Where to stay in Phuket: La Flora Resort and Spa in Khaolak

I fell in love with Thailand on my first visit, many years ago and that love affair grows every time I return. It’s very appropriately called the Land of Smiles – there’s always plenty of smiling going on – which is extremely catching. This was my third visit to Phuket (my first to Khaolak), which makes it my favourite Thai destination – so far anyway.

Today we’re heading an hour’s drive north of Phuket International Airport to La Flora Resort & Spa in Khaolak.

The hotel’s set in beautiful gardens with two pools, overlooking the golden beach of Bang Liang and those perfect Andaman Sea vistas.

Here’s what I loved about La Flora.

The beach

La Flora sits on a beautiful bay framed by palm trees. The beach is perfect for long post-breakfast meanders before settling down for the inevitable sunbed session. I was often the only person paddling through the beautifully warm water and watching the lone fisherman in action.

The sweeping beach is perfect for sunny meanders

The heavenly view from my subbed

Colourful boats alongside the beach

The drinks on the beach

There’s great beach-side service at La Flora. From frothy cappuccinos, fruity shakes and daily cocktail specials, all delivered to your sunbed for you to savour.

A mango shake makes beach life better

Cucumber gin and tonic overlooking the sea

The pool-side rooms

We upgraded from a regular to a pool-side room. And what a good idea that was.

Our spacious and comfy room offered all the facilities on my really-want list: a fridge, kettle with coffee and tea, a safe, good air conditioning, plenty of fluffy towels and great wifi. The bathroom had a huge shower and a magnificent spa bath complete with lights that changed colour as you submerged yourself in clouds of bubbles. Very indulgent.

The comfortable, huge bed in our stylish room

The room opened out onto a deck complete with two sunbeds (a lot of sunbed action going on at La Flora, you can see). One more step and you were in the sparkling blueness of the pool – private for those lucky enough to be living alongside it.

The pools

Step out of your room for an early morning dip, swim up to the central pool bar or expend some energy doing lengths in perfect peace. The sparkling water and fluttering palm trees made a fantastic scene to open the blinds to in the morning.

Living the pool life – steps from our room

And here’s the jacuzzi. Simply press the button and enjoy some relaxing bubbles on the top step.

Our own personal jacuzzi right outside our stunning room

You’re spoilt for swimming choice at La Flora as there’s also the main pool adjacent to the beach. You’ll have to be up fairly early if you want to  nab one of the overlooking sunbeds. It’s an active pool with swimmers, paddlers and those simply enjoying the view.

The main pool is right on the edge of the beach

The food

How I love the breakfast buffets in South East Asia. The colourful platters of tropical fruit make for a delightful start to any day. My three favourites – the combination of Ps – Passion fruit, Pomelo and Papaya. All made to taste even more delicious by eating them overlooking the beach. And that’s just the start.

The perfect way to start the day

Gotta love a multi-course breakfast. The Asian selection was quite intimidating – all that decision making first thing in the morning. A couple of times a week there was a huge dim sum offering which I dived into.

Lift the lid to reveal myriad dim sum

The restaurant had tables right on the edge of the beach which we always headed for whatever the meal. You couldn’t find a nicer eating environment. For lunch we often tucked into starters from the a la carte menu, all of which were delightful, like these chicken satays.

Eating chicken satays overlooking the sea

On the beach just to the side of the hotel was a street food cart. Or should that be a beach food cart? Corn piled high, large, luscious spring rolls, satays and my favourite Thai salad – green papaya made in front of you.

Beach food delights right next door

We ate dinner several times off the a la carte menu which offered a great choice. And twice a week the hotel set up an incredible buffet spread showcasing a wide range of Asian and Western dishes.

It’s also worth mentioning that there was a decent selection of good, well-priced wine on offer which is not always the case in Thailand. As wine drinkers it made our La Flora experience just that little bit more enjoyable.

The service

Thailand is known for its friendly service and La Flora didn’t disappoint. Waiters made an effort to get to know you and make you feel welcome and everywhere you went you were greeted with a cheery sawsdee ka. One night the manager even got an extra table set up for us overlooking the beach when they were already all reserved.

The entertainment

We enjoyed listening to the duo from the Philippines who sang on a few of the nights, took requests and could perform a mean version of Candle in the Wind. Plus one night we were treated to beautifully elegant traditional Thai dancing. Here are the lovely ladies.

Beautiful, graceful and colourful traditional Thai dancers

The nearby town

Okay, this isn’t actually about the hotel but the fact that it was set just back from a charming little town is definitely worth a mention. Five minutes walk up the street to myriad massage opportunities, rustic al fresco restaurants and bars and shops for all your necessities. Oh and a marvellous array of street food, too.

The street food is great in Khaolak

An array of tasty skewers to dazzle

La Flora Resort & Spa is the perfect get-away-from-it-all spot for a relaxed beachside holiday with beach walks and plenty of swimming, delicious food and warm service. They do offer a range of excursions if you’re inclined to explore the area more, but as ever I found it hard to drag myself off that perfect beach.

 

Where to stay in Vietnam: The Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort and Spa

Continuing my series of Where to Stay, today we’re in Phan Thiet in Vietnam. Phan Thiet is a coastal city in south-east Vietnam, a four to five hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City airport – sounds long but it’s totally worth it when you get there. It’s the capital of Binh Thuan Province with a population of around 300,000 and is actually only 200km from Ho Chi Minh City. At its centre is a bustling little fishing port and an amazing market.

The Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort and Spa is outside the centre in the beach resort area of Mui Ne. There’s a long palm-lined stretch of sand with plenty of watersports and a strip of hotels, restaurants and shops alongside it.

The hotel is laid out through beautiful gardens and is built in the style of traditional Vietnamese country houses. Here’s what I loved about our stay there.

The room

We stayed in one of their beach bungalow. A meander down a winding path through lush tropical vegetation takes you to your brightly painted, welcoming home for your stay. Set right on the edge of the beach – a few steps from the sand – the room was light and spacious with an enormous bed, large wardrobe and generous seating area.

Looking back from the beach to the beautiful bungalows

The bed’s made even cosier at night with the mosquito net

The glass doors opened out onto a large patio complete with two amazingly comfortable sun beds and an umbrella. This is where we spent a lot of time reading, sipping wine and just taking in the marvellous view from our verandah.

The seating area and our view towards the sea

There were good tea and coffee-making facilities, including a range of teas and a fridge which was restocked every day with fresh bottles of water and replacements for anything else you may have drunk. So no issues with in-room refreshments then. Other essentials (for me anyway) included a safe, plush bathrobes and towels, lovely bathroom products and great wifi.

The large bed and its crisp white linen

The bathroom

One of the best hotel bathrooms ever…large with a separate toilet, a wonderful corner bath for long bubbly soaks and – best of all – an outside area with a hammock and powerful shower.

Light floods in from the enclosed outdoor shower

How I love an outdoor shower

The views

The joys of waking up every day and opening the curtains to look through palm trees across the beach to the vast South China Sea.

Looking out across the South China Sea…just awesome

And as the sun set every day the little lights along the beach came on turning our beach view into a twinkling, magical land.

Night comes and a magic falls over the beach

I particularly loved the light at sunset

The pools

As well as the warm, inviting sea to swim in there were two pools, never crowded while we were there. Both had waiter service so you could lie back and enjoy lunch or a cocktail in the sun. The infinity pool at the top of the resort is perfect for getting in your lengths.

Looking through the hibiscus to the pool

Chef Hoang and his amazing food

This is a hotel with food in a league of its own with a genius chef. From the vast breakfast buffets to the amazing dinner menu with a selection of Vietnamese and Western dishes, there are plenty of exciting flavours to discover. Chef Hoang is always on hand making sure things are running smoothly when he’s not cooking in the kitchen.

The first couple of breakfasts took some serious decision making. The range of Vietnamese dishes on offer was stupendous – all on top of plenty of pastries, eggs any way you want them and a tropical fruit feast. I soon established my favourites – and tucked into fresh Vietnamese rolls every morning, filled with prawns, vegetables and herbs and dipped into Chef’s delicious, spicy peanut sauce.

Fresh Vietnamese rolls for breakfast, just delightful

A colourful first breakfast course of tropical fruit

We pored over the menu every night carefully choosing different dishes until we’d pretty much gone through it all. We tucked into delightful salads with Chef’s secret dressing, fresh fish and wonderful pork and duck dishes.

The amazing prawn salad in crunchy baskets

On our last night Chef Hoang made us a special dinner. We started with his special prawn salad served on banana leaves in these lovely bamboo bicycles (love the presentation).

Our prawns presented on the cutest of dishes

And for mains he specially selected a grouper for us from the market that morning. It was baked in a tangy sauce and  parcelled into rice papers with herbs, noodles and vegetables added at the table. A real ceremony.

Our special grouper and vegetable parcels

The beach

Okay everyone knows I’m a real beach baby, so I was in complete heaven here. The whole of hotel life is focused around the beach. You eat looking out to sea, open your curtains to the beach, exercise by walking along the beach…and it’s all rather quiet as the beach is private to the hotel.

At the Victoria life centres around the beach

My favourite time of day was sunset, which happens early in Vietnam – around 5pm. The beach became bathed in golden lights and shades of orange and pink.

Another beautiful sunset turns everything golden

The cookery course

We signed up for a food and cooking excursion. Awakening early we headed into the harbour with our guide, Lam and Chef Hoang. The catch of the day was coming in and the negotiations were in full swing as people heckled over prices – the women take delivery of the catch from the men and do all the bargaining.

The bustling harbour in Phan Thiet centre

From there we headed to the colourful market in the centre of town with it’s beautiful piles of tropical fruit, fish galore and every cut of meat you could need. Plus all those random household necessities dotted throughout. On the way home we stopped off at the local fish sauce factory where Lam explained the vast quantities of fish sauce consumed by the Vietnamese – it’s used in so many of their dishes.

On our return to the hotel we headed for our cookery course in the beautiful thatched gazebo on the beach. Chef Hoang and two of his chefs cooked us a delightful lunch which we ate overlooking the beach. Nothing like having three chefs cook you a private lunch! We left armed with a tasty collection of Vietnames recipes, including one for his secret salad dressing. I really must make that soon, it’s fabulous. And no, my lips are sealed.

Chef Hoang and his smiling helpers

Here’s the amazing prawn and banana flower starter they made specially for us. How exotic is that?

Prawn and banana flower with Chef Hoang’s secret dressing

The staff

The service at the Victoria is impeccable. We were so well looked after by everyone, from the front desk, waiters, chefs, masseurs, cleaners and gardeners. There were smiling, happy faces everywhere and nothing was too much trouble.

The spa

We had excellent massages in the open-fronted spa, with sea breezes and crashing waves providing the background to our indulgent treatments. Vietnamese massages are slightly less harsh than my experience of Thai ones, making it a perfectly relaxing experience while also getting rid of all those long-haul-flight induced knots. I also had a lovely manicure – the staff were expert and prices good value.

The gardens

The beach bungalows are sprinkled through the most beautiful and lovingly tended gardens. Perfect green lawns punctuated by our sunny yellow rooms and tropical trees and flowers including three of my absolute favourites: hibiscus, bougainvillea and frangipani.

Wash your feet off after a walk through the gardens

Live life surrounded by bougainvillea and hibiscus

The bedtime stories and other special touches

Okay this is a unique one. Every night we returned from dinner to discover cake delights in our little wooden box with a rolled up scroll alongside it – our nightly bedtime story. A truly charming touch and a great way to find out more about Vietnamese folklore.

I so looked forward to my bedtime story every night

Other special touches I loved included the fact that a chilled glass of water was delivered to your bed at the pool or beach as soon as you sat down – why doesn’t every hotel do this?

And the towels were extra large – having been specially made to perfectly cover the cushion on the wonderfully comfortable beach beds.

The Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort and Spa is the sort of place where you walk around with a smile on your face all day. Its beautiful and relaxing environment is made even more idyllic by the combination of smiley service and wonderful food.

It was a sad day indeed when we had to say goodbye and head off on the next leg of our adventure to Saigon, which you can read about here.

We organised our trip to Vietnam and Thailand with travel experts Eastravel. They are great to deal with and at the planning stage we spent some time discussing where we would visit and stay – with great results. It was a fabulous, well organised trip. You can read more about Vietnam and Thailand soon. Watch this space.

Have you been to Vietnam? What was your favourite thing about it? Do get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.

Absorbing the sights and energy of Saigon

I’ve been having a bit of a blog-holiday so apologies for being so quiet. But I’m back now and starting the new year (happy 2017 everyone) with tales of my recent trip to Vietnam and Thailand. My first time in Vietnam and I totally fell in love with the country – its people, food and unfolding story.

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the largest city in Vietnam, although not the capital (that’s Hanoi in the north). In 1976 it was officially renamed Ho Chi Min City after the Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. It’s still widely called Saigon, though, (especially by the Vietnamese) which it was under French rule when it was the capital of Cochinchina.

The sprawling city has a population of more than 10 million and it’s rapidly growing, too. This makes for a serious hive of activity, hectic traffic, an energetic and hardworking people and, on the downside, somewhat polluted skies which means most citizens wear masks on the streets. There’s something happening around every corner and a friendliness and energetic feel that’s catching.

Here’s what you have to do when in HCMC.

Shop in Ben Thanh Market

In the centre of the city this bustling, partly undercover market sells pretty much anything you could possibly desire. Exotic, fresh vegetables and fruit, live fish and shellfish in all shapes and sizes, clothes, jewellery, souvenirs. The highlight is the towers of great quality, cheap t-shirts to choose from – don’t leave without one – Vietnamese cotton is fabulous.

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The greenness of an exotic vegetable stall

Take to the streets and view the stylish architecture

Saigon is a great city to walk around. The centre is quite small and the best way to see everything is on foot. Notre Dame is the city’s most famous landmark. Built from the 1860s to the 1880s, it’s a reminder of the French influence – all the building materials were brought over from France. Newly married couples and their entourages cluster around the cathedral for wedding pictures – it’s said to bring good luck. It seems that everyone wants their picture taken in front of Notre Dame.

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Notre Dame’s pinkness is iconic Saigon

Saigon is also home to the most beautiful post office I’ve ever seen – designed by French architect Gustav Eiffel, who the Eiffel Tower was named for.

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Post offices don’t get prettier than this

Ho Chi Minh himself takes pride of place in the square in front of the City Hall which was built in the early 20th century – some more of that Parisian flavour – the city is also known as The Paris of the East.

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Ho Chi Minh stands guard over the city

Eat Pho and drink coffee

When in Vietnam…eat Pho. It’s a traditional Vietnamese soup consisting of broth, noodles, herbs and meat. It’s popular street food and it’s eaten any time of day – even for breakfast. Usually served with a plate of herbs on the side so you can add them to suit your taste. A deliciously, satisfying one-pot meal, one that I am certain to be making at home. Oh and there’s plenty of other street food on offer too.

Coffee is the most popular drink in Vietnam and coffee shops abound in the city, so no problem getting your caffeine fix as you explore.

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Traditional pho topped with fresh herbs

Visit the War Remnants Museum

Okay this isn’t the happiest thing you’re going to do in Saigon but I’m big on remembering and learning from history – something humans really aren’t that good at. This museum offers a pictorial record of the brutal Vietnam/American war and its aftermath. Some of the photographs are stunningly heart breaking and while the story is clearly told from a Vietnamese perspective the exhibits provide an almost overwhelming overview of this horrific time in Vietnamese history. Outside you can see the planes and the iconic Huey helicopter that I always associate with Vietnam. I’m too young to remember the war but one of my favourite songs is Goodnight Saigon by Billy Joel which is possibly one of the most powerful songs ever written. Worth a listen.

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The Huey helicopters that flew in packs

Chill out at a roof-top bar

Get a different perspective on the city and enjoy a local beer (or a tasty cocktail) at the same time. Our hotel The Majestic (more of which later) has a lovely roof-top bar overlooking the Saigon River. The perfect place to relax and plan over a cold one.

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Cheers from on high in Saigon

Marvel at the traffic and master crossing the road

The traffic is kind of a tourist attraction in its own right. There are millions of motorbikes in Saigon (they say there’s 25 to each car – and there’s no shortage of cars) and they don’t stop at red lights and have no compunction about riding on the pavement. So you need to keep your wits about you wherever you’re walking. I diligently pressed pedestrian crossing buttons to begin with but a red light didn’t stop the traffic. The best way to get across the many-laned roads is to walk at a steady pace without hesitation (when the lights are in your favour obviously) and the traffic will avoid you. Yes, I know I didn’t believe it either, but it seems to work.

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The traffic is a spectacle to behold

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Even at night it never stops

Take a dinner cruise

I do love seeing  a city from the river and the Saigon River is perfect for a cruise. We hopped on board our junk Le Perle de l’Orient at 7pm and settled in at a window table to take in the view. And enjoy a nine-course set menu of delicious Vietnamese food.

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Large, juicy prawns served in a coconut

The modern part of the city’s skyline sparkles in different colours, making for beautiful reflections in the river.

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The Saigon night skyline and its colourful reflections

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A traditional lotus salad with prawns and pork

Where to stay

We stayed at The Majestic Hotel, perfectly placed on the riverside corner of Dong Khoi Street – one of the best shopping streets in the city.

Our room was plush and spacious, overlooking the Saigon River and the bustling streets below. The huge bed was made up with some of the best linen I’ve ever slept in, I was tempted to pack the duvet cover in my suitcase! (No, of course I didn’t.)

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The best linen in the world? Possibly.

The hotel has a lovely rooftop bar/restaurant and the fabulous breakfast spread is served on an open terrace overlooking Saigon life.

Service is welcoming and efficient and the hotel has a relaxed elegance and calm about it – most welcome after the bustling life at street level.

Have you been to Vietnam? What was your favourite part of the trip? I’d love to hear your recommendations – they’ll give me an excuse to return.

COMING SOON

Read about my stay at the fabulous Victoria Beach Hotel and Spa in the seaside town of Phan Thiet.

Loving the island life: hiking on the Isle of Wight

Today’s journey involves a train and a boat. My two favourite forms of transport so that’s a great  start. We’re heading to the Isle of Wight, the largest island in England which is set in the English Channel four miles off the Hampshire coast.

The ferry from Portsmouth took us across the Solent – a journey of 20 minutes towards island life and a weekend of hiking and relaxing. The island’s been a holiday destination since Victorian times – Queen Victoria built her much-loved summer residence Osborne House here and often came to visit with her family. It was also made popular by poets Swinburne and Tennyson.

In more recent times it’s become famous for hosting music festivals including the Isle of Wight Festival and Bestival. In 1970 Jimi Hendrix headlined and the festival attracted around 700,000 people – truly massive for the island with a population of only around 100,000. I can only imagine the chaos.

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Sailing away from Portsmouth and its striking Spinnaker Tower

It’s amazing how crossing water – even on a short journey – makes you feel like you’ve arrived in a different world. A world that its residents are very proud of. And rightly so, as I soon discovered a beautifully peaceful island with plenty of history to absorb and sights to see.

Our final destination, a scenic drive from Ryde to the westerly side of the island, is Freshwater Bay House, a historic seaside Country House dating from the 1790s. It’s set on the cliff top with great views over the bay it’s named after.

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Looking back across the bay to our home for the weekend

Freshwater Bay House is home to HF Holidays, a leading walking and activity holiday company. They’ve been going for over 100 years, so they really know their stuff and we were soon settled in and ready to find out where our hiking boots could take us.

After dinner (more of which later) our guides took us through the walks available for the next day so we could make our choices. There were three options, divided by difficulty, so you could pick the one just right for you – it is your holiday after all.

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The golden sunrise across the bay

An early start and a hearty breakfast and we were ready to set off.

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A fabulous plate of Eggs Benedict

Our first walk (in a group of 10) was guided by Martin. It was a comfortable ramble along wide, grass-cushioned paths, through wooded tracks and winding coastal paths.

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Ready for hiking with my comfy new HiTech boots

Our pace definitely got the blood pumping but I loved that there was always plenty of time to absorb the stunning, ever-changing views of countryside and sea – and to stop and take pictures (or laugh at the cows who posed so beautifully). I must have taken hundreds of them. Here’s a taster of our journey which took us from Freshwater Bay to The Needles and back via the towering Tennyson Monument.

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Charming St Agnes Church is the only thatched church on the island

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Sea views through the silhouetted cows

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Love the signs along the way

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The multicoloured cliffs of Alum Bay

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A perfect view of The Needles through the lookout at The Old Battery

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Perfect forest pathways to amble along

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Shades of blues and greens as we head for home

All that fresh air and energy expended makes me very hungry. So it’s great news that the food at Freshwater Bay House is fantastic. The three courses menu offers dishes made using a lot of local products and with plenty of gluten-free options.

Farming is an important part of Isle of Wight life with plenty of sheep and cows everywhere. And it has a milder climate than the rest of the UK (with more sun) which makes for a longer growing season. Main crops are tomatoes, cucumbers and garlic – and there are even two vineyards.

I always look for Isle of Wight tomatoes in the supermarket – they’re so packed with flavour. So I was delighted with this starter. A colourful array of my favourite of fruits, with the yellow one stuffed with a deliciously silken asparagus mousse. Another thing on my “must learn how to make” list.

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Tomatoes in all shapes and colours

The fish dishes were particularly great, including lobster, mussels and sole.

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Local lobster with a mussel broth

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Sweet sole on a bed of risotto

Always partial to a cheese platter, I did my duty and tried the local delights. And took a particular liking to the Gallybagger (I know, weird name for a cheese) which is cheddar-like and extremely tasty.

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A delightful platter of local cheese to finish

On our second day we decided to do a self-guided walk. All it takes is a visit to the Discovery Room to plan your adventure. Once you’ve chosen your route you take the detailed laminated instructions, complete with photographs, detailed directions and suggestions of what to do along the way. With that and the great signage along the way, it’s impossible to get lost. Very impressive. We headed for the nearby town of Yarmouth.

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All pathways are clearly marked and numbers

Enjoying very different scenery from the day before, we meandered through fields heading inland to the stunning Yar Estuary. I loved the myriad birdlife and peace and serenity on a beautiful, sunny autumn Sunday morning.

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The beautiful Yar Estuary teeming with birdlife

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Finding our way through the forest

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The welcoming sight of boats as we approached the harbour

This was my first visit to the Isle of Wight and it was something of a revelation. More beautiful than I’d imagined with many paths to walk, views to take in and local lore to discuss. We were asked if we were from “the North island”, to which I didn’t know the answer. Turns out the answer’s yes – it’s the rest of the UK – the Isle of Wight is known by locals as the South island.

A fabulous place to get away from it all, live the bucolic lifestyle for a while and recharge the batteries. My new island paradise to escape to.

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Getting back to nature and communing with sheep

I was a guest of HF Holidays on this weekend.

They organise all-in experiences with food and activities included. Breakfasts are hearty and delicious, tasty three-course dinners are made using local ingredients. Every evening you choose your sandwich filling for packed lunch the next day and raid the snack room for extras to keep your energy levels up while you’re walking. The snack room is quite a sight to behold!

Guides are friendly and knowledgable and eat meals with you. It’s very much a communal experience, an easy way to make new friends with plenty of me-time, too.

As well as walking HF Holidays also offer a range of leisure activities and cultural tours around the UK and in Europe.

hfholidays.co.uk

 

The many wonders of Catalunya’s Cistercian Route

I was going to call this Spanish story “Eating my way along the Cistercian Route” but decided that sounded rather greedy and most importantly it’s far from the whole truth. Yes, there was a lot of eating going on and very good eating it was, too, but there was so much more to explore and discover in the footsteps of the Cistercians.

The Cistercian Route connects the three monasteries of Santa Creus, Poblet and Vallbona. It’s a beautiful land about an hour’s drive from the region’s vibrant capital, Barcelona. The area’s a hiking paradise with its footpaths of 105 kilometres (the most in Europe) and, as I soon discovered, has amazingly warm and welcoming people, spectacular scenery and some very interesting traditions. Oh and there’s all the amazing food (and wine) of course.

We took to the road ready to explore. First stop Valls, which boasts a unique tradition as the birthplace of the human towers or Castells. The community comes together to rehearse three times a week and there are international competitions with serious rivalry. I was lucky enough to witness a rehearsal and was soon awed by the spectacle as people clamber over each other to create a towering structure. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such combined speed, flexibility, strength and dedication. Simply marvellous.

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The amazing spectacle of human towers

At the restaurant Test  in the Hotel Class Valls we were served up a range of delightful dishes. Like this colourful pineapple carpaccio topped with melt-in-the-mouth Spanish ham and a zesty dressing.

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Pineapple carpaccio topped with succulent jamon

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Savoury and flavourful broth at its best

Another Catalan tradition involves calcots, which are sort of like a sweet spring onion. Their harvest is celebrated every year when they are cooked over fire and peeled and eaten by hand with a generous helping of romesco sauce. It wasn’t harvest time when we were there but I did tuck into tempura calcots which were tasty, sweet, juicy and crunchy. Worth going back for that big celebration, I reckon.

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The delicate sweetness and crispiness of tempura calcots

On to the first monastery in the puzzle. Santa Creus, which was founded in 1168, is amazingly well-preserved and provides a great insight into Cistercian life. The stories are fascinating and the sheer scale of the place and its grand architecture are entrancing, making it easy to imagine a life very different and somewhat magical.

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The spectacular design of Santa Creus monastery

Just outside the imposing gates of the monastery is the cosy local – Restaurant Catalunya. We ordered our main courses and were then fed plate after plate of local specialities – soft and sweet ham, anchovies, tomato toast, aubergines, they just didn’t seem to stop coming. It was a real feast with the warmest of welcomes and plenty of the local vino – that’s the Catalan way.

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A classic paella with fresh seafood

With all the deliciously tempting food to enjoy it’s great that there are plenty of hiking opportunities. Time to burn off some of those calories. We headed up the mountain from Montblanc up to the abandoned L’Ermita Sant Joan. Rocky, winding pathways through the depths of the forest, made even more beautiful by the swirling mist, led us to what felt a bit like the top of the world.

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Peering through L’Ermita Sant Joan into the misty distance

A meandering descent and we headed for today’s lunchtime venue – Riudabella Castle. Yes, lunch in a real castle – just when you think dining can’t get any better. Riudabella has recently started offering accommodation in the form of large studio-style apartments with fabulous vineyard and forest views – providing the perfect retreat.

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Take in the view from your castle on high

We tucked into an amazing lunch in the huge,magnificent dining room, starting with a beautifully colourful array of canapés. For mains a delectable leg of pork which had been cooking in the medieval oven for 15 hours – so succulent!

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A table loaded with tempting tapas

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The tenderest of slow-cooked pork

For dessert a local treat awaited. This is called Gypsy’s Sleeve – a delightfully light sponge rolled with lashings of cream and topped with sugar. One of the tastiest puddings ever, imagine eating sweetly flavoured fluffy clouds.

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Soft, sugary, creamy…heaven on a plate

Poblet is the largest inhabited Cistercian monastery in Europe, so keep your eyes peeled for one of the resident monks as you wander its corridors. A huge rain storm erupted during our visit providing a dramatic atmosphere for our explorations.

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The cloister’s courtyard in the pouring rain

From an ancient monastery it was time to take millions more steps back in history to the Espluga Caves. Take a walk through eerie caves with displays explaining Spain’s prehistoric past and the story of the humans who made these caves their home for thousands of years. It’s a ghostly and somewhat spiritual experience.

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Time to step even further back in history

And then to dinner at the Hostal des Disset Fonts in L’Espluga de Francoli. We ambled through the streets of the sleepy town to our destination – another warming experience of great local food and wine.

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The substantial goat’s cheese salad

One of the nicest starters I’ve had in a long time, the sweetness of the chilled melon soup was perfectly complimented by the saltiness of the Serrano ham. A marriage of Spanish flavours made in heaven.

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The perfect mix of saltiness and sweetness

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Simple ingredients perfectly cooked

Montblanc is known as the centre of the Cistercian Route. It was founded in 1163 by King Alfons I and a lot has happened inside its protective medieval walls. The legendary fight between St George (Sant Jordi) and the dragon is alleged to have taken place here and the day is celebrated every year with a festival and the exchange of flowers and books. I could have meandered its cobbled streets for hours – popping into one (or several) of the many bars, cafes and restaurants scattered along them.

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Medieval terraces in Montblanc

And now it’s time for lunch again. My favourite part of this amazing trip with its myriad highlights was soon turning into lunchtime. And today cemented it. We wound our way up narrow mountain roads to the village of Fores where we were welcomed into the Mirador de Fores, another cosy little restaurant with far-reaching views from on high across to the sea.

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The best village restaurant in the world…possibly

The chef’s passion was clear in his descriptions of every dish (even with my limited Spanish I could get that much). He had our whole menu planned and we started with the juiciest of anchovies atop tomato and olive bread. A rustic classic bursting with flavours.

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Anchovies on toast doesn’t get better than this

And then croquettes – described by the restaurant as the best in the world! A huge claim but a fair one, I’ve eaten my share of croquettes and these are definitely up there. Large, and packed with chunks of chicken and luscious sauce.

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The tastiest chicken croquettas

Next course was this clever assembly of black sausage, a vegetable tower of potato and onion and crunchy crackling on the side. One of the nicest things I’ve ever tasted – I’ve got to try to work out how to make it myself. Or go back there soon!

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My top Spanish dish of the year…well one of them certainly

And the good stuff just kept coming. Slow cooked shoulder of lamb that melted in the mouth, sweetly caramelised onions and a crunch of fried aubergine. Ingredients couldn’t get much simpler or produce a tastier result.

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A totally tempting trio for mains

We also sampled a local stew made from rabbit, snails and chicken, traditionally eaten by the workers on the land. Hearty fare designed to give you strength.

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A hearty traditional stew

Dessert was a luscious cheesecake served with nuts, preserves and local honey. Heavenly.

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Finishing off a delightful lunch with a delightful dessert

One of my Spanish colleagues on our trip through Catalonia introduced me to Orujo – basically the local liquor drunk as a digestive after an indulgent lunch. The appropriate way to finish off your feast that definitely helps with the digestion. Thank you Jose, a new Spanish tradition that I’ve embraced.

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Colourful local liquor at Mirador de Fores

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Here’s the team outside their fabulous restaurant

Phew, that was some lunch – I’d go back to Catalonia just to repeat the experience. Seriously.

A new day dawns and it’s hiking time again. Today we took in scenes from the Spanish Civil War – lookout points, foxholes, bunkers cleverly hidden in rolling hills. A sobering sight and reminder of Spain’s recent and somewhat brutal history. Final destination, the monastery in Vallbona de les Monges, the only female monastery in the region and it still houses eight nuns.

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Vallbona de les Monges and its monastery nestle in the valley

And then of course it’s lunchtime, in another sleepy village. Rocallaura Cafe was full of locals on a sunny Saturday and offered simple, tasty fare.

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Love colourful signage, a great welcome

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Onion bread has never tasted so good

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Sausage, potato, aubergine and jamon, Spanish simplicity at its best

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The joy of the menu del dia

Final stop on our Catalonian odyssey is Verdu. Famous for its handmade ceramics (love a Spanish ceramico), imposing castle and the Miro a la Taula.

Views from on high in the shadow of Verdu castle

Views from on high in the shadow of Verdu castle

What better way to encapsulate Catalonia’s many treasures than a last-night dinner celebrating the art, food and wine of Spain. At Miro a Taula you’re guided through two tastings. The art of Miro and his contemporaries, including Dali, Picasso, Calder, Chillida and Barcelo and the food they ate.

Fabulous tapas, great art and the opportunity to absorb it all in peace and without crowds, a truly unique experience. Followed by a delicious dinner in the gallery.

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Some of my favourite Spanish ingredients on a platter

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The zesty fig and pomegranate starter

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Melt-in-the-mouth lamb with apricots

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The dining area in the centre of the gallery

I think this is the longest blog story I’ve ever written. And that’s because there’s just so much to share with you about this party of beautiful Catalonia. What a journey it was.

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The Catalonian flag against the blue Spanish sky

I was a guest of the Catalan Tourist Board on this trip.

I flew to Barcelona on Vueling.com

Where to stay in Malton, Yorkshire: The Talbot Hotel

Continuing my series on Where to Stay on your travels, today we’re taking a mini break, heading north from London to Malton, Yorkshire.

The Talbot Hotel was originally built in the early 17th century as a hunting lodge and has traded as an inn since 1740. It was completely restored in 2011. Here’s why you should stay there.

The location

Set in the heart of the historic market town of Malton with its myriad shops and great food, it’s also only 10 miles from the North York Moors and 18 miles from the city of York. I love that you get the mix of country living – fresh air, peace and open spaces – as well as a bustling little town with great food shopping and a cookery school. Read more about what I saw in Malton here.

The views

Quintessentially English with green, rolling countryside as far as the eye can see. The hotel is set on a hill so you get a wonderful perspective on your surroundings and the rural world around you.

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Yes, it really was this green, the English countryside at its best

The rooms

The beautifully decorated rooms are generous in size with a large, extremely comfortable bed, desk, separate seating area and lovely ensuite. I particularly loved the huge shower and its striking black and white tiles.

There’s a kettle and a range of coffee and tea including a lot of herbal brews – a refreshing cup of tea in the comfort of your room is always welcome.

Oh and the wi-fi’s really good – fast and reliable.

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The breakfast

One of the absolute best things about staying in a hotel has to be breakfast time. I’m not usually much of a breakfast eater. I know, it’s the most important meal of the day, I just can’t manage it – unless I’m in a hotel, that is, and options are literally presented to me on a plate.

There’s a buffet offering of fruit, cereal and pastries and a menu of delights, too. The first morning I tucked into poached eggs and avocado on toast – heavenly.

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I love the combo of avocado and egg

On morning two I wrestled with my choices, ultimately abandoning one of my favourite breakfast treats – eggs benedict – for the delights of a full English. Thought I’d better sample the local bacon, sausage and black pudding and I wasn’t disappointed. I liked the fact that it wasn’t stupidly huge like they sometimes are and I managed to polish off the whole plate.

Okay, I admit it, I must be a breakfast eater, just not if I’m making it myself.

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The full English Talbot-style

The Cookery School

Not only can you shop for and eat amazing food in Malton, you can learn how to cook it too. The Malton Cookery School is allied to the hotel and is just down the road. We did a Yorkshire lamb workshop, which you can read about here. There’s a wide range of courses all held in a kitchen with fantastic facilities and knowledgeable, professional teachers. A really fun and educational way to spend a morning and you’ll come away inspired with new ideas to try at home. I promise.

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The spacious kitchen is a pleasure to work in

The Wentworth Restaurant

We had a delightful dinner in the hotel’s Wentworth restaurant (there’s also the more informal Malton Brasserie which I didn’t have the chance to try out). The menu showcases local products and offered some intriguing choices.

Like this cheese and pickle starter. Smoked Ribblesdale mousse was served with pickled golden vegetables and mustard granola. One of the prettiest starters in a long time and great in flavour, too, with its soft cheesiness, crispy veg and crunchy granola.

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A different take on a classic English combo

I opted for some local scallops which were served with pork belly, black pudding, carrot and blood orange. I’ve experienced the scallop/black pudding thing before and it’s quite amazingly good. The small slivers of pork belly were tender and flavoursome and the carrot puree sweet and delicious.

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Scallop heaven partnered with black pudding

The fish main course option was roast North Sea halibut which was served with mussels, braised fennel, Jeera (cumin) sauce and coconut. The sweetest of fish with an elegant and subtle cumin-flavoured coconut sauce.

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Fish with a touch of the Asian flavours

As we’d spent the morning cooking and eating lamb I had a rare desire for a vegetarian dinner. Lucky for me there was the perfect dish on the menu. The fried potato gnocchi came with woodland mushrooms, peas and broad beans and a silken truffle cream sauce. The little towers of gnocchi were beautifully browned and slightly crispy – just the way I like them, and the pea, bean and pea shoot added greenness and sweetness. The perfect dinner dish after a meat-filled day.

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A delightful plate of indulgent gnocchi

Tonight we were going big – so dessert was on the cards. The options were too good to resist. The Valrhona Manjari chocolate marquise came with cherries in kirsch, cherry sorbet and pistachios. The perfect pudding in shades of purple.

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Who could resist this chocolate/cherry combination

Being not much of a dessert person I took on the responsibility of trying the local cheeses with this substantial artisan selection served with yummy sloe berry chutney, poached grapes and biscuits. All good stuff – and as for the poached grapes.

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Yorkshire is definitely for cheese lovers

The service 

From the warm and efficient welcome at reception to the friendly greetings and smiles from staff, great dinner service and the chatty barman in the cosy bar, everyone is clearly doing their best to make sure you’re happy. And they seem to be enjoying it too.

I felt at home at The Talbot from the moment I walked through the door. It has a warmth and comfort about it and is the perfect base for exploring this beautiful and delicious part of Yorkshire.

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Looking up towards the lovely hotel