Month: April 2017

Ikos Olivia, Greece

WHAT: October half-term can be dark and gloomy — the days arc; getting shorter and colder and there are fewer opportunities to get the kids outdoors to burn off energy. So, what could be better than a five-night trip to Greece for some sun, swimming and, of course, a kids’ club. The Ikos Olivia resort is making a bit of a name for itself by claiming to have ripped up the all-inclusive rulebook. From the chauffeur pick-up at the airport to the rooms, food and facilities, everything is included and it’s all top quality. There are five restaurants on site serving up menus created by Michelin-starred chefs — four (Asian, Italian, Greek and French) offer a la carte menus. The other offers a buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner but it’s not the usual spread. Here, you’ll find a huge rang; of goodies, from pancakes at breakfast, Greek salads and pulied pork for lunch to Moussaka at dinner — all delicious. And if you grow tired of all these opt ions, you can even swap your meal at the resort for one at a local taverna. Alcohol is also included at no extra cost.

Ikos Olivia

Ikos Olivia

Then there’s the 24/7 room service; mini-bar (topped up daily); kids’ club run by Brits, sporting activities, including non-motorised watersports, football, basketball, tennis and beach volleyball; plus nightly entertainment. Other touches include being able to leave your kids for half an hour on the beach with qualified staff so you can go fora swim; all-day snacks laid on at the restaurants; and an in-room Nespresso machine. Apart from the last day, the weather wasn’t great, but being typically British we sat by the pool in jeans and jumpers and watched our kids slowly turn blue as they jumped in and out of the water with friends they’d made at kids’ club. Then we huddled under towels on the beach so the kids could build a sand city, before taking to the football pitch to warm up. But sunshine or not, Ikos has really provided with the Olivia and it’s going to be hard to go back to anything else.

WHY: The all-inclusive experience really does live up to the hype.

SUITS: All ages — there’s a creche for babies 4 months-plus (costs extra), kids’ club for4-lls and one for ages 12 and over.

DID IT WORK? Despite the bad weather, we all loved it: the great food, our beautiful room, the beach setting and the facilities. There’s also a lovely spa — treatments cost extra but adults can use the indoor pool whenever they like.

Ivy Cottage, Brighton And Hove

Oh we do like to be beside the seaside — especially if it’s just a stone’s throw from the beach at Hove. Brighton’s elegant annex is walking distance from all the main city sights but comes with smart restaurants and hipster delis along the ever-gentrifying Western Road, and quieter, residential streets with houses for holiday rental that are half the price of central hotels. Ours (a smart, two-up/two-down mews cottage) comes with free wi-fi, a breakfast hamper and a pretty patio.

Campaigners have said Brighton could be the Monaco of England

Brighton and Hove

It’s minutes from the newly opened i360, ‘the world’s first vertical cable-car’. With a glass pod to ride in, plus a ‘skybar’ and panoramic views, this is a winner for kids and adults. Sea Life Brighton has the new Secrets of the Reef exhibit: a colourful way to learn about marine conservation. And if the neon-lit pier snacks don’t appeal, try’ sleek new seafood restaurant, The Salt Room, whose ‘Taste of the Pier’ dessert features mini candy floss, chocolate pebbles and doughnuts.

WHY: A cool, calm city break pad.

SUITS: All but babies and tots.

DOES IT WORK: Yes. Great location.

Barsham Barns, North Norfolk

Impossible to miss, resplendent in the North Norfolk countryside, you could easily picture Barsham Barns making a star turn in Grand Designs. The farm buildings have been impressively and lovingly converted; the Great East Barn is a striking blend of original features (wooden beams, stone walls), modern fittings and glass over three floors, with attention to design and detail at every level. Comfortably housing seven bedrooms, two lounge areas and a more than spacious kitchen/dining area, it’s the perfect space for several families or a group of friends.

Barsham-Barns

Barsham Barns

Gardens are neatly landscaped — tidy lawns set against pretty wild flowers and dividing hedges — while the barbecue area and dining tables make a great option for sunny days (none in our case, sadly). Thankfully, the games room and spa area— with hot tub and steam room— are ideal whatever the weather. And despite being surrounded in all directions by seemingly endless miles of farmland, there are a wealth of attractions nearby — stately homes, seaside towns, beaches, walks and kids’ options.

WHY: Ideal weekend retreat with plenty of style and mod cons combined with plentiful surrounding activities and attractions.

SUITS: Large groups of friends and families in search of a countryside escape. The other barns would also work well for smaller numbers.

 DID IT WORK?  Absolutely, highly recommended.

THE DETAILS: Barsham Barns offers The Great East Barn from £1,805 for three nights or £3,705 for seven nights, based on 14 sharing on a self-catering basis.

France By The Ferry: Outstanding Views And Relaxation

“A cinema? On a boat?” Kids can pick up on the most innocuous details. But I’m grateful, all the same. Trying to get them enthused about being on a ship for several hours requires an incentive. My childhood holidays invariably involved ferries (flying was remarkably expensive in the ’80s), so taking the car across the Channel seems a natural thing to do with kids of a certain age — sharing the adventurBrittany-Ferries-Cinemae with t hem, rather than sharing a toddler’s tantrums with everyone else. There’s also a certain luxury in having all your usual items to hand, plus the comfy familiarity of your own car — even if you still get lost in confusing one way systems and can’t tune the radio.

One of the challenges of family travel is the cost, and part of the desire to take the ferry to France was also to prove that a week away for a family of four in August can be done for under £1,000 — rather than the four-figure prices often quoted. A short hop from Portsmouth over to Cherbourg (the cinema is on the return leg) means a brief overnight stay in the surprisingly pretty port town (advance rates at the modern, comfortable Hotel Mercure Cherbourg Centre Port are also surprisingly reasonable), and the opportunity to visit Mont Saint-Michel en route the next day. This is one of Europe’s most stunning sights, at the point where Normandy and Brittany merge, the medieval monastery atop a granite island entrances the kids with its fairytale castle quality.

A couple of hours’ drive south and we arrive in Arzon as the sun’s setting. It sits at the tip of the Rhuys Peninsula, in the Gulf of Morbihan. There’s a sense of warmth and calm here — a pace of life that reflects the milder climate and the seasonal visitors looking fora bit of R&R. Along this Atlantic coast, there are beautiful, sweeping, often-deserted beaches. Coastal walks, bike hire, sailing and other watersports are also draws, and our base in Port du Crouesty is home to a wealth of yacht sand motorboats.

Pierre & Vacances Port du Crouesty Holiday Village

Pierre & Vacances Port du Crouesty Holiday Village

Our accommodation at the Pierre & Vacances Port du Crouesty Holiday Village is a little basic but we’re blessed with blue skies and temperatures in the high 20s. The resort is great for kids — we have a playground 30 seconds from our apartment, while the pool and beach are less than five minutes away. And if you know kids under the age of 10, you’ll know all they want to do most of the time on holiday is splash about in the water. There’s plenty to explore — Chateau de Suscinio, the ramparts in Vannes, Musee de Prehistoire de Carnac… we even head to Nantes for the day to delight/scare the kids with the city’s famous Grand Elephant at the spectacular Les Machines de Pile. Be warned, the enormous mechanical wooden pachyderm requires advance booking if you want a ride.

More often than not, though, we go from the pool to the beach to the harbour and back to the pool. The restaurants, patisseries and ice cream parlours a constant draw — mussels and oysters are inescapable while cider, not wine, is the Breton way. We’re not complaining. But after all that, the cinema on the ferry home still holds as much fascination as it had at the start of the journey. It doesn’t take much, sometimes.

Exploring France In A Brand New Way

Overnight, an ocean has appeared under our window. Late arrivals with kids in tow are always disorienting, but dark as it’d been — the sort of deep, countryside dark that has shape and mass — I’m pretty sure our hilltop chalet (several hours from the coast) isn’t surrounded by water. And yet there it is, lapping at our balcony: a silvery lake stretching across the valley. Not a mirage — this mountainous part of inland France never gets that head-spinningly hot — but a dazzling optical illusion that causes each of oParisur days in the Tarn legion to begin with a sharp intake of breath followed by a deep, meditative ‘ahhhhh’. Trebas-les-bains is exemplary Tarn Valley terrain. Here, where mountains rise sharply off densely wooded riverbanks, morning temperature inversions cause the valley to be enveloped in a thick mist, which soon burns off to reveal a scattering of stone houses that just about qualifies as a town — and not many tourists. France’s beaches tempt most of its holidaying population, leaving this verdant river valley of farmland and beautiful medieval bastides (fortified towns) to the outdoors-loving Northern Europeans who travel here because no one else does.

“Why is it called Trebas, when it’s so high?” demands French-speaking Mia, as we climb slowly into the mountains on rental bikes the next morning. At points, it’s certainly not tres has (very low), she’s right, but for every up there’s a freewheeling down, roads cutting shady tunnels through woodland, grass verges releasing clouds of mint aroma as our wheels brush past.

Tarn Valley

Tarn Valley

From Les Magnolia’s, a hotel in truly pleasant Plaisance, we hire bikes, admiring but not tackling this village piled vertically up the banks of the Ranee River, ivy-clad houses set into the rocks. But from here on, virtually car-free roads make for easy pedaling. We pull over at an apple orchard here, a natural spring there, to refill water bottles, test legs and let the odd tractor pass, whose rumbling approach is audible long before it arrives in these tranquil green hills. At Villeneuve-sur-Tarn, the road skirts the water, butterflies and herons wheeling overhead. The Tarn’s fortified towns, we decide, are at t heir most impressive straddling the water as they do at Villeneuve and neighbouring Ambialet and Brousse-le-Château. Bastions against English invasion, they were built at a time when the Vatican encouraged crusades to rid the region of Cathar heretics.

The Tarn’s most postcard perfect village, Brousse-le-Château, comprises a series of stone houses stacked staircase-like up a narrow gorge, topped with a castle museum. Here, kids can try on medieval armour, learn about a captured princess and peer down through a floor grating into a deep, well like prison cell. “This is eeeeasy,” says Ella, when we exchange peddle for paddle power the next day. Shallow, steadily moving waters make the River Tarn a travelator for kayakers, leaving kids with hands free to trail through its mini rapids. Between villages, the river is delightfully devoid of shops or man-made distractions. The six-mile stretch from Trebas to Ambialet takes us much of the day, with plenty of pauses for picnics on tree-shaded river and lake beaches.

Les Magnolia’s

Les Magnolia’s

But with days spent kayaking, swimming, biking and — on the crystal-clear lake in the mountain village of Villefranche-de-Panat — powering a pedalo, appetites are not sated by picnic alone. “It’s caveman food!” exclaims Ella, tackling a vast platter of rough-cut charcuterie. We’re dining on the trellis-topped terrace at La Chanterelle, on the outskirts of Trebas. Inside, the scene is more medieval than primeval — hunks of meat braising on an open fire. Like so many of the Tarn’s restaurants, unfussy presentation and hearty portions reign supreme here. Rustic fare it may be, but some of France’s most prized farms furnish the Tarn’s tables. Evidence of this can be heard mooing and bleating in the fields raked along the valley; doe-eyed cows that produce a rosy veal that lures top Italian chefs across the border, and sheep whose milk is made locally into the cheese that becomes a legendary blue in the caves of Roquefort, 60 miles away.

Both Roquefort and Albi (a UNESCO World Heritage Sit e) are easy day trips from Trebas, but we don’t want to break the Tarn’s tranquil spell. Instead, we climb again into the mountains, to Ferme de Peyrouse, a family-run farm where kids can take tractor rides, feed chickens and commune with those doe-eyed cows. Afterwards, in the barn-cum-restaurant, Ella sits transfixed, watching aligot being made. The cheesy, creamy, buttery mash potato mixture is stretched like elastic dough, a metre above a tin bath-size pan, before being served. Ella, whose birdlike appetite is infamous, eats two huge bowls topped with steak hache (premium beef burger). “Mmmm,” she says, rubbing her swollen tummy. “I want to make this at home.” Reliant on the unique potatoes, milk and cheese produced in this verdant valley, aligot is among the many things I think we’ll simply have to come back to the Tarn.

The Most Impressive Must-See Places In The Canary Islands

Loro Parque is a true “must visit” in the Canary Islands for millions of visitors from all over the world. Recognized by TripAdvisor as the best zoo in Europe and second best in the world through its prestigious Travellers’ Choice Awards, this magnificent park is a true animal embassy that promotes conservation of biodiversity and protection of natural habitats. Thanks to its mild climate and sunny weather, this winter holiday season is the best time to take a holiday break in the Canary Islands and enjoy discovering the amazing wonders of the animal world with Loro Parque.

Loro Parque

Loro Parque

Fascinating new surprises await the visitors this summer as Loro Parque, true to its commitment to excellence and innovation, welcomes some of the brightest and beautiful bird originated from Mexico and Brazil in the new spacious aviaries. In a unique journey through every part of the planet’s fascinating nature, the park’s guests will also meet the adorable red pandas, learn about gorillas, discover the Planet Penguin and Katandra Treetops, enjoy the florescent jellyfish at Aqua Viva and amaze at the astonishing shark tunnel, among other breath-taking experiences.

Siam Park is the N⁰1 water park in the world, according to TripAdvisor, for the third year in a row through receiving a prestigious Travellers Choice Award. Thanks to the unique water attractions, Siam Park has established itself as a worldwide leading and revolutionary theme park in this branch. The most recent recognition as the Best Water Park in Europe by 2016 European Star Awards only reinforces this magnificent achievement. Siam Park’s brand new attraction, Singha, is the most impressive water coaster on the planet. Recognized by multiple international awards, Singha has won the hearts of thousands of adrenaline and fun lovers.

Siam Park

Siam Park

A unique experience is perfect to be enjoyed this Christmas with beloved family and friends! Immersed in tropical scenery, Siam Park is a unique place in which the entire family will discover adventure and experience an authentic adrenaline rush and shocking dose of excitement with an impressive variety of slides and the world’s biggest artificial wave. For those who prefer relaxation, tranquillity and nature, Siam Park offers diverse possibilities, with its white sand beach, exotic views, tropical gardens and laid back journey on the crystalline waters of the lazy river – amazing for the winter holiday getaway!

Dolomites: Hiking, Swimming And Breathing Fresh Air

Our shelter for the night is a simple wooden hut, 6,560ft above sea level. We’ve no electricity, scant phone signal, no wi-fi. The dim light of a log fire and a few candles casts spooky shadows on the walls around the decorative skulls of long-dead deer. A frog the size of a pigeon hops about outside the front door. What kind of night are we going to have? We arrived in San Cassiano two days before — me, my husband, John-Paul, and our daughter, Nancy (12) — having flown to Innsbruck then crossed the border into the Italian South Tyrol, then up, up, up into the jagged peaks of the Dolomites — snow-topped even in high summer but golden in the setting sun.

San Cassiano

San Cassiano

We planned an active holiday, with some luxurious relaxation built in, courtesy of Hotel & Spa Rosa Alpina, a five-star in San Cassiano that’s been run by the Pizzini family for generations. San Cassiano is best known for skiing (it has an impressive 80 miles of slopes) but in summer it offers us the chance to go hiking, climbing, and to enjoy high-end cooking lessons — not to mention spend many joyous hours flying about on cable-cars and chairlifts. On our first morning, the hotel’s mountain guide, Diego, takes us on a hike into the mountains. I’ve rarely seen a man as happy as the sprightly Diego, who almost skips as he walks. In his time, he’s guided many notable people through the hillside meadows — media moguls, presidents and now, er, us.

We’re here in mid-July: perfect to enjoy the mountains in full bloom with blues, pinks, yellows and whites; clover, forget-me-nots, primulas, orchids, globeflowers, mountain avens, indigo gentians. Many of them are edible, and Diego regularly dives into the tangle of vegetation to pull out tasty morsels of wild spinach, or garlic, or violas to eat. I’d been unsure about having a guide with us — worried Nancy might get bored with endless facts. But she’s entranced by Diego, and together they walk his beloved ‘pale mountains’ and hunt the wilderness for more things to eat. This being Italy, there’s always something tasty around the corner. After a short walk, we arrive at Bioch, a mountain refuge with stripy deckchairs to relax in as you gaze at glacier-topped Marmolada mountain in the distance.

 Hotel & Spa Rosa Alpina

Hotel & Spa Rosa Alpina

We’re greeted by Markus, Bioch’s exuberant host, who wears Austrian-style lederhosen. His wife, Suzanne, is resplendent in a green dirndl. This is border country and Diego explains how the Austro-Hungarian Empire lost the South Tyrol to Italy after World War I. Everyone speaks German as well as Italian (plus Ladin, the local language). Much of the cuisine is Austrian but with an Italian twist (or is that Italian with an Austrian twist?). We tuck into hearty barley soup and tutres (crispy pancakes filled with spinach and ricotta or sauerkraut).

Bioch is part of the Giro d’ltalia dei Sapori, a culinary scheme involving 10 mountain huts in the Alta Badia ski area working with Michelin-starred chefs. Thus I find myself lunching on steamed Arctic char, infused with aromatic herbs — a dish created by Norbert Niederkofler, the head chef at Rosa Alpina’s two-Michelin-star Restaurant St Hubertus. Diego decides Nancy has done so well hiking that she should try a climbing lesson the next day. He arranges for fellow guide Filippo to take us to the area’s highest mountain pass. “Climbing,” says Diego, “is like dancing” And he does a little shuffle to demonstrate. The next day, Filippo kits us out with hard hats and climbing shoes. It may be mid-summer but it’s freezing up here in the mountains and Filippo kindly lends Nancy his fleece and hat.

Alta Badia

Alta Badia

We start our climb amid snow and ice and there’s a chill northerly wind blowing. Filippo scrambles up the sheer cliff attaching the guide ropes for us. At this point, Nancy’s face becomes white and pinched. She holes herself up in a little nook at the bottom of the cliff and refuses to move. Considering it a mother’s duty not to let the side down — despite feeling pretty pinched myself — I allow Filippo to put me into a harness and I begin to climb, with another guide shouting instructions below. I’m terrified but my attempt isn’t too embarrassing: I scale half the cliff before bottling out. The second time round, I almost reach the top. Nancy, I’m afraid to say, refuses to budge. Afterwards, Filippo takes us to the Museum of the Great War.

white-house

The White House – Washington D.C., U.S.A

The official residence of the president of the United States for more than 200 years, the White House is one of the most distinguished buildings in the United States and was built on a location chosen by George Washington in 1790. Irish- born architect James Hoban designed the original building in a Palladian style and when it was nearing completion, President and Mrs. John Adams became the first occupants. It has survived two fires, in 1814 and 1929, and the interior was completely gutted and renovated during Harry S. Truman’s presidency, from 1945 to 1953. In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt officially gave the White House its current name.

THE WAR OF 1812

Tensions with Britain over restrictions on trade and freedom of the seas began to escalate during President James Madison’s administration (1809-17). On June 18, 1812, the US declared war on Britain. In August 1814, British troops reached Washington, D.C., and officers of the Capitol fled, taking the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with them. On August 24, the British defeated the Americans at Bladensburg, a suburb of Washington. They set fire to the Capitol, the White House, the War Department and the Treasury, but a night of heavy rain prevented the city’s destruction. The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, was signed on February 17, 1815.

THE WEST WING

In 1902, the West Wing of the White House was built by the architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White for a total cost of $65,196 This wing (the West Terrace) houses the Cabinet Room, where government officials convene with the president, and the Oval Office, where the president meets visiting heads of state. Many presidents have personalized the Oval Office in some way: President Clinton chose as his desk a table given to President Rutherford B. Hayes by Britain’s Queen Victoria in 1880.

THE WHITE HOUSE INTERIOR

The rooms in the White House are decorated in period styles and filled with valuable antique furniture, china, and silverware. Hanging on the walls are some of America’s most treasured paintings, including portraits of past presidents and first ladies. The room that served as the Cabinet Room from 1865 for 10 presidential administrations (Treaty Room) was restored in 1961 and contains Victorian pieces bought by President Grant. The most central room on the State Floor (Blue Room) was decorated in 1817 in the American Empire style (1810-30) by President Monroe. The same style was later used by first lady Jackie Kennedy to redecorate one of the reception rooms (Red Room) in 1962. The Red Room has always been a favorite of first ladies for receiving guests.

Red Room

white-house-red-room

One of four reception rooms, the Red Room is furnished in red in the American Empire style. The fabrics were woven in the US from French designs.

Stonework

This is regularly repainted to maintain the building’s white facade.

West Terrace

white-house-west-terrace

This leads to the West Wing, the Cabinet Room, and the Oval Office, the president’s official office.

North Facade

white-house-north-facade

The Palladian-style facade of the White House is familiar to millions of people around the world.

Green Room

white-house-green-room

Another reception room, this was first used as a guest room before being turned into a dining room by Thomas Jefferson. Today, it is used for small receptions and predinner cocktails for guests at state dinners.

State Dining Room

white-house-state-dining-room

Able to seat as many as 140 people, the State Dining Room was enlarged in 1902. A portrait of President Abraham Lincoln, painted by George P. A. Healy in 1869, hangs above the fireplace.

East Room

white-house-east-room

This room is used for large gatherings, such as dances and concerts.

Diplomatic Reception

white-house-diplomatic-reception

This room is used to welcome friends and ambassadors. It is elegantly furnished in the Federal Period style (1790-1820).

Lincoln Bedroom

white-house-loncoln-bedroom

President Lincoln used this room as his Cabinet Room. It was turned into a bedroom by President Truman, who filled it with furnishings from the Lincoln era.

Vermeil Room

white-house-vermeil-room-eleanor-roosevelt

This yellow room houses seven paintings of first ladies, including this portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt by Douglas Chandor (1949).

THE WHITE HOUSE VISITOR CENTER

white-house-visitors-center

Interesting exhibits relating to the White House’s history, decor, and inhabitants are on display in the White House Visitor Center. Guided tours of the White House are available, but are extremely limited, and can only be booked by special arrangement through a member of Congress or an embassy.

WHITE HOUSE ARCHITECTS

After selecting the site, George Washington held a design competition to find an architect to build the residence where the US president would live. In 1792, James Hoban, an Irish-born architect, was chosen for the task. The White House was built to Hoban’s designs and he also reconstructed the building after the British attack in 1814.In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt hired the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White to check the structural condition of the building and refurbish areas as necessary.

The White House underwent further renovations and refurbishments during the administrations of presidents Truman and Kennedy.

KEY DATES

1792: Construction begins on the Executive Mansion (renamed the White House in 1901).
1800: President Adams and his wife are the first to move into the White House.
1814: The British set fire to the White House during the War of 1812.
1902: The West Wing is built to house the official offices of the president. Its rooms include the Oval Office.
1942: The East Wing of the White House is added, as instructed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, completing the final structure.

Sicily: Mountains, Seaside And Pizza All The Way

The kids look like they’re about to be blown off the face of the earth. We’re barely an hour from the coast, the sun is thumping down, but at this height, the wind comes with a kick. Everyone is wearing layers. Pulling our kids, Sam and Rosa, under our wings, we lean into it and continue our walk around the crater. We’re on Mount Etna, Sicily’s Mordor-like landmark and the tallest active volcano in Europe. Despite initial reservations about our excursion (“What if it erupts on us?” asks six-year-old Sam), the drive proves a gorgeous respite from the mid-summer heat, winding up through green forestry and yellow blossoms to the blackened landscape around Rifugio Sapienza. Here, we take a cable car and a 4WD bus to a height of 2,900m, before joining a guided walk around the crater just a few hundred metres below the puffing summit.

Rifugio Sapienza

Rifugio Sapienza

At €63 (£53) for adults and €42 (£35) for kids, it’s a pricey trip, but we don’t feel cheated. Gathering a few specks of lava for the kids’ classrooms, we head back towards sea level, stopping off at Murgo, a classy little vineyard taking advantage of Etna’s microclimate in Santa Venerina. We demolish a traditional lunch whose dishes range from caponata to pasta alia Nonna, Catanian specialties reflecting the mountain — aubergine evokes the black rocks, tomatoes the fiery lava, basil the greenery and ricotta salata shavings, the snow that dusts Etna in winter. It’s place on a plate, and that place is Sicily. We’ve been itching to come here. The kids were intrigued by the notion of a magical land where they could have ‘real’ pizza once a day. Their mother, who studied Italian in college, downloaded books in the language on her Kindle. And their father? Truthfully, I was just dying to get my mask and fins on and hit the Ionian Sea, to swim rather than sleep with the fishes.

LA DOLCE VITA

We’re travelling with grandparents, which helps split the cost of our villa, set among lemon groves outside the sleepy village of Santa Tecla, roughly a 45-minute drive from Catania-Fontanarossa Airport. Basing ourselves halfway between Taormina and Catania, the idea is to chill by the pool, take the two-minute walk to the lava-jagged shoreline for swims, and strike out on excursions when the mood takes us, exploring the island’s eastern nooks and crannies. Sicily gets seriously hot, well into the mid-30s in summer, so we leave our trips to towns and cities for the evenings. Catania feels grimy and industrial, though there’s a brilliantly shouty, smelly and squelchy fish market near Piazza del Duomo from 7am. Aci Castello charms us with its craggy castle, perched on a lava ridge.

Santa Tecla

Santa Tecla

Taormina’s Teatro Greco harks back to the island’s Greek heritage, encased in a mix of medieval alleyways and shopping streets where you’re as likely to find ceramic lemons as a £1,000 handbag Torremolinos, it ain’t. Prices rise notably here, but baroque buildings, belle epoque villas and a chic pedigree (Audrey Hepburn, Oscar Wilde and Greta Garbo all visited), not to mention stunning views over the Med and Mount Etna, are breathtaking In a bay below lies the teardrop-shaped island of Isola Bella. Loungers cost £10.50 a day to rent, but my wife and I walk directly past them. Leaving the kids with their grandpa rents fora gelato, we drop our towels on the pebbles and head straight for the water, taking a snorkelling safari around its shoreline.

Plemmirio Marine Reserve

Plemmirio Marine Reserve

The water is glorious. South of Syracuse, we find swim spots marked by numbers at Plemmirio marine reserve (at No.23, divers can see a sculpture of a mermaid submerged about 100m offshore). Between Santa Tecla and Stazzo, the next village north, we find swimming coves teeming with colourful crabs, rainbow wrasse, starfish and even a moray eel. We jump off piers, spot scurrying lizards, and retire to Stazzo’s friendly Blue Bar for more gelatos and a chapter of Harry Potter (a holiday tradition, this year, it’s The Half-Blood Prince).

Costa Rica: The Endless Beauty Of The Jungle

Rain. Falling — torrentially — and flooding the boat. And then it’s over. My feet are wet. My trousers are wet. The children are wet. We are all, completely, utterly soaked through. No complaints though; we’ll wait for the passing sheets of rain to pitter patter out. This is rainy season in Costa Rica, officially from May to November (though I’m convinced it’s longer) and we’re lucky to be seeing the country in full bloom, phosphorescent green, buzzing, thriving, pulsing with life. Welcome to the rainforest. The giveaway is in the name. Walls of green and, at times, walls of water. It also partly explains why Costa Rica is renowned for packing around 5% of the world’s bio diversity, despite accounting for only 0.03% of the earth’s surface.

Tortuguero National Park

Tortuguero National Park

Water literally brings with it the building blocks of life. And Costa Rica is unique in that it has an ocean — the Pacific — and the Caribbean sea relatively close to each other. Classified as tropical because of its close proximity to the equator, it doesn’t really have a winter period. The sun shines here throughout the year. Between the rain that is. We’re on an open-roof boat (crazy, I know) on a nature tour, travelling through the Tortuguero National Park with our always-smiling guide, German Rojas, a very keen and infectious birdwatcher, who stands at the fore of the boat, binoculars in hand, he’s one of two travel directors supplied by our specialist Costa Rica operator, Trafalgar.

The canals and lagoons here are teeming with life: agile howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins, scary-looking caimans, numerous exotic bird species, rare ocelots, river otters and manatees. Yet in the rain, we struggle to see them. We’ve been given thick, plastic ponchos in electric blue; impenetrable and indispensable in a way no brand-name jacket can live up to. But less than 25 minutes in, we start to hear the animals and the sun arrives almost as quickly as the rain stops. In the dry, we can differentiate green macaw, tiger heron, the kooky black-and-white piano bird, woodpecker, parrots (in a pair), vulture, caiman and basilisk. We pause to seek out the grey potoo bird, posing as part of the tree bark, with the hawk-like guides pointing out its position as we city-dwellers struggle to focus our unaccustomed eyes.

Laguna Lodge

The rain continues in spells of start and stop: soft, downpours, then full-on deluge, with thunder, before stopping once again. The sun arrives, belting out rays, leaving the forest steaming in its wake. It’s not long before the howler and spider monkeys make an appearance — hollering, shouting, even seeming to sing as they swing through the forest, a highlight for many of the group. On our return to Laguna Lodge, where we’re staying, we’re rewarded with a rare sighting of an adult and baby sloth, hanging from the branches. The adult almost waves, an arm stuck mid-motion.

Their low metabolic rate means it can take days for them to digest their food and make any sort of movement. They’re also often difficult to spot and so slow, algae can grow on their furry coat, further hiding them in the trees. This is our second rare sighting. The lodge is positioned between three strips of land interspersed by two canals, a lagoon, and on to the east, the Caribbean Sea. Earlier at breakfast, we’d been rewarded with a viewing of a dolphin, unusual in a lagoon; the waterway here is bracken, a mixture of fresh and seawater. The afternoon is ours to hang out by the pool or to find out more about the wildlife with our guides. Today, there’s the chance to learn all about frogs: specifically, the little red-eyed, green (leaf) frog, the poster-animal for Costa Rica. This trip is about making the most of the destination whatever the weather.

Caribbean Coast

Caribbean Coast

Later, I head to the Sea Turtle Conservancy Foundation to hear a talk on the incredible turtles that nest in Tortuguero, while the children choose to stay by the pool. As the clouds swell and deliver more rain, they’re happy getting wet in a game of their own making. Still, they join us for the ‘practical’ part of the turtle experience, an evening walk to the beach to see green turtles laying their eggs. The guide leads us to the beach, red light in hand (no torches or phones). The turtle has already nested and is in the process of laying her eggs. This 100kg hulk of a turtle, ‘Flo’, as she’s nicknamed by my daughter, needs space, as we crowd round to watch. Suddenly there are cries and pounding of feet, impromptu movement, and lots of extra space is given.

Someone has trodden on a nest of red ants, a too-late reminder to wear closed-toed shoes. The children are rightly jumpy and nervous — red ants bite! Flo is indifferent, though, doing her thing, laying egg after egg, then using her large paddles to cover the eggs with sand. She soon heads back crossing the sandy beach to the roaring sea, with riptides even the locals don’t dare challenge at this time of year.