Monthly Archives: March 2017

Koh Chang is a beautiful Thai Alternative Island

Thailand was once the go-to place for hedonistic backpackers and budget travellers but recently the country has seen a meteoric rise appealing to all kinds of travellers especially those keen to explore the the southern Thai islands.

Phuket; much loved by expats, is a place for family holidays and weddings. Koh Phi-Phi island first came to the world’s notice back in 2000, with the movie starring Leonardo Di Caprio in “The Beach”. Koh Phangan is notorious for The Full Moon Party, and Koh Tao is a small island that is overflowing with scuba diving first timers, shops and enthusiasts.

Lesser known Koh Chang island has a certain innocence about the place with 70 per cent of the island covered in untouched jungle. Add in beaches and mountains too, and Koh Chang has bragging rights as one of the most naturally eco-friendly islands in Thailand.

Despite this, Koh Chang isn’t as offbeat as it might sound and there is something for every type of traveller. Here is a guide:

Holiday Koh Chang

White Sand Beach is the most developed beach and area of Koh Chang, and the first stop you’ll come to if arriving in a shared taxi (locally called songthaews).  Expect a holiday vibe here, with many families, couples and some backpackers. You can choose from many hostels and resorts on the beachfront and along the main road, you’ll find banks, supermarkets, and restaurants. The beach is split up into a north and south section with plenty of room for sun loungers, umbrellas and deckchairs.

Party Koh Chang

Lonely Beach is the place for solo travellers or partygoers in Koh Chang on a budget. The area has been likened to Khao San Road in Bangkok, although a lot less crowded and commercial. You’ll find lots of food vendors, tattoo studios, clothes shops, restaurants, bars and a couple of nightclubs here.

The beach itself is actually located prior to the lively area of Lonely Beach around only 15 minutes walk (or two minutes on a scooter) away. Even though you might think the island has as many people as any other Thai island, it doesn’t. The parties in comparison are small, and many people end up hanging around the area that precedes Himmel Bar.

Authentic Koh Chang

Bang Bao was once a quiet small fishing village, although now popular with travellers, it still keeps its authentic set up and appearance. The fishing village is built in traditional fashion along with its interconnected piers, almost like a mini lost pirate colony. Worming your way around Bang Bao’s wooden networks you’ll come across guesthouses, markets, bars and restaurants. There are many restaurants but we recommending checking out Barracuda Restaurant for a real quirky and cosy dining experience.

Personal Koh Chang

Klong Kloi beach feels a little away from the rest of the island and that’s how we like it. Just to make sure, we recommend a budget stay looking over the jungle-clad river at Tree House Cottages. Klong Kloi is evidently still a little raw, with a small beach with sandy paths everywhere. Here you can relax by the beach, sit in a hammock and read and really take a step back from reality. As you arrive here via windy road, you’ll probably pass wild monkey families that may or may not be interested in you. Although keep your belongings safe, it does represent the casual approach this part of the island takes.

Couple Koh Chang

Kai Bae is ideal for couples that want a bit of variety. Although it isn’t as lively as Lonely Beach, it is no means dull either. There are small lively bars that appeal to most, and the selection of cuisine is generous with Asian and European options.

Kai Bae beachfront has a 1km long narrow but friendly stretch that attracts the book readers and sunbathers. Staying on Kai Bae main road strip, you can take a 30-minute walk through the jungle to the Kae Bae Waterfall past the elephant camps for a little added excursion.

Alternative Islands

Koh Mak is popular for couples and families and the island is only 30km away from Koh Chang. It takes 3 hours via wooden boat or 1 hour via speedboat. The island is fairly flat, so it’s ideal to roam around via scooter. Many people come here to relax, eat and the odd explore. You can visit Buddhist shrines, viewpoints and hidden beaches. Koh Mak is a quiet island with some restaurant filled lit up areas, but don’t expect big parties here.

Koh Kood has the lowest population in the whole of Thailand that gives you an insight to how things work here. There is no nightlife, but plenty of places to stay, and despite its little local population, there are more facilities than probably needed. Still, Koh Kood is a gem of a place that offers breathtaking beaches, fun scuba diving and hidden waterfalls. Only a short distance from Koh Chang, like Koh Mak here you’ll find it more ideal if you’re travelling in a couple or with family.

By road: Catch a coach from Khao San Road in Bangkok. The journey begins at 8am and arrives around 15:30, so will take around 7 hours in total reach Koh Chang Island. Cost: 450 baht including the ferry ticket. Once you’ve arrived on the island, it’s 150-200 baht per person in a shared taxi to your desired destination on Koh Chang.

If you’re taking a shared mini bus from your hotel, it costs a little more, around 950 baht including a ferry ticket. Times normally vary from 8:00am to 10:30am departure. Mini bus travel is normally a little quicker taking around 5-6 hours door to door.

Fly to Bangkok: Direct flights into Bangkok are operated by Thai Airways. Other airlines fly but normally involve a stop off in between.

Once in Bangkok you can fly to Trat from BKK airport which takes 1 hour exactly. These are operated by Bangkok Airways, 3 times per day; twice in the morning and one in evening. Please see the below for the times: AM: 8:20 + 11:20 | PM: 17:00

Flights one way normally cost around the 2,000-4,000baht which equates to roughly £45-90 GBP.

Once Landed: To get to Koh Chang from Trat Airport, you’ll need to arrange a mini bus or private transfer. Included in this journey you will need to take a ferry. The trip to the pier is around 30 minutes, and the ferry ride is about 45 minutes.

Shared mini buses are the cheapest, although slightly expensive still for Thai prices, costing around 500 baht (£12).

The manor house is the best house in England

England is truly a magnificent keeper of its heritage, one that lives in the bricks and mortar of these amazing manor houses. And you can visit them. If only walls could talk:

1.Ightham Mote, Kent

Igtham Mote, Kent was hailed by David Starkey as “one of the most beautiful and interesting of English country houses”.

Six miles south of Sevenoaks, this 14th-century moated manor house is one of the Garden of England’s hidden gems. A former home to Medieval knights and Victorian society figures, it’s surrounded by the most tranquil of gardens with an orchard, small lakes and woodland walks that meander off into the surrounding countryside.

The historian David Starkey, impressed by its atmospheric central courtyard, the house’s Great Hall, crypt, and Tudor painted ceiling, has described it as “one of the most beautiful and interesting of English country houses”.

Owned by the National Trust since 1985, it’s worth a visit for the estate that surrounds it alone. Three designated walks take in all the flora and fauna of the Kent countryside, through an ancient bluebell wood or past 19th-century hopper’s huts and even the natural spring that feeds the moat.

A particular delight is to wander south, away from the house, climb a five-bar gate and stumble across one of the most charming village cricket pitches imaginable. The English countryside at its best.

2.Hatfield House, Hertfordshire

It’s all too easy to step into what was the childhood home of Queen Elizabeth I and imagine you’re on a film set.

The grand Jacobean manor house has served as the backdrop for scenes from major movies including Harry Potter, Tomb Raider, Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech.

It sits in a vast swathe of land only 20 miles north east of the capital and a few minutes’ drive from the A1, encompassing formal and informal gardens complete with a maze, a children’s farm and play area, endless acres of rolling countryside to lose yourself in and even its own 12th century church.

The house itself promises everything you’d expect; from chandeliers and tapestries to a vast library and armoury and one of the finest examples of a Victorian kitchen in the country.

But the hidden bonus here is the fabulous stable yard and the period roads and buildings that lead to it. Flanked by an eclectic mix of buildings converted from the days when the royal stud lived there, is a café that spills outdoors when the weather’s fine and sits among cobbles and a circular fountain in which children toss coins to make wishes.

3.Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

Blenheim is an awe-inspiring 18th century country house in the heart of the fairy tale town that is Woodstock. It is the principal home of the 12th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and, more significantly, the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.

A true Baroque masterpiece, the house, seen by many as the greatest of its kind in Britain, sits amongst more than 2,000 acres of Capability Brown parkland and the most elegantly landscaped formal gardens. There’s a miniature train that transports families to pleasure gardens with its adventure playground, tall-hedge maze and butterfly house.
But everything about the palace is vast; from its 180ft library to its 67ft high hallway.

And outside, it’s on the same scale; big enough, in fact, to host events like the International Horse Trials. So if you’re looking for room to ramble, be warned: you’ll need to be fit to enjoy it fully and have serious amounts of time.

Best time to visit? Other than Spring when the daffodils are in full bloom, it’s Christmas when for more than a month the gardens are turned into a wonderland of light to create an hour-long circular walk past singing trees, a scented fire garden and lawns set ablaze by thousands of colourful fibre optics.

4.Syon House, Essex

This is where the Duke of Northumberland lives when he’s in London and the closest of the country houses in terms of distance from the city centre. Built in Tudor times, it underwent a thorough transformation at the hands of the neoclassical architect Robert Adam and bears many of his hallmarks. Portraits by Van Dyck and Lely hang on the walls on what is the last surviving ducal residence and country estate, in Greater London.

Only nine miles from Charing Cross, you can quickly find yourself immersed in gardens renowned for their extensive collection of rare plants and trees, all of which surround a spectacular conservatory which dates back to the 1820s and was long known for housing plants from all over the world.

There’s even a frozen spectacle that is an ice house, built over 48 hours when the lake froze over, a formal Italianate garden and a Capability Brown lake overlooking water-meadows. So, even if you don’t want to step foot inside the house, it’s worth the trip for the chance to stroll in 100 acres of parkland and among some of the most spectacular trees in the country, including ancient oaks that date back to the 1600s.

5.Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire

Woburn itself is about 40 minutes from drive up the M1 and about five miles south of Milton Keynes. It’s best approached from junction 12 where you can head towards Flitwick and detour off through some of the most charming villages in the county.

That’ll bring you to a small rise that opens up to spectacular views of the deer park. There’s a 20 mph speed limit to help you avoid them and enjoy the view. The Abbey entrance is on the left (the wildlife park is on the right) and, once through the entrance, you’ve a two-mile drive through the grounds, past the house, a lake and an avenue of trees to the main entrance.

Again, there’s no need to go into the house to enjoy the most relaxing of times strolling a multi-faceted array of landscaped gardens, visiting the various historic exhibitions housed in the courtyards, or taking in the scents from the orangery.

The far corner, over a wooden bridge, houses a maze and the entrance yard houses one of the most charming cafes where ducks will snap at your feet for scraps on the terrace on warm days.

Having come all that way, it’s probably worth doubling back through the deer park afterwards into the town, just for a stroll through the high street. A bonus: the car park is free.

24 Hours located in San Sebastian State, Basque Country, Spain

It’s no longer a secret: San Sebastian, European Capital of Culture in 2016, is a gastronomic gem in a land of spectacular food. If you’re planning on spending 24 hours in this city you’ll need to loosen your waistband.

Sure, Spain has a glut of fantastically picturesque cities and some of the best food on the planet, but San Sebastian known as Donostia in the Basque Country, might just be the jewel in the crown.

The city is also very compact so you will be able to walk from one side to the other relatively quickly. If nothing else, bring your swimming gear and comfy walking shoes.

Must Visit

La Playa de la Concha beach, with its golden crescent sweeping from Parte Vieja (old town – the heart of the city) in the east to Monte Igueldo in the west, is a wonderful feature of this city.

It is probably one of the finest city beaches in Europe, probably the world, you’ll want to spend a while splashing in the sea or people watching. And let’s not forget Playa de Gros (also known as Playa de la Zurriola), a favourite with surfers.

But to get the picture postcard view you’ll need to head to the funicular up to the top of Monte Igueldo. A €3.15 ride takes you to the antiquated but charming funfair on top of the hill which offers views that can accurately be described as ‘breathtaking’.

We also went for a ride on the rickety roller coaster and climbed ‘The Tower’ for even better views. All the attractions are about €3 each for adults.

Must Eat

Food wise, San Sebastian is akin to a culinary sweet shop. The old town (Parte Vieja) is studded with wood-panelled bars sporting unpronounceable Basque names such as txepetxa and etxberria. Passing each one you’ll spy little gastronomic works of art lined up along the bar.

These are pintxos (pinch-os), the local variety of tapas and it is these that give the Basque region their rep for quality food. Each one costs around €2-3 and it can be tempting to get stuck in and spend a fortune.

Our favourite pintxos bars were Bar Zeruko, where everything on the bar looked picture perfect and Bar Azkena, which is down a flight of stairs hidden in a market near the local Lidl.

Top tip! Order from the specials board. We had slow-cooked veal cheek with foie gras and a lobster morsel served in a shot glass with dry ice (don’t drink the dry ice!).

But our advice is treat the pintxos like an appetizer and head to one of the many Michelin starred restaurants in town. There is a splendid selection.

Arzak is the most famous of the three Michelin starred restaurants on offer. But you’d be hard pressed to choose between them, Akelarre or Kokotxa.

We sampled the fare at Narru for their exquisite lunch menu. Bookings are recommended at all the restaurants.

Must Drink

The Basque’s are a proud lot and they’re justifiably proud of their unique booze options. Just ask any barman what he recommends and the answer will be one of these.

Txakoli (cha-ko-lee) is a tangy apple wine which is poured with a flourish – a cascade from a great height into a small glass. Don’t try and do it yourself!

The local cider (cidra) is also a must try. If you’re not a cider drinker then if you only try once, do it in San Sebastian.

Must Stay

A literal stones throw from La Concha beach, Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra is a grand and palatial looking building in the heart of the city centre. The rooms are cool and light with a chic modern finish, despite the classical exterior. The location is ideal for the 24 hour visitor, with the old town a 10 minute walk, the beach barely 2 minutes and the main shopping area on the doorstep.The bar in the hotel also overlooks the beach so you can watch the world go by over breakfast.

Tour de France

This summer the world’s most famous cycle race pedals off from Dusseldorf on 1 July. For the next three weeks, elite cyclists will compete stage by stage as they loop around Germany, Belgium, and France. Glory awaits whoever crosses the finishing line first in Paris on 23 July. All those who come behind can at least say they completed the gruelling 104th Tour de France.

The Tour de France itself is open only to professional cyclists, but that’s not to say that you can’t get a taste of the action. You can bike the same route, or follow stage by stage as a spectator. Here are the highlights you can expect to see if you follow the route, plus our practical tips to make it happen.

Dusseldorf

The very first stage of this year’s Tour de France starts and ends in the German city of Dusseldorf. It’s a flat 13 km time trial through the city streets, mostly along the banks of the Rhine and therefore wonderfully flat. You can follow a similar route on a guided bike tour of the city, or meander your own way through the Old and New Towns. The parks and tree-lined promenade by the riverside are particularly pretty, and a great way to ease yourself into cycling, especially if you’re not terribly fit.

Liège

Stage 2 of the Tour de France is a long distance stage: 203 km from Dusseldorf across the border to Liège in Belgium. There are two short climbs along the way, and you’ll see a great deal of western Germany’s countryside as you cycle.

Though this section of the route is not overly arduous, you will be spending a lot of hours in the saddle. It’s essential you wear the right shorts or tights to avoid chafing. Jack Wolfskin’s Gravity Flex Tights are stretchy and breathable, and importantly are also waterproof — helpful for the unpredictable weather in Northern Europe!

When you arrive into Liège, don’t be deceived by the first industrial appearances. Climb the Montagne de Bueren steps for a rewarding city view, and treat yourself to a well-earned beer at the top.

Troyes

Cycling and drinking wine may not always go together, but there are few things more pleasurable in life than biking through French vineyards. The organisers of the Tour de France know that well, and so Stage 7 runs 213 km through the vineyards of Burgundy from Troyes to Nuits-Saint-Georges. Champagne and Rosé des Riceys are just two of the local specialities: you can also keep your energy levels up with Troyes andouillette, Chaource cheese, and Prunelle de Troyes, a particularly potent prune-based liquor.

Bergerac

Competitors in the Tour de France take a much-needed rest day in the Dordogne before starting on Stage 10, the 178 km leg from Perigueux to Bergerac. The terrain here is a little hillier, but the rewards for visitors are ample: the famous cave paintings of Lascaux, truffles and foie gras for the foodies, and the attractions of Bergerac.

Bergerac’s Old Town looks as if it was made for tourism. The timber framed houses are medieval, there are lively markets in the squares, and you can wander along the bank of the Dordogne River down to the historic quay.

Rodez

By the time you reach Stage 14 (182 km), you’ll need to raise your game. The hills here might look photogenic, but as they rise higher and higher, your legs will start to burn.

Be grateful that you’re on a modern, lightweight bicycle. The first time that British riders competed in the Tour de France was in 1955, and their equipment and clothing looked very different indeed. The Wearwell Cycle Company, who sponsored riders in that first British team, have relaunched their collection in 2017, combining a hint of 1950s vintage style with the latest materials and designs. You can look the part whilst riding in complete comfort.

When you do get to Rodez at the end of the stage, inevitably you’ll be exhausted. Once you’ve recovered, do allow some time for sightseeing, however. Rodez’s cathedral is a masterpiece of gothic architecture; there’s an excellent circular walking tour around the Old Town; and the local park, Domaine de Combelles, covers 300 acres.

Salon-de-Provence

The longest stage of the tour, Stage 19, runs through the lavender fields and olive groves of Provence. It might look utterly idyllic but it’s tough on the legs, especially in the first part of the day. Even the pros are hard-pushed to complete the 223 km in under 17 hours.

You are heading for Salon-de-Provence. This year is the first time that the Tour de France has ever been through, though the town is a regular feature in other long distance road races such as the Paris-Nice Peloton. Come here to visit the 12th century Château de l’Empéri and the tomb of Nostradamus in the Saint-Laurent Collegiate Church. If your trip coincides with the Du son au Balcon festival in August, you’ll also hear the central square pulsing as DJs mix the latest tracks from the balcony of the town hall.

Paris

Everyone’s heard of the Maillot Jaune — the yellow jersey — of the Tour de France, and on the final race day, that’s what is on everyone’s mind. It’s considered bad form for other riders to don that colour shirt, but if you want to feel like a winner on your own bicycle ride, by all means flash some canary yellow.

The 21st and final stage of the Tour de France is from Montgeron through Paris to the Champs-Élysées. It’s a 103 km ride and when the roads are cleared for the race, classed as a sprint. If you’re competing with the Parisian traffic, however, your pace will inevitably be curtailed.

It’s in Paris that the excitement of the race builds to a peak, and where as a spectator you’ll find the best vantage points. Arrive in good time if you want a spot on the Quai d’Orsay or Pont Alexandre III; you stand a better chance in the grounds of the Grand Palais where there’s rather more room.

Watching the race reach its triumphal end on the Champs-Élysées is an emotional sight. And that’s even more true if you’ve cycled all — or even part — of the way yourself. Make time this summer for the Tour de France, the greatest cycle race of them all.