31 October, 2011

Luxury or roughing it?

I have just returned from an incredible trekking trip to Peru, and with around six to nine hours of walking everyday, I had a lot of time to think. While snuggling into my sleeping bag at night, in temperatures of minus 10 degrees celsius, I wondered...do I prefer luxury holidays, or do I secretly like roughing it?

It's a tricky question as I loved getting up every morning at 6am; cupping a mug of warm coca leaf tea in my hands, while breathing in the fresh air in the incredible Andes. At the same time, you can't beat climbing into a huge hotel bed with fresh sheets, and plump pillows.

Since I returned from the magical mountain ridges in Peru on Saturday, I have taken great pleasure in the simple things in life; like switching on lights instead of rummaging in my rucksack for my head torch. Having said that; I miss the feeling of open spaces, and a lack of people - it was a strange feeling being in London Heathrow with thousands of other travellers, and I do wish I could still enjoy the relative solitude of the trek with the amazing bunch of fellow trekkers, who really made the trip for me.

I am relatively new to trekking and camping experiences, but that doesn't mean I've spent years travelling in luxury. I think it's all about having a balance, and mixing things up a bit so that you don't get bored with one or the other. Perhaps the way to do it, is to try and experience luxury on a budget!

What do you prefer - luxury or budget travel? I'd love to hear your thoughts, so please leave your comments below.

26 October, 2011

Floating Hotel in Sweden

Since opening in 2008; Sweden's first floating hotel has been attracting visitors from all over the world, and it's more than just a gimmick. In low-lying coastal regions which are struggling with rising sea levels; a hotel that floats seems to be a very good business move, and another reason it sits on the water is because there was no more room in the fishing village! It is located on an island North of Gothenburg on the beautiful Swedish west coast. 

The proprietors of the 46 room hotel also chose the location (off a small fishing island near Gothenburg) because they didn't want to impact the land. In fact the whole hotel has been designed to have little or no effect on the environment; and the minimalistic style is not only for cosmetic purposes, but the designers also had to make sure it would float!

The Salt & Sill company have always been passionate about the environment, and the excavating rock left over from the building work is being used to build a lobster reef outside the hotel. Not only that, but the marine life underneath the floating pontoons is expected to increase, and will include a mussel purification plant.

There is lots to do in the surrounding area with villages; museums, and forts to discover. It's also worth a stroll around the island as the houses are beautiful, and it's not hard to see why this coastline was once fiercely fought over.

The Floating hotel is located on the island of Klädesholmen in West Sweden, an hour's drive from Gothenburg's City airport. Click here to go to the hotel website.

24 October, 2011

Trekking in Peru

As you will be well aware by now, travelling is one of my biggest passions. I love experiencing everything from luxury hotels, to budget B&B's. City breaks are fantastic, but I also like chilling out on two week vacations. Whenever you head out on a new journey, I believe it's all about the experiences you have on the way, and I'm currently on a very exciting trip. If you had told me a few years ago that I'd be trekking through Peru, I'd have said you were mad! It wasn't until I completed a charity trek through the Sahara desert in 2009 that my passion for trekking began, and I have to say it's hard to sum up just how life changing the experience can be.

Photo courtesy of Visitperu.com
This time around my journey began in the southeast Peruvian city of Cusco (above) last week, and is taking me on an incredible trip on a less touristy route than the popular Inca trail to my final destination - Machu Picchu. 

Photo courtesy of Visitperu.com
Machu Picchu is one of the new seven wonders of the world, and it's exactly 100 years since the incredible Inca ruins were rediscovered. Before the trip I was filled with fear of the effects of altitude sickness, and blisters. However I know that reaching my final destination will make it all worthwhile. I can't wait to tell you all about the trip when I return; but with five days remaining on my trek, I hope you all wish me luck!

If you've been to Peru, and have a story to tell, please leave your comments below. 

19 October, 2011

Elegance in Marrakech

When I first visited Morocco, I found the country fascinating, and knew I would return. It has been described as an up and coming destination, and Marrakech is a feast for the senses. There is an ever-growing selection of boutique hotels and luxury hideaways emerging in the North African country, and today, Travel Lightbulb is featuring a hotel which is located in the heart of Marrakech. If sightseeing is your thing, you couldn't be in a better spot. Facing the gates of the Royal Palace, there are several major sites all within a ten minute walk of the hotel, and several restaurants to hand as well. 

Photo courtesy of Dar Les Cigognes
A riad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior courtyard garden, and Dar Les Cigognes is an example of the Andalucian-Moorish style. It was once the home of a wealthy spice merchant, and dates back to the 1600's. The hotel was originally opened in 2001; and the full renovation was completed in 2004, but they have an annual facelift to keep it fresh and up to date.

Photo courtesy of Dar Les Cigognes
The hotel restaurant has had superb reviews; offering modern twists on classic Moroccan dishes, and depending on the weather evening meals are served on the roof terrace. There are so many different flavours in North African cooking, and the chef knows just how to show them off.

Photo courtesy of Dar Les Cigognes
The hotel also has a full service spa, and their own range of spa products with organic oils. When you've spent a hot day bartering in the various souks, a relaxing treatment could be just what you need to calm you down - negotiating can be tough work you know!

Photo courtesy of Dar Les Cigognes

There are only eleven rooms and suites at the riad, meaning it truly is a boutique hotel. While it may be small, it means guests can rely on exceptional service, and comfort. What more could you want. If you would like more information about the hotel, click here

17 October, 2011

Trinidad - an unexpected delight

Before I went to Trinidad, I didn't really know what to expect. I think we've all heard news stories about drugs and violence in the capital, Port of Spain, but my own experience couldn't be more different. While searching the internet, I came across the Acajou hotel, which is a small family run hotel on the northern coast of Trinidad. It's in a small fishing village called Grande Riviere which is totally unspoilt. 

One of the reasons for the lack of tourism here is that it's quite hard to get to. The hotel will send a taxi driver to pick you up at the airport, and I have to say, it's well worth doing. The drive takes you right around the Northern mountain ranges; and even though I'm an experienced traveller, I wouldn't want to tackle some of the poor local roads and rickety bridges! The rooms are designed in the style of traditional wooden cottages, and have fabulous views out to sea. There are five cottages; all different shapes and sizes, and each one has a private sun deck. 

The food at this hotel is incredible. The chef is Swedish, so the food is a real mix of the Caribbean and Sweden. They use locally grown vegetables, and they'll also cook your own catch if you get lucky on a deep sea fishing tour! There are also another two local restaurants to choose from, just a stone's throw along the beach, which are also good.

The beach in front of Acajou is definitely one of the highlights. When I was there it was almost always empty, so you can enjoy the rolling waves in complete isolation. I went to Acajou in March; and the only time there were others on the beach, it was for a very good reason. Leatherback turtles lay their eggs on this beach, and these wonderful pre-historic looking creatures are incredible to watch. Although it's supposed to be quite rare to see the leatherbacks, I spent three days at Acajou and saw at least one every day!

I booked a rainforest hike with the hotel, and my tour guide was my waiter from the previous evening's meal! He was very knowledgeable about the forest and made the hour and a half long excursion very interesting. You can even be taken to a hidden waterfall to go for a dip - lovely after a hot hike in the sun! Acajou is the perfect place to spend a few days chilling out (I took a 20 minute flight to Trinidad after spending the rest of my holiday in Tobago), and it's great fun to wander through the tiny village, where even at the end of your first day, the locals greet you like you're a long lost friend! 

When you see the 'tongue in cheek' sign for the complaints department (above), you'll be pleased to hear I could find absolutely nothing to grumble about! Acajou was a great place to chill out, and witnessing the incredible leatherback turtles laying their eggs was an added bonus. 

Top tip:  Leatherbacks lay their eggs from March to September, and later in the season you can also watch the hatchlings surface from the sand, and make their way to the sea.

12 October, 2011

Cupcake heaven in London

I think it would be fair to say that everyone loves a cupcake now and then, and I have found one of the best bakers of these little delights in London. The Hummingbird bakery opened in Notting Hill in 2004 to provide an alternative to supermarket cakes, and French patisseries. At that time cupcakes were hard to find in the UK; but when Carrie Bradshaw bit into one on Sex and the City, their popularity soared. In fact market research shows they're now overtaking the flapjack to rival biscuit sales!

Image courtesy of Benjamin C. M. Backhouse
I stumbled upon the bakery when wandering down Portobello Road, and its pretty frontage and cupcake window display draw you in. Inside there are cupcakes galore, as well as larger American pies. It's the cupcakes that are the speciality though, and the reason why there are regularly large queues out of the door!

Image courtesy of Benjamin C. M. Backhouse

The biggest problem you'll have in this bakery is deciding which variety to go for. They have everything from traditional vanilla or chocolate; to the more unusual toffee apple, or strawberry milkshake. One of the best sellers are the red velvet cupcakes - deep red vanilla sponge with a light chocolatey taste, topped with cream cheese frosting - scrummy!

Image courtesy of Benjamin C. M. Backhouse
Perhaps we like to think of our childhood when we helped to make cupcakes; maybe we like to think we can harp back to 1950's domesticity, or could it be a lot more basic than that? They're simply delicious - a naughty little treat! As far as I'm concerned, The Hummingbird Bakery make the best cupcakes I've ever tasted.

Click here to find the original Portobello Road bakery (they now also have three other locations). If you have your own favourite cupcake bakery anywhere in the world, please pass on your suggestions in the comments form below!

10 October, 2011

Mansion in Sri Lanka

The Maldives is among the most popular destinations in the Asia/Pacific region, but one country trying to compete, is Sri Lanka. The golden-sand beaches that fringe its coasts are thankfully making a comeback after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami wreaked havoc on the country; and Galle, on the South West coast of Sri Lanka, is where today's hidden gem can be found. The historic thirty six hectare Galle Fort is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site; and The Fort Printers is an eighteenth-century mansion which, until 2002 housed a printing company.

It used wooden printing blocks and wrought iron printing machines to print stationary and cards, and has now been restored into a small private hotel with just five stylish suites. While you get the convenience of hotel facilities, the atmosphere is more akin to the feeling of staying in a villa. 

The original printing press (above) that was once in service in the building stands in the grand entrance hall, and is surrounded by whitewashed walls, daybeds, and antique writing desks. There is also a small pool at the hotel, which is a refreshing way to cool off after exploring the fort.

The restaurant at the hotel is superb. The owner has a passion for food, and the chefs tailor the dishes to what the guests wish to eat. There are no set meal times - you simply tell the staff when you would like to eat. The location of the hotel is perfect to explore the countryside; and the beaches around Galle, and if you ask nicely, the staff may take you for a spin in the hotel's 1950's Morris Minor!

Galle is seeing an increasing number of travellers staying within the atmospheric walls of the Fort; and making day trips to the beach towns, but it is still a relatively undiscovered part of the island. With Moorish traders; Portuguese adventurers; and Dutch and British merchants all leaving their legacies over the years, Galle really does have character, and this unique private hotel seems the perfect place to start your own adventures.

If you want more information on The Fort Printers, click here.

05 October, 2011

Australasia - down under in Manchester

Travel Lightbulb tries to help people around the world discover places they made not otherwise have found, and today's featured restaurant is a case in point. Unless you know Manchester and its diverse dining scene, you may not even spot that it exists - and that is because it's underground! On the main street, Deansgate, there is a glass triangle in front of the Armani store, and that is the entrance to Australasia. 

When you delve beneath the curious glass threshold; a beautiful restaurant and bar await. With driftwood scupltures; comfortable booths, and the sound of chitter chatter, it becomes apparent that the place has a great vibe. This isn't a venue for the shy; as the walk to your table from the main desk takes you through the other diners, and there is a certain amount of posing being done! Having said that this is one of those restaurants where you want to dress well; be noticed, and feel good about yourself - so just go with the flow and strut your stuff. 

Ask for the wine list and you are presented with an i-pad, and an extensive choice to scroll through. The food menu is in the style of a passport, and you almost need one because the food is described as 'Pacific Rim flavours with an exotic blend of Indonesian and Southeast Asian influences'. The brains behind what is quite an eclectic, but fabulous menu is Paul Greening, a former Young Australian Chef of the Year, and I couldn't fault one thing I ate.

At the end of the restaurant, you can see the dishes being prepared behind 12 foot windows which look onto the open kitchen, and they really do work magic in there. The Szechuan salt and pepper beef skewers with sweet soy and crispy shallots (£8) were tender beyond belief, and the crispy suckling pork belly with a pineapple curry (£15.50) was a combination to die for - truly exquisite.

One of the great things about Australasia is the way it tricks you into feeling as though you are surrounded by natural light- even though the restaurant is totally underground. The warm glow from the lighting and abundance of candles really makes the interior of the restaurant welcoming, and you can quite happily sit here eating and drinking for hours - especially when the food is this good!

For more information on Australasia, click here. I'd strongly advise making a reservation - it's becoming a popular spot!

03 October, 2011

The Millau viaduct - a feat of engineering

A couple of years ago, I went on a road trip through Portugal; Spain, and France. Before I left, I read an article about the Millau viaduct which is part of the route from Paris to Montpellier. It looked spectacular in the pictures, and I knew I had to make it part of my journey. It is the tallest bridge in the world - taller than the Eiffel Tower with one mast's summit at 343 metres. As you approach it, you realise it not only breaks records, but could be one of the most beautiful bridges in the world.

Fans of the British motoring show Top Gear may remember the bridge being featured when the presenters took a Ford GT, Pagani Zonda and Ferrari F430 Spyder on a road trip across France to see the newly completed bridge. I couldn't think of a better, more dramatic setting to try out such amazing supercars.

It was designed by British architect Norman Foster, and really is a feat of engineering. Foster said it was designed to have "the delicacy of a butterfly" and, despite its size, he has somehow achieved that. The bridge in the South of France stretches a mile and a half over the Tarn river and its valley. Connecting the motorway networks of France and Spain, it opens up a direct route from Paris to Barcelona. Near the bridge is a small visitors centre which gives you stunning views of the bridge from below.

Millau itself is a lovely town with well-preserved old streets, and a relaxed cafe culture, and it's definitely worth stopping here for a night or two. They really pushed the boundaries of engineering to the limits with this bridge, battling against high winds and storms during its creation.

However, the hard work was all worthwhile, because people now drive hundreds of miles to admire what has to be considered as one of the most incredible pieces of engineering in the 21st Century.

See the Top Gear feature HERE on YouTube - the Millau bridge features from 4 minutes 30 secs.