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Since graduating in Film & Media in 1991, Andrew has worked in Marketing Communications & PR. He is an established writer and blogger, specialising in travel, lifestyle and hotels.
A holiday-maker's favourite and a surfer's paradise; Fuerteventura boasts some of the archipelago's finest beaches but also an interesting interior landscape and history.
Gran Hotel Atlantis Bahía Real - Corralejo
To the north east of Fuerteventura is the protected natural park of Corralejo - an extraordinary landscape of vast sand dunes that run adjacent to the stunning shoreline. Close to this remarkable part of Fuerteventura one finds this five-star spa resort. A family-friendly property, built in the style of a grand hacienda, with most guest rooms orientated for views out over the beach, the Atlantic, to Lobos Island and the coast of Lanzarote beyond.
For foodies, there's more than just the family buffet restaurant, pool bar and trendy Coco Beach Club. Guests and non-residents have the choice of three upscale restaurants: Las Columnas, offering contemporary Spanish cuisine; Yamatori, offering Japanese dishes and Teppanyaki show cooking; and the fine-dining La Cúpula de Carles Gaig, where the menu has been created by the Michelin-star chef Caig.
Swimming pools are set among sub-tropical, courtyard gardens, sheltered from Fuerteventura's Atlantic breeze; while for tranquillity away from the younger ones, try the resort's SPA Bahía Vital with heated pool with hydrotherapy circuit, gym, and treatment rooms offering wellness and beauty therapies.
Hotel Rural Mahoh - La Oliva
This charming nine-room inland hotel, with renowned country-style restaurant, is well-positioned for exploring the authentic Fuerteventura.
Built in the typical Canarian architectural style, using volcanic stone, the hotel dates to the 19th century. The Mahoh, probably the best rural property on the island, has an all-year swimming pool and delightful landscaped gardens of succulents. Beyond is access to many of the islands hundreds of kilometres of hiking trails.
Rooms are comfortably presented with vintage furniture, some with four-poster beds. Each space has its own distinctive style and character, but all have exposed volcanic stone walls. Some rooms offer views of the countryside and the nearby historic windmills, while others overlook the internal courtyard garden.
Breakfast can be enjoyed in the restaurant, on the terrace or in the gardens. The ambiance is laidback and friendly. Owned by island environmentalists, Tinín Martínez and Zaragoza Estévez, Hotel Rural Mahoh is 30 minutes' drive from the airport (just south of the island's modest capital, Puerto de Rosario); about 10 minutes to the beaches at El Cotillo (ideal for the catching the best sunsets); and within 40 minutes of the island's historic former capital, Betancuria.
Restaurante Santa María - Betancuria
There are more goats on Fuerteventura than residents; and it's not just their cheese that is world-class. Roast kid is a real delicacy on the island, and the Casa Santa María restaurant is one of the best-known places to try this local dish.
Manager Mónica is very welcoming and together with her team are happy to help with menu suggestions. For a local taste, order the artisan cheese, served with marmalades of tomato, fig and cactus, before trying the slow-roasted kid, served with a rich jus.
There are two dining rooms, one with a North African style, the other more colonial Spanish. The garden courtyard has seating too, if you want a more relaxed setting or somewhere to enjoy a drink from the bar.
The restored Casa Santa María is on the charming village square, opposite the 17th-century Santa María church, and beside the property's own museum sharing insights into the culture, history and flora and fauna of the island.
Betancuria, Fuerteventura's capital until 1834, is set within an attractive valley, where towering palm trees line the meandering dry river bed; a good place for hiking.
Restaurante Mahoh - La Oliva
Open to non-residents of the hotel, this rustic style eatery, with wooden tables and chairs and open kitchen, is one of the best-reviewed restaurants on the island. The menu is of local dishes such as the classic Canarian 'papas arrugadas' (wrinkly, small new potatoes served with two 'mojos' sauces), seafood and fish from the nearby Atlantic waters, vegetarian dishes, and a wide choice of meat prepared on the wood-burning grill. Canarian, Spanish and a few international wines are available.
Coco Beach Lounge & Club - Corralejo
This contemporary beach club is on the Hotel Atlantis Bahía Real property, and is a good option for a sea-view lunch, dinner, classic cocktails or tropical shakes for the kids. Both the smart dining space, surrounded by glass, and the large outside terrace, are elevated over the shore, offering magnificent views across to Lobos Island. The menu includes seafood, salads and tapas served in a modern style.
El Mentidero Café - El Cotillo
El Cotillo, on the island's west coast, is a beautiful bay of calmer, clear waters, and pale sand. This trendy café offers quality snacks and drinks during the day.
Later, head to one of the informal beach bars for a sundowner, watching a Fuerteventura sunset.
Boat trip to Lobos Island - Corralejo
It's touristy but fun. In the port is a choice of operators, including the Celia Cruz boat, offering family outings to the island on glass bottom boats, as well as sunset cruises. For a more private affair, hire the Freebird catamaran for the day, and just chill, snorkel and enjoy the island.
Search 'Barco Celia Cruz Freebird' on Facebook
Kiteboarding and Windsurfing
Water sports are undoubtedly one of the biggest draws for visitors to the island. The Rene Egli water sports shop, by Melia, is one of the most recommended. For surf shops, the 'Visit Fuerteventura' website has approved listings.
Hiking - Jandia
Pack your boots, and prepare to enjoy hundreds of kilometres of hiking routes across the island. In the south, the protected Jandia peninsula is rich in birdlife, and home to the island's highest point, Pico de la Zarza. In the same area is the Penitas Ravine, one of the most stunning landscapes in Fuerteventura. Hiking is also a wonderful way to see the other volcanic peaks on the island including the sacred Tindaya.
The island has worked to preserve its cultural and historical identity, and across Fuerteventura one finds a network of small museums. I particularly liked the Ecomuseo de La Alcogida, a small hamlet of seven authentic rural houses, where volunteers share the lifestyle of a bygone age, from pottery, to bread making. I should also mention the Museum of Majorero Cheese; after all, Fuerteventura's goat's cheese is recognised as being the best in the world.
As the Spanish would say, I'm 'inquieto'. I have a restless spirit that means that I just love to explore; and when it comes to visiting a new place, it's rewarding to discover the hidden aspects of a destination.
So my first trip to Fuerteventura was an opportunity to get to know the second largest of the Canary Islands. For a holiday in the sun, many don't want to hit the highways or byways of this volcanic island; but instead head to the beach. It is hard to argue with that approach, especially when you consider that the Canary Islands have one of the world's most temperate and agreeable climates. Fuerteventura boasts an average temperature of 25 degrees centigrade, and some 3,000 hours of sunshine a year. It's basically pretty much a sure thing you'll enjoy plenty of sunshine on your holiday, whatever the season.
Beyond the beach
Before I arrived I had a few ideas of what to expect. I knew that the wild Atlantic wind that sweeps across this low-lying island has made Fuerteventura a favourite amongst the surf and kiteboarding fraternity. I also recalled seeing images of the island's striking landscapes of broad beaches, volcanic peaks and vast sand dunes - but I also anticipated an island highly developed for mass tourism, a destination for inexpensive beach holidays where visitors rarely leave their all-inclusive resorts.
Yet within moments of leaving the airport, it was clear that this sparsely populated island is far from over developed. The country road north from the capital runs close to the coast, cutting through a rocky and craggy volcanic landscape, alive with colour from the stones, lava and flowering shrubs.
As I drove north, the empty road continued, as if directly towards the 'Montaña Roja', a vertiginous remnant of the island's fiery and violent creation. It's the type of scene that could only be in the Canary Islands - offering a feeling of space, light and nature that directly contradicts any perceptions of Fuerteventura as over-developed.
It is hard to pick a favourite out of Fuerteventura's 150 beaches.SUR
I soon arrived at Corralejo's natural park. It had been a long-standing desire to see first-hand the huge, dynamic sand dunes of this part of the island; to be awed by the wind-sculpted landscape, echoing the Sahara.
Before the area was protected, developers, sadly, had managed to scar a portion of this magical terrain, building two monolithic concrete hotel blocks; yet overall the huge area is largely untouched and quite extraordinary. The adjacent shoreline and beautiful beaches, including the popular El Caserón beach, and the Playa Grande that stretches for kilometres, have small bays popular with beginner surfers.
The nearby village and port is the go-to place for boat trips, snorkelling excursions and visits to the nearby Lobos Island, an uninhabited, volcanic remnant, offering yet more beaches and surfing.
The Gran Hotel Atlantis Bahía Real is between the village port of Corralejo and the natural park. Although offering family-friendly holiday packages, it avoids that clichéd Canarian holiday experience. From its colonial architecture, its staff in traditional folk dress, to local cuisine in the restaurants, this resort looks to celebrate its provenance rather than offer little England in the sun.
On my first night, I fell asleep in my sea-view room to the sound of Atlantic waves hitting the shore; happy to have begun exploring this lesser-known Canary island.
To truly shatter any remaining misconceptions about Fuerteventura, one must travel inland. The early settlers of the island lived a humble life, and goats became an integral part of Fuerteventura's economy and culture. The simple 'campo majorero' of those early goat farmers still exists across the island, in huge swathes of protected terrain.
For a quintessential countryside experience, I stayed a night at the Mahoh Rural Hotel. A 19th century house with traditional volcanic stone walls, this rustic B&B with an informal restaurant, offered a place where one can mix with a chilled crowd; visitors interested in hiking, nature and local food.
The valley of Vega del Río Palmas offers a truly striking landscape.A. Forbes
From Hotel Mahoh it's a 40-minute winding drive to the former capital, Betancuria. This charming, although unashamedly touristy village, is within the valley of Vega del Río Palmas, a truly striking landscape that combines rocky outcrops, with a meandering dry river bed, surrounded by old palm trees. This is the epicentre of the island's hiking routes. Here you have access to the unspoilt countryside and the chance to pass historic architecture such as the neoclassic 18th century church, La Ermita y Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Peña. This area offers a snapshot of period life in Fuerteventura that is hard to reconcile with the resorts of Morro Jable in the south - it is like two different worlds.
Yet even in the developed south, one can easily leave the resorts, and within moments be within the largest natural park on the island, the Jandia Peninsula. If you're adventurous, hire a cross-over type rental car and take the mountain pass through the rocky, other-worldly landscape across the peninsula, and down to Cofete. The views are exceptional. You will be rewarded with some of the most striking and iconic vistas of the island, and what's more, once down by the beaches at Cofete you will have a glimpse at the world of surf. These beaches are not for bathing; but the impressive breaking waves provide great conditions for surfers honing their skills.
Coast to coast
For more photogenic coastline, but with easier access, visit El Cotillo, on the north-west coast of the island. High cliffs go on for kilometres, leading down to broad beaches with breaking waves and plenty of white water. From the village, there is a stony track you can hike or take a car down for a few kilometres, to discover the relatively peaceful El Aljibe de la Cueva beach.
With a long weekend or a typical week's holiday there is time to not only find a favourite from Fuerteventura's 150 beaches, but also head inland to discover its culture, history and landscapes.
Boarding an underground train is rarely memorable, but if it is, it's almost certainly for all the wrong reasons; a feeling of claustrophobia, chaotic pushing, a sensation of stress. Yet my first time on the Tokyo network felt like an almost poetically choreographed experience.
Few urban panoramas can match Tokyo's skyline at night.SUR
I walked past the uniformed staff, wearing pristine white gloves, and joined the waiting passengers patiently standing in parallel lines. As the train pulled up and came to a stop, the carriage doors perfectly aligned to the designated boarding area marked on the platform. Passengers disembarked, before we joined the train, boarding in the order in which we had arrived. An incongruously child-like jingle then rang out from loud speakers, and the carriage doors slid closed and we departed.
I know it's probably a clichéd observation, but believe me, being part of urban life first-hand in Tokyo is far from the prosaic experience of most European capitals. Admittedly it wasn't rush-hour and I had joined the train at one of Tokyo's upscale central districts, so probably my experience wasn't the norm; yet it felt that politeness, order and calm typically prevailed.
During your first day or so it's good to have a local at your side; it accelerates one's understandingForeign faces are still rare to see yet AI gadgets and cartoon-style pepper robots are increasingly commonHidden history
Together with my private guide Rie, I headed north on the metro from Tokyo's urban heart to the Rikugien gardens, a historic green space dating back to the 1700s, when this was the city known as Edo.
I'm fascinated by Japanese gardens; not only a beautiful manifestation of the national pursuit of perfection, but also these manicured spaces offer a glimpse into Tokyo's past, a sense of history that's sometimes hard to find in this modern metropolis. Tokyo was all but flattened in the second world war, so much of what one experiences in the capital has been built from the 1950s onwards.
Rie is Japanese, one of the bi-lingual founders (together with foreign resident Owen) of 'The Back Street Guides'. As we near our destination we chat about my first impressions of the city. When I arrived on my flight a few days earlier, I managed to enjoy a bird's eye view of Tokyo, as the aircraft flew over the city, on its final approach to Haneda airport. The silvery grey of towers and buildings spread out as far as the horizon. It's probably the most colossal urban area I'd ever seen - exciting, whilst also slightly awe-inspiring.
During your first day or so it's good to have a local at your side; it accelerates one's understanding of Tokyo, a city that can seem both overwhelming, yet also almost village-like thanks to the gentle politeness of the residents.
Tokyo: The Insider Guide
Rie tells me that Japan is well advanced with its programme to make the country more open for foreign visitors. This is predominantly reflected in English being the second language, and English being rolled-out across the transport network from signage to information screens. With the 2020 Olympic Games approaching, Japan is wanting to be more open, putting its history of being a closed nation very much in its past. Yet so far, from my limited perspective as a visitor, Tokyo still looked and felt very 'Japanese'. Sitting on the metro train, I surveyed my fellow passengers; there were few signs that Tokyo is cosmopolitan, or a culturally diverse city.
With a falling population, Japan has a ticking demographic time bomb. Faced with similar issues, European governments have sometimes embraced immigration as a quick-fix to labour shortages. Yet here the Japanese are turning to automation, robotics and artificial intelligence. Foreign-looking faces are still few and far between here, yet AI gadgets and cartoon-style pepper robots are an increasingly familiar sight.
Within a few minutes, we had arrived at the station for the gardens. Nature and her seasons play an integral part in the social and cultural life of Japan; from the renowned 'hanami' custom of relishing the beauty of the spring cherry blossom, to enjoying the radiance of the autumnal trees, particularly the iconic, warm tones and fiery reds of the delicate acer maples.
The iconic, warm tones and fiery reds of the delicate acer maples.SUR
Surrounded by apartment blocks and busy streets, the Rikugien gardens are surprisingly tranquil. This noble park has survived through the centuries and is said to be an interpretation of the period's revival of the Waka poetry style. Many elements of the garden have been manicured and groomed over generations to create a sense of harmony between nature and the social use of the garden. Like many of the formal gardens that lay almost hidden amongst Tokyo's skyscrapers, this space was commissioned by an elite nobleman, either a daimyo, or a shogun.
Petite timber tea houses shelter under branches of ancient trees; small streams, crossed by diminutive stone and wooden bridges, feed a central lake punctuated by a picturesque island of clipped pine and maple trees.
As the afternoon light fades, the gardens become illuminated with coloured lighting, theatrically framing the garden scenes, each revealed as one strolls along the narrow winding paths. It's a centuries-old fantasy world, where one can still find ancient engraved stone 'sekichu' posts describing the different poetic corners of this contrived yet still natural environment.
This notion of nature perfected is common across the capital. Japan is a mountainous, volcanic nation, so its urban areas are densely populated and city green spaces are venerated. Nature is understandably brought into the all-encompassing built environment in Tokyo too. It's a common thread throughout city life, from the presentation of food, to the architecture and design of its skyscrapers.
The tranquillity of the city garden could not have been more different to the night before, an evening spent discovering some of the hidden 'Yokocho' alleyways of Tokyo's city centre. Evocative of scenes from the movie Blade Runner, these narrow streets, typically lit either by the harsh, bright signage and colourful neon or from the subtle glow of oriental paper lanterns, offer places to eat well, authentically and cheaply.
A night out in Tokyo inevitably begins in restaurants found in the 'Yokocho' alleyways.SUR
My guide was Anne, founder of Arigato Japan, an independent company that offers Japanese food tours. Together with a small group of other visitors, I indulged in the street food and urban flavours of Tokyo's nightlife, including succulent yakitori chicken skewers prepared over smoking charcoal grills.
In such a crowded city, no space is wasted, and these small, relaxed eateries and bars make use of all available space, between the gleaming office towers and under the archways and elevated tracks of the nation's famous Shinkansen bullet trains.
As the office workers flood out of the towers into the streets below, they either head for the metro stations or into the myriad small restaurants for tasty kushiyaki skewers, or into the smoky bars for hoppys or highballs; and then on to gaming arcades where they play slot machines and pachinko; or lose themselves in their favourite songs in one of the multi-storey karaoke lounges. It's a night out offering the chance to see a more relaxed, less self-controlled side of Tokyo life.
However, it doesn't take long before one sees more examples of perfectionism here. We wondered through the upscale streets of Tokyo's Ginza district, the chic and civilised shopping and leisure neighbourhood that is chock-full of fine-dining eateries, flagship designer stores and expensive boutiques. Here the illuminated street hoardings and digital billboards are alive with images from the world's most luxurious brands, as well as the logos and slogans of leading Japanese technology and car manufacturers.
The wealth of Tokyo is far from hidden here. I stepped inside the famous Nihonbashi Sembikiya fruit parlour; a grocery shop that is said to offer the most perfect fruit in the city. Don't be surprised to see a small tray of a handful of meticulously presented pieces of fruit for 75 euros. Or selected melons, each carefully wrapped in tissue paper, for between 150 and 250 euros each!
As night fell I returned to my hotel. The underground station was filling with office workers not looking to stay for more after-work drinks with their colleagues and bosses. The doors of the carriage once again slide open and I stepped onto the platform. Then a man quickly walked up to me, handing me my digital PASMO smart ticket which had dropped out of my pocket; his thoughtful, personal gesture was not lost in translation in this, one of the world's biggest mega-cities.
There's a Spanish adage that says. 'Madrid, nueve meses de invierno y tres de infierno'. Roughly translated it says that the city's weather is little more than nine months of winter and three months of hellish heat!
Yet, contrary to perceived wisdom, Madrid does have a spring and in my mind, it's one of the most enjoyable times to visit the Spanish capital.
Taking a morning jog through El Retiro park on a bright spring morning, the city feels like one of the best places in the world. The lake is already busy with visitors mucking about in small rowing boats, and the sun is filtering through the ancient cypress and cedar trees. This is one of Madrid's most beautiful green spaces, a mix of botanical gardens, romantic glass pavilions, and historic sculptures. The traffic free routes are perfect for jogging and cycling.
I'd not really discovered this famous park properly before, but instead of using the treadmill in the gym, the hotel suggested I take one of their jogging maps and enjoy the neighbourhood. It was a wise idea, since it was a case of the morning after the night before.
The Insider Guide
I'd arrived on the high-speed AVE service from Malaga, whisking me at some 300kph from Andalucía to the very centre of the peninsula in less than two and half hours. Just across from Atocha station, one of Madrid's most significant transport hubs, is an elegant period building, that has recently been reimagined as one of the capital's most hip hotels, the Only You Atocha - and my home-from-home for a short city break.
The lake at El Retiro park is already filled with visitors early in the morning.SUR
Madrid is the contemporary political and cultural hub of Spain, but it is fair to say that the city sometimes struggled to capture the imagination of the world as a true cosmopolitan metropolis, a 'happening' city. Well, that's not the case now. Madrid has finally emerged as a fashionable destination, a European capital that is being recognised not only for its traditional cultural attractions, but for its modern cuisine, nightlife and its contemporary arts. The city's gastronomy is now giving Barcelona a run for its money, thanks to influential chefs like David Muñoz, whose three Michelin stars have helped reposition Madrid's culinary standing.
The night before I didn't leave the hotel - I just became immersed in the lobby bar atmosphere. Before long I was enjoying gin cocktails by Shannon Ponche, a young and talented mixologist from the legendary New York Brooklyn bar, the Clover Club. First a refreshing and smooth 'Brooklyn VIP' made with Seagram's gin, dry vermouth, fino sherry, agua de rosa and absinthe; and then off-menu creations! Shannon had flown in from the States to be part of the restaurant and bar pop-ups in the Only You Atocha. The hotel is one of the many drivers behind Madrid's renewed energy and vibrancy. You don't need to be a guest to enjoy the unique atmosphere; in fact, that's the whole point. Hotels like this are becoming destinations for locals, not just for visiting business people or tourists; the lobby, coffee shop, bar and restaurant flow together in one large space, with a mood and energy that evolves with the day - this is the future of city hotels and it's here in Madrid.
The Thyssen-Bornemisza museum has a full programme of events for its 25th anniversaryHead into the traditional hub of Madrid's nightlife, Calle Gran Vía, the street that never sleeps, and one will find further innovation. Set back one city block, in Calle Reina is the discreet Angelita Madrid. Already recognised as one of the hot new addresses in the capital, this chic wine bar and basement cocktail club is changing the perception of what the city offers. Forget the usual glass of Rioja or Ribera del Duero, here the owners offer over 500 wines, many international. A cosmopolitan style that is reflected in the Bar Americano in the basement, a stylish cocktail place where the vibe is urban, sharp and on trend.
Spring in Madrid means clear, fresh sunny days, perfect for walking off the effects of the night before. So wander the avenues and streets of the capital, and discover its cultural heritage. 2017 is already set to be an extraordinary year for the main galleries of the Museum Triangle.
A fine example of Madrid's ornate architecture.SUR
The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, so expect a full programme of events. Starting in April is the major retrospective on Rafael Moneo, the Spanish architect who remodelled the Palacio de Villahermosa as the venue for the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in Madrid, and is the creative genius behind many well-known buildings.
Spanish medieval art, and works from the Spanish Golden Age will form part of the stunning exhibition of over 200 works from the holdings of the Hispanic Society of America in New York, to be shown at The Prado Museum, starting on 4 April.
The third gallery of Madrid's renowned 'triángulo del arte' is of course the Reina Sofia Museum, home to Picasso's iconic masterpiece, Guernica. Also opening on 4 April is 'Pity & Terror - Picasso's Path to Guernica' marking the 80th anniversary of the mural's first exhibition in Paris, and tracing the roots of Picasso's imagery in the famous work, that is believed to depict the bombing of the northern Spanish town of Guernica during the civil war.
To make a stroll around Madrid even more compelling, combine it with bar-hopping, enjoying the city's quintessential eateries and specialities. Devour Madrid offers small group tapas tours and experiences; including their 'Tapas, Taverns & History Tour'. It's an entertaining way to spend an evening, discovering the atmospheric streets and plazas of Madrid while tucking into some tasty tapas. Even familiar sights like the Puerto del Sol and Plaza de la Villa will come alive thanks to the storytelling of the guide - giving a fascinating historical perspective to what has made Madrid the modern capital of Spain. Standing in the classical Plaza Mayor and hearing stories of its history, one truly feels at the heart of Madrid. 2017 is the 400th anniversary of Plaza Mayor, so there's plenty more to enjoy in this striking architectural square than just a 'relaxing cup of café con leche' - look out for live music and open air exhibitions.
Easter is probably the most important festival in Spain, and Madrid knows how to mark it. Throughout the holy week, the city hosts spectacular parades, including on the evening of Good Friday, 14 April, when the 'Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno' parade will leave the Basílica del Cristo de Medinaceli and pass through the main streets and squares of the city. Enjoy some typical Spanish street food, 'torrijas' (sweet fried bread treats), and be immersed in the unique atmosphere.
Yet really the highlight of spring in Madrid comes in May when the capital celebrates its patron saint, San Isidro. For five days, building up to the saint's day on Monday 15 May, several events will take place, from city craft markets, music concerts, firework displays and more.
So cast aside the adage about Madrid's climate; spring has arrived and it's time to enjoy the heart of Spain.
The Spanish capital has embraced 2017 with new hip hotels, cool bars, top restaurants and world-class arts exhibitions. It's time you booked your ticket to Madrid.
Only You Atocha
Madrid's hotel scene has never been so dynamic, and the new Only You property in Atocha is a showcase of all that's cool and on-trend in the city right now. With a bold, urban aesthetic, the Only You Atocha has dedicated its ground floor to being a seriously hip lobby bar and restaurant area created by acclaimed interior designer Lázaro Rosa Violán. Relax with a morning coffee from The Bakery by Mama Framboise; lunch in the buzzing Trotamundos restaurant; then later get the evening started with cocktails at the hotel's bar.
Urso Hotel & Spa
The pioneer of boutique luxury in Madrid, the Urso now represents surprisingly good value for chic accommodation in the city. This neoclassical building has sophisticated interiors, and elegant uncluttered rooms. Try the new Media Ración restaurant by Fernando Cuenllas, with a menu of sophisticated, artisan tapas and sharing plates.
Bodega de los Secretos
This labyrinthine, underground restaurant was the oldest winery in the city, but now it's a stylish restaurant serving modern Spanish cuisine. The menu has lots of appetising choices - popular dishes, prepared and presented in the restaurant's distinctive style.
Don't think it is claustrophobic, it's spacious and light, especially in the part that has double height ceilings. The best thing about the old wine storage areas is that many of the tables there are in their own alcove, so you have a real feeling of privacy.
Only You Atocha.SUR
During the renovations, the bodega revealed many of the secrets of its 400-year history, from the times of the insurgence against Napoleon, to the Spanish Civil War.
Created by the Villalón brothers, and named after their grandmother, Angelita is a new wine bar and basement cocktail bar - found in Calle Reina, at the epicentre of Madrid's mixology scene. Downstairs in the basement is the smart Bar Americano, open from 5pm. With a compelling urban atmosphere, expect some theatre and showmanship as your cocktail is prepared. Choose a classic like a Martínez, or Whiskey Sour; alternatively, sip something more exotic like an Acapulco.
Upstairs is a sophisticated wine bar with over 500 wines (some 25 by the glass) accompanied by a modern, seasonal menu made with ingredients from the brother's organic vegetable garden on the edge of Madrid.
Hermosos y Malditos
This smart cocktail bar and restaurant is the place to go when in Madrid's chic Salamanca district. Contemporary, unpretentious, and well-priced, it's a real find in such a fancy neighbourhood. Taking its name from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Beautiful and Damned, this restaurant and bar is stylish yet accessible, with superb cuisine.
Chocolatería San Ginés
A visit to Madrid means churros with hot chocolate. There are several classic as well as contemporary venues, but the Chocolatería San Ginés is certainly among the best. Order a selection of both the thin churros with piped edges and the thick 'porras' version which has lots of hollow gaps, perfect for soaking up the hot chocolate as you dip them.
Gastronomic food courts are all too often over-rated, but the Platea, within an art deco former cinema is a must for food-lovers. Where the stalls seating once was, is now a multi-level dining experience. Choose from the myriad gourmet offerings and then find a seat and enjoy. Tapas, sushi, pintxos, international cuisines, vermut, artisan beers, wines - you'll find it all. Head upstairs to the circle and you'll be able to indulge in a gourmet fine-dining experience at 'Arriba', by chef Ramón Freixa.
Devour Madrid Food Tour
Getting to know and truly experience a city is best done wandering around on foot. If you like to try new foods too, then consider letting an expert guide help you discover Madrid. Devour Madrid, part of Devour Spain, has several city tours including the fascinating Tapas, Taverns & History Tour that introduces you to local and Spanish specialities, while also enabling you to see the capital from a fresh perspective, thanks to a real insight into Madrid's history.
Devour Spain has now expanded to include tours in Barcelona, Seville, and Malaga, with experiences that embrace tapas, Spanish history, flamenco and wine.
A former livestock market and slaughterhouse is now the city's coolest arts and cultural centres. The early 20th century architecture has been restored, creating a vast multi-venue site, home to the national dance company as well as theatre spaces, galleries, exhibition halls, and workshops. Adjacent to the centre are some fascinating glass house pavilions filled with exotic plants from different global climate zones.
An alternative arts venue, where you can take in seasonal exhibitions, workshops and shows.
If you speak Spanish then enjoy these innovative, short theatre pieces by emerging artists. Each is 15 minutes long, with only 15 people in the audience, in a space of only 15 square metres.
In addition to the alternative arts scene, the three unmissable city galleries are Reina Sofia, the Prado Museum, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
Despite my best intentions, I had committed a faux pas. The inn's hostess had become slightly agitated, her warm smile had dissolved into a look of surprise - or was it shock? Japan is said to be a nation of traditions, unspoken social rules and strict etiquette - and it appeared that I needed to pay more attention.
GETTING TO KYUSHU
Kyushu is the southernmost of the big islands that make if the remarkable archipelago of Japan. It has 7 main provinces or 'prefectures', each served by an airport, including Nagasaki. Japan's many islands extend more than 3,000 km from north to south, running through various climate zones. There are four main islands: Hokkaido; Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu in the south.
Train. Kyushu is also part Japan's legendary high speed 'Shinkansen' bullet train network - with services that connect the island with the rest of the country.
Plane. If you are arriving at Tokyo on an international flight, then the quickest way to Kyushu is by plane from one of the city's two airports: Haneda, the original international airport, or the new Narita International Airport.
This was my first evening in a Japanese ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, outside of Nagasaki, on the island of Kyushu.
Japan tourism chiefs want visitors to be a little more adventurous, to go beyond the tourist hotspots of Tokyo and Kyoto, and get on a domestic flight or book a seat on a 'Shinkansen' bullet train and discover one of the other, less well-known islands of Japan. So, I had done just that, and flown two hours from Tokyo down to the island of Kyushu for some southern hospitality, Japanese style. Here the traditional spa hotels or 'onsen ryokan' with their communal baths are regarded as among the best in Japan.
After check-in, I was taken to my room by a hostess who shuffled along the corridors, taking tiny steps in her wooden 'geta sandals'.
She opened the bedroom door, revealing a small entrance vestibule and a step up into the suite. Here began my first lessons in ryokan etiquette. The hostess motioned for me to take off my shoes before walking into the minimalist room. The floor was covered in traditional tatami reed matting the colour of golden ripe wheat. In the centre was a low, highly-polished table, and two chairs by the full height windows which were beautifully dressed with 'shoji' lattice screens of wood and translucent paper. When opened, the tranquil view of the courtyard Japanese garden was revealed; a magical scene of a babbling brook that passed by the terrace windows and meandered through the maple and pine trees, among which stood ornamental stone lanterns.
The insider guide
There was no bed and not much else in the way of furniture. Here one sleeps on a futon mattress, laid on the floor - it is prepared for guests while they are at dinner.
Lying on a mat on the floor was a carefully folded 'yukata' (a cotton bath robe), together with a pair of split-toe 'tabi' socks and a jacket - this was the expected guest apparel for a stay in a ryokan.
A typical dinner served in a ryokan.A.Forbes
The hostess patiently showed me how to wear the robe, at pains to tell me to wear the left side over the right (I later understood why; the contrary is reserved for dead people!) There was a wide fabric sash to tie the robe together at the side, a little below the waist, and a simple jacket, almost like a buttonless cardigan to keep warm. After practicing tying my yukata a few times, I felt I was ready to make my way to the ryokan's baths. There are complimentary slippers provided for walking around the hotel and for visiting the communal baths. Above the entrance are curtains, blue for men and red for women. Once inside, your relaxing and therapeutic bathing ritual can begin.
The Japanese are renowned for their preoccupation with cleanliness. One of the first things one notices on arrival in Japan is how clean it is; no one drops litter, despite the lack of bins in public places. The next thing one is sure to observe is the popularity of white, surgical-style face masks. I couldn't help asking a few people as to why they are worn. Was it to protect against germs? Or the contamination that sometimes drifts over Japan from the mega-factory cities of neighbouring China? Yet the consensus is that it's more a selfless act of respect for follow citizens; the wearer usually has a cold, and the mask is intended as a gesture to prevent infecting others.
Oh and of course there are the Japanese bathrooms. Almost exclusively you will find bidet-style WCs of varying levels of sophistication. Most offer a comfortable heated seat, and multiple settings for washing and drying!
So, in the ryokan baths, the men were understandably taking the bathing very seriously. A long, exfoliating textured flannel was part of my room amenity kit, and looking around it seemed essential.
The hot tubs and baths are for soaking in only once you are clean. The men around me, sitting on small cedar stools, in front of the showers and taps, were vigorously lathering with soap, scrubbing with the cloth and then rinsing with piping hot water thrown over themselves from small wooden pales.
A garden fountain.A.F.
All this effort is rewarded with the glorious feeling of soaking in the thermal spring water. It's a relaxing environment as the baths include elements of nature, with smooth stone pebbles, plants and trees reaching up to the water's edge; and many baths are integrated with the outside ornamental gardens.
However, I had to keep an eye on the time as I didn't want to miss dinner. Here the meals are meticulously prepared, creating a sense of occasion. I arrive, flushed and hot from the baths. Before me the table is charmingly decorated with flowers from the garden, and set with small crystal glasses for sake, lacquered place trays covered with small porcelain dishes and delicate artisan ceramic plates each offering a morsel of food. The waitresses are dressed in traditional ankle-length kimonos, tied tightly with broad, silk obi belts, forming extravagant bows on their backs.
In my haste to join the table I forget to remove my slippers and walk on the pristine mat floor - causing the hostess to immediately stop what she is doing, and signal my error. The slippers are only for the carpeted corridors - no footwear is ever allowed on the mats!
Staying in a ryokan inn might at times feel like it presents a steep learning curve, but overall it is a truly authentic and rewarding experience.
The birthplace of Japan's industrialisation; setting for the opera Madame Butterfly; and inspiration for Martin Scorsese's 2017 movie 'Silence' - Nagasaki, the international gateway to Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's main islands.
Garden Terrace Hotel & Resort, Nagasaki
The night view of the Nagasaki bay and city skyline is said to be among the most striking panoramas in Japan - and one that can be enjoyed at this Kengo Kuma-designed hotel (the architect now chosen to build the stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games). It's a unique contemporary base from which to explore Nagasaki and the island of Kyushu. Before heading out for dinner, enjoy the hotel's club lounge for complimentary aperitifs and canapés. Then in the morning, order the traditional Japanese breakfast; exceptional presentation and flavours.
Taisho-ya Ryokan, Ureshino
Holiday like a local in a traditional 'ryokan' Japanese inn. Kyushu is renowned for its natural onsen hot springs, making its 'onsen ryokan' among the best in the country. Ryokan celebrate and share traditional hospitality, cuisine and accommodation. So, get naked and enjoy the time-honoured Japanese ritual of bathing and then soaking in a hot tub. Afterwards, dress in your complimentary 'yukata' cotton gown, tied with a thick obi belt, and on your feet, try the 'geta' wooden slippers. Dinner will be 'kaiseki ryori' gourmet cuisine. Start your meal toasting with plum wine and then expect multiple courses of exquisitely-presented local and seasonal Kyushu dishes, such as noodles, sashimi, cooked salmon, Nagasaki wagyu beef, and miso soup with tofu. Everything is served in individual porcelain dishes, shiny laminated boxes, or on bamboo plates and decorated with twigs and leaves from the Japanese garden.
Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb victims.Andrew Forbes
Meanwhile, your room will be prepared for the night, with a futon bed laid out onto the tatami mat floor, and your paper screen blinds closed. Breakfast the next morning is a feast, including the signature dish or tofu freshly prepared at your table in bubbling, mineral-rich spring water!
Shinsen Ryokan, Takachino
If you're planning on seeing more of Kyushu's natural wonders, then Takachiho Gorge, the remarkable river canyon, must make the short list. Nearby is this stylish traditional ryokan, with a beautiful Japanese garden, and a myriad outdoor traditional hot tubs in which to relax.
Unzen Kanko Hotel, Unzen
The Unzen hot springs area has been a popular wellness destination for over a century. The Unzen Kanko Hotel, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, was opened in 1935 and still retains a wonderful nostalgic ambiance, a fusion of Japanese service with European vintage style.
Seven Stars Cruising Train, Fukuoka
The Seven Stars is a 'one-of-a-kind'. Japan's first luxury cruising sleeper train has a timeless elegance akin to the word's classic luxury trains. However, this is Kyushu, so expect quintessential Japanese style, from exquisite 'kumiko' wooden latticework in the carriages, delicate paper shoji window screens, to elaborate meals prepared with typical Japanese attention to detail.
The one- or three-night itineraries, starting in Fukuoka, showcase the culture, scenery and cuisine of Kyushu in elite luxury. It's an exceptional way to cover some of the island's more than 3000 kilometres of track, and enjoy private excursions - including next month's Hanami (to enjoy the famous Sakura cherry blossoms)- and a unique behind-the-scenes look at the world-famous historic Kakiemon porcelain kiln in Arita (which recently celebrated its 400th anniversary).
Dejima Island, Nagasaki
A visit to Dejima is a compelling way to learn just how significant Nagasaki is within Japan's history. For centuries, the country was isolated from the world due to its 'Sakoku' policy, where Shoguns forbid citizens to leave Japan or foreigners to visit. From the 17th century, Nagasaki was the only city with international cultural and commercial exchange, thanks to permitted commerce with Dutch traders housed on the Dejima artificial island, built away from the city's citizens.
Atomic Bomb Museum, Nagasaki
One could dedicate an entire guide to this peace museum and still not do it justice. For many, Nagasaki is synonymous with the atomic bomb; the US exploded 'Fatman' above the city on 9 August 1945. Since then, Nagasaki has become a focal point of the peace movement. The museum's mantra is that Nagasaki must be the last place on earth where a nuclear bomb was used in conflict. In addition to the compelling and moving exhibits, the museum is also a place for remaining survivors to share their testimonies. Nearby is the peace park, as well as the actual hypocentre of the blast. (Nagasaki is no longer radioactive as the bomb exploded in the air and the radiation was dispersed and now, 70 years later background radiation is normal).
Shugakuin temple.Andrew Forbes
Unzen-Amakusa National Park, Unzen
The island of Kyushu is home to the protected Unzen-Amakusa hot springs reserves. The Unzen part of the park was opened in the early 1930s, making it Japan's first National Park. Here, in the shadow of the immense Mt Unzen, you can discover the hot springs known as 'Unzen Jigoku' or hell springs, as they spit, scream and boil. There are plenty of self-guided walks to take you through the steamy landscapes.
In nearby Chijiwa and Unzen City towards the end of March, the spectacular 'Kanoukaen' is celebrated. It is the biggest fire festival in Nagasaki which sees over 200 participants dressed as samurai warriors parading through streets lined with blossoming cherry trees.
Zen Meditation, Shugakuin Temple, Yoshinogari
Zen mediation came to Japan, via China, through Nagasaki. Try it here in an authentic temple, guided by a priest. But be warned, like most things in Japan, it is taken very seriously and while you sit, expect to bow as the priest passes, so he can strike your back (compassionately he says) with a wooden stick to prevent lapses in concentration! But no hard feelings - afterwards, the priest, Taijun Noguchi, and his wife welcome you into their home next door for green tea and sweet cakes!
Fukuchiyo Sake Brewery, Kashima
Sake, Japan's national drink, and an integral part the country's cuisine, remains a novelty to most westerners. Fukuchiyo brewery, with its striking contemporary architect-designed interiors, contrasting beautifully with the historic architecture, is a memorable place to not only find out how sake is made (from fermented rice using a special mould, called 'koji-kin') but one where you can try their premium sake including Nabeshima. This historic Hizen Hamashuku area of Kashima holds an annual sake festival at the end of March.
Hiking - Kyushu Olle
Kyushu has an established network of hiking trails, many incorporating historic pilgrimage routes to shrines and temples, that take in wonderful scenery from graceful bamboo forests to active springs.
Unzen jigoku.Andrew Forbes
Sakamotoya Japanese Restaurant, Nagasaki
The food scene in Japan is superior, with exceptional attention to not only the quality of the produce but also to the creativity of presentation. This charming Japanese restaurant, where you are greeted and served by the traditional 'Okattsama' owner and hostess, offers gourmet 'Shippoku' cuisine. Through centuries of trade with China, Europe and beyond, the local cuisine reflects Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish influences. The meal is made up of lots of sharing plates, with familiar tastes like sweet tender pork belly and lobster, as well as Japanese staples including sea snails, miso, and sashimi. Remember, you must leave your shoes at the door, and wear the slippers provided by the restaurant!
Nagasaki has one of the largest Chinatowns in Japan. It may sound odd to come all the way to Japan to eat Chinese food, but here it's truly unique - a style of fusion cuisine that dates to the Japanese Edo period. Try the Saraudon with small, crispy noodles; or the Champon with vegetables.
Shippoku cuisine.Andrew Forbes
Mohikan Ramen, Kurume
If you want to eat noodles with finesse in Japan, then you need to learn to slurp! Deftly using chop sticks to fold the noodles into your mouth while making a loud slurping noise is the only way to enjoy ramen noodles, a speciality in Kyushu. Head to this noodle diner, run by charismatic chef owner Kawazu Yuta (yes you guessed right, he does have a mohican!). Order your meal from the vending machine (just press the button with the picture you like, pay, and then take your ticket to the bar). Within moments you'll have piping hot noodles in tasty broth with vegetables, pork or even crispy chicken.
Once embraced by the deep, soft fireside sofa I begin to give into to that 'good tired' feeling one experiences after time on the slopes.
This is one of the most magical times to visit Courchevel, as throughout the season the resort has special events to mark its 70th birthday.
Fire and snow shows: Courchevel will be setting the slopes alight over three magical evenings; 7, 14 and 21 February. Look out for the spectacular 'Snow and Fire Ski Shows', where the French Ski School give stunning torchlit descents down the mountains, accompanied by fireworks.
Firework festival. Running from 9 February to 2 March, 2017 is the final International Festival of Pyrotechnic Art, promising spectacular light and sound shows.
Exhibitions. Artists have been commissioned for sculptures and installations and in Courchevel there's an exhibition showcasing the resort's history.
Easter party. Couchevel's last weekend of the season is Easter, so for 15, 16 and 17 April, the resort is promising 'three days of non-stop celebrations'.
More information. Portetta.com
After the crisp mountain air, it's an indulgent pleasure to be cocooned in the salon of my alpine hotel. The oak floor is dressed with vintage woven rugs, blending with the rich furnishings; while in front of me the timber walls are decorated with antique skis, and wild game trophies.
For a winter sports break, great cuisine is very much part of the Courchevel experienceI'm loving the relaxed, chic alpine aesthetic of Portetta, an elegant yet family-friendly hotel in Courchevel Moriond 1650. The place captures the essence of an exclusive Courchevel mountain retreat, yet without the stuffiness.
Escaping to the Alps is a magical experience. The pristine mountain landscape, the brilliance of the sunshine, the crisp snow, the pure air - and of course the skiing; but really who am I kidding?! The only reason I learnt the basics of skiing was for my love of winter holidays - it's a time to share such a great, sociable atmosphere, and more than anything, eat well! After all, a day on the slopes burning thousands of calories is the best way to build up a real appetite.
Where to go, stay and eat in Courchevel
Courchevel - in pictures
Courchevel - in pictures
Courchevel, at the eastern end of France's 'Les Trois Vallées' provides a forgiving environment for skiers like me. There are plenty of long, broad, gentle runs where you can build your confidence and enjoy the exceptional mountain scenery, whilst for those looking to shred the powder or carve a path off-piste, well, I'm told there's plenty of demanding runs too for intermediates and experts.
Winter St Tropez
Some might be put off by Courchevel's reputation as the St Tropez of winter sports, the favourite destination for mega-rich Russian oligarchs, European royalty and Arab sheikhs. Well, that's certainly part of the scene, especially at Courchevel 1850. Here, in the Jardin Alpin one finds some of France's most exclusive hotels, with the exceptional 'Palace' rating, a sort of 6-star recognition, with services (and prices) to match.
Yet Courchevel is much more than just the small concentration of über upscale hotels and wildly expensive private chalets. It's in fact four villages, most of which are fairly-priced and family-friendly.
A favourite is Courchevel Moriond. Found at an altitude of 1650, it has the Courchevel upmarket style, without the prices. Visitors can typically be assured good snow conditions, and enjoy among the sunniest slopes in the Three Valleys. Plus, thanks to myriad lifts and gondolas and the excellent bus service, pretty much everything feels close.
Moriond offers well-groomed runs - and one is never far from an excellent place to eat. In fact, the food scene in the Alps, especially here in Courchevel, is on fire. Eating well in France should come as no surprise but for a winter sports break, great cuisine is very much part of the Courchevel experience. Once out on the slopes there's more than a dozen mountain restaurants, making lunch a highlight of the day. The regional Savoyard gastronomy of course includes delicious favourites such as fondues, raclettes, and La Tartiflette, that warming gratin of potato and cheese with bacon. Yet there is a great deal more than just the classics.
That's one of the reasons I'm here at Portetta. This ski-in/ski-out hotel has an unmissable restaurant, Cucina Angelina, by Angela Hartnett, MBE - one the UK's most loved chefs.
Cucina Angelina maybe the creation of a Michelin-starred chef, but it's not at all pretentious. During the day, pizzas from the wood burning oven and tasty sharing plates are offered on the all-day Fire & Ice terrace.
While in the evening the real magic happens. Chef Hartnett, a familiar face to many, thanks to her regular appearances on TV, has brought her award-winning Italian cuisine to the Alps. The resulting menu at Cucina Angelina sits perfectly within the Savoyard gastronomy, which is inherently a mix of Italian and French cuisines, with Mediterranean influences. Hartnett regularly makes the flight from the UK to Courchevel to visit the restaurant, nurturing the team, headed by Head Chef Colin McSherry from Northern Ireland; and to shape the menu where the authentic tastes of Italy meet Alpine rustic chic.
Expect starters and sharing plates bursting with flavours, including the sea bream ceviche, with orange, chilli and fennel; and crisp croquettes with soft, melting centres.
If you enjoy meat, then take a table by restaurant's open-style wood fired grill, and watch the expert chefs prepare dry-aged beef. Really, after all that exercise you deserve it surely? Just be warned though, once you finish your meal and slump into one of the over-sized sofas by the log fire, the chances are you won't be going anywhere in a hurry.
The 2016/17 season sees Courchevel celebrating its 70th anniversary. From its humble beginnings in the 1940s, Courchevel is now one of the most chic ski resorts within 'Les Trois Vallées', said to be the world's largest lift-connected ski area, with some 600km of pistes. Courchevel encompasses four resort villages (at one time distinguished by their altitude in metres): Courchevel (formerly Courchevel 1850); Courchevel Moriond (1650); Courchevel Village (1550); and Courchevel Le Praz (1330).
Portetta - Courchevel Moriond
The village of Courchevel Moriond is a favourite for visitors thanks to sunny slopes, many of which are ideal for beginners and intermediates. There's also easy access to more demanding, wild off-piste mountains and summit skiing, as well as the glitzy glamour of the highest sector of Courchevel.
The place to stay in Moriond is Portetta, a mountain retreat hotel with a relaxed ambiance. This ski-in/ski-out property has an elegant Alpine lodge style balanced with friendly, attentive service.
The hotel's in-house spa offers wellness treatments with products by Bamford, Oskia & Opi - I can certainly recommend the destress massage.
There are 38 guest rooms, including family rooms and suites, with Valley or Piste orientation many of which offer sunrise views.
The hotel's top two floors are dedicated to stylish, spacious self-contained loft apartments, with kitchens - ideal for families who want flexible accommodation but also hotel services.
There is an on-site winter sports store that will kit you out with every you need.
Prices for a double room start from EUR220 per person per night for double occupancy and include dinner, bed and breakfast.
Mountain Lodges - Courchevel Moriond
These 4 luxury lodges, at Belvedere right by the lifts, are part of Portetta, and the only ones in the Les Tres Vallées with star ratings. Blanchot, Chamois and Marmotte all have 5* ratings whilst the intimate Petite Marmotte is 4*. I visited Chamois, which at over 350 square metres and with 7 double rooms, comfortably accommodates 14 people, with the additional wow factor of private sauna and an outdoor hot tub from where you can take in the slopes of Courchevel 1650.
Le Soucoupe - Courchevel Village
One of the more than 16 mountain restaurants in Courchevel, Le Soucoupe, at the top of La Loze, is full of French Alpine charm - a memorable place to stop for lunch. The menu offers tempting, robust Savoyard fare; try the Savoie Tomme cheese soufflé, meat from the charcoal grill, or tasty Diot sausage with polenta. The black pudding with apple and chestnut is surprisingly light.
Fire & Ice - Courchevel Moriond
Rire & Ice Bar
If you're looking to enjoy a lively après ski scene then take a break at Fire and Ice, the sunny outdoor bar at Portetta, right at the bottom of the main piste. Said to be the largest terrace in Courchevel, you'll find warming fire pits, flaming torches, heated bar seating and cosy faux fur and sheepskin snugs on the chairs. It's the place for drinks, cocktails, tasty Alpine snacks and Italian pizzas from the wood-burning oven.
Cucina Angelina - Courchevel Moriond
Courchevel has stylish bistros, gourmet cafés, and more than a half a dozen Michelin-starred restaurants. Yet it's not all French cusine. On the contrary, take Cucina Angelina, a casual, yet chic mountain restaurant, the first international project for Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett. Here Angela, Chef Patron at the renowned Murano restaurant in London, and one of Britain's most recognised chefs, brings her passion for Italian food to the Alps. Cucina Angelina reflects the local Savoyard food culture that combines Italian and French influences. Angela together with her resident Head Chef Colin McSherry, celebrate local and international produce with warming Italian dishes such rustic country terrines with toasted bread from the grill, chicory salad with pecorino & local pears; and expertly prepared meats from the grill including British beef dry-aged in Himalayan salt. Daily specials too.
SEE & DO:
Snow, fire and ski
Courchevel makes up about a third of the vast Three Valleys winter sports area with runs for all abilities. In fact experts say that at least half of the ski area runs are suitable for beginners. Add the easy access to the nursery slopes, and secure children's areas, and it's a compelling reason to make this the winter your family learns to ski!
Choose from a pedestrian sightseeing pass for non-skiers, the partner Duo Pass; ad-hoc Three Valleys passes; as well as the fully flexible 'Liberté' pass.
Aquamotion - Courchevel Moriond
A striking modern water theme park, with flumes, water canyons, surfing, a climbing wall, as well as a spa.
L'Art au Sommet - Courchevel
Running until April 17, 2017, the resort is collaborating with Galeries Bartoux to show Graffiti and Street Artists.
A great way to explore the beauty of the Alps - what's more snowshoeing requires no prior experience.
Courchevel is served by several regional airports. However Geneva is served by the greatest number of international flights including direct services by Easyjet. Transfer to Courchevel is between 2-3 hours (unless you take a helicopter!).
The Oxford Ski Company creates tailormade winter sports holidays, including hotels, dining, flights, activities, ski & boarding tuition as well as a responsive concierge service.
A grey sandstone building half-way up Edinburgh's Lothian Road, opposite the city's imposing Usher Hall, has for more than 30 years offered escapism into different worlds, through visual story-telling of intrigue, romance and fantasy. Here at Edinburgh's Filmhouse, an independent cinema, I was captivated by Claude Berri's 'Jean de Florette'; seduced by visual richness of Gabriel Axel's 'Babette's Feast'; and both amused and confused by Almodóvar's 'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown'.
It was during those years, in the late '80s, as an undergraduate student of film that I first got to really know Scotland's capital. It's a spellbinding place that over the years has truly flourished, and one I love to revisit.
City of writers
As opposed to film though, Edinburgh is surely best known for its literary heritage. For example it's here that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde', and of course JK Rowling famously sat in the back room of the Elephant House tea & coffee shop, penning the drafts of her Harry Potter novels.
For the literary curious, pay a visit to The Writer's Museum in the historic Lady Stair's House. It celebrates the lives and works of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Outside is Makars' Court, where one finds flagstones inscribed with quotes from famous Scottish writers. It's one of the many quirky and original features of a European capital city that has a unique identity, charm and character.
Ancient, old and new
Architecturally, Edinburgh is not only notable for its Georgian New Town, an elegantly planned and constructed part of the city that runs north of George Street; but also for its atmospheric Old Town. With its ancient wynds, those narrow alleyways between dark-stone buildings, it's little wonder it makes the perfect back-drop for touristy ghost-themed walking tours.
The city is a showcase too of Scottish baronial architecture, with the style's distinctive little turrets, battlements and romantic towers adorning many of the city's buildings. The gothic St Giles Cathedral and the elegant Holyrood Palace, the Queen's official residence in Scotland, are two architectural headliners but if one steps away from the Royal Mile and its gift shops selling tartan scarfs, then one discovers a myriad fascinating streets and squares that reflect the hidden Edinburgh.
Taste of Scotland
Although each street feels infused with history, there is plenty of 21st century energy in this increasingly cosmopolitan city. To feel the pulse of modern Edinburgh means enjoying the lively bar and restaurant scene.
Scottish cuisine is affirming its contemporary credentials with a generous helping of new restaurants celebrating the nation's larder. Edinburgh also now boasts a handful of Michelin star restaurants yet one doesn't have to fork out for fine dining in order to enjoy some of the best bites in town.
For example, head to the Leith, the city's docklands area and one will find some smart, informal places offering creative dishes from some of Scotland's emerging young chefs. When I first moved to the city, Leith felt disconnected from the centre, but now this port area has embraced positive change and is part of the city's urban cultural and gastronomic scene.
Talking of culture, of course the Festival and the Fringe are now well and truly international events that define the summer season. Yet a winter break will still be rewarded with the opportunity to engage with local events. Admittedly the weather may not be exactly Mediterranean but Edinburgh has plenty more to offer. The hottest ticket in town is Hogmanay, the famous New Year's Eve celebrations that see the streets fill with revellers and the sky light up with fireworks. Many book ahead for this time of year as many businesses typically close on the 31st except for those hosting events, dinners, galas and parties. If you don't book something, then join the locals and enjoy the atmosphere in the street.
Edinburgh is one of those European capitals that although vibrant and lively, doesn't pulse with frantic urban energy. So a city break here won't leave you exhausted, but instead encourage you to relax, unwind and gently explore. Nature is never far away. Arthur's Seat is the highest peak of a series of volcanic remnants that are in the city centre, including Castle Rock upon which Edinburgh Castle is built. Arthur's Seat is less than two kilometres from the castle and offers the surprising opportunity to enjoy city centre hill walking, affording wonderful views across Edinburgh to the Firth of the Forth and beyond.
After a morning's hike up to the top, followed by a rewarding lunch in town, then you'll feel like catching a movie matinee at the Filmhouse.
Old Town Chambers
For a luxury home-from-home in Scotland's capital, then take a look at the 5-star accommodation at the Old Town Chambers. Found in the city's Old Town, these upscale apartments include historical features from the 15th century, and all the comforts of the 21st. The townhouse has plenty of old world charm, whilst the penthouse overlooking the city has urban swagger. Your hosts will even arrange for a seductively tasty dine-in box of goodies from the local Valvona & Crolla deli, for breakfast or dinner.
Scottish Capital Gains
Once an extravagant family home, this 19th-century Georgian house is now a stylish boutique hotel. Found in über cool Stockbridge, a village within the city, this intimate hotel has a lively brasserie restaurant serving British classics. Location is ideal for enjoying a relaxed city stay, close to the Royal Botanic Gardens, art galleries and yet only 15 minutes' walk from the city centre.
The George Hotel
The classic Georgian elegance of city-centre George Street makes for a compelling address while in Edinburgh. Recently renovated, The George Hotel offers up-market 4-star comfort - sophisticated simplicity is the style, with contemporary touches within a grand setting.
Edinburgh's New Town, home to some of the UK's finest Neo-classical and Georgian architecture is deservedly a UNESCO World Heritage site. Experience life in a genuine mansion house from the 'age of elegance' at the romantic Nira Caledonia. Choose a Jacuzzi Suite for an effervescent stay.
Contemporary dining experience in the city's fashionable docks area, Leith. Modern Scottish cuisine using regional produce, served in an uncomplicated stripped-back style restaurant space. Well-priced lunch menu or, for a truly memorable evening, try the seven-course tasting menu with matching wines.
Anfora wine Bar
Staying in on-trend Leith, enjoy an evening at the warm and welcoming Anfora Wine bar. Specialising in organic and natural wines, this bar and restaurant is in one of Edinburgh's historic buildings. It also offers seasonal dishes to complement the wines.
This world-class cocktail bar in Queen Street has a cocktail list that will take a while to navigate, but try the Bramble, with Hayman's London Dry Gin, fresh lemon juice, crème de mûre and just a touch of sugar syrup.
If you don't stumble upon this bar/kitchen in Advocate's Close in the city Old Town, then you may well be stumbling out of it, as it's the place to try Scotland's finest whiskies. This cosy space, in a former Victorian pump house, has a mezzanine dining area serving modern Scottish dishes, while downstairs the bar offers over 200 whiskies from home and abroad.
Smith & Gertrude
Wine and cheese - what can be better? Well, this smart bar in Hamilton Place in Stockbridge certainly believes so. Drop in for a glass of wine and some tasty cheese - choose from seasonal Scottish and European cheeses and Mediterranean cured meats. If you visit in the morning, then try one of their gourmet coffees.
For a relaxed breakfast or brunch head to Fountainbridge and the artisan baker bar Loudons. Spacious venue with free Wi-Fi. It may be a bakery serving coffee, but you can also expect gluten- and dairy-free options.
Stockbridge and the Royal Botanic Gardens
My old neighbourhood, Stockbridge is one of Edinburgh's most charming districts. Explore the Sunday market, or stroll through Inverleith Gardens or be mesmerised by the beauty of the Royal Botanic Gardens. The path beside the Water of Leith River makes for a gentle walk too.
Headlined as Edinburgh's food and drinks yard, the Pitt Street Market is a popular Saturday venue; the place for artisan produce and a great city vibe. Running until 17 December.
For a Scottish take on gin, enjoy a tour of this city distillery that makes gin from an original Bombay recipe dating back to the 1940s.
Edinburgh offers an exceptional arts scene, but you don't have to wait for the Festival or the Fringe to enjoy the city culture. Check out contemporary art at the Fruitmarket Gallery and head to Scotland's three National Galleries in the city - Modern; Portrait; and at the National at The Mound.
For up-to-date reviews of these and many more venues in Edinburgh, visit The Luxury Editor's online guide dedicated to Edinburgh, curated by city resident Ross Fraser.
Valvona & Crolla
My favourite deli in Edinburgh, Valvona & Crolla, is also the city's oldest. Still a family business, this Italian gourmet food and wine store is a pleasure to browse; or a place to enjoy a morning dose of caffeine in the Caffè Bar. There are cooking classes and demos too.
Curioser and Curioser
Edinburgh's Broughton Street is home to independent bars, artisan coffee shops, restaurants and also some cool furniture and gift stores. For a unique and quirky gift, or homeware check out Curiouser and Curiouser.
As the hours passed whilst walking the mountain trails, the peace and tranquillity became almost tangible. Without aircraft jetting overhead, and with no roads filled with cars or motorbikes, one is truly embraced by nature. Here the sound of silence is the chirps and chatter of small finches amongst the ancient, gnarled juniper trees; the bleating of the long-haired mountain goats as they deftly negotiate the precipitous hillsides; and the gentle rattle of all the hiking paraphernalia being carried by 'Jacqueline', our mule.
Lunchtime means a welcome rest, and the chance to unlace one's hiking boots and relax. I am travelling with Hussein my guide and Abtou our cook, experts in the area and part of 'Toubkal Trekking', a local trekking and walking company offering activity holidays staffed with local people. The firm provides valuable employment and income for villagers and also offers highly authentic experiences for guests.
The Ouirgane valley - the unspoilt base for High Atlas holidaying
They swiftly unpack Jacqueline's saddle bags, and then lead the patient mule to the shade of an oak tree, where she grazed on new grass shoots, nourished by the warm spring sunshine and snowmelt from the surrounding peaks.
The sound of the simmering tagine on top of the hissing gas stove means that it won't be long until lunch. Cushions and a mat have been laid out of the ground ready for when we can sit, eat and chat - a sociable break from the meditative peace of the morning hike. The climb up to the mountain pass was challenging in places, even when one's only carrying a small backpack of personal items and bottled water. The steep incline and loose stones in places demand concentration, but the reward of the immense panoramic view out over the valleys to the snowy summits is more than adequate compensation. Below the villages are white with cherry and apple blossom; spring comes late to these altitudes and here at the pass, at well over 2,600 metres traces of snow is still on the ground in places. Yet the air is dry and warm.
Escape the tourist trail
We're now within the Toubkal National Park, named after the highest peak in its mountain range and home to Africa's only ski station. I'm eager to escape the tourist trail and head off-the-beaten-track, and be immersed in the local Berber culture.
After all, we're pretty much self-sufficient, with almost everything we need carried within the saddle bags of our friendly mule. Jacqueline transports our kitchen equipment, food, water, bedding and of course wheat and hay for her own evening and morning meals. They've packed plates and cutlery for me too - but I'm adapting quickly and I'm already enjoying eating with my right hand in true Berber style, using the fresh, tasty kesra bread to scoop up the appetising homemade food.
The afternoon trek is more or less downhill, along a rocky path amongst old juniper and pine trees. Buzzards soar on the thermals overhead, and as we progress deeper into the valley we pass youngsters tending herds of goats, and a few women foraging for firewood - other than that we are on our own.
This is what it is like to hike in the High Atlas, the mountain range at Morocco's heart that separates the Sahara from the Mediterranean. Some years before, on a previous trip to Morocco I'd taken a day trip out from Marrakech to photograph a few Berber villages; and also stayed a night in a fancy tourist hotel on the edge of a vertiginous gorge. Yet, to truly experience these mountain communities one has to hike. Many hamlets remain cut-off from the growing road network, and even the dirt tracks built for 4x4s and trucks.
Lifestyle from a bygone age
Many of these mountain areas are still only reached by mule, donkey and on foot. Although electricity has recently come to almost all of the central High Atlas and limited phone coverage is penetrating all but the most isolated valleys, the way of life in these high altitude hamlets still feels as if it's from a bygone age.
Hiking away from the popular day-trip and short break trails means leaving behind the network of tourist bed and breakfasts, and instead camping, overnighting in mountain refuges, or staying in small 'gite d'etape' accommodations.
My first night had been in the Imlil valley. At 1740 metres above sea level, and some 90 minutes' drive south of Marrakech, it's the popular starting point for mountain pursuits in Morocco's striking High Atlas. The bed and breakfast was comfortable and the host Berber family welcoming and relaxed. There was plenty of laughter coming from the kitchen as supper was being prepared, whilst in the cosy salon the wood burning stove was lit; even in April there is a chill in the evening air.
Yet the valley is undeniably busy, noisy, touristy and dirty. Day-trippers and local Moroccan tourism swell visitor numbers, yet little if any investment has been made to deal with the impact. Refuse lies uncollected and the nearby paths and trails are littered with household rubbish and plastic wrappers. I wanted to escape this crowded hiking hub and explore the trails less hiked. I had come here to be immersed in nature, and to meet local Berbers - and Toubkal Trekking were happy to oblige, creating an itinerary that visited stunning, scenic areas.
Towards the of the day, we had reached the bottom of a small, hidden valley, just as the warm spring light become a cool blue, with the sun dropping behind the snowy peaks. Our destination was a hamlet, close to a fast running river swollen with snowmelt. The village was little more than a cluster of mud and stone built homes, one above the other, on the hillside. Each had a flat roof of timber, earth and stones - architecture reminiscent of the historic Berber villages of Andalucía's Alpujarra region.
The houses were robust, with just simple wooden or open doorways on the ground floor, providing access to stabling for animals; whilst above were the living spaces, with their small windows decorated with simple metalwork screens.
Above and below were agricultural terraces, somehow created from the precipitous mountainside. Here grow beans, onions, and flowering purple iris, (which I learned were a cash-crop; their bulbs sun-dried and sold for cosmetic and pharmaceutical use). Below the peaks were a few high altitude plains, already prepared for sowing with spring wheat.
The earth-tones of the hamlet were punctuated by colour, from rugs hung over terraces to freshen in the mountain air; and from recently washed clothes left out to dry.
The alleyways between the buildings were wide enough for mules to pass, but were little more than rough, stony paths, cut deep by the hooves of mules and donkeys. Hens and cockerels roamed freely and a few smiling kids called out some words in French, in the hope of winning a few dirhams or euro for their bravery in greeting strangers. Villagers were at first shy; most of the women where together chatting amongst themselves on open balconies in the upper part of the hamlet, whilst below on dusty terraces, were the men, sitting in a circle, drinking mint tea, smoking and chatting. On the trail less trekked the communities are less familiar with visitors and are more introverted and private. Visitors are not bothered, but welcomed with a discreet smile or a gentle 'bonjour'.
Here there was no Bed and Breakfast, no hotel I was told. But I was promised a relaxing evening at the local gite. However, cast aside romantic ideas of a quaint Berber house with rustic handicraft decorations. The reality here, in one of the poorest parts of Morocco is quite different. The hostel property, next to the stable where Jacqueline overnighted, was simple to say the least. Two guest rooms, each for up to 4 or 5 hikers, were completely bare save for the rugs on the floor and the thin mattress cushions leaning against the wall.
The kitchen was of unpainted stone and earth with a tap and sink; there was space on the floor for camping stoves. The living area was more comfortably furnished with elaborately decorated cushions resting on built-in benches around tables covered with plastic, wipe-clean table cloths. An old TV sat in the corner, which soon came to life as the guide and cook excitedly searched for the football.
The bathroom was amusingly described to me as a 'Berber shower', a small tiled space with a drain, and just a tap with a large bucket below! The loo, well that was one of those squat WCs common in North Africa and the South of France. Yes, simple was the adjective that kept coming to mind. Yet really it was a place of comfort and considerably more sophisticated than most of the houses in the village.
This type of hiking trip is perfectly suited to solo travellers, couples or groups. As a solo traveller one always meets other hikers at the overnight stops, and as a couple or group it's a fun way to escape the typical activity holiday; this is something very different, mixing culture with nature. Food is excellent too!
A Danish couple joined us for the night in the little gite, and their guide and cook started playing cards with Hussain and Abtou and before long the small house was filled with laughter and chatter. In the kitchen the gas stoves were hissing and sputtering, filling the gite with warmth and the sweet smell of spices - a very homey, welcoming ambiance.
After all, I wanted an authentic, off-the-beaten track experience and I was undoubtedly enjoying just that. Now time to take a Berber shower and hit the sack, well the sleeping bag get some rest before tomorrow's trek.
Carved through the Andes by the Urubamba River, Peru's remarkable Sacred Valley was at the heart of the Inca Empire. This fertile region lies between the city of Cusco, and the country's most iconic attraction, the imperial Inca city of Machu Picchu.
For generations it has been popular for hiking; visitors exploring the famous Inca Trail that takes in the valley's fascinating villages and towns and the many exceptional archaeological sites. In recent years it has also emerged as a luxury holiday destination, with upscale resorts and mountain lodges opening along the established rail route from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, the nearest town to Machu Picchu.
Most of the visitor accommodation is within a 30 - 45 minute transfer from the train stations of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo on the line that runs through the valley from Poroy (west of Cusco) to Machu Picchu.
Skylodge Adventure Suites
A truly unique experience, these transparent sleeping pods (7.5m x 2.5), complete with loo, are suspended 400 metres above the valley, secured to the face of the mountain! The views are clearly panoramic, but access is not for the faint-hearted, as one has to climb up and down using metal steps, the 'Vía Ferrata'. Available to rent through Natura Vive, who also offering zip-line adventure activities.
This is a new upscale hotel, operated by the world-class hospitality group, Belmond. Built in the style of an Andean village, the resort offers luxury accommodation including 11 suites, 10 rooms and 2 villas. There is a spa, indoor and outdoor pools, and children's activities for family visitors.
Tambo del Inka
This Luxury Collection property is exceptional. Located on the river Urubamba, the Tambo del Inka offers beautiful accommodation built with local materials and decorated in a contemporary style with Andean fabrics. There's an impressive spa, a fine-dining restaurant and an elegant bar where one should try Peru's famous cocktail, the pisco sour. The hotel also boasts its own private train station on the route to Machu Picchu.
Aranwa Hotel & Wellness Centre
Built on the banks of Vilcanota River, about half an hour from the train station in Ollantaytambo. In addition to the resort's wellness spa, the property also features a Peruvian museum and art gallery.
Sol y Luna
This family run hotel offers private bungalow 'casita' accommodation. The property's philosophy is to respect and integrate with the local environment and community. The hotel can arrange excursions in the valley, including horse-riding.
Peruvian cuisine is superb, embracing both homespun country dishes and fine-dining. The main places to eat other than in one's hotel or lodge are in the towns of Ollantaytambo and Urubamba.
El Huacatay - Urubamba
This charming, welcoming period property is home to a restaurant that over the years has developed a reputation for a creative menu, created by owner and chef Pio Vásquez de Velasco. Dishes fuse local produce with Mediterranean and Asian influences.
El Albergue - Ollantaytambo
This organic farm offers accommodation and a restaurant. Each day the restaurant offers a traditional Pachamanca lunch, where the meat is prepared on hot stones. Dishes are served with Andean sweet potatoes as well as a local drink called chicha morada, made from purple maize.
Tres Keros - Urubamba
Well positioned for guests of the Tambo del Inka and Hotel Río Sagrado, this fine-dining restaurant created by chef Ricardo Behar is a celebration of both modern and traditional Peruvian cuisine. Choose roast dishes from the wood-burning oven; seasonal vegetarian dishes; or indulge in the tasting menu.
One of the most famous hiking routes in the world, the Inca Trail runs through the valley to Machu Picchu. It is now strictly limited to 500 people a day including guides, cooks, porters etc. So it's important to plan ahead and book a permit with the regional cultural department or an approved agent.
This 'tourist ticket' offers entrance to cultural and archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley and also in Cusco. You can buy it at the tourist office in Cusco or at any of the participating sites and it makes a good way to take in the rich cultural, historical and archaeological wonders of Cusco and the Sacred Valley, including the fascinating Pisac ruins; the remarkable citadel at Sacsayhuaman (built with intricately cut boulders); the terraces and temple at Ollantaytambo; and the amazing walls found in the mountain village of Chincheros. Many of the sites are near historic villages and towns where one finds interesting cafes, restaurants and markets. The ticket is presently around 45 euro.
Hiram Bingham train
This luxury train with its beautiful vintage Pullman-style carriages, offers a unique way to reach Machu Picchu. Named after the American explorer, who in 1911, guided by local indigenous farmers, rediscovered the citadel, the train offers a gourmet brunch on the way to the citadel, and then fine dining on the way back at the end of the day.
Vista Dome train
PeruRail operates this special train service, with carriages with panoramic glass windows including the roof, affording spectacular views of the valley as it heads to Machu Picchu.
Andean artisan market
Visiting a local market is a must-do in the Sacred Valley. Pisac is one of the best known, but just be sure what you are buying is local or at the very least Peruvian. There can be factory-made, imported fabrics on sale disguised as artisan.
Las Salinas de Maras
The terraced salt mine evaporation pools found at Maras date back to Inca times. Salt has been collected from the mineral rich water of these valley hills for thousands of years and the many salt pits here remain in use; although it seems that the salt works now earn far more from tourism than from the unique salt they produce.
Moray archaeological terraces
Access to these fascinating terraces is not included in the general tourist ticket, but is well worth it.
Not re-discovered until the beginning of the 20th century, this UNESCO World heritage Inca site, considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World escaped damage by the imperial Spanish conquistadors. It's all here to explore; the Inti Watana, Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows, and more. Although visited by thousands of people each day, the site is vast, so somehow it doesn't feel too crowded. The setting, upon a 2,430-metre-high ridge is breathtaking, surrounded by tropical forest.
The train arrives at Aguas Calientes, a touristy town in the valley. First impressions are not great - with tacky publicity and overly-assertive sales people on each street corner offering everything from massages to fast-food meals. From here one can take the mini buses up to the Inca city - a scary ride up the narrow, stony road. The alternative is to hike the last bit up through the forest.
All the effort to get to Machu Picchu is more than rewarded by the experience.
Worn smooth through years of use, the immense table in the centre of the room had a softness to it that belied its obvious weight and size. Hewn from huge pieces of rock, it was once used to crush the local harvested olives before pressing, but now served as a generous work surface for young Mallorca chef Nicolás Cambón.
Mallorca - you say Majorca, I say Mallorca
To one side is a bottle of oil, and a shallow wooden crate of aged tomatoes, with a subtle waxy patina; beside which sits a wooden tray of rustic bread, and tubs of Mallorca sea salt.
Pa amb oli
Pa amb oli with samphire.SUR
Placing the slices on the board in front of him, the chef began drizzling the bread with local olive oil, pressed in nearby Soller. Nicolás is creating a classic Mediterranean dish, bread with olive oil; yet here in Mallorca 'pa amb oli' as it is known, has become iconic of the island's culture and history.
I'm in the 'El Olivo' restaurant of Belmond's La Residencia, above the quintessential Mallorcan village of Deià; a place of charming stone built properties, in the foothills of the Tramuntana mountains. This popular destination is home not only to wealthy residential tourists but also to artists, musicians and writers too. The village was the home of Robert Graves, the English novelist and poet. Earlier in the day I had been gifted a copy of his son's book 'Bread and Oil' in which Tomás Graves explores this simple island dish to better understand Mallorca, the island's culture and its rich history over millennia; and it whetted my appetite to discover more.
Once used as the estate's olive mill, this cavernous space has been converted into an elegant dining room, with tables positioned amongst the ancient mill paraphernalia, including the large stone table where the chef is now cutting the plump, aged tomatoes in half, revealing their generous pulp. By simply rubbing them against the course rustic bread, the tasty tomato becomes a colourful topping.
Mallorca has long been a favourite amongst northern Europeans for its stunning pine-clad mountainous countryside, and those crystalline coves and bays, images of which can swiftly transport us from the mundane to an escapist world of tranquillity. Yet increasingly the island's package tourism is becoming an anachronism; holidays of just sun, sea and sand offer little insight into the culture or history of Mallorca.
Yet by immersing oneself into a homespun ritual such as this, the preparation of a local dish, one becomes somehow more connected, more in tune with the place.
Experiential travel is nothing new, but hotels and resorts are increasingly creating experiences that help their guests engage with a destination and come away after a relaxing holiday with more than just a glowing tan or lower blood pressure, but a better understanding of where they have been.
The ramallet tomatoes used in this humble recipe are also regarded as part of Mallorca's living history. This unusual type of hanging tomato, or 'tomatiga de penjar' can be traced back to the earliest types of tomato introduced to Spain and the rest of Europe thanks to expedition to the New World. Harvested in late summer, the ramallet are carefully strung together by hand, and hung in a cool, dry environment to age gently over many months. Bread and oil is a dish that reflects a time before modern food preservation. These specific tomatoes retain their plumpness throughout, yet their flavour intensifies, with a delicious sweetness.
The oil is another of the island's prized products and an integral part of the agricultural and social history of Mallorca. This mountain area of the Tramuntana has UNESCO world heritage status, not only for its stunning scenery, but for its unique way of life, one that is connected to the land, to the seasons. Productive olive trees were brought to Iberia and her islands by the Phoenicians and Romans and further cultivated by the Arabs. According to Tomás Graves' book, Mallorca's liquid gold became the island's greatest export from the fifteenth century. Indigenous oak forests were cleared and the land terraced to maximise space for the groves. From the restaurant terrace of La Residencia one can still see the twisted, ancient olive trees, some hundreds of years old.
The Mediterranean kitchen is celebrated for its health properties, but all too often modern interpretations and processes, together with less than genuine ingredients offer us a poor substitute. Going back to basics is a way to experience the real thing; home baked bread, local aged tomatoes and island olive oil and you have the authentic flavours of Mallorca.
Flor de Sal
That's not all though - anyone familiar with Mediterranean food will know the importance of salt. Here on Mallorca salt has been part of the island's history and culture since the times of the Romans and Phoenicians. Head to the Es Trenc-Salobrar National Park in the south of the island and one discovers an extraordinary wetland area of beautiful protected beaches. At the end of the wetlands are the salt flats - an otherworldly landscape of salt ponds, evaporating sea water bumped up from the beach. Some 10,000 tons of salt is said to be produced each year; and often these delicate salt flakes are enriched with the Mediterranean flavours of the island; so expect tomato of course, black olive, but also rose and hibiscus versions. This gourmet 'Flor de Sal', an aromatic mineral rich salt, is the final touch for a classic 'pa amb oli'. Travel across the Mallorca and you see various additions to bread with oil that reflect local tastes, including figs, cured ham, capers and rock samphire, the sea fennel that is still harvested on the north west coast. So, next time you visit Mallorca, savour this classic island dish.
Morocco is seductively exotic yet increasingly accessible. The modest airport at Marrakech is finally being expanded and low-cost routes easily connect this bohemian, cultural, and historic city with Europe and beyond.
After a few days exploring the medieval medina, the souks and the gardens of Marrakech, I really recommend taking a taxi for the 90 minutes' drive south to the Berber villages of the stunning Atlas Mountains.
Search out the Ouirgane Valley, a small plateau surrounded by striking red earth foothills, and planted with olive, almond and fruit trees. It's unspoilt, and emerging as an attractive visitor base to explore the area thanks to its good communications and proximity to the mountains, the Toubkal National Park and fascinating Berber villages.
After my few days hiking in the High Atlas Mountains I was more than ready for some luxury comforts and hotel pampering. Apart from Richard Branson's Kasbah Tamadot hotel, which now has become more bling than Berber, the area is not that well served with stylish accommodation, so I was intrigued to be given the opportunity to have a 'sneak peek' at 'L'Amandier Hotel' which is scheduled to be opened in May.
I arrived in a vintage Mercedes taxi, so iconic of Marrakech, but becoming a rarer sight these days as Morocco's swift growth encourages the country to embrace all things new. The access from the main road is by a stone track that meanders through pine trees. The estate is truly hidden away, and the location is exceptional. Its elevated position offers commanding views across the entire plateau with 360 degree panoramas that take in the snow-capped High Atlas.
The L'Amandier Hotel & Villas has been a labour of love for its British owners, who found the land some years ago and knew that it would make a special place to stay. They broke ground over 6 years ago, starting with the construction of what is now a collection of contemporary, luxury villa residences which are available for private investment purchase and holiday rentals.
The exteriors are of traditional terracotta, echoing the earth tones of the surrounding Berber villages, yet with strong, modern styling. The interiors are uncluttered and clean, with traditional polished Tadelakt plaster walls, and beautiful handmade floor tiles from Fez. The terraces include a plunge pool and compelling views. Each property has a roof terrace with Moroccan-style curtained seating area. It's fabulous for star-gazing.
The latest addition to the estate, which is landscaped with established Mediterranean gardens of lavender, hibiscus, bougainvillea, fruit and olive trees, is the six room small luxury hotel that is now nearing completion. It's oriented so views from of each of the intimate rooms overlook the infinity pool and on to the Atlas Mountains beyond. A Hamman and spa are part of the promised facilities, together with a gourmet restaurant and hip bar. The style of the hotel and villas is contemporary; so don't expect a pastiche of '1001 Arabian Nights' decoration here. Instead it's clean, modern lines with handmade ceramic tiles and a few luxury Moroccan details.
The hotel looks to be fully operational by the autumn and suggested rates are from about 300 euro per room per night.
The villas are already available for rental, from about 480 euro per night for a 2 bed residence, with access to the hotel's facilities.