‘Kanpai!’ The cry echoed around the hotel dining room. It was the fifth ‘Kanpai!’ of the evening in our trip to Japan, and wouldn’t be last. At this rallying cry, the Japanese equivalent of ‘Cheers!’, we all had to stand up and down a shot of sake – the clear but potent Japanese rice wine.
After emptying our glasses (which were quickly refilled) we sat down to enjoy the rest of our 15-course meal, each course a delicately crafted work of art.
We were in the fishing village of Toba, around 200 miles west of Toyko, and staying in a traditional Japanese ryokan where the bed was a rolled mat on the floor.
However the food was anything but basic: the first dish alone was the most intricate I’ve ever seen, laid out to represent a wintry scene: there was a snowy topping to represent a peasant’s hut, a ‘devil-faced carrot’ to ward off evil, pearl oyster shellfish, pine-cone shaped sea cucumber, herring wrapped with kelp, peony-shaped salmon – and that was just the first course.
Swimming near a school of dolphins, walking on a recently-erupted volcano and diving to a wreck of a World War 2 Japanese fighter plane might seem like once-in-a-lifetime events but in Papua New Guinea, it is just an average morning.
I was spending 10 days travelling round Papua New Guinea, which is just 100 miles north of Queensland, Australia but 8,600 miles and halfway across the globe from the UK.
Having been previously colonised by Germany and Britain, and governed by Australia, Papua New Guinea became independent in 1975 and is now part of the Commonwealth – driving is on the left, as in the UK and Australia) but it is also one of the most diverse and undiscovered places on the planet.
It was when I was hiking along the North Devon coast on my own, in the rain, in voluminous waterproof trousers, that I started to question whether this weight loss boot camp was worth paying £2,500 for.
I was halfway through a week at NuBeginnings, the self-styled ‘boutique boot camp’ which promises to help you shed pounds. Apparently no-one has ever failed to lose weight during their stay. This was a powerful incentive to keep on marching through the mist after my personal trainer who had disappeared in the mist over the next hill, but it did come at a price.
‘The thing about the Cayman Islands is that the best sights are underwater,’ said my taxi driver as he drove along the dusty road from the airport. ‘There’s just not a great deal above sea level.’
After a week in the Caribbean exploring the trio of Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman islands which make up the Cayman Islands, I wasn’t sure I agreed with him.
While the Cayman Islands – the name comes from the word for crocodile, although they were originally named Las Tortugas by Christopher Columbus due to all the turtles he saw swimming there – lack the ‘bling’ factor of their Caribbean neighbours such as Barbados and St Lucia or the flamboyant night-life of Jamaica or Cuba, it is certainly not just a diving-only destination.
Just a few days in Las Vegas brought about a miraculous transformation in my mother. For several weeks before our trip, her main activity had been fretting about what to bring.
“Shall I take a brolly?” she’d asked. I explained the temperature in May should be a balmy 40 degrees. She wasn’t convinced. “How about a mac then?”
Now, after just 48 hours in Vegas, she seemed an entirely different person. She got up from her sun lounger and said: ‘Right, I’m off to gamble and to have a gin and tonic. Can I borrow a hundred dollars?’