It had been a lifetime dream for me: to find out how to hike the Inca trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. Now, 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 itself. But 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 found that 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. Continue reading How to hike the Inca trail to Machu Picchu – and enjoy the journey!
‘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.
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.
The child in front of me 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 the perfect Jamaica holiday involve lounging on a beach drinking rum cocktails instead of dicing with death?
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….
Rafting down the Martha Brae River
Being punted down the Martha Brae river was one of the highlights of an amazing trip. For about an hour there was nothing to do but relax and enjoy drifting along the calm sun-dappled waters. On the banks are the occasional stall selling anything from clothes and ornaments to towels and marijuana or you can just lie back and let your guide lead you downstream towards a cooling beer. This was a definite highlight of my visit. Continue reading River-rafting and zip-lining, boat trips and beach cocktails, my perfect Jamaica holiday
It is rare that a holiday actually changes your life, but a week on Skyros, the original ‘alternative’ holiday destination, can do just that. From changing jobs or learning new skills, to getting married, ditching bad relationships and embarking on new careers, in the 40 years since Skyros first started hosting holidays on the Greek island of the same name, thousands of people have gone there to find inspiration and to find new meaning and direction in their lives.
If that all sounds too hippy-dippy, then don’t worry: a trip to Skyros has all the holiday essentials of great food, great beaches, lots of time for swimming, sunbathing and sleeping. But it offers something so much more than your typical package holiday. As its website says: ‘This is an adventure that opens the heart, expands the mind, recharges the body and uplifts the spirit’.
After a week at its beautiful Atsitsa Bay location, I had to agree. I’d performed comedy on stage, slept in a bamboo hut where the breeze came through the walls, practiced yoga in the open air, shared my hopes and fears with a group of strangers, laughed till I cried on a dozen occasions, ate my body-weight in fresh Greek yoghurt, gone hiking around the island and thoroughly disconnected from my life in London.
Recalling Skyros while back in the city is to instantly be transported to lying in the shade of an olive tree to shelter from the blazing sun; drinking morning coffee while overlooking the bluest sea; the swaying of my hammock as I curl up to read a book, and the light breeze coming through the bamboo sides of my hut, perched high on the hillside. You could spend the whole week simply ‘being’ if you wanted to, and several did, enjoying the total break from the outside world – there is no internet reception aside from a fixed line in the office for emergencies, and mobile phone coverage is patchy – and my phone soon ran down and stayed down all week. Continue reading Skyros – the Greek island holiday which could change your life
I really hope that Meghan Markle gets another chance to spend the night at Cliveden, the historic country house hotel where she is spending the night before her wedding. While the luxury five-star Berkshire hotel with its 376 acres of stunning countryside will be a great haven of calm for her before the madness of the big day itself, as a nervous bride-to-be I’m not sure how much she’ll be able to take in of the hotel itself: its sumptuous rooms, its luxury spa, its fine-dining restaurant and most of all, the atmosphere of history and celebrity which is soaked into the very walls.
Throughout my own stay at the rather fabulous Cliveden House Hotel, there was one question which I found almost impossible to answer. Would Cliveden still be as fabulous if it wasn’t, well, Cliveden? Would it seem as special if it were just a very nice 17th century country house in which Winston Churchill and Noel Coward hadn’t stayed, for example? Would its gardens still be as pretty if you weren’t thinking that Lady Astor had strolled these very grounds with George Bernard Shaw and Charlie Chaplin?
And would the beautiful outdoor swimming pool in the walled garden still be quite as marvellous to swim in if – well, you get the idea.
The thing about Cliveden is that it is almost impossible to judge it on its own merits by separating it from its quite incredible past. The Great Hall with its portraits and grand fireplace is stunning, but it feels even more so because you know that some of the most accomplished people in recent history have discussed art and politics over cocktails exactly where you are sitting.
The swimming pool would be a talking point in its own right, but it is particularly amazing to swim in because you know it is where John Profumo met Christine Keeler and precipitated a whole chain of events which scandalised the nation and eventually led to the fall of the Government.
The gardens and the drive leading up to the house are spectacular enough anyway without the backdrop of history to set them off, but there is a thrill which sparkles through the very air at Cliveden which makes a visit there seem far more than just a night away in just any old stately home. Continue reading My stay at Cliveden, a hotel fit for a Princess-to-be (and why I hope Meghan gets to return)