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The Weekend in Philadelphia

The great thing about Philadelphia is that downtown is less than 30 minutes from the airport. Add that it’s only around seven hours from the UK on a direct flight with Delta Air Lines, then the city definitely becomes viable for a long weekend.
It has all the buzz of New York, but is obviously smaller and that means you can walk everywhere. There’s lots to see including the birthplace of US independence, some great art museums and a unique submarine experience.
Independence National Historical Park
Start with the Constitutional Walking Tour. It has nothing to do with your health, but takes you around the Independence National Park area, the heart of historic Philadelphia. Independence Hall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built in 1753, where the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were debated and adopted in the late 18th century is the star attraction.
Across the street is the Liberty Bell, originally in the steeple of Independence Hall, and paraded around the US for 25 years as a symbol of American independence. The park also contains the first US bank buildings and the 1775 Carpenters’ Hall, the venue for the First Continental Congress of the United Colonies of North America. At the opposite end is the modern interactive museum, the National Constitution Centre.
National Museum of American Jewish History
Just off Independence Mall is the only US museum dedicated exclusively to exploring and interpreting the American Jewish experience.
Four floors tell the story, starting with the first Jews who came from Brazil, escaping persecution by the Portuguese in 1654, through the migration of millions of immigrants from Europe in the late 19th century, to post WW2 stories of refugees from war-torn Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and the Soviet Union.
The ground floor has stories of real people and their artefacts – including Steven Spielberg’s first camera, Irving Berlin’s piano and Even Einstein’s pipe.
Independence Seaport Museum
A short walk from here is the waterfront area along the Delaware River, Penn’s Landing, home to the Independence Seaport Museum. It tells the history of seafaring in Philadelphia, but moored outside are two vessels well worth a visit.
The 1892 Cruiser Olympia is the world’s oldest floating steel warship and the sole surviving naval ship of the Spanish-American War. It was decommissioned in 1921 and is a must-see.
Below it is the 1944 Submarine Becuna which prowled the Pacific for Japanese ships, sinking three of them. A narrow ladder leads you down into the cramped bowels of the crew quarters, engine room and the torpedo tubes. It can’t have been much fun spending time underwater.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia is noted for the quality of its art collections and city’s Museum of Art is the third largest in the country. You may remember seeing it in the 1976 movie Rocky when Sylvester Stallone ran up the front steps, and there’s a statue to commemorate the occasion.
Inside there are Renaissance masterpieces, an excellent French Impressionist collection and works by Picasso, Duchamp and Matisse. The American art gallery has fine examples of paintings by Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins.
Nearby is the Rodin Museum which houses the largest collection of the sculptor’s works outside Paris.
The Barnes Foundation
If you are still craving art, head for the Barnes Foundation. Between 1912 and 1951 wealthy chemical engineer, Albert Barnes, built up this collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern paintings.
Among its 3,000 masterpieces, are 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis, and seven Van Goghs. Although it only moved to its present site in 2012, the rooms are laid out exactly as Barnes intended. He mixes time periods, geographic areas, and styles to create his “wall ensembles” which lead to a certain amount of artistic indigestion by the end of your visit.
Murals
It’s good to get out into the fresh air, yet there’s no escaping the art. This is the mural capital of the world and the city has more than 4,000 examples, painted over thirty years and still being added to. You can get a map from the tourist office but it’s more to to take a two hour Mural Mile Walking Tour and learn the stories of the people, places, and themes of each mural.
Reading Terminal Market
Established in 1892, this is the nation’s oldest continuously operating farmers’ market and is home to over 80 merchants. You can buy fresh produce, meat and seafood here but the main attraction is the wide variety of local and international cuisine. As well as a range of Pennsylvania Dutch specialties, there’s Mexican, Thai, German, Cajun, and Chinese on offer. If you just want breakfast, then there are five bakeries to keep you happy.
Frank Lloyd Wright Synagogue
Beth Sholom is located in the Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park and is the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Completed in 1959, the glazed glass pyramidal tower reflects two dominant metaphors, the tent and the mountain to convey a sense of collective sacredness. The pyramidal glass tower fills the interior with natural light and the sanctuary’s chandelier, made of panels of coloured Plexiglas resembles a three dimensional kite – Wright called it a “Light Basket”.

Trip to Seoul, South Korea

Since the end of the Korean War, the country of South Korea has been continually progressing towards its current status as a global economic force and major player in the worlds of technology and culture. Currently there are around 10 million inhabitants in Seoul, making it one of the world’s most densely populated cities.
The Han river provides calm, placid views in an otherwise cluttered city. It flows through the city with twenty-nine bridges that span its waters enabling people to shuttle from north to south of the city via trains, buses or cars.
One of the Seoul’s accolades is that it is home to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Changdeokgung, Hwaseong Fortress, Jongmyo Shrine and the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty.
Here’s a round-robin of what to do when you get there:
The Palaces
Glimpse Seoul’s 600-year-old history and culture at one of the five royal palaces built by King Taejo at the end of the fourteenth century.
Gyeongbokgung Palace, or the Palace of Shining Happiness, is considered one of the grandest. It is located on the city’s main boulevard, Sejongro, close to the Blue House, the President’s residence. It was built in 1395 and is a stunning complex. A walk through the grounds of this Joseon Dynasty palace is a walk back in time. It is connected to the Jongmyo, a Cofucian shrine to kings and queens of the Korean Josean Dynasty. English tours can be booked in advance, or simply look out for one of the ‘greeters’.
Located inside the palace is the National Folk Museum. It comprises three tall interconnecting buildings and they house artefacts, relics and paintings from the different periods of Korean history ranging from pre-history right through to occupation by the Japanese. Entry is free. Metro line 3, Anguk Station, exit 1
Digital Media City
Seoul is considered to be the most wired city in the world but most people don’t know that South Koreans were enjoying touch screen cell phones and video calling long before Apple launched the iPhone. One of the greatest examples of South Korea’s dedication technology is Digital Media City. A former massive city dump was paved over in 1993 when the height of the landfill rivaled Seoul’s neighboring mountains. In 2002 it was transformed into a sprawling network of buildings housing everything from major technology and communications firms, like LG, to museums and apartments.
The Markets
Noryangjin Fish Market
This market was established in 1927 and today remains Seoul’s oldest and largest indoor seafood market. Over 800 vendors sell the day’s catch, which ranges from delicious to downright curious. Noryangjin is a great place to sample some of Korea’s most famous seafood dishes. Purchase any item from a vendor and have it prepared for you at one of the numerous restaurants located in the basement and on the second floor. If you’re really looking for an authentic experience, order Korea’s famous sannakji (live octopus) and pair it with a bottle of Soju. The market is worthy of a visit, if even just to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the massive facility. Seoul Metro Line 1.
Gwangjang Market
Gwangjang Market was Seoul’s first market. Today, its second floor serves as a massive textile market, but the real draw is the food vendors packed throughout the main floor. Gwangjang Market is one of the best places to sample Seoul’s eclectic street and snack food options. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the famous saxophonist who is often filling this lively market with his music. Seoul Metro Line 1 or 2.
Namdaemun Market
Namdaemun Market is Seoul’s largest traditional market. Open daily around the clock, it is massive and hosts over 10,000 vendors spread through a maze of intertwining streets. Many of the shops sell handmade items. From leather belts, jewellery to ginseng, the market has a little bit of everything including camping gear. Though it is very crowded, and you will get bumped around, it’s a great place to wander, people watch and perhaps pick up a souvenir at a bartered price. Seoul Metro Line 4 to Hoehyeon Station. Tourist information line: 02-752-1913.
Yongsan Market
The Electronics Market, great for gadget nuts, has over three thousand stores housed in over twenty buildings (as well as bootleggers in tents) open from 10 til 7.30, with discounts of up to 50% over other retail outlets. You could build a computer from scratch and buy all the games you could ever want to play on it. Don’t forget to haggle if you want a great deal; some vendors will drop prices drastically, while others won’t budge.
Seoul Folk Flea Market
You’ll find everything from Korean antiques and taxidermy to military paraphernalia and all kinds of randomness. While amongst these treasures, take a minute to try some fresh honey tea that’s made with honey fresh from the comb. If that’s too sweet try a refreshing concoction of milk, Korean red ginger, honey and a plant mountain ma.  Places like these have a lot of historical significance in Korea and this particular market has been moved around more than once in its 100+ years of existence. Who knows how long it will stay in its current form, so enjoy it while you can and don’t be surprised if you are the only foreigner in the place.
Itaewon District
If you are in Seoul long enough you will likely end up here at least once. Situated near the main US army base in Korea, Itaewon attracts both foreigners and locals alike. Trendy restaurants, imported food stores, nightlife and shopping are just a few of the many reasons so many people flock to this part of Seoul. It might not be the most traditional of places but it’s a prime example of the way foreigners have weaved their way into the fabric of Korean society and what makes expat life in Korea different from anywhere else.
Must shop department store
Between Namdaemun market and the Myeongdong shopping areas is Shinsegae’s flagship downtown store. It is the place to go for top notch, if expensive, shopping. Join Korean women in the basement, in buying prepared dishes and fresh fish at the end of the day. Be sure to sample Korea’s beloved kimchi, a spicy cabbage normally fermented in huge jars dug into the earth. Upstairs, you can buy the latest designer shoes and clothes. For time out, visit the store’s roof garden. Metro line 4 to Hoehyun Station.
Explore Insadong Street

This is arguably one of Seoul’s most famous and historic thoroughfares. The main street and the alleyways intersecting it are a great place to window shop Korea’s culture. Storefronts are flanked with hanging calligraphy paintbrushes and have Korean traditional paper (hanji)
and the Korean traditional dress (hanbok) for observation or purchase. Be sure to visit one of Seoul’s famous tea houses or sample Buddhist temple food. Seoul Metro Line 3.

Go to the theatre
Chongdong Theatre, in the heart of downtown just around the corner from Deoksugung palace, offers a spectacular, dynamic show of traditional dance and music every day at 4pm and 8pm except Mondays, as well as the opportunity to try out royal costumes for yourself.
In the last few years, energy-filled and highly accessible ‘non-verbal’ shows have been entertaining international audiences. Nanta combines cooking with drumming in a comedy that sold out for a month at the Edinburgh Fringe, while Jump turns acrobatics and Korean martial arts into fast slapstick humour for all ages.
Relax in a spa
Chill out in a bath house or jjimjilbang. Dragon Hill Spa is a popular one but most neighbourhoods have a spa and many are open 24 hours with a very modest entrance fee. You can even sleep in some of them – popular after a long night of drinking. Just ask at your hotel for one nearby.
Take a hike
The city is ringed by mountains and one of the best things in South Korea is the hiking in national parks where you can also visit working, traditional Buddhist temples.
Bugaksan Mountain
Bugaksan, is the highest and most well known of Korea’s mountains. While there you can also visit the nearby Cheongwadae or “Blue House” where current President Lee Myung-Bak lives.
Bukhansan National Park
Bukhansan National Park is accessible by a metro ride and then a bus or taxi to the entrance. You can choose a short trail and get to see how many city dwellers spend their leisure time.
Seoul Seonggwak
Seoul Seonggwak is a 18.7 km fortress encompassing inner-Seoul. The fortress connects the four cardinal mountains of the city, Inwangsan, Bugaksan (the peak behind the Blue House – home of the president), Naksan, and Namsan. The hike will take a day and requires some endurance. Walking Seoul’s fortress will take you through quiet neighbourhoods and provide aerial views of Gyeongbokgung Palace. The hike is free but on site registration is required with a passport. Seoul Metro Line 3 or 4.
Best view in town
Back when Madonna’s Like a Virgin first debuted and Mikhail Gorbachev had just become the new Soviet leader; a pink glass tower known as the 63 building had just become tallest building in the world outside of North America. Today it is still the tallest building in Korea and the headquarters for some of Korea’s biggest companies.
It is also the place where you will find the world’s highest art gallery, an aquarium, wax museum, convention center, restaurants overlooking the city and a state of the art IMAX theater. The 63 Building also known as 63 City is a great spot for those traveling with younger children or those young at heart.
Must-visit museum
The state-of-the-art National Museum of Korea, the largest in Korea, houses masterpieces including a massive marble ten-story pagoda, a gold crown from the 5th century and stone dagger from the prehistoric period andlarge Buddha statues. It is arranged over three floors and has several restaurants and coffee shops. The surrounding grounds are a park with a large Reflecting Pool. Get there via subway and exit at Ichon subway exit and walk over about 400 meters to the museum. Entry is free and an audio guide costs 1000 won.
Fun by the river
The Cheonggyecheon was once a natural stream running through the heartof Seoul. In the 1950’s it was paved and made into a highway. Today it has been restored beyond its original state. The Cheonggyecheon is 8km long and its banks serve as a gallery for an array sculptures, architecture, fountainsand art. Through the year it plays host to a myriad of festivals and exhibitions, as well.

Travel to Palm Springs, California

Crafted out of the desert, Palm Springs still rocks nearly a century after it was created. Just ask Obama. The former US President is a regular visitor and he is just one of a long list of superstars who have holidayed or indeed lived here.
Glitterati of yesteryear would escape to Palm Springs from their gruelling filming schedules to enjoy some rest and relaxation reassured that they were less than 2 hours away from Hollywood should they be called back urgently.
This is the kind of town where you can spend a swell night in Twin Palms, the house where Sinatra threw his legendary cocktail parties or rent the home on Ladera Circle, where Elvis honeymooned with Priscilla. Or take a spin along freeway Bob Hope Drive. Turn up here in January and you could spend your time star spotting when the Palm Springs International Film Festival attracts the Clooneys of the world into town.
This celebrity-imbued region and its nine manicured resorts has in recent years, become thought of as a pensioners paradise; albeit, vitamin-boosted, healthy, wealthy silver-haired city refugees. For many it’s the dry desert climate and guaranteed sunshine for at least 10 months of the year that keeps them coming back. But things are changing with swanky restaurants and funky hotels now filling up to the brim with the next generation of holiday-makers.
Things to do in Palm Springs
Palm Springs is set in a tea-cup shaped valley and is completely surrounded by mountains that rise to nearly 11,000 ft at an angle of 75 degrees. In between the peaks are 54 miles of lush hiking trails, interesting rock formations and lovely waterfalls that nature lovers adore.
You can see it all when you alight onto Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. A rotating gondola rises 8,500 feet across two and a half miles of amazing views on its way up and down. Or stay at the top to explore, as this is the gateway to the cliffs of Chino Canyon.
On ground level there is the designer shopping especially in the palm-lined, highly manicured El Paseo, dubbed the Rodeo Drive of the Desert. In the town centre the art scene is thriving. Antique shops and those selling arty interiors unfold along North Palm Canyon drive.
The Backstreet Art District is easy to miss yet worth seeking out on South Cherokee Way. A community of a dozen or so acclaimed artists have opened up shop offering an opportunity to spend an hour or so milling and perhaps buying unique artwork.
The townsfolk have cleverly turned its last century provenance into a tourist trade. It simply loves to show off its quaintly retro architecture – the largest concentration of mid-20th century architecture in the world.
Get there in December and the boutique hotels and historic inns throw their doors open for public Walk of the Inns tours. Walking from one retro-designed hotel to another gives an interesting peek into the minds of past architects and their creations from 100-year old adobe inns to Mediterranean inspired villas. I particularly loved the motel with a kidney-shaped pool and ornamental pink flamingos. Apparently, Marilyn Monroe did too.
Those with a penchant for history and culture may find the Palm Springs Historical Society of interest. It is housed in an adobe house built by John McCallum who was the first white settler in Palms Springs. It is full of antiques and Indian artifacts, tools and images. Also, check out the Art Museum and the Architecture and Design Center.
If like Obama you love to play golf, there are several to choose such as the championship Indian Wells golf course looking lovely with its mountain backdrop and water features.
Proof Palm Springs used to be the desert
I had to pinch myself to remember that this land had been desert for more than 11,000 years and by the time I had wined, dined, spa’d and tee’d off with the local trendies it dawned on me that I had no choice; I had to go on a jeep tour to get a glimpse of this region’s true nature. The tour was a fascinating drive to the lands where the Cahuilla people lived 400 years ago.
I could see the San Andreas Fault where the collision of Pacific and North American plates have created a twisted and tormented landscape that would not look out of place at the Tate. Our guide tells us that palms are not trees, they are monocots – “think grass on steroids” she said. The landscape here is phenomenal and this is where you actually get to see the palm springs.
Where to eat in Palm Springs
The town is full of designer-diners such as the amazing and plushly decorated, three-levelled Lulu on South Palm Canyon Drive.
In the town centre located on the corner of South Indian Canyon and Arenas Road the Johannes restaurant offers some truly tasty Austrian dining. The menu has a Schnitzel lover’s menu including the classic Weiner or chicken varieties alongside more unusual offerings such as Mama’s with tomato and gruyere and fonina cheese. Traditional deserts include a sumptuous strudel, tiramissu and chocolate mousse.
In El Paseo, the region’s shopping area, a lively joint is the Tommy Bahama shopping and restaurant combo – a retail recipe that seems to be popular in the US and for a little more authenticity I nipped out to the Coachella Valley to dine in the Jackalope Ranch restaurant where meat dishes are served with live entertainment in its wild west style saloon.
When to Go to Palm Springs
From January to May the weather is warm but not too hot and sunny. During the summer months, the weather can be extremely hot, but then again, some like it hot.
Palm Springs – need to know
Where to stay: Ace Hotel – a funky, retro style, motel-cum-hotel with some great mod cons and a pleasant, come-as-you-are vibe. Read our review here.

Trip to Barbados, Caribbean

Name: Barbados
Location: The most easterly in the Caribbean chain of islands in the North Atlantic Ocean, northeast of Venezuela. It sits almost a hundred miles east of its closest neighbour.
Population: 285,000 (UN, 2016). The ethnic mix is primarily African descent (90%) followed by Asian and mixed races (6%) and Caucasian (4%).
Capital: Bridgetown in the parish of St Michael on the southwest coast.
Other key cities: Speightstown in St Peter, Oistins in Christ Church and Holetown/Sunset Crest in St James.
Language: The official language is English but the Bajan dialect is widely spoken.
Airport: Grantley Adams International Airport
Area: 430 sq km (166 sq miles): 21 miles long (34km) and 14 miles (23 km) wide.  It is divided into eleven parishes ranging from St Lucy in the North to Christ Church in the south.
Major religion: Christianity – Mostly Anglican but there are also 100 other religions practised.

Life expectancy:
 71 years (men), 78 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 Barbadian dollar = 100 cents is tied to the US $. US dollars are accepted island wide. Expect an exhange of $2.00 Barbadian dollars for each US dollar. Other currencies fluctuate so check with thelocal banks.
Credit Cards: Most stores and restaurants accept major credit cards and traveller’s cheques.
Banks: Banks are generally open Monday to Thursday from 8am-3pm and Friday 8an-5pm.
Shop Hours: Supermarkets are open daily from 8am and close close between 7pm and 10pm in the evenings. Other retail outlets are generally open Monday to Saturday at 9am and close at 5pm (2pm on Saturday). Shops are only open on Sunday in December.
Tax: 15% VAT is usually included in prices. Hotels will add 7.5% VAT and 10% service charge to your final bill.
Tipping: Usually 10-15%
Internet domain: .bb
International dialling code: +1246
Electricity: 115/230V 60Hz
Water: Water in Barbados is pure and safe to drink from the tap.
Temperature: Average daytime temperature ranges between 80-87°F (27-30°C).
When to go to Barbados
Barbados has two seasons: the rainy season and the dry season. The rainy season lasts from May to November. The weather is hot but there are short spots of heavy rain. The busiest time is from December to April. Rates are a little higher at this time and some hotels may require you to buy some kind of meal plan, which is usually not required in the low season.
In mid-January, the Barbados Jazz Festival is a weeklong event jammed with performances by international artists, jazz legends, and local talent.
In February, the weeklong Holetown Festival is held at the fairgrounds to commemorate the date in 1627 when the first European settlers arrived in Barbados.
Gospelfest occurs in May and hosts performances by gospel headliners from around the world.
Dating from the 19th century, the Crop Over Festival, a monthlong festival similar to Carnival beginning in July and ending on Kadooment Day (a national holiday), marks the end of the sugarcane harvest.
Getting Around Barbados
Public Transport
Public transport comprises buses and minibuses readily available. The fare is $1.50 and it is best to have the exact money ready.
Government-owned Transport Board buses are the largest on the road – blue with yellow stripes and license plates with ‘BM’ prefixes.
Privately-owned minibuses are yellow with blue stripes and license plates have ‘B’ prefixes.
Privately-owned Route Taxis are white with burgundy stripes and license plates bearing the ‘ZR’ prefix.
Bus stops fall into two categories are are marked : (1) ‘To City’ meaning that the end of the route will be in Bridgetown and (2) ‘Out of City’ meaning that the bus is driving away from Bridgetwon and will complete its route before returning to the City.
When at the bus stop put out your hand to stop the bus.
Bus terminals are found in Bridgetwon, Oistins and Speightstown.
Taxis
Regular taxis have license plates with ‘Z’ prefix. Many have set fares for most routes, but do enquire beforehand.
Mini vans have license plates bearing the ‘ZM’ prefix. As they charge their own fares be sure to ask in advance what the fare will be.
Driving around
The UK style drive on the LEFT rule applies.
Traffic at many major intersections is regulated by roundabouts. Traffic in roudabouts flow in a clockwise direction and where there are two lanes, stay in the inner lane until you are ready to exit – then move with caution to the other (leftmost) lane to exit.
You need a valid national or international driver’s licence to be able to obtain a temporary Barbados driver’s licence from Police stations, licensing authorities and authorised car rental companies. Fees are US$5 for a 2-month permit and US$50 for a 1 year permit.
Need to Know
If you buy duty free cigarettes, you will be taxed on arrival in Barbados. Each 200 carton will attract $10.10 duty free tax, $37.60 Excise tax plus and Environmental tax of 3% and a further 15% VAT.
Warning
Narcotics are widely smoked on the island but be aware that all drugs, including cannabis, are illegal. Penalties for possession can be up to 20 years. So though you may be offered cannabis on the streets and on the beaches, you accept at your peril.
Highlights
  • Tyrol Cot Heritage Village
  • Bridgetown
  • Holetown – the oldest town in Barbados
  • St Lawrence
  • Barbados Wildlife Reserve
  • Harrison’s Cave
  • Welchman Hall Gully
  • See also: What is there to see and do in Barbados

Trip to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a compact country, not much larger than Wales, but has ancient cities, hillside tea plantations, wildlife sanctuaries and, of course, glorious beaches.
Getting around the country is relatively simple, with a good network of buses and trains, but to get the most out of your visit the best way is to hire a car with a driver. It’s not expensive, less than £50 a day including the driver’s meals and accommodation, and it gives you the flexibility to stop whenever you want. The added benefit is that many of these drivers make excellent guides, just make sure they speak good English. You can do this itinerary in a week, but it makes sense to spend longer to give you time to linger.
Colombo
After a long flight, it’s worth stopping for a night in Colombo and the city is less than an hour from the airport. Of course like most Asian cities it’s rapidly growing a selection of high rise buildings, but it still retains much of its leafy charm, partly because investors shied away during the long civil war. Explore its narrow lanes, lined with colonial buildings to get a sense of the old Colombo and sights include the National Museum, the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple, the restored Old Dutch Hospital, and the busy markets of Pettah.
Galle
There’s new highway linking Colombo with the south and it only takes around two hours to cover the 128 Km to the city of Galle. The 18th century Dutch fort area is a UNESCO world heritage site and is the best example of a fortified European city in South Asia.
Remarkably, in spite of the boutique hotels and handicraft shops, it’s still a working town with the law courts and schools drawing locals every day. It can get hot here so walk the ramparts and get some cooling sea breezes, watching local boys leap into the ocean. The 17th century Dutch Reformed church is worth a visit, but best just to wander the narrow streets past tumbledown colonial buildings and soak in the atmosphere.
Turtle Hatchery
Heading east along the coast it’s worth visiting the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery. The beach here is a prime nesting site for turtles but locals have a taste for their eggs so they’re often stolen. The good folks at the hatchery either collect them from the beach, or buy them at the market, and incubate them until the hatchlings break out. They’re then released back into the sea after a few days. They also rescue injured turtles and you can see a few specimens here.
Nuwara Eliya
Turning north and climbing up to hill country, it’s a gruelling six hours on narrow winding roads to cover 253 km. The climate noticeably cools and the vegetation changes. It’s worth stopping at Ella, at 1,000 m, for scenic views of jungle covered mountains, notably through what they call Ella gap, a niche in the hills by the side of Ella Rock.
The road climbs further upwards and soon you’re in the cloud as you reach Nuwara Eliya at 1,868 m. This is the capital of the hill country and was founded by the British in 1846. It’s also known as Little England, since the buildings look like they’ve been transplanted from Surrey (a pretty part of South East England), complete with hedges and manicured lawns. Here hard drinking tea planters spent their leisure time, in between elephant and fox hunting trips. It still has a race course and of course, a huge golf course with an appropriate club house.
Tea Plantations
Even though the British are long gone, the tea plantations continue to thrive and the hillsides are covered in the emerald green bushes, dotted with workers still picking by hand. One of the tea factories has been imaginatively transformed into a hotel, complete with its own garden where you can try your hand at picking tea. You can taste the fruit of your labours, if you wait the two days it takes to dry the leaves. Instead I visit the Bluefield Tea Gardens Factory and see each stage of the process, of course accompanied by various tastings.
Kandy
It’s another three-hour drive and 85 km through the mist and drizzle to reach Kandy, Sri Lanka’s former capital. The town is tucked on the edge of an artificial lake, surrounded by green hills on all sides and it’s an attractive place. The big attraction is the Dalada Maligawa, or the Temple of the Tooth, where they have one of Buddha’s canines, kept hidden inside a Russian box of caskets. That doesn’t stop worshippers queuing up to see the monks opening the sacred sanctum twice a day. It’s a tremendous sight, with incense, drumming and exotic costumes adding to the sense of ceremony. There are usually cultural shows nearby with displays of traditional dancing and fire walking.
Sigiriya
Still heading north and descending to the plains, after 95 km and three hours driving, you reach Sigiriya, or Lion Rock. This Rock Fortress or “castle in the sky” was a royal citadel for 20 years in the 5th Century. It’s a massive monolith of red stone that rises 600 ft above ground and the climb to the summit is reached between the paws of a lion.
Beneath it are the remains of the Royal Palace landscaped with waterways and lakes and there’s also an excellent museum. On the way up there are well preserved frescoes depicting topless women and of course the view from the top is stunning. Signs warn of wasp attacks and they’ve been known to attack tourists, but there’s a caged shelter in the middle of the climb, just in case.
Minneriya National Park
There are a number of protected areas in the vicinity and Minneriya is known for its large herds of Elephants who gather to drink around the reservoir of the same name. It has all the ingredients of an African safari and you transfer to special vehicles to journey deep into the jungle.
I arrive in late afternoon and am rewarded by the sight of over 250 elephants milling around on the edge of the lake, some of them taking the opportunity to have an early evening bath, as the sun sinks on the horizon.
Polonnaruwa
Not far away is Polonnaruwa, the island’s medieval capital from the 11th to the 13th Centuries, before being abandoned to invaders from South India. It spreads over a huge area, fortified by three concentric walls and laid out with an irrigation system and clusters of temples and shrines. You’ll need your guide to drop you off at strategic points, otherwise distances are too great to walk.
The highlight is the Buddhist temple containing four colossal Buddhas carved out of the rock, sleeping, sitting and standing.
Passikudah Beach
A couple of hours east, is Passikudah, a small coastal village about 35 km from Batticaloa. What brings people here is its long bay, fringed with golden sands, and clear shallow water which makes it safe to bathe. The hotels are all recent developments and, although they’re clustered next to each other, are tastefully low rise and hidden in the palms.
At the far end of the beach fishermen still set out in their canoes every night using lights to attract squid, their main catch. It’s a pleasant place to relax but just be aware that it can take seven hours to drive back to the international airport in Colombo.

Travel to Ukraine

Ukraine, the country famous for banning Hollywood Steven Seagal from visiting, is opening up to tourism with visa-free travel. Add to that direct flights from the UK and the fact that it is still remarkably good value for money, this is as good a time as any to visit. We suggest you get behind the wheel or a hire car or indeed to hop on a train.
Situated in the far west of the country, just 50 miles from the Polish border, Lviv was known as Lemburg when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1772 to WW1. That’s reflected in its quaint cobbled streets, proliferation of churches and architecture reminiscent of those other Hapsburg cities like Vienna and Budapest. Of course it also has trams, trolley buses and coffee houses. Indeed they say that the first coffee shop in Vienna was opened by an Ukrainian from Lviv in 1686.
It’s a pleasant place to wander round, with street musicians on every corner, and the Market Square in the old town is lined with renaissance houses. The elaborate Lviv Opera House still stages productions of opera and ballet and imposing Cathedrals beckon you inside. My visit coincides with National Embroidered Blouse Day so everyone is sporting one, men and women alike.
Outside the old town, the 18th-century Lychakiv Cemetery has ornate tombs, chapels and shrines plus a special section dedicated to those who are still being killed in the armed struggle on Ukraine’s Eastern borders. Most Ukrainians I speak to believe that it’s Russian mischief making and can’t understand why their former ally is making trouble. Central and Western Ukraine show no signs of the war, so travellers shouldn’t be alarmed.
Carpathian Mountains
The Carpathians form an arc running roughly 1000 miles across Central and Eastern Europe, making them the second-longest mountain range in Europe. They occupy the South West of Ukraine, separating the country from Romania, with the highest peak, Mount Hoverla, reaching over 2000m. Life carries on here much as it’s done for centuries and during the Soviet period was left almost untouched. Even guerrillas fighting their Russian oppressors stayed holed up here for years.
Kolomyia
It’s a three hour drive across the Ukrainian steppes to Kolomyia, famous for the world’s only Pysanka or Easter Egg Museum. Of course it’s built in the shape of a giant egg and houses an impressive collection of intricately decorated specimens from all over the world. Nearby is another museum dedicated to the Hutsuls, the largest ethnic group in the Carpathians, scattered through both Ukraine and Romania. It’s an excellent introduction to their culture with an exhibition of ethnic costumes, arts and crafts.
Yaremche
The landscape begins to change as I climb up to the town of Yaremche at 580m. The wide cornfields give way to forested hills, wooden houses and quaint chapels by the side of the road. The River Prut runs through the centre of town in a series of rapids, and there’s a rather tacky craft market on either side of the ravine. However if you’re in the market for woolly slippers or dodgy fruit wine, this is the place for you.
Bukovel
Another 40 minutes of climbing brings me to Bukovel, the largest Ski resort in Eastern Europe at 900m. It opened in 2000 and has 16 ski lifts with roughly 30 miles of pistes, and more are promised. There’s a boating lake but otherwise there’s not much character here. A few of the ski lifts remain open and, at the top of one of them, there’s a rather terrifying Roller Coaster Zip line which hurls you high through the trees. I prefer a spot of gentle hiking.
Verkhovyna
I head deeper into the Carpathians and the roads worsen, potholes everywhere and rickety bridges to traverse. The railway arrived in the 1880’s, attracting tourists with fresh mountain air, and Vorokhta is an attractive spa town. Further on, just outside Verkhovyna, is Kryvorivnia, a Hutsul village where the movie “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” was shot in 1965. It’s nothing more than a collection of attractive wooden shacks with a restored fortified Hutsul house, known as a Grazhda, filled with traditional artefacts. It’s Sunday and the singing from inside the tiny church drifts across the valley.
Chernivtsi
Leaving the mountains and journeying East, I come to the city of Chernivtski, capital of the region of Bukovina. Also a part of the Hapsburg Empire, it was known as Little Vienna because of its architecture is similar. It’s only 30 miles from Romania and, between the wars was part of that country. The Romanians were responsible for the city’s attractive art deco buildings. Chernivtsi University, a red bricked Moorish fantasy, with a Technicolor tiled roof, was built by a Czech architect in 1882, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Khotyn
An easy day’s excursion from Chernivtsi, is the fairy-tale fortress of Khotyn, on a cliff overlooking the Dniester River. It was built around 1400 by the Moldavians but fell into Turkish hands in 1713. They kept it for another 100 years, until the Russians became the final owners. These days it’s been much restored but it’s still an impressive, with walls 40m high and 6m thick. It’s been the location for many feature films, including the Ukrainian version of Robin Hood.
Kamyanets Podilsky
Nearby is another stunning fortress protecting the bridge connecting the medieval city, built on an island, with the mainland. The 14th century castle sits high above a bend of the Smotrych River, its steep cliffs forming a natural moat. It originally had as many as twelve towers but only a few remain today. It’s still relatively well preserved, however, and is one of the few medieval constructions left in Ukraine.
Kiev
I catch the overnight train to Kiev, the carriages built in former East Germany and full of communist charm. It’s slow but comfortable, although all the windows seem to have been nailed shut.
Ukraine’s capital city has wide leafy boulevards, onion-domed churches and relatively few of those dull Soviet architectural monstrosities. Since Ukraine’s independence many of the building have been restored and repainted as symbols of national pride.
Don’t miss the 1980’s reconstruction of the Golden Gates of Kiev or the 11th-century Orthodox cathedral of St. Sophia. I like the 19th century St. Volodymyr’s cathedral which was a museum of atheism during Soviet times. The big attraction is the Lavra Cave Monastery which is a complex of religious buildings with catacombs below contained mummified bodies of former monks. Nearby is the huge Motherland Monument, known locally as “Brezhnev’s Daughter”, 62m high, dominating the skyline. It’s part of the WW2 museum and you can climb up to the mother’s hand in an interior elevator
No visit to the city is complete without a walk around the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square of the city and the venue for pro-democracy demonstrations in recent years. It’s a place of tragedy as over 100 people were killed by snipers in February 2014. As a result former President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. Today, written in large letters on cladding covering building work, “Freedom is Our Religion”, is a slogan signifying that the struggle is still ongoing.
Chernobyl
Although there’s a small museum dedicated to the nuclear disaster in Kiev, a day trip to Chernobyl is the best way to appreciate the scale of the tragedy. It’s perfectly safe, they say, and it’s around a two hour drive from the city. You pass through a 30km checkpoint before entering a 10km exclusion zone where you’re warned not to touch anything. The reactor now has a new shiny metal shell, but the town of Pripyat, once housing 50,000 workers, is slowly being swallowed by the forest. This is a ghoulish tourist attraction but a grim reminder of the dangers of nuclear power.

Trekking in Tajikistan

There is a place where the mountains stretch up to touch the sky, turquoise lakes shimmer like jewels against a dusty backdrop, and — so they say — Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander the Great, rises from the deep, dark waters on a full moon night, and grazes on the shore. History and legend here are intimately entwined, but one thing is for certain: the views alone will take your breath away in Tajikistan.
Where is Tajikistan?
Tajikistan is one of those funny places we know exists, but few people could actually place on the map. Nestled between China, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan it’s a small, mountainous state which was historically of great significance — Alexander the Great built cities here, it was central to the Silk Road, and the Great Game was played out along its rivers and passes — but in recent years it has fallen, undeservedly, into obscurity.
It’s all about the trekking
Thankfully, a new generation of trekkers, climbers, and other adventure seekers have decided it’s time for all that to change, and the Fann Mountains in northwestern Tajikistan look set to become one of the wildest and most exciting travel destinations of 2017.
Pioneering the development of trekking and tourism in Tajikistan is Luca Lässer, owner of Kalpak Travel, who fell in love with the ‘Stans whilst completing an exchange programme at the American University of Central Asia. He describes the Fann Mountains as “a magical destination [which] will quite literally take your breath away,” and as the peaks here soar to well over 5,000m, that’s no exaggeration!
The roads, often unmade, could do little more than cling to the mountainsides, rivers rushing hundreds of feet below, and a sheer face of rock above. Often I couldn’t see the sky: that required getting out of the vehicle and craning my neck back, staring straight up. The natural barrier created by the mountains was so high.
Amazing landscape
From the main road, we crossed a rickety metal bridge, rusted and barely holding together, and climbed and climbed, one hairpin bend after another. Clouds of dust blew up from the track, and on the barren slopes around us, there was little to see but scree.
But then we passed over a hump, and another bend, and laid out below us was a turquoise lake, the surface of the water glittering in the sunlight.  Around the lake, the vegetation was lush and jade green, a veritable oasis which until now had been completely hidden from view.
This lake was Iskanderkul, named for Alexander the Great. It is said that he came here whilst on campaign, and when his favourite horse, Bucephalus, died, he was buried in the lake. The shepherds will tell you that on a moonlit the ghost of this horse rises again, but though we watched intently from our campsite on the shore, we didn’t catch a glimpse of Bucephalus.
The people
Though the landscapes in the Fann often seem empty, in fact that’s far from the truth. People have lived here for millennia, and some of them have preserved their languages and cultures since ancient times. Their villages sit by the riverside, and in summer the shepherds drive their flocks to high meadows over mountain passes. And so my second fond memory is of the people, and in particular a family in Aini who took me in for the night. The concrete wall around their plot encompassed not only the family home, but also a beautifully tended garden. The grandmother of the house sat with me beneath the apricot tree, telling stories I’ll never understand. But in the warmth of the sunshine, relaxed in the company of new friends, there was no better place in the world to while away an afternoon.
Access
Unlike the Alps or the Pyrenees, the Fann Mountains are hardly easily accessible, but their remoteness is part of their charms. You won’t find yourself following another trekking party up the pass, or competing for space at the best camping spots. The attraction of this wilderness is exactly that — it’s still wild. And the thrilling thing is that it’s waiting to be explored.
Practical Information
Kalpak Travel has 13-day trekking tours to the Fann Mountains, with scheduled departures in July and August. The tour costs €1,690 and this includes ground transportation, accommodation, meals, camping equipment, and services of an English speaking guide.
There are no direct flights from the UK to Tajikistan, but there are reasonable connections from London to Dushanbe (the capital) with Turkish Airlines, Air Baltic, and Air Astana. You will need to apply for an e-visa before you travel, and this currently costs $50. No additional permits are required to visit the Fann Mountains.

16-day cycling in Cuba

“We were returning to the morning light” – as a famous hit song by The Herd goes, which indeed we were, as our motley crew and team leader cycled off in bright morning sunlight on a 16-day tour through the extreme contrasts of this fascinating and contradictory totalitarian state-run country that is like no other … Cuba!
The official Cuban Tourist Map describes it as having “beaches of incomparable beauty, a fascinating seabed, wide variety of scenery, cities with estimable architecture” and I might add the most potholed of roads. I do not mean to be unkind, but it has to be mentioned since my trip was cycling tour on 21 gear hybrid cycles with panniers along with an experienced tour leader, assisted by official Cuban state tour guides. Our start and finish destination was the capital Havana.
Cuba is said to look like a crocodile on the map, or a great fish swimming in the Caribbean’s blue waters. Whatever its shape, Cuba possesses a rich culture and is by far the largest of all the Caribbean Islands. The land is made up of lush mountains, rolling hills and flat plains, all covered with a fertile soil from which springs sugar, tobacco and a vast array of tropical fruits and vegetables. Cuba’s mountains, swamps and offshore keys, conceal a wealth of plant and wildlife, barely seen by natives let alone tourists.
The island’s natural riches are equalled by the charms of its people. Cubans are a mulatto race from the early days of the colony, Spanish blood mixed with Indians and black slaves, bought over from Europe and latterly French from the 20th century. All these influences created something akin to a bottle of aged rum – dusky flavour, full and intoxicating!
Much evocative prose has been written about Havana. Words do not really do it justice with its diverse architecture, wide avenues and the famous ‘Malecon’ promenade, particularly those at the city centre of Old Havana. Its magnificent decaying edifices of the colonial buildings were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. Watch with a touch of nostalgia as 40’s & 50’s American cars drive by. Cubans live and breathe music and appear to know only one volume setting…….LOUD! from distorted blown speakers and a musical style all of it’s own.
Everything seems caught in a time warp of the decadent American influence of the 1950’s. As night falls the city sparkles with life and a visit to the bars that Hemmingway used to frequent – La Bodequita del Media or the Floridity – to sample his famous drink a daiquiri is a treat.
Many visitors feel the Viñales Valley is the most spectacular sight in Cuba. Certainly it was eventful getting there, as we were blessed with monsoon rains whilst traversing the banana and coffee plantations.
The valley is set in the Pinar del Rio province, Cuba’s westernmost region, a fringe of land with the Gulf of Mexico to the north and the Caribbean to the South. The mighty Mojotes limestone outcrops provide the backdrop for the world’s finest tobacco fields, with spectacular scenes more akin to South East Asia than the Caribbean. Its’ easy somnolent pace of life provided a real tonic to the hustle of Havana. To get there we had to cycle along Cuba’s only main motorway. With little traffic, it provided a surreal experience as we idled along this vacant tarmac ribbon. This has to be the last motorway in the world where such an experience could occur.
Equally impressive is the infamous Bay of Pigs, an otherwise innocuous sandy shoreline. This is now forever recorded in historic folklore as the failed invasion debacle on 17 April 1961. Suffice to say the insitu museum celebrates repelling the 1297 CIA trained insurgents (US participation was denied at every stage), which led to a great boost in Fidel Castro’s domestic and international status. Soon after he declared Cuba a socialist one party state. A walk round the museum with the entire captured US remnant on display, is a seminal moment. It really hits home just what this unique country is all about.
We cycled on to the town of Cienfuegos, a port city 155 miles southeast of Havana. Tourism has yet to reach this town with any force and allows one to see life as it really is for Cuba laid bare. Despite the industry on its periphery, the centre is quite attractive, with pastel coloured neo-classical buildings. Travellers are now starting to use this as a stop-off point on the way to Trinidad. The focal point of the town is Parque Jose Marti, one of the grandest squares in the country. Here you will find the monumental red-domed government offices, and early 19th century cathedral with a startling gold-painted interior and a music hall (casa dela troua) with whimsical flourishes.
The huge Hotel Jagua was our base for two nights. Set on a peninsular into the bay (originally a Hilton Hotel, seized by Castro after the successful 1959 Revolution, as it had just completed construction), it served up a sumptuous colourful evening cabaret for the mighty price of 5 Cuban dollars. Cavorting mulatto dancers in sparkling G-strings and pairs of strategically placed stars, may not be most peoples’ image of socialist doctrine – but this is Caribbean communism.
The Palacio de Valle just next door to the hotel provided a very unusual dinner date. Built between 1913 – 1917, this is the most peculiar ‘neo-mudejar’ style in Cuba, an architecture using elements of pre-15th century Moorish Spain. Its’ rooftop terrace is a great place to sit in the evening and enjoy a Mojito, as the flame coloured evening sky provided a wonderful canvas for the setting sun.
Trinidad is totally beguiling, which assaults all your senses. Sugar barons, slaves and pirates have all left traces in this oldest of Colonial Caribbean towns dating back to the 1514. Today it is a world heritage site, due to its time-warp preservation of architectural jewels. Aimless wandering through cobbled streets proved especially productive in Trinidad, since dozens of street names have changed and neither map nor residents seemed sure of what to call them.
Next day, a visit to the San Luis and Sugarmill Valleys was particularly delightful. Highly recommended is the trip I took on a steam train once used in the sugar industry, which traverses the whole valley for tourists. It leaves daily from the Estacion Dragones station in the south of Trinidad. Leaving at 9.30 am and returning 2-3pm, it stopped off along the way at the old Manacas-Iznagas Tower, the iconic symbol of Trinidad’s rich history. This ‘frozen in time’ area transports you back to bygone days in the most colourful way. As I closed my eyes the whole sense of occasion and atmosphere washed over me.
Later that evening as night fell across the Plaza Mayor in the centre of town; it served up a special atmosphere of criss-cross rhythms of Cuban music to the twirling bodies of the multi-national gathering of tourists. As the live music punctuated the air, a luminescent moon bathed the whole event in that special ‘moon glow’, truly a magical occasion leaving yet another indelible image, which will long remain with me.
Another day another ride commencing on the highest section of the Sierra del Escambray (Escambray Mountains), arguably Cuba’s most beautiful range. From the village of Tapes de Collantes (built in the 1950’s), we experienced a dramatic downhill through this unique jungle of luxuriant vegetation, an area of waterfalls, river rapids and fantastic horizons. Blessed with its own microclimate, the mountains were a wonderful cool refuge from the baking Trinidad.
Over night was in Santa Clara, a town as iconic as any in this country. It was here Che Guevara had the most decisive battle of the revolution. This in turn led to the fall of Havana and the flight of Batista a few days later. Next day a visit to Che’s Mausoleum and Monument, proved particularly evocative and enthralling. In a massive and overbearing communist style, this solid concrete edifice celebrates the history of the successful Revolution, via statues, carvings and records. Inside the mausoleum burns an eternal flame guarding over the final resting place of Che Guevara and his fallen colleagues.
Mantanzas was the start of our final ‘open road’ day of riding through the Yuma Valley, surprisingly still relatively unknown to most western visitors. The town has redeeming features, worlds apart from the likes of Havana and Trinidad. Their poorly stocked shops, dusky back streets and primitive transport provide a convenient insight to the grimy real world of everyday Cuban life.
So the journey ends in Havana with time to reflect. Cuba is all of the ‘Shadows and Darkness’ of state monopolistic control. Try as it might though nothing can stop the ‘Morning Light’ bringing with it the irrepressible will and energetic drive of its people. My mind went back to dusk in the most run-down part of Cienfuegus. As I sat up high on a dumping ground overlooking the Barrios, everywhere I looked was a scene of abject poverty. Almost in defiance, childrens’ laughter rose from the maze of ramshackle streets as they danced and played. From every doorway the sound of music, dogs barking and lively chatter erupted in its own special orchestra of life. This is their microcosm, the very lungs and heartbeat of Cuba. Everywhere you see an industrious attitude, which turns ‘water into wine’; nothing is wasted but re-cycled time and again.

Travel to Los Angeles, California

The legendary home of the stars combines sun-kissed beaches with buzzy neighbourhoods, world-class culture and several of the planet’s most famous theme parks.
L.A. is a collection of villages, each with their own unique character, and most visitors will find a Westside location – between downtown and the beach – the most convenient place for exploration. Public transport has greatly improved in recent years, linking downtown by fast and frequent bus with Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Westwood and the beach hubs of Venice and Santa Monica, while the Metro runs east to Pasadena and north to the entertainment hub of Universal City at lower prices than Londoners have to pay for Tube rides.
Hollywood
Hollywood is unmissable for first-timers, who will want to see the handprints of the famous immortalised in cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the most famous of all the ornate picture palaces which were created during cinema’s golden age. Grauman’s is still a functioning cinema where it’s great to take in a new release, and equally unmissable is the Hollywood Bowl, where every kind of music is performed in a beautiful outdoor setting from June till October.
Universal Studios
To the north lies Universal Studios, offering a great day out enjoying movie-related rides as well as a unique tour past the Psycho house and other famous film locations. Major acts play at the Universal Amphitheatre and the Greek, perhaps the world’s most beautiful and intimate setting to watch a gig.
West Hollywood
LA’s most relaxed and buzzy shopping, dining and nightlife are centred on West Hollywood, which connects Hollywood proper with Beverly Hills. Here Melrose Avenue and Third Street, running parallel, are lined with boutiques, cafes and restaurants offering something a bit different from the norm. Joan’s on Third Street has the best breakfasts, while the city’s most interesting lunch offering is the delightfully retro Farmer’s Market at Third and Fairfax, an LA institution where you can pick a dish from stalls offering everything from Balinese to Brazilian, Cajun to BBQ specialities, and eat them at communal tables in a relaxed, sun-dappled setting.
Sunset Strip
Sunset Strip, sitting on a hill at the northern end of West Hollywood, can’t be missed; rubberneck the huge billboards, have lunch or a sundowner at one of its outdoor cafes – try Le Petit Four – and enjoy the view over a million twinkling city lights as the sun goes down.
Beverly Hills
Beverly Hills, where the stars spend their money, is a great place to while away an afternoon walking the beautiful streets around Rodeo Drive. There are plenty of places to take a load off between window-shopping the designer stores; Nate’n’Al’s on Beverly Drive is a haunt of filmland’s movers and shakers, and makes some of the town’s best deli sandwiches.
Santa Monica
From here it’s a half-hour ride to Santa Monica, the biggest of LA’s seaside resorts with good beaches, a lively pier and a plethora of bars, cafes and restaurants. The Border Grill offers great Mexican food in a sophisticated, colourful setting; its signature dishes can also be enjoyed at the twice-weekly outdoor farmers’ market, a great place to shop if you’re self-catering.
Venice
While Santa Monica is a family favourite, singles and couples may prefer edgier Venice to the south. Here Main Street offers cutting-edge shops and funky cafes, while the main attraction is a wander through the canal system connecting some of the city’s most enviable homes. Muscle Beach is the place to enjoy a stroll down one of the city’s liveliest promenades. For dinner, head for Abbot Kinney Boulevard, where Hal’s is a great local hangout – ask for the burger, even if it’s not listed on the menu.
Downtown
Downtown shouldn’t be missed by foodies, who will love the Grand Central food market, where you can eat as well as browse, while culture-lovers can enjoy concerts at Disney Hall or world-class exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art. From here the road leads south to Anaheim and Disneyland or north-east to Pasadena, a beautiful town of arts and crafts houses with its own museums, charming little restaurants and elegant leafy boulevards for strolling.

5 best places in New York State

Autumn in America, otherwise known as fall lasts until 20 December and transforms landscapes across the country into a spectacular array of vivid colours and New York State is no different. From the Great Appalachian Valley which dominates eastern New York to the peaks of the Adirondacks in the north, New York State has some of the best places to experience fall in America.

1. The Adirondacks

The tree littered Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York transform into a vibrant display of autumnal colours and there are a couple of brilliant ways to witness it. One option is climbing Whiteface Mountain, which has a 4,872-foot summit that can also be reached by car or gondola and has incredible views for miles around. Alternatively, visitors can ride the Adirondack Scenic Railroad which winds its way through remote forests, sparkling rivers and into the magnificent beauty of Adirondack Park.

Stay at The Point, a five star private estate consisting of log cabins and guestrooms set next to a mountain lake. Rooms start from £1,310 a night for two people sharing.

2. The Catskills Mountains

Located only 100 miles from New York City and part of the Great Appalachian Valley, the Catskills Mountains have been a favoured destination of urban holidaymakers since the mid-20th century. Located within the mountains is the Catskills Forest Preserve, which is protected from many forms of development under New York State law and as such has retained its natural beauty and ‘wild forests’ making it one of the best places to enjoy fall. Hike along one of the many trails that include a number of lookout points over the Hudson Valley and as an added bonus the park has bountiful wildlife to glimpse including bobcats, black bears, minks and coyotes.

Stay at The Arnold House. This country retreat is set on seven acres in the forests of the western Catskills. Rooms start from £151 a night for two people sharing.

3. Central Park, Manhattan

It’s not only rural areas that experience the best of fall, as Central Park in Manhattan blooms with striking autumnal hues creating a scenic collision between man-made structures and nature. Stroll through the park enjoying the colours from within or witness the scene on a grander scale by climbing the Empire State Building for a top-down look on the park. Another option is the 360-degree view from Top of the Rock Observation on the 70th floor of the Rockefeller Centre right in the heart of the city.

Stay at La Quinta Inn & Suites, a four minute walk from the Empire State Building and a 10 minute drive from Central Park. Rooms start from £103 a night for two people sharing.

4. Greater Niagara

Niagara Falls is the one of the top attractions in the world and undoubtedly worth a visit, but there is also some fantastic fall foliage in the wider region such as Devil’s Hole State Park and Whirlpool State Park that shouldn’t be ignored on a visit to Greater Niagara. Both parks offer several miles of panoramic views of the scenic Lower Niagara River gorge, while nearby Genesee Gorge at Letchworth State Park has been nicknamed “the Grand Canyon of the East.”

Stay at The Giacomo, a luxury boutique hotel in the Niagara Falls area. Rooms start from £108 a night for two people sharing.

5. Finger Lakes

The Finger Lakes is a group of 11 long, narrow lakes in upstate New York near the huge Lake Ontario and part of the Appalachian swathe. Many of the lakes are surrounded by dense foliage that morphs into a fascinating mirage of reds, yellows, oranges and browns in fall that reflect off the lake’s surface. The Finger Lakes region has been active in reform and utopian movements over the years and it was at Seneca Falls village that the first women’s rights convention was held marking the birth of the women’s suffrage movement.Additionally, the Finger Lakes region is New York’s largest wine producing region with over 100 wineries and vineyards meaning travellers can enjoy a fine tipple along with the views.Stay at Hampton Inn Brockport, minutes from Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes. Rooms start from £110 a night for two people sharing.