Sunday, July 24, 2016

Vignette of Sunday afternoon at Ngor Island, Dakar, Senegal


 The leaden sky is heavy with salty spray. I decide to take the public boat across to the island, imagining sitting quietly in a beachside café gazing at the sea.

I join the cheerful day-trippers in orange vests crammed in the festive long boat as we bounce across the steely passage. The tiny baby with sparkly earrings looks precarious on her teenage mother’s lap.




I stagger, with soggy pants flapping, from the crowded boat. A solitary afternoon is not possible when you stand out like a swollen sore thumb to the clever boys hustling for a living. Ali spots me first and appoints himself my Guide of the island and quickly leads me through narrow sandy lanes. I’m not panicking. I know he’s only interested in the cash in the bag squashed firmly under my solid upper arm.


Pouring with sweat we reach the top of the cliff and what a surprise, there’s a rickety wooden stall with rows of enticing trinkets. I haggle for bangles from his savvy friend who spins a yarn about the traditional origins of his wares.



I flop on the mosaic bench with a view of “America”. I’m not sure about the accuracy of smooth-talking Ali’s geographical coordinates. I snap him smiling, he snaps me and handing back my shiny iphone demands I pay him now before we get to the mythical café. I negotiate hard that I will only pay after he takes me there.








So now I am perched serenely in the al fresco café watching dark bodies frolic in the waves as boats spill fresh arrivals on to the shore. A disabled vendor approaches with a bundle of goods and I buy some outlandish harem pants and we are both happy and smiling together.



A handsome young man resplendent in Reggae dreadlocks invites me to a party on the island tonight but I politely decline. 
       
And I wait for the return boat in the drizzle, breathing in smoky barbecued seafood, savouring another eventful day as a conspicuous white tourist in West Africa, gazing at a distant “America”. 



Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Discovering the Endless Pleasures of Cruising

I experienced an exquisite taste of the ultimate holiday escape on board the magnificent Norwegian Epic Cruise Ship from June 5 to 8, 2016 and wrote this travel feature for 50 Connect.

This is a first. I’ve never been on a luxury cruise before and I’m turning 60 this year! So it’s time I discover what devotees rave about! I don’t know what to expect, other than cliché images of languid bodies lazing on a sun-drenched deck.

So with a surprising assault to the senses we step out of the hushed lift onto Deck 15 into a full-on salsa dance party with joyful music pumping and people jumping, their tanned arms and legs glistening in the sunshine as dazzling as their smiles!

Animated guests are chatting by the busy bar or sprawled on sun loungers flaunting flamboyant flesh with inhibitions flung into the high seas. Children are splashing in clear blue pools and zooming down water slides, squealing with delight! So this is cruising; utter devotion to pleasure, non-stop entertainment, pure hedonism!

How did this happen? On an ordinary, grey Sunday afternoon I am transported from Heathrow to Barcelona Port to board the Norwegian Epic for a cruise around the Mediterranean and glimpse into another world - a floating world of endless delights. When I meet up with my group of fellow journalists and bloggers, we’re given a guided tour, exploring the magnificent ship.



I am elated by the vibrant, frenetic scene swarming with excited, seasoned cruisers – people of all shapes and sizes, ages and nationalities happily rubbing shoulders in this unique international community.
Inter-generational family holidays are popular with grandparents, parents and kids enjoying a vast range of activities. The unstructured “Free and Flexible” concept has created this relaxed atmosphere with guests free to choose whatever activities they fancy, everything from rock climbing to sushi making! And guests can eat and drink whenever they like!

As Valentina, our Italian guide and Sarah, our London PR girl, show us around the 19 decks of this floating city, I am awe struck by the scale and splendour of the ship but strangely I quickly feel at home! The décor is opulent but also warm and homey, impressive and tasteful, not glitzy and kitsch.

We glide past the art gallery through the surreal Casino lounge on Deck 6 and marvel at the funky bowling alley and discover the heart of the lavish entertainment area; the plush Epic Theatre, the magical Siegel Tent, the Headliner’s Comedy Club and the groovy new Cavern Club, styled on the famous Liverpool club that launched the Beatles.
These elegant venues are surrounded by an array of exotic bars and restaurants; the Sake Bar, the Bliss Ultra Lounge, Malting’s Whiskey Bar and the exhilarating Ice Bar to name just a few. Fine dining restaurants include The Manhattan Room, Le Bistro for gourmet French cuisine, the Shanghai Asian Restaurant and La Cucina. Food lovers are in heaven! 

But if your taste buds prefer plainer fare and plenty of it, you can eat delicious, fresh food non-stop all day from the eye-popping Garden Café buffet! Most of the restaurants and bars are all inclusive so it’s tempting to eat and drink to excess! Despite this freedom to indulge, I see no evidence of guests behaving badly!   

My mind is racing! How is all this possible? I am trying to imagine the logistics of carrying food supplies to feed the hungry hoards and water to service the cabins with daily hot showers.

The secrets are hidden in the hull! Massive tanks carry tonnes of water and armies of workers service the guests every whim by racing along a super highway below deck.

This magnificent cruise ship is like a gigantic, graceful swan floating along serenely while the frantic work of paddling goes on beneath the surface.

The mighty Norwegian Epic has a capacity for 4100 guests with a crew of 1724 dedicated workers (with 865 staff just on food).

The gross tonnage is 155,873 and the overall length is 1,081 feet, as long as the Eiffel Tower is high! I realise just how long the corridors are when I get lost returning to my cabin!

My stateroom cabin is as spacious as a hotel room with a double bed and private balcony view of the ocean and distant landscape of the Mediterranean coastline. My concierge is cheerful and friendly and his housekeeping is impeccable. There are 2,114 guest staterooms; over half have balconies while the others are suites, villas and studios and 42 rooms are wheelchair accessible.

Epic was the flagship for many years, the pride of Norwegian Cruise Line, but she has recently been surpassed by the dazzling new Escape. And the Norwegian Joy will be launched in 2017.

The impressive fleet of 14 premium contemporary ships offers cruises everywhere from Alaska, the Caribbean and Europe to South America and New Zealand.

I wonder how many of these incredible “floating cities” cruise the world’s oceans and Google tells me there are 230 cruise ships currently operating and another 44 scheduled to come online in the next few years.

On Sunday evening we are treated to the spectacular dinner show, Cirque Dreams in the mysterious Spiegel Tent. Sitting high up we get a bird’s eye view of the thrilling aerial acrobatics with talented performers doing extraordinary contortions! Such feats of flexibility and strength have us gasping in disbelief! Intricate juggling acts, human balancing acts, skating duets, magical costume changes, risqué burlesque and humorous skits provide a feast of mind-boggling entertainment!

After the show I am happy to wander off to my cabin, full to the brim with sensory stimulation, while my younger colleagues head for one of the many enticing bars for an exotic nightcap.  

On Monday morning I start the day with a yoga class with Thomas, the Dutch instructor, and a group of Asian ladies. The Pulse Fitness Centre is immaculate! Having worked up an appetite, I join Jenny, a newspaper journalist from Aberdeen, for a gourmet breakfast in the Taste café.

Mid-morning is free time and the sun is blazing through a vivid blue sky so the only place to be is on deck in my swimmers, laying horizontal where I experience the “worries” and “problems” unique to cruising! Being spoilt for choice, I feel an anxiety creeping over me; the 21st century affliction known as FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out! What else could I be doing? The Salsa class perhaps? This is definitely a “First World problem” of our consumptive society, not suffered by the countless millions living in poverty and deprivation.

There are a few more challenges to deal with; claiming my ideal spot on a sun lounger amongst the human blanket covering the deck and once settled all I have to worry about is: “How’s my tan coming along?” Yes, this cruising experience is the great escape from life’s pressures and stresses!

Lying in the gentle sun, feeling the breeze caress my cheeks, watching the open ocean roll past, I listen to the hum of the engine, snippets of unknown languages and the upbeat music wafting across the crowded deck.

Adults and kids swish down the curly water slide, giggling and posing for snaps as they land with splash! For now, these playful pleasure-seekers are carefree with mundane life a distance memory!


On Monday afternoon our group is invited to a Behind the Scenes tour. Part of me doesn’t want to spoil the magical illusion of effortless perfection above deck by witnessing the reality of the hard work down below. But my curiosity wins!

Our charming Peruvian hostess gives a talk and slide show about the history of The Norwegian Way and it is surprising to learn that such a massive, complex company started out as a modest family business in 1924 and grew through the decades into the phenomenon it is today.
The mega-class Epic was built in France by an army of engineers and skilled workers and completed in 2010 at a cost of $US1.2 billion.

We’re shown around back stage of the grand Epic Theatre and sneak a look at the tiny dressing rooms the performers squeeze into amongst the racks of extravagant costumes.

And then we venture deep below deck to the “Highway 99” of human traffic that rushes from one end of the ship to the other delivering food and supplies to the pampered guests above. We are allowed to sneak a look at the massive galley of stoves and steel benches with the chefs and waiters enjoying a momentary lull before the dinner frenzy. There’s even a full-scale bakery producing fresh bread and cakes daily!    

I try to imagine the unusual lifestyle of cruise ship workers who spend up to six to nine months at sea before having a break on land with their families and friends. There are plenty of social activities for the crew and continual training sessions.

After the tour we meet four performers from the glamorous shows for a Q&A chat. The talented dancers and singers from around the world are clearly devoted to their art and strive for excellence, rehearsing and refining techniques before every show.

Next we visit the Splash Academy especially for kids! Clubs are divided into age groups, catering for toddlers from three to teenagers of 17, offering an exciting range of activities from crafts and sports to dress-up parties based on nautical themes. So whenever parents want to enjoy some grown-up activities, they can enrol their kids in supervised sessions, knowing they are having loads of fun!

Monday night some of our group opts for Japanese Teppanyaki while others choose to dine in French style at Le Bistro. I am delighted by my superb three-course vegetarian meal, which is just as artistically presented as the succulent meat and seafood dishes.

Burn The Floor showcases every style of dancing from aristocratic waltzes and ballroom extravaganza to punk rock and seductive Latin moves! The show is enthralling!

On Tuesday I wake up to a vision of Naples. The landmark Castel dell’Ovo looms over the Italian coastal city of pretty peach-coloured hillside buildings under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. What a picture! Today I get to tick my Bucket List!
Guests can choose from five shore excursions: Capri, Sorrento and Pompeii; the Amalfi Coast and Pompeii; the Ruins of Herculaneum; Walking through Naples, Pizza and Secret Tunnels or Sorrento and Naples Sightseeing with Pizza Tasting! Wow!

I opt for a walking tour of Naples. Our charming Italian guide, dapper in mint green trousers, declares: “I love you, I love you, I love you” through our headsets and swears the sun “smiles” here for 340 days of the year!


He leads us through bustling narrow laneways famous for stringing laundry overhead between the high rise apartments and explains that in these close communities neighbours know each other’s business, overhearing domestic arguments and sharing all their troubles and delights! “Nothing is hidden. There are no secrets in Naples!”



Our cheeky guide tells us the locals have four cups of strong espresso a day, which is considered “Napoli Viagra” and he recommends the famous “sfogliatella” lemon ricotta pastry with an espresso to kick start the day. I can not resist and yes, it is sublime!    











Volunteer tour guide, Faviona is eloquent, passionate and entertaining as she regales us with stories and quirky facts as we navigate the chilly underground tunnels of Naples! What started out as quarries for the rock to build the city in ancient times, evolved into an elaborate aqueduct system before being used as extensive bomb shelters for families in World War Two. The remains of beds, utensils and poignant photos capture the misery of waiting out the war underground.   

A gigantic Margarita Pizza in an authentic Napoli Pizzeria with beautiful hand painted ceramic tables and… yes, more espresso and irresistible pastry push my low-carb diet into the zone of No Return! I blame Italy for such indulgence!

Back on the ship, we explore the inner sanctum of the exclusive Haven where guests enjoy luxurious secluded lounges and Deck 17 all to themselves while
solo travellers can meet each other in their private club lounge.

Late afternoon I experience the bliss of the thermal pools and saunas and I’m so relaxed I drift back to my cabin to change for dinner at the savvy Manhattan Room.

What a sensational experience! I’ve tasted just three nights of euphoric cruising and I now understand why people see these vibrant floating playgrounds as a home away from home and get hooked on repeat cruises. Some even say it’s the only way to travel!


Miraculously these heavenly fly-cruises are affordable. Prices for seven nights start from just £599 per person!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Revealing the Best-Kept Secret of the Most Blissful Mountain Retreat

I wrote this travel story for 50 Connect, a popular online publication for adventurous mature-aged readers 


Sporting my new swimsuit, I glide into the warm embrace of exquisite luxury. Glancing up, I’m awe-struck. The tranquil indoor and outdoor pools of liquid velvet are surrounded by the magnificent mountain range of the Dolomites; spectacular but also comforting. The dramatic snow-capped peaks seem to affectionately cradle the quaint little village of Ortisei in Val Gardena in this northern Italy paradise.
Here I am at the five-star Adler Spa Resort transported into the arms of pure indulgence by a quick flight out of Gatwick to Verona and a pleasant taxi drive through verdant countryside to this heaven on earth.

I’m travelling with an interesting group, Sue and Bethan, the capable PR gals who have organised the jaunt and fellow journalists, Briony, a seasoned traveller and skier, lovely Lucy, fit and slim with a mop of blonde curls and Rob, who’s in training for a charity challenge, cycling 300 miles from London to Paris. I’m the only unfit one daunted by the strenuous mountain hike planned for tomorrow. I’d love to stay here gliding around the pool and staring at the view but adventure calls!

But first there’s the serious business of sampling the gourmet food! We meet the delightful Alessandra who shows us around the resort. The exclusive Adler Balance, offering a vast range of medical assessments and natural health treatments, is connected by a beautiful underground corridor to the luxurious Adler Dolomiti; the largest wellness facility in the Dolomites. It has three distinct zones: Dolasilla for beauty & vitality, Aguana where the pools, including thermals are located, and AdlerFit for sport & fitness.

The private Ladies’ Sauna is set in an opulent Arabian-style relaxation
dome permeated with the delicate scent of roses while deep underground, the
mysterious grottos, salt lake and whirlpool and aromatic saunas offer guests blissful sensory pampering.

The Adler Spa Resorts have been owned and lovingly operated by seven generations of the Sanoner family for 200 years, dedicated to top quality, beautiful and innovative facilities and gentle, natural health care.  

Ah yes, the irresistible food! We meet around the buffet of freshly baked apple strudel and delectable desserts for afternoon tea on the terrace, as we chat and watch the activity in the village streets below.

Back in my spacious natural timber room, I sprawl on the massive bed. There’s a comfy sofa, desk, elegant bathroom with huge shower and even an automatic light in the toilet (which turned out to be very handy when stumbling around in the dark) and of course the omnipresent breathtaking view of lush meadows dotted by immaculate farmhouses with the Dolomites backdrop against a vivid blue sky.

The peaceful village of Ortisei has around 5000 residents and 5000 visitor beds so the ratio of locals and tourists is kept in balance to ensure an undisrupted, genteel lifestyle. Set in South Tyrol, this glorious haven boasts a fascinating mixture of German and Italian culture.

Historically the region was part of Austria then became part of northern Italy after the First World War. Locals speak both German and Italian and keep alive the traditional language of Ladin. The rich cuisine draws from both cultures using the fresh ingredients of local farmers; nutritious herbs and vegetables and dairy foods from contented cows grazing in alpine meadows.

I get to savour the fresh, creamy dairy in the gourmet banquet prepared by a dedicated team of highly-trained chefs. We reconvene for dinner at 7.30 in the sophisticated dining room with impeccably dressed and attentive waiters. As a vegetarian, I savour the local delicacy of forest mushrooms and chestnut soup (to die for), homemade pasta, spiced vegetables and tofu. My companions enjoy superbly cooked fish and meat dishes that melt in the mouth. The desserts are sublime. We all stagger off to our beds with full bellies ready to face tomorrow’s ascent into the mighty Dolomites.

Exploring the Top of the World

Hubi is a man clearly happy with his life. Our cheerful guide has been hiking his
beloved mountains since he was a curious boy and adventurous adolescent and knows them intimately; the explosions of colour at sunrise and awe-inspiring sunsets and through seasonal changes draped in pristine snow and valleys dressed in shimmering green. At 68, Hubi’s enthusiasm for his daily hikes with tourists has not diminished. He loves his mountain home with an irresistible passion and enviable sense of belonging.

We climb aboard the shiny red capsule to go soaring above the treetops and up the mountain slope to the first plateau. As we gaze across the panoramic vista, Hubi explains that the towering Dolomites are made of fossilised coral. In winter, the treacherous peaks provide adrenalin-fuelled exhilaration for skilful skiers while the gentle slopes and vast fields of soft snow unleash endless fun for all ages and abilities.

While a favourite ski resort for an annual influx of Germans and Italians, the world-class alpine resort is a best-kept secret from British holidaymakers (or it was until I spilled the beans!) And during summer the natural playground is a magnet for keen cyclists and hikers.

Hubi cracks the whip and we set off on the first leg of our hike, “just a short walk” he says, smiling and 20 minutes later we arrive, sweaty and puffing, at the glorious new Adler Mountain Lodge, which only opened last year.

Our intrepid Rob opts for a mountaintop bike ride while two athletic Italians and a petite German lady, Lena join our group for the dizzy ascent to the ultimate lookout. We’re driven to the chairlift and swaying mid-air I start to feel queasy and Hubi tells me that weird sensation is altitude sickness!

We hike the craggy paths, coming across herds of pretty tan and white cows grazing on lush pasture and a tame Palomino, glistening in the sunshine eager for a pat and photo session! As we climb higher and higher my heart pounds and I’m gasping for breath. The fit hikers show mercy and slow down until I recover and we trek onward and upward finally arriving at Puflatsch Umrundung, with a majestic view that stretches from Austria to the north, Switzerland to the west and Italy to the south! The reward was worth the exertion! This is just glorious and such a rare privilege! Hubi says this is the very heart of the Dolomites and we proudly take a group photo with the Adler flag!

Ah but now there’s the descent! Hubi coaxes me,
saying it will be “easy”, however on the steep downhill slope my confused calf muscles are burning, my feet throbbing and my head spinning by the time we reach the welcome respite of the Adler Mountain Lodge.  
 
Over a delicious lunch chatting with Lena I discover she is an emergency heart surgeon so I was certainly in the right company for my challenging lofty hike!

We are treated to a guided tour of the luxurious lodge with 18 impressive rooms and 12 superb chalets surrounded by infinity pools and pampering facilities perfectly located amongst magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site scenery where you could gaze at the mesmerising mountains forever.

Sadly we must leave for another one of Hubi’s “short walks” back to the Mont Seuc cable car. Thankfully, Briony coaches me through my mental and physical exhaustion with deep breathing and incremental goals to reach each next tree until I finally flop in the red bubble for the return trip down the mountain to Ortisei and the promise of a well-earned full-body massage!

Ah bliss! The fragrance of the aromatherapy oils and gentle touch of the masseuse is heaven-sent and that evening we share hiking stories over exotic cocktails on the terrace before indulging in another exquisite meal fit for royalty! (Tough job but someone has to do it!)

Discovering Cheese and Wine and the Culture of Bressanone

Saturday morning I dress bravely in a summer dress with bare legs and sandals to tour the cultural attractions of the charming city of Bressanone with the delightful Deborah from South Tyrol Tourism

Arriving early, we huddle together outside the forbidding grey concrete bunker, which was ingeniously converted post-war into a cheese storage facility. The gloomy, chilly sky starts to spit rain and I’m regretting my choice of flimsy clothing.

Rob, a former choirboy, refuses to sing us a song to pass the time but finally Josef, the Cheese Maker, arrives in his trusty little car with his dainty little dog. A lanky man with a thick moustache and no English, Josef hands us hairnets and shoe covers before we enter the bunker, giggling in our quirky attire!

Phew! Our nostrils are assaulted with the pungent odour of thousands of blocks of cheese maturing on shelves in the dank recesses of this unlikely tourist attraction. Deborah translates Josef’s explanations of the fermenting process, which can take up to three years and how he meticulously turns each cheese three times a day! Such dedication gives us a genuine appreciation of the art of proper cheese making!

And now for the yummy part! We visit Degust speciality cheese shop in the fancy little village of Varna and young Martin turns on an appetising cheese tasting explaining the subtle flavours of each cheese to accompany the light fruity white wine. I purchase a creamy pear-sweetened camembert to take home to share with my husband, Andrew.     

By mid-day the grinning sun has burst through grey clouds and turned the sky to baby blue, with whimsical cotton wool clouds dancing across the mountaintops. Standing on the terrace at the vibrant Kofererhof restaurant,
I savour the perfection of this idyllic scene, stunned by the beauty of the neat rows of leafy grape vines nestled within emerald hills.

We are served a hearty lunch. As I devour my delicious homemade gnocchi, we
chat with handsome Werner who has joined us to talk tourism. Like other locals we’ve met, he is immensely proud of this bountiful region and explains that the preservation of the traditional rural industries rests on keeping eco-friendly tourism flourishing.

The region needs loyal returning visitors and is keen to attract new British first-timers to discover the joys of this blessed region with its culinary and cultural delights of musical festivals and unsurpassed outdoor activities including glorious skiing in winter and thrilling mountain biking events throughout the summer.  

Next stop is the Abbey of Novacella, a monastery and wine growing estate founded in 1142 with 85 hectares of elevated vineyards. Our debonair host Andreas greets us for a tour of this impressive Augustine sanctuary. Inside the Bavarian Baroque-style church the towering walls and ceilings are adorned with joyous paintings, celebrating redemption (not sombre depictions of Christ’s suffering) while outside, the placid green hills are graced with tidy rows of hand-nurtured vines. The immaculate winemaking complex sparkles with the latest equipment, where 700,000 bottles of unique wines are produced annually.

Andreas is a retired architect from Germany who migrated to the gorgeous
region in Northern Italy, a long-held dream, to embrace his passion for culture and fine wines. He treats us to an enthralling wine tasting. This is my first experience of learning how to appreciate wine with all the senses! The selection of intricate white wines delight in every way with Andreas’ eloquent descriptions of the elixir with subtle notes of peaches, lychees and cloves.  

Already well-sated, we pile in the car and head for the historic city of Bressanone (also called Brixen) with flamboyant tour guide Luciano who shows us the charming Baroque buildings, the medieval cathedral and former Bishop’s palatial residence, now a fascinating museum.

We stroll the sunny laneways amongst trendy boutiques, cafes and markets before settling in for an exquisite cuisine at the stylish Vinoteca Vitis part of the Finsterwirt exclusive restaurants. I chose the tantalising Vegetable Tartare followed by a heavenly dessert of fresh mango and chocolate mousse. Such gourmandising has left us all buzzing on the drive back to Ortisei for our final night in the lap of luxury.

Sunday morning before a scrumptious breakfast, there’s time for a relaxing float in the crystal salt dome with soothing underwater music! How can I go back to my mundane life!

We travel in comfort in a Mercedes Benz taxi van to Verona Airport for the return flight to London and then, for me, a reflective slow train home to Kent, with my belly and heart full of European splendours. 



Fact box
Accommodation: Rooms at Adler Balance start from Euros 518 per person sharing a double room for a weekend break (Thursday to Saturday inclusive) and include ADLER BALANCE vitality cuisine, «AGUANA» water world, ADLER FIT, sports and leisure programme, underground car parking and all other ADLER inclusive services, such as daily guided hiking and biking tours. Book online at www.adler-balance.com.
Getting there: BA, easyjet and Monarch from London Gatwick to Verona, on a daily basis, fares start from £100, then a private transfer, hire car or public transport (train & bus) to Ortisei; easyjet from London Gatwick to Innsbruck, certain days per week, fares start from £100, then a private (75-minute) transfer or hire car to Ortisei.