Koh Lanta, Thailand (July 2011)

The Chinese proverb "the journey is the reward" could not be more truthfully demonstrated than by a trip to Koh Lanta. Whether you chug to the island by ferry or whiz in by speedboat, you can be guaranteed that very few journeys across water are as spectacular as this one.


Surrounding you are dozens of weirdly-sculpted limestone islands rising out of an emerald sea. Close up, these islands are covered in tropical vegetation, their porous, dripping walls moulded into bizarre shapes - a monkey's ears, a snake's body. Some have sandy coves, others have gaping holes where the limestone has been eroded. Some are honeycombed with caves which you can paddle through in a sea kayak, others are surrounded by crystal clear waters and coral reefs, a magnet for snorkellers. All are seriously photogenic. 

Koh Lanta Yai, your destination, is part of a national marine park off the coast of Krabi in southern Thailand. The popular tourist islands of Phuket and Koh Phi Phi lie further west, but Koh Lanta is a far cry from those partying hot-spots. A big island (26 km long by 5 km wide) still covered in coastal rain forest, Koh Lanta is unspoilt by over-development and the worst excesses of tourism. Its villages are tiny, the local people a melting pot of Buddhists, Chinese, Muslims and sea gypsy fishermen. There's no need to go trekking into the interior to look for wildlife: the island's monkeys, its macaques and shyer, kinder langurs, will find you. Fishing boats continually dot the horizon, bringing in the fresh catch of the day. The air at sunset is alive with sea eagles.

Sandy coves march down Koh Lanta's west coast, and here you will find a selection of mellow beach huts and discreet, low-rise resorts. There is one paved road which circles the island, but this becomes a dirt track as you approach the Mu Ko Lanta National Park, a nature reserve at the island's southern tip. 

During the green (rainy) season between May and September some of the smaller hotels and restaurants are closed and diving operations are curtailed, but you are still free to choose from a range of excursions that include snorkelling, kayaking, hiking, elephant trekking and travelling by longtail boat through the mangroves which dominate the island's east coast.

Even in high season, don't come to Koh Lanta looking for a wild party - you won't find one. Entertainment here is fun but low-key, based around beach bars with live music. The sights and sounds of the rainforest are all around you, so don't come here if the thought of ants in the sock drawer or monkeys on the roof disturbs you - this is an island for people who appreciate tranquillity, natural beauty and a landscape devoid of highrise concrete.

The highlight of our trip to Koh Lanta was an excursion through the mangroves with two local fishermen in a longtail boat, followed by sea kayaking around the limestone islands. In the mangroves, the fishermen called to the local monkeys and soon we had twenty wild macaques in the boat with us. The fishermen have been around these animals all their lives and the monkeys behaved impeccably. I have a healthy respect for macaques, who can be very aggressive, and this was a jaw-dropping experience. It would not be possible in a more commercial environment with greater numbers of tourists. That is why Koh Lanta is so special.

The journey to Koh Lanta, by road and sea, takes approximately two hours from Krabi Airport and four hours from Phuket. Both Krabi and Phuket are easily reached by low-budget airlines from Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.

A word about our Koh Lanta hotel, the Pimalai Resort. The Pimalai is a well-kept secret in Thailand, an exceptional luxury hotel in a natural setting. About 50% of the staff are recruited locally with no previous experience in the service industry, and trained by the hotel. They are outstandingly friendly. The Pimalai's best rooms overlook a sandy beach or climb a steep hillside with stunning views of the coast and the sea. Its signature restaurant, The Seven Seas, was voted by Tatler Magazine one of the Top Ten Restaurants in Thailand 2011. We came here for a special wedding anniversary, but this is the kind of hotel were everyone is welcomed warmly. It is a beautiful place to stay.

             Venice in the Winter (Nov 2011)

My last visit to Venice took place three years ago at the height of a glorious summer (see my report on Travel Blogs 1 page). This time, we returned in winter, a magical time in the city. There are no queues to enter the popular attractions, and you can stroll Venice at your own pace without becoming entombed in a narrow alley behind a coachload of day-trippers. There is only one drawback - you WILL get days of rain and you WILL experience the acqua alta, the high flood tides for which the city is now, unfortunately, renowned.

The flooding does get blown out of proportion - some guidebooks would have you pack an aqualung - but there is still the question of how to nativate the city. Duckboards are laid across major routes every time the water rises above a certain level, but you will still be barred entry to side streets. My rule of thumb? Don't panic, and certainly don't buy those naff plastic shoe-coverings on sale in Venice which look ridiculous and are known to leak like crazy. Instead, follow the locals. Those smartly dressed women who aren't wearing hip-waders are keeping dry somehow; follow the Venetians and you will discover routes that skirt flooded alleyways and stick to higher ground.

Your hotel will keep you informed of the times of the acqua alta. The best thing to do is go out before the water rises, do some sight-seeing and when the going gets difficult, find somewhere to hole up until the water recedes - the floods are never more than a couple of hours in duration. Along with the myriad of Venetian restaurants, cafes and bars where you can sit out the high tide, here are a few suggestions.

An excellent way to shelter from bad weather and witness the splendour of Venice at any time of year is by visiting the grand canal-side houses (palazzi) open to the public. Perhaps the most sumptuous in terms of its ornate ceilings, 17th-century furniture and Murano chandeliers is the Ca Rezzonico, situated on the Grand Canal in the stylish Dorsodouro district. Complete with a cafe and an excellent bookshop, not to mention wonderful rooftop views of the city, this palazzo makes an absorbing diversion.

If, on the other hand, you wish to see the bare bones of such a house without the trappings, visit the Palazzo Grimani, located near the friendly neighbourhood square of Santa Maria Formosa in the Castello district. This magnificent 16th-century residence, initially home to the Venetian doge Antonio Grimani, was hosting visitors more than 300 years ago, come to marvel at its frescoes and trompe l'oeil. Rescued from dereliction in the 1970s by a major restoration process which has taken 30 years, the house is once again ready to enthral the public. In one room, a striking set of before-and-after restoration images gives you some idea of the amount of work required to refurbish a building of this size. Palazzo Grimani is not as yet on the tourist trail, although it deserves to be: its grand rooms will be yours to enjoy without crowds.

Any visit to Venice quickly reveals that the treasures of the city reside not in her fusty, rather drab museums, but on the walls and ceilings of her churches.

Invest in a Chorus Pass, which gives you admittance to 16 churches scattered throughout the city. Not only will this take you to charming, less-visited parts of the city you might otherwise miss, but the Pass also gives you access to areas of these churches which are normally out-of-bounds. For example, a visit to the parish church of San Polo gives you private access to the sacristy, which contains a cycle of 14 stunning canvases of the Stations of the Cross by Tiepolo, while Santa Maria del Giglio in the San Marco district contains a side chapel with a luminous painting by Rubens, his only work in the entire city.

Also keep your eyes open for the many exhibitions and concerts which are held in Venetian churches. These tend to change quite rapidly, but are always worth seeking out.

Other treasures of Venice reside in her scuola grandes, charitable institutions founded by religious orders. These are often bypassed in terms of more flashy attractions, but they are every bit as glorious, repositories of jaw-dropping art. A recent visit to the Scuola Grande dei Carmini, which has richly carved wooden ceilings, frescoes by Tiepolo and monumental staircases by Baldassare Longhena, the architect of Ca Rezzonico and Venice's finest church, Santa Maria della Salute, was taken in solitary splendour - we were the only visitors that day.

If too much Renaissance art is making you giddy, try instead the Peggy Guggenheim collection of 20th-century art, my favourite place in Venice, which also sports a good cafe and a bookshop. You can also check out two new contenders, galleries opened by the French multi-millionaire Francois Pinault. Pinault appears to be a prolific collector of astoundingly bad contemporary art, but the buildings in which his collection are housed, the Palazzo Grassi and the Dogana di Mare (old Customs House) are outstanding, and the views of Venetian waterways from their windows is worth the trip alone.

Venice is a challenge to get around in winter - in a city without cars, you can't exactly flag down a passing taxi whenever you feel tired - but half the fun of your visit is getting lost down medieval lanes and coming across unexpected gems. On our final night, returning from a restaurant near the Rialto Bridge, we stumbled across a quiet square where the top two stories of the building directly ahead of us were illuminated to reveal Renaissance frescoes on the ceilings. This was someone's private apartment. It is these unexpected glimpses into Venice's unique cultural heritage that make a trip here so rewarding and memorable. So come despite the rain and the acqua alta - Venice in the winter is well worth the effort. 

Cannes  (Mar 2010)

Think of the south of France and you inevitably think of Monaco, St Tropez – and Cannes. Ah, Cannes. The name conjures up images of the Film Festival, immaculately manicured palm trees, a marina full of superyachts, the sea. What could be more evocative? But above all, Cannes exceeds expectations because it is elegant and discreet and the bling factor is mercifully low-key.

The heart of Cannes is undoubtedly the Croisette, the famous seafront boulevard. Roughly 2 kilometres in length, it is the perfect place for a stroll. On one side of the Croisette you have an esplanade with bracing sea views, on the other an unbroken chain of designer shops, smart apartment blocks and very grand hotels. The western end of the Croisette heads uphill to Le Suquet, the oldest part of town (a watchtower here dates from 1088). Heading east along the esplanade, you pass the marina, a small park lined with plane trees, the Palais des Festivals (the focus of the Film Festival, a huge conference centre), and one Belle Epoque hotel after another until you reach a further park and marina.

Predictably, the hotels have names like Grand, Majestic and Splendid, but by far the most splendid are The Martinez, a lovingly restored shrine to all things Art Deco, and the palatial Carlton, which played a central role, along with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘To Catch a Thief’. Visit the lobbies of these places – it is well worth the effort. If there is such a thing as a James Bond Moment, it can be experienced in the bar of the Carlton Hotel, which has marble floors, graceful white pillars and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Croisette. You could sit here forever watching the world go by. Most people do, sipping their hilariously over-priced drinks very, very slowly.

Curiously, the only eyesore the entire length of the Croisette is the Palais des Festivals itself, a squat concrete bunker of a building in a hodgepodge of architectural styles, all of them ill-matched. It’s small wonder photographs of the Film Festival show the stars in close-up; not once do the cameras pull back to reveal the full horror of the Festival’s HQ. (Most of the celebrities are photographed down the road outside the Carlton, anyway.) For a tourist, however, it’s fun to walk around the Palais, as the sidewalks contain numerous bronzed handprints of famous actors and directors who’ve attended the festival.

There is a tiny public beach beside the Palais, but most of Cannes’ glorious 7-kilometre stretch of sand is the private property of cafes or hotels, and you’ll have to pay for the privilege of paddling in the water. Be sure to check out the marinas, where you can get very close to some amazing yachts and sailboats. Also make sure to see the Croisette at night, when golden lights illuminate the palms and the esplanade is awash in low-level scarlet neon.  

Directly behind the Croisette and running parallel to it is the Rue d’Antibes, Cannes’ main window-shopping experience. Here you will find the latest men’s and women’s fashions, jewellery, leather goods, lingerie, glassware, all at jaw-dropping prices. Manage to prize your eyes from the windows and gaze above street level from time to time, as the facades of the buildings lining this road are beautiful.

Beyond the Rue d’Antibes, every square inch of Cannes seems crammed with restaurants and cafes where you can sit outside and watch the street scene: ladies young and old, immaculately dressed, gaggles of teenagers, Algerians selling sunglasses, coach-loads of Saga holiday-makers, couples strolling arm-in-arm, and entire legions of pampered pooches – big dogs, little dogs, dogs on leads, dogs peeping out of designer handbags. Cannes has to be one of the most civilized people-(and dog)-watching places in the world.

The restaurants here fit every budget, from cheap and cheerful bistros with teetering wooden chairs to ultra-sophisticated venues with recessed lighting and designer cutlery. Have the seafood – it’s delivered fresh from the Mediterranean every morning and it’s fabulous. 

If you have more than a weekend, try to explore at least some of the French Riviera. Nice, Monaco and Monte Carlo are further along the coast to the east and St Tropez is to the west. Rising above Cannes on roads with sickening hairpin bends are stunning medieval villages such as Mougins and Saint Paul de Vence, which have been artists’ colonies for generations.

One thing to bear in mind. As well as a tourist destination Cannes is a thriving conference town, playing host to a tightly-packed programme of symposia, festivals and trade fairs year-round. It’s best when planning your trip to check what will be happening that time of year, as the major (and minor) hotels can be booked up months in advance. Bon vacance and bon apetit!

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