Food tour in Riga, Latvia

“We are going to start with dessert,” declares Anda, placing two slices of cake in front of me. The first is a Napoleon cake, a Russian derivative of the French mille-feuille, with multiple layers of buttery pastry and decadent whipped cream. The second is a honey cake, a traditional Latvian dessert made using honey, sour cream and sugar. Both are deliciously rich but eye-wateringly sweet. After three bites, I have to admit defeat. Anda laughs: “We Latvians have a very sweet tooth.”

To reach this bakery, we’ve walked away from Riga’s World Heritage-listed centre (“locals never go out in the Old Town,” says Anda) and are heading instead towards one of the creative neighbourhoods that have sprung up in the last 10 years. Conveniently, the street we’re on provides a potted summary of Latvia’s history. Originally called Alexander (when Latvia was part of the Russian Empire), it changed to Adolf Hitler (during Nazi occupation), then Lenin (when the Soviets retook power after World War II) and is now called Brivibas, meaning freedom.

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Utah’s lesser-known natural wonders

It’s a stark contrast. Thirty minutes ago, I was standing on the rim of Utah’s dramatic Bryce Canyon, looking down at a labyrinth of pink-hued hoodoos, pinnacles and buttresses. Now, I’m on an elevated plateau in nearby Kodachrome Basin State Park, admiring dozens of towering sandstone chimneys. The difference? In Bryce Canyon, every trail was swarming with ant-like processions of tourists; here, there’s not another soul in sight.

Southern Utah is blessed with a quintet of spectacular national parks, the “Mighty Five” of Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches and Capitol Reef, which, predictably, attract a spectacular number of visitors. Arrive on a weekend between June and September and you can sometimes queue for hours just to get in.

The good news is the region also has a multitude of similarly scenic but far less-visited state parks, recreation areas, forests and national monuments. Which means you can intersperse your forays into the national parks (trust us, you’ll still want to see them) with regenerative excursions into these quieter areas.

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The nine things you should do in Gdansk, Poland

THE ONE HOTEL
You can find grander and more luxurious hotels in Gdansk, but few are as well-located and character-full as Hotel Krolewski. Housed in an imposing 17th-century brick granary on Olowianka Island in the Motlawa River, it’s a short stroll from the city’s major attractions and enjoys a delightful waterfront locale. The 30 rooms are spacious and comfortable, and many have lovely river views. See hotelkrolewski.pl

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Paros, Greece – the Cyclades’ lesser-known gem

It’s not every day you get to follow in the footsteps of a saint. But the reason we’re here on Paros, the third largest island in the Greek Cyclades, is the same one that forced Saint Helena here in the 4th century – the meltemi, an angry wind that roars through the region in August. We’ve had to abandon our attempt to visit Mykonos, a scheduled stop on our nine-day Peregrine cruise around the Cyclades, and take refuge in Paros’ capital, Parikia, instead.

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Polar snorkelling in Antarctica

“Not for the faint-hearted” is how Aurora Expeditions’ website describes polar snorkelling. Which is concerning because when it comes to near-freezing temperatures, I am most definitely faint of heart. Yet, here I am, fumbling awkwardly with a pair of fins on the rocky shoreline of the Antarctic Peninsula while steeling myself for water that’s hovering around three degrees. Nearby, a dozen gentoo penguins look on with curious bemusement.

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Cross-border cuisine in San Diego and Tijuana

Ask a San Diego local where to find the best Mexican food, and they’ll probably say “Mexico”. The border is only a 45-minute tram ride away and, contrary to public perception, is easy to navigate. After passing through an uninviting prison-style gate labelled “TO MEXICO”, I fill in a simple immigration form, show my passport to an official and, hey presto, I’m in Tijuana.

I’m here to check out the local food scene with Derrik Chinn from Turista Libre, a company he started in 2009 to show visitors there’s more to this much-maligned city than the headlines about drug cartels and refugees suggest.

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Ramen tasting tour in Tokyo, Japan

Inside Fisherman's Cove ramen restaurant - photo by Rob McFarland
Inside Fisherman’s Cove ramen restaurant – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Nov 30, 2019

Frank Striegl is a walking advert for the nutritional merits of ramen. As the author of one of Tokyo’s leading ramen blogs (5amramen.com), the fit, lean 35-year-old eats around 350 bowls a year. Clearly, that wasn’t enough because in 2017 he started offering ramen tasting tours and recently he launched a ramen cooking experience.

Depending on which source you believe, Tokyo has anywhere between 4000 and 10,000 ramen restaurants. So how on earth did he narrow it down to three to visit on this Ultimate Ramen Tasting Tour? “It’s a combination of my favourites and the ones that provide the best experience,” he explains.

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A week in the Peruvian jungle

Cruising up the Tambopata River in Peru - photo by Rob McFarland
Cruising up the Tambopata River in Peru – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Nov 16, 2019

I’ve decided I’ll call it Mothy McMothface. Apparently, if I find a new species of moth at this light trap deep in the Peruvian jungle, I can name it. I approach the illuminated white sheet with my jam jar feeling quietly confident. Since Rainforest Expeditions started this program two years ago, they’ve discovered 29 new species, including 12 species of moth. I later find out that all new names have to be sanctioned by the project’s scientists so I suspect I’ll have to settle for something more venerable – Sir David McAttenmoth perhaps?

This “citizen science” program is available at Refugio Amazonas, one of three lodges Rainforest Expeditions operates on the Tambopata River in southeast Peru. All are buried in thick jungle with no road access, which means everything (including guests) has to be ferried in and out by boat.

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Review of White City House, London

Rooftop pool at Soho House's White City House - photo by Soho House
Rooftop pool at Soho House’s White City House – photo by Soho House

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Dec 20, 2018

White City House is the latest instalment in Soho House’s global empire of private members’ clubs. In fewer than 25 years the group has blossomed from a single “house” in London’s Soho to a sprawling network of 23 properties, mostly located in Europe and north America. Members are largely from the creative industries (think advertising, music and media) and the atmosphere is emphatically informal – the antithesis of the jacket-and-tie stuffiness of a traditional gentlemen’s club. By definition they’re exclusive, so for non-members there’s an intriguing, I-wonder-what-goes-on-in-there mystique.

What’s not well-publicised is that many houses also have hotels that can be booked by the public.

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Sunset Hummer tour in Moab, Utah

Sunset Hummer tour in Moab, Utah - photo by Rob McFarland
Sunset Hummer tour in Moab, Utah – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Dec 1, 2018

“It’s OK to scream,” says Mike. Good to know because I’m about to start wailing like a teething toddler. Ahead of us is a steeply plunging wall of sandstone and we’re going down it. Fast. I can’t see what’s at the bottom but I’m fairly sure it’s certain death.

We career down the slippery rock, feet braced, knuckles gripped, stomachs lurching. While I shriek uncontrollably, Mike steers nonchalantly with one hand. Finally, we reach the valley floor and he expertly scrubs off speed and brings us to a stop. Everyone lets out a relief-fuelled sigh. No one died … well, except my dignity.

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Tea time in Hong Kong

Tea tasting class at Homeland Tea Garden with May Chan - photo by Rob McFarland
Tea tasting class at Homeland Tea Garden with May Chan – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Nov 24, 2018

As someone who grew up in England, I’m no stranger to tea. The Brits take their tea seriously, using it as a national remedy for almost any stressful event (Lost a leg? You’ll feel better after a nice cuppa). However, they are mere amateurs compared with the Chinese, who’ve elevated the relatively simple act of infusing hot water with tea leaves into a beautiful (and often bewildering) art form.

As one of Asia’s most Western-influenced cities, Hong Kong is caught in the middle. It has experienced the same coffee-culture explosion that’s happened in almost every capital city during the past decade, but it’s also resolutely clung on to its tea-drinking heritage. This is good news for visitors, because it means you can get an insight into this ancient tradition but still find a decent flat white when you reach your lapsang limit.

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America’s best restaurant – Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama

Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama - photo by Rob McFarland
Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sun-Herald, Australia – Nov 18, 2018

According to the James Beard Awards, the prestigious annual celebration of America’s culinary excellence, the US’s best restaurant is not in the gourmet capitals of New York, Chicago or LA, it is in – are you ready? – Birmingham, Alabama.

In May, the awards declared Highlands Bar & Grill to be America’s most Outstanding Restaurant of 2018. It named the restaurant’s pastry chef, Dolester Miles, the best in the country, too.

If you’re tempted to dismiss this as a fluke, think again. Highlands has been a finalist an astonishing nine times. Clearly, they’re doing a lot of things right.

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Cycling the Waterford Greenway, Ireland

Cycling the Waterford Greenway in Ireland - photo by Rob McFarland
Cycling the Waterford Greenway in Ireland – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sun-Herald, Australia – Nov 4, 2018

Few cities are as synonymous with a product as Waterford in south-east Ireland. The renowned crystal maker was based there from 1783 until 2009, when its owning company, Waterford Wedgwood, went into receivership. Hundreds of manufacturing jobs were lost and tourist numbers dwindled.

As Phil Brennan, owner of Waterford Camino Tours, puts it: “The city went through some dark times but it’s starting to come out the other end.”

In an attempt to lure people back, the company’s new owners unveiled an impressive new visitor centre in 2010. It helped but arguably the biggest boost came from the opening in March 2017 of the Waterford Greenway, a 46-kilometre cycle path that follows a disused railway between Waterford and the coastal town of Dungarvan.

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GoBoat trip on Regent’s Canal, London

Exploring Regent's Canal with GoBoat - photo by Rob McFarland
Exploring Regent’s Canal with GoBoat – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sun-Herald, Australia – Oct 28, 2018

“Give way to everything” is the crux of the safety briefing at GoBoat’s headquarters in Paddington Basin. London’s canal system might not be the industrial thoroughfare it once was but there are still plenty of things to trouble the first-time boater. Fortunately, the top speed of the vessel I’ll be captaining is only 6.5 km/h, so even if I do hit something, I shouldn’t do much damage. At least that’s the theory.

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Unclaimed Baggage Centre in Scottsboro, Alabama

Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama - photo by Rob McFarland
Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Oct 27, 2018

Thanks to advances in bag-tracking technology, the amount of checked luggage that fails to reach its destination is now less than half a per cent. But given airlines carried more than four billion bags last year, that still means more than 20 million bags went unclaimed. What happened to them? Where did they end up? The unexpected answer is Scottsboro, Alabama.

Located 165 kilometres northeast of Birmingham, the sleepy town of Scottsboro is home to the only store in the US that buys and sells unclaimed luggage. Every day thousands of bags arrive at the Unclaimed Baggage Centre to be inspected and sorted. Clothes deemed worthy of sale are cleaned in the state’s largest dry-cleaning facility (it launders 50,000 items a month) and all electronic items are tested and wiped of data. About 7000 good-as-new items are transferred daily to the centre’s nearby retail store, which covers an entire city block.

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Five new family-friendly attractions in New York

National Geographic Encounter Ocean Odyssey - photo by Rob McFarland
National Geographic Encounter Ocean Odyssey – photo by Rob McFarland

Escape, Sunday Telegraph, Australia – Oct 7, 2018

New Yorkers have a love/hate relationship with Times Square, the dazzling neon-lit intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue.

On the one hand, it’s home to arguably the world’s most famous theatre district; on the other, it’s a tourist magnet that’s perpetually choked with people.

Until recently, it didn’t have a great deal to offer families (apart from the spectacle of the place itself) but in the last year several exciting new attractions have opened.

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Review of L’Oscar hotel, London

The Bar at L'Oscar hotel in London - photo by L'Oscar
The Bar at L’Oscar hotel in London – photo by L’Oscar

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Sep 22, 2018

It’s safe to assume that when preacher Dr Alexander MacLaren laid the foundation stone for the Baptist Church Headquarters in London in 1901, he never envisaged it would one day become one of the capital’s most decadent hotels. The imposing Grade II-listed building on Southampton Row has had many uses over the years – including office space and a homeless shelter – but in June it became London’s newest five-star hotel after a meticulous 12-year restoration.

To say no expense was spared would be an understatement. L’oscar’s interiors were styled by French designer Jacques Garcia, whose resume includes the Hotel Costes in Paris and restorations at the Palace of Versailles. Taking inspiration from the area’s literary heritage, he set out to create something “profoundly English”.

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Bar tour in Budapest, Hungary

Szimpla ruin bar in Budapest - photo by Rob McFarland
Szimpla ruin bar in Budapest – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sun-Herald, Australia – Aug 19, 2018

“I guess she can drive!” we all cry, clinking our glasses in unison. According to Fanni, our smiling guide from Urban Adventures, this is the closest approximation to “egeszsegedre!” or “cheers!” in Hungarian.

Given Hungary’s location in the heart of Europe, you’d think its language might resemble that of one of its neighbours – Austria or Croatia perhaps? Not a chance. Its closest relative is the equally tongue-troubling Finnish.

Still, with this all-important phrase under my belt, I feel suitably equipped to tackle an evening of bar hopping around Budapest.

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Cruising on the Danube with U by Uniworld

Sailing on the Danube with U by Uniworld - photo by Rob McFarland
Sailing on the Danube with U by Uniworld – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Sep 15, 2018

“Everyone pray for rain so we can make it down the Danube.” Not exactly what you want to hear from the captain at the start of a river cruise. Europe has been basking in a heatwave all summer and the lack of rain means the Danube is perilously low. We’ve just joined the ship at Regensburg in Germany but unless we get more rain we won’t be able to make it over a perennially problematic sandbar near Deggendorf.

This is my first river cruise and I’d naively assumed that itinerary changes were something that only happened on ocean voyages. But according to Caspar, our head guide (or U Host) from the Netherlands, the Danube is particularly susceptible to fluctuating water conditions. “We have to improvise,” he says with typical Dutch pragmatism. “And we will have fun no matter what happens.”

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Six of the best hikes in Hong Kong

Beach on Lamma Island in Hong Kong - photo by Rob McFarland
Beach on Lamma Island in Hong Kong – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Aug 25, 2018

1. LAMMA ISLAND
A 30-minute ferry ride from Central, this car-free oasis offers hikers a rewarding montage of beaches, history and gourmet seafood. Start with a poke around the stores in the laid back township of Yung Shue Wan before following a meandering seven-kilometre trail that offers sweeping coastal views as it passes the white sand Hung Shing Yeh Beach and the city’s first commercial-grade wind turbine. Finish up with a tour of the fish farm at Sok Kwu Wan before tucking into a seafood feast at one of the bay’s many excellent waterfront restaurants.

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