If it’s ghouls, ghosts and goblins you’re after, then you have to visit to Derry in Northern Ireland at the end of October for its epic Halloween festival. Derry was voted ‘Best Halloween destination in the world’ by American newspaper USA Today and the entire town goes Halloween-crazy for an entire week leading up to the big day itself.
But there are plenty of great reasons to visit Derry anytime in the other 364 days of the year and you can fit a lot into just 48 hours in Derry: its beautiful location for one: perched on the banks of the River Foyle and just a stone’s throw from the Atlantic ocean and some stunning beaches. Derry is closer to Glasgow than Liverpool and visitors flying in from the British mainland will – weather permitting – get spectacular views of the Scottish coast including the Mull of Kintyre.
Then there is the sense of history, both ancient and more recent, which has shaped the character of the city. Derry is the only completely walled city in the island of Ireland and its 17th century walls – nine furlongs round, just over a mile – are a delight to walk, run or cycle around.Its more recent and turbulent history as a city torn apart by sectarian violence in the long and costly war between unionists and loyalists now forms a part of Derry’s more moving sites: the curving Peace Bridge crossing the river and symbolising hope for a once divided city, and the murals painted on the walls of the terraced houses in Bogside, just outside the city walls and the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972.
While the name Derry echoes down through history, the name itself is still a source of contention: is it Derry, Londonderry or its Celtic name of Doire? The choice of name is a political one, with Irish nationalists traditionally using Derry and unionists Londonderry, the name Derry was changed to in 1613 after investors from London financed the building of the walled city. The choice of Derry/Londonderry/Doire have led some to call it Stroke City and some – not all – signs to Londonderry have been graffitied over to leave just the last five letters. To add to the confusion, the airport is called City of Derry airport, the railway station is called Londonderry and the city is still officially called Londonderry while the city council is not. However as Councillor John Boyle, the current Mayor told me, ‘I don’t care what people call it, as long as they come and visit.’ Continue reading A spookily moving 48 hours in Derry Northern Ireland→
Luxury hotels could be made for Christmas. Think of the best luxury country house hotels for Christmas and instantly you can picture the festive scene: comfy sofas, roaring fires, beautiful decorations and acres of grounds for the Boxing Day walk (or a top spa for some baserious pampering). Many luxury hotels offer two- or three-night breaks which wraps up the whole of Christmas in a festive offering, often starting with welcome drinks, carol-singing and dinner on Christmas Eve, followed by a Champagne cocktail and Christmas Day breakfast, the all-important Christmas Dinner with all the trimmings, and then a Boxing Day buffet. Sprinkled among all this festivity will be Christmas films, time for presents and the Queen’s Speech (Christmas at a luxury hotel is nothing if not traditional).
Added to this might be a luxury spa, activities such as falconry, wine-tasting, treasure hunts, black tie dances, cocktail classes, Christmas games and quizzes (Father Christmas could even make an appearance) and probably the best thing of all: absolutely no washing up. You will be looked after, pampered, indulged and thoroughly cosseted and while all this comes at a price, well, it’s only once a year after all. However each hotel chooses to celebrate Christmas, you can be sure of three things: it will be memorable, it won’t be cheap, and there’ll be a massive Christmas tree. Feeling festive yet?
Below is a round-up of some of Britain’s top hotels and their Christmas packages. If any take your fancy then be quick as many are selling out (I’ve included some at the end who have already sold out but which are too good not to include – time to start planning for Christmas 2019!). Good tidings to all!
The hotel: A 350-year old country house set in 376 acres of magnificent formal gardens and woodland, Cliveden is one of Britain’s grandest country houses and fittingly promises an ‘iconic’ Christmas house party. The hotel where Meghan Markle spent the night before marrying Prince Harry is a Grade 1-listed stately home complete with antique furniture and a thoroughly modern spa and guests can expect a Christmas celebration worthy of Downton Abbey. The Christmas package: Christmas Eve starts with mulled wine and mince pies and a champagne reception with carol singers followed by a three-course gourmet dinner with wines, while there’s a three-course Christmas lunch with wines on the big day itself. On Boxing Day there’s a brunch buffet followed by a ‘butler’s tour’ of the stunning building, then dinner with wines and dancing. Cost: Prices start from £3,585 per room based on two sharing. Read what it’s like to stay at Cliveden here
The hotel: A stunning but welcoming grand historic hotel in the heart of Dartmoor
The Christmas package: Arrive on Christmas Eve for lunch and a host of festive activities including cider and sloe gin making, plus afternoon tea with carol singing. The evening includes welcome drinks, a candlelit dinner and the opportunity to attend Midnight Mass at the local church. On Christmas Day take part in Bovey Castle’s scavenger hunt, then enjoy the beautiful scenery with a guided walk followed by a drinks reception and Christmas Day lunch. A buffet will be served in the Great Western that evening, then a nightcap while a storyteller weaves tales in front of the fire. After brunch on Boxing Day, sign up for the golf tournament or a guided walk, enjoy ferret racing or nearest the pin golf competition, with hot chocolate and mulled wine. The day finishes with a five-course black tie dinner and entertainment in the Great Western Restaurant. Costs: From £2,730 per person for a three-night stay based on two sharing Read what it’s like to stay at Bovey Castle here
The hotel: In the pretty village of Cuckfield, 28-room Ockenden Manor combines the history of an Elizabethan manor house with a first-class modern spa The Christmas package: Start off with an indulgent afternoon tea, a Sussex sparkling wine reception with carols around the tree then dinner in the elegant restaurant on shared party tables, Midnight mass followed by mulled wine and home-made mince pies. For Christmas Day there’s a continental breakfast, sparkling wine reception with canapés followed by a six course lunch, tea and Christmas cake, light buffet supper with harpist accompaniment in the evening. Boxing Day: Full English breakfast with Sussex sparkling wine, full afternoon tea with Christmas Cake and cocktails before a gourmet dinner – plus full use of its award-winning spa and swimming pools Costs: From £1,025 per person based on two sharing Read my review of Ockenden Manor hereContinue reading A festive round-up of the best luxury country house hotels for Christmas→
Never before had the famous quote: ‘It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey,’ felt so true. For the last four days, I had been hiking through stunning Peruvian mountains to reach my destination, the famous UNESCO World Heritage site of Machu Picchu. But now, sitting on the ground under a make-shift bus shelter in the dark at 3am waiting to be allowed onto the final stage of the trek, I really didn’t want the journey to end. It had been such an amazing, challenging and memorable experience just to get to this point, that reaching my goal was going to be surprisingly bitter sweet.
When I was initially contemplating this trip, I had thought of little else than seeing Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca site high in the Andes which had remained lost in the Peruvian forests until just 100 years ago, and hadn’t really paid a great deal of attention to how I was going to get there. This meant that I was in a for a bit of a shock when I was sitting in a classroom in the bustling Peruvian town of Cusco, our meeting point at the start of the journey.
I was travelling in a group of 11 other people with adventure tour operator G Adventures and our enthusiastic guide Elias was talking us through each day. Rather than taking first a train and then a bus to Machu Picchu like most tourists do, we were lucky enough – as only 500 people are allowed on it each day – to be hiking the Inca Trail, 25 miles (for us) of ancient footpath through the Andes and along the Amazonian basin which leads to Machu Picchu.
I travelled with G Adventures on the seven day Inca Trail trip which
starts from £899 per person excluding flights. The seven day Lares Trek adventure – the Lares Trek is shorter and higher than the Inca Trail and isn’t restricted by permits – also starts from
£899 per person excluding flights.
I had only the vaguest idea of what trekking the Inca Trail would involve (you could say that I’d skimped on the research, but I do like to arrive on these trips with as few preconceptions as possible), and I’d rather blithely assumed it would be a gentle walk through the Peruvian countryside. A slide showing the second day’s walking popped up on the screen – a diagonal line going from the bottom left to the top right in a sheer climb. ‘Total elevation 1,115 metres,’ it said, adding, more alarmingly: ‘Highest point: Dead Woman’s Pass.’ This did not sound good.
Take dozens of single people, put them in a Club Mark Warner holiday beach resort for a week, add sun and alcohol, and it’s simply a matter of time before holiday romances start to flourish.
It was just a couple of days into my Mark Warner holiday on the Greek island of Kos when the first newly-formed couple could be spotted. Walking hand-in-hand towards the beach, they looked happy, self-conscious and smug all at the same time. The rest of us were very happy for them – even if we did think that the holding hands thing was a bit twee – but we didn’t think the relationship would last much beyond the baggage carousel.
It didn’t even make it that far, as it turned out. A row one night over whether to go into town for late-night drinks meant that, what had started off so brightly had, in the way these things do, crashed and burned before the week was out. Still, no matter, there was more dancing and drinking to be done.
I initially discovered Club Mark Warner the previous year, when researching a book about dating. I was trying to find out where single people went on holiday to meet other people – given that no-one actually really wanted to go on an actual ‘singles holiday’ – and a friend recommended Mark Warner.
‘But that’s for families, isn’t it?’ I asked. Apparently not, or at least, not all year-round. During school holidays the majority of holidaymakers are indeed families but, for three weeks a year – the designated ‘Club Mark Warner’ weeks – the single supplement is dropped and people can come on their own or with friends, safe in the knowledge they won’t be surrounded by couples and other people’s children.
The week I was there, there were just under a hundred people on the Club Mark Warner package. There were guys travelling together, girls travelling together, mothers and daughters, siblings, one large group of tennis fans from Nottingham, and for the main part, people travelling alone.
Unlike many other holidays catering for the single – or ‘independent’ traveller, to use the accepted jargon – there was a fairly even split between the sexes and all ages too. There were women and men in their twenties all the way up to fifties and beyond – singletons, divorcees, single parents, people whose partners couldn’t take the time off work – and by the welcome cocktails on the first evening everyone was gassing away like old friends.
Over the next week we saw little or nothing of the young children we had seen – and heard – on our charter flight as families had their own pool, separate beach and often ate at different times. This was bliss, especially for the people who had grown-up children and were now on holiday without them – there is nothing more annoying than getting rid of your own children and being bothered by the yowling of someone else’s.
I soon realised that there are two types of people who go on Club Mark Warner holidays. There are those who get up early each day to play a game of tennis before breakfast, followed by a hectic day spent mountain-biking and wind-surfing. They will enjoy just the one glass of wine with dinner and be in bed by 10pm so that they can be up bright and early the next day.
And then there are those who, having spent all day between the sun-lounger and the bar, and all evening eating and drinking to holiday levels of excess, can be found skinny-dipping in the Aegean sea at four o’clock in the morning.
It was when I found myself doing a rather erratic front crawl under the moonlight sky with people I had only known for 24 hours and wondering whether I would ever be able to find my clothes again that I realised I was most definitely in the second category.
I had started off with such good intentions when I’d arrived at Lakitira hotel. The resort, just ten minutes from the airport, has two huge swimming-pools, umpteen tennis courts and an impressive water sports area on the beach, where people can go windsurfing, kayaking or learn to sail anything from lasers to catamarans.
There were free introductory sailing lessons for beginners and intermediates and coaching lessons running throughout the week, while the tennis contingent also had a variety of courses to sign up to, plus an hour of social tennis each evening.
On my first day, I swam in the deserted, infinity-style pool before breakfast, played tennis before lunch, and tucked into a healthy salad, feeling extremely smug as I imagined how fit, thin and tanned I would be by the end of the week.
However, that was before I had taken into account the main reason that anyone comes on the Club Mark Warner weeks: to meet new people and have a riotously good time.
After a hard day’s sun-bathing there were cocktails every night for the gang in the windy and appropriately-named Breeze Bar. We’d then all walk up to dinner together, which meant I didn’t have to face the single-person’s horror of dining alone or walking into a restaurant and not having the faintest idea where to sit to meet other people travelling alone.
Claire, the rep, had issued everyone with a schedule of events from quiz nights to beach barbeques, which you could take part in as much or as little as you wished. With so many single people on holiday together, a lot of time was rather predictably spent discussing sex, relationships, dating and more sex, and various holiday romances started to blossom halfway through the week.
There were reports of a fair amount of late-night canoodling on the beach and one couple even got engaged, although to be fair, they had known each other before the start of the trip rather than getting completely carried away on the holiday romance thing.
The week was rather pleasantly like being back at Freshers’ week at university: there was a lot of drinking, silly dancing, much laughing, and of course, skinny-dipping. There were several late-night forays into the bars of nearby Kardamena, and one afternoon spent at a pool party on the beach, where we drank cocktails, danced on the bar and played games in the swimming pool.
Mid-week, to ward off cabin fever, several of us went on a day-long boat trip to the picturesque neighbouring islands of Pserimos and Kalymnos – where some headed for the sponge factory and some for the bars – and by the end of the week people who had been strangers on the plane out were feeling like lifelong friends.
In fact, in the check-out queue at the airport on the way home, the ultimate compliment was inadvertently paid by one couple who were cross at there being no seats left next to each other on the plane.
‘It’s all the fault of the single people,’ the guy complained loudly. ‘They’ve all now made friends and want to sit with each other.’
Arrive single, go home in pairs – surely the sign of a very friendly holiday.
‘What did you do for your birthday?’ I was asked the other day.
‘Well,’ I said, trying to sound casual, ‘after a champagne breakfast in my luxury Caribbean condo, I went on a catamaran cruise along the coasts, snorkelled among tropical fish, trekked through a rainforest underneath a volcano and then ended up riding a horse along the beach at sunset.’
There was a pause. ‘And I drank a lot of rum punch,’ I added, just in case they thought it sounded all too much like hard work.
As far as bragging rights go, spending your birthday on the spectacular island of Nevis, with its stunning turquoise waters and lush green rain forests, sets the bar pretty high.
Whether you are marking a special occasion or not, there a dozens of beautiful, sandy beaches to lounge on if you fancy doing very little, while there is everything from kayaking, horse-riding, catamaran cruises, hiking and snorkelling if you wanted to do something more active.
Nevis, a tiny atoll in the Caribbean twinned with St Kitts, came to the British public’s attention when Princess Diana stayed here 25 years ago with the young Princes William and Harry. To say that little seems to have changed in the meantime is a compliment, rather than a criticism of the tiny Caribbean island. Diana flew to Nevis (pronounced Nee-vis) for peace and solitude, and the 36-square mile island certainly still has that in abundance.
Few cruise ships and no long-haul flights stop here which has helped the island keep its charm and with just 12,000 inhabitants it certainly isn’t crowded – you will have the beaches all to yourself.
With just one main road hugging the coastline (driving is on the left, as befits the oldest British colony in the Caribbean – St Kitts and Nevis became a fully-independent country in 1983) it doesn’t take long to drive round the lush, green island which is dotted with coconut palms, 19th century churches and disused sugar cane mills, the legacy of the once-massive industry here.
The capital, Charlestown, is tiny both in population (just 1,500 people) and size: wandering through its narrow streets and the ferry port with its customs house and tiny central square feels like going back in time to a different era.
The local juice bar serves its drinks in a leafy garden where clucking chickens wander around, and even the journey to Nevis itself – on a tiny six-seater propeller plane from Antigua (you can also transfer from St Kitts by plane or boat) – felt as if I was really travelling way off the beaten track.
There are plenty of walking trails in the interior of the island in the shadow of the brooding volcano Nevis Peak. Our guide was able not only to take me through dense rainforest to some beautiful waterfalls but to point out every plant which had a practical use, from curing sore throats to producing the best bark for burning, or boat-building – and we saw a fair few monkeys too which roam the island and can be heard chattering from the trees.
For such a small island it boasts some impressive former inhabitants: American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton was born here, while Horatio Nelson met and married his wife, Francis Nisbet, on Nevis, meeting her every time he came ashore to get water from a nearby spring for his fleet.
Thankfully while Nevis doesn’t boast endless high-rise holiday apartment blocks or global hotel brands, it doesn’t mean visitors have to skimp on the essentials. While Diana stayed at the Montpelier Plantation, I stayed just down the road at the newly built and aptly-named Paradise Beach resort.
My four-bedroom, four-bathroom villa not only had its own swimming pool, outdoor shower, fully-equipped kitchen and wi-fi, but was just a few steps from the beach, and most importantly, the beach bar.
Here rum punches were served pretty much constantly, with even a passing ship stopping to refresh its passengers, but I indulged in some healthier pursuits on the beach too, including jet-lag busting early-morning yoga, stand-up paddle-boarding and a luxurious alfresco massage, made even more relaxing by the sound of the nearby waves.