Surrounded by New Zealand’s majestic Southern Alps, luxury wellness retreat Aro Ha fuses stunning sceneries, eco accommodation and the best vegetarian cuisine, using locally produced organic ingredients. Read More
HENRY Williamson’s novel Tarka the Otter, published 90 years ago this August, has inspired a thriving tourism industry in North Devon, helped in part by the creation of the 180-mile Tarka Trail in the 1980s. Tracing Tarka’s journey during the book, the figure-of-eight trail is suitable for walkers and, on some stretches, cyclists. It follows the fictional otter’s footprints along riverbanks and coastlines, and through moors and woodland, all of which Williamson describes vividly, but with minimal sentimentality, from an otter’s-eye view. Read More
TUCKED away above the Exe Valley, Stoodleigh is reached by a winding country lane known locally as ‘The Drive’. This harks back to the time when the road was the immensely long private drive to Stoodleigh Manor. The estate was broken up and sold in 1925 and in 1928 the house was bought by Ravenswood School, which relocated here from Paignton. In 1992 the school closed, though it very much lives on in the memory of its pupils! Stoodleigh Court, as it is known today, now serves as a wedding venue. The walk enjoys wonderful, far-reaching views, but to achieve them there are some mighty ascents-so be prepared. Lovely, wildlife-rich woodland will help take your mind off the tough bits.
APPROACH Teignmouth by road and you are reminded that this is the “Gem of South Devon”. Always effervescent, the resort has been tickled by a magic wand and now aspires to the title of Devon’s mosaic capital. Varying from dinner plate size to extensive murals, the large collection has become a year-round attraction for visitors, beguiled by mosaic’s unique qualities. Families enjoy a discovery trail leaflet and search out a series of circular plaques highlighting local fish and birds. Read More
LITTLE touches can elevate a stay in a hotel to something special and unique. Even if you don’t use the binoculars and blankets which are tucked in a basket for use on your room’s balcony, it makes you feel cared for, just knowing someone has given thought to every detail of your stay. One of the first things I’m told after being shown my room at Salcombe Harbour Hotel is: “The lemon and ice are doing the rounds.” Read More
The South Hams, the southernmost tip of Devon, is an exceptionally dog-friendly area. Whether you are the proud owner of a bouncing border collie with energy to burn, or a calm corgi content with quiet days in the sunshine, there are walks, attractions and days out to suit the temperament of all dogs… and their owners! Here are just a few things you and your four-legged friend can enjoy this summer. Read More
Dartmouth is saturated in history. This mile-and-a-bit walk introduces some of its treasures and whets the appetite for more exploration.
Start: Mayors Avenue Car Park, TQ69NF. Leave the car park by the TIC and Newcomen Engine House, turning right along Mayor’s Avenue. As the road bends right cross over and walk ahead along narrow Zion Place. Turn left at the T-junction and soon the road widens. Go left along attractive Foss Street, heading towards the church. Browse your way along; the celebrated Simon Drew gallery is here. At the end of Foss Street go left at a small crossroads along Duke Street, passing the remarkable Butterwalk on your left. These former merchants’ houses date from the 17th century and were built on land reclaimed from the river. Read More
THE COUNTDOWN to the launch of Salcombe Town Regatta has begun and it’s all go in the Hainey household. Mum, Debbie has been running this week-long event for the past four years and her kids know that things are about to get a little hectic around here. Once dinner is done, Debbie and husband Andy sit around the kitchen table checking tide times for the harbour swim and ordering road signs for the series of closures that have to take place. Rob, 10 and Daniel, six, are busy helping to prepare the parachuting teddy event by practising with a prototype bear. Read More
Our family trip to Menorca should have been remembered as any number of things: the summer vacation when my daughter learned to snorkel, that time my dad ate a lobster’s face, the week of 17 impossibly per feet beaches. And it was all that, but halfway through our stay it also became the time my wife found out her mother was dying. We had rented a house along the Spanish island’s southern coast, in a community called Binibequer. It sounds like Binny Baker when people say it. We had a running joke about Binny Baker, whom we imagined as a legendary British comedian and predecessor to Benny Hill who’d retired to Menorca Binibequer is like an appealing Mediterranean version of a Florida enclave, with white cement and plaster houses clustered around a town center where you can walk around and buy sunscreen and beach pails and eat mussels and drink sangria made with Sprite at the bars.
Travel can be a trick you play on yourself. You can almost make yourself believe you actually live in another place. It’s effective. In just a few days, the memory of our real lives can be obliterated. Rituals help with that. On Menorca, we got our morning coffee from the bakery by the supermarket. We went to the beach around nine. This was our favourite local cheese, that was our favourite walk. But when texts with the news of Danielle’s mother began arriving at 3 or 4 am., it yanked us out of that fantasy. Suddenly we were just strangers in a place far from home.
It was a warm night, and Danielle must have been up checking her phone. She often can’t sleep. She has the metabolism of acute, extremely aware fox watching a ping-pong match, and she gets more things done between midnight and 5 am (if you count booking babysitters and panicking about global warming as getting things done) than I do all day long. On this night, for some reason I woke up, too. Disturbance in the Force or what have you.
“My mom had a stroke,” Danielle announced, sitting up in bed. She’d gotten a text from one sister first. That sister was prone to drama, though. My mother-in-law had had many strokes, all of them minor. But then a text came in from another sister. And then from my brother-in-law, kind of a gray-haired father figure who can always be counted on when a cooler head is needed to prevail. He said it was possible Danielle’s mother had only a short time to live. So the news was sanctioned. Danielle was funny about it. She was crying but also mordant. She said something about how her mother was probably telling a paramedic he didn’t know how to drive the roads near her house and was going the wrong way.
As daybreak arrived, the sky became a deep blue, and the wind picked up. The gusts were so strong in the mornings that they sometimes knocked over bottles of shampoo in the bathroom. Standing outside on the patio in that wind, we agreed that Danielle would fly home as soon as possible. I, along with our two kids and my parents, who were with us on the trip, would keep our return tickets and fly back in a few days. Soon Danielle was on the phone calling the airline. I tried to help but mostly just got in the way.
Upon our arrival in Menorca, we picked up a large car we had reserved. It was some kind of Renault, called a Mavis Gallant, I think. (Disclaimer: its real name wasn’t Mavis Gallant.) It was long and wide, and had enough trunk space to put another Renault inside of it. It was like a car designed by M. C. Escher. On our second morning, we packed into the Mavis Gallant to go to the beach. Danielle and I were in the front, while the children (Finn, boy, age five; Frankie, girl, age seven) sat about 10 miles away from us in the backseat, where they looked like shrunken businessmen in a limousine. My parents rented the same Renault Mavis Gallant, naturally. Gordon and Jill, ages 74 and 72 at the time of this vacation, are the happiest people I know, though they’ve been through some terrible hardships. Also, my dad is the slowest driver in the entire world. The vacation was mostly me pulling over on the side of the highway that runs across Menorca, through a miniature mountain range and bleach-blond farmland, waiting for him. He trailed me as we headed west out of Binny Baker.
Here’s the deal with Menorca: it’s the most laid-back and family-friendly of Spain’s Balearic Islands. While there are sophisticated restaurants and places to stay (including a boutique vineyard hotel called Torralbenc, where they administer some top-notch massages, as I can personally attest), the island is emphatically low-key. It doesn’t have the hordes of British and German vacationers who make neighboring Mallorca so, at times, not-fun. Also absent are the untz-untz nightclubs—and dudes sitting on the beach in $400 flip-flops scrolling through Instagram—that plague Ibiza. What you have instead on Menorca are rocks, Spaniards, and a ton of great beaches.
Menorca’s beaches come in a full spectrum. There are tiny coves notched into the coastline everywhere, for furtive couples and nudists. There is Son Bou beach, perfectly long and wide and sandy. There’s the rugged and beautiful Gala Pregonda, which you hike to over a series of hills, each spot beckoning you to the next, just in case it’s even prettier and less crowded (and it almost always is). Three of Menorca’s most famous beaches are clustered along the southwestern coast: Cala Macarella, Son Saura, and Cala en Turqueta. They’re sort of Menorca’s analogue to the Eiffel Tower or Times Square—touristic imperatives. Places you have to visit because otherwise you wouldn’t feel like you’ve really been to Menorca.
As you drive to those beaches in your Renault MG, at some point you’ll come to large, mysterious electronic signs. You might guess that they have been placed in the peaceful, sun-beaten farmland to give people gate information for some cosmic portal. Stand next to this cow at 4:30 and you’ll be sucked into another dimension! But in fact they are something stranger: parking information signs. The prime beaches, in the height of the season (your late Julys through your ends of August), are so ungodly popular that a system was set up to start turning’ people away miles from the actual beaches.
We slowed the Mavis Gallant as we approached a sign for Cala Macarella parking. Next to it there was a lady sitting in the shade of a small tent. She explained that the lot was full. And suggested we eat lunch. In a few hours people would leave and we could come back. She helped me navigate a 14-point turn in the Renault. My father still hadn’t caught up. We decided to have lunch in Es Migjorn Gran, an inland town that is set into the side of a mountainette and has a beautiful, centuries-old center. At Bar Peri—a dark, quiet tapas spot seemingly not updated since the 1940s—we ordered typical small plates. Finn didn’t eat a single bite of nutritious food.
But he wanted dessert. “If you eat your tortilla,” I said, “you can have dessert. But if you don’t, you can’t.” Danielle looked at me: Don’t draw lines in the sand you don’t intend to back up. I glared back: Can you stop judging my parenting? “Okay, how about just three bites,” I said. “But I won’t negotiate anymore.” Daniele rolled her eyes. Looking at Finn, I could tell a whine was coming. There was a Spanish family with beautifully behaved children at the next table. My father was having just the friendliest conversation with them, even though he speaks no Spanish. He can do that Finn’s whine was getting’ louder and attracting attention. I was desperate. “Okay, just one bite…half a bite…forget it—just go pick some ice cream out of the freezer!”
Danielle was yelling at me without saying anything. That she was right made me angrier. There was a freezer near the bar stuffed with the kinds of factory-made, highly processed ice cream products people back home in Brooklyn are statutorily prohibited from giving their kids. Finn stood looking at the colourful packages. There were so many. Frankie was already eating an ice-cream cone, watching amusedly. “I can’t decide,” Finn said. He said it like it was an accusation—how could you take me to this place with all these kinds of ice cream? “Just get the one that Frankie has,” I begged. Jill joined in: “Ooooh, that one looks delicious!” We all knew what was coming. I tried getting’ philosophical: “Your indecision is so legitimate. Disappointment is inevitable.” I shot a quick glance at my wife, who wasn’t even trying to interfere: Let me handle this. When I finally got him to pick one, unwrapped it for him, and he tasted it, he dropped it on the ground and screamed, “I want what Frankie has!!!!” So I went over to buy him that one. It didn’t work.
Menorca’s beaches are famous for a reason, and Cala Macarella is arguably the most spectacular of them all. It’s a turquoise inlet surrounded by cliffs and rocks and pine forest, tipped with a gentle slope of white sand. Spaniards were gathered on the beach and in the shallows. Topless women, babies, young couples rolling cigarettes. With the cliff walls it felt a bit like an amphitheater—all of us sitting on the sand to watch the sea perform.
I went for a swim. The water was perfect: blue-green, just cool enough to be refreshing. It was easy to get out far enough to feel that I was alone, the other people reduced to visual details, like little wildflowers in a field. In no time I’d swum around a bend and into another cove, a smaller version of Macarella called Macarelleta. The same deal—people on the sand staring out at the seal floated on my back, and for a minute I let go of all dissatisfaction. It added one year to my life. After I returned, we got the kids ready to leave. I was silently levying a protest against my wife. She responded with a wordless counter protest. But we dried and dressed the kids and desanded the clothes and walked back through the forest to the car in a kind of practiced synchronicity.
On the path to the parking lot, the sun was burning the carpet of pine needles at a slow roast, releasing a beautiful, dry smell. Roads on Menorca don’t always make accommodations to modem traffic. There are a lot of farm roads, lined by stone walls that push in from the sides. Two cars can just squeeze past each other. Usually. When a car approaches, you both keep slowing down and slowing down until you’re creeping past each other with minimal tolerance, pulling your mirrors in, sometimes passing close enough to reach out and change the other car’s radio station. And on the way home I found myself in such a bottleneck.
I slowed. The oncoming’ car slowed. My father crept steadily behind me, liking the pace, probably not even realizing that I was slowing down. As he penned me in from behind, the oncoming car penned me in from the front, pushing us together to a point where it was unclear how to disentangle all our Mavis Gallants. It was, I thought, kind of like the impasse that I’d come to with Danielle. Not so much a fight as both of us inching forward and not backing down, and neither of us knowing how to get out of it.
One of the things that makes Menorca the most authentic Balearic island, in my opinion, is that all of its towns feel real. Not BS tourist towns made up of hotels and little dry wall grocery stores but the kind of towns you’d expect to find on some hilltop in Castile—old and formidable, with heavy stone buildings and narrow streets and old ladies sitting on benches mumbling to each other. During the day, when everyone is indoors, hiding from the sun, these towns—especially those in the interior— can take on the air of a lost civilization, but at night they come alive.
Here on Menorca, you are constantly reminded that there’s a reason why the Spanish eat and socialize so late: because it’s f***ing hot during the day. The sun comes at you at an unpleasant volume, with retina-searing intensity. (One time Finn had to go out into an unshaded plaza to chase down his soccer ball in the middle of the day, and I half expected him to start smoking and burst into flames.) But at night? At night it’s civilized. Temperatures drop, and the wind courses over the island, whipping Menor cans’ towels and underpants as they dry on their clotheslines. During the summer, each Menorcan town has its own day of the week to host night markets— one evening it’s in Fornells, another in Ferreries, another in Alaior. On those nights, the bars and restaurants drag tables into the street, some kind of Spanish marching band or reggae five-piece is booked for a stage in the central plaza, and vendors sell bracelets and cookies and fresh fruit juices.
On Alaior’s designated night, we drove to its outskirts and ditched the Renault in a lot. With Gordon and Jill in tow, we hoofed it into the town center, toward the sounds of Spanish people having fun. Once we were there, it wasn’t long before my daughter discovered a hand-built merry-go-round setup in the middle of a lane. You paid your money and picked a “horse,” constructed out of old tires and scrap metal and broom handles. Then the man put the music on. He powered the contraption using a bicycle whose back wheel was connected to a gear, propelling the riders around in circles. I held Danielle’s hand as we watched the guy pedal (he basically had to complete a stage of the Tour de France over the course of the evening). We were suddenly not mad anymore. That was it. We didn’t talk our way through it. We just left it behind and moved on. When I was young and foolish, I wouldn’t have thought that was how you worked things out.
After lunch, we drove to the lighthouse. When we arrived, Jill went to the information kiosk (she’s interested in things; I’m not) while my dad sat down and soaked it all in from a restful position, as is his wont. Danielle was on the phone with her sisters. I took the kids out to a cave. Menorca is pocked with caves—in cliffs and underwater. Caves into which ancient contemplators disappeared, where Jews were imprisoned, treasures hidden. Caves that now host expensive cocktail lounges, like the famous Cova d’en Xoroi. Near the lighthouse, a hundred yards from the cliff’s edge, there is a cave entrance. Just a hole in the ground. And into that hole we saw people disappearing one at a time.
As soon as it was our turn, Frankie wriggled right down the ladder and disappeared into the blackness. But Finn was frightened. He stared into the hole. Finn at age five was such a force of nature, approaching the world with such defiance, that it surprised me when he got scared and grabbed onto my thumb with his soft little hand. He looked at me and said, “I want to go, but I also don’t want to go. Should I be scared?” The main psychological questions laid bare, without any of the repression we learn later in life. “I would be, probably,” I said. “But it’s not actually going to be scary when you’re down there.”
Finn eventually proceeded, solemnly, into the blackness. Frankie was waiting for us, and she took one of my hands while Finn took the other. We walked down a long underground passageway until we came to an opening, protected by a metal grate, overlooking the sea at a terrifying height. The three of us gazed out, kind of willing ourselves to bear witness. I like to think Frankie and Finn shared my sense of staring into an unknown—just as their grandmother was doing back home in America Turning’ toward the exit, Finn said he wanted an ice cream cone. I told him to ask his mom.
At half past 11, three silhouettes left a hotel and walked on to the dark pavement outside. The trio was the most unlikely to be caught together on a lazy night in a small city like Goris: a middle-aged tourist guide, a 60-somethingformer rock musician, and an Indian traveller in her late 20s. The winter was long gone, its remnants had lingered in the air like the after effects of deep slumber. The dark, desolate neighbourhood had spilled on to the sidewalk. A few low beam tubelights made incongruous puddles to illuminate the ground, and the only movement on the long empty stretch ahead were the flickering human shadows.
I’d regretted the moment we stepped out; it had been a long day already and we had just arrived from Yerevan, the country’s capital. My guide Sirarpi Baghdasaryan had taken up the task of finding me the city centre (my travel fetish in every European city), and for bridging the language barrier between Vasgen Manukyan and me. Vasgen, a former guitarist and astronomy enthusiast had stood with me at Zorats Karer (the Armenian Stonehenge) earlier and admired the work of ancient stargazers who had planted 233 rocks on a large barren land to plot time.
We had only met in the morning, and there was still that awkwardness we had to get rid of. For Vasgen, discussing the origin of language was seemingly the only way to bring the barrier down. “The root of some Sanskrit words,” he began, “is in Armenian.” I listened intently, partly unsatisfied with the proposal, just like anyone who’d been taught to pride the superiority of Sanskrit over other languages, would. But who was I to contest.
I was travelling through one of the oldest civilisations of the world; the city of Yerevan was built 2,796 years ago, long before Armenia accepted Christianity in AD 204. I registered some of the 10 words with same meanings—das for ten, hazar for thousand, and so on. Half past midnight, it took more than Sanskrit to perk our minds, and the conversation wielded off to Mahabharata. Even on the snoozy sleep-deprived walk, I realised how much he knew about Indian epics and how much I didn’t. Somewhere down, as the road turned, we lost our focus to some bizarre conical shaped mountain tops that were peeking in shades of grey from behind the tall buildings in the vicinity.
Maybe the world had conspired to help us, as Paulo Coelho would say: Two men in sturdy black leather jackets appeared at the comer of a block, sitting nonchalantly, as if it were not the dead of the night. Back in Delhi, this is when I would sprint in the opposite direction, but Sirarpi walked straight up to ask what it was that we were seeing—“Zangezur!” they stood up and offered to show the way. Wait, were you not supposed to refuse help from two strangers? My building anxiety was palpable, but shortly after, one of them broke into an Armenian poem he penned. It was too dark to fathom his expressions, but not dark enough to deny the emotion in his voice. About 20 lines down, when he finished, Sirarpi explained, “It’s a poem about how his mother has raised him against all odds and how greatful to God he is.” I was astonished at how easily a man could reveal his vulnerable side to people he had just met; Armenia, on the other hand was only beginning to unfold.
Travel is always a quest to personal discovery and on your way back, if you haven’t found that one hook that gives meaning to the journey. Every effort that you’ve made to get there, has been in vain. Armenia, I learned, is reflected by its people. Next morning, I met Kolya Torosyan, a famous, 89-year-old traditional duduk-maker. Duduks are the national musical instrument in Armenia—they look roughly like flutes and sound like what can be called the hybrid of a shehnai and a bagpiper. Kolyalives in Byurakan and his life is a city dweller’s enviable retirement plan. He grows tomatoes, beetroot, and walnut in his backyard, nurtures bee hives for honey, and has a loving wife of 91 whom he still considers most beautiful.
With an extraordinary’ family of four children, 12 grandchildren, and 11 great grandchildren, he has something to look forward to everyday. Upright in his brown jacket, he put long steps to navigate the long grass growing in his tiny farm to bring me to his workshop. “I’ve been in the business for 37 years,” he stated, “And we make 20 different kinds of instruments.” Like music, lifestyle, and everything else, his instruments have undergone a major transformation in the five generations that the art inhabited in the family. I asked him to play a duduk, and immediately, he plunged into his collection to bring out a very old one, saying, “People come to me and ask if I can play.
I say, ‘yes, but not well enough to make a bride get up and dance!’” While we fidgeted with his instruments down at the workshop, his wife had taken to the kitchen upstairs to ornament the table with lavaash (Armenian bread), homemade cheese and honey, and herbs plucked from the garden. It reminded me of home and how things weren’t any different when guests arrived—you’d always send them back with a full stomach. Kolya was the last in his generation to make duduks. The modern world had claimed his children for an urban profession.
If anything, Yerevan is a city wrapped in layers. On the surface, you’d compare it to any modern European counterpart: a young demographic, cosmopolitan, and if you’ve arrived late in May when the summer holidays have hit the schools, you’d find the streets booming with teenagers, happy that their three-month vacation has begun. The Mayor of the city had only recently revised the holiday schedule. He is known to have said, “What’s the point in a holiday when kids can’t enjoy summer?” The deeper you travel though, the more complex it gets in character. I met Armine Tshagharyan over coffee, a news anchor with a local TV channel who had come to give me a young perspective of Yerevan. “In Armenia, people do not worship movie stars,” she said. “Yon could be someone famous and walking the street and no one would be bothered. But things can be quite different if you are a war hero.”
Armenia is a Catholic country and had experienced the great Genocide along with the rest of Soviet Union between 1915 and 1917. Over two million Christian Armenians were exterminated by the Ottoman Empire, or modern-day Turkey. Surrounded still by hostile Islamic neighbours— Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan—who have nibbled into the former Kingdom of Armenia to expand borders over time, Armenia has held its own through the intense nationalism among citizens. There is still constant friction with the Azerbaijani border, and a few days before I arrived, soldiers had returned from war.
As we strolled down Say at- Nova Avenue, Armine froze temporarily, her eyes followed the gaze of a young man’s and she blushed. She stopped for a conversation and hugged him. After he left, she turned and with abroad smile and explained, “You know who that is? He is our hero. He went into the Azerbaijan bunker and single-handedly destroyed it. He’s only 22!” At night, we had gone for the Aurora Prize ceremony—the annual event organised by the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative on behalf of the descendants of the Armenian Genocide survivors. The initiative collects US$1 million to help one individual engaged in humanitarian efforts to further their work. This year, the prize went to Marguerite Barankitse from Maison Shalom and REMA Hospital, who cared for orphans and refugees during the civil war in Burundi.
In Armenia, all men must serve the army for two years after high school. Andranik Ugujyan, a 23-year-old student pursuing botanical archeology, remembers his intense training. I first saw him with his fingers dug into the soil at the Areni-1 Cave Complex, the excavated archeological site that reported the oldest winery in the world (the Early Bronze Age). Andranik had later met me in Yerevan. “Everybody in Armenia has a history of Genocide,” he said. It’s a reality one must live with. Andranik had to live with his dark past, one where his grandparents were tortured and had to flee Armenia for survival. “But the truth is, that although we will never forget what happened, we want to move forward.” We were sitting on the roof of a dark, abandoned, half-constructed building at 3 am when life had penetrated darkness with profundity. “This maybe it,” I thought, “the hook”… The promise of summer, the promise of light, and man’s innate ability to look beyond adversities.