Part of the challenge, and joy, of being a writer is to find exactly the right words to express how you feel. In an industry where powerful stories are increasingly reduced to snappy headlines, I find myself guilty of Internet hyperbole – reaching for the most provocative word to elicit a response. The result? Overly dramatic, unnecessarily emotive cliches. Was that dinner I ate the other day truly magnificent? Did that new video on YouTube actually blow my mind? In hindsight, probably not.
But recently, on a week-long road trip through Madhya Pradesh, I had the chance to understand what these superlatives really meant, and what kind of experiences are truly worthy of them: from canoeing on the serene Denwa River and watching the sun rise across the water to pondering the evolution of humankind while standing in the remains of the prehistoric caves in Bhimbetka. My journey got me to see the futility of using these exaggerated words to describe a meal or video when there are sights that will actually take your breath away, experiences that will genuinely leave you speechless and, yes, will absolutely blow your mind. I went to the heart of India a slightly jaded travel writer and returned astounded, humbled, astonished and inspired. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes, a single word conveys what a thousand photographs cannot.
Spindrift falls like meteors on Porquerolles. Spinning spheres of sea spray burst high in the fierce blue sky and fizz on upturned faces. It feels magical, like a snow fight in summer.
Les lies d’Or – Porquerolles, Port-Cros and lie du Levant – lie just 20 minutes by boat off the Côte d’ Azur. The mistral, rushing down the Rhone Valley to the Mediterranean, has its last hurrah here. It’s not called ‘the idiot wind’ for nothing; bent double and forced to a trot by the 40mph gust at your back, it’s hard not to laugh.
Here on the western tip of Porquerolles, the canopy of pine is windswept to a straggly green quiff, in keeping, as it were, with the island’s retro vibe. This is the South of France as sung by Jacques Brel, unstyled and unspoilt. If Saint-Tropez is Brigitte Bardot in a bikini, Porquerolles is Jeanne Moreau in a fisherman’s jumper and espadrilles. The charms of this particular island are deliberately low-key, as if it has learned from the Riviera the perils of trying too hard.
The croissant-shaped island is just 21sq km in area: small enough to explore by foot or bike, but big enough to find solitude and, if you discount the urgent pulsing of the cicadas, silence. Private cars are banned on Porquerolles and there is no public transport. The best way to get around is cycling, and hire shops are plentiful. It should, however, be noted that the Jules- and-Jim fantasy takes you only so far on the extravagantly rutted dirt roads. The best thing would be to go for the BMX option. And don’t even think about a tandem – unless you’re hell-bent on divorce.
Island life centres on the Place d’Armes, a vast square shaded and scented by columns of eucalyptus. The trees were planted as a precaution against cholera in the Napoleonic era, when the island was a military garrison. Since then, it has been turned over to a soda factory and a penal colony for children (there is a reason why French kids have such lovely table manners). The pristine landscape and douceur de vivre enjoyed today is almost entirely due to a Belgian gold prospector by the name of FJ Fournier, who bought Porquerolles in the early 1900s on an impulse for his new wife. In 1971, just as Fournier’s descendants were on the point of selling to Club Med, the state stepped in and declared 80 percent of the island a national park.
Today, the Place d’Armes is a convivial, buzzing space where doves take dust baths and children turn cartwheels in a blur of brown limbs and Breton stripes. As shadows lengthen and the ferry carries off the last of the day-trippers, the square returns to its imperturbable rhythm. On broad cafe verandas, I’apéro turns into dinner and dinner streches to un petit digestif – the island-made mandarin liqueur, sharp, unsticky and full of vitamins, does the job nicely. The sudden ceasing of the cicadas is filled by the clink-clank of petanque – the game is an obsession here – and visitors are invited to consider the binary principle of boules: do you aim for the jack or do you smash your opponent out of play? As the vitamins kick in, the question assumes existential significance.
The Mani, in southernmost Greece, is a land where myths were born,gods once roamed, and the people are as proud and rugged as the mountains they call home. Jim Yardley gets lostin one of the last great undiscovered corners of Europe.
Somewhere in the Taiyetos Mountains, I was driving along a winding, two-lane road past thickets of prickly pear, navigating blind turns and pushing deeper into the Peloponnese peninsula of mainland Greece when the GPS device in my rental car suffered a fatal seizure.
Big problem. I couldn’t read the Greek road signs, and I didn’t know the route to the stone tower house converted into a tiny hotel where I had booked a room. I was planning to spend five days exploring the Mani, one of Europe’s most isolated and starkly beautiful regions, as well as the setting for several key scenes in Greek mythology. The ancient Greeks claimed it was here that Orpheus descended to the underworld; today, this primeval landscape remains largely undiscovered—meaning visitors will, in all likelihood, have it mostly to themselves.
That I was suddenly GPS-less seemed fitting, as reaching the Mani has never been easy. Over the centuries, Maniots have fought off invading Turks, slaughtered mercenary Egyptians, and unleashed homegrown pirates onto ships plying the trade routes between Venice and the Levant.
When they weren’t fighting outsiders, Maniots fought among themselves, blasting cannons or firing rifles, one clan against another. More recently, they resisted the leftist politics that swept through the rest of Greece as the country straggled to recover from its economic crisis. The feuding ended long ago, but civilisation did not immediately fill the vacuum. Man walked on the moon before a paved road reached southernmost Mani.
The future has arrived in Mongolia, both in the high-rises of its capital, Ulaanbaatar, and in the vast emptiness
If the Buddha were living now I think he would use social media,” said Baasan Lama, the fresh-faced abbot of Erdene Zuu, Mongolia’s oldest monastery. He flashed a luminous smile. “I already have a Facebook page.” From the folds of his thick red-and-gold robes, he pulled a small book he had published four months earlier that offers 108 tips for right action in a scattered world. “Short,” he told me, in no-nonsense English. “People don’t like to read long books these days!”
Visitors from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s boomtown capital, kept bundling into the small room where I was sitting with the Hamba Lama Baasansuren, as he is officially known, to receive his blessings and teachings. Not many minutes earlier, in the 17th-century whitewashed prayer hall next door, I’d listened to him lead chants while younger monks pounded drums.
The bulging-eyed black demons on the walls, the red-and-gold benches, the fragrance of juniper incense, and the flickering rows of candles and butterlamps all made me feel as if I were in Tibet.
The complex contained temples that looked Chinese and gers (the domed white felt huts also known as yurts) with chapels inside. A brick wall surrounded it, mounted with 108 tall, white stupas that seemed to ward off the emptiness of the Orkhon Valley, once the centre of the Turkic, Uighur, and Mongol empires and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Erdene Zuu, locals had told me, stands on the ruins of Karakorum, the city that Genghis Khan’s son Ogodei built in 1235. Driving here across unending grassland, I’d seen only a handful of lonely white gers against the wide horizon and a few crop-circle gatherings of goats beside Bronze Age burial mounds.
Though Baasan Lama is only 37, he has spent the past 24 years in the temple, having taken on robes after his country emerged from 70 years of Soviet-imposed atheism. Now the strapping lama was presenting me with a sleekly produced CD he’d released to go with his book, featuring sing-along Buddhist chants that had become instant hits with the iPhone-tapping, Lexus-driving, sushi-and-Gucci movers of Ulaanbaatar. As two ‘monklets’ offered us cups of fermented mare’s milk and bowls of noodles with thick beef, the lama continued his impromptu discourse. “I’ve read the Bible,” he said. “And the Koran. I think that if Jesus and Mohammed and the Buddha were alive now, they would be good friends.”
Shopping fanatic, festival-goer or just a lover of delicious locally produced food? Whoever you are and whatever you want from a city, Edmonton’s got something for you.
History – DISCOVER EDMONTON’S PAST
Those craving history on their holiday will be kept busy in Edmonton. Check out Fort Edmonton Park – a living museum that divides the city’s history into four fascinating, defining eras, including the Fur Trading Era of the 1840s, and Metropolitan Era of the 1920s. Elsewhere, you can journey the highest streetcar crossing in the world with a ride on the 100-year-old High Level Bridge Streetcar, or visit the grand Alberta Legislature grounds and building.
Festival City – THERE’S A FESTIVAL FOR YOU
Forget wellies, mud and damp tents – Edmonton’s festival scene is far more diverse than a weekend in the rain. It’s here that you’ll find entire festivals dedicated to celebrating food like July’s Taste of Edmonton, a gathering of over 60 locally-owned restaurants, and the Servus Heritage Festival celebrating (and sampling!) over 80 cultures from around the world. August brings the world-renowned Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, an 11 – day event with local and international artists performing in unique venues such as pubs and bookshops. Music lovers won’t want to miss the Blues Festival 19-21 August, Sonic Boom on 3-4 September for indie rock and pop, and the Folk Music Festival 4-7 August.
Head Outdoors – CITY STREETS WITH BONUS PARKS
Those looking to combine a cool city vibe with adventurous outdoor activities will find themselves in the right place. In Edmonton you’ll discover the largest expanse of urban parkland in North America. So get ready for mountain biking, hiking and running. For something less strenuous, try renting a canoe and paddling along the North Saskatchewan River. Visiting in winter? Try snowshoeing or skiing right there in the city’s river valley. Find out more on page 78.
From lavender-scented islands, secluded coves that look straight out of a James Bond film, to sunny cafes, fashionable nightlife, and stunning yacht-filled marinas, Croatia’s coast is a gorgeous Mediterranean treat.
This lovely, lavender-covered island is dotted with secluded pebbly beaches and coves. And, everyone wants a piece of the action in the sunniest and most happening of the Adriatic islands. Outside of Dubrovnik, Hvar is the epicentre of travel in the Dalmatian region. Holidaymakers come to be around the yachts lined along the harbour of the namesake capital and among the revellers forking out more than top dollar (in Croatian terms) to party into the night. A massive overhaul of key hotels here in the Sunčani Hvar chain has been followed by a slower stage of development as the town comes to terms with its stardom.
The hub of it all is Hvar town harbour. In high season this pretty, petite Venetian capital of 3,000 locals on the island’s south-west tip overflows with 30,000 visitors every day.
They swarm the attractive waterfront and adjoining main square, Pjaca, doing coffee, and the nearby market by morning, the beach by day and the bars by night. Prices now match those of fashionable hotspots elsewhere on the Med. Sunčani Hvar’s Amfora Hotel broke new ground when it opened, its conference centre containing an outdoor meeting area and cascading pool area lined by bars, restaurants and gardens.
A burgeoning cafe-and-gallery vibe fits well with the low-key attitudes of Stari Grad and Jelsa, further east along the coast. Both are fine examples of old neighbourhoods where stone houses, ornate colonnaded balconies and winding pedestrian promenades, polished by centuries of travellers, take top billing over discos and clubs. In Jelsa’s serpentine alleyways, for instance, quality eateries have sprouted.
Nearby Vrboska is also a delight with its tiny stone bridges, two marinas and just enough restaurants and bars to keep the yachties happy. There’s a sense in these towns that, except for a few mad weeks, it’s just you, the locals and ancient stone decor.
For a real insight into the history of this island, go inland to Humac, Dol, Maio Grabje, Velo Grabje or Vrbanj. Now mostly uninhabited except for the odd konoba, the original islanders built their old stone houses safe from the pirates of Omiš and worked the land.
Stari Grad is also the point of entry for car ferries from Split. It was here that Greeks from Paros settled in 385 BC. Invading Venetians then shifted the centre of power (and the name) to the west coast port of today’s Hvar town. The elegant loggias and main square in Hvar town owe their look to Venice. Beaches line each side of the bay, the southern one towards Borić less crowded; and Jelsa has child-friendly Mina. Taxi boats run to the Glavića peninsula and the nudist beach on nearby Zečevo island.
At first glance, Naoshima, a teeny five-square-mile island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, doesn’t look like much. Just a quietly unassuming, albeit perfectly pretty rural outpost – a sparing landscape of green mottled cliffs and empty, biscuit-coloured beaches. Then you notice the giant pumpkins. There’s the big yellow one covered in black polka dots at the pier.
Then the even larger, red-spotted pumpkin greeting visitors at Miyanoura Port. Later, strolling between villages along hushed island roads, I’ll spot more bizarre objects -some stuck in the sand, others peeping out from bushes – a huge tea cup, a geometric fishing net I can’t resist climbing inside for a picture, a multicoloured camel with trees growing out of its humps.
What do you think of when you hear ‘Japan’? Blade Runner-style cityscapes, strewn with video megascreens and neon? Robot waiters and cat cafes? Or maybe tranquil temples, and sacred misty mountain tops. Certainly Japan’s ‘Golden Triangle’ – your typical tour that takes in Tokyo, Kyoto and the Japan Alps – can deliver. But, keen to see another side to this famously reserved, futuristic island nation, I’ve scooted further south along the country’s main island of Honshu, where there’s a whole other Japan waiting in the wings to be discovered; an ‘alternative Golden Triangle’, which topples as many stereotypes as it confirms.
Which is how I come to be on Naoshima. Once a sleepy fishing island, idle in its anonymity 700km below Tokyo, Naoshima is today completely overrun by contemporary art. Part-theme park, part-playground, and all brilliant, wherever you turn here, you’ll bump into an installation, a sculpture, or ultramodern, avant-garde museum. And those psychedelic pumpkins? They’re works by Japan’s greatest living artist: the eccentric, red-wigged octogenarian Yayoi Kusama, who has lived in a psychiatric hospital since 1975, and was an early influence on Andy Warhol. True story.
It’s a concept with just the right balance of crazy and genius to be distinctly Japanese, while offering a very different experience to your noisy megalopolis or reflective Zen garden. Even that most staid of institutions, the museum, is made thoughtfully radical: at Chichu Art Museum, I descend into an ethereal, all-white underground chamber, sparsely decorated with Monets. (Chichu literally translates as ‘in the earth’.) The white-out brings out the becalming effect of the Water Lilies; the silent museum staff are also dressed in head-to-toe white, and as they glide around, I’m left with the distinct impression that I’ve dropped through a portal into a museum from the year 2135.
If the rolling green fields and farms full of plump, healthy animals didn’t give it away, you’re not on a city break if you’re staying at The Bildeston Crown. The food-forward hotel takes pride of place at the centre of the quiet village of Bildeston near Ipswich, which is lined with multicoloured houses.
In what was far from my proudest moment, I casually assumed that the hotel’s rooms were each named after fafm animals, until I realised the sign that read ‘duck’ outside ours was a warning about the hallway’s low beams. The rooms themselves blend sleek modernity with the building’s cottage-like structure – twisting beams and occasionally creaking floorboards are combined with lots of space, a smart TV and an enormous, luxurious bathroom with a rain shower so big you couldn’t reach either side. Perfect for winding-down after all that strenuous eating and relaxing.
With local produce as good as Suffolk’s, chef Chris Lee’s food – served at the hotel’s airy restaurant from two à la carte menus, or via a tasting menu – doesn’t need to overcomplicate things. Sun-yellow yolk oozed from the first cut into a tangy haddock fishcake, and asparagus – as seasonal as it gets – was bursting with flavour, too. My main, a braised collar of Suffolk ham, drenched in warming mustard sauce and served with crispy croquettes, was another example of a light touch applied to a piece of local meat that sang with flavour.
Ideally, you’ll want a car to travel around this part of the world – train stations aren’t exactly in abundance. Make sure you check out Hollow Trees farm, a 15-minute drive away – say hello to happy goats, pigs, cows and chickens on the farm trail, and save time to browse the enormous farm shop, full-to-bursting with local Suffolk meats, cheeses, wines and more. Given where you are, you’d be remiss to overlook it.
Why do we do it to ourselves? Our lives are short and the world is so interesting. So why do we spend so money of our weekends away in well behaved cities that are so meek and mild, so boring and band? Macedonia’s capital in anything but. Skopje has swagger. It swears and pokes, it jolts and jostles, it preens and poses. Walking around it is like a night out with Alex Higgins. Snowy peaks punch above it, a muddy river slices through it, drivers speed around in mud-caked cars narrowly avoiding fatal smashes, stray dogs bark and pout, beautiful women look dismissive, fat men smoke and squabble, the air is thick with all kinds of opportunities, many of them sinful.
It’s a city that’s alive. Most of all it is exotic, and that exoticism seeps from every pore. North of the River Vardar, minarets puncture a smoggy sky, and the bazaar throbs with a million sensations. The call to prayer echoes from tinny loudspeakers, the smell of Turkish tea wafts along, switchback alleys offer that most delicious possibility: the chance to get completely lost in a place where you see virtually no Western European tourists, hear virtually no English or French or Italian apart from the names of famous football players shouted at TVs. Creaky wooden buildings lean over each other, shoddy souvenirs are flogged by shysters who wink and waggle fingers.
An Ottoman spice grinder? Yeah, I think, why not? I make a mental note to check nothing’s been stashed inside it before I go through customs. A slice of burek? Yep – the spinach and feta one, always the spinach and feta one. I try to remember the name of the stall where I buy the flaky pastry pie – the Balkans’ second most popular export after Drina fags – but even if I were a better journalist I’d never find it. Just go looking, you won’t regret it.
Serendipity, rather than good research and keen mapping skills, bring me to the Water Inn and then the old hammam that signal how important the Ottomans were during their five centuries of colonisation of these lands. Their dominance ended at the river, where the famous old Stone Bridge sails out from the Muslim world and lands in the Christian one. On a wall, on the Muslim side, graffiti in English (for maximum effect) reads “fuck nationalism”. Someone has tried to scribble it out – probably the police and probably because the current right-wing government is very much for nationalism.
And that’s why the centre of Skopje now looks like nothing less than a Las Vegas mega-resort, an unholy marriage of The Bellagio and Caesars Palace with hundreds of yard sale statues thrown in for free. These new buildings are an absolute architectural abomination with their pediments and whitewash. But they’re gripping and they’re absolutely a part of what this city is all about. This is what happens when former communist countries try to jettison the 20th century. There’s a new theatre that looks like a belle epoque theatre and a new archaeological museum that looks like a casino. The whole point of this Skopje 2014 ruse was to project a civilised, cultured, mitteleuropa feel.
Belmond La Samanna brings a luxurious touch to the natural beauy and charm of St Martin, with fantastic food, spacious suites and the best sunsets in the Caribbean
It’s easy to leave your cares behind when you’re gazing out over pure-white sands, fringed with palms and lapped by the turquoise Caribbean Sea. It’s even easier when you’re doing so from your spacious ocean-view suite at Belmond La Samanna — the most exclusive resort on the beautiful island of St Martin.
“AS SOON AS YOU CHECK IN TO YOUR ROOM, YOU’LL KNOW YOU’RE SOMEWHERE TRULY SPECIAL”
Belmond La Samanna is an elegant contemporary resort, perched right on the soft white sands of Baie Longue and set among lush greenery, where everything is designed for pure enjoyment and relaxation. From the moment you check in to your luxuriously appointed room or suite, many with sea views and private balconies, you’ll know you’ve arrived somewhere special.
That’s a feeling you’ll become familiar with at Belmond Samanna, from the year-round warm sea — where you can kick back in a cabana, or enjoy complimentary watersports — to the stellar lineup of fantastic restaurants and bars, which range from the formal to the relaxed.
Begin the day with a lavish breakfast at Interlude, then head to the Beach Bar for lunch, where you can dine on grilled fish and light bites right at the foot of the ocean. Later, try Trellis for locally caught lobster in an elegant bistro setting, with wine from the private cellar — it houses more than 20,000 bottles. For a special occasion, you can even dine in the cellar’s private dining room. If laid-back dining and pristine beaches aren’t relaxing enough, the decadent Elysée Spa will soon have you in a blissfully tranquil state. Choose from a first-class selection of massages and treatments, using products by Sisley and Pure Altitude. Or just pull up a lounger by the infinity pool and soak up the Caribbean sun —then watch the spectacular sunset at the end of the day, with a signature cocktail in your hand.
Beyond Belmond La Samanna itself, there’s the whole of beautiful St Martin to explore, from the quieter French side (on which the resort sits) to the popular Dutch half. There are more than 450 restaurants to seek out, plus bars, nightclubs, casinos and outstanding beaches.
But you’ll find the very best of St Martin at Belmond La Samanna. It’s paradise, with added luxury.