London is one of my favourite cities in the world. It has everything, history, architecture, fashion, and entertainment.
I visited recently with a friend who has a love of all things dramatic. With this in mind we visited Sarasto in Drury Lane. The restaurant was decorated by a set designer and its super theatrical from the moment you walk in the door, with kitsch swathes of gold and velvet and booths designed like opera boxes. They also have opera singers and musicians at weekends and being in the theatre District they refer to themselves as “the show after the show”.
I have loved the musical Cabaret since I first watched it, so we treated ourselves to tickets for current run. I don’t have photos, as all photos and vidography is banned in the theatre. If you are lucky enough to attend the show you’ll understand why. From the moment you walk through the door you’re transported to louche decadent 1930s Berlin. The show is performed in the round and you can actually sit at the side of the stage like it’s a nightclub (these were the expensive seats, we were up in the nosebleeds). Regardless of where you sit, it will blow your socks off. I think it’s the best live production I’ve ever seen. If you find yourself in London, give yourself a treat and go see Cabaret.
The other great thing thing about London is just soaking up the atmosphere. You can stumble across a girl group filming a music video or wander into China Town for lunch.
While London isn’t the cheapest city you’ll ever visit there is plenty of free stuff to do. We spent a very pleasant morning in the National Gallery. You can see everything from beautiful delicate paintings by impressionists like Monet and Manet, through to the dark violence of Caravagio. A week in the place wouldn’t be long enough to see the amazing range of works on display.
London never gets old, and like the saying “if you’re tired of London you’re tired of life”
Low cost airlines sometimes have flights to destinations you maybe hadn’t considered before. Always up to try something new, I arrived in Riga, the capital city of Latvia and stayed in a very affordable AirB&B in the city centre. English is widely spoken and it only cost 12 euro to get from the airport using a Bolt (car ride service)
Split between and old and new city, we stayed the beautiful and compact old town.
Riga was settled 800 years ago and has been ruled by the Germans, Poles, Scandinavians and Russians during this time. I would recommend booking on to one of the walking tours, which will help get your bearings and a chance to learn more about the city and it’s inhabitants.
The city became rich as a Balkan trading hub and buildings like the Black Head House was built by the wealthy merchant guilds (so called because their patron saint was the dark skinned Egyptian Saint Maurice).
Local food, like a lot Eastern European countries is big on dark dense breads, potatoes and pork (vegetarian offerings are available but you might need to look around). The local pototo pancakes, served with creamy mushroom sauce was the perfect meal after being out in the cold sightseeing. (word of advice, the old town is mainly paved with sometimes uneven cobblestones, so be sure to wear flat thick soled shoes). The local drink you’ll find everywhere is called black balsam and was originally brewed as a medicine. It tastes like a cross between cough syrup and Jeager Meister and is 45% proof, and drank either in shots or cocktails and will blow your socks off.
For foodies Riga has a really excellent food market, selling local smoked fish, caviar, cheese, vegetables, sweets, pastries, bread and honey. It’s housed in old zeplin hangars close the river and you can also find places inside to have lunch
As you head to the edges of the old town you’ll some amazing Art Nouveau buildings (if you’re an architecture nerd, Riga is the place for you).
I knew very little about Riga and during conversations with some locals and visiting Lithuanians it was interesting to learn about their concerns over the current war in Ukraine. I had no idea of how badly both countries had been treated during the Stalin era. 45,000 Latvians, mainly the intelligencia and professionals were sent to Siberian gulags after the second war and the survivors were only allowed to return after Stalin’s death. Those who were able to return were kept under surveillance and forced to live 100km from main cities, meaning they could not practice their professions or gain an education.
Stalin also moved 600,000 Russians into Latvia, completely changing the demographic of the country. Currently Riga is made up of 60% people of Russian descent and 40% Latvian (in the rest of the country it’s 60% Latvian and 40% Russian). In Riga both communities live separately, living in different areas, attending separate schools etc. I got the sense that there is under lying tension between the communities.
Both the Latvians and Lithuanians spoke about how they are sending support to Ukraine and how they’re stock piling food, fuel etc, or have escape plans in place if Ukraine is completely over run by Russian forces. It was sobering to consider the knock on effect the Ukrainian conflict was having on its neighbours, and is one of the reasons why it’s important to travel and learn a bit more about the world and what’s happening in it. . Despite this I would encourage anyone to visit the city, it’s a beautiful place with great people.
Kyoto was the historic capital of Japan, and is pacted full of history but is also incredibly modern. This is where Super Mario was developed!
There are lots of fab places to see a short train ride from the city but the city itself has plenty to keep you occupied, largely because it escaped bombing during WW2
Kyoto is the home of the Geisha culture. The Gion District with its super discreet and exclusive wooden tea houses are still their stomping ground. There were about 250 Geisha entertaining patrons before Covid. No one is quite sure how many of the Geisha and Maiko (apprentice Geisha) will return.
You might be lucky to spot one if you are around the Gion, (I wasn’t) They are literally works of art, with their kimonos alone costing up to £10,000. I’d definitely recommend watching Memoirs of a Geisha to get an idea of the place. It’s really common to see young couples in traditional dress (you can rent kimonos) while site seeing and being given tours in rickshaws.
The city is awash with breathtaking palaces (the imperial palace is located here) and temples. We visited Nijo-Jo Castle, which is a UNESCO heritage site. It was built 400 years ago by the first Tokugawa Shogun, who’s family ruled for 14 generations and was also a samurai garrison. The castle complex is made up of graceful gardens and richly decorated audience halls with fabulous gold murals (unfortunately photography is not allowed inside). The buildings have what are referred to as “nightingale floors”. The floors are laid in such a way so that the chirp when walked upon, as an early warning system so they could hear intruders.
Food is also fantastic in Kyoto, and a speciality of the region is kaiseki. This is a multi course meal and these can be up to 11 courses, many are less than this but all are beautifully presented and change with seasons.
We treated ourselves to one of the more modest versions that included the usual miso soup and rice, as well as sashimi, marinated whitebait, tofu, and a beef hotpot. We decided to go native and the restaurant we visited served the food on low tables and we sat on cushions on tatami mats (not be recommended if you’re full of aches and pains from 2 weeks non stop site seeing) .
Nishi food market and the surrounding shopping district is also worth visiting, but go early because it gets extremely busy with locals and tourists. It’s a great place to pick up food souvenirs or try new things like squid lollipops.
After two busy days in Tokyo, we took the Shinkansen bullet train to Osaka. If you ever get the chance to do it, please do.
It cost just under £90 per person to travel 319 miles (514 km) and took around 2.5 hours, with an average speed of 200 miles an hour. You can reserve seats with luggage storage in advance. On a good day you can see Mount Fuji, but we were out of luck. There is a drinks and snack service on board but most people opt to buy an ekiben (traditional bento box lunch) at the station before boarding. These were delicious and beautifully presented and cost on average £5.
Osaka has a population of 2.6 million, but according to locals they feel they are more laid back and friendly than Tokyo and everyone we met was lovely, including the world’s sweetest and most excitable bar maid that we almost adopted.
One of reasons I wanted to go to Osaka was to see Osaka Castle, which is really impressive. Easy to reach by metro, the castle has largely been rebuilt, so inside is more like an exhibition space rather than being able to see original parts of castle and how people lived.
There is a lift for anyone with mobility issues which will take you to the 5th floor but there are 3 floors above this that can only accessed by steps. The castle is set in gorgeous park land, and with Autumn arriving it was beautiful, but spring is when it’s really popular at the cherry blossom festival. The castle dates back 450 years and if you’re a history nerd like me, you’ll love the descriptions of various feuds and downfalls of Shoguns, it also has a great displays of samurai armour.
We stayed close to the Dotonbori area, named after the river that flows through it. This is a busy and cosmopolitan area with high end designer shops on one side of the river and local shops, bars and restaurants on the other. Street food is really big in Osaka and squid balls are the local favourite.
By the river you’ll find the oblong Ferris wheel, which is built around a 24-hour discount shop locally known as Donki (formal name is Don Quijote). This may have been the busiest shop I’ve ever visited and if you plan to go early because an average Friday evening felt like the January sales. But there is literally everything a human being could ever need in this shop.
Another local speciality is okonomiyaki, this is a very thin pancake stuffed primarily with fried noodles and shredded cabbage and leeks/onion. Other toppings can include pork, fried egg, bonito flakes, nori seaweed. pickled ginger or kimchi, this is then drizzled with a rich savoury sauce and mayonnaise. I realise my description is not selling it, but it was one of the nicest things I ate in Japan (and I pretty much loved everything).
Dotonbori never stops. In early evening families are out with their kids enjoying the waterfront and street food. Later in the evening “Salary Men” (office workers) get stupifyingly drunk in the hostess bars, and the local petrol heads hang out and compare cars. People are friendly and the area feels very safe and a lot more pleasant than most UK and European city centres late at night.
I like to think of myself as an adventurous eater, but I stalled at some of the local offerings which included “fish abductor muscle” and “beef nerve”, but maybe next time.
Japan has always been on my bucket list, but after a 13 hour flight from Paris and standing in a Customs line for 2 hours, I was less than impressed to find out Air France had lost my suitcase.
Being on average 6 inches taller, and a foot wider than most Japanese women, finding clothes for 2 weeks in Japan was a challenge. But when these things happen you can choose to let it ruin your holiday or just get on with it and that’s what I did. (Air France are still a pack of d*cks though).
Tokyo is amazing, a city of just under 14 million people, with every square inch of space used. It really is open 24 hours a day. I was so impressed that the place is spotless you will not find litter anywhere. You won’t see rubbish bins on the street either, the Japanese will carry their rubbisish until they dispose of it. You’ll also be impressed at how courteous and polite they are to each other.
English is not widely spoken, if I can make any recommendations its to learn a few key words or phrases i.e. please, thank you, hello etc. Then make sure you arrange a bolt on with your mobile phone company (or you can buy a Japanese sim card). Google maps and Google translate will make your life much easier. WiFi availablity can be bit patchy otherwise.
Japan has only recently opened up to travellers again after Covid and you are required to wear a mask when inside shops, on public transport etc., most people still wear them on the street. Given how densly populated Japan’s cities are, this makes sense to curb the spread of the disease. As always when travelling, be a good guest and respect even the unofficial rules of the country you’re in.
When you’re out sightseeing the metro system is excellent. A two day pass cost just under £8 and the longest you’ll wait on a train is 5 minutes. Signs in the station and announcements on the trains are both in Japanese and English. Station staff are very kind and helpful and this is the time to use your Google translate if you get turned about. Tickets can be bought at machines or at tickets offices (the offices only take cash). I would avoid rush hour if possible as the trains are really packed (personal space isn’t really a thing on the Metro), you’ll also be expected to remain quiet out of respect for other travellers.
We stayed in the Shinjuku area which is very central for most things. Just up the street the local temple was having a festival and the streets were lined with stalls selling cheap fantastic street food. We were also only a few streets away fron the Golden Gai district. This is a little warren of streets made up of tiny izakayas (bars) that are often only a counter than sits 6-8 people. There is usually a small cover charge per person and staff and locals were friendly.
A few stops from Shinjuku you can find the Senso – Ji temple complex. The approach to the temple has a busy shopping area if you want to shop for souvenirs or street food. You can have your fortune told at the temple by shaking a box containing sticks, the one that pops out will have a corresponding fortune)
Foodies should visit Tsukiji fish market, which has brilliant seafood spots, and for a tasty sushi lunch with a beer we paid about £10 per head (and we had a lot of sushi). You’ll find fruit in Japan is surprisingly expensive, with specialist types being given as gifts as a show of status.
Food is unfailingly fantastic in Japan, and even convenience stores (Konbini) sell low cost tasty food. Unless you’re wanting want to go fine dining you can get a filling main meal for £5-6 per per person in most restaurants
If you want to see where the cool kids hang out, you should visit the Harajuku District. Full of quirky shops, and places to eat, drink and shop. If you’re interested in visiting a ferret cafe, or have always wanted to buy a Cosplay Bo Peep outfit this is the area for you.
This was my first visit to Japan and some differences that immediately leapt out at me were, cyclists ride on the pavement, not the road and it’s important to be aware of them. Japanese toilets are unbelievable, with heated seats and water jets. You can choose to play birdsong if you want to cover the sound of doing your business, some will even blow dry your nether regions (an unexpected, but not unpleasant sensation).
Smoking is still permitted in many bars, but it’s illegal to smoke in the street. The place feels incredibly safe, and I would have no hesitation to travel alone in Japan (taking the usual sensible precautions).
“Mauritius was made first, and then heaven: heaven being copied after Mauritius”, Mark Twain
As much as I loved relaxing at a resort, old habits die hard and I wanted to explore a bit more of the island.
You can rent a car relatively cheaply, and as Mauritius is a former British colony they drive on the left hand side of the road, and road signs are in English (speed signs are in kilometers). However, rather than having all the stress of getting lost and driving unfamiliar roads we hired a local driver for a day. Rajesh was super helpful and knowledgeable and brought us to the North of the island. Not slowing down at intersections and tail gating seem to be common practice, so I was glad we had a local to help out.
Our first stop was the capital, Port Louis. This was a bit of a culture shock after the laid back vibe of a resort. Full of hustle and bustle the city is loud and frenetic with epic traffic jams during rush hour. Once there you’ll find busy markets selling everything imaginable, with traders barking out their bargains in French/Creole.
You can shop for souvenirs (haggling is expected) or head to the exotic food markets to stock up on spices. I would recommend asking for prices before buying spices (I think ended up paying some unofficial tourist tax due to not checking first).
Mauritius was an important stopping off point in the spice route and local food is fragrant and highly spiced.
If you are frazzled after Port Louis and want to get in touch with your inner history nerd, then visit the Sugar Museum (L’Aventure de Sucre). A short drive from the city, the museum is fascinating. It was a former sugar refinery and shows how sugar cane growth and production totally shaped the history of the island. Less then 300 years ago there were just 200 people living on the island, the population is now over 1.2 million. Sugar cane production, completely changed the eco system of the island, with new species of plants and animals being introduced. Mauritius is probably best remembered as being the home of the now extinct dodo.
Like most museums you’ll exit through the gift shop, but this is worth doing for the rum tasting that’s included in the entrance fee.
Private companies like the East India Company and then colonial powers from the Portuguese, French and British exploited the island and its inhabitants to make obscene amounts of money. Slaves were transported from Bengal and Africa, as well as indentured servants from India and traders from China all led to the multicultural nation Mauritius is today. The museum is honest about the legacy of the slave trade and the immense wealth created by sugar plantations. While the country is seen now as a tropical paradise, it has a much darker history.
As you drive along you’ll see vibrantly coloured, Hindu temples, Buddhist shrines, Mosques and Christian churches scattered through out the countryside. By all accounts Mauritians live in relative harmony and differences are respected and celebrated.
The botanical gardens are really impressive. Because of its climate and fertile soil probably anything could grow here. You can explore on your own or pay for a guide. Unless you’re seriously into horticulture I’d recommend just pottering about on your own. You can also see brightly coloured wildfowl, giant tortoises and deer.
Before heading back to our resort, our driver, Rajesh brought us to Cap Malheureux (Unhappy Cape), so called because of ships who ran aground in the past. The views were breathing taking and the area is most commonly known for the little red roof church that sits on the bay.
Just as the evening was drawing in we headed back to Bel Ombre across the mountain route. The Pitons are a range of jagged volcanic mountains that wouldn’t look out of place in Jurassic Park (the light was dropping so sorry no photos).
Due to an unusual piece of luck I was fortunate enough to stay in the Outrigger Resort in Bel Ombre, in the south western coast of Mauritius.
I’m usually a city break type of person, but if all resorts could be as heavenly as this place then I’m a convert.
The resort has large airy bedrooms, with luxurious bathrooms and dressing area (we had the largest bathtub I’ve ever seen). A well stocked mini bar and complementary snacks and fancy coffee machine make sure you want for nothing while in your room.
Accommodation either has views of the lush tropical gardens with banyan, and frangipani trees, as well as coconut and date palms throughout, or ocean views of the pristine lagoon with a coral reef about 100 yards from the beautiful sandy beach dotted with black volcanic rock. You can wander along the beach and watch the sea change from bright turquoise to dark lapiz blues as the sun moves throughout the day. (Top tip: aqua shoes are a good choice as the beach has lots of coral and can be uncomfortable to walk on in parts). The resort also has two large pools as well as a reflection pool for those who love an Instagram post. Although there isn’t a single view in the place that isn’t fabulous.
I went in early July which is the Mauritian winter, but it was still in the mid 20s (Celsius) everyday and was very pleasant. If you prefer it really hot then from August onwards is the time to go.
Other visitors were made up of a fairly cosmopolitan mix of European, Indian and Middle Eastern and this is reflected in the food offered.
There are several eating areas. The Mercado serves breakfast and dinner and served international buffet style food. Breakfast in the morning ranges from curries, a large selection of topical fruits and juices, omelette stations, cereals, cooked items and french breads and patisserie. For dinner there is a theme of a different country’s cuisine each evening (Mauritian night was my favourite, but all the food was excellent). There are always plenty of options for children, vegans and halal diners.
If you prefer a la carte dining the Edge Water restaurant is right on the beach, and Le Bleu is a beach front bar serving freshly made pizzas and panninis and is a good call for lunch. There are also plenty of sun loungers and comfortable seating areas along the beach and pools.
We had one afternoon with rain, and the ever helpful staff (thank you Sephora) arranged for me to be taught some Mauritian dishes with the very lovely Chef Matthieu. He is a great teacher, and showed me how to make apple chutney, yam fritters, Mauritian chicken curry and roti (flat bread). His enthusiasm and passion for his local cuisine really shone through, and to paraphrase Julia Childs, “people who love food are always the best people”
The Plantation Club provides a fine dining option offering old world luxury. You can opt to visit for afternoon tea or to dine a la carte. However, my suggestion would be to try one of their tasting menu evenings. We opted for lobster night, and having met Chef Matthieu the day before we knew we would be in for a treat. He is passionate about fusion cooking, and because Mauritius is such a melting pot who’s population is a mix of Portuguese, Indian, Chinese, African and French heritage, the range of flavours in Mauritian food is something else.
Everything on the menu was delicious but my two stand out dishes were the makki roll and lobster with arbarica sauce (coffee sauce with lobster might sound really strange but it was so well balanced, it was like nothing I’ve ever tasted).
You could spend your entire day just chilling and listening to the roar of the sea against the coral reef and the rustling of the palms (I can highly recommend spending at least one afternoon doing this to find your happy place). If you prefer to be a bit more active there are gorgeous beach walks and the resort offers free activities like snorkeling, tours of the lagoon in a glass bottom boat (we had a sea turtle come and swim along side us), and on set days there are activities such as aquafit, volleyball, and yoga.
The concierges at the resort are an excellent source of information if you’d like to get out and about and see more of the island. They can help arrange visits to see capital Port Louis if you like to shop and see the local markets, historic areas on the island or activities like swimming with dolphins or sea turtles, visiting the impressive botanical gardens or sailing out to neighbouring islands on a catamaran.
If you want something to do in the evenings the resort has live music every night which was always really good. My favourite was the Mauritian night which had local artists play traditional Sega music and display local dances, which are based on the African music played by slaves in the sugar cane plantations and made the colonial owners the equivalent of modern billionaires.
Staff at the resort are multi lingual (French is the most widely spoken language on the island), and were incredibly warm and helpful. Mauritius is developing quickly, but tourism is still the largest employer on the island, and it was hit badly due to Covid and also the global rise in the cost of living. You will always receive excellent service from the well trained staff at the resort, but the average monthly salary in Mauritius is around £600 per month. So if you do get a chance to visit this little slice of paradise, try to tip as well as you can afford to (and like most places cash is always preferable).
Inside the walls of the medieval city there are numerous cafes and restaurants selling everything from crepes and baguettes through to fine dining restaurants.
The Occitane region enjoys a great climate and has lots of regional specialities. Truffles are found locally and are highly prized. People either love or hate them, but I adore them. Weight for weight white truffles are more expensive than gold. Most of us aren’t lucky enough to afford the fist sized truffles kept under glass cloches. However, specialist shops sell a range of products including truffle oil, truffle honey, tapenade and truffle salt.
The other main speciality of the region is cassoulet. If you haven’t had it before it’s a rich dish of white beans, duck legs, and Toulouse sausage. You can find this in pretty much every restaurant in Caracasonne. Like every peasant dish, this is made to fill you up and keep you feeling full. While it’s delicious it’s important to warn that you will probably need to lie down after eating of it, but it is good fuel for sight seeing.
We found great little bistros that offered simple tasty food, starting at 3 courses for 15 Euros for the daily Prix Fixe menu, and were happy enough to stay with these.
These bistro meals were usually uncomplicated with cheese, soup or charcuterie to start, fish or meat for the main and dessert or cheese to finish.
The area also has some great wine. We usually orded the house wine, which was affordable and very drinkable.
Low cost airlines can be great for opening routes to places you may not have normally visited. One of these is the ancient city of Caracasonne in the Occitane region of France.
The city has two parts, the Cite (old town), which contains the largest medieval town in Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. There has been a settlement in Carcasonne since around 3500 BC, and because of it’s strategic position has been taken by everyone from the Romans, Visigoths, and Moors.
The castle was also an important hub during the crusades when infighting amongst christian sects like the Cathars and Knights Templar were rife (if you’re a history fan or have ever read any of Dan Brown or Kate Moss’ books this will make more sense).
The fortified city was demilitarised by Napoleon Bonaparte, and fell into disrepair until thankfully restoration began in the mid 1850s.
Inside the walls of the Cite the are countless artisan shops selling hand made confectionery, toy swords shields, and costumes (little visitors go crazy for them), and regional specialities. As well as fabulous well priced restaurants, with Prix Fixe 3 course menus starting from 15 euros per person.
The city is split by the River Aude, the new city still has lots of character. The main square is the Place Carnot, with a very pretty marble fountain in the centre and bars and restaurants lining the edges. A market is held there twice weekly, although I missed both due to how my flights fell.
The city seems to be busiest in July and August, and although the place is super quaint and amazing to look at, it is very quiet outside this time . We stayed in a great Air B&B, but most hotels, including those inside the old town seem well priced. We didn’t have time, but if you are driving/renting a car, you can organise visits to local vineyards within about 20 minutes of town.
If you are bit of history nerd, enjoy good restaurants and aren’t too put out that there isn’t a throbbing nightlife scene then Carcasonne is the place for you.
You could visit London twenty times and never see the same thing twice. However, there are some places that draw you back.
Covent Garden and the Seven Dials area are probably thought of as pure tourist areas, but I’m OK with that.
If gorgeous buildings, quaint shops, street performers and bustling nightlife are your thing then you’ll love it.
I visited last week when the area was being decorated for Christmas. Little outdoor pods are popping up everywhere to allow people to enjoy outdoor drinking/dining.
As a birthday treat, my friend Bronagh booked us into the Ivy for dinner. There are several Ivy restaurants in London, but the original is in the heart of theatre land and has always been a favourite haunt of acting luvvies as far back as Noel Coward.
Smaller than I expected, the service was immaculate from the minute you walk through the door until you leave when the lovely coat check lady slips your coat on and artfully arranges your scarf for you.
The gorgeous art deco interior is classy but understated. The lighting is the perfect mix of being flattering to anyone over 30, bright enough to let you celeb spot (you can often catch sight of a Hollywood A lister), and dark enough for people who want to dine ‘discreetly’. It’s the perfect restaurant for people watching.
The food is also excellent, you don’t survive for as long as the Ivy has in a city with so many restaurants if your food isn’t up to scratch.
The Ivy knows its audience, the food is rich and comforting, with dishes like cottage pie and steaks seeming popular. Classic dishes done well, you won’t find infused foams and molecular gastronomy on the menu.
It may not be somewhere most people would visit weekly, but well worth visiting for a treat. There are also fabulous watering holes nearby for pre or post dinner cocktails.