juliamhammond

Julia's Travels

Julia's Travels is the go-to blog for independent travel. Over the last two decades, Julia has visited over a hundred countries spanning six continents. Ask her how to get the best deals and save a bucket load of cash on expensive tours. A published travel writer, you can follow her on Facebook at Julia Hammond Travel Writing or visit her website www.juliahammond.co.uk.

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The Great Storm, Galveston

“I should as soon think of founding a city on an iceberg as on Galveston Island, if I looked to its safety and perpetuity.”

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Before the deadliest storm in US history left low-lying Galveston flattened and in shock, it was a prosperous town. Forty thousand people called it home and a steady stream of cotton steamers created a reliable source of income. The town was littered with mansions, symbolic of the immense wealth being accumulated here; before the storm there were 26 millionaires living within a five block radius. Trolleys carried those too lazy, rich or old to walk about town. At the end of the 19th century, it was the most important seaport in the USA and it seemed nothing could hold it back.

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Except the weather had other ideas. After a calm, sunny week, as evening turned into the night of Friday 7th September 1900 the winds began to pick up. Rain lashed the two-storey homes that lined the Strand and weather observers looked on anxiously. Forecasting was in its infancy in those days, but even then the rudimentary instruments told a frightening story. Wind speeds were increasing, reaching 100mph that night, before the equipment blew away. Some meteorologists think the wind speeds could have reached as much as 145mph at their peak. The barometric pressure was the lowest ever recorded up to that point in US history.

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By 4am, the sea had surged inland, flooding the town’s streets. A four and a half metre storm surge was more than the island could cope with, the highest ground being being little more than half that. The heavy swell continued to be a concern as day broke. By noon, much of the island was underwater, but there was worse to come. Strengthening winds battered the feeble housing. Debris flew around in the wind acting as missiles against any building still standing.

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One observer was sheltering in a house that had withstood such an attack for several hours. He noted that a man trying to reach that same home had his faced sliced clean off by a flying roof slate. It must have been a terrifying time for those who were to become the survivors, that thud of wave-driven timbers on the walls like a mediaeval battering ram on a wooden castle door.

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At least 6000 would never know such lasting fear. Whole families were wiped out, making a confirmed death toll impossible to ascertain, but it’s generally agreed that the figure is a conservative estimate of the final death toll. As Sunday morning dawned, the skies had cleared and the storm had passed. What was left was unrecognisable. Much of the island was completely flattened, the powerful waves scouring the landscape and leaving it in places as pristine as when the first settlers had laid out their street plan. A few blocks further along, huge mounds of debris concealed the bodies of the dead. Here and there, properties listed at angles more commonly associated with earthquake damage; a few had been turned completely upside down. From 9th Street east towards the beach, block after block no longer existed.

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The human cost was appalling. 5000 families were left destitute; it would be days before word reached the Red Cross in Washington and the much-needed aid would arrive. Marshal law was instigated in an attempt to stave off looting. Pilferers were shot. Those in authority also had to deal with the tricky question of burying the dead. With no time in the heat and humidity to dig sufficient graves, rocks were attached to bodies and they were buried at sea. The water that had killed them would be their final resting place.

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Yet the sea had other ideas, washing bloated and putrid corpses up on the shore day after day. A decision was taken to burn the bodies. Those enduring such a horrendous task were paid in whiskey until they threw up from the disgusting stench. It was a job no one wanted but someone had to do. The risk of disease for the survivors was just too high a price to pay to leave the bodies to rot. As the impact of the disaster sank in, page after page of the newspaper was filled with the names of those who had perished.

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But the survivors stayed to resurrect their city. In 1902 a solid sea wall was proposed and within two years the designs had become a reality. Together with the wall, a regrading of the roads was undertaken, raising the level of the streets. 3000 houses would be lifted and sand dredged from the a Gulf of Mexico pumped underneath them so the buildings would sit three metres higher, above the danger level. In future, any incoming wave would be weakened by the increased gradient. The cost of this ambitious engineering project was a staggeringly high $6 million. By 1905, Galveston was ready to take on the elements once more. It didn’t have to wait long. In 1915, a hurricane hit, similar in magnitude to the Great Storm of 1900. The city’s residents held their breath. Would their defences hold?

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They would: just eight people died. Galveston had a future, though it would never regain its pre-storm commercial status.

What you need to know about the US laptop ban

Much has been written in the press over the past week on the subject of a ban on larger electronics items entering the United States with airline passengers.  Following on from the March policy shift in which inbound flights from certain Middle Eastern and North African destinations, there’s speculation that such a policy could be extended to European destinations.

What’s the current situation?

At present, passengers travelling to the US from ten airports are affected: Queen Alia International Airport (AMM), Cairo International Airport (CAI), Ataturk International Airport (IST), King Abdul-Aziz International Airport (JED), King Khalid International Airport (RUH), Kuwait International Airport (KWI), Mohammed V Airport (CMN), Hamad International Airport (DOH), Dubai International Airport (DXB) and Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH).

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Large electronics items, including laptops but also larger cameras like DSLRs and tablets such as the iPad, must be carried in the hold and cannot be taken on board the flight.  How airlines are implementing this varies, but some are offering gate check in and secure packaging in the form of bubble wrap and cardboard boxes.  This policy doesn’t extend to the return leg; flights departing the US for these ten airports are not subject to the same restrictions.

So why are people getting upset?  Surely they can do without their gadgets for a few hours?

As talk grows about an extension to the ban, so too do certain worrying facts emerge.  Many of these larger items are powered by lithium ion batteries, which up to now have been banned from the hold for safety reasons.  They carry a risk of catching fire, something that could have disastrous consequences if unnoticed.  The FAA itself stated its concerns in 2016:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/lithium-batteries-spark-catastrophic-plane-fires-faa-warns/story?id=36816040

There’s more here, from The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-uk-flights-usa-america-donald-trump-british-airline-pilots-association-heathrow-a7736076.html

There’s also the issue of sensitive data on company laptops and directives from some businesses to their employees requiring them to keep such equipment on their person whilst travelling.  For the regular tourist, it’s more a case of a lack of insurance.  I might just about be able to cope without my iPad on a long flight if I went back to those old fashioned paperback things I used to lug around, but if the airline then loses my suitcase, my travel insurance policy won’t pay out.  I really can’t afford to replace my DSLR if the lens gets smashed in transit.  So, with a flight to Houston looming on Friday, I’ve been watching the TSA website and Twitter like a stalker.

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So have they made a decision yet?

There were some misleading headlines last week, like this one in NYMag following a piece in The Daily Beast:

http://nymag.com/selectall/2017/05/laptops-banned-in-plane-cabin-on-flights-from-europe-to-u-s.html

Retweeted and quoted to within an inch of its life, The Daily Beast’s article, claiming an announcement would be made Thursday 11 May, sparked an angry reaction.  In part, there was a touch of indignation along the lines of European nations being way too civilised to be lumped together with the Middle East.

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But amidst all the fuss, some serious issues for the Americans began to be raised, not least the impact that it would have to the US economy and its tourism sector.  This article from The Independent explains:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-on-flights-electronic-devices-travel-industry-airlines-travelport-a7737671.html

Yes, you read that right: 1 in 3 potential foreign tourists would think twice about going if this policy becomes a reality.  I’m among them.  I’d be seriously concerned about that fire risk, especially on such a long flight.

Here’s a follow up article, also from The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-europe-economic-tsunami-travel-industry-electronic-devices-flights-plane-hold-uk-usa-a7740396.html

I’m hoping, as we get closer to my departure date, that even if the electronics ban is widened, the changes won’t take effect until after I’m there.  Getting my valuables back to Blighty in one piece will be, as it has always been, down to me.  But after that, much as it pains me to say given my love of the USA, I’d have to give it a miss, at least until the TSA came to its senses once more.  It was reported that the TSA met with representatives of the US’ major airlines last Friday to see how a ban could be implemented; sources indicate that further meetings were to be held with EU personnel today.  At the time of writing, there’s been no announcement.

Watch this space.

Update 18.5.17

Well as it turned out we didn’t have to wait too long for an update.  Common sense has prevailed and the EU have persuaded the US authorities that widening the ban on larger electronics would be foolish:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-39956968

The ban still exists for the ten Middle Eastern and North African airports, so think about your safety before you opt to fly.  Happy travels!

Just back from: a day in Ibiza

This, perhaps, wasn’t going to be one of my usual days out. A few days before I was due to fly – out of Stansted at 7am on a Tuesday – an email arrived from Ryanair announcing certain restrictions on the flight.

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Amongst other words of caution, it said:

• Customers will not be allowed to carry alcohol on board and all cabin baggage will be searched at the boarding gates.
• Boarding gates will be carefully monitored and customers showing any signs of anti-social behavior or attempting to conceal alcohol will be denied travel without refund or compensation.

For a moment I wondered what I had let myself in for. In the event, though we did have a stag party on board, they were very well behaved and remarkably quiet. The plane was too, empty seats an indication that some of our passengers had fallen victim to one of Stansted’s worst mornings for queues at security I’d ever seen. I’d made the flight in good time and jetted off on time to the hippy isle with a row of three seats to myself.

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Arriving slightly ahead of schedule, I picked up a hire car and set off on an itinerary I’d found on the Ibiza Spotlight website. As my main focus of the day was to be a trial of a Sunwise kaftan, I’d originally planned to hole up at one of Ibiza’s stylish beach clubs and chill out all day. In the event, my geographer’s curiosity got in the way and I just couldn’t resist the chance to go exploring, especially up in the north of the island where the agricultural landscape was more verdant and prettier than the south. That said, I needed to be in the sun, so there were going to be plenty of stops.

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The first was supposed to be in Santa Eulària des Riu, Ibiza’s third largest resort. Incidentally, road signs are in Catalan, though my map was in Spanish, with this particular resort being Santa Eulalia – mostly the names were similar enough for this not to be confusing. I’d read about an excellent ice cream parlour called Mirreti’s. Reaching the town, I decided it just wasn’t my kind of place: too busy and lacking charm. I drove straight through, headed for Sant Carles de Peralta.

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This small village, dominated by a delightful whitewashed church, was the perfect spot for a stroll in the sunshine. There wasn’t much to see, but I’d been tipped off about a cafe called Bar Anita across the road. I spent a pleasant half an hour sipping a cold drink in the warm sunshine, watching the world go by.

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Onwards and northwards, as the hire car wound its way around the back lanes following the Cala de Sant Vicenç coast road for a few kilometres before ducking inland across the Serra de la Mala Costa. Turning north at Sant Joan de Labritja, I snaked across country on a tiny lane which led to the resort of Portinatx on the island’s rugged north coast. Smaller than Santa Eulària des Riu but nevertheless a resort, it was more my scene and I had a wander to explore.

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Back in the car, I drove back to Sant Joan, this time via the main road and on to my next stop, another village dominated by a magnificent church, Sant Miquel de Balansat. Sited on top of the hill, this whitewashed church is impossible to miss. It’s the second oldest on the island, after the cathedral and like the one in Sant Carles, had three crosses on the front wall, something you’ll see on all the churches on the island, the symbol of Golgotha. The painted chapel walls are very special.  This bronze sculpture outside also caught my eye.

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But by now, I was getting hungry and so drove the few kilometres to Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera. This was my favourite of all the villages I stopped at, and I feasted on jamon serrano and queso manchego in the sunshine, choosing a spot opposite the church.

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Somehow the village managed to hang onto its character despite its popularity with day trippers. I had time to browse in a few boutiques before they closed for a siesta and I hit the road again.

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This part of Ibiza is greener than the scrubby south and I drove across the countryside towards Santa Agnès de Corona, known as Santa Ines in Spanish. I passed olive groves, almond trees and orange trees laden with fruit. Ruined windmills completed the agricultural scene.

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The road layout here forms a circle, so it as it was such a fine day, I decided to backtrack a bit and go for a short hike. My target was the hidden fishermen’s cove of Es Portitxol, said to be one of the prettiest spots on the island.

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The road was in pretty poor shape, so I parked up and picked my way down the lane on foot. When I saw poor shape, it looked like a digger had gone rogue and there were great rifts gouged out of the stones. I wished at that point I’d had on walking boots rather than sandals, as it was hard going. The path did level out for a while and led through a shady forest; alongside were sweeping views over the ocean and towards the cove. Improperly clad, I decided to bail before I ripped my sandal straps, but had I continued, I’d have been rewarded with one of Ibiza’s hidden gems. Ah, next time.

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It was time to head into Eivissa, the island’s capital. I’d seen the cathedral and fortifications of its Dalt Vila or old town as I’d passed earlier, and now it was time to explore on foot. Luck was on my side when it came to finding a parking space; yellow spaces reserved for workers become free for anyone who finds them empty after 4pm.

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For anyone whose experience of Ibiza is solely the lively mass tourism resorts and club scene, Dalt Vila is the very antithesis: elegant, ancient and impressive. The thick wall and fortifications once protected Eivissa from marauding pirates; now they provide lofty vantage points from which you can admire the Mediterranean and watch the fishing boats bring their catch in, trailing clouds of seagulls in their wake. This defensive settlement dates from the 7th century BC when the Phoenicians founded the city, though the walls themselves are even older.

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Today, Dalt Vila is threaded with alleyways and tunnels which, unsigned, invite you to partake of a lucky dip; when you step through the doorway, you might have no idea where you’ll emerge. I popped up in the Plaça d’Espanya for a time. One of the tunnels here was a Civil War refuge; Ibiza was Republican for a time before Franco stepped up his campaign and occupied the island, forcing the Republicans to flee.

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In the Plaça d’Espanya traders were setting up a mediaeval fayre which should, according to the road signs, have opened three hours earlier but looked like it was still a while off. From there, I climbed a little further to the cathedral, its fussy architectural details contrasting with the simplicity of the whitewashed churches I’d seen in the villages.

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Overlooking the marina, it was a good place to perch on a wall and soak up both the sun and the view. Refreshed, I wandered the streets of the old town for a while before ducking randomly into a tunnel and emerging some considerable way beneath them. I took it as a sign and headed back to the airport.

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The details

Outbound: Ryanair STN to IBZ departing 0700 with a scheduled arrival time of 1040 (we were about 20 minutes early)
Inbound: Ryanair IBZ to STN departing 2140 and arriving at 2320 (also early)

Flights available from £19.99 each way.
Car hire with Alamo purchased through the Ryanair website was a little over £30 for the day; airport buses into Eivissa cost 3,50 euros each way.

Have you seen my other blogs on days out by plane? They’re perfect if you are desperate to travel but can’t get the time off you need for a longer trip. You’ll be surprised at how much you can do in a single day. For how to visit Amsterdam, Belfast, Bremen, Budapest, Lisbon, Regensburg and Copenhagen for the day from London, please follow this link:
http://juliahammond.co.uk/Travel/BLOG.html

Product test: Sunwise UVA clothing

It was August 2004.  I was in Bali and I’d heard about a celebration known as Kuningan.  This ceremony was held to mark the end of Galungan, a holiday similar to our New Year.  Devotees dress in white with red sashes and bring offerings for their ancestors who are returning to heaven after spending time on earth for the Galungan festivities.  They bring yellow rice, fish and fruit, placed in bowls made from leaves.  The rice symbolises their gratitude to God for the blessings he has bestowed and the bowls are adorned with little figures representing angels which bring happiness and prosperity.  It promised to be an incredible sight, so I made my way to the temple near Candidasa on Bali’s eastern coast.

Arriving, I wasn’t alone.  In front of me was a sea of white, a crowd of people thronging the space between me and the temple entrance.  Resigned to a long wait, I found a place in a queue of sorts and waited.  It was late morning.  The sun was already high in the sky and packing a powerful tropical punch.  I wasn’t unduly worried.  I’d put on some sun cream and had chosen what I thought to be a sensible outfit – a long sleeved cotton blouse.  Time passed slowly and my shoulders began to redden.  I applied more cream to the visible parts and thought no more of it.  Eventually, I entered the temple and observed the prayers and rituals.  It was a fascinating scene.

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Later on, returning to the hotel,  I realised the thin cotton blouse I’d worn was no match for the midday sun and my skin had not only reddened, it had blistered badly.  I spent the rest of the holiday in the shade, cursing how ill-prepared I’d been.  I’ve never been as casual about the sun since.  Several of my friends have had skin cancer, and that’s not something I wish to emulate.  According to statistics compiled for Cancer Research UK, there are over 15,000 new cases of melanoma skin cancer each year.  While many are treatable, some, sadly are not.  Realistically, with the amount of travelling I do and how fair my skin is, I need to be proactive about the precautions I take.  Sun cream alone isn’t enough of a solution.  Yet there are many tropical places in the world that I still want to visit.  I don’t want to find myself in a position where I’ve got to stay out of the sun completely and miss out on the chance of seeing them.

But here’s the rub.  I’ve never found much in the way of UVA resistant clothing that I thought I’d actually like to wear.  The thought of putting on one of those clingy long sleeved surfer shirts in soaring temperatures and high humidity just doesn’t appeal.  Nor do I find the functionality of the standard traveller clothing appealing; it just doesn’t feel like I’m on holiday if I’m wearing a collared shirt.  So up until now, I’ve slapped on the sun cream (ruining many a white blouse in the process with those impossible to remove stains) and hoped for the best.

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I’m not ready to give up my view of a tropical beach just yet.  So when a friend offered to let me trial a UVA resistant kaftan, I jumped at the chance.  Finally, something that would prevent a repeat of my Balinese burns.  Its first outing was to Ibiza.  In May, the temperatures are in the mid-twenties, perfect for a trial in conditions similar to a good British summer.  Here’s how I got on.

Style 8/10

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I just loved the colours in this.  Blue always feels so summery and the mix of the palette works well as a pattern and means that it goes with a wider range of bottom halves.  The longer length style, sitting flatteringly mid-thigh, meant this kaftan hid both generous hips and a tummy that likes to eat.  I’m not usually a fan of the tie waist, as I do sometimes think such styles make me feel like a trussed turkey, but actually it too was attractive.  I found that in a bow it did have a tendency to undo itself, but in a loose knot it looked just as good.  The batwing sleeves hung to my elbow, giving it a pretty waterfall silhouette.  The round neck, though high, was loose enough to be comfortable.  In my selfies, though, it looks a little too high, reminding me of a hairdresser’s gown.  In real life, this isn’t the case, as the length of the garment more than balances this out and obviously if you have someone else taking your holiday photos you’ll get a better image.

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Comfort 9/10

I trialled this in a number of situations.  As I was on the move, it’s yet to sit round a pool (watch out for an update later this month when it comes with me to hotter Texas).  When I first looked at the label, I was a little concerned to see that it was made of 100% polyester, usually favouring cotton and linen for high temperatures.  It was so lightweight though, that I never felt hot and sticky; it didn’t cling and hung beautifully.  The versatility of this style means that it’s as at home in a cafe as it is on the beach, sophisticated enough for the city yet casual enough to wear poolside.  I even went for a short hike in it.  The floatiness of the fabric meant it didn’t ride up or become too rucked up around the legs.  My only criticism is that with half-sleeves the lower parts of your arms are exposed.  I’d love to see that the range is widened to include a long sleeve tunic blouse in the same colourway and fabric.

I’m not alone in praising its versatility.  Fellow tester Kate had this to say when she packed it for a Med cruise:

“In Rome today and melting.  The kaftan is absolutely brilliant. I don’t need cream under it and there’s been no burning at all. I feel posh too! Ingenious.”

Kate’s a skin cancer survivor and adds:

“It gave me so much confidence, took away the worry I have when I see the sun is shining! I could sit on a beach and look like everyone else in a glamorous floaty cover up, yet I knew my skin was being protected.”

Value for money 10/10

This item is new for 2017 and the retail price has yet to be finalised.  I’m assured that it should be in the region of £25 to £30.  At this price bracket, that’s excellent value for money in my opinion.  The kaftan is well made and you’re getting a quality product.  With little competition in the UK market, it’s hard to find a comparison, but similar clothing from high-end retailers can go for up to £100, making this a bargain.

Function 10/10

Let’s get real for a minute: the main reason you’re going to be looking at the Sunwise UVA product range is to buy clothing that is going to protect you from the sun.  So did it do its job?  I spent the day in and out of the sun, and even when my lower arms were reddening at my sunny cafe table over lunch, the parts covered by the kaftan were well protected.  I’ve covered the lack of wrist-length sleeves in the style score, so for me this garment’s ability to protect me from sunburn in temperatures of around 25°C was first rate.  If that changes when I up the temperatures a bit, I’ll edit this section to reflect its capabilities.

The verdict

Would I buy it?  Yes, absolutely, and another one too if further colourways were to become available.  It’s not something I’d have considered before, but I’m a convert.

Where to find it:

Sunwise UVA is a recent start up and would value your custom as well as your comments.  Their current range can be viewed online at:

http://www.sunwiseuva.co.uk/

They’re also on Facebook: look for Sunwise. UVA clothing

Should tourist numbers be capped?

The authorities in Venice have recently announced that they will be introducing a series of measures to limit visitor numbers.  Amongst other things, Venice’s city council plan to issue tickets for St Mark’s Square and leaflet tourists to encourage them to head to less-visited parts of the city.  Supporters of the plan claim it’s necessary to protect a city that’s already on UNESCO’s endangered list; critics respond vehemently that a city should be open to all.  Where do I stand?  Somewhere in the middle, if I’m honest.

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A storm is brewing over tourists’ right to roam

The more mobile the world’s population gets, the busier tourist honeypots are getting, and our visitor experience is suffering as a result.  Travelling to many European cities in the middle of August can be more of a chore than a pleasure.  I had to visit the Swiss city of Interlaken in August a couple of years ago and the sheer number of people competing for space was dangerously close to what the infrastructure could cope with.  Added to that was a liberal scattering of selfie sticks, overflowing rubbish bins and a bunch of people whose disdain for queuing manifested itself in elbowing and shoving. It was about as far from tranquil as you could get, and certainly not what you’d imagine if you pictured a trip to the Swiss Alps in your head.

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Getting close to views like this can test your sanity

Over time, however, tourist numbers can increase so rapidly that not taking action can jeopardise not only the visitor experience but the site itself.  When I first visited Machu Picchu in 1995, I remember wandering with a friend amongst the ruins with hardly another soul there.  Memories can be a little rose-tinted; statistics put the annual figure in those days at about 250,000, averaging out at a little under 700 a day. By the time I returned in 2006, the site felt busy and the prices hiked in what proved to be an ineffectual attempt to limit the number of people.  Statistics estimate visitor numbers to have reached about 700,000 per annum by that point.

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Once the only thing photobombing your shot would have been a llama

By 2014, an estimated 1.2 million tourists came, around 300,000 in excess of limits agreed between UNESCO and the Peruvian authorities. Erosion of paths and stones, waste disposal issues and the risk of landslides are, still, very real threats.  The diesel-spewing fleet of buses might have been replaced by newer models and the threat to build a cable car that could well have sent the whole ruins tumbling down the mountain seen off, but Machu Picchu isn’t out of danger yet.

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Visiting Machu Picchu is now a very different experience

There are plans to introduce compulsory guides, expect tourists to follow set routes through the ruins and limit time at the site to prevent Machu Picchu collapsing under the strain.  I can’t face returning a third time under such conditions, but if I’d never been, I guess it would be better to accept these strategies than to miss out completely.  I feel lucky that I got to visit many of the world’s iconic sights ahead of the crowd yet at the same time saddened that the way I experienced them is, by necessity, a thing of the past.

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Even off season, Iceland’s wild views are coming under pressure

A whole raft of amazing places have implemented, or are planning to, measures to limit the impact of tourism.  Whether following the Bhutanese model of insisting on a minimum spend of $200-$250 via a compulsory daily package, limiting numbers arriving by cruise ship à la Santorini and Antarctica or regulating hotel beds and the likes of Airbnb as is being considered by Iceland, the goal is the same: to find a limit which works for the environment and people.  If your next bucket list destination is nearing breaking point, you’d better get organised (or rich) so you don’t miss out.

Flight news: Honduras

While parts of Central America have been blessed with direct flights from Europe for some time, others have been a bit more disconnected.  Honduras is one of those places.  But now, with the launch of a weekly flight from Spain, it’s possible to get there a little quicker.  When I visited Honduras a few years ago, getting there involved an overnight layover in Houston, adding both considerable time and expense to the journey.  Air Europa’s flight from Madrid at first might appear to be less than ideal, arriving shortly before 5am in what was once the world’s worst hotspot for murders.  (San Pedro Sula has now passed the Murder Capital of the World crown to the Venezuelan capital Caracas.)  But this late departure means that a connecting ticket from the UK is possible and you no longer have to lose a day of your holiday just to get there.

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Honduras might not be the first place that springs to mind if you’re looking to holiday in that region, especially in terms of safety.  But it’s easy to get straight out of San Pedro Sula and the early arrival means you’ll have plenty of time to reach somewhere both safer and more beautiful well before nightfall.  Copan Ruinas is one such place.  I spent a pleasant time there in 2014, riding horses out to the Guatemalan border, drinking the excellent locally-grown coffee and exploring some of the least crowded Mayan ruins in the region.  Visitors were outnumbered by scarlet macaws by some considerable margin.

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While I’d still be loathe to recommend spending any more of your time in San Pedro Sula than is absolutely necessary, the country’s Caribbean coast is as laid back as they come.  It’s well worth risking the journey back to San Pedro Sula’s airport after your Copan Ruinas sojourn to make the short hop to Roatan Island.  It’s the perfect place to unwind in the sunshine, sink your toes in the sand and sip a cocktail or two.

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When are we going?

 

Five favourite travel books: Asia and the Middle East

I’m not Asia’s greatest fan. Though you’ll find some of the world’s most fascinating natural and cultural sights, I find it irritating that they’re buried amidst jumbles of telephone wires and that reaching them often involves darting out in front of more motorbikes than it should ever be possible to encounter on one road. Nevertheless, I enjoy reading about the place, when I can filter out the bits that I don’t like to be left with a vibrant and enticing locale. There are exceptions, however, and one is most definitely Sri Lanka. I visited last year and cannot wait to return.

The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jeffries

Tea planter

It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, to learn that one of my choices is a work of fiction. The story is enthralling but most of all, it captures the essence of the country in which it’s set. Here’s one of my favourite descriptions from the book:

“She took a deep breath of what she’d expected would be salty air, and marvelled at the scent of something stronger than salt.
“What is that?” she said as she turned to look at the man, who, she rightly sensed, had not shifted from the spot.
He paused and sniffed deeply.  “Cinnamon and probably sandalwood.”
“There’s something sweet.”
“Jasmine flowers.  There are many flowers in Ceylon.”
“How lovely,” she said.  But even then, she knew it was more than that.  Beneath the seductive scent there was an undercurrent of something sour.
“Bad drains too, I’m afraid.”
She nodded.  Perhaps that was it.”

For some reason, though this scene takes place in Colombo, it feels to me like it should be set in Galle Fort. Quite possibly that’s because I grabbed the first train out of Colombo to head for the hill country and quite possibly because Galle Fort oozes history, spice and sewage from every cobblestoned street.

Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson

Hokkaido

My next choice focuses on an Asian country I also love: Japan. Travelling through Japan ought to have been a challenge, what with the different alphabet and all, but the Japanese go out of their way to make sure they can understand you, even if the conversation can get a little stilted. Here’s the author on the art of Japanese conversation:

“This was conversation by Non Sequitur and I was thoroughly familiar with it by now. The trick was to answer with equally arbitrary statements, until you sound like a couple of spies conversing in code.
“Yes, I can eat Japanese food. Baltimore is very big.”
“How long will you stay in Japan?”
“Until tomorrow, forever. It is very cold in Baltimore.”
He shook my hand. We smiled warmly at each other, clearly this was an International Moment.”

Fortunately, when I reached Kyushu, the lady in the tourist office at Yanagawa defaulted to technology when she realised our language abilities were sorely lacking. Video conferencing with a disembodied head on her computer, I was able to secure a map and a recommendation for lunch. The head seemed very disappointed that I had no further questions and I felt guilty as I thanked it and headed off.

Three Moons in Vietnam by Maria Coffey

Vietnam

Years ago, I found myself sleeping in Michael Caine’s bed. He wasn’t in it, of course – of course! – but he had stayed in that same room and slept in that same bed while filming The Quiet American. The bed was located in Hoi An, in an old Chinese chophouse that had been converted into a guest house. Despite that it heaves with tourists (more so now, I understand, than when I was there) I found Hoi An to be a wonderfully atmospheric place. Maria Coffey describes the place thus:

“It was no problem to while away some time in Hoi An. We explored the fish market along the river bank, where women vendors smoking fat hand-rolled cigarettes squabbled nastily and noisily with each other.”

I don’t remember any squabbling, but I do remember the noise.

Mirror to Damascus by Colin Thubron

Damascus

On to the Middle East now, and a book set in a city whose history stretches back seven millennia, giving me hope that when the present conflict ends, the city will rebuild and restore. I visited shortly before the war kicked off and was enchanted by the place and its people. Clad in what felt like a mediaeval cloak, I marvelled at the Umayyad Mosque; free of my robes, I haggled in the tiny shops on Straight Street and never felt unsafe in the streets of its old town, even late into the night. In his book, Thubron tackles some of the city’s history:

“Some cities oust or smother their past. Damascus lives in hers.”

Here’s to when Damascus can live freely again.

The 8.55 to Baghdad by Andrew Eames

Baghdad

My final choice is another reminder that time changes everything. Mention Baghdad now and the Iraqi capital is still, to many, a place that instils fear instead of hope. But less than a century ago in 1928, none other than Agatha Christie made the journey from London to Baghdad by train. Her route took her through Syria, where she frequently stayed at the Baron Hotel in Aleppo. (Rumour has it that this historic hotel, which I visited but didn’t overnight in, has so far survived the war almost unscathed.)

Eames quotes the 1928 edition of the Thomas Cook handbook which “advises customers packing for Syria that “There is nothing better for travelling than a suit of Scottish tweed, supplemented by an ulster or other warm overcoat and a good waterproof.” The author had probably never ventured further than Ramsgate.”

Times change and for some places, that’s a good thing.