jayne travel purse sprays, one of which goes everywhere with me.

 

Although every Ormonde Jayne product is created right here in London (in Regent's Park), Linda travels across the globe in search of rare

and exotic products to infuse her fragrances with, and this is how I first came to know her. It was speaking with Linda about her travels to Morocco's Valley of Roses to source the "scruffy" damasc roses that are the secret behind Ta'if, a sultry rose scent, that inspired me to visit the valley for the annual Festival or Roses and wrote this piece about it for the Telegraph. 

 

Yesterday, Linda launched a brand new scent, Black Gold, created exclusively for Harrods. It took Linda and the Harrods team 18 months of sniffing, blending, tinkering and more sniffing to create the perfect fragrance and it was fascinating learning about the process required to achieve the ideal mix. Linda talked us through the key botanicals and oils that were used to create Black Gold, from the moodily floral carnation absolute and sultry sandalwood to dusky oudh and resinous labdanum. The result encapsulates Harrods in a bottle: opulent, exotic, dusky, velvety, undeniably rich and heinously expensive (£420). It's a scent one can aspire to. A perfume that I (aged 37) like to think I'll wear when I grow up. Or perhaps, as I wear it, Black Gold will physically drag me into adulthood with it, in which case, I suppose it's money well spent... 

 

4 May 2014

Robbie Williams and spring powder make for a beautiful end to the winter

Many of my friends and most people I meet who hear about my job comment on how lucky I am to be “on holiday” all the time. However, any self-respecting travel writer forbids the use of the “h-word” on press trips – yes they’re invariably enjoyable but they’re usually hard work too. You’re permanently on the move, rarely spending more than one night in the same hotel, there are endless meetings, hotel tours and hosted meals during which you must be engaged, positive and inquisitive, and you’re constantly on the lookout for interesting sights, sounds, quotes, tips and things to avoid.

 

Every once in a while though, a real belter of a trip comes along to remind me just how fortunate I am to have this job. I’m on my way back from one such belter now: a three-day trip to the ski town of Ischgl in Austria. The trip was a celebration of the 80th birthday of our host, the tour operator Inghams, combined with the closing concert and last day of Ischgl’s winter season. Inghams, through its sister brand Ski Total, is the only operator to offer chalet accommodation in the resort, with three properties here. We stayed at the plushest of the three, Abendrot, which is staggering distance from the lifts and bars and warrants generous praise for its excellent chef, Bruno.

 

Anybody familiar with Ischgl, a pretty town located in the Austrian Tirol, will know that this is no shrinking violet but a full on, thumping, pumping, table-top dancing party town. Home to a Pacha nightclub, the largest nightclub in Europe, and more lap dancing clubs than I care to count, Ischgl is the town of choice for raucous lads trips for German, Dutch and Austrian men in their 40s and over. As I discovered when I visited the resort on my own during my Telegraph Single for the Season column, it’s not the easiest destination for a solo lady but with a bunch of friends in the mood to party, it’s hard to beat.

 

 

Ischgl ushers each winter season in and out with a suitably flamboyant open-air concert, bringing artists from Lionel Richie and Rod Stewart to Kylie and The Killers to its mountainous doorstep. Yesterday, I grooved to the unmistakable tones of Robbie Williams after a morning’s skiing. Watching the man whose voice has been part of my life for 24 years strut his stuff at nearly 3,000 metres ASL with only a thin veil of snow and about 28,000 people between us is up there with the best experiences of my life. After 90 minutes of high-octane Robbie energy, the Alpine plateau of Idalp became the stage for the biggest après-ski party you can imagine before the merry masses moved the party down into Ischgl’s infamous Elisabeth, Niki’s Stadl, Romantikhütte and Kühstall bars. 

 

This morning, those who could shake off their hangovers were rewarded with glorious sunshine, deep blue skies and an generous dusting of surprisingly light snow. Fresh powder turns on 4 May under cobalt blue skies, the morning after a Robbie Williams concert (and having the opportunity to ask him a question in the press conference) is about as good as it gets in my book and is certainly the best finish to a ski season I’ve ever experienced.

And here's an update: a video of the press conference we attended with Robbie before his concert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvAba_8dVKE#t=378. Skip through to 6:13 minutes to hear my question! 

 

 
 

 

 

1 May 2014

Orange Madness in Amsterdam

There's nothing quite like looking at your own unpopulated blog to make you realise how quickly time can fly... However, since my last post I have been largely UK based - a distinctly foreign feeling for me - and haven't felt I've experienced much of interest to share with you. Until now. 

 

Despite being half Dutch with a brother living in Amsterdam and having recently written the National Geographic Traveller guidebook to Amsterdam, I never experienced a Koninginnedag (Queen's Day) in the motherland. The national holiday was first observed as Prinsessedag (Princess's Day) in August 1885 to celebrate the fifth birthday of Princess Wilhelmina before it became her Queen's Day in 1890 following her acession. When Wilhelmina's daughter, Juliana, took the throne, she moved the holiday to her birthday on 30 April 1948, where it stayed throughout the reign of her daughter, Beatrix, through to 2013. When Beatrix abdicated on Queen's Day 2013, her son Willem-Alexander became the first Dutch King since the observance of the national holiday and this year was the first Koningsdag (King's Day). Handily, his birthday is on 27 April, so the national party was brought three days forward.

 

So, enough of the history lesson, what does King's Day involve? In short, Europe's biggest street party - friendly, raucous, orange chaos. From about 5pm on Koningsavond (King's Eve), cities and towns across the country become a sea of orange as people, pets, buildings, boats, and cars don the color of the Dutch Royal family, the House of Orange-Nassau. The evening before the big day is increasingly becoming an event in itself, with house parties spilling out onto the streets, all-night events at music venues such as Amsterdam's Melkweg and Panama, and general revelry. On King's Day itself, people flood onto the streets to enjoy live music, BBQs, food stalls, Heineken stalls and vrijmarkt stallen (free market stalls), at which locals sell their secondhand items in a tradition dating back to the original Prinsessedag. 

 

While the party spreads across the country, Amsterdam is the hub of Koningsdag, with its narrow streets and squares thronging to the celebrations of a whopping 800,000 people who travel into the city for the party. Boats of every size and shape jostle their way down the canals, blasting out music for their own orange-clad, dancing passengers and for the revelers lining the streets. As my first experience of this nationwide party, King's Day 2014 exceeded my highest expectations. The Dutch people are generally fairly conservative, as reflected in the oft-cited national expression: "Doe maar gewoon, dat is al gek genoeg", meaning "just be normal, that's crazy enough". Once a year, however, caution is thrown to the wind and "oranjegekte" (orange madness) takes over yet it's all good-natured and well behaved. By 9pm on King's Day, the streets were virtually empty again with just a few people sweeping up the Heineken cans and orange wigs. The next morning the streets and canals were clean and everything was back to normal, if a little subdued. 

 

 

 

 2 February 2014

What does a ski writer do for holiday? Go skiing... 

As you might have read in my recent Sunday Telegraph feature about Switzerland’s Val d’Anniviers, I'm a huge fan of this sleepy Alpine valley. With its picturesque villages, dramatic scenery and hard to beat lift-accessible freeriding opportunities, it’s a magical winter playground. Indeed, I'm so enamoured by the valley that I’ve just returned from a week’s holiday there – the first non-work ski break I’ve enjoyed in six years. 

 

I stayed in a delightful chalet in Grimentz, operated by former Powder Byrne bigwig Will Herrington, who moved to the village some eight years ago with his family. Herrington runs Frozen Action, a company which offers guests the rare opportunity to enjoy catered and serviced chalet accommodation without the presence of over-pampering staff: the chalet was cleaned each morning while we were out skiing and vast portions of afternoon cake and dinner were delivered each afternoon, which we heated up and enjoyed in the privacy of our "own" chalet. Not only is this innovative way of feeding the troops less expensive than traditional chalet catering but it also lends a refreshing sense of independence, which suited us down to the ground.

 

The ski area of Val d’Anniviers combines several individual and diverse mountains: Vercorin, St Luc-Chandolin, Grimentz and Zinal. As of last weekend, the last two are linked by a brand spanking new cable car, the third longest in Switzerland, saving a half-hour bus ride and / or challenging descent from Zinal to Grimentz. The new lift is big news in a valley which only received a tarmac road in 1958 and where eyebrows are still raised when a woman from Zinal marries a man from Grimentz and chooses to move in with him. Although some protective locals accustomed to skiing empty pistes express fears of over-crowding, I believe it’s a great improvement for the ski area and hope for the sake of local businesses that it will bring more visitors to it. As the young Joel Dumas of Grimentz's Val Sport shop said: "Of course I hope the new lift will attract more people to ski here - but then I have lots of secret freeride spots, which I'll be keeping to myself!"

 

There has been much coverage in the press recently about the dangers of avalanches in the Alps this winter. Together with my friends, I thrive on skiing away from the pistes, predominantly for the pleasure of finding myself in a pristine high Alpine environment far away from other people. It is undeniable that there are risks involved with skiing off-piste but I cannot agree with the view offered by some writers that the current snowpack means that skiers / riders should not venture away from the pistes this season. I would argue instead that the acute danger of skiing off-piste in the Alps this season highlights the importance of a) being well informed about what triggers avalanches and how you can minimise your chances of being involved in one (my tip: enrol in an avalanche training course by Mountain Tracks), b) having the necessary avalanche equipment and knowing how to use it, c) skiing with an experienced and professional local guide. 

 

We skied with the excellent Nick Parks of Grimentz-Zinal Backcountry Adventures and Sébastien Monard from the local ski school during our visit and I was struck by the care and caution they both showed in selecting routes for us to ski. As Sébastien, who has skied in Grimentz for over 20 years, exclaimed: “Never have I seen so many avalanches here, it’s really incredible.” On several occasions the two guides approached descents, prodded and stomped on the snowpack and generally sniffed the air in that way ski guides do, before deciding against taking us down them – heartbreaking when you’re looking at a virgin powder bowl but extremely sobering when you see the whole face has slid a few hours later… So don't write off this winter quite yet but do approach Mother Earth and her snowy gifts with the respect she deserves and invest in a qualified guide and the correct equipment.

 

 
29 January 2014

Do you Gstaad?

With its main pedestrian street lined with Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren, Moncler and Prada boutiques, bristling with watch and jewellery shops, and populated by fur-clad, aviator-sporting model types, it's no wonder Gstaad is a resort of choice for celebs and millionaires. It seemed only right, therefore, that for my first couple of nights in this glossy mountain town, I should be picked up from the railway station in a Bentley (previously owned by Roger Moore no less) and ushered in stately fashion to my penthouse suite in the recently relaunched Le Grand Bellevue hotel. This grand old building has been whipped into shape by a cosmopolitan young couple, transforming it from a staid and faded Swiss glory to a hip, quirky boutique gem. In a town where old school glamour has long ruled the roost, the Grand Bellevue brings a breath of youthful, fresh air with its Soho House-style elegance, informal yet efficient service, sleek Bamford spa, killer cocktail menu and superb pianist, who's equally at home tinkling the ivories gently over afternoon tea as he is bashing out tunes for revellers in the nightclub. 

 

Indeed, so easy is to ensconce yourself in the Grand Bellevue, that leaving it to go skiing requires considerable strength of mind. However, my first morning brought the promise of fresh snow and exploration of a whole new side to Gstaad. Until I met Charlie and Rory [pictured here] from bespoke ski operator Camel Snow (the name derives from their summer watersports business, which is based out of Rock, Cornwall on the Camel Estuary), I confess to having dismissed Gstaad as a destination better suited to gluhwein sippers and piste cruisers than off-piste shredders. However, having worked as an instructor in Gstaad for ten years, Charlie assured me last summer that there was a lot more to the skiing here than first meets the eye. Intrigued, I agreed to spend three days here with Charlie and Rory to put this claim to the test. 

 

I should have known better than to question Charlie (and am grateful that we didn't bet on the existence of great off-piste skiing in Gstaad). Although not particularly steep or "gnarly", there is some terrifically entertaining and playful skiing to be had across the various mountains that make up the sprawling ski area that surrounds Gstaad. There are little powder pillows, woods and glades, open meadows (look out for the barbed wire) to bounce through in untracked powder (everybody else sticks to the pistes), ski touring opportunities and even heli-skiing from the local airstrip. 

 

If you prefer to spend your Swiss francs on heliskiing than a penthouse suite, you'll be happy to hear that Gstaad is welcoming a new breed of "budget boutique" hotels - 3* properties in outlying towns and / or on the slopes, which offer an informal feel with modestly sized (yet tastefully decorated) bedrooms for more affordable prices than you might expect from the home of Alpine glitz. The enterprising Paul Peyer is the owner of one of these new hotels, the on-mountain Saanewald Lodge. Having totally refurbished the 1960s hotel (seeking inspiration and tips from the owners of Engelberg's Ski Lodge), Peyer has created a relaxed vibe with outstanding access to the slopes. Far from appealing to the fur & diamonds crowd, this is a spot for people who are truly passionate about skiing and enjoying each other's company - or just keen to soak in the wood-burning hot tub with nothing but snow-clad fir trees and stars in sight. 

 

 

24 January 2014

From the sublime to the ridiculous and back

As I write this, hurtling by train through Switzerland, I’m musing on how different my next destination will be from my last. I’m on my way to Gstaad, the glitzy Swiss resort that attracts fur-clad gzillionaires, film stars and celebrities to visit a newly-opened boutique hotel and – weather permitting – indulge in a spot of heliskiing. I’m coming from a sleepy little town called Disentis and, the night before last, I was in Andermatt. These two towns sit at either end of the Oberalp pass, the once famous route of the Gotthard pass (not the still famous Gotthard tunnel, which runs below Andermatt). I’ve known Andermatt for many years now – it’s a simple old town which sits in the shadow of the steep Gemstock mountain, drawing experienced skiers and boarders for its no nonsense approach to skiing, mountaineering and hospitality. Or at least, it was until now.

 

I won’t go into the whole story here (read my article in the Telegraph on 22 February!) but suffice to say that Andermatt, a dying Alpine town about five years ago, is in the throes of major redevelopment. The first stage of this project, the concept of an Egyptian billionaire, Samih Sawaris, is the launch of a five-star hotel, The Chedi. Subsequent plans include the construction of a Radisson hotel, hundreds of apartments and “villas”, a golf course, shops, restaurants etc. As a fan of Andermatt in its original form, it’s a hard pill to swallow. Of course I want the village to prosper but the juxtaposition of a swanky (and undeniably beautiful, well-executed and sorely impressive) hotel at the foot of one of the gnarliest and most basic mountains in the Alps is a difficult one to get your head around.

 

After the sumptuous luxury, space and attentive service of the Chedi (where “ski butlers”, who operate out of the “ski library” and wear dapper knitted jumpers, are on-hand to remove your ski boots, drive you to the base of the slopes, advise on the weather and sort out your lift tickets), I hopped on a train across the Oberalp pass to Disentis. Here I stayed in the Sax Hotel, which is looking forward to an extensive refurb this autumn to open in Swedish style for next winter under the ownership of the understated and charming Jan Pfister. Yes, the bedroom was smaller than my bathroom in the Chedi and no, there wasn’t an iPad mini to adjust my blackout curtains, dim my lights or call my butler, but the bed was actually more to my liking and there must have been 20 different cheeses for breakfast, which is my idea of heaven.

 

 

Disentis is a secret I really don’t want to share. One and half day’s of skiing there with local guide Paul Dagona of Alpventura was sufficient to make me vow to return very soon but not enough to more than scratch the surface of this off-piste universe. Again, I won’t say more here as there’ll be a feature in the Financial Times shortly but, if you’re interested, this article might whet your appetite…  

 

 

14 January 2014

Powder, parties, pillows and porcupines - four memorable days in Utah

I returned from Utah this morning and am still reeling from quite how much skiing and learning was packed into the four days I had there. It wasn't my choice to limit this foray into the land of mormons and "The Greatest Snow on Earth" (yes, that is a trademark) to such a fleeting visit - the Polar Vortex meant my flights to Salt Lake City via Chicago were cancelled. 

 

Nonetheless, those four action-packed days will live on in my memory as some of the best ski days ever. Flying into a snowy Salt Lake City last Wednesday, I awoke on Thursday to a 12" powder day in Solitude. Together with Powder Mountain, Solitude is the most aptly-named ski resort I've visited - during probably the best in-resort powder day I've ever had, there were only 561 other people on the mountain. Given that Solitude boasts 1,200 acres of skiable terrain, that equates to nearly half an acre of snow-choked, varied terrain per person. Together with Heidi, a local ski patroller, we bounced over powder pillows, burst through tree-laden aspens and fir trees and etched our tracks onto pristine powder bowls. We skiied solidly from 8.30am to 4pm, only pausing for lunch with Dave DeSeelhorst, the owner of the mountain, who kept us captivated with his tales of serving in the US army during the Cold War as an aviation attack helicopter pilot.  

 

At risk of getting evangelical, I'll move onto the main thrust of the article I was researching, and which you'll be able to read in the Financial Times on 25 January: Powder Mountain. The story of this little known ski town in the Wasatch mountains (known to locals as Pow Mow), which just happens to boast 2,000 acres more skiable terrain than Vail, is one of the most interesting I have covered in my ski writing career. I don't want to reveal too much here (thereby hopefully encouraging you to read the full piece!) but suffice to say that Summit, a group of 20-something entrepreneurs backed by investors, bought this patch of nearly 10,000 acres of land last spring with the intention of maintaining the ski resort and creating a community of hand-picked entrepreneurs, artists, musicans and social "disruptors" with a shared passion for the mountains.

 

The boundless energy, enthusiasm, self-belief and desire to achieve change of these audacious youngsters is palpable from the moment you first meet them. I was fortunate enough to attend a Summit Weekend, a three-day gathering of some 70 carefully selected, socially-engaged self-starters who were here to learn from the Summit founders and fans through informal talks, networking, skiing, yoga and partying. In comparison with these bright young things I felt old, inadequate and cynical but also deeply impressed, inspired and driven to make more of my own life and join the struggle to address social imbalances.

 

Together with my new hipster Summit friends, I "shredded the gnar" through gentle glades and bowls, liberally doused with that trademark Utah snow, whooping and shouting with sheer glee. Then we'd ride up the chairlift and engage in chat about 3D printing of human skin, human trafficking policies, private equity and global climate change. As we returned from an epic day on the mountain, we spotted the celebrated Pow Mow Porcupine (pictured sniffing me out here) and three of the wealthiest, most successful and humble men I've ever met were instantly reduced to a cooing mess by the bumbling little fellow.  I can report that they recovered quickly for manly beer drinking at the Powder Keg, Pow Mow's original wooden "dive bar", whose greasy burgers have been complemented with kale salads since the Summit boys took over ownership.

 

I fear that skiing might never be quite the same again... 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

26 November 2013

Making hay...

It's hard to fathom that two months have elapsed since I last wrote here - or that snow is falling thick and fast in the Alps and across the Pond as I write this. Since I last filed a blog, there has been the magical mayhem of the London Ski & Snowboard Show, which takes place for five days here in the capital as resorts, tour operators, chalet companies, outfitters and more come to sell their wares to enthusiastic wintersports fans. It's a great opportunity for journalists to pick up story ideas and for the public to get inspiration for (and good deals on) winter holidays and pick up some winter kit.

When not talking, thinking, dreaming and planning skiing, I've been busy pitching and writing about it. This is the time of year when ski journalists actually have to earn their turns, and we've been hard at it! I've got a good winter lined up (with trips to Aspen, Powder Mountain, Canyons, Solitude, Andermatt, Disentis, Grimentz, St Foy and Iceland in the offing so far...), so am looking forward to sharing some of my snowy experiences here. In the meantime, a bit like a bear going into hibernation, I'm preparing myself for the season: ploughing through all the deadlines, researching new story ideas, filing my tax return and doing hundreds of squats to toughen up my ski thighs before I scuttle off to the mountains. The sun may not be shining for very long each day here in London but I'm certainly trying to make hay for every hour of it! 

 
28 September 2013

The world's mountains have come to London 

Each September, the bars and restaurants of London become indebted to the ski industry as they benefit from three weeks of solid splurging of PR budgets by the world's ski resorts, tourist offices and hotels. This ski media frenzy takes place now for good reason - the magazines and newspapers are planning their winter issues, so journalists and editors alike are eager to hear what's new and exciting in the world's mountains.

 

As one of the journalists lucky enough to be included in this intensive period of wining & dining, I consider myself incredibly fortunate - not only do I get to meet up with lovely people I've skiied and worked with over the years and chew the cud about a sport and love of mountains that unites us all, but I also get to experience some of the finest eating establishments in London. Over the course of this week, I've learned about the new lift system in Paradiski while sipping Champagne above the Thames in the London Bridge Walkway; I've heard about the new terrain opening in Aspen/Snowmass on the 72nd floor of The Shard; I've been reminded of the sheer beauty of Cortina d'Ampezzo and the Dolomites in the National Geographic store; I've quizzed the Whistler Blackcomb team about their Olympic halo at The Savoy; and learned about a snowball apres-ski beauty treatment offered by the Guerlain spa at Courchevel's lush Cheval Blanc hotel over lobster at Scott's. 

 

I'm not often smug in this blog but I have to confess that, all in all, it hasn't been a bad week's work. Now I just have to digest all that steak, lobster and story ideas and translate them into decent pitches to sell to my editors. That's the tricky part... 

 

 

16 September 2013

All at Sea in the Big Apple

For those who have been avidly following my All at Sea blog, you will have noticed the lengthy delay since my last post. I haven't just been lazy or got writer's block - my sojourn in NYC simply didn't turn out quite as planned...

 

We sailed into "the greatest city on earth" before dawn on Monday 10 September. I watched our slow progress along the Hudson River from the comfort of my balcony from 4.15am, swaddled in a duvet. My first sight of land in seven days came in the form of a smattering of lights and the first sound was the eerie song of pealing bells emanating from the gently swaying buoys which pepper the river. As we squeezed under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (with only centimetres to spare), the roar of traffic thundering along the bridge just above me was the second sound to assail my ears.

 

Motoring slowly towards Manhattan, the city lights grew ever brighter and more numerous until suddenly - there she was. The Statue of Liberty, radiant green with her lantern burning gold in the gloaming. As QM2 nudged her nose starboard to turn into Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, Manhattan revealed itself in all its shimmering, nocturnal glory. The new Freedom Tower glittered triumphantly, so high that its lights reflected on the clouds above, giving the impression of a white halo hovering above it.

 

After one last slap-up breakfast, my mother and I reluctantly took leave of "our" crew and ship and set foot on US soil. The culture shock didn't take long to set in. Going from the serenity of endless seascapes, the reassuringly familiar faces and places, and hearing no sounds other than the wind, waves, music and gentle hubbub of chatter to the hooting, shouting, flashing neon and wailing of sirens chaos that is New York should come with a health warning. Add to that the fact that the city was in the grip of a heat wave (temperatures reached 38 degrees Celsius the following day) and it literally did pose a physical threat.

 

Nonetheless, we made our way to Ground Zero to contemplate what had happened there 11 years and 364 days ago and admired the extraordinary scale of the Freedom Tower. We strolled along Battery Park, following a path that skirts the shores of the Hudson River and relishing the gentle breeze that wafted up off the river. We could still make out the smoke stacks of QM2 when we reached the southernmost tip of Manhattan, rising above Governor's Island between us, before turning north for Wall Street. The words of Bill Miller (the maritime historian and lecturer aboard QM2) rang in my ears: "Skyscrapers are to New York what cathedrals are to Europe: towering places of worship. But here, the religion is money." I marvelled at the city's glossy inhabitants, glamorous boutiques and iconic buildings, stretching high into the sky in praise of the greenback.

 

The following morning, my mother and I decided to eschew the sultry chaos of skyscraper central and headed for Greenwich Village. Unfortunately, we didn't get far. My mother collapsed from severe heat stroke in Washington Park and, helped by a delightful local woman called Laura, who happened to be sitting on the same bench Mum wilted upon, we called an ambulance, which took us to the Beth Israel medical centre. 

 

As the hours passed, I realised the chances of us catching our flight home that evening were disappearing fast. And, as anybody who has fallen ill in the United States will understand, my fear of the expenses incurred by this experience of NYC healthcare was palpable. I had encouraged Mum to take out insurance for our 36 hours in the city - it cost nearly £100, so her reluctance was understandable. However, if ever a lesson was needed in why you should ALWAYS take out travel insurance, regardless of how short your sojourn might be, here it was.

 

Cunard was invaluable, living up to the philosophy printed on the cruise line's branded mugs and tea towels: Keep Calm and Sail On. While I was at the hospital and dealing with all the insurance admin, Cunard deftly rearranged our airport transfer and return flights (even fighting to ensure we were seated together), ensured the hotel kept our luggage and set me up with another room for the next two nights.

 

Mum was discharged from the hospital and we flew back to England on Friday night. While I wish the reasons for my "bonus" time in NYC had been different, the experience did offer a remarkable insight into local life. From the cheery paramedics who brought us to the hospital (hailing originally from Italy and Asia) to the charming doctors and nurses there (hailing from the Caribbean, Africa, China and Canada), they seemed to me to encapsulate the fast-paced yet welcoming melting pot that is New York.

 

The extra time also gave me a couple of hours to walk through Central Park. As a Londoner who is a country girl at heart, this colossal park knocked me sideways with its scale, peace, varied landscapes, abundant plant and wildlife. Locals were jogging, cycling, reading, strolling, playing volleyball and football, sipping beers in cafés, listening to buskers - all with Manhattan's incredible spires puncturing the skyline around them. As the sun set behind two towers in Upper West Side, I realised that September 11th had passed in a blur of worry and hospitals, rather than in reflection on what happened in this city that day in 2001. I had anticipated that this blog would contain valuable insights into the atmosphere in NYC on the 12th anniversary of the calamitous Twin Tower bombings - it just goes to show that, no matter how much you travel, it never ceases to surprise you.  

 

 

 

9 September 2013
Day Seven aboard QM2: The Last Day

I can scarcely believe that a full week has passed since I boarded the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton. The initially daunting network of corridors, elevators, restaurants and bars is now reassuringly familiar. The ever-smiling staff pre-empt my preference for Assam tea with milk at breakfast and Earl Grey with lemon for afternoon tea. Donna, our spirited cabin steward, gives me advice on what to wear each evening and points out to my mother when she has lipstick on her teeth. Familiarity has not bred the slightest hint of contempt and I find the thought of being thrust out onto the streets of New York tomorrow morning (at 8.20am sharp) extremely disconcerting.

 

However, I am enriched by the memories of last night's concert with the NSO, which easily counts among the most entertaining experiences of the 18 cruises I have taken so far. Standing on stage, behind the NSO, it was fascinating to watch conductor Anthony Inglis at work: his face, arms and hands all working ceaselessly to communicate subtle nuances and lead his orchestra through English classics from Dambusters to Nimrod. At one point, Inglis plucked the former Bank of England governor, Sir Mervyn King, out of the choir to conduct the orchestra, reducing the audience to tears of laughter. Our choir's time came all too quickly: after a shaky start, we gained confidence and received a standing ovation from a packed theatre. In true Proms style, we went on to waggle our Union Jacks, belt out Rule Britannia, Pomp and Circumstance and Jerusalem. Buoyed by the thrill of performing, we sipped cocktails until 1am - smug in the knowledge that we had returned to 25-hour day status overnight and thus gained an extra hour's sleep/celebration.

 

This morning dawned clear and sunny yet again - Captain Oprey told me last night that this is one of the smoothest and sunniest transatlantic voyages he has made yet - and most people have been soaking up the sunshine on deck, savouring our last hours of blissful relaxation. I've seen a couple of birds today, the first in days, which, together with the sightings of luggage tags, bills and US customs papers in our cabin, truly signal the end of this adventure. And yet I'm discovering new things even now: it transpires that tasty little sandwiches are served to your sun lounger on the dedicated Grills sun terrace shortly after midday and that the Boardwalk Café, up on the windy 12th deck, serves delicious cookies.

 

Speaking of magical discoveries, last night, during a pre-prandial evening stroll, my mother and I spotted that all the ship's pools and hot tubs were empty, with everybody either eating or dressing for dinner. Seizing the moment, we grabbed some champagne from our minibar and enjoyed a soak up on the empty 11th deck, looking down over three other deserted decks and out to the endless sea behind us. We saw only two people in half an hour and felt as though we were on a private yacht, rather than one of the world's largest, and greatest, ocean liners. I wonder what more I would discover if I spent longer aboard the QM2.

 

 

8 September 2013

Day Six aboard QM2: the countdown begins           

Last night was our penultimate formal evening, complete with a masquerade ball (hence my mother and I pictured here looking, we hope, like something out of Venice but in reality probably more Batman and Robin). It was a very glamorous affair, which we attended after dinner and before an impressive performance in the theatre given by the Cunard dance troupe and singers, Apassionata. I have been struck by the number of fit, young people in the gym over the past week, who don't really fit in with the standard cruiser profile - seeing most of them leaping around athletically on stage last night, it started to make more sense.

 

Today has disappeared disconcertingly quickly, as the days have done this week. After breakfast, I enjoyed a spirited "Can't cook, won't cook" live demonstration in the theatre. This involved the ship's reassuringly rotund Executive Chef, Nicholas Oldroyd, and his beaming Pilipino apprentice Reggie showing how to cook up a fillet of beef in a Tequila, mushroom and cream sauce, and how to flambée strawberries in Grand Marnier before challenging a couple of willing volunteers to copy them. Directly after that, I attended another fascinating lecture by the high-speed talking maritime historian Bill Miller on the evolution of cruising, by which time it was lunch. A post-prandial mile around the promenade deck and a stroll around the art gallery later and it was time for the dress rehearsal of our choir performance at tonight's Last Night of the Cunard Proms.

 

This was the first time we sang with the National Symphony Orchestra and the first time I have stood on a real stage - changing coloured lights and everything. I'm selfishly grateful that I don't have to listen to myself boom out Jerusalem or fog horn my way through Amazing Grace for, despite the practicing, I don't think my voice is improving. I'd better loosen it up with some pre-show cocktails!

 

 

7 September 2013

Day Five aboard QM2: It's a dog's life

Last night's dinner at Todd English fully lived up to expectations. Indeed, with the possible exception of a superb curry, it is the culinary highlight of my voyage so far. A delicious scallop and porcini tart preceded what could have been dull but was actually sublime chicken, rounded off with a glass of port and petit fours. To work off some of those cheeky calories, we hit the ship's nightclub, G32. This was interesting: the club looks great and was playing great music for my generation but was full of people more my mother's generation, who were sitting around the dance floor looking a little bemused. Nonetheless, we had a little boogie and retired to our cabin feeling better for it.

 

This morning heralded our second hour of choir practice with Anthony Inglis. After a shaky start, I think we improved, although I still question the wisdom of unleashing us on an unsuspecting public. I recorded our rehearsal on my phone, with the intention of putting in some extra hours of practice before Sunday. Listening to it now, I realise I need more than a few hours of work…

 

After choir practice, I attended a packed-out seminar given by the art historian Christine Roussel on New York's first skyscrapers and the ironworkers who built them. It was fascinating to learn about the construction of some of the buildings I'll be seeing next week, and about the plucky men who risked their lives to piece them together, accompanied by many of those iconic black and white shots of men dangling off narrow girders and clinging onto wires hundreds of feet above New York.

 

While I listened to Roussel, my mother went to a talk about the art of seascapes in the Art Gallery - one of two new places I've discovered today (having thought I'd explored all the nooks & crannies of the ship). The second place I visited for the first time today was the kennels: the QM2 is the only cruise ship at sea to cater for our furry friends (cats and dogs are welcome) and we have six canines travelling with us. By no means do they pull the short straw: the ship's chefs bake them fresh cookies each day, there's a walking area, their kennels are spacious and a crew member checks on them throughout the night. It just goes to show, sail with Cunard and it really is a dog's life.

 

If you're wondering what the picture above shows, these beautiful scultures are known as the Commodore's Cufflinks. They're not pieces of contemporary art but two of eight of QM2's spare propellor blades, which are stored at the front of the ship. 

 

 

6 September 2013

Day Four aboard QM2: standing 40ft above the ocean on a piece of glass...

I felt a little cheated this morning: for the past three nights, our ship's clocks have gone back by an hour, giving us the added luxury of 25-hour days and an hour's extra sleep. I have become rather accustomed to this gentle adjustment to east coast America time and miss my extra hour (although I'm currently using it as an excuse for not going to the gym today).

 

Nonetheless, I spent a relaxing couple of hours working and reading on my sunny balcony this morning. I confess to being distracted from my work by trying to establish which blue was prettier: that of the Atlantic or the sky above it. I decided on a draw and tried to get back to concentrating on work.

 

This afternoon, I was fortunate enough to visit the QM2 bridge (that's like the cockpit for those not familiar with maritime terminology). This was part of yesterday's "Behind the Scenes" tour, which had to be postponed until today and was well worth the wait. Our Captain, Kevin Oprey, was up there (reassuringly) and talked us through the ins and outs of whale spotting, sailing at pace away from a hurricane and trying to save money on the QM2's fuel bills (a losing battle I would think). His pride in helming one of the most coveted ships at sea is palpable and yet he's very quick to crack jokes about his looming retirement, when he'll be at the helm of his own, one-engine boat back at home ("I'm going to have to be careful with fuel for that one too…"). There are some tremendous "windows" on the bridge, which look straight down to the ocean 40ft below. When I first looked down to the waters below me I spotted a large sea turtle bobbing around down there.  

 

And now, as I'm whisked along on the continual cruise ship conveyor belt of food, I'm off to Todd English for dinner. The speciality restaurant serves modern American cuisine with a dash of Italian influence and, if my lunch there a couple of days ago is anything to go by, I should be in a for a treat. Not that I really deserve any more culinary treats this week. 

 

5 September 2013

Day Three aboard QM2: choirs & kitchens

Shortly before my first choir rehearsal in over 20 years, Anthony Inglis, principle conductor and musical director of the National Symphony Orchestra asked: "Are there any Germans here?" Upon seeing a few hands go up in the air, he said: "Ah. Right. Well, I'm afraid you're probably going to find this a little odd…"

 

As we burst into a heartfelt rendition of Rule Britannia followed by Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory, you could understand his concern. Nonetheless, the Germans (and the Americans) joined in gamely, and our novice choir graduated to Amazing Grace, arranged by Inglis to be sung in harmony. I think I can safely say that it will have been more entertaining singing than listening but we've got another rehearsal before our Big Night - Last Night of the Cunard Proms at Sea, where we will take the stage with the NSO to shock and awe our audience with our newfound singing ability.

 

 

After singing my heart out, I attended a packed-out seminar on the world's great ocean liners. Delivered in a thick New York accent by maritime historian Bill Miller, it was an enthralling 45 minutes - how he talks so fast and so authoritatively, and provides so much information in an easy-to-listen-to way is a gift few public speakers possess. I'll definitely be listening into his next lecture.

 

After lunch, it was time for a Behind the Scenes ship tour. Over the course of two hours, we discovered the "city" that lives beneath the ship, the beating heart of this plush floating hotel. We marvelled at the colossal anchors, tried to lift the fattest rope I've ever seen in my life, learned about fire-fighting and recycling onboard the ship. We discovered that the QM2 goes through 6,000 eggs, 1,500 litres of beer and 840 loo rolls a day. There's a butcher, fishmonger and bakery, where chefs from each restaurant and station have to "buy" their produce each day. Unnamed passengers were revealed to travel with 225 pieces of luggage (that's just for one family), request pork from a particular Caribbean island and book entire cabins just for their clothing. It's quite an eye-opener and well worth booking yourself onto a tour if you ever sail with Cunard - but you have to be quick, they only accommodate 16 guests and typically sell out within half an hour on the first day of a voyage. 

 

4 September 2013

Day Two aboard QM2: getting stoned

It's now been 48 hours since I sailed out of Southampton and I feel I'm adjusting well to life onboard QM2. Last night was very glam: a cocktail reception hosted by our animated Captain, with everybody adhering to the Black & White formal dress code. Dinner was a sumptuous affair in the Princess Grill restaurant and then we headed to the two-storey Royal Court theatre to listen to the soulful tones of Brummy-boy-turned-West-End star, Phillip Browne (pictured here with me after his show). Browne was working as a bus driver based in Putney when he auditioned for a role in the Lion King. He landed the part and, although he seems to heed his father's advice to hang on to his bus driver's licence, the rapturous reception he got from us all last night indicates that I'm unlikely to be flashing my Oyster card at him on the 39 bus to Clapham any time soon.

 

This morning dawned bright but chilly, so I walked a mile before breakfast (three laps of the promenade deck is just over a mile). After a spot of work (somewhat unfortunately, the internet seems to be working fine, so I can't feign email blackout), I went to register to sing in a choir supporting the National Symphony Orchestra. This is the fifth Cunard transatlantic voyage which Anthony Inglis has joined with his merry band of NSO men and women, not only offering passengers the opportunity to attend performances (one American night and one British night) but also to create a choir to support the Orchestra on stage for the "Last Night of the Cunard Proms" - the Masquerade Ball extravaganza that will be our penultimate night onboard. Inglis doesn't require previous choir experience or even proof of ability to sing in tune, just enthusiasm and "the desire to sing with like-minded people." We have our first rehearsal tomorrow morning - I'll let you know whether I'm the first passenger to be evicted from the choir…

 

 

I treated myself to lunch at the speciality Todd English restaurant (he's famous in the US, apparently), which was excellent and have just returned from a blissful 80-minute hot stone massage. My mother said jokingly that I was "off to get stoned" and I confess I feel a bit like that right now. However, cocktails and dinner beckon, so I shall gather my wits and push on valiantly.  

 

3 September 2013

Day One aboard QM2: 24 hours down, 160 to go 

This time 24 hours ago, I was sailing slowly, majestically out of Southampton aboard Cunard's Queen Mary 2, waved off by small pleasure boats which darted around us like minnows. After pomp & circumstance in the form of Rule Britannia and much waving of little Union Jacks, Arne gave way to Xtsea (pronounced ecstasy), a live band knocking out a medley of tunes from La Bamba to YMCA. As the sun beat down and we bopped gently to the sound of steel drums, the holiday mood was palpable - my first Cunard cruise was looking extremely promising.

 

The 24 hours that have passed since then have been more than averagely relaxing. After slowly passing the Isle of Wight, Osborne House bathed in early evening sunshine, I sipped a prosecco in the Commodore Club and watched the sun set over the last slice of land I'll see for eight days.

 

I'm fortunate enough to be staying in a Princess Grill Suite, which not only means a spacious suite with a large balcony but also gives me access to the dedicated Princess Grill restaurant, which is a little smarter, smaller and quieter than the main restaurants. It's not as upmarket as the Queen's Grill admittedly - it's always good to have something to aspire to for the next voyage!

 

So, dinner in the restaurant, a bit of a potter around the ship and bed. Today has so far involved breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea interspersed with a mission to the gym (which was heaving at 7am), plenty of reading in the sunshine and a thorough exploration of the ship, with its myriad shops, restaurants, bars, vast library and Canyon Ranch spa. I'm easing myself in gently. This evening holds cocktails with the captain and the first of two formal ball evenings, followed by a Broadway performance in the theatre. As days go, it hasn't been too challenging.

 

My plan (internet access permitting) is to write each day about this, my first transatlantic passage. The question everybody has asked me when I've mentioned the cruise is: "What will you do each day?" And I don't know. Yet. But if Day One is anything to go by, it's not a matter of grave concern.

 

 

 
11 June 2013

Rocking the surf in Cornwall

I spend some nine months of the year travelling around the world to discover beautiful places to write about. Long flights, bus journeys and boat trips have brought me to idyllic corners of the globe and, fortunately, most have warranted the effort to get there. However, having just spent four delightful days in Cornwall (a comfortable and scenic four-hour railway journey from London with First Great Western), I’m seriously questioning the logic of leaving this green and pleasant land. England, when the weather is good, is truly magnificent.

 

However, I wasn’t in Cornwall merely to consume my body weight in cream teas, fudge and cider – I was on a mission to learn how to surf. My induction into the world of catching waves took the form of a three-day Surf Retreat operated by George Stoy of George’s Surf School . The irrepressibly enthusiastic George not only taught me and two girlfriends the basics of surfing but provided all the necessary equipment for our waterborne adventures and worked with CKRock to provide accommodation in the sumptuous Treverra cottage, a 10-minute stroll through fields from the popular seaside town of Rock.

 

As I discovered over three sun-drenched days in this laughably beautiful pocket of England, surfing is a physical endeavour. While my two friends both had some surfing experience under their belts (in addition to being Iron Man competitors and marathon runners), I had never stepped on a board before last week Friday. My expectations were mixed: I figured that exhaustion and humiliation were guaranteed, injuries and hypothermia likely, and the chances of my standing up on a board low. On the flip side, I knew that the food would be good as the chef at Treverra, Laura Pope , cooks healthy, light, delicious, imaginative and burstingly fresh food, and that there would be a physio on hand to pummel me back into shape after each morning’s battle with the ocean.

 

I was right about the exhaustion – learning to surf is an all-over body workout, engaging muscles in my body I didn’t know existed. And yet I found our three-hour morning sessions invigorating rather than debilitating: after a restorative lunch, afternoons were spent going for long walks along the beach, swimming in Treverra’s infinity pool (as pictured below), and paddle boarding and waterskiing on the Camel Estuary with Charlie and Rory from Camel Ski . Sundowners and Laura’s hearty dinners were enjoyed on the terrace at Treverra overlooking the estuary and Padstow and followed by informal talks by George on surf culture, history, kit and etiquette.

 

As someone who loves being active, learning new sports, mucking around in the ocean and long dinners with friends, this surf retreat ticked every box and more. I was humbled by surfing but not humiliated, I didn’t injure myself or get cold, and I stood up and rode my first wave within an hour of being in the water. I’ve found a little piece of watery paradise four hours’ from my home, kick-started an exercise regime (there’s nothing like waddling around in a wetsuit to inspire you to hit the gym) and started what is likely to be a lifelong love affair with surfing. Back in London, Rock and the ocean feel a long way away: I miss waking up to the distant cries of seagulls and the scent of Laura’s freshly-baked muffins and I'm yearning for the sensation of warm sand underfoot and the thrill of paddling to catch a wave. Time to catch a train back to Cornwall me thinks…

    

                                 

 

 

6 May 2013

Sailing down Portugal's Golden River

Visiting a country for the first time is a delicious experience. The thrill of discovering new sights, people, culture, foods, landscapes and flora & fauna never ceases to excite me. It was, thus, with tremendous pleasure that I spent a week sailing along the Douro River in Portugal, a place so near to England (only 1.40hrs by plane) and with such a long relationship with the English, which has nonetheless eluded me until now.

 

Flying into Porto on a glorious afternoon was an auspicious start. Just twenty minutes' drive from the airport the Queen Isabel awaited me: a brand spanking new ship launched by boutique river cruise line Uniworld to navigate through the heart of Port country along the Douro. Wasting no time, I deposited my luggage on the ship and promptly walked away from it. We were moored in Gaia, which is located across the river from Porto and is where the Port wine estates have historically matured their wines in large warehouses. A ten-minute walk took me over the impressive double-decker bridge to Porto's medieval Ribeira quayside. First impressions were wholly positive: balmy sunlight burnished the warm stone buildings, their pretty tiled facades magical against the deep blue sky; the locals were spending their Sunday evening contentedly sipping Port wine with friends; the melancholic strains of 'Fado' singing echoed around me; and pretty wooden 'rabelo' boats zipped up and down the Douro. I revelled in the sheer luxury of having a week of this to look forward to.

 

The week simply got better and better. The ship was great - my cabin even had a balcony from which to admire the ever-changing river views; we visited a variety of places from tiny medieval hilltop towns like Castelo Rodrigo to lively Salamanca, and large wineries like Sandeman to cosy, family-owned ventures like Quinta Avessada. Simply mooching along the river was stupdendous, as we passed through narrow gorges flanked by sheer hills carpeted in terraced vineyards, olive groves, almond trees, poppies, lavender and buttercups and dotted with whitewashed quintas (estates) and chapels. While not pottering around picturesque villages or tasting Port wine and almonds, I was paddling in the little pool on the sun deck, marvelling at the surrounding countryside or feasting on local food in the ship's restaurant.

 

I've been on several river cruises across the world and this is up there with the best. My only complaints: the places we visited were so idyllic, there simply wasn't enough time spent in them, and Portuguese pastries and Port (and unexpected Moscatel wine) are so irresistable that I am considerably heavier than I was BC (Before Cruise), despite having sweated in the gym each day. However, they're pretty positive complaints really and, despite the extra kilos, I'm already plotting my return to Portugal, which I have fallen well and truly in love with.

 
 
10 April 2013

In the lap of Scottish luxury

I have just returned from an extraordinary week aboard the Hebridean Princess , sailing around the western Scottish Isles. It was my second voyage aboard this delightful vessel and I feared that my memories of the first trip, which set my benchmark for luxury cruising for the next four years, might disappoint - that I had built it up in my memory. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded - a voyage aboard the Hebridean Princess is still an exceptional experience, with magnificent food, service, scenery, care, and a ship worthy of her royal patronage.

 

Our brilliant guide, Andy Cameron (pictured just below pouring a rather generous dram into my hot chocolate in Trotternish), wrote the poem below about our week aboard the Princess, which sums up far better than I could what we experienced over our week. Thank you Andy!

 

Sea Lochs and Sounds

On April 2nd, we sailed out of Oban Bay

Amazed at a rare sighting of a young sperm whale.

Fresh cabins, lifeboat drill, warm welcome address

Our cruise had begun on the Hebridean Princess.

 

First morning we cruised under the Skye Bridge at Plockton

For walks, open air church – all under fiery red sun.

Next day at Sheildaig, walks on a glorious morning

To a beach with stunning views of Loch Torridon.

 

Afternoon stop at Gairloch to visit the gardens at Inverewe

Is it mainland? Or island? We haven’t a clue.

We had fishing trips and speedboat rides

Under the wide, ever-changing Hebridean skies.

 

Then the glorious Summer Isles of Tanera Mor

Stamps and spectacular scenery, we could ask for no more.

At Ullapool we were entertained by Margaret Knight that evening

With her captivating harp and gentle singing.

 

Over to Skye, Portree, for a tour of Trotternish

Dramatic landscape and fairies, no more we could wish.

Inverie next, a Viking grave and red deer

Back to the Old Forge for a well-deserved beer.

 

Loch Scavaig for walks under the remote Black Cuillin mountain

Alternatively, stay on board a relax with a gin.

Oakwood strolls at Salen on Ardnamurcharan,

Pondering how quickly our cruise time has gone.

 

Lastly Tobermory with its rainbow of shops

Hard to resist the silver and chocs.

Our crew was magnificent, hardworking and kind

A better one would be hard to find.

 

Chefs and waiting crew kept us elegantly fed

Housekeeping girls cleaned, tidied and made our bed.

The boatmen gently getting us ashore and back

The officers always on the lookout, never to slack.

 

But I reckon Eugene and Igor were the most popular by far,

Probably because they were manning the bar.

So Captain, Dave and team well done,

This cruise really is second to none.

 

 
 
 
25 March 2013

Bag Brilliance

I watched Dragon’s Den last night, in which all the fiery dragons wanted a piece of two “mumpreneurs” (brilliant word) who had designed a rucksack and play tray for children, the TrayKit. Having learned a valuable lesson from The Trunki Episode (in which the Dragons rejected the inventor of Trunki children’s carry-on luggage, which subsequently went on to become a global phenomenon), they did battle for a share in the women’s business. Peter Jones was particularly impressed by the bag’s design, which he asserted had all the zips, straps and compartments one could dream of, and all in the right place.

 

I sighed and wondered whether the dynamic Mummy duo could do the same for grown-up travel luggage. Schlepping a 20kg ski bag around London is never a pleasure, and the knowledge that I would be packing for a fortnight away the following morning (not skiing but cruising in the windswept, snowy outer Hebrides, requiring nearly as much kit!) was not warming my cockles...

 

However, a revelation was in store. Osprey Packs has been making luggage for 39 years under the watchful eye of founder Mike Pfotenhauer. The company had sent me one of its ultra-light Ozone wheeled bags to put to the test a few months ago. This was to be its virgin outing, as it’s just that bit too small to carry my ski boots, helmet, shovel etc. for more than a short ski trip. Other than my ski bag and a weekend bag, this is the first piece of rolling luggage I have used, being a rucksack kind of girl.

 

In short, this is the grown-up travellers equivalent of the TrayKit. It has multiple compartments - large, small and netted – in strategic places, with sturdy, ergonomic zips. The main, Tardis-like compartment is expandable; the wheels and grippable, T-shaped telescopic handle run smoothly; and the material is lightweight yet durable (I tested this by inadvertently hacking at it with my penknife). I found myself placing neatly folded clothing in the bag, rather than rolling it up and stuffing it down in layers, as is my MO with large rucksacks. I have little doubt my official cruise companion (my mother) will look less disapproving as I pull on clothes which don’t bear the scars of rucksack abuse.  

 

However, so far I have only alluded to the most brilliant bit about this bag – its weight. Amazingly, this 80 litre bag weighs just 2.25 kg kg (4lbs 15oz). This is a revelation not only for weedy girls who like to pack heavy but for any traveller braving public transport and / or determined to beat the easyJet and Ryanair luggage scales. Despite having packed thermals, waterproof layers, hiking boots, ‘smart casual’ day wear, two black tie outfits, two computers, all the required chargers, notebooks, books etc., I have been able to wheel my Osprey around with ease. Oh, and as I discovered while waiting for the bus and train, it’s solid as a rock when standing up - a rare yet valuable skill. What more could one ask from a piece of luggage? “How about a lifetime guarantee?” you say. Done – Osprey offers a lifetime "All Mighty Guarantee" on all its products. 

PS: The Osprey Ozone 80l costs £140 from Cotswold Outdoor

 

21 March 2013

Girl Power 

I had the opportunity to meet two truly inspirational women yesterday – Frenchwoman Jocelyne Sibuet, owner and founder of Maisons et Hotels Sibuet , and South African Beatrice Tollman, founder of the Red Carnation Hotel Group. I found these elegant, ambitious women d’un certain age to be remarkable not “just” because they have built up multimillion pound travel empires while also raising their families but because of their unfaltering commitment to those empires and ongoing passion for and involvement in their operation.

 

Sibuet has developed Maisons & Hotels Sibuet (which is complemented by the impressive Spa Pure Altitude brand) over a period of 31 years, now employing some 600 people (“I know most of them”, she says earnestly. “It’s just some of the newer recruits that I haven’t been able to meet yet…”). Her son and daughter are heavily involved in the company yet it is clear that Maman still wears the pantalons, and that her policy of only acquiring properties she falls in love with still drives the business. I was fortunate enough to visit one of those hotels, the Nordic-inspired Altapura in Val Thorens, last December, which is largely the product of her son, Nicholas. As Sibuet said with a smile: “Nicholas wanted to create a hotel for skiers, with a younger feel. I like to create hotels for après-skiers, to cocoon people, like the flagship Fermes de Marie in Megève.” With plans to launch a new 19-suite property in Provence this summer and further expansion of Pure Altitude, it is clear that Sibuet has no intention to slow down soon.

 

 

Tollman, meanwhile, started her career in the hospitality industry shortly after leaving university. Marrying a well-established South African hotelier, she somehow managed to raise four children and teach herself how to run the professional kitchens of several smart hotels in Johannesburg. Today, the result of those labours is the Red Carnation Hotel Group , which incorporates fifteen hotels and restaurants on three continents (including my favourite London hotel and bar, Egerton House ). Tollman also oversaw the creation of the boutique river cruise line Uniworld Cruises , which I rate as the best in the business. At an event to promote her South African properties last night, the stylish Tollman (who looks 20 years younger than she is) tasted each canapé served by her chefs (helped by some of the 50 African staff she brought to London, in order that they could experience the city). Her immaculately groomed eyebrows raised slightly in approval with each nibble. Jonathan Raggett, MD of the RCH group, mentioned that Tollman also reads every guest comment form completed at her properties each day. Proof that devil really is in the detail.

 

 

14 March 2013

From spring slush to dust on crust to 16 inches of fresh – all in three days at Crested Butte

Last Saturday in Crested Butte dawned without a cloud in the sky (Colorado boasts some 300 days of sunshine per year). I woke up in my beautiful suite in the luxurious Scarp Ridge Lodge in the heart of town, well-located for skiing in nearby Crested Butte Mountain Resort . However, Scarp Ridge is no “normal” establishment – the lodge’s owner also lays claim to a private mountain, Mount Irwin, where guests can go cat-skiing (included in the price of the lodge). The monster ‘Tucker’ pictured here was our ride from the doorstep to the mountain (the interiors involve leather seats, reclaimed timber panelling and a plasma screen to watch ski movies on). Reaching Mount Irwin, we were deposited for our safety briefing in the Movie Cabin, so called because Walt Disney built it in the 1960s when he shot the film ‘Mountain Family Robinson’ here. The cabin is a pretty luxurious affair with an open fire, excellent catering and even a bed if you’re feeling a little weary after all that untracked powder skiing.

 

Luxury is something you become accustomed to when travelling with Eleven Experience , the bespoke adventure outfit which includes Scarp Ridge Lodge amongst its portfolio of properties. From the Lodge itself, where rooms come with a complimentary minibar, full-size Kiehl’s toiletries and a medicine cabinet stuffed with moisturiser, suncream and lip balm, to the endless supply of gourmet snacks in your room, the Tucker, the Movie Cabin and the cat, it's hard to want for anything. Although expensive at $12,000 per night based on 10 people sharing the lodge, this includes the cat-skiing and guiding, breakfast and lunch (you’re encouraged to dine out at night to explore some of the excellent restaurants in Crested Butte – Soupcon is worth travelling to Colorado for!!), transfers etc. If you’d rather ski the resort, the team will throw in guiding and lift passes (and more of those snacks) or snowshoeing if you’re prefer that, or fishing with experienced fisherman Moose… Basically, Eleven Experience is all about getting you out into the big wide world and making the most of it, while never wanting for anything. It might sound simple but executing it this well takes serious effort and, in my opinion, warrants the price tag.

 

After a day of classic sunny Colorado skiing, we had a second day of cat-skiing in less favourable conditions - a touch of dust on crust. However, having the comfort of the Movie Cabin to retreat to for hot chocolate, snacks, red wine and movies made the day less of a hardship... Snow began to fall in the afternoon and continued right through much of the next day, delivering a whopping 16 inches in 24 hours - the most of any resort in Colorado. Although I didn't have the Irwin cat fleet at my disposal, I did have Erica Reiter, a former pro snowboarder and now PR & Marketing Manager for Crested Butte Mountain Resort, to show me around her mountain. Locals were out in force to make the most of the powder day and we stood in an extremely chatty (and herbally fragrant) queue to ride the lift up to the freshly opened North Face, worth every minute for the deep pillows of powder we ploughed through on our way down. Riding back to town on the bus, full of merry locals, I decided it had been a pretty remarkable three days here in Crested Butte - the "Crusty Butt" had most definitely delivered.

 

THANK YOU FOR THESE PHOTOS, PROVIDED BY FENLON PHOTOGRAPHY CO.

 

 

17 February 2013

My Top Ten Pieces of Ski Kit

So, here I am in England trying to complete a guidebook to Amsterdam during what appears to be one of the best winters in the Alps in decades. I’m trying (successfully at times) not to be too bitter about it and, in the hope that it might make me feel closer to the mountains (and be helpful for you), I have been thinking about my favourite pieces of ski kit. “What should I pack” is one of the most common questions I am asked by skiers of all levels, so here are ten things that I think should always accompany you to the big white hills:

 

1. BASE LAYERS

I am a huge advocate of wearing layers while skiing – temperatures in the mountains vary considerably and, particularly if you’re hiking or touring, your own body temperature fluctuates significantly as well. Helly Hansen  and Peak Performance  are my top choices for comfortable wicking base layers (both for your body and legs) that keep you warm and draw perspiration away from your body, as well as lightweight mid-layers.

 

2. TROUSERS

A warm, comfortable and waterproof pair of ski trousers is essential to your enjoyment of a day on the hill. I have two pairs: an insulated pair for colder months and a Peak Performance shell for spring skiing and touring, which come complete with a zip running the length of each leg for when it’s really warm.

Women do tend to prefer insulated trousers and, if you’re on the hunt for a new pair, I cannot fault Perfect Moment’s polar bear pants . Not only are they warm, comfortable, waterproof and feature pockets in all the right places but they bring a smile to my face every time I look at my legs (and invariably make other people smile too!). In fact, I dedicated an entire blog to them last winter, which you can read if you scroll down.

If you’re still chilly, invest in a couple of of luscious merino wool knickers from British brand Finisterre - you'll be amazed by the difference they can make to your comfort.  

 

3. JACKETS

Note my use of plural here – once again, as a female, I often get colder than my male counterparts, so I might be overly cautious here. I typically ski with a lightweight down base layer and a Gortex shell over it, which can be removed when I’m too hot / it’s not snowing, and stashed in my rucksack. I’m currently loving my Perfect Moment Qanuk technical first layer and Qanuk Pro shell , which work excellently as standalone pieces but are made specifically to wear together, with neat little poppers at the cuffs and neck to fix them together. If you’re looking for a seriously technical shell, Arc’teryx is hard to fault, as most male ski geeks will already know. However, ladies and metrosexuals rejoice, for, having historically appeared to favour function over beauty, Arc’teryx is now decidedly more hip, with some great new colours and designs this winter.  

 

4. BOOTS

The world of ski boots has changed virtually beyond recognition in the past 20 years. No longer does squeezing your feet into boots, and keeping them on for an entire day, need to be torture – if you get the right pair. Everybody has vastly different feet and different requirements from their ski boots, so I can only really offer two pieces of advice here:

1. Do invest in your own boots if you intend to ski more than one week every winter.

2. Do spend money on getting them fitted properly and, if you’re serious about improving, consider getting them custom-fitted by a shop like Profeet in London. Even better, get them fitted in a ski resort, so you can test them on the slopes and return to your fitter to make tweaks. My recommendations for resort-based ski boot geniuses are: Gotschna Sport in Klosters (ask for Peter) and Strolz in Lech or Alber Sport in St Anton, where you can throw money at the problem and get a pair of bespoke Strolz boots.

 

 

5. HELMET

I had a ski accident three years ago in which I fractured my neck and cheekbone and sustained a grade 4 out of 5 concussion. The photo on the left was taken several days afterwards, with a delightfully fading black eye (Here’s a short piece I wrote about it for the Telegraph ) The doctor who saw me after the incident told me I would have been significantly worse off had I not been wearing a helmet at the time, which convinced me of the virtues of wearing one. I was wearing a Salomon Poison helmet and went straight back out to buy a new one after the fall, as not only did it clearly work but it’s also incredibly comfortable, with Custom AirFit, fluffy (removable) ear pads, a visor for keeping sun glare off my face and snow off the top of my goggles, and vents to open when I’m overheating. 

 

 

6. GOGGLES

There are so many google brands out there, choosing a pair can be overwhelming. Like boots, key here is finding a pair that fits you perfectly (with your helmet on), so try plenty on before you start prevaricating between the blue or green ones. Thanks to fellow writer Matt Barr , I discovered Dragon Alliance goggles this winter and it’s been a real eye-opener. Not only are they super comfy but they have blissfully uninterrupted vision, being the world’s first fully frameless goggle. The brand has a vast selection of goggle sizes, shapes, colours and lenses (I would advise that you buy two lenses – one for bad visibility days and another for sunny ones). Yes they’re expensive but being able to see while you ski is pretty crucial. Oh, and don’t forget to remove your goggles from your helmet at the end of each ski day - the lenses are more likely to get scratched and the elastic band loses its stretch.

 

7. RUCKSACK

Even French three year-olds in the Club Piou Piou ski schools are taught the value of packing a few necessities into a rucksack for a day on the slopes. Conditions in the mountains can change within minutes, requiring Mother Nature’s guests to be equipped for all eventualities. So, particularly if you’re intending to venture off-piste, your rucksack should contain sunscreen, water, some high energy snacks, extra warm layers and a mobile phone. I am a huge fan of my  Mammut Nirvana Pro  rucksack, which is comfortable, has multiple compartments and strong, well-positioned straps to carry my skis, and a clever helmet carrier for when I’m hiking/touring.

 

8. GLOVES

The choice of gloves for skiing / riding is endless. I’ve been happy with a £5 pair from Tchibo but you can spend upwards of £100 on branded pairs. If you suffer from really cold hands, buy a pair of mittens or, if you don’t like the feeling of “trapped” fingers, a pair of insulating glove liners, which make a huge difference. Best of both worlds, however, is a pair of mittens featuring an interior with separate fingers, such as the  Palm X from POC.

 

9. TRANSCEIVER, SHOVEL & PROBE

These bits of kit are ESSENTIAL if you’re even contemplating straying off-piste. I have the excellent Mammut PULSE Barryvox transceiver, which is easy to use (crucial), enables discovery of multiple victims and receives the thumbs up from every mountain guide I know. Having the correct shovel (and knowing the right shovelling technique) is also a key, yet often overlooked, part of avalanche rescue. After all, it’s no good locating a victim fast if it then takes you an hour to dig them out. The Backcountry Access Arsenal combo – an aluminium snow shovel with an integrated avalanche probe – is durable yet lighter than almost any combination of the two tools currently on the market. The BCA  website also has loads of handy info about shovelling technique and general avalanche awareness.

 

10. SUNGLASSES

It’s always handy to have some shades on you in the mountains and Sunpockets are my current favourite. If you’re of my vintage and older, you’ll recognise them from the 1980s, when the French brand’s signature foldable sunglasses were all the rage. Relaunched in 2011, Sunpocket is back – with the cleverly folding shades as convenient as ever and come in loads of uber trendy colour combos. 

 

 

 

 

 

25 January 2013

Chalet N - possibly the most remarkable chalet in the Alps?

As a travel writer, I rarely have the luxury of time to relax in an hotel or destination - there's generally just enough time to get the essence of the place but not enough to actually chill out (fair enough, it is work). As a result, I have to make the most of the precious time I have in each spot and that is certainly what I have done over the past 30 hours. 

 

Together with five other journalists, I flew out of the London City Jet Centre onboard a snazzy Lear jet yesterday morning, arriving in Innsbruck after a spectacularly scenic flight shortly before noon. Three dapper butlers whisked our bags from us, bundled us into Range Rovers and drove us to Oberlech, an exclusive enclave above the charming resort of Lech in the Arlberg ski area, and delivered us to Chalet N . Owned by a 35 year-old self-made Austrian millionare, this remarkable property opened on Christmas Eve and set a new benchmark for the increasingly opulent and extravagant Alpine chalet industry - the ski-in/ski-out, five-storey timber and stone building encompasses a whopping 5,000 square metres of sheer, unadulterated luxury. There are ten suites (including a 180 square metre master suite), two dining rooms, a large sitting room with full-size bar, the most impressive spa and wellness area of any chalet (and virtually any hotel) I've set foot in, a home cinema, stupendous wine cellar, outdoor ice bar... (I could go on)

 

 

Yes, there are elements of bling (a shower encased by a curtain of Swarovski crystals, titanium cutlery, enough fur throws to keep an entire Eskimo village warm) but the overall effect is understated and uncommonly homely. As the chalet's Big Cheese, consummate hotelier Stefan Huemer, told me over melt-in-the-mouth wagyu beef during our eight-course dinner: "We don't want our guests to feel they're downgrading from their own home but neither should they feel they're in an hotel." (I chose not to point out that the master suite's sitting room is larger than my entire London flat, making this anything but a downgrade for me.) Thus, in addition to a "maxibar" in each suite (there is nothing mini about this place) and full-size his & hers Hermes toiletries, each guest at Chalet N receives a monogrammed pillow case (pictured here with my small bovine travelling companion), which is packed away when you leave to await your next visit. Nice touch eh?

 

 

With 26 staff to pander to guests' every need and a four-strong team of chefs spearheaded by the award-winning Marent brothers, Chalet N is truly a place of superlatives. And it comes with an eye-watering price tag to match (currently £270,000 per week, or £13,500 per person based on full capacity of 20).

 

If it swings your decision, that is an all-inclusive price, accounting for full board, drinks (including a choice of 35 house wines and spirits), airport transfers and lift passes. It's a punchy price tag but one that people such as Tina Turner, who was here last week, appear to be happy to pay, with bookings strong for the coming months. As Huemer (or was it Tina Turner?) went on to say: "We don't want to be better or different, we just want to be the best." 

 

Sadly, our time in this haven of excess was limited to just 21 hours, so we made the most of them. There was skiing, massages, facials, swimming, hot tubbing, yoga, a stroll to a nearby chalet for a Schnapps tasting amongst the goats and donkeys, plenty of eating, some dancing... However, back in my little Clapham flat, I'm rather regretting not having put the three precious hours I allocated to sleep to better use playing billiards or watching a movie in the cinema or figuring out the various wash/dry/massage/music options on my Japanese-style loo... 

 
 
18 January 2013
The Val d'Anniviers BOGOF

Although part of the Val d’Anniviers and included in the same lift pass, the St-Luc/Chandolin ski area (a healthy 65km of pistes) is not lift-linked to the valley’s other ski areas of Grimentz and Zinal (70km of pistes) or Vercorin (35km of pistes). Indeed, neighbouring Grimentz and Zinal are currently only linked by one black piste, although an impressive new lift is being built as I type this, due to open in December 2013.  Hence, just as skiers get a bonus resort, I'm giving the day I spent skiing in St-Luc/Chandolin a bonus blog of its own.

 

For a relatively small ski area, St-Luc/Chandolin packs a hefty punch on a powder day. Particularly when you’ve pounded your legs over the past two days and researched Grimentz’s vinous offerings and local nightclub quite intensively… However, local man Simon Wiget (a former snowboard instructor and now head of the local tourist office) had little sympathy for the ragged bunch of British journalists he met at 9am at the base of Chandolin earlier this week, determined to show us the best his ‘hood has to offer.

 

He started with a cheeky “warm-up” down the Ombrintzes couloirs (the name comes from the French for shade - ‘ombre’ – as they’re so narrow they rarely see sunshine). These skinny, rocky gullies are used as qualifying runs by the world’s gnarliest skiers and boarders in the Freeride World Tour. Watch this video and / or head out there on 9 and 10 March 2013 to see people doing it justice (unlike me). 

 

Legs still wobbling from the Ombrintzes, Wiget advised me that there was “just a little 20-minute walk” to the 3,025m peak of Bella Tola (picture above) for the next descent. I foolishly believed him. Skis strapped to my rucksack, the next 20 minutes passed in something of a daze as I clung onto a frozen rope for dear life and hauled myself up a sheer, loose rock face. I was a bit grumpy by the time I reached the summit but confess that the long, virgin descent was worth every hard-earned breath (picture on the left). As was the mountain of buttery, cheesy, bacon-encrusted rosti I devoured that afternoon in the charming little  Cabane Illhorn after plenty more untouched runs through trees, powder bowls and undulating fields.

 

Skiers tend to like simple pleasures (snow, mountains, vast portions of cheesy food) and the Val d’Anniviers offers them in bucket loads. 

 

 

(Thanks to Simon Usborne @susborne for the photos of Bella Tola)

 
16 January 2013 

Flying high in Switzerland's Val d'Anniviers

There are times when I love my job even more than usual and last weekend was one of those times. As I flew out to Geneva last Thursday, bound for the little-known Val d'Anniviers in south-western Switzerland, I didn't have high hopes for the conditions. After heavy pre-Christmas snowfalls across the Alps, temperatures had risen and there was little fresh snow to be found. However, the Snow Gods were good to me and it started snowing as I lifted out of Heathrow, delivering a fluffy 20cm of fresh snow to the slopes of Grimentz for the following morning. Together with some fellow journalists, I had a fantastic day bounding over powder cushions and through fairytale woods as the snow kept falling. The next morning, as if by magic, the skies were tranquil cobalt blue and we got the nod from the local heliski operator, Heli-Alps , for a heli drop on the 3,796m peak of Pigne d'Arolla. A 1,800 vertical metre descent brought us to the tiny 'resort' of Arolla (five t-bars), where we squeezed in a few more runs before driving back home to Grimentz. 

 

Our 'home' was Chalet CBC, a smart new property located at the top of Grimentz and featured in the portfolio of Rental Prestige , the company co-owned by former Powder Byrne bigwig, Will Herrington. Having lived in Grimentz for seven years, Herrington knows a thing or two about the area and couldn't be more passionate about the valley and the exceptional off-piste skiing it offers. In addition to now sharing these passions with him (and his wife's love for the almond croissants from the local bakery), I appreciate Herrington's torn loyalties: he has to promote awareness of this "secret" valley for his business yet would doubtless love to keep it hidden from the masses to retain its authenticity and delightfully empty 220km of slopes. It is the role of the travel writer to expose "hidden gems" (along with "luxury" probably the most over-used words in travel writing) such as this remarkable valley but, particularly as it's very close to my heart because my intrepid grandparents first discovered it back in the 1950s, I'm sorely tempted to keep schtum... 

 
27 December 2012

Tempus fugit, again

Shaking off my post-Christmas lethargy, I have discovered to my shame just how much time has passed since my last entry here – the previous weeks have passed in a blur of writing, pitching, planning trips and more writing (I’m currently working on two books as well as the usual newspaper and magazine features). Oh, and some skiing…

 

I was fortunate enough to spend a particularly snowy past week in the world's largest ski area, The  Three Valleys – one of the preferred destinations in France for British, Dutch and Russian skiers (in Méribel, Val Thorens and Courchevel respectively). Locals in the 3V are bandying around statements such as: “The best snow in 50 years” and “More snow now than we had by the end of the last year” and I happily believe all of them.

 

Researching a feature for the Financial Times, I skied to some of the virtually unknown authentic old villages and hamlets that dot the Three Valleys, but also spent a night in the lap of luxury at the exceptional Cheval Blanc hotel in Courchevel for Tatler. If you’re after unadulterated glamour, a sublime two Michelin-starred dining experience, some deeply indulgent Guerlain spa action and magnificently unaffordable luxury – this is your spot. It zooms straight into my top five most remarkable Alpine hotels.

 

 

After watching some of the World Cup downhill action in Courchevel, it was time to head across to Val Thorens to watch the World Cup ski cross, cheering on two talented British competitors – Emily Sarsfield and Pamela Thorburn . With minimal national funding and support, these two plucky blondes hurl themselves down terrifying ski cross courses around the globe, flying off jumps, chatting lightly about “shin bang”, broken bones and eye-wateringly painful injuries (Sarsfield, pictured with me here, tore all four ligaments in her knee in one fall), while racking up Olympic qualifying points. My respect for them both is boundless and I sincerely hope that they will both be flying the Union Jack for us at Sochi next winter.   

 
 
 
30 October 2012

It's that time of year... 

October is probably the busiest time of year for a ski writer, as editors across the land clamour for ski copy and you start researching exciting new stories for the winter ahead. It's a time for making hay while you can, so you can play in the snow.

 

That said, since I wrote here last, I have skipped the country a couple of times in between all the 'churnalism'. I had the opportunity to sail on the brand spanking new Celebrity Reflection  the lastest ship in Celebrity's Solstice class. About 500 international journalists, tour operators and travel agents boarded the 2,866-passenger Reflection at the Dutch port of Eemshaven on 10 October and sailed to Amsterdam, where we disembarked two days later. It was a great opportunity to nosy around the new ship: the restaurants offered tastings and cooking demonstrations, we could investigate all the different suites (including the palatial Reflection Suite, which comes complete with a cantilevered glass-encased shower, which hovers above the sea), shops, entertainment and bars. My favourite spot was the Lawn Club up on the top deck, which boasts a genuine grass lawn and sheltered cabanas in which to sip mojitos and contemplate your croquet strategy. A long way from what people would typically associate with cruising eh? 

 

A few days later, I managed to escape foggy London for the blue skies of Italy's South Tyrol . One of my favourite areas in the world, this region boasts the only mountain range to be officially recognised by UNESCO as exceptionally beautiful - the Dolomites - and some of the best food and wine on the planet. Although I've visited the Dolomites several times in summer and winter, I hadn't been fortunate enough to be there in autumn and can now safely say it is my favourite time of year there. Blessed with crisp sunny days and indigo skies each day, I was blown away by the beauty of the golden larches, which weave through the deep green firs, interspersed with the odd red maple and burnt orange birch.  These dense carpets of colour were all set to a backdrop of the towering Dolomites, making for a spectacular display from Mother Nature.

 

However, this incredible display is kept for a home audience as virtually all the hotels are closed at this time of year! Fortunately, I was staying at the divine San Lorenzo Mountain Lodge , a sensitively restored 16th-century hunting lodge, which is run as a catered chalet by the utterly charming Barbinis. (The view on the left is from the hot tub in the lodge's garden) The Barbinis, former fashion bigwigs in Milan, discovered the lodge five years ago and have worked tirelessly to transform it into a luxurious escape in which they entertain guests as though they are long-lost friends. It is easy in this job to fall in love with new places and properties all the time but San Lorenzo Mountain Lodge is now officially my absolutely favourite place to be. Now I just have to get back to writing so I can afford to go back...  

 

                                         

 

 

28 December 2012

A Winter Wonderland Christmas in Méribel

I have just returned to England from a perfect Christmas in the Alps. Together with my mother and brother, we stayed at the appropriately-named Chalet Les Trois Ours ('the three bears') in Méribel, where we were spoiled to within an inch of our expanding waistbands by the Sovereign Ski team.

 

From the moment we were met at Geneva airport by Annie, bearing a cooler bag stuffed full of fresh pains aux raisins, fruit, chocolates and drinks, we settled into a truly pampered way of life. Upon arrival at the chalet (located staggering distance from the infamous Ronnie après-ski bar by the Rond Point), a roaring fire was going and our talented chef Luke and his charming girlfriend Lucy welcomed us warmly to our festive home with freshly-baked cakes and tea.

 

In no time at all, we became accustomed to our mollycoddled lifestyle – we tucked into a slap-up breakfast before stepping across the little stream that wraps around the chalet to be on the piste; tea and cakes would be waiting for us by the fire at the end of each ski day; we’d soak in the hot tub with a cold beer in hand; champagne and canapés were served each evening before Luke’s culinary feasts; and, finally, we’d watch a film in the chalet’s cinema or just sit around the fire catching up on family news… Trust me, returning to England has rarely been such a shock to the system.

 

Even the weather played ball for those fortunate enough to be spending Christmas in Méribel. There was oodles of fresh snow through the week and Christmas Day dawned a picture-perfect bluebird powder day. My mother no longer skis but was keen to get up the mountain to soak up the 360 degree views, so we escorted her up the Plattières gondola and watched a delighted grin spread across her face as the views opened up. Luke and Lucy had thoughtfully packed us a cool bag with sandwiches, shortbread, fruit and – of course – a bottle of Laurent Perrier for us to sip while we sat at the top of the world. Begging a place outside the ski patrol hut (in return for some shortbread and champagne), we enjoyed a magical Christmas Day lunch at 2,704m above sea level, watching skiers zip past in cheery Santa Claus, Rudolph and elf outfits.

 

Later that evening, we pottered around the prettily decorated centre of Méribel, where the children were in a great state of excitement about the imminent arrival of Santa Claus… Back at the ranch, we watched a torch-lit descent of the mountain by the ESF and impressive fireworks from our terrace before settling down to a superb Christmas spread worthy of fireworks in itself (with an extremely contented mother loving not having to lift a finger at any point!).

 

Spending Christmas in a ski resort really does bring back the magic of the festive season – it’s impossible to be a bah-humbug when you’re surrounded by snow-clad trees strung with fairy lights and chalets hunkered under thick blankets of snow, lit by open fires and candles. And, when you’re pampered like we were by Sovereign Ski, it’s a truly unbeatable experience and one we fully intend to repeat next year.

 

 

6 October 2012

Exploring the Dalmatian Coast in a gulet 

 

Tucking into crispy calamari under the welcome shade of the bimini on the deck of the luxurious gulet Eleganza a couple of days ago, bobbing gently in turquoise waters off Hvar, it was easy to understand why British visitors are flocking to Croatia right now. Home to 16 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, eight national parks and a spectacular coastline dotted with 1,244 islands, Croatia offers visitors everything from historic cities and quaint fishing villages to lush mountains and secluded bays, with a liberal sprinkling of chic bars, excellent restaurants and quirky boutiques.

 

Thanks to Sail Dalmatia , a blossoming company set up by the young Dora Vulic (or ‘Dora the Explorer’ as she became known to us), I was able to explore some of Croatia’s islets from the exceptional comfort of the 26-metre Eleganza. A gulet (pronounced goo-let or gull-et) is a traditional two-masted wooden sailing boat, which originated from the south-west coast of Turkey. The aptly-named Eleganza boasts a large, open deck with simple, neutral décor and five en-suite cabins, including a palatial master cabin. Onboard to look after us were the captain and owner Marko, talented chef Toni, ‘butler’ Mate and deckhand Jay – a crack squad happy to help with our every wish.

 

Mooching along the coast, we called at picturesque islands for afternoon strolls and remote bays for snorkelling. We had candlelit dinner onboard Eleganza as we rubbed up against other boats in Milna harbour, we feasted on succulent swordfish carpaccio in Hvar and were whisked ashore on our tender for gelato in Trogir. It’s a life I very much wanted to get used to and, with prices starting at €1,190 per person per week, I might just have to book in some quality time with Eleganza next summer…

 

 

24 September 2012

How time flies!

I cannot believe that nearly two months have elapsed since I last wrote on this blog. Since returning from the Med in late July, I've spent my longest consecutive time in the UK since 2008 (6.5 weeks), thoroughly enjoyed being in London for the Olympics and Paralympics, spent a week at the Cannes Boat Show (helping my brother, the founder of Le Breton Yachts ) and enjoyed a flying visit to Amsterdam. The last was the first of a couple of trips planned to the Dutch capital city as research for a National Geographic Traveller guidebook to Amsterdam, which I'm currently writing, and enabled me to get a sneaky press preview of the fantastic new Steedelijk Museum .  

 

In addition to the Amsterdam guidebook, I'm writing a glossy, coffee table ski book for a watch company, which, in addition to writing up various cruise and ski features has had me entirely engrossed during the past weeks. Later this week, I head off to Croatia for a cruise aboard a traditional gulet , so I'll be sending out a message from the Dalmatian Coast shortly!

 

 

21 July 2012 

Putting the MSC Yacht Club to the test - a tough assigment... 

(I wrote this blog a couple of days ago, onboard the MSC Splendida, but haven't been able to file it until I disembarked from the ship this afternoon)

 

For the first time in the fifteen cruises I have taken in the past five years, I have spent a full day onboard the ship, despite being moored in a port. Typically, I'm off ship the second I’m allowed and back aboard as late as possible, in an effort to capitalise on every precious shore moment I get (and no, I've never yet held a ship up from departing). However, partly because I write this from Civitavecchia in Italy, located 1.5 hours' drive from Rome and not the most appealing of ports in itself, partly because the weather is glorious here (unlike it has been in England) and largely because I have the good fortune of being in the luxurious Yacht Club aboard MSC's Splendida, I am indulging in an extremely lazy, sun-drenched day onboard.

 

The Yacht Club concept is unique to MSC Cruises , an Italian cruise line which operates mostly large ships (Splendida has capacity for just over 4,000 passengers). The intention is to provide Yacht Club passengers with access to all the facilities, entertainment and buzz of a large ship while being able to retreat to an exclusive and tranquil "ship within a ship", dedicating the prime space on the top three decks at the front of the ship to the Club. This incorporates 71 cabins (all with balconies), a stylish lounge, bar and concierge area, and a large pool and bar area on the top deck. There's also a dedicated Yacht Club restaurant located at the rear of the ship and various other bonuses like butler service, priority check-in and disembarkation (I went from bidding my butler goodbye onboard Splendida to sitting – morosely – by the boarding gate for my flight from Barcelona within one hour), all-inclusive drinks and minibar, bespoke shore excursions, a priority elevator...

 

Intrigued by this concept for some time (Does it really work? Why not just sail on a small, luxury ship?), I've been putting the Yacht Club through its paces this week - during European school holidays on a popular Mediterranean itinerary. And, I happily concede that it does, by and large, work. Although it feels rather elitest looking down upon masses of lobster red (British) and nut brown bodies (Italian, Spanish and French) on the lower decks, battling for sunbeds and by the pools, from the virtually deserted lovlieness of the Yacht Club's 'One Pool' area, I know where I'd rather be... Embarkation was quicker than it has been on several smaller ships I've travelled on; there's an invaluable concierge and priority booking for shore excursions; and my butler, Donny, is the most hands-on butler I've ever been fortunate to have, walking me all the way to the restaurant on my first night to show me the way, teaching me how to play Wii, bringing my Daily Telegraph to me by the pool... 

 

In the evening, I can enjoy dinner in the intimate L'Olivo restaurant (with my fellow smug Yacht Clubbers) admiring views like the one here of the Italian coastline before joining in the evening 'passagieta' along the main decks for shopping, bars, live music, stage productions, gelato and even a ride on a F1 simulator. Then, leaving the nocturnal masses to their night clubs, casino and glittery bars, I retreat to the silent Yacht Club for a solid night's kip.

 

All in all, therefore, the concept works. Being super critical, I might argue that there's not enough shade around the One Pool; some Yacht Club children haven't been shunted off to MSC's (complimentary) Kids Clubs and have, on occasion, splashed me in the pool; and the restaurant is located a good three minutes' walk (along the balmy deck) from my cabin. Pretty minor complaints I suppose...

 

 

8 July 2012

How Malaysian is Malaysia?

I've just spent an action-packed week in Malaysia, exploring the country's highrise capital, Kuala Lumpur, and the temperate tea plantations and strawberry fields of Cameron Highlands. What really struck me while I was there (in addition to the delicious food, vibrant city life, towering skyscrapers and crazy driving) was the remarkable mix of cultures in this young country: the colonial influences of Britain, Holland and Portugal are still clear in KL's architecture and language; there's a strong Indian influence (I loved Brickfields, a sort of mini India with shops stuffed full of saris, bangles, marigolds and spices); a bustling Chinese community (if you're on the hunt for 'genuine fake' handbags, look no further than China Town); and American stalwarts like Famous Amos cookies, Big Apple donuts and Auntie Anne's Pretzels litter the city's glitzy shopping malls.

 

Similarly, the Malaysian language is liberally sprinkled with words from all these countries - I was enthralled to hear the sounds of such an extraordinary melange of tongues -  and, as locals happily admit, a 'true' Malaysian is something of a melange as well, with those I met counting among their ancestors Malay, Chinese, Yemeni, Indian, Eurasian, Australian, Singaporean, Scottish... The result of this wonderful multinationality is a vibrant, exciting people, who are proud of their heritage and keen to assert their growing presence on a global platform.

 

And then there's the Cameron Highlands. A hill station founded by the British in the 1930s, who discovered that the cooler temperatures of the 'mountains' were ideally suited to growing tea, strawberries and vegetables, the Cameron Highlands also reminded the homesick colonials of England. Thus, they went about building mock Tudor homes and inns, such as The Lakehouse (pictured here), Bala's guest house and The Smokehouse , with pretty, rambling English country gardens in which they served locally-grown tea with scones and homemade strawberry jam. Today, the same hotels still operate in much the same way, although the clientelle tend to be wealthy Arabs and vacationing KL citizens rather than colonial Brits. It's also become a popular destination for backpackers, who can find cheap accommodation and restaurants in the main 'town', Tanah Rata, and enjoy easily accessible jungle treks (trails originally cut by British soldiers in training for jungle warfare). 

 

I own to finding it a slightly peculiar spot with it's almost too familiar (naff?) ye olde English charm, the rather scruffy main street of Tanah Rata, and overly touristy visits to the 'authentic' villages of the local Orong Asli (indigenous people). And yet, I loved going for a jungle trek in the morning, enjoying (Indian) roti canai for lunch, sitting in a beautiful English country garden sipping afternoon tea with melt-in-the-mouth shortbread, and enjoying a tea bath sprinkled with marigolds before feasting on divine wild musroom risotto and miso cod by a roaring fire at the Cameron Highlands Resort . There can't be many places in the world where you can do that, can there?

 

 

24 June 2012

Cruising down the Rhine aboard the Royal Crown

I have just returned from a lovely week's cruising aboard the MS Royal Crown down the Rhine river in Germany - an even more relaxing break than anticipated given the lack of functioning internet during the voyage! The Royal Crown is a beautiful boat, which oozes 1930s glamour with its teak decks and steamer chairs (despite having been built in 1996) and ushers its 90 passengers gently along Europe's rivers in great style.

 

The Royal Crown was chartered by Hebridean Island Cruises for the past two weeks, operating unique Rhine itineraries and will be chartered again for two cruises down the Danube in September . We sailed from Cologne to the cities of Dusseldorf and Bonn before hitting a more pastoral stretch of the Rhine to visit Koblenz and Rudeheim and straying into the Moselle river for impossibly pretty countryside and a visit to the picturesque wine-making village of Cochem.

 

One of the highlights of the trip for me (other than hearing first hand about the daring exploits of one of the passengers, a Wing Commander who largely founded the Red Arrows) was a visit to Schloss Johanissberg , an elite winery in the Rheingau region which has been crafting wines for 900 years and was the birthplace of one of my favourite wines, the Spatlese. That said, discovering that our first night in Cologne coincided with a monthly 'Night Fever' candlelit nighttime ceremony in the city's spectacular cathedral was a remarkable experience, as was joining the locals watching the German football game on Dusseldorf's sun-drenched riverside esplanade, and visiting Beethoven's house in Bonn...

 

Granted, this type of cruise is not a high-octane, adrenalin-pumping adventure but the gentle pace, fascinating fellow passengers, idyllic countryside and excellent food make it one of the most relaxing and culturally-rich experiences out there.

 

 

8 June 2012

A meaty taste of America's deep South, in deepest Soho

Last night, I found myself virtually transported to the Deep South thanks to a jam-packed little restaurant in Soho. Over the course of the evening, I ate enough meat to make up for 14 years of vegetarianism and gulped down an equally excessive quantity of 'Pickle Backs' - a magically so-wrong-it's-right shot of Bourbon with a pickle juice chaser...

 

Foodies in the know will instantly place me at Pitt Cue Co . - a pint-sized eatery located off Carnaby Street, which seats just 30 diners at a time in a bustling basement 'dining room' or (my preference) the street-level bar. Open since January, Pitt Cue has already built up a loyal following, with regulars clamouring for its sticky, fleshy ribs, succulent pulled pork, rich slabs of sausage and mouthwatering Snickers Mess.

 

It's got to be a good sign when you discover that two of your fellow diners are actually waiters, here on their day off for a piggy fix. Indeed, although I woke up this morning with a vague, lingering taste of Big Mac relish in my mouth (I blame the Pickle Backs), I haven't stopped thinking about the delicate hickory taste of that pulled pork, the unctuous BBQ sauce or lovely roast chicory. I'll clearly be joining the queue of slathering Pitt Cue addicts awaiting their next pig & pickle fix soon...

 

 

Pitt Cue Co. started life last year in the form of a 'food truck' under Hungerford Bridge, where chef Tom Adams magiced up mouthwatering ribs, wings and pulled pork from his mobile kitchen. So successful was the truck that Adams and his business partner, Jamie Berger, snapped up No. 1 Newburgh Street as a permanent venue, keeping the winning formula of simple yet tasty food, swift service and unusual cocktails.  

 

Happily for al-fresco diners, the dynamic pig-loving duo are opening a new food truck on South Bank tomorrow, bringing their unique taste of the Deep South to south west London. (Get updates on twitter ) Berger is threatening to serve his latest Bourbon-based liquid concoction, Trailer Trash, by the pint, which sounds lethal and entirely unmissable. Bring on tomorrow I say - this recovering vegetarian will be first in line at the Pitt Cue Co. truck!!   

 

 

6 June 2012

Still recovering from Belgrade...

Keen readers out there might recall that I mentioned in my last blog that I was bound for Belgrade and will have doubtless been anxiously awaiting an update from the Serbian capital city. I apologise to those disappointed with my delay in posting about that trip but various unexpected circumstances conspired against me: dodgy electrics in my hotel broke my laptop, a couple of urgent deadlines cropped up, and the Queen gave us all four days off to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee. Furthermore, I confess to having investigated one of Belgrade's finest offerings - its nightlife - rather too zealously and have only just stopped feeling the ill effects...

 

Located at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, on the tip of the Balkan Peninsula, Belgrade's strategic importance has been recognised since it was first inhabited in the sixth millenium BC. The city has been fought over in 115 battles, razed to the ground 44 times and occupied 60 times. As my brilliant city guide, Srdjan Ristic - founder of ExploreBelgrade! - put it: "According to the law of averages, there's a war in Belgrade every 30 years..."

 

As a result of its long and turbulent past, Belgrade boasts a fascinating blend of cultural, social, architectural and culinary influences - Roman ruins lie just feet below the surface of the streets; Ottoman 'burek' (phyllo pastry stuffed with cheese, spinach or meat) washed down with yoghurt is a quintessentially Belgrade meal; regal turn of the century Austrian architecture and flambouyant French art nouveau buildings sit side by side with austere Soviet bloc structures and Byzantine Orthodox churches.

 

However, far from being stuck in the past, the Serbian people seem firmly set on a path to a bright future. Belgrade is currently the hottest destination for young travellers on the hunt for a high-octane party scene (Lonely Planet ranked it first in its World's Ultimate Party Cities ) but it's also due to be European Capital of Culture in 2020 - a move which I'm hoping will save it from becoming Britain's next big Stag & Hen Do destination...

 

If you're looking for a city break which offers unbeatable value for money ('extravagant' dinners might set you back £20 while the divine five-star Square Nine hotel offers weekend b+b rates from just £150 per luxurious double room), excellent and nonstop nightlife, a vibrant atmosphere and fascinating history, get yourself to Belgrade! (Just beware of the taxi scams and the locally-brewed 'rakija' brandy...)    

 

 

23 May 2012

Blighty is still blooming marvellous!

Getting back from Devon last night, I feared that London (even bathed in a heatwave) would be disappointing and my enthusiasm for England would ebb. Fortunately, however, another cruise line ( Crystal Cruises ), has kept my belief in Blighty afloat, with another indulgent and florally decadent day.

 

Pedalling to lunch at Nobu , on Old Park Lane (on my thoroughly British Pashley ), I passed the wonderful melee that is Chelsea Flower Show (admittedly heartbroken not to have tickets this year) and cycled along Sloane Street, whose boutiques are all adorned with remarkable flower displays for the Jubilee Weekend. Reaching Nobu, the chef himself was there (although entirely distracted by his freshly-delivered iPhone in a delightfully childlike way, leaping out of his skin when it rang for the first time during his presentation). It didn't really surprise me that Nobu didn't recognise me from my waitressing days, when I spent two years working in his Aspen restaurant, Matsuhisa - and neither did I feel it was appropriate to mention my displeasure with his plans to open a Nobu in Vail...

 

The intention of the lunch was, in part, to share the news that Crystal Cruises has introduced all-inclusive pricing across all its voyages (with the interesting side-effect that the prices of many of the high-end cruise line's itineraries have actually dropped) and to treat us to some of Nobu's food, which is served onboard the Crystal ships. I'm happy to say that my fond memories of Nobu's cuisine have in no way exceeded the reality - the man really is a food genius.

 

However, a major bonus of the day for me was the pleasure of sitting next to Paula Pryke - florist extraordinaire who (among other things) creates the floral displays for the Crystal ships and holds flower arranging classes on select voyages. I imagine this would be rather like a football fan (or, for that matter, female) finding him/herself sitting next to David Beckham - a treat indeed.   

 

Now sitting in my garden (Paula's sweetpeas keeping me company), I'm researching Belgrade, my destination for tomorrow. Who knows what it will bring!

 

 

22 May 2012

The best of British

Having just spent 24 hours in sun-drenched, beautiful Devon (or The English Riviera, as the local tourist board likes to call it), I find myself wondering just why I travel so far afield when my doorstep has so much to offer.

 

A scenic train ride from London deposited me to an entirely different world: the Tudor and pastel-painted houses of Dartmouth, tucked into the folds of the almost luminously green hills that flank the harbour, were bathed in rarely-spotted English sunshine. Pleasure boats and ferries puttered around the river Dart and contented, pasty Brits soaked up the rays on benches, ice-cream and bags of clotted cream fudge in hand.

 

I was in Dartmouth with a handful of other journalists to visit the expedition ship Silver Explorer , the smallest of the luxurious, six-strong Silversea Cruises fleet. Carrying just 132 passengers, Silver Explorer was the largest ship in the harbour but by no means oversize, looking equally at home in this pastoral idyll as she does bashing through ice floes in the Antarctic. (That said, Explorer caused quite a stir when she visited Lyme Regis the day before - the town crier announced her arrival, the mayor paid a visit and local boat owners were charging £5 per person to motor around her to take photographs.)

 

Having toured the ship (and sampled the food, of course), we took a zodiac upriver to pay a visit to Agatha Christie’s charming former home, Greenway , before retreating to the spectacularly beautiful Gidleigh Park Hotel . As fellow foodies will know, Gidleigh Park is the domain of the two Michelin-starred chef Michael Caines MBE and, after an evening stroll in the hotel’s stunning grounds, it was time for a culinary triumph: ‘An Evening with Michael Caines’. Held three times a year for just 32 guests, these events involve a seven-course dinner, with each dish introduced by Caines (with detailed explanations of the befuddlingly complex techniques required to create them) and accompanied by a different wine, carefully selected by the restaurant’s sommelier, Edouard Oger.

 

Sublime food, world-class wines, faultless service, great company and beautiful surroundings – it really does make you wonder why you bother leaving England at all… And, to top it all off, who should we end up sitting next to on the train back to London? The quintessentially English, debonair and utterly charming, Andrew Ridgeley - George Michael’s 'other half' in the 80s pop band Wham!

 

When England is good, it really is extremely good. I leave you with that thought and a fantastically uplifting video of Andrew & George for a sunny afternoon: Wham!

 

 

18 May 2012

A long overdue entry - roses in Morocco

I must apologise for the delay in posting an entry here. I know I said this blog would be 'intermittent' but I hadn't intended it to be quite so infrequent! Suffice to say, I've been working industriously in London, leading a virtually normal life.

 

However, I did leave the country last week for five days in hot, sunny Morocco to follow in the footsteps of the London perfumer Linda Pilkington, founder of Ormonde Jayne . Inspired by Linda's tales of rose hunting in the Atlas Mountains, and by an evocative-sounding Rose Festival, which takes place each May in the Valley of Roses, I swapped rainy Clapham for the balmy Ouarzazate (pronounced Wazazat) province.

 

The feature about my rosy adventures will be published in the Sunday Telegraph next week, so I won't go into detail now, but suffice to say, it was a fragrant and visual delight. Being a rose fan anyway, the sight and scent of great piles of rose petals being forked through by young Sarah (pictured above) and a whole rooftop spread with tight rose buds drying in the sun, was truly wonderful. I also adored the violently pink rose products layered on heaving shelves in the 'Boutiques des Roses' that line the streets of the 'capital' of the Valley of Roses, El Kelaa de M'Gouna. Who knew soap could be so pink?

 

I had the pleasure of being accompanied by a professional travel photographer on this assignment, Ian Cumming , whose photographs accompany this blog. I found it fascinating, as a keen yet amateurish photographer, to see the world through the eyes of such a professional. Whether he was scrambling up hillsides to snap landscapes or squatting next to Sarah, Ian was entirely engrossed at all times and would see potential in scenes I barely noticed. Fascinating.

 

One place where we both got carried away with our cameras was the utterly divine Dar Ahlam Kashbah , a boutique hotel in which we both had the pleasure of staying for a couple of days. Dar Ahlam is, without question, one of the most indulgent and romantic hotels I have ever set foot in - leaving it was genuinely distressing.

 

Rather than repeat what you will read in the Telegraph next weekend (!), I shall leave you with a couple more of Ian's photos to whet your appetite for my tales of Morocco's endearlingly scruffy and fragrant Damask roses.

 

                                                    

 

 

3 April 2012

My last turns of the winter [sniff]

As snow falls in Scotland (after Britain's springtime heat wave), I have just returned to London after my final ski trip of the winter. The end of the ski season is always an emotional time for me - even the cheering sights and smells of spring can't fully relieve my sadness about the winter's end.

 

Fortunately, however, my last trip was extremely enjoyable and just as spring skiing should be: basking in warm sunshine under deep blue skies and zipping around entertainingly slushy pistes, in the pint-sized Italian resort of Pila  in the Aosta Valley . Admittedly, it was somewhat peculiar swapping my flip flops for ski boots at the resort's base station in the town of Aosta and watching mountain bikers, rather than skiers, hurtle underneath the gondola… But the atmosphere on the mountain was wonderful, with everyone soaking up the sunshine and spectacular views across to the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc from comfy deckchairs over extended lunches. And I thoroughly enjoyed heading out for supper each evening in a balmy Aosta - pottering around the historic town in a t-shirt, gelato in hand, certainly made for an alternative kind of apres-ski!  

 

I also squeezed in a day’s walking in the breathtakingly beautiful Gran Paradiso National Park , which is located about 40 minutes’ drive from Aosta. Trading ski boots for hiking boots and salopettes for shorts, I hiked along the sun-drenched valley, rich with the scent of pine needles, towards the awesome Gran Paradiso – at 4,061m the highest mountain located entirely in Italy. Having walked for several hours, my friend and I turned back towards Valnontey, the picturesque village from where we had started, for what we considered a well-deserved beer.

 

And then we met the professional ice-climber  Matthias Scherer , his partner Tanja Schmitt and their friend Tony Richardson. Coming across this dynamic trio about 20 minutes outside of Valnontey, we seriously struggled to catch up with them, despite the fact they were wearing ski boots and carrying big packs and skis. Stopping to chat with them (fortunately they slowed to take photographs or I doubt I would have caught them), it transpired that, while we had stocked up on provisions for our ‘hike’ and ambled along the valley, these three had walked, skinned and climbed their way up some 2,000 vertical metres to the 3,692m-high peak of Torre del Gran San Pietro and skied back down. Here’s a short video Matthias made of their day: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDTdszEz528&feature=share

 

Although my beer tasted fantastic, sitting in the late afternoon sunshine watching the snow-capped Gran Paradiso develop a rosy sunset hue, somehow it didn’t feel quite so well-deserved as it had done prior to meeting these three remarkable athletes... My friend is trying to persuade me to regard our meeting as inspiration to get fit for the summer. I appreciate his enthusiasm, but I'm not convinced I'll be following in Matthias' ice-climbing or Tanja's ultra-marathon footsteps any time soon.

 

 

25 March 2012

Mani Mania at Rock the Pistes in the Portes du Soleil

Today, I fell ever so slightly in love with a French rock star. His name is Mani and he is a celebrated songwriter amongst those in the know (he wrote the hit 'Starlight', for example) and, in the balmy French sunshine, surrounded by snowy (well, slushy) mountains it was impossible not to fall for his velvetty tones and jiggy hips. His music blends tones of Jamiroquai and Lenny Kravitz with a hint of Jimi Hendrix and - just to confirm my crush - Mani loves to ski as well as sing. Here's a picture of us taking a few turns together this afternoon...

 

While not stalking Mani, I have been attending the other outdoor concerts which are taking place across the gigantic  Portes du Soleil ski area (650km of pistes across 12 resorts in France and Switzerland) as part of the 'Rock the Pistes' festival.  Yesterday we saw the hugely popular French singer Louis Bertignac (the French equivalent of Keith Richards) perform in front of 3,000 happy skiers and this afternoon (after Mani), there was a stellar performance from Gerald de Palmas . Despite not having heard of the predominantly French acts at the festival, I have been deeply impressed by the quality of all the performances so far, although it would be hard to find fault with skiing around to listen to free concerts in sunny locations with the jagged Dents du Midi as your backdrop...

 

Tomorrow, there'll be just enough time to squeeze in a lunchtime performance by Shaka Ponk (an electro rock band, so I'm told) before some afternoon skiing and a reluctant return to London. However, I gather that Mani is, like me, based in the pretty village of Chatel and that he might be found in L'Escalier bar this evening... No prizes for guessing where I'll be establishing myself tonight!

 

 

22 March 2012

What a difference a day can make

 

After some unusually cloudy weather in Alta Badia, I woke up a couple of days ago to piercingly blue skies and even a little dusting of fresh snow up around Colfosco. As you can see from the shot on the right, it was a very different scene to the grassy shot below.

 

Skiing in the Dolomites on a clear, sunny day simply has to be one of the most exhilarating and scenic activities available to mankind. The scale of the Sella Massif and surrounding peaks, resplendent in their pinky / apricoty hue, set against deep blue skies and dusted with snow is literally breathtaking.

 

 

The 'powder' also enabled me to put the new Dupraz D2 skis to the test. These funky looking skis (very reminiscent of Salomon's innovative BBRs , which were launched last winter) claim to provide skiers with the ultimate all-mountain ski, with an extremely wide nose, waist and tail in addition to asymmetrical sidecut outlines - click into the skis with the deep sidecut facing inside for piste skiing and with the straight sidecut facing inside for wider turns in powder. Admittedly, I didn't have much opportunity to try the skis in deep powder but thought they performed well on the pistes and were probably the best possible skis to have in the thick afternoon slush, which was more reminiscent of waterskiing than snow skiing!

 

I'm intrigued to see how the conditions in Portes du Soleil , the vast ski area which spans Swiss and French resorts including Avoriaz, Champery and Chatel, will compare with the South Tyrol... My next report will come to you from there on Saturday!

 

 

19 March 2012

Taking the slush with the smooth in Alta Badia, South Tyrol

Wine. Ski. Safari. Three words which are brilliant individually but even better when combined. And truly spectacular when combined in the setting of the Dolomites... Once a year (sadly - I'm working on the local tourist board to increase the frequency!), local South Tyrolean wine producers work with mountain restaurants in the picturesque ski area of Alta Badia to host a Wine Ski Safari . This delightful event enables people to ski to four different wine tasting 'stations', which are set up outside (to capitalise on the sunshine and breathtaking views of the Dolomites), each of which offer between 10 and 15 different wines, from fresh sparkling wines to floral Rieslings and gutsy Blauburgunders, as well as local cheeses, cold meats and bread (presumably to avoid too many drunken ski incidents). Access to the whole event costs a mere €20, which I think offers exceptionally good value for money, particularly considering the excellent quality of the wines. (This link has a video to give a visual impression of the event: http://www.altabadia.org/en-US/south_tyrol_wine_tasting.html

 

While not forcing myself to spit out wine in order to be able to get myself safely down the mountain, I have been making the most of Alta Badia's exceptional cuisine (some assignments are more challenging than others). Another inspired initiative of the Alta Badia tourist office is the 'Taste for Skiing' programme, whereby ten Michelin-starred chefs have each created one locally-inspired dish, which is served in a different mountain restaurant across the area throughout the season. The dishes showcase the best of South Tyrolean cuisine and produce and, at about €15 each, represent great value for money.

 

Less inexpensive but hopefully well worth it is my next meal: a tasting menu at the two Michelin-starred  St Hubertus in the utterly delightful Rosa Alpina Hotel , where I am currently fortunate enough to be staying. So yes, I am having a rather good time of it all, which might make you wonder why the 'title' of this blog is about taking the slush with the smooth? Well - the photo on the left was taken here yesterday and today, as we skied around the Sella Ronda today (a very enjoyable, and usually exceptionally scenic 38km loop around the Sella mountain) it was so overcast, I never even caught a glimpse of the Sella Massif... However, I've got my Dolomighty Breakfast to look forward to tomorrow morning - a 7am cat-ride up to the top of the mountain for breakfast and some fresh (slush / grass) tracks - so I'm putting on a brave face.

 

On a rare break from eating and drinking, I met a couple staying at the comfortable Inghams chalet hotel where I spent my first couple of nights here ( Al Pigher ). They had first skiied here in the South Tyrol 15 years ago, in a tiny place called Val di Fassa, and loved it. They haven't returned since then because they've been waiting for a tour operator to come here. Whether this is through sheer loyalty to Inghams or sheer fear of independent travel, I didn't ascertain, but it struck me as rather sad that they waited so long (and then arrived when there's no snow). Only 2% of visitors to Alta Badia are from the UK, yet we represent its third largest market. I say: don't let the Italians and Germans have all the foody, scenic fun!! Come out here - with Inghams or not (although, at £550 per week half-board, it's hard to argue with the former)!!

 

 

4 March 2012

Wats, klongs, Khuns and lotus flowers

The past couple of weeks have seen me travel from the sub-zero snowy Selkirks to the steamy chaos of Bangkok, with ten days in a surprisingly balmy London in between. Ski boots to flip flops (and back again next week) has been interesting... Last Thursday, I touched down in Bangkok for a three-day cruise along the Chao Phraya, one of the Thai rivers which flooded so badly late last year. I was initially due to join this cruise last October but the swollen river wouldn't allow it, and I've been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to reschedule the voyage ever since.

 

Fortunately, the trip exceeded my expectations, proving well worth the wait. I won't go into detail here (read the article in the Sunday Telegraph!) but suffice to say that this renovated 100 year-old teak rice barge, Anantara Dream , was my luxurious home for three days as we motored up and down the Chao Phraya to the ancient, abandoned city of Ayutthaya, stopping at temples (Wats in Thai), monasteries and villages en-route.

 

Life onboard involved attempting to do justice to Chef Jeffrey's delicious Thai food and English Afernoon Teas (and learning some of his culinary tricks during a cookery class); learning how to fold lotus flowers to present as offerings at the Wats; chatting with our charming crew: Khun Johnny, Khun Tawny and Captain Daddy ('Khun' is a polite Thai word used before people's names, which is a little like Mister); and simply watching life on the Chao Phraya - children playing in it, old men fishing on it, women washing clothes in it, young men zooming around on it in multicoloured long boats, and long trains of heavily-laden barges being tugged slowly towards Bangkok. The tide marks of the recent floods were clearly visible on many of the simple wooden homes that flank the river - some had been rebuilt, others were still inhabited despite their delapidated state and many were simply abandoned.

 

The ancient city of Ayutthaya also bears the scars of the floods - telltale white tidemarks consume its beautiful Buddha statues and many of its 12th century stupas are severely structurally weakened. However, Thai people don't linger over hardship and are focusing on rebuilding those areas affected by the flooding and preventing such mayhem from happening again. In Bangkok, you'd never even know the floods had happened, although this has a lot to do with the fact that severe flooding of the wealthy, tourist areas was controversially prevented by diverting flood waters to poorer areas...

 

After three days of floating gently up and down the river, ensconced in quiet luxury onboard Anantara Dream, being thrust back into the hustle and bustle of Bangkok was quite a shock. The city is a hot, steamy mass of people, cars, tuktuks, street vendors, dogs and vibrant colours. It's an extraordinary blend of ancient and modern, wealth and poverty - slick, expensive boutiques and shopping malls jostle for space with ancient temples and tumble-down wooden houses, balancing precariously on stilts above the water.

 

Fortunately, I was lucky enough to spend my last couple of nights at the iconic Mandarin Oriental Hotel , which is a haven of peace and tranquility in the busy city. I loved sitting in the beautiful Author's Lounge for afternoon tea after a hot, sticky day of sight-seeing, following in the footsteps of many of my writing idols: Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward...   It was the perfect end to an extraordinary trip. Would I recommend flying for 24 hours for four days of Thai river adventure (environmental impact aside)? Absolutely. Without a shadow of a doubt. (Although I confess that the bonus of flying back home in the flat-bed luxury of Qantas business class definitely softened the blow of the 13-hour return flight...)

 

 

24 February 2012

The Joy of Bear Bottoms

During my recent visit to Canada and Colorado, I discovered a new ski pleasure: wearing a piece of kit which generates more chat and smiles than any item I have ever owned. The piece of equipment in question is my Polar Bear ski trousers, made by the French brand Perfect Moment . The brainchild of Thierry Donard, the extraordinary Frenchman who has been producing extreme ski and sports films for some 25 years, Perfect Moment produces the iconic Nuit de la Glisse films, highly covetable skis and a small but funky collection of ski wear and clothing. If you don’t know much about Donard and his films (and you should), watch this short film, complete with some classic 80s outfits and perfect monoboard moments: Donard.

 

But back to my bear bottoms, there is something extremely pleasing about sporting an item of clothing that makes people smile. Several times a day, I would get cheery grins and comments along the lines of: “Loving those bears!” and “Great pants!” Okay, these were from typically effusive North American skiers and lift operators, rather than their infinitely less chatty European cousins, but I even had a group of Brits in Revelstoke comment on my “Corking bear arse” – and they were definitely talking about the trousers.

 

Just sitting on the chairlift and looking down at the bears marching across my thighs brings a smile to my face. And they don’t just look good – this is technical kit tested by Donnard’s hand-selected crew of pro freeskiers and it works. They're comfy, warm, have reinforced edge guards, vents and pockets where you want them. Now I just have to persuade Donnard to make me a polar bear onesie. It’s a strong look but I’d never be stuck for chat on a chairlift again…  

 

 

16 February 2012

Aspen: There's more to this place than you might think

Having spent some two years skiing, living and working in Aspen , the little Victorian mountain town is very close to my heart, and I always delight in returning there. I had the immense pleasure of spending nine days there earlier this month, catching up with friends, revisiting old haunts and remembering what it’s like to ski the same trail more than once (a rare treat for a ski journalist on assignment).

 

More famous for its celebrity culture than it should be, it comes as a great surprise to many who visit Aspen that it’s actually a very down-to-earth spot. It’s jam-packed with genuine mountain people who stick their ski kit together with duct tape and hold down multiple jobs to pay for the privilege of living in the town they love.

 

If you dine at Cache Cache , chances are your waiter will be Ted Mahon , who has climbed Everest and all of Colorado’s 54 14,000ft peaks (without missing a work shift in the restaurant or at his day job as ski instructor). Pop into the Aspen Centre for Environmental Studies ( ACES ) to learn about local wildlife or attend a seminar on Everest and you’ll bump into Ted’s wife, Christy , the first woman to have climbed and skied all of Colorado’s 14,000ers.

 

A friend of mine recently bought an apartment from long-time Aspen local and estate agent newcomer Chris Klug , who just happens to be a triple Olympian snowboarder. Remarkably, the third time Chris competed in the Olympics it was with a new liver, making him the world’s only Olympian transplantee (he didn’t ‘just’ compete but won a bronze medal). Now retired from snowboarding competitively, when Chris isn’t selling homes, he runs his eponymous Foundation to spread awareness of the need for organ donors.

 

Another Aspen Chris – Davenport – is one of the world's most accomplished big mountain skiers. In fact, if you ski on Snowmass mountain's Elk Camp area, you’ll be on terrain that Chris (Dav to friends) gladed as a young man. As he says with typical humility: “I just strolled across the hills in summer with a chainsaw…” Dav is not only the first person to have climbed and skied all of Colorado’s 14,000ers in one year but is one of few people on earth to have climbed Everest and then skied down, following the sheer Lhotse Face.

 

Stepping out of the gondola on Snowmass with Dav on Sunday, he pointed out some of his favourite runs on the mountain - steep cliff chutes below the Cirque. A lift operator overheard him and came over, brows knotted in concern: “Errm, those chutes are pretty gnarly you know. I did them a couple of days ago and they’re tough. You have to be comfortable with kick turns if you’re thinking about them. I really can't recommend you go there.”

 

Dav smiled and we chatted for a while about the liftie’s preferred runs on the mountain - with repeated warnings that Dav should really get confident with his stem turns...  (Here's a picture of him earlier that morning looking quite comfortable on his skis.) Thanking him for his help, Dav shook his hand and said, entirely without ego: “Thank you Jim – Chris Davenport – great to meet you.”    

 

Yes, you might well bump into Paris Hilton or Maria Carey while visiting Aspen but bear in mind that the ‘normal’ people who live here are generally pretty stellar too.  

 

 

6 February 2012

Just for kicks in British Columbia

When I first visited Kicking Horse Mountain Resort four years ago, it made a big impression on me. With hair-raisingly steep ridges, big open powder bowls, countless tree runs and even a resident (hibernating) grizzly bear, the young British Columbia resort stormed into my top ten favourite ski destinations.

 

Back in KHMR for three days late last week, I was happy to discover that it’s even better than before. There’s newly-opened terrain on the Superbowl and its new owners, the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies (RCR), have pledged to open a new lift and improve transport between Kicking Horse, Calgary and Fernie (another RCR-owned resort).

 

I was intrigued to gather that this is the first winter in its 11-year history that KHMR has featured a woman on any of its marketing and advertising material – trying to spread the message that the resort has more to offer than ‘just’ hardcore steeps and deeps. It seems to be working, as the Ski School has received more beginner/intermediate and family groups than ever before, testament not just to the ads but to the extensive terrain on offer here.

 

However, it wasn’t all about skiing (and hiking, something you end up doing quite a lot of in this resort – we climbed both ridges on the photo above amongst others in one ‘average’ day) while I was in KHMR – I popped down to the nearest town, Golden, to watch ‘ Ski Bum: The Musical’ . The light-hearted (and in my opinion highly entertaining) performance made quite a change from normal après-ski, with some classic moments. The team is touring British Columbia for the rest of the month so, if you find yourself out there, go see it!  

 

 

1 February 2012

Bighorn, Revelstoke: A place of superlatives

All the writers I know are, like me, prone to a bit of hyperbole – I suppose that, when you’re trained not to use words like ‘nice’ or ‘quite’, you go to the other extreme. However, after the four days I’ve just enjoyed in Revelstoke , British Columbia staying at the Bighorn Lodge, it’s impossible to avoid superlatives.

 

Revelstoke is the only resort in the world to offer lift, cat, heli and backcountry skiing from one village base and boasts the greatest (lift-accessed) vertical descent of any resort in North America at 1,713 metres. It’s a monster of a mountain, with 3,121 acres of fall line skiing, high alpine bowls and beautifully gladed terrain - skiing top to bottom is a feat reserved for locals in spring, once they’ve spent an entire season strengthening up their thighs.

 

Bighorn Lodge meanwhile, built and operated by two enterprising young British brothers (and named after the local sheep), is probably the most luxurious ski lodge available for rent in Canada and certainly one of the swankiest pads I’ve ever set foot in. Sleeping 16 people, it’s got everything a self-respecting heliskier could wish for: helipad in the back garden, outdoor hot tub looking out to Mount Begbie, indoor pool and spa, palatial bedrooms, pool table, home cinema…

 

Words can barely describe the pleasure of stepping outside our private lodge to catch a ride from a Selkirk Tangiers chopper, spending the day pounding through feather-light, virgin powder fields, being dropped back in the garden to find chef Pete’s unspeakably delicious cakes and snacks awaiting us, easing our aches & pains with a massage and soak in the hot tub, Mount Begbie beer in hand, and then feasting on Pete’s gourmet dinners. If I had the money, I would book myself a fortnight at Bighorn every year for the rest of my life.

 

Until I earn those pennies, however, I’m going to have to return to lift-accessed skiing in Kicking Horse , another British Columbia ski resort where I’ve just arrived. It’s going to be a tough adjustment and I know I’ve been spoiled for life by Bighorn – skiing just won’t ever be the same again. But it was worth every magical, powdery turn. 

 

 

21 January 2012

Where there are Swedes, there is skiing

This is a slightly belated blog about Engelberg , where I spent five days earlier this week before being sucked into a quagmire of ‘real’ work back in London.  Over the years, I have come to use Swedes as a sort of divining rod to locate hardcore skiing. There’s something about the fair-haired ones that enables them to sniff out steep, gnarly skiing from far away, and get stuck in.

 

Briefly, some examples:

- Gunnar Munthe, who launched the Krazy Kangaruh (and, arguably, après-ski) in St Anton in 1970s.

- Pele Lang, founder of the Skiers Lodge in La Grave.

- Chamonix’s Chambre Neuf and Munchies are both run by Swedes, as is the super desireable Swedish brand Poc , which has its flagship store in the historic mountaineering town

 

So, the fact that two Swedish pro freeskiers (Eric Spongberg and Niklas Möller) selected Engelberg to found the Ski Lodge (a seriously cool hotel, restaurant and bar) should provide a clue about the quality of skiing to be found on the ‘Mountain of Angels.’ (Mountain Fact: Engelberg is known to Indians as the Mountain of Love after its starring role in countless Bollywood films as the iconic Alpine scene - up to 60,000 Indians flock to the town each year to pay homage to the Berg, usually in summer.)

 

Spongberg and Möller took on fellow freeskier Matilda Rapaport to manage the Lodge last year, with whom I had the great pleasure of skiing with for a day during my stay in Engelberg. Having already lapped the wonderous Laub and Galtiberg a few times earlier in the week, we headed over to Brunni (the ‘easy’ mountain). After a gentle warm up through the trees of Hinterwald, we skinned for a couple of hours up the Walleneck (as you can see from the shot of Matilda above) for an untracked descent and more skiing to the Gasthaus Schwand for lunch. One last Galtiberg before ‘Mad Monday’ après at the Lodge surrounded by more Swedes, fajitas at the Yucatan and a quick boogie to DJ Yves’ tunes at the Eden Club signified business as usual in Engelberg - and confirmed its place in my Top Three favourite resorts.

 

 

19 December 2011

Too posh to push through bad pistes? Dial PT Ski!

I have just spent the past three days in a wonderfully snowy Klosters , in the excellent company of James Palmer-Tomkinson (pictured to the right here, on our way through the Alpine pastures above Serneus). Descended from four British ski champions, James certainly keeps up the family tradition of excellent skiing and knows Klosters like the back of his hand, having skied here since he was four years old.

 

Brother of the more high-profile Tara and Santa, James could not be more humble or unassuming if he tried. Together with his wife, Sos, James launched the boutique operation  PT Ski last winter out of a simple desire to share their love for, and knowledge of, Klosters. Working with local hotels, ski guides and instructors, PT Ski packages up accommodation, transfers and guiding/tuition for skiers of all abilities (and offers some great family packages) for very reasonable prices (such as £1,063 for four days of guided off-piste skiing, with four nights' half-board accommodation, transfers and winter sports insurance).

 

My visit coincided with epic powder conditions and a PT Ski off-piste weekend trip organised by James. And, by a stroke of luck, the three Londoners making up the rest of the group turned out to be acquaintances of mine. James was low-key, attentive and the perfect gent at all times - he insisted on carrying skis for the ladies, conjoured chocolate out of his backpack as well as spare gloves and goggles, and generously offered up the best untracked lines to his guests. Together, we enjoyed a powder day at its best on Sunday, thanks to the guiding skills of local man Mirco Auer, something of a celebrity in these parts for his downhill racing and skicross wins. You’ll be able to read more about our adventures in my feature about PT Ski , published in the Daily Telegraph in early January.

 

In the meantime, I just have to mention what I think is the best ski shop in the Alps: Gotschna Sport in Klosters Platz. Home to Peter and Urs, who have a combined 60 years of boot-fitting experience between them, and a mouth-watering selection of off-piste skis (virtually all set up with touring bindings and skins to rent), the Gotschna team are unfailingly helpful, enthusiastic and friendly. If you ever consider investing in custom soles or liners for your ski boots, it's seriously worth taking a trip to Klosters to have them done there. Not only will you be testing them out on superb ski terrain but, chances are, you won’t need to have them tweaked or adjusted - if you do, you can just pop back into the shop.   

 

 

17 December 2011

Crans Mon-WOW-a! 

I’m writing this onboard a Swiss train bound for Klosters, skirting the banks of Lake Lucerne and soaking up the wintry views, trying to absorb the past couple of days of extremely snowy fun.

 

I don’t believe I have ever seen so much snow fall so quickly in the Alps before – 3.5 metres was hurled out of the sky at Crans Montana in the past four days. After dire warnings from friends about the dangers of visiting the Swiss resort early in the season (“relatively low, south-facing slopes pre-Christmas – you’re shafted”), I have been bouncing through thigh-deep powder for the past couple of days whooping out loud with sheer joy.

 

Yesterday it was snowing so heavily we were literally getting fresh tracks on the same lines in the time it took us to ski down and take the lift up from the mid-station. Fortunately (and unlike most other European resorts), Crans Montana boasts plenty of tree-skiing, meaning we could still find our way despite the dense snowstorm. Even better, ‘we’ involved me, Rupert Longsdon (founder of Oxford Ski , who knows Crans Montana like the back of his hand and is pictured here) and Bruno Huggler (director of Valais Tourism ) and about 15 powder-crazed locals who braved the storm for its rich rewards. Check out the YouTube video of us here (I'm on the right trying to stay out of shot): Crans Montana 15 December .

 

After a hearty breakfast at the newly-refurbished mountain refuge, La Cabane des Violettes , we braved the snow, wind and swirling cloud and ploughed our way through the fluffy powder until the lifts closed at 3.30pm. Fortifying beers and giant portions of crôute en fromage et jambon (think ham and cheese toastie on steroids) in the funky, Dutch-run ZeroDix at the base of Crans followed by a massage in Le Crans Hotel made for a pretty perfect day.

 

I am thrilled to have ‘discovered’ Crans Montana in such exceptional conditions as, with the opening of a number of spectacular hotels and chalets this winter and significant investment in lifts and town facilities, the resort is poised to return to its former glory days with a bang this season. Be prepared to hear a lot about Chalet Seven this winter - and start saving up for a room now! The innovative owner, Mike Cooper, is putting the finishing touches to this extraordinary 30-person chalet, which incorporates four self-contained apartments and will, in my opinion, set a new benchmark for luxury chalet accommodation in the Alps when it welcomes its lucky first guests next week.

 

 

11 December 2011

Best first day back on the slopes ever?

I write this from the comfort of my stunning bedroom in the freshly-opened Mooser Hotel . The name might ring a bell to loyal fans of the one & only St Anton am Arlberg, one of my favourite ski resorts in the world... Remember The Mooserwirt ?! Yes - the bar that probably introduced the phenomenon that is Apres-Ski to Europe (and has a strapline of 'Possibly the worst/'baddest' apres-ski bar in the world?') opened 17 hotel rooms, a spa and restaurant/bar in a newly-constructed extension to the celebrated bar last week.

 

I have to admit to having been wary of the concept at first but I was persuaded by the not-by-birth-but-to-all-intents-and-purposes St Anton local Andy Butterworth of Kaluma Travel . Having spent a wonderful day getting used to skiing again on sunny, decently snowy slopes, Andy ushered us into the Mooser earlier this afternoon (the Mooser Hotel is St Anton's only ski-in/ski-out hotel), on the night of the live filming of the eleventh annual RTL New Year's Eve concert (I know, it is weird bringing in 2012 prematurely but it was a lot of fun). As you can see from this pic of Matthias Reim , whose greatest hit was 'Verdammt, ich lieb' dich' - 'Damn it, I love you'), I was right behind the camera scenes watching some of Austria and Germany's finest apres-singing talent at work. Memorable.

 

The verdict on a hotel on the site of the world's loudest, rowdiest apres-ski bar? I am officially a convert. Yes, the beery, table-dancing Euro-Pop of the Mooserwirt is just across the corridor and up a few floors but I can't hear a thing above my Bose surround-sound system and I've just had a dip in a vast outdoor swimming pool overlooking the snow-capped mountains. It might be home to possibly the worst apres-ski bar in the world, but it's possibly the best thought-out hotel I've ever stayed in. I have had my cake (and Jaeger Bomb) and eaten the lot. And I'm about to head upstairs to enjoy dinner before being the first on the mountain tomorrow morning. Smug? Looking forward to an epic winter? You bet.

 

 

7 December 2011

Top Packing Tips!

One side-effect of the amount of travelling I have done over the past 15 years is that I have learned a lot about packing… Learning how to pack efficiently makes a significant difference to the enjoyment of trips away – travelling light makes your journeys to and from the airport / train station less of a struggle, while having the right equipment and clothing during your trips will ensure you’re comfortable and confident. 

 

Here are six tips I’ve learned from my travel experiences, which I hope might prove useful to others:

 

Water bottle

It’s such a simple thing but I never leave home without a decent water bottle. Refilling a bottle saves me from using - and discarding - plastic bottles, saves me paying crazy money for bottled water and keeps me hydrated. Just make sure your bottle is empty when you go through security at the airport and fill up at a water fountain before embarking your flight.

 

Perfume

When you travel a lot, you can end up feeling a bit discombobulated. The best remedy I have found for this is to have at least one sensory constant in my life – a reassuring and familiar scent. A spritz of my favourite perfume instantly restores my sense of ‘me’, revives me after long plane/train/bus journeys and makes me feel presentable.

Linda J Pilkington, founder of the luxurious Ormonde Jayne perfumes, travels extensively in search of rare products for her perfumes, tracking down damask roses from Ta´if in Saudi Arabia, fragrant Tiare flowers in Tahiti and delicate Champaca blooms in India. As such, she recognises the value of having your scent in transportable form and offers two inspired options: a set of four 10ml sprays (available in scents for men and women) and her new sugar butter solid perfume , an intensely perfumed silky balm which comes in a 15ml pot. Instant glamour!

 

Feathers

I’m heading off to the Alps on Saturday and am already excited about digging out my down jacket and boots. Down is unbeatably warm in winter, quite literally feather light and packs down to nothing in your bag. I love having a warm, dry down jacket to slip into after a day’s skiing (leaving my damp ski jacket to dry while I hit the après-ski bars). I’ve just bought a new Peak Performance Helium jacket , which weighs all of 200 grams but is suitable for freezing temperatures. My trusty down-filled North Face Nuptse Boots keep my toes toasty and also weigh in at a mere 200 grams each, which means I can even keep them in my rucksack while I’m skiing to change into at the end of the ski day.

 

Travel-size toiletries

I’m always surprised to discover how many people lug around full-size bottles of shampoo, conditioner, face wash etc., even for short trips away. It’s worth checking the website of the hotel you’re staying at to see whether amenities are provided, in which case you don’t have to bring any at all. If they’re not provided, simply decant your essential lotions and potions into small bottles to save space and weight. Finally (this is one for the girls) – I never travel without a little bottle of Johnson’s Baby Oil, which, at £1 per bottle is the best eye makeup remover I’ve ever found and doubles up as great moisturiser.

 

Day of the week knickers

Sorry boys but this is another tip for the girls. I absolutely swear by my ‘day of the week’ knickers from Austique on the King's Road when I’m travelling. No more confusion about which pair to wear each day, until it comes to deciding which day to wear the bonus ‘Happy Day’ pair…

 

Resealable poly bags

Another incredibly simple/dull yet invaluable part of my packing inventory: resealable polythene bags. These handy bags are not only necessary for transporting my toiletries through airport security checks but also ideal for keeping my passport and other important documents dry and separate, yet still visible in my bag. I also use them to keep foreign currency in, rather than carrying around a bulky wallet. The best ones I've found so far come from Athens airport - grab me one if you're passing through security there!

 

 

Friday 2 December 2011

All in ten days’ work…

 

What a few days it has been! Last week I enjoyed a whirlwind tour of the magical city that is Florence, while this week has been a blur of deadlines and the first wave of festive press events back in London.

 

Even as a supposedly jaded and cynical travel writer, I was absolutely blown away by Florence. The city and its residents have such innate grandeur, elegance and style yet retain a wonderfully understated feel. Its role as the birthplace of the renaissance, and associated wealth of breathtakingly important frescoes, statues, paintings and sculptures, make Florence an almost overwhelming experience – not for nothing has the term ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ come about, named after the French author who was left sick and dizzy by the vast amount of art he viewed on an 1817 visit to the city.

 

In addition to exploring the highlights (and discovering the less well-known parts) of Florence, I went to Tuscany’s capital to take part in a sculpture course. The idea of encouraging visitors to Florence to not only admire some of the world’s finest sculpture but to appreciate the skill that goes into creating it comes courtesy of the Savoy Hotel , which packages up two afternoons of sculpture with exquisite accommodation.

 

The gallery where the classes take place, Galleria Romanelli , is housed in a deconsecrated church, which was the only building the Romanelli family could find with ceilings tall enough to house their monumental statues. Keeping up a long family tradition of sculpting and dealing in antiques, brother and sister Raffaello and Rubina Romanelli manage the spectacular gallery today. The ever-patient Raffaello took time out from sculpting a portrait of the Dutch queen Wilhemina to help me try to recreate Michelangelo’s David’s lips. In my defence, we only had two hours…

 

Lack of time is a perennial problem during press trips – spending two days in one destination (let alone more than one night in the same hotel) is a luxury a travel writer can rarely afford. I could have spent a week in Florence and still wanted more time there, if only to spend an entire afternoon at the superb ‘Money and Beauty – Bankers, Boticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities’ exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi. This fascinating and enlightening exhibition will only remain open until 22 January next year so GO NOW!    

 

Back in London, I’ve wrenched my brain (and heart) away from the wonders of Florence and have been writing about everything from cruise ship spas and the Aurora Borealis to property in Barbados and hotels in Kathmandu. Oh, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time checking webcams in the Alps and doing twice-daily snow dances in advance of my first ski trip next weekend…   

 

 

18 November 2011

A week in London

Despite not having left London this week, I have been whisked off virtually to Switzerland, Abu Dhabi, Turkey and Italy at a number of press events hosted in the capital. Travel journalists are always on the hunt for fresh new stories and, as such, hotels, tourist boards and destinations do their best to capture our attention by promoting their latest products in innovative ways.

 

Knowing that writers (freelancers in particular) are lead by their stomachs, these events invariably take place in choice venues, which also serve to reflect the quality of the hosting hotel/resort/brand. So, while tucking into melt-in-the-mouth lamb in Anton Mosimann’s restaurant, I learned that the Kronenstübli restaurant in the grand old Kronenhof Hotel in Pontresina (near St Moritz) has just been awarded a well-deserved Michelin star. Breakfast in the Ivy revealed impressive expansion plans for the Anantara Hotel Group (there are currently 16 properties in the group – there will be 23 by the end of next year), while plans for the new Bulgari Hotel & Residences in London were unveiled in the brand’s flagship store on Bond Street.  

 

I also checked out the new ski wear range from Perfect Moment , a seriously cool brand due to launch in the UK shortly. Check out this video to learn more about its inspiring founder, Thierry Donard, and see some toe-curlingly impressive extreme sports moments delivered by Perfect Moment's sponsored athletes (and classic 80s 'dig me' skiing by Donard himself): http://vimeo.com/16765720 .  

 

 

9 November 2011

Shalom y’all from Israel

As I write this, I’m sitting on the balcony of my suite onboard the sumptuous cruise ship, Oceania Marina, overlooking the beautiful Bahai’a Gardens in Haifa, Israel. It’s a balmy evening and, together with my mother (my best cruising partner), we’ve been ensconced in luxury onboard the Marina for a week, with the past three days spent based in Haifa.

 

Having exclaimed that “we won’t be taking a big ship cruise again” after experiencing a 3,000-plus passenger ship during the school holidays, my mother has changed her tune after a week onboard Marina. Oceania claims her brand new ship offers ‘big ship facilities with a small ship feel’ and I would agree wholeheartedly.

 

One of the most common responses I get when telling people that I cruise a lot is an expression of pity followed by the hearty assertion that they couldn’t bear to be stuck on a ship with a bunch of strangers. However, the most frequent complaint of regular cruisers is that there is rarely enough time spent simply relaxing on the ship!

 

In order to highlight just how much a typical cruise might involve, here’s a brief outline of what my mother and I have been up to since boarding Marina in Istanbul last week: we’ve enjoyed three 12-hour long tours (Istanbul, Jerusalem & Bethlehem, Nazareth & the Sea of Galilee); explored Kusadasi, Rhodes, Limassol and Haifa independently; taken part in a ‘Modern Greek’ cookery course and arts & crafts lessons onboard; attended seminars about Israel and travel photography; been entertained variously by the sharp-witted Stephen Womack, professional singers, dancers and musicians; watched a movie up on deck, snuggled under a blanket on a double day bed; tried to work off some of the copious quantities of lobster, steak and cakes we’ve been feasting on in Marina’s vast gym; enjoyed relaxing yoga classes… There’s literally barely been time to simply relax by the pool with a book or soak in a hot tub overlooking the ocean.

 

One of the best things about this cruise has been the ease with which we have been able to explore the relatively challenging country of Israel. Immigration officials came onboard the ship and we filed past them quickly and efficiently, our guides have ushered us to the key sights and good restaurants and away from the less honourable street sellers, while explaining the country’s turbulent history (in a spirited and entirely biased way!) and current way of life. While I might occasionally resent being herded around with bus loads of camera-toting, shopping-obsessed Americans, I was very grateful for our aptly-named coach driver, Moses, who efficiently parted the chaotic traffic of Jerusalem, navigating countless road blocks manned by heavily-armed guards and whisking us across the Palestinian border to visit Bethlehem.

 

I am genuinely sad that tomorrow will be our last day onboard Marina but it will be a full day at sea, sailing to Crete, so perhaps I’ll actually get a chance to enjoy the ship, and not just the places it has taken me to.  

 

31 October 2011

DEBUNKING SOME MYTHS ABOUT THE NETHERLANDS

Being half Dutch, I am naturally somewhat biased when it comes to the Netherlands. I accept that it is extremely flat and lacking in dramatic landscapes, that parts of Amsterdam are deeply seedy and that the weather isn’t exactly tropical. However, having just spent a week in Amsterdam with my brother, who lives there, I am most definitely in love with my mother’s country.

 

I find that people typically have a limited view of this small yet atmospheric country, which brought the world tulip mania, van Gogh, Rembrandt, an English king, the Dutch East India Company, Anne Frank, clogs, the Delta Project – the largest construction project in human history – Heineken, syrup waffles and coffee houses, amongst other things.

 

I encourage anyone visiting Holland to explore the canals and narrow streets of Amsterdam (giving the red light zone a wide berth) but bear in mind that there’s a lot more to see beyond it: the Hague is home to the Mauritshuis museum, stuffed to its pretty rafters with stunning examples of the Dutch masters; Delft is a delightful city with classic Dutch architecture and a long heritage of producing the celebrated Delfts Blauw porcelain; and Utrecht is a lively student city with great bars and clubs. Away from the bright city lights, there are countless pretty little villages such as Enkhuizen (pictured here) - a charming, classic little Dutch village on the Ijsselmeer (a man-made lake created by blocking the former ‘Zuiderzee’ - Southern Sea - from the North Sea and reclaiming 965 square miles of land.

 

Something that gets me quite hot under the colour is the assertion that Dutch food is lousy, consisting of plastic cheese and chips with mayonnaise. In addition to a host of delicious cheeses (there is a lot more to Dutch cheese than Edam, which actually dates back to the 14thcentury, when it was celebrated for its ability to keep so well in its thick wax coating) and syrup waffles, there are delicious meat croquettes and ‘bitterballen’ (mini ragout balls in crispy fried batter), savoury pancakes (my favourite is bacon slathered in syrup), ‘poffertjes’ (a stack of mini pancakes served with a vast knob of butter melted on top and liberally doused with icing sugar), ‘gevulde speculaas’ (ginger and cinnamon cake filled with marzipan) and heavenly apple pie from Winkel in Amsterdam…  

 

 
20 October 2011

LONDON SKI & SNOWBOARD SHOW 2012

Should you go down to Earls Court today, you will find it seething with beanie-toting, baggy-panted snowboarders and ski bunnies, here for the annual Metro Ski & Snowboard Show . The Show, which kicked off yesterday and will run until Sunday 23 October, has moved from its traditional home in Kensington Olympia to the larger Earls Court arena this year, which is already proving popular with exhibitors and visitors (the restaurants are better for a start). For journalists and visitors, the Ski Show is a great opportunity to meet hundreds of tour operators, resort representatives (resorts exhibiting in the 'Wold Ski Resort Village' this year range from Jackson Hole and Verbier to Slovakia and Hokkaido) and catch up with each other over a beer and tartiflette by the popular Three Valleys Bar. On top of researching your next ski trip, you can buy all your ski and board kit here (with some great deals to be had from the Ellis Brigham stand), watch pro riders hurl themselves into the air on the giant hip kicker, have a go on the Aosta Valley rodeo, eat your body weight in mountain cheese, watch top French chefs give cookery demonstrations, challenge a French ski instructor to a game of petanque and find yourself a ski job at the Natives Jobs Fair. Not bad eh?

 
14 October 2011

WINE, FISH AND PIPS - THE HOLY TRINITY?

As a wine-loving, ski-obsessed, long-time Clapham Old Town resident and gourmand, the invitation to join Holly Fisher and Phillipa Eyes (the crack team behind the innovative ski chalet operator Fish & Pips ) for a wine tasting last night at Adam Byatt’s award-winning Trinity Clapham restaurant was like Christmas and New Year’s rolled into one.

 

To cut a long (albeit enjoyable) story short, Holly and Pips are childhood friends who share a passion for skiing and cooking, which they turned into a successful gastro-chalet business. Starting in Méribel, the duo also launched three properties in Val d’Isère last winter, where I experienced Adam Byatt’s cooking for the first time (ironic really, given that his restaurant is on my doorstep at home), while he was training the Fish & Pips’ chefs.

 

There was an important point to last night’s tasting – together with Holly and Philippa, their ‘Wine Man’ Sam Owens from Le Verre Gourmand , loyal Fish & Pips guest Matt, and a couple of fellow journalists, we dutifully tasted our way through some 20 wines to select those to be served in Fish & Pips’ chalets this winter. I have to admit that discussing the apricoty nature of a Viognier and the spiciness of a Beaujolais as we munched our way through delicious herb crusted razor clams, hare hot pot and bone marrow on toast wasn’t a tough assignment… But it did show just how committed Holly and Philippa are to selecting the best possible wines for their budget and, more generally, to providing their guests with excellent food and wine in comfortable chalets from just £250 per week.

 

Holly has spent the summer working on the island of Alderney, breathing new life into a local pub – The Georgian House . Since I first met her, I have been impressed by Holly’s determination and unflappability, both of which where reflected in a story she told about the Alderney Beer Festival. Apparently nine kegs of Real Ale were delivered to Jersey rather than Alderney the day before the Festival was due to kick off, spelling potential disaster. Holly made some calls to a couple of pilots she knew on the island (total population 2,400) and sweet-talked them into flying over to Jersey to load up the all-important kegs and bring them back to Alderney, thereby saving the Beer Festival. No wonder she makes running eight ski chalets in two resorts look like a piece of cake.    

 

 
11 October 2011

RAIN CANCELS PLAY IN THAILAND BUT MY EXCELLENT CONSOLATION PRIZE IS MEETING MY HERO, REINHOLD MESSNER

It seems fitting that my first blog should highlight the unpredictability of travel writing, being written not from Thailand as was planned, but from home in London, fresh from an interview with a man I have been awestruck by since I was a child. Severe floods in Thailand meant I had to cancel a river cruise  due to depart from Bangkok yesterday - I'm hoping to reschedule that trip for next month, so watch this space (and the Thai weather forecast) for updates.

 

However, a happy side-effect of this last-minute cancellation was that I got to meet Reinhold Messner - the world's greatest living mountaineer. Messner is in London promoting the beautiful part of the world from which he hails (the South Tyrol ) and his extraordinary network of mountain  museums , which are dotted around the region. I had to keep pinching myself as we sat in the chapel of The House of St Barnabas (the most remarkable place in which I've ever held an interview), listening to him talk: "Mountains are more than a geological fact, more than something to climb up. Mountains are religious, divine - they show there is a possibility to go from earth to heaven. We will never reach heaven but there's a possibility to go higher, to see everything from above."

 

Since he started climbing at the tender age of five, Messner was the first to summit the world's 14 8,000ers; the first to climb Everest without oxygen and the only person to have summited Everest solo and without oxygen; crossed Antarctica and Greenland on skis; walked 1,200 miles across the Gobi Desert; written over 60 books; set up several foundations for education and emancipation in the Himalayas; represented the Italian Green Party in European Parliament for five years; regenerated three Alpine farms; and created the Messner Mountain Museum.

 

Not one to twiddle his thumbs, he's currently writing another book and researching the world's Holy Mountains. It became clear during the interview that Messner didn't dedicate his life to 'conquering' mountains so much as simply 'playing' on them, albeit with a healthy sense of competition ("In reality, we always try to overcome what is impossible."). Despite, or perhaps because, he lost countless friends and his brother in the mountains, Messner retains a profound sense of respect and love for them. He explained later that his ritual when summiting a mountain is not to plant a flag or beat his chest but to say the Tibetan word 'Kalipe', which translates roughly into English as 'always walk calmly'.

 

Messner is a truly remarkable and humble man and meeting him has been an immense privilege. He describes himself simply as "a mountain man" yet I could spend days listening to him explain the Yeti legend, talk about who really won the race for the South Pole, the sad development of today's mountaineering into "pisted alpinism", Alpine agriculture, the fact that "ze Britz" named the Dolomites... If you're keen to learn more about this remarkable man, go and visit his museums in the South Tyrol or, for a more irreverant taste of the legend, read this 'biography' - I claim no responsibility for the language!