Some holidays are so jam-packed with things to do, places to visit and sights to tick off that you end up needing a holiday afterwards to recover. A island-hopping voyage around the Aegean with SCIC Sailing (it stands for Sailing Cruises in Comfort and is aptly pronounced ‘chic’) is thankfully not one of those holidays.
In fact, I think it is possibly the most relaxing holiday I’ve ever been on. It wasn’t just that with a cruise – I think I can call it that, even though our beautiful twin-mast 90ft Turkish gulet sailing ship was the polar opposite of a mega cruise ship – you can travel all around the region without fighting with hoards of tourists, but the fact that the itinerary was so leisurely that there was ample time for sleeping, reading, eating, swimming, sunbathing, relaxing and yet more sleeping and eating.
I averaged a book a day during my week’s holiday (admittedly I’m a fast reader) and I still had loads of time to explore the islands we visited, go swimming and snorkelling, enjoy the superb meals onboard (lots of fresh seafood, lots of rosé wine), attempt to get a tan (some of the other guests were mahogany by the end), have late nights dancing on and off shore and basically return to the UK completely blissed out.
I say itinerary, but the feature of SCIC Sailing is that there isn’t really a fixed schedule at all. The sails are practical as well as ornamental, and are raised whenever possible, so you enjoy the twin thrills of silently swooshing over the waves without the chug of the engine, but also not knowing where the winds will take you. Thankfully you can’t go wrong in this part of the world which has beautiful islands at every turn, but the joy of exploring by boat means you can access deserted beaches and moor in beautiful coves which are almost inaccessible by road, and have the whole place to yourself.
Being in the Land of the Midnight Sun can do strange things to you.
A few days into my cruise along the Norwegian coast, I’d been chatting on deck after dinner with my fellow passengers. I went to bed thinking that it wasn’t a particularly late night – and was shocked to find that it was quarter to five in the morning!
Sailing along a coastline which was as brightly lit up at night-time as if it were day had completely knocked my body clock out of whack.
But when you’re in the Arctic Circle you have to expect the unexpected – from eating king crabs the size of dinner gongs, accepting a cod liver oil shot from a man dressed as a Viking, or travelling at speed on rubber dinghies through glacier-carved fjords in search of sea eagles (and Hollywood stars).
I was spending five days onboard the Richard With, one of Norwegian shipping line Hurtigruten’s 13 ships and named after the founder of the company.
Hurtigruten’s fleet of ships have travelled up and down the thousands of miles of Norway’s crinkled coastline since 1893 and now venture much further afield, including to Greenland, the Faroe Islands, South America, Antarctica and across the Atlantic via Africa.
The coastal route initially began as a vital transport line of goods and local people, a service it still provides 365 days a year, but the soaring popularity of adventure tourism as well as the spectacular scenery (the Norwegian coastal route has been described as ‘the world’s most beautiful sea voyage’) means that travellers can now take part in more than 75 different excursions during their voyage, from kayaking to dog-sledding, horse-riding, tobogganing and whale-watching.
‘We aren’t a cruise ship, we are a base camp from which to explore the region,’ said Hurtigruten chief executive Daniel Skjeldam. ‘People no longer want to spend their holiday time being passive spectators.’
The midnight sun had been one of the main reasons for my trip, but when I landed in the coastal town of Tromso, high above the Arctic Circle, to board the ship which was to be my home for the next five nights, thick grey cloud meant there was no chance of seeing it on my first night.
However all was not lost: after an eye-wateringly expensive drink in a pleasant local bar – £9.60 for a bottle of locally-brewed beer – and some picture-perfect seafood at a restaurant in the marina, some of my fellow travellers and I hiked across the impressively-high mile-long Tromso bridge to the beautiful Arctic Cathedral on the opposite shore.
During the summer season there are concerts every midnight for Hurtigruten guests where a trio sing and play a mix of classic music and Norwegian folk songs in the candle-lit church with amazing acoustics, a memorable night-time experience.
After the concert we boarded the ship in the grey half-light and soon set sail south. Hurtigruten describes itself as a voyage rather than a cruise, so people used to luxury liners might be in for a shock. There are no cabaret nights, West End shows, swimming pools or quiz nights and the cabins are smart but functional.
However the company does pride itself on its fresh, locally-sourced food including Arctic char and reindeer – mainly served buffet-style, although there is a private dining room for hire on board too – and there are plenty of places indoors and out to sit and admire the view.
This was hard in the first few days when the weather was so grim – looking at the sky I asked a fellow passenger in disbelief: ‘How many shades of grey are there?’
‘Fifty,’ came the droll reply – but the scenery was transformed on the third day when the clouds blew away and it was blue skies all round. Then the stunning scenery – majestic cliffs, little islands, remote cottages hugging the shoreline – could really be appreciated.
One afternoon we donned massive waterproof onesies to race around on RIB boats, skidding over the water up through the strait of Øyhellsundet and to the spectacular Trollfjord, two kilometres long and surrounded by steep granite walls on all sides.
With great pride our pilots told us that this was recently home to Matt Damon when he was filming his movie, Downsizing.
After spotting a sea eagle and even a dolphin we raced along the coastline to meet up with our ship at Solvaer, a charming fishing village overlooked by the spectacular ‘goat mountain’, which has two rocky horns that climbers have been known to jump between.
Crossing the Arctic Circle is not something the ship would let go unnoticed, so as the Richard With sailed past the little globe on the island of Vikingen the next morning, the ship’s manager Harald Weinreich dressed up as a Viking (or was he supposed to be Neptune?), wielded a rubber cod and offered shots of cod liver oil to mark the occasion (be warned – the fishy taste is hard to get rid of).
As we were now officially outside the Arctic Circle we had left the land of the Midnight Sun, but even so the sun only dipped below the horizon for an hour or so at midnight.
Our next stop was the picturesque Unesco-listed Vega archipelago, a cluster of dozens of little islands where for the past 1,500 years, life here has been based on fishing and looking after eider ducks. The brightly-painted buildings looked beautiful in the sun and inside we were treated to a fascinating tour of the eider museum and shown how the villages still collect the soft down to make into shawls and quilts.
We explored Trondheim, the former capital of Norway, by early morning coach tour, driving along its wide streets (so as to protect its wooden buildings from fire) to its huge Nidaros cathedral, site of the burial place of its national saint St Olav. That evening we took another bus ride, this time along the beautiful 8km Atlantic Road, visiting the 13th century Kvernes Stave church before dining on local speciality clippfish, known as bacalao, at a local tavern with great views of the sea.
Our trip ended in Bergen, the final call on our coastal voyage. With around 260,000 inhabitants, Bergen is a lively town, surrounded by mountains on one side and the coast on the other, with a marina and an open-air food market where free samples of seafood, reindeer and whale salami awaited the braver ones in our group. However the best way to see the whole city is from the top of the funicular railway which shoots you straight up the cliffs in just a few minutes.
From there we not only met a troll but could see the whole of Bergen laid out before us, including our floating home for the past five days. After few hours in port, it would begin its journey northwards again, carrying a new set of passengers eager to explore the Arctic.
Travel notes: I travelled on Hurtigruten’s five-day Flavour of Norway trip between Tromso to Bergen, currently available from £745 per person based on two sharing including full board and flights, excursions extra. The full 12-day round trip costs from £999 for a winter departure.
As well as the coastal route, Hurtigruten offers voyages to Greenland; to Iceland; around Spitsbergen; and to Arctic Canada. In the southern hemisphere, Hurtigruten takes guests to the waters around Antarctica; along both coasts of South America; and to the Amazon rainforest.
I hadn’t meant to embark on an impromptu Champagne cocktail-tasting session just after breakfast, but in keeping with the overall spirit of relaxation and pampering at The Greenway hotel and spa Cheltenham it seemed the right thing to do.
It was my first time at the luxury Cotswolds hotel and indeed my first time at any hotel owned by The Eden Hotel Collection (there are eight in total) and I hadn’t a clue what to expect. It was only once I was there that I actually told anyone I was going, and instantly a friend posted on Facebook: ‘Lucky you! I think it’s the best spa in Cheltenham’, which was a promising indication I was in the right place.
The signs had been good from the very start. There was an imposing gate and lengthy driveway – the hallmarks of a country house hotel – and the instant we parked two people came out to greet us and help with our bags. The concierge, Chris, checked us in and showed us to our room with the minimum of time and fuss, which meant that, much to my surprise, I was bang on time for my spa appointment. Handily the Elan Spa at Greenway is located inside the hotel, so it’s incredibly convenient, unlike others where a spa visit is a trek to another building (in fact our bedroom was just above the spa).
The small child in front of me fearlessly hurled himself off the tree-top platform high off the forest floor and sped through the air. I couldn’t back out now. While zip-lining had long been on my wish-list, dreaming about it and actually standing on the edge of a sheer drop preparing to fling myself into thin air were two very different things. Besides, I was in Jamaica. Shouldn’t I be lounging on a beach drinking rum cocktails?
The shout came from across the tree-tops. It was my turn. I took a deep breath and ran, like a cartoon character, right off the edge. It was as terrifying and exhilarating as I’d hoped. Landing turned out to be even more scary than taking off. Where were the brakes? In my panicked attempt to stop, I flung out out a hand ahead of the fast-moving metal clip connecting me to the wire. By pure luck, my thick glove got shredded, rather than my hand. Now where was that drink?
It was my first time in Jamaica and the trip turned out to be more action-packed than I’d expected. While there were inviting picture-perfect golden sandy beaches, a sparkling blue ocean and towering palm trees – we had a schedule to stick to. So hold onto your cocktails – here’s what to do in Jamaica when you haven’t got a lot of time to to do it in….
Cliff-diving at Rick’s Cafe
The clifftop Rick’s Cafe in Negril is a national landmark where hundreds of people congregate for the great view, bucket of beers, dancing – there’s usually a live band playing Bob Marley (who else?) – and a spot of cliff-diving. Yes, that’s right… Those who like a little risk with their drinking can chose to leap off a succession of jumping-off points (the highest is a vertigo-inducing 35 metres) or local kids will dive for you for a fee. The other side of the bar offers great views of the setting sun every night – it’s selfie heaven here – and the whole thing has a very apres-ski vibe. Arriving by boat isn’t a must but it certainly adds a certain class to proceedings.
Exactly 600 years ago, the Bel and The Dragon coaching inn was built in the pretty Berkshire town of Cookham and six centuries later, I took a friend with me to stay at the pub and see what it was actually like. Well, you don’t want to rush these things…
While it is officially 600 years old – there’s even an sign outside showing the date it was built, making it one of the oldest pubs in Britain – the Cookham Bel and The Dragon is now part of a thoroughly modern seven-strong Bel and The Dragon chain, part-owned by entrepreneur Joel Cadbury. It might have a long history but since the late 1980s it had been sadly neglected and was barely trading when bought out of administration. Now Cadbury and his business partner Ollie Vigors have spent several years (and no small amount of money) restoring the pub to its former glory, much to the delight of local residents.
In fact, my expectations of Bel and The Dragon had been pretty high before I had even set foot in Cookham, which isn’t always a good thing: just a few days before at a press party in London I had mentioned I was staying there at the weekend and a whole group of people – who turned out to be from nearby Bray – had excitedly talked over each other to tell me just how fabulous it was and how its head chef, Ronnie Kimbugwe, was just the very best. After such a write-up, it seemed that Bel and The Dragon could only suffer in reality. Continue reading Fine dining and summer cocktails at the 600-year old coaching inn Bel and The Dragon, Cookham→