I first heard about Riga from friends who had been for a stag weekend there; like Prague and other ex-Soviet Bloc cities, it is well established on the lad’s stag circuit. Unlike my friends, I decided to go for a romantic weekend with my girlfriend and, also rather differently, we went in February when the temperature routinely plummets to -25°C. An act of madness? – let’s find out!
Riga is the capital of Latvia, a country I had never heard of, which lies on the other side of the Baltic from Sweden. Until 1991, it was part of Soviet Russia but it doesn’t feel like a Russian city, although you sometimes sense a world of gangsters and black marketers lurking beneath the surface. In fact, some of the bars are run by gangs and exist solely to fleece unwary male tourists – a pretty girl will get chatting to you and ask you to buy her a drink; when the bill arrives it will be for several hundred pounds. It happened to a friend of mine so beware!
The main tourist area is centred around the old town which is incredibly pretty and looks like something from the lid of a chocolate box. If you are into your architecture, it is apparently the best example of art deco architecture in Europe. There is a nice mixture of museums, bars and restaurants in the old town and it’s a lovely place to have a wander around. All of Northern Europe had been experiencing a seriously cold winter when we went and it was so cold in Riga that people were skating on the river. We knew what to expect though and had brought ski clothes along and it was actually good fun wandering around in the snow.
Latvia has its own currency, the Lati, and one of them is worth about £1.20. Everything in the old town costs twice as much as anywhere else in the city but, even so, a beer is still a very reasonable £2.40. We stayed in a small independent hotel in a lovely old building just outside the old town and it was charming and incredibly friendly. Our extremely comfortable double room cost just £48 per night. The restaurants in Riga serve just about every type of food you can think of, though quite a few specialise in Russian or Latvian food. On our first night we pushed the boat out and went to a place called Vincent’s and had a fantastic meal – not bad for £25 per head. The following night we went to a Russian place and ate our fill of stodgy but delicious grub, essential to soak up all the vodka they ply you with.
Our second day was taken up with a visit to the central market which sells all manner of things, many of them a bit dodgy, so I stocked up on suspiciously cheap Marlboros. The covered area of the market is built from a recycled hangar that used to house Zeppelin airships, not something you see in Sutton Coldfield. In the afternoon we did probably the most terrifying and exhilarating thing I’ve ever done in my life, went on a genuine bobsleigh ride. We were the two passengers in between a professional driver and brakeman. I doubt that they go at full speed but you still hit 80mph and it is a huge adrenaline rush – not for the faint hearted!
Riga is a great place for Sutton Coldfield residents to go for a short city break; just try to avoid the tourist bars and, if you go in the winter, make sure you wrap up warm!
This article features in Walmley Pages Magazine, Sutton Coldfield
Does anyone in Walmley remember the TV advert that features a chorus of alarms going off at 5:00 AM immediately followed by a stampede of German holidaymakers going out to put their towels on the sunbed? Meanwhile, a plucky Brit saunters out to his balcony and hurls his Union Jack towel so that it arranges itself neatly on a sun lounger. Sadly, the art of dawn sunbed reservation is alive and well, only now it is the British who are the culprits.
I mention this because it was probably the only black mark against my family holiday to Agios Nikolaos in Crete. We stayed the Hotel Hermes located on the seafront near the centre of town. It was built in the 80s and it has vast sweeping lobbies and foyers occupied only by the occasional sofa. Our suite was equally vast and featured flat screen TVs, a double width balcony and a separate bedroom for the kids. The Hermes is a trifle bland, though reassuringly efficient, but this was easily countered by the view over the vivid blue sea to the towering mountains across the bay. From my balcony I could look down on the bustling port and watch a procession of cruise liners dock and then promptly sail away again.
The food in the hotel restaurant was good quality if uninspiring, but this did not matter because five minutes’ walk away was the centre of town and literally hundreds of restaurants. During my stay I enjoyed lobster, lots of freshly caught fish, a passable steak and the inevitable meze, all at reasonable prices by English standards. Ag Nik, as it is affectionately known, is a strikingly pretty town. It is built around a lake which is actually a lagoon connected to the harbour by a narrow canal. The lake is surrounded by cocktail bars and restaurants and is home to a Heath Robinson array of fishing boats. I cannot think of a better place to sit and watch the sun go down while sipping a Long Island Iced Tea and pondering what to have for dinner.
Although there is a disco boat that returns noisily to the harbour each evening, packed to the gunnels with slightly intoxicated teenagers, Ag Nik is by no means Crete’s answer to Ibiza. In fact it is a resolutely middle class resort and decidedly cosmopolitan; I even encountered several examples of that very rare thing, a French tourist outside of London. I was puzzled by the plethora of shops selling Prada handbags, Rolex watches and even fur coats – hardly standard tourist tat. The mystery was explained by the presence of Elounda, one of the most exclusive resorts in the Med, a few miles up the coast. Ag Nik’s two main beaches are spotless, sheltered and surrounded by a pleasing plethora of bars and restaurants. Better still, there is not a jet ski hire or sunglasses sales tout in sight.
Crete has plenty to offer to the inveterate sightseer. We hired a car for a day, promptly got lost and discovered just how mountainous the island really is. Some of the mountain passes are truly hair-raising but the views make it worthwhile and the villages remind you that Crete had a culture before the tourists came. Eventually we made our way to Knossos where they have excavated an entire 3000 year old city. Sadly, little was left standing and it was just a jumble of old stones; we didn’t stay long. A more worthwhile excursion is a visit to Spinalonga, a medieval island fortress that was used as a leper colony until the fifties. It is a poignant and slightly eerie place, fascinating to look round and you also get a boat trip and a swim.
So it is not goodbye to Ag Nik, but adieu. I will return someday soon.
Mexico is a collision of different civilisations and their traditions. From the Aztec Mayan Ruins and Colonial towns to Spanish oriented music and dance, you will definitely get value for money when it comes to Mexican culture. Cancún has transformed over the years from a small fishing town to Mexico’s most renowned visitor destination since Acapulco. It boasts searing sunshine, white beaches, Margaritas, Tequila and Pina Coladas! Although it is a sunbather’s paradise, I was venturing to a part of Mexico that promised to have retained its authentic feel whilst still attracting the tourists from around the world, including Sutton Coldfield.
Playa del Carmen has kept its buildings almost all ‘low rise’, retaining the local town feel. Amongst the global brands are boutique hotels like Luna Blue, La Tortuga and Fusion that are well worth a cocktail visit, even if you are staying elsewhere. Despite the resort catering for huge numbers every season, Cancún’s fishing village heritage is still evident and is mirrored heavily in the work produced by a number of artists exhibiting there.
The south of Cancún is much more cosmopolitan, so you really have a style to suit all; however, neither extremity beats the history and architecture of colonial Valladolid. You can even choose from salt and fresh water snorkelling lagoons at Xcaret and Xel Ha, such is the variety on offer. Tempting as it may be to lie on the white beach and roast, I cannot advocate travelling around and exploring enough; within an hour you could be in a fishing village or a cocktail bar and, from there, visit colonial churches and even ancient Aztec ruins.
‘Playa’, as the locals call it, is the perfect place to kick back and relax with a Tequila ‘boom-boom’ (a shot containing Tequila, Grenadine and Lemonade slammed down in front of you) followed by a Pina Colada. The food is abundant and wonderful; hotels usually provide a 24 hour food and drink service but if you are feeling adventurous there is plenty to choose from: La Cueva del Chango has a fabulous outdoor jungle setting for the restaurant and Playa Maya serves up a tantalising Octopus Taco!
Aside from the historical exploration, there is an ample selection of organised day trips on offer. We chose one based at a theme park, organised by Xplor, which boasted 2 miles of zip wiring, driving a 4×4 through the jungle and cave rafting. Health and safety is really kept to a minimum so you can get on and have some fun but, just for the record, hitting two trees and a couple of rocks is pushing it when defending your driving ability.
Leaving Mexico, and dreading the eight hour long flight home to Sutton Coldfield, I wondered whether I had forgotten something. The region has variety in a way I have never found in just one country before and its past is so well preserved that you can plainly see each stage of its development. I kept going through in my head the details of each and every temple, town, village, lagoon and beach I had visited but, somehow, it always feels like Mexico has a little bit more tucked away, ready and waiting for your next visit.
Corralejo, in the north of the island, has a main strip not unlike Blackpool that comes complete with a veritable extravaganza of Chinese, Indian and Italian restaurants; you would have to walk at least fifteen minutes to find paella. When you do finally reach the end of the glittering runway, you are rewarded with views over the marina which melt the trip down the promenade into a distant memory. Go to the top end of the town with its white stone buildings, small tapas bars and yachts at every turn and you realise that this is where the brochure pictures were taken.
If you are looking for lush, extravagant evenings in traditional restaurants, then you are in the wrong place. Thinking we’d made a terrible mistake, we wet-suited up and flippered our way down to the beach where my whole attitude changed. Within minutes of starting our snorkel we spotted Parrot Fish, white and Zebra Sea Bream, Sargo and a Culebre (an eel that looks just like a sea snake!) Fuerteventura, literally meaning strong wind, is perfect for wind surfing, kite surfing and sailing. Once you have hurdled the porpoise-like, russet coloured bodies on the beach, the coastline is a cocktail of vessels, sails and boards with which you can harness the area’s best asset.
After a few days of water sports our legs were aching. We had tried to get onto a coach trip to Jandia on the south of the island, but unfortunately this was too complex an arrangement for the hotel staff. Luckily the car rental people were much more agreeable and we were behind the wheel of a Nissan Micra before you could say ‘shoddySpanishholiday’. As chief map reader, I decided to shun the main roads in favour of the scenic route. Driving on the island is very much like an extremely limited safari, goats everywhere and a few camels tied together by the side of the road with the occasional chipmunk squashed in the middle. Our progress was broken only by my partner’s occasional whimpering as we climbed rapidly and realised that we really should have hired a 4×4. Quashing this thoroughly non-British attitude we continued, at times in fear of our lives, onwards and upwards. The reward was impressive; a vast, empty national park complete with bronze statues of Ayos and Guize and views over the sea to the land masses beyond.
Reaching Moro Jable, and contemplating events over a beautifully grilled bream at Leo’s fish bar, I felt somewhat cheated that its Palm Beach presentation was not mirrored up North. I am very open-minded; I had looked for canaries with my camera, eaten goat (fatty lamb), tried the local speciality (unbelievably salty baked potatoes) and yet I still couldn’t figure out why Fuerteventura is a year in, year out favourite destination for Sutton Coldfield residents.
It’s fair to say that the North has three attractions; the Sirena beach bar for its seafood and sumptuous Moroccan décor, the water sports and the unconscious sense of the comic. Only in the North would you be introduced to a man who dubs himself a wine connoisseur, after describing his tipple as “er, red.” They are comfortingly generous with spirits measures though, especially in el Blanco café – supplier of the strongest Mojitos known to man. Maybe this is deliberate as everything did seem a little easier on the eye as we walked back. The West African heat is obviously addictive for travellers who return year after year but surely that isn’t enough to be losing your head over? My advice is to enjoy the water sports and the sun but take the rest with a good pinch of Canarian salted potato.
The Isles of Scilly are theUK’sTreasure Islandparadise. Tresco is located about 30 miles off the coast of Cornwall; just drive south west until you run out of land and then find a helicopter! This may sound a bit dramatic but, trust me, the journey over the beautifully sculptured granite islands affords you the best views of the white beaches and turquoise waters that you’ll see all holiday. This death defying arrival at the Heliport in Tresco captures the care-free attitude of the island perfectly. With no cars and a minute population, all of whom work in the tourist industry; you can absolutely leave everything behind you and relax.
Airport transfers are thrown in; a tractor towing a passenger trailer arrives, in its own time, to deliver you at your chosen spot of respite for your stay. Our cottage was gloriously wonky, sparkling white and furnished to the standard of a glossy interiors magazine shoot; we were well stocked in the throws, cushions and quirky kitchen equipment departments. Even though the weather was fine we lit our wood burning stove as soon as we arrived, simply because it was there. Soon afterwards we were forced to fling open the French windows for fear of boiling alive, only to discover that we had a spectacular sea view, something I cannot recall paying any extra for.
Tresco has an art gallery, a gift shop, a pub and a post office and… that’s it! I certainly wouldn’t recommend this holiday to frequenters of another well known ‘white isle’. Despite being extremely quiet, for better or for worse, it is easy to see how this island has had such an impact on literature, art and film. It is dramatic in its range of botanicals and there is no greater example of this than at theTrescoAbbeyGardens. The tropical plant life, June’s average of 229 hours of warm sunshine and the crashing sea make for a real desert island experience. Optimistically, I bought some seeds of the island plant varieties from the gift shop; realistically, I can’t see them growing under the grey skies of theMidlands.
The island offers little in the way of choice restaurant-wise. If you want a selection of exotic global cuisine right on your doorstep then you’d better give the Scilly Isles a miss. The few pubs and hotels it does have, however, are excellent. The New Inn, Tresco, does pub food very well indeed and is enough of a restaurant to provide a luxurious break from self-catering; especially when it is your partner’s turn to cook. I was pleasantly surprised with the service too, I expected a ‘this is the best your going to get, where else are you going to go?’ sort of attitude but instead the staff were well versed in addressing customers’ needs and provided a wealth of advice on things to do during our stay.
The island is almost too beautiful as it seems to have had a Siren effect on ships throughout history. There have been hundreds of shipwrecks on the rocks around Tresco. You can visitValhalla, a strange and melancholic gallery of the figureheads recovered from these vessels. Although visually impressive, the stories behind them are poignant. This shouldn’t put you off from exploring the stunning waters around Tresco. The sailing club has dinghies or day boats for hire for competent sailors to use.
Tresco may be tiny but it is the little things that make a difference. Every person we met, whether resident or tourist, was having a splendid time, everything we did turned out to be far better than we’d anticipated and every time we faced a longish walk we were picked up in a golf cart and whizzed off to our destination. The island is still owned by one family – you can tell because it was like staying over at a relative’s.
Lions and Rhinos and Chimps, oh my!
Arriving in Kenya, I passed a shop called “Guns and Cameras- for all your shooting needs” and thought about how tourism inAfrica has changed. The game I’m used to is more pheasant than big five, so I was eager to see some seriously exotic specimens. I prefer to be an individual traveller and would hate to have every second of my adventure planned out for me. However,Kenya is vast and with so much to see I decided that a tour operator was definitely the way to maximise my chances of success on my hunt for big game; albeit shooting with an SLR rather than an elephant gun!
The journey to Masai Mara, in westernKenya, is certainly more pothole than road; you can opt for a hot air balloon tour of the national park but I definitely wanted the real experience. It wasn’t the migration season so there would be no thunderous herds of buffalo, the original fast food. It was actually just before the rains started, so water was short and the animals would hopefully be localised around permanent watering holes and rivers.
Our lion sighting could have been better, just a lazy old boy sunbathing on a rock; not the stealthy lioness I was hoping for! We were told elephants were nearby because of the trampled grass but I was more concerned about the rhinos; apparently they can run at 35mph and, because of their poor eyesight, they sometimes charge for no reason! Luckily, our rhino seemed quite content eating and posing while we snapped away.
Meeting the local Masai people is an incredible experience. You are welcomed with a performance of traditional dance, giraffes mingled in the background, and each member of the small community comes over to say hello. I must admit I was quite embarrassed by the whole affair; American tourists ‘ohmygaad’ at every Kenyan they meet and you also get the distinct impression that, however enthusiastic and talented, the villagers are very good at the whole ‘we’ve never seen a white man before’ routine. In fact, they put us to shame somewhat; not only do they speak an enchanting African language called Maa, they are also pretty good at Swahili and English too. I just hope they get paid well for humouring us all.
Your trip will usually be split across the parks in order to maximise chances of seeing everything on offer. We had a specific afternoon dedicated to watering holes where we saw a herd of zebra drinking in the late afternoon and just caught a distant glimpse of buffalo. Our guide pointed out a leopard in a tree to the other side of our jeep, apparently not hungry enough to hunt the stripy sitting ducks. At Lake Nakuru we exchanged our four wheels for a boat and for the next hour all I saw were pink flamingos sleeping all along the banks. Our boat put-putted along between enormous hippos that groaned at us for disturbing their rest.
My last stop was the Mombassa Jungle where I hoped to meet a real life King Kong! On the way there we had to make an unexpected stop to check on another jeep that had driven off the ‘road’ quite a way; they had pulled in to look at a whole family of elephants! Unfortunately, we didn’t see any gorillas; apparently they are very shy indeed. We did meet lots of orphaned chimpanzees, being looked after by older members of the group.
Kenyaoverwhelmed me with its hospitality and beautiful wildlife. I leave it with a full memory card. Hopefully this will not be the last time I watch the African sun go down.
Travel article was provided by Recommended, Sutton Coldfield commnity magazine advertising local business to the Sutton Coldfield public.