Wales - My First Trip 'Abroad'

I was ten when I went to Wales and enormously excited to make my first trip ‘abroad’. The parents of a school friend took me with them on their family holiday. I was very disappointed that there didn’t seem to be any kind of border crossing at Welshpool, even though the name appeared to indicate territorial change. The drive was long and the mountains huge, brown and magnificent. I’d never seen proper mountains before - I don’t think the North York moors count, but I had read about Welsh mountains, magic, dragons and Merlin. The mountains seemed to cover the whole country. And they, in their turn, were covered in sheep. It felt delightfully foreign. People spoke with strange lilting accents and the place names were astonishingly difficult to pronounce.

I made use of my knowledge of Wales when I sat my GCE exam. ‘Write about sheep farming in Wales’, stated the question. So I traced the outline of Wales from the weather map of the UK on the front of the paper, shaded in most of it and annotated this area as mountains and therefore sheep farming country. Then I wrote about looking after sheep - I learned that when we did Australia.

Revisiting Childhood Memories

I’ve made several trips to Wales since then, but not for a very long time - especially North Wales. And now, I know better. Wales signifies castles, steam railways (The Great Little Trains of Wales), mountains, sheep and rugby. It's every man’s dream trip. But I’m partial to these things myself. And I've decided to revisit my childhood memories and wiggle my way round the coast of Wales in a week. I'm heading for the northernmost border and Queensferry to start.

This time the journey from the south, is much faster - we have a network of motorways, but the rain is relentless. So, the journey is half hell - aquaplaning, a constant deluge and floods. Then I cross the border into Wales - half heaven. Calm, relaxing, warm and welcoming (isn't it usually the other way round?)

North Wales

Along the north coast of Wales - there’s an expressway now and tunnels through mountains, which tumble into the sea. That’s almost in touching distance. Though sometimes you have to stop and take a footbridge over the new road.

Llandudno

I was fifteen when I was last in Llandudno. A family holiday in a caravan. in Llandudno. It’s still very much a Genteel Victorian seaside town, the 'the Queen of the Welsh Watering Places'and still the largest seaside resort in Wales. Llandudno means "Church of Saint Tudno".

Then, we went to Carnarvon and Conway Castles, and explored the limestone Ormes headlands, which form the bay. It rained and we watched reruns of Carry on Camping. Today, Great Orme and Little Orme, frame a stretch of pebble beach basking quietly in the sun. Lines of benches set back along the flat wide promenade are the place for lunch picnics. The Liverpool packet (the one I saw in the Isle of Man) has arrived for an annual reunion. It's moored off the nineteenth century pier.

The Ormes are named after the Norse word for sea serpent. Great Orme (it is much the longer and 207 metres high) is home to the Summit Hotel, reached by the Great Orme Tramway and the Llandudno Cable Car. There are also mines and, much to my surprise, it also has the longest toboggan run in Britain (750 metres.). The tourist intrusion isn’t sufficient to deter the rare flora and fauna in the nature reserve – peregrine falcons and a multitude of other seabirds. And there are several large herds of wild Kashmiri goats originally descended from a pair donated by Queen Victoria. Sometimes they escape into the town.

To the east, smaller headland Little Orme is also a nature reserve.

Conwy

A hop, skip and a jump to Conway, now known as Conwy. Most place names here have reverted to the original Welsh. It's on the banks of the River Conwy, defending Conwy Bay. This is one of the most complete walled towns in the United Kingdom. It was built, on the instructions of Edward I of England, between 1283 and 1289, as part of his conquest of of Wales.

You used to drive right alongside the castle - the expressway by passes the giant buttresses  now. The best view, today, is from the RSPB nature reserve across the river.

Caernarfon

Caernarfon (as I said, things aren’t spelled like they used to be), another fortress on the water's edge built by Edward I. The first fortress here dated from Roman times. When the Romans left Britain in 382, Caernarfon became part of the Kingdom of Gwynedd and it's now in that county. William the Conqueror then built a motte-and-bailey castle at Caernarfon as part of his attempt to invade Wales. But he had to give up. Edward I built his grand fortification after Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the ruler of Gwynedd, refused to pay homage to him.

Caernarfon Castle is possibly best known as the setting for Prince Charles' (slightly controversial) investiture, as the Prince of Wales, and the queen's weird winged helmet hat. The town has expanded beyond its medieval walls and there's a new marina full of bobbing yachts as well as moorings and sightseeing boats on the gentle River Seiont. But it's quiet today in the sun. there area few tourists wandering the narrow streets, but the square in front of the castle walls is empty.

Anglesey

Anglesey floats to the north, across the Menai Strait. A flat green pancake. No time to visit, this trip. I went once, by car through Wales, to Anglesey, to catch the ferry to Ireland. The lanes were so narrow, in those days, the journey was interminable. The increasing anxiety around missing the boat quite took away the rapture of visiting the town with (debatably) the longest (concocted) place name in the English speaking world –
Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (or St Mary's Church in the Hollow of the White Hazel near a Rapid Whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio near the Red Cave).

Llŷn Peninsula

Wales has over 1,680 miles of coastline, and the Llŷn Peninsula is a pincer arm, extending into the Irish Sea. I've never been here before, but I'm making good time so I'm going to tootle southwest across to Pwllheli. It's an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) and it's obvious why. A hundred miles of coastline, cliffs and glorious beaches. Gorgeous in the north, where a string of mountains abut the sea.

Pwllheli, the largest town, used to be famous for its Butlins. There's still a holiday camp there, run by Haven. There's another stunning stretch of sand backed by dunes. More importantly, this is where the Welsh Nationalist Political Party, Plaid Cymru, was founded. A large proportion of the population around here (81%) speak Welsh.

Criccieth

East to Criccieth, nestling in the elbow of the peninsula. I'm back in familiar territory now. This little resort has a cumbersome and imposing strap line 'The Pearl of Wales on the Shores of Snowdonia'. Another ruined castle, this one atop a hill, between the curves of beaches. It predates Edward I, but he extended it. The other historical building to note is the ice cream shop. Cadwalader's Ice Cream Parlour, opened in 1927.

And apparently, there is a furore ongoing, over the spelling of the town's name. Some Welsh purists argue that the double 'c' is an anomaly in Welsh and it should be eradicated. Signs have been defaced.

Snowdonia - Eryri

 The highest Welsh mountains (all those over 3,000 feet) are in the north - in Snowdonia - now called Eryri. The national park is huge - an over 800 square mile chunk of north-west Wales, which runs down to the mid-Wales coast at Aberdovey.

Penrhyndeudraeth

When I was ten, we stayed at Penrhyndeudraeth (it's not easy to say), a small town near Porthmadog, on the edge of Snowdonia, making forays into the national park. So, I've made it my Snowdonia base again, in a B and B. I'm not sure it's the same one - I suspect that's vanished into the mists of time. There are lovely views of the mountains and across the River Dwyryd estuary. An Indian restaurant and a Vegan restaurant with the unlikely soubriquet The Eating Gorilla. And that's about it.

Portmeirion

But, just down the estuary and still, officially, in Penrhyndeudraeth, is exotic Portmeirion. I've wanted to visit Portmeirion ever since I saw The Prisoner (which was filmed here) and was fascinated by Patrick McGoohan. (I'm not a number, I'm a free man). The village was still being completed last time I came. It's a riot of colour against a fortuitously blue sky. A fantastical Italianate wonderland, designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. He said that he wanted to pay tribute to the atmosphere of the Mediterranean. It's a surreal homage, an architectural bricolage, with copies of some buildings and fragments of others, as well as classical style statues imported. All set in beautifully manicured technicolour gardens.

It hasn't only served as inspiration for The Prisoner. Portmeirion has been a source of inspiration for Noël Coward (he wrote Blithe Spirit here). George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gregory Peck Ingrid Bergman. Brian Epstein, Paul McCartney, George Harrison (he filmed interviews for The Beatles Anthology documentary here). Iron Maiden, Dr Who, Cold Feet, Supergrass and Jools Holland have all graced the village with their presence.

The Prisoner's house is now a shop (it's the round building), crammed with Prisoner memorabilia. Sadly, I can't buy any, as it is, in its turn, imprisoned. The shop is already shut at five and all the cafes quickly follow suit. Including Café Number 6.  I wouldn't mind, but they've charged me full price to enter.

According to the woman who sold me the ticket 'It's for charity, so they have to do these things'.  I'm not sure I follow that logic. The charity seems to be the trust which maintains the buildings. In more charitable times they used to charge half price after 3 pm. And Williams-Ellis once stated that the levy of an entrance fee was just a deliberate ploy to prevent The Village from being spoilt by overcrowding. Humbug. All I can say is don't go towards the end of the afternoon. You won't get your money's worth.

In addition, bringing in the money are two hotels (one is crenelated Victorian Castel Deudraeth, which Clough Williams used as his base and inspiration) and most of The Village doubles as self-catering cottages. I wonder what all those folk staying here, do for food in the evening. Many of them have American accents. They're floating up from the lovely swimming pool situated with amazing views out to the estuary. I think that's strange too. Why pay top dollar to stay in a pastiche of an  Italian village in Wales? 

So, I'm left feeling grumpy and exasperated at the end.  Much like I felt after watching the much anticipated  finale to The Prisoner which I didn't understand at all. (Your knee bone's connected to your thigh bone.)

Porthmadog

Almost at the mouth of the estuary is Porthmadog. It used to be Portmadoc, named after William Madocks, who built a sea wall, the Cob, in 1808–1811, to reclaim land for agriculture. A harbour followed, mostly to export slate from the enormous mines at Ffestiniog, 11 miles inland. Madocks also built Tremadoc(g), which gave its name to the bay. Tremadoc's main claim to fame is as the birthplace of T.E. Lawrence.

Porthmadog is not at all as I recall it. I have memories of Welsh costume, tall black hats and souvenir shops full of pretty blue bottomed copper bowls and bronze bells fashioned as Welsh hats or ladies with flowing skirts. There's nothing remotely like that. Not a speck of copper. Tattoo parlours, burger bars and charity shops.

The harbour is still pretty and there's a lovely walk along the coast to Borth y Gest, (the best kept village in Caernarvonshire says the sign) and Myrtha Bachan, with the cutest of sandy bays and rocks islands. It's very easy to find a minuscule, rock sheltered beach and pool all to yourself. But today, I'm accompanied on my stroll, by Ros and Deirdre, from Australia, via Southampton.

The Great Little Trains of Wales

Porthmadog is a major hub for famous The Great Little Trains of Wales. Whilst I'm waiting at the station, no fewer than six pristine team locomotives puff up and down, in preparation for (or returning from) various journeys. The station began operations with the railway to Blaenau Ffestiniog and the slate mines. The Ffestiniog is the oldest independent railway company in the World today(1832). Prestigious indeed and all very Ivor the Engine.

The first journeys were much more perilous. Steam locomotives were not introduced until the 1860s. (They still use some of the same engines today.) To start with, the line was only operated by gravity. The slate laden wagons were simply pushed down the hillside and courageous (or foolhardy) brakemen jumped from one carriage to another, tightening and loosening the brakes, as necessary. Another man sat at the front, blowing the horn loudly, to warn people to keep out of the way as the train thundered along.

The Welsh Highland Railway

Thankfully, today things are much more sedate. I'm travelling on the much more recent restoration, the Welsh Highland Railway. The original Welsh Highland Railway was formed in 1922 from the merger of two companies, but it was never a commercial success. The old carriages (1890s vintage) were uncomfortable, the journey took too long and the service had a reputation for being unreliable. It sounds like a familiar story (Thameslink are you listening?)

The full Welsh Highland Railway trip goes to Caernarfon and back and takes a whole day. It only operates on 'selected days' of the week. Shorter sections are offered at other times, and today I'm travelling on The Aberglaslyn. This operates from Porthmadog to Beddgelert, travelling through the Aberglaslyn Pass. They report that this is acknowledged as the most scenic countryside in the United Kingdom. That's some boast.

I've gone up market and bought a 'Gold' seat in the observation car. It's a Pullman carriage, 'modern in years but ageless in quality, ............ a golden opportunity to travel in Orient Express style splendour'........ the epitome of luxury'. It is indeed very comfortable, especially as I've got the whole car to myself. It's situated at the end of the train, so on the outward journey you peep round the locomotive and on the return there's a 180 degree (and more) view of the picturesque countryside.

Across the flatlands of the ‘Traeth Mawr’ (the great estuary) for wide vistas of the mountains of Snowdonia and Snowdon, towering over them all, before the train enters a tunnel, reappearing high on a ledge above the river in the famous Aberglaslyn Pass.

The Aberglaslyn Pass

Up until the early nineteenth century, the Aberglaslyn Pass was the preferred route for goods from Caernarfon or Bangor. It saved having to sail all round the Llŷn Peninsula. The River Glaslyn, tumbling through its narrow gorge, was navigable for small boats, as far as Pont Aberglaslyn, about a mile south of Beddgelert.

As with so many spots in Wales the bridge at Pont Aberglaslyn has a legend attached. The Devil built this bridge on the proviso that he would receive the soul of the first living creature to cross over it. When the bridge was finished he went to the local inn to tell the magician Robin Ddu (Black Robin). Robin went to inspect the new bridge, together with a dog he had lured from the pub with a fresh-baked loaf of bread.

On arrival, Robin demanded to know whether the bridge was strong enough. The Devil was suitably annoyed and demanded that the magician throw his loaf onto the bridge to prove that it was indeed sturdy enough. So Robin threw the loaf and the dog chased it across the bridge. He was sacrificed to the devil, instead of a human (so that's a happy ending), and Robin Ddu returned to finish his drinking.

The ride is eight miles and 52 minutes and an utterly joyful experience. The mountain peaks clear of cloud on this glorious day - the white puffs drift overhead instead. The train drivers, on the other hand, are serious and  solemn, almost dour. Arms held aloft to signal the engine is in place. Perhaps their duties are too important for smiling. They're riding on the running plate hanging off at the bends. We're not even supposed to lean out, in case we decapitate ourselves. The windows are all open today, so we get the full steam experience, when we puff through the longer tunnels.

People are making the most of the weather, splashing in the cascades. Everyone leaps up to wave and take photos as we chug past, horn blasting. I'm doing my royal family impression again.

Beddgelert

This is, I think, my third visit to Beddgelert. It's delightfully pretty. Stone cottages, bridges and walls. The Church of St. Mary stands in a field, at the end of the main street. This was originally a part of the Augustinian Monastery, which gave succour and security to all those porting goods to the river. The chapel is all that remains, as Edward I's army burnt down the rest.

I'm scurrying, as I only have an hour and quarter and I want to revisit the raised mound, at the end of a path leading from aforementioned meadow. This is said to be the grave of the hound Gelert (bed of Gelert.) Sad legend here, has it that the faithful dog was wrongfully slain, by his master, when he had in fact defended and hidden his child, not killed it. The grave is marked by stone slabs and encircled twice. Once by a metal fence - and then - a huge circle of dramatic mountain peaks surrounding the valley. I'm thinking you couldn't be buried in a nicer place. Until I discover that the 'grave' was built by an eighteenth-century landlord of the Goat Hotel, in order to encourage tourism.
 
Beddgelert is also famous for its Glaslyn ice cream and I'm thinking I just have time to indulge, before my return journey. Except a whole class of schoolchildren has just joined the queue. I'm just giving up, when I notice the pizzeria at the back. They've only got four flavours there, but it's instant service. And they give me two tubs.

Yr Wyddfa - Mount Snowdon

Another day in Wales, another railway.

Snowdon Mountain Railway is a very different experience, however. There’s one carriage and eight sections and we’re packed in like sardines, eight to each compartment. I’m with a Romanian family of seven. 'Romania is the land of possibilities', they tell me.

‘Of all kinds’, I reply.

Today, the train’s horn sounds to scare sheep off the track.

Snowdon (the name of the highest Welsh mountain) means Snow Hill. In Welsh, Snowdon is known as Yr Wyddfa (tomb or cairn). Legend has it that Yr Wyddfa is the final resting place of Rhita Gawr, a fearsome giant, who wore a cloak made of men’s beards. He challenged King Arthur to combat, but Arthur defeated him and cut off his head. The cairn on the summit of Yr Wyddfa is, somewhat gruesomely, said to mark the final resting place of Rhita Gawr’s head.

Both Arthur and Merlin seem to originate in Welsh mythology - Arthur as a king who led the Celts against the Anglo-Saxon invaders. No-one is certain about the origins of the name Eryri. And the peaks are tiny, compared to the giants of Asia and South America. Whatever, this is my favourite part of Wales - it's definitely magical.

Sadly, the weather forecast is inaccurate in the wrong direction today. The mountains live up to their name and the summit of Snowdon, so clearly visible yesterday, is denying a close up view. Crib Goch is ominously dark, bringing back memories of terrifying ascents along the Pyg Path, the slopes slipping away each side of me. My PE teachers, in their infinite wisdom, brought us up there on our Outward Bound trip.

As I've climbed Snowdon before and don't need the glory I opt to walk back down the easiest Llanberis track, which descends parallel with the railway track for the most part. I’ve decided I need some exercise, but I’d forgotten that even this track is classed as strenuous. I have to concentrate hard on the steeper sections, which are stone paved and covered in slippery shale. Elastic ligaments are not helpful - I have very wobbly ankles. What's more there is absolutely nowhere to go to the toilet. The Halfway House café doesn't have a public loo. and displays signs saying CCTV will record you if you try and urinate on the premises. There are hordes of would be climbers. And there's no cover anywhere, on the open slopes.

There are great views of velvety hillsides, down the Llanberis Pass, across to the pool below Crib Goch and to the distant town and lake. But there's no time to enjoy it. The cloud is rolling over the ridge and soon catches up with me. I’m drenched. My clothes are literally wringing wet. I’ve got the heater, in the car, on full blast, to try and dry out.

Maentwrog

Now I'm eschewing the train and driving through The Vale of Ffestiniog, alongside the River Dwyryd. I've given up exclaiming how beautiful the mountains and valleys are. Just take it as read. Splashes of delicate pink, as foxgloves and orchids line the paths.

The tiny village of Maentwrog, en route, is another slate mining community. There's The Grapes pub (nice pork ribs). The church is hidden behind an eye-catching lychgate on the main road. It's dedicated to St Twrog, an apparently eminent British saint, who lived in the fifth and sixth centuries. I've never come across him before, but according to information in the church he was one of four brothers, the sons of Ithel Hael o Lydaw ( of Brittany), who came to Wales as Christian missionaries. The others were Saint Baglan, Saint Tanwg and Saint Tegai. I suppose it depends on your definition of eminent.

A boulder in the churchyard is known as the Maen Twrog (maen being the Welsh for stone). Twrog is reported to have thrown the stone from the top of the mountain, crushing a pagan altar in the valley below. (His handprints can still be seen in the stone). The boulder gives the name to the village.

Betws y Coed

When I was on my school trip we stayed at the Youth Hostel in Betws y Coed. I think it's been retired now, but it was right opposite the pretty Swallow Falls, which I had already seen on Welsh Visit One. So a nostalgic trip is essential, a little north and back east of Snowdon. You can just see the falls, peering over the surrounding stone wall, but you have to pay £2 to be allowed through the turnstiles and get the full frontal.

The town of Betws y Coed is the Welsh equivalent of Keswick, in the Lake District. It's Outdoor Shop Central - buzzing with hikers, climbers and holiday makers. They’ve even draped strings of illuminations over one arcade of shops.

Harlech

I've moved my base to Harlech. Partly because I've never visited the town and partly because my current B and B doesn't have space for me any more. Few town names can be more evocative of Wales than Harlech. I can't hear it without singing Men of Harlech (just to myself, don't want to scare everyone) and then I want to tear up. (as in watching the film Zulu), though it's obviously better if the Welsh sing it and then I'd be crying for the right reasons. It's arguably more stirring then the national anthem - Land of our Fathers. And the Welsh choirs are, of course, wonderful.

The song, is, naturally associated with Harlech Castle, prominent, high above the sea. It is traditionally said to relate to the seven-year siege of Harlech Castle (1461 - 1468), when the castle was defended by the Lancastrians (against the Yorkists), as part of the Wars of the Roses. It was the longest known siege in the history of the British Isles. The Welsh prefer to associate the march with the 1408, briefer siege of Harlech Castle, when the Owain Glyndŵr led rebels, attempted to resist the future Henry V of England.

Harlech is surprisingly small and very quiet. It's essentially two towns. The little upmarket old town around the castle, (chi chi cafés, pottery studio, high class grocers, excellent chippie and a very good restaurant) and below, the new town and championship golf course (St Davids), backing onto dunes (a nature reserve - orchid and birds) and a very gorgeous beach beloved of dog walkers. They’re only allowed to turn left.

The two towns are linked by the steepest street in the world. Ffordd Pen Llech, Maybe. Sometimes, the title reverts to Baldwin Street in Dunedin, New Zealand. The Guinness Book of Records has twice changed the criteria by which the gradient is measured, after challenges from the residents of the two towns. I can testify that walking up both is very hard work.

The Lake District of Wales

My Outward Bound trip also took me to the Welsh Lake District, to the south of Snowdonia. We visited Bala and admired its lake, Llyn Tegid is the largest lake in Wales. Then, we hiked all round Lake Vyrnwy (that's an artificial lake - a reservoir for Manchester). We were only supposed to get to the other end, but we got lost. It’s a big lake too.

So Bala also has to be revisited, though Wales is now living up to its reputation for being wet and the rain is relentless. I daren't get out of my car and I'm peering at the scenery through a veil of mist. Bala is another place for outdoor enthusiasts. The main street is lined with leisure wear shops. Most of the action here is centred on the 4 1/2 mile lake and the River Tryweryn. I say enthusiasts deliberately. This is Iron Man country. And the river is a white water canoeing centre. There's another steam train, for the more sedately inclined.

South Snowdonia

I'm having to delete most of my photos. Too much water on the lens, So, I'm avoiding all activity in the wet and heading south. Along the coast, a too busy road winding through small seaside resorts and culminating in the wonderful dunes at Dyffryn (I played there with my friend's cousins - I'd never seen dunes before), to Barmouth. It's a harbour and fish and chip town, on the Mawddach Estuary. There's an old railway viaduct running across it.

The other route south from Harlech takes me through mixed forests, to Dolgellau at the end of the Mawddach Estuary. Genteel souvenir and tea shops. A welcome retreat from the downpour. And more outdoor gear outlets. This is where you come if you want to climb Cadair Idris. The spreading peak in south Snowdonia is probably Wales's second most well known mountain. With Pen y Fan (in the Brecon Beacons), they constitute the Welsh Three Peaks Challenge. There's ongoing debate about the inclusion of the 'i' in Cadair. The Welsh purists say you should put it in. So I have. Of course, I can't see Cadair Idris today. It's totally swathed in cloud.

I've read that Aberdovey is pastel pretty and I want to hug the coast, so I'm taking the coast road south again, still hugging the enormity that is Cardigan (Ceredigion) Bay. It's narrow and teeters along the edge of cliffs, the ever stunning beaches stretching below. I'm not convinced it was worth the extra time and bravery. Though Tywyn has the colourful Magic Lantern Cinema and closed tea shops. Aberdovey (Aberdyfei) also has a great beach, but it is looking a little worn. The car parks and cafes are full and a seagull uses my car as a toilet. Like being back in Brighton, again.

South Wales and Cardigan

Finally, and sadly, leaving Snowdonia, though I'm still following the curve of Cardigan Bay, south. Last time I was here, I was on my honeymoon. An ongoing beautiful coastline, towering hedges and coracles on the River Teifi. It's Saturday and that's the only day that the National Coracle Centre is closed, so I won't be seeing any of the small round fishing boats. The car park at Poppits Sands, the other side of historic Cardigan town, is bustling (It's Aberteifi -' mouth of the Teifi', in Welsh). Yet another contender for most gorgeous beach in the country.

St Davids

Right on the southwest tip of Wales, the next revisit is to St Davids, the smallest city in the United Kingdom by population. It battles with the City of London for smallest in size - it depends how that's defined. Unusually for patron saints, St David, born 500AD, actually lived in Wales and was buried here. (Although some sources claim that St Patrick was here around 30 years earlier). David established a church and monastery where the current cathedral now stands. Parts of this date back to Norman times.

The cult of David became a thriving business, in the Middle Ages especially as Pope Callixtus II declared that two trips to St Davids was equal to one trip to Rome. Plenty of prominent pilgrims (including William the Conqueror) visited the city.

With the Reformation pilgrimages became less popular, income fell and the city and cathedral were increasingly neglected. Bishop William Barlow even sold the lead from the roof of the Bishop's Palace in 1536. (He moved to Carmarthenshire.) Some of the ancient buildings were demolished and only the cathedral remained relatively unscathed.

Today, the cathedral seems oddly isolated, quietly floating in countryside, outside the few houses that form the city. It doesn't help that it's nine o'clock on a Sunday morning. The doors are shut, ostensibly for a service, but there are no cars outside. The nineteenth century Penny Cyclopaedia's description isn't too far off:

'At present its appearance is that of a poor village, the houses, excepting those of the clergy, being in a ruinous state. The locality is lonely, and the neighbouring district wild and unimproved; but it is still an interesting place as the seat of a large episcopal see, with a fine cathedral and the remains of other magnificent religious edifices.'

Wales Coast Path - Pembroke

Now I'm in exciting new territory. The Wales Coast Path is advertised as the first/only path to follow the entirety of a nation's coastline. I've already walked sections in the north and at Porthmadog, but now I'm dipping in and out of the Pembroke Path, generally agreed to be the most scenic of all.

Just outside St Davids, is Newgale Beach, on St Bride's Bay, Today, it's wild, windy and shingly. I can see why the surfers are happy. But apparently, when the tide goes out, there's a vast swathe of sand to enjoy.

The most iconic rock formations all, seem to be at the end of single track roads, winding across military bases. You have to check the signboards to make sure they're open and that you don't stray into the fields accidentally. That's definitely going to happen if a car comes from the other direction. And there's still a tank trundling across in front of me.

Google's hopeless here. I navigate using a phone photo I took of a friendly walker's OS map. A quick stop in Pembroke town, to admire yet another classic, stalwart castle. Henry Tudor was born here and Visit Wales says the place is steeped in history. But then, I've noticed that, according to their website, everywhere in Wales is 'steeped in history'. It probably is.

My highlights; St Govan’s Chapel, squeezed onto the tiny beach below, between stacks and The Green Bridge of Wales, a limestone arch. The stack heads are an undulating mass of guillemots; and they're surrounded by black and white dots covering the sea below.

Tenby

Tenby is another unexpected delight. I had heard it lauded as a seaside town, but didn't expect the old medieval walled town (with barbican gatehouse), the cunning narrow streets, the beautifully decorated (mainly) Victorian houses, the little harbour, all bobbing pleasure boats, and the utterly splendid sands. There's even a castle, on a crag, with its own beach. (The Sunday Times rated Tenby's Castle Beach the best beach in the UK in 2019.) And there's an ice cream parlour almost every 10 metres. What more could you want? It definitely warrants a revisit. If I can work out when quiet season is. It's definitely not today, though it is the weekend.

Burry Port

More glorious beaches - Saundersfoot, Pendine Sands (home to land speed records and into Carmarthenshire. My home here is in Burry Port. It sits at the mouth of the Loughor estuary: more dunes, more seemingly endless stretches of sand. and views south to my next destination, the Gower Peninsula. Mysteriously, my lodging is called Seaview and the main image depicts the boats in the harbour. It actually sits right next to the railway station. I can just make out patches of blue water in the distance. The port is a ten minute walk away, to the west. The tide is out and the boats are wobbling on their keels. Today, it's sailing and fishing boats. the harbour was originally built to service the export of coal.

The Gower Peninsula

Through Llanelli, to the Gower Peninsula. When I came here (and Newport) before, I stayed in Ebbw Vale. A colleague at work bought a house there. (He couldn’t afford one in Sussex.)

The (majority of) Gower was the first area in the United Kingdom to be designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which probably tells you all you need to know. I have to use that word gorgeous again. Right at the western tip is Rhossili Beacon, the highest point on the peninsula and below that Rhossili Beach. The three islands that form Worm's Head wiggle off into the distance. You can walk right out there when the tide is low. There's not a huge window of opportunity, the currents are lethal and people often get stuck. Dylan Thomas was one of these. He described Worm's Head as 'the very promontory of depression.'

It's still a rewarding, and safer, if bracing, ramble, at high water. Rhossili Beach is vast, the dog walkers tiny pin pricks. In 2014, it was voted the UK's number one beach, third best in Europe, and ninth best in the world, (no less) on TripAdvisor.

On the south coast, Three Cliffs Beach has also been cited as both Britain’s best beach and Britain’s best view. Three Cliffs Beach has sand, backed by three limestone cliffs, sand dunes, salt marsh, rock pools and the Pennard Pill stream running through the middle. The piton like cliffs guarding the entrance are reminiscent of St Lucia. The downside, is the mile, long steep descent.

I often disagree with these best in the World Lists (see The Best Beach in the World?) There are so many amazing beaches in Wales. This is smaller than Rhossili, but wilder and in my opinion, more spectacular. I'm going to allow this boast.

Mumbles is the characterful village/town at the Swansea end of the Gower. It's not as pretty as I remember. Maybe it's because so many of the pubs have disappeared. It was once notorious as a spot for binge drinking and one of Dylan Thomas's favourite hangouts - especially in The Mermaid. Today, most of the action is down by the Victorian (just) pier, where there are lighthouse views, It was once advertised as 'The Prettiest Pier in the Bristol Channel'. Several plate glass restaurants and a chip shop.

'Mumbles is a funny place,
A church without a steeple,
Houses made of old ships wrecked
And most peculiar people'.

The Brecon Beacons

Along the edge of Swansea. No time to revisit Cardiff this tripe. I went for a weekend visit, when I was a student, to visit a friend at Cardiff University. It was a gentle experience. We were woken on a Sunday morning, by a Salvation Army band, marching down the street and made an out of town excursion to the gothic revival delight of Castell Coch.

Now skirting the Valleys and into the Brecon Beacons National Park. I was last here in 2015. My friend Nicola is lucky enough to live in a converted chapel in Crickhowell and I'm finally getting to catch up with her again. Brecon is home to the above mentioned Pen y Fan (2,907 feet) and starkly beautiful. I climbed that too, when I was younger. More castles: Carreg Cennen and Crickhowell, though both, it's fair to say, in various stages of disrepair. There's access to the shops (and pubs) of Abergavenny, Hay (for the Book Festival) and Ross on Wye too. My memories tell me it's reasonably easy to get lost in the hills, and a little frightening, as night comes down. It's also a reasonably easy drive up the M4. Which is the way I'm heading home...

Getting to Jamaica

This is a revisit, to Jamaica, as I’m not sure that half a day off a cruise ship in Ocho Rios counts. I’m travelling with Alison and I’m using my Air Miles. I keep reminding myself that the flight is free, as I’m squashed into a tiny seat, alongside a very large lady, who can’t help but overspill into my space. The flight is crammed with Jamaicans, returning home for a long Christmas break, before seat prices rise to extortionate levels. No-one has checked the amount of cabin baggage they’re bringing on.

It takes an additional hour to get everyone on the plane and all the overhead bins are overflowing. A stewardess has insisted I try to squash my backpack under the seat in front. Thankfully, it was agreed to be impossible to get it in there, as otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to flex any of my limbs. And the flight is almost 10 hours. ‘’It’s free, it’s free’. I repeat to myself.

Facts and Factoids

  • Jamaica is synonymous with the Caribbean, the most African of these alluring island nations. It has a typical Caribbean tropical climate and topography of mountains, rainforests and reef-lined beaches. And it’s smack bang in the middle of the Caribbean Sea and so, was the centre of the slave trade. Runaways (called maroons) safeguarded the African traditions. Marcus Garvey founded the back to Africa movement here and Rastafarianism followed by reggae music (and Bob Marley), were born in Jamaica. (I’ve been to see the Bob Marley musical Get Up Stand Up to prepare. This is the home of jerk chicken, the world’s best coffee (apparently) and manatees, as well as the usual Caribbean white sand beaches and diving.
  • Jamaica’s main income is tourism, but it gets a mixed press. There is much poverty. And consequently, a more than average amount of hassle. Crafts, massage, jewellery and drugs. There’s ganja (and other unmentionable stuff) being hustled on every corner. (Despite the fact that possession is strictly illegal.) There are also warnings not to take photos of the marijuana fields.
  • More worryingly, Jamaica has the highest murder rate in the world for any country not at war. Most of the violence occurs in the ghettoes - I’m told. And a week before we leave, the news tells us that five parishes have been  designated as state of emergency zones, due to escalating gang violence. I’m going to have to research where I venture very carefully.

Driving in Jamaica

Driving is also reported to be more than a little daunting. The roads are full of potholes and there are very few signposts. People buy licences, rather than taking a test. And speed limits are there to be ignored. It’s encouraging that the Jamaicans drive on the left, like we do in the UK. ‘De left side is the right side; de right side is suicide’.

As our flight lands after dark, we’ve booked a taxi to take us to Ocho Rios (where my first landing was made, though I’m not sure it equates to that of Christopher Columbus in 1494). The driver’s WhatsApp greeting sets the mood. ‘Blessed Love,’ he declaims. Sadly, the warnings about dangerous driving turn out to be true. This observation, coupled with the traffic jams through Kingston (rush hour seems to last from 3 till 9 – and why is it called rush hour ?), is bad enough for me to abandon my original plan to drive a hire car for a couple of days. We strike a deal with (Blessed Love) Kenroy instead. Yeah Man. Aw man.

Mahogany Bay

But first, a very welcome couple of days on the beach at Ocho Rios. Our apartment has sea views and is just five minutes walk from Mahogany Bay. This little sandy cove is worn round the edges - collapsing wooden sunbeds round the old swim up bar in a little creek. But it’s shabbily charming, with its channels and canary yellow humped bridge. A few shops. Bright clothing draped over bushes, in the hope of attracting custom from tourists on their way to the small jetty, for boat trips. Most of the souvenirs and beachwear are in Jamaican colours. If they're not draped with the Jamaican flag. The colours of the Jamaican flag represent the following: black stands for hardship, green stands for hope and agriculture and the yellow represents the wealth and beauty of the sun

There's a gigantic Royal Caribbean liner looming over the horizon and big excitement amongst the vendors at Mahogany Bay anticipating, a large number of clients. They even wheel in a limbo dancer, to entertain the crowds waiting for their catamaran cruises.

Other than the cruisers, it’s thankfully quiet at this time of year, so we can bag an umbrella and two sunbeds in a prime spot by the water. There’s a somnolent dog under almost every lounger. Waders stalk by and the sea here is crystal clear, shallow and balmy. The beach vendors are friendly and it’s a very soft sell, not too persistent. We can also get high, free. The air reeks of ganja.

When I say quiet, I mean not very busy. There’s reggae music blaring from the beach restaurant, which boast huge speakers and a resident DJ. Every so often, the moored catamarans enter into competition turning on their own sound systems. And the bay features on the local boat trip repertoire. We’re intermittently subjected to a loud commentary, as a group of tourists are encouraged to admire us and our environment from the water. It’s like being an exhibit at the zoo.

Ocho Rios

We’re having a splendid time until we set off down the coast road into downtown Ocho Rios. Ochi (as the locals call it) continues the Caribbean ramshackle vibe and is best described as having character, rather than being pretty. The bays either side of downtown are more upmarket. Mick Jagger has a house here, which he lets out at exorbitant prices. But then he has a house in many places, including Mustique.

Lines of yards, concealing paint and tyre shops. Tourist markets. Everything branded in Jamaican colours. Miles of overhead cables. It’s thronging. We’re marked out and accosted with varying degrees of civility as we bump up and down the ledges on the sidewalk. Everyone wants to know our business and issue offer an opinion. Whatever we say, it is safe to expect that we will be judged to be doing it wrong. 'Turtle Beach is not the same thing as Ocho Beach, even if the internet says it is.'

I finally make it through the centre of town, to the bay that is the main beach (and apparently not Turtle Beach), as I want to retrace the steps of my earlier visit. But we’re not allowed through the gate. ‘The beach closed at four’, snarls the hefty female attendant. (We’ve been told it closes at five). I beg Stern Faced Lady, for just 2 minutes. She eventually relents. 'But you can’t use a camera in there. Just a phone. Just one phone.' Alison is not permitted entry. I admire the powdery white sand and recall my trip down the cruise ship pier in solitary splendour. Surely, the guard has to be making all these rules up. Perhaps it’s the Jamaican version of the doctor’s secretary.

Where's the Deli?

To the supermarket to buy something easy for dinner. But it’s the same story as in Anguilla. Deli doesn’t seem to exist. No coleslaw or salads, no cooked meats. So it’s frozen meat and fish or cans and packets. I’ve got crisps and a can of corned beef for dinner – again. And even that makes a huge dent in the wallet. Food is far more expensive than in England. On our return to our apartment I look up delis in Ocho Rios on the internet and am deluged with pictures of bakeries.

Our Own Indoor Swimming Pool

Our 'condo', in a quiet part of town 'with ocean view', seems perfect, despite the dozen assorted pots of artificial flowers displayed artfully on chests, tables and in every alcove. It seems to have every convenience, once I’ve reset all the controls on the three TVs. We retreat from an early night, still jet lagged, but I emerge from my bedroom to find we’ve now got an indoor swimming pool. A huge flood in the middle of the living room floor. Needless to say, no-one is available to deal with it and its origin is a mystery. Though the recently used washing machine seems to be the prime suspect.

Alison mops and I helpfully hum a hornpipe. There’s half a bucket of dirty water collected. A plumber calls next day and can’t find anything wrong, but I’m not sure how hard he looked. I refused to spend my holiday time waiting around for him to come. And he didn’t take up the sodden rug, which is now best described as stinky.

History of Jamaica - Very Briefly

  • Originally inhabited by the indigenous Taíno peoples, Jamaica came under Spanish rule following the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1494. Many of the indigenous people were killed or died of imported diseases, after which the Spanish brought large numbers of African slaves to Jamaica as labourers. The island remained a possession of Spain until 1655, when it was conquered by the English. The country had been named Xaymaca "Land of Wood and Water" by the Taino, but this was anglicized to Jamaica. Jamaicans, however, refer to their home island as "The Rock".
  • Under British colonial rule Jamaica became a leading sugar exporter, with a plantation economy dependent on the African slaves and later their descendants. The island achieved independence from the United Kingdom on 6 August 1962, but the monarch of the UK remains head of state - for the moment.

Montego Maybe Part I

Kenroy turns up, as agreed, almost punctually to take us to Montego Bay, as agreed. Respect. 'One Love'. Fist bumps in fingerless gloves. There’s a huge whiff of hydrogen sulphide in the air. I had attributed it to a local drains problem, but at least part of the noxious smell seems to be coming from the engine of his car. The bonnet is propped open and the battery is steaming. It's definitely not the same vehicle he picked us up in, on Monday. ‘Licence expired’. he raps. ‘Dis my brother's’. I’m not convinced Kenroy’s brother’s car is going to make it to Dunn’s River Falls, a few kilometres up the road, let alone all the way to Montego Bay, at the western end of the island.

Kenroy is confident however and we set off. I’m even more alarmed when I notice that the fuel gauge arrow points to empty. Kenroy agrees that he will sort out the problems with the car, whilst we 'Enjoy da falls, man'.

Dunn’s River Falls

Dunn’s River Falls are Jamaica’s number one tourist attraction. This is at least partly due to the fact that they are within easy driving distance of all the main cruise ship ports – Montego Bay, Falmouth and Ocho Rios.

I should have heeded the advice I got last time I was here. The falls are not especially exciting. There are a couple of pretty cascades, which we are fortunate enough to see before the cruisers arrive. The main attraction here is to terrify yourself by clambering up the smooth water covered rock. The climb has to be done with falls guides (distinguished by their tee shirts), who insist that everyone link hands and shout 'Ra-ra-ra', before they start each part of the ascent. The falls are soon bestrewn with lines of would be mountaineers. We’re not convinced that some are fit enough to make it. We’re not even going to try.

The area has been cleverly turned into a park, to justify the 25 USD entrance fee. There’s a zip line, a pretty golden beach and several viewing platforms. But these are all closed due to pre Covid damage, not yet repaired. It seems that Jamaica has only just begun to emerge properly from the pandemic, though it opened up last year.

There’s also a tranquillity garden. Sadly this is not so quiet as I had hoped. The gardeners want to take you on tours to explain the purpose of the various plants - for tips of course. There are also lines of souvenir shops and stalls, with exit signs carefully placed to lead you past (it’s a bit like being in an outdoor Ikea), instead of directly to the car park. Small carved turtles are pressed on us ‘as presents’, as we search for the escape route.

Montego Maybe Part 2

Kenroy isn’t waiting when we emerge from the falls, so I call him – no answer. He eventually meanders across the car park, munching from a polystyrene take out box and announcing that he now needs to go back into Ocho Rios to buy a new battery and fill up with gas. What’s more we’re paying. We swiftly disabuse him of this notion and remove our gear from the vehicle. ‘What about money for my gas?’ he wails. ‘Respect’. I point out that turning up with a car that isn’t roadworthy isn’t exactly respectful and we walk away. Though more panic struck then we are admitting. What now? Our plans for the next two days are all in shreds.
We’re standing forlornly in the car park. I’m waving my fins around. Some waiting taxi drivers eventually act as the Fifth Cavalry. They summon friend Oliver, who arrives complete with minibus to take us to Montego Bay. Smiley Desmond then volunteers to do duty the following day.

The North Coast of Jamaica

So now we have enough space for 12, and can try out all the different seats. Oliver is a reassuringly careful driver and an informative guide, as we take the westerly highway. Running to the south, limestone escarpments and low peaks. before long the road is actually hugging the coast. It’s not the most attractive Caribbean shoreline I’ve seen. There are some lovely beaches and cerulean bays, with waving palm trees, juxtaposed with enormous container ships, moored on crane lined piers. They’re being loaded with bauxite from the trains (only cargo tracks still operate here) and conveyors that carry the red ore down to the harbours. It’s one of Jamaica’s most lucrative exports.

There’s Runaway Bay (from which all the slaves disappeared) and Discovery Bay, where Christopher Columbus first landed. There’s even supposedly, the ship that he sailed in, though it’s being renovated and we can only see a tip of mast. Rio Bueno (Good River), so named as it was the closest decent drinking water they could find. Oliver stops to show us the memorial plaque on the Queen Elizabeth Highway. The late queen opened the road in 1953. Falmouth Bay is prettier, lined with silvery sands. But there are huge cruise ships moored up there.

As is common with colonial destinations, there are a plethora of UK place names. Jamaica is divided into three counties (Middlesex, Surrey and Cornwall), which run in sections north to south dividing Jamaica like a vertically striped flag. Each of these are subdivided into parishes. We’ve just crossed from Middlesex into Cornwall.

Rose Hall

Nearing Montego Bay, dilapidated gives way to designer. Very recent hotels have appropriated the prime coastal spots and there is new construction ongoing in any gaps. There are larger fancier supermarkets and plate glass fronted shops on pink plazas that wouldn’t look out of place in Florida. Signs even promise delis.

Up on the hill to our left, as we approach the city, Rose Hall, the most well known of the great Jamaican plantation houses, dating from the 1700s. It was owned by the Palmer family. One of their number, Annie (the wife of owner John) was famed as a witch. According to legend Annie came from Haiti, where she learned voodoo and magic. She murdered not only John, but two subsequent husbands, becoming rich in the process. Then she engaged in liaisons with her slaves and murdered them too, when she tired of what they had to offer. She came to a bad end, when she encountered a more powerful magician, a slave called Takoo. who disposed of her, in her turn. Rose Hall (named after the first Palmer wife) fell into disrepair in the 1960s, but has now been renovated and opened as a historic house museum.

Montego Bay

Montego Bay is the second city in Jamaica, founded on sugar cane. It’s very much a place of two halves. There are ghettoes, poverty and gang violence. One area is included in the latest state of emergency declaration. And then there’s the ever expanding Hip Strip. A line of the most upmarket, boutiques, hotels and manicured beaches. Doctor's Cave Beach is a gorgeous stretch of sand - paid entry of course - with scarlet Baywatch emulating lifeguards, every 30 metres or so. It’s named after a doctor (who was followed by an osteopath, sometimes the two are conflated), who used to direct his patients to bathe in the springs that bubbled into the bay. In those days you had to enter through a small cave, which has now collapsed and disappeared.

There are reefs (mostly dead, but there are some live pockets) and a few fish wandering around in the warm turquoise water. The best snorkelling in the world, or even the Caribbean, it is not, but it’s an entertaining and relaxing way to pass the time. Unless you want to bounce up and down on the circular striped trampolines that dot the bay.

Sangster Airport, at the end of the Hip Strip is also being extended (more JCBs in action) to facilitate the transport of tourists to all those new hotels. It’s already the busiest airport on Jamaica.

Around Ocho Rios and South to Kingston

If Oliver was good, then Desmond turns out to be an absolute treasure, totally atoning for all Kenroy’s misdemeanours (at a price). Even if he does include Yeah Man in (literally) every sentence. He has been tasked with taking us into the famous Blue Mountains, home of the world’s best coffee ( they boast) and then to the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, before delivering us back to the airport at Kingston for our flight to Grand Cayman. He starts by avoiding the toll highway to Kingston (built by the Chinese) and taking to the delightful mountain roads. First, through rainforest proper in Fern Gulley. Magnificent dappled vegetation, tall, tall trees, lianas dangling and giant figs. The roots of one such are so huge there’s a murky cave underneath.

Colgate and other mountain communities give a real flavour of life in the Jamaican countryside, as we criss-cross the new main road. Roadside stalls, jerk centres, salted cod cooking on coals. Jamaica's main exports are coffee, bananas and sugar. Folk waiting at bus stops and taxis ferrying children to school. Education is not free in Jamaica and no transport is provided either. The route is much more interesting than the highway and good for Desmond, who doesn’t have to fork out for the 32 dollar toll. We are surrounded by manic drivers, determined to overtake, come what may. Unlicensed cars, freshly delivered are a particular hazard, they’re uninsured and totally uninhibited. Desmond says these drivers are known as CJs - Crazy Jamaicans.

Spanish Town

Eventually, the road drops into Spanish Town, the Spanish (hence the name - it was originally Villa de la Vega) and British capital of Jamaica from 1534 until 1872. The town is home to sepia brick government buildings and white porticoes, falling into disrepair. The old governor's residence is just a façade. There are numerous memorials, the national archives, and one of the oldest Anglican churches outside England. Some what misleadingly it still bears a Spanish name, Cathedral of St. Jago de la Vega. Jamaica has more churches per square mile than any other country in the world.

The Blue Mountains of Jamaica

Through the edges of Kingston and then a very winding climb up to the ridges of the Blue Mountains. This is St Andrew, (now we're in Surrey), where the rich and famous, like Shaggy and Usain Bolt (though he went to school near Montego Bay) have their villas. There’s a gorgeous, if hazy, view back across Kingston. The valley walls plummet and the whole is covered in the lushest of emerald vegetation. Vines lace the mountainsides.

Right up top, Craighton Plantation (perhaps surprisingly founded by a Japanese) offers coffee tours and more stupendous outlooks. And there’s food and still more panoramas to be had at the Strawberry Hill Hotel or the Crystal Edge Café. We partake of jerk chicken and rice and ‘peas’ at the latter.

Bob Marley

The Bob Marley Museum is the other tourist must see in Jamaica. There are two of them, in fact. Bob Marley’s mausoleum is at Nine Mile, at the house where he was born (to an English father and Jamaican mother). I’ve read that it’s mainly a place to hang out and smoke grass. My sources say that the museum is more interesting. This house, on Hope Road, in bustling Kingston, was gifted as part of his Island Records deal. It was previously owned by producer Chris Blackwell.

The museum is small. Downstairs is stuffed with memorabilia, record album covers and the recording studio. Upstairs, his bed (he had twelve children by nine different women, including his wife) and the kitchen where he mixed cocktails which were supposed to assist in his many sexual endeavours. Out back, the main kitchen area with the framed bullet holes that mark the assassination attempt that failed. The garden walls are covered in bright murals. It’s a worthwhile visit. Though I learned more about this complex icon from the stage musical, and from the Booker Prize winning novel - The Seven Killings of Bob Marley.

Kingston, the Capital of Jamaica

The traffic in Kingston is still moving very slowly. ‘Friday is market day’, says Desmond, winding up the windows and instructing us to hide our valuables. Past more colourful plazas. Millionaires’ Corner, where three very wealthy Jamaicans built mansions, in the late 1800s. The most notable is Devon House, constructed by George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire. It was declared a national monument in 1900 and is now a park with shops and a bakery. Next, the presidents’ residence (we’re not allowed anywhere near that).

It was dark when we arrived, so we didn’t get to see that the towering cement factories on the airport road are sitting on the water’s edge. Kingston lies on a huge bay, Much of the capital is very industrial. Warehouses, manufacturing plants, depots. The country has a thriving aviation industry, which both manufactures and repairs aircraft. Not to mention the areas where no one enters, unless they have a pre-arranged appointment with the men in charge. And we definitely don’t.

Next stop, Grand Cayman.

South Coast Jamaica

Our plane lands over an hour late, when we return from Grand Cayman. That’s given the traffic in Kingston plenty of time to build up, on another Friday afternoon. So, the last two hours of our journey on the south coast are dark and terrifying, as the CJs speed past us on the narrow country roads. But we do get a chance to admire the ridge of the central mountain chain that hovers above us, as we venture west. And we catch a glimpse of St Elizabeth Parish. The garden of Jamaica is found in the long valley here. The south provides the island with all of its vegetables and much of its fish.

Today, we have driver Maurice. He is not a CJ, but he informs us, somewhat worryingly, that he can be when he doesn’t have any passengers. We stop for spicy beef patties and fried chicken. The Jamaicans boast that the KFC is much better here. Spicier. I’m sure it is, but I’m opting for the local version. Juici. It’s delicious.

Negril

We’ve saved the best till last. Negril is stunning. We’re on another Seven Mile Beach and this one really is seven miles long and really could be a contender for best beach in the Caribbean. I still think Anguilla and BVI are better, but this stretch is truly lovely. A crescent of beautiful powdery white sand backed by sea grapes, palms (none of them bent though) and casuarina trees. True, it’s also backed by resorts, restaurants and bars. But these are all low rise, set back from the sand and generally add to the gentle beach vibe. The sapphire and azure bay is sprinkled with small boats touting for business, glass bottoms, para sailing, snorkelling, banana boats.

Nirvana

We have a timber ‘cottage’ at Nirvana Resort, just behind one of the widest stretches of sand on Seven Mile Beach. It’s charming (at a stretch), with shutters and ceiling fans. It’s marketed as private and secluded, which is relatively true during the day. This is carefully worded advertising. At night, we can hear the drinking bouts and games in the other cottages continuing until late. On Saturday evening there’s ‘a boogie night’ on the Wavz Beach lot, right next door. It starts at 7.30 and goes on until almost 3.30 a.m. The sound stage is right next to our cottage. The bass is so strong that the whole building vibrates. The windows rattle, the bed shifts and my chest pounds. Ear plugs are not going to cut it. Nirvana it is not.

Next morning, I complain to Errol, the security guard. He says he could hear the noise up on the top of the cliffs, right at the end of the bay. Errol has a mess of gold teeth that seems to move around in his mouth. He could audition to play Jaws in James Bond movies.

Flaker Jamaica

Hawkers march up and down the strand, but the beach is broad enough to maintain a distance and the selling is not overly oppressive, though I’ve had one too many an arm hoisted around me. A massage might relieve the stress of no sleep. I arrange with a beach vendor waving a price card that she will collect me in the afternoon. She arrives whilst I’m dozing under the sea grapes (beset by mosquitoes). Five minutes down the beach and she tells me we’re taking a taxi. I’m only wearing my bikini. No shoes. I inform her that we are not. She says she will use a friend’s facility instead - there are plenty of little massage tents under the trees - and shoots off into the distance. Friend’s place is, predictably, shut. Tomorrow? I don't think so.

I find another masseuse asleep on her couch. She’s happy to oblige, when she's woken up.

I’ve had little more luck with booking a boat ride. The first guy doesn’t return to follow up on the deal. The second agrees a 2 pm departure and doesn’t show up. Finally, the third, Captain Mike's Glass Bottomed Boat, takes us both in a glass bottomed vessel with space for 25 and we have a great trip, across the bay to the limestone cliffs. The hotels and apartments here have ramps and stairs down to rocky pools. There’s interesting, if not great, snorkelling in the many caves and a spotted ray accompanies me, to liven up proceedings.

Rick's Café

Rick’s Café is the must-visit venue here, where all the boats pile in. The foolish fling themselves off the cliffs into the pool below - if the lifeguards judge them to be fit enough. They also buy drinks in the soulless, crowded bar and burger restaurant. The original owner has cashed in and moved on.

Food in Jamaica

We’re still searching for really good food. Negril is not as expensive as Ochi, (though definitely not cheap), but the menus look identical. Jerk chicken, jerk pork, rice and ‘peas’, fish, shrimp curry, conch (pronounced conk) curry or fritters and fried plantain. So far, the patties are winning in the taste stakes. Jerk corn rolled in spices and coconut is also pretty good.

We wander up the beach trying the different restaurants. Then it’s a toss up, as to which route to take home in the dark. We’ve been warned not to walk on the beach at night. But does that mean later on or now? The coast road - Norman Manley Boulevard (Kingston's airport is also named after this prime minister) - is deemed to be safer. And there are pretty Christmas lights to admire on the way. But there are also some deserted patches where we need a torch. And there’s the constant horn honking of taxis determined to remind us of their presence.

Last night in Jamaica - barbecued lobster on the beach. It’s a shame it rains.

European Africa

Réunion is a huge culture shock after travelling in mainland Africa. Arriving from eSwatini I’ve been catapulted right back into Europe. Four lane highways, modern suburbia and very, very French, from the moment that I step onto the Reunion based French airline, Air Austral, in Jo’burg (very good food for an airline.)

Who Does Réunion Belong To?

  • Réunion Island, is a French departement in the Indian Ocean, so it’s politically part of Europe and geographically part of Africa.
  • The currency is the euro and the official language (of course) is French. However, the majority of the region’s population speaks Reunion Creole.
  • The island has only been inhabited since the seventeenth century when people from France and Madagascar settled there. From 1810 - 1848 Reunion was referred to as Île Bourbon.

Facts and Factoids

  • Reunion is formed from two (dormant) volcanoes, which rose from the seabed. The highest peak is Piton des Neiges (Peak of Snows) at 3,071 metres. The other volcano is Piton de la Fournaise (Furnace) at 2,631 metres. This is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, erupting regularly. The last eruption was in April 2020.
  • So Réunion is famous for striking volcanic activity, as well as frequent shark attacks. This is why it's known as The Intense Island.
  • Réunion is a département of France, so its official flag is the tricolore of France. This is its unofficial flag. It depicts a volcano.
  • La Réunion is home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Réunion National Park, which covers about 40% of the island’s area.
  • Reunion island has its own airline - Air Austral. Its headquarters are at Roland Garros airport near the capital, Saint-Denis. I flew on Air Austral from Johannesburg.

Is Réunion a Poor Country?

Despite its European aspect, Réunion 's dominant sugarcane industry results in poorly-distributed prosperity amongst its 840,000 inhabitants. As in many countries some have wealth, too many live below the poverty line.

What to Do in Réunion?

Head inland to the volcano parks and waterfalls and down south for the incredible coastal scenery, again shaped by the volcanoes. There are beaches - but disappointing ones - and check there's a shark net.

Leaving Réunion

A small dose of Europe was just what I needed after my month in the bush; it’s been a welcome and enjoyable few days. Downsides? It’s horribly expensive here. Set dinner with no choice - 29 euros. And it’s also one of those areas of France where inability to speak French is treated churlishly. The service at the hotel has varied, even when delivered by the same person. I find some of their accents hard to follow and my hesitation has often not been well tolerated.

A Réunion

What more apt place to reunite with (Doctor) Tino from last year’s Central Asian train journey? (To my slight bemusement) Tino announced a few weeks ago that he was coming to Réunion too. He’s in a bar, in the capital, St Denis, when I arrive and my driver, Sully, collects him on the way to my hotel. ‘Fancy meeting you here!’

I've flown in from eSwatini.

Salazie

Tino has booked Airbnb an hour and half’s walk out of town. ‘It’s cheap’. Though not when taxis to the centre cost 50 euros. He takes a bus to my hotel today, but is still wending his way towards us at the arranged pick up time. It takes Sully and me another twenty minutes to find him using Google and GPS, but we eventually head off.

The scenery is more Moorea meets Taiwan than France (or Africa for that matter), quite different  to its flatter (and considerably older) neighbour Mauritius and today’s drive takes us into the northerly volcanic caldera of Salazie on Piton des Neiges. This is a riot of lush emerald vegetation covered peaks and plunging waterfalls. Absolutely beautiful – once the rain has stopped and I can enjoy the views. Hell Bourg, up top, is a charming and colourful little creole town with clapboard, ethnic restaurants and chic shops.

Demise of a Drone

Tino experiments with his drone, skimming the waterfalls. On the first trial there is a very near miss, as he skirts too close to the undergrowth. It’s not easy to guide the vehicle and observe its path simultaneously, especially as it’s windy. It catches a branch, bounces and recovers. Undeterred, the drone makes another outing at our last stop, Niagara Falls. This Niagara doesn't really reflect its namesake and is a mere trickle in the dry season. In addition, the light is fading.

‘Just one more run’ Tino decides. However, we’ve already noted that the drone, from a distance, looks remarkably similar to the black and white birds roosting on the rock face. They have clearly decided that the drone is an unwelcome intruder and appear to be launching some intercepting manoeuvres. It eventually makes an unplanned landing into the depths. The device has already been lost once before, in the sea off the Seychelles. It seems that that the Indian Ocean isn’t very safe territory for Tino’s drone.

Piton de la Fournaise

Tino has arranged to taxi over today, bringing his gear, so he can stay at my hotel tonight. That sounds much more convenient. Except that his taxi doesn’t turn up and another has to be commandeered. Suffice it to say it’s another late start.

More fabulous scenery today, in the area of the second caldera, Piton de la Fournaise, in the south. This one is very much alive and is one of the most active in the world. The volcano has erupted on more than 100 occasions since 1640. We climb through the clouds and differing climatic layers, sugar cane plantations, English style pasture land complete with Guernsey cows, heathland with bright yellow budding broom, up to rocky scrub, pincushion flowers and enough blue sky to make a pair of sailor’s trousers.

It’s refreshingly gorgeous, peering through the clouds scudding across the winding and precipitous path. One car we pass has managed to end up in a gully, but fortunately, not on the slope side of the road. Winding onwards we reach the mouth of the volcano itself, a sheer sided olive green and cinnamon coloured bowl, topped by more crests. The soil above is striped and scattered with little hummocks and cairns. It’s exactly as you would imagine the surface of Mars.

There’s a bumpy track across the caldera and up to the sheer face of the main peak, but that is stubbornly obscured today. Most of the recent volcanic activity has been to the eastern edge of the peak and we lurch back, journeying almost to the southern tip of the island, to see the fields of lava abutting the sea and a pumice surrounded church, named Our Lady of the Lava. The Madonna inside, said to protect the locals, is equipped with a blue umbrella. We’re a bit perplexed as to how useful it’s going to be come the next eruption.

Tino’s navigational skills are catching. I dropped my iPhone down a toilet and it’s a little poorly. I’m leaving it in a bag of rice (best quality long grain) overnight. Fingers crossed.

Almost Aerial Myself

Tino has talked me into a helicopter trip today. A (literally) 360 degree view of the waterfalls is promised, as the machine descends into the volcanic cone and spins round. It sounds more than a mite scary to me, though I’m keen to view the panorama of the caldera, and indeed, the whole island, which isn’t huge, from above. We have planned to fly from the west coast, so that we can then explore that side of the island. However, although it’s not raining there’s still a fair amount of cloud cover and Salazie is not open for aerial viewing today. I’m both disappointed and relieved.

The West Coast of Réunion

There’s a dual carriageway across the north and down much of the west edge of Réunion. An incredibly engineered new highway is being constructed out to sea, in the most northerly portion, as the current, mountain hugging section is continually damaged by falls during the cyclone season. We speed down south to view the sections of lava flow that were omitted yesterday and traverse more or less to where we finished yesterday. Here there are lava tubes and arcing swathes of grey rock disappearing into the water. Tino is a little frustrated - he isn’t confident we have done a full circumnavigation and wants to drive even further east to complete the loop. Sully (to my relief) rules that we don’t have time.

Le Sud Sauvage

Along this piece of jagged coast there are rocky headlands to discover, the swell of frothy sea spray and azure water contrasting superbly with the dark basalt. There are some appropriate local place names. The region is  called Le Sud Sauvage and one of the headlands is known as the Cap Méchant (Naughty Cape), so presumably there have been a few wrecks here. There’s another picture postcard worthy waterfall at Grand Galet. I think it’s fair to say that Réunion’s attractions centre on the hinterland and volcanoes rather than the beaches. The seaside town of St Pierre is touted as an upmarket location, but the sands here aren’t enticing. They’re a little scruffy and the cluster of stalls serving Réunion delicacies, such as bouchons (similar to dim sum), is of greater interest. Well it is to me. Tino is protesting that he would prefer a McDonald’s.

Ermitage Beach

The best beach in Réunion is the Ermitage, south of St Gilles. This is golden sand fringed by casuarina trees, very south of France, with chi-chi beach bars. Clearly, everyone else thinks so too and it’s crowded. There’s some reasonable snorkelling in the lagoon, with stone, weaver and puffer fish and a few patches of live fern coral. There’s also a very strong current and it’s almost easier to observe on foot, especially as I’m on my own.

There are huge nets at the entrance to the lagoon. Sharks are a major problem in Réunion currently, (probably another good reason why it’s not a popular beach destination). I’m on my own in the struggle. Tino has eschewed the water, postponing his swim until tomorrow, he says. We’ve been assured it’s safe. Maybe he’s paying me back as I’ve refused his very vociferous demand that I stay the night on the west coast, where he has booked in. He’s going to give the helicopter another go. And he's going to add a microlight trip and some paragliding, not to mention some trekking and climbing. I’ve already paid for my hotel in St Denis and I fly out to Mayotte tomorrow afternoon. I think a little peaceful relaxation is in order.

Read more about Réunion here.

Where are the Faroe Islands and Who Do They Belong To?

  • The Faroe Islands is a self-governing archipelago, part of the Kingdom of Denmark.
  • It comprises 18 rocky, volcanic islands between Iceland and Norway in the North Atlantic Ocean
  • Irish hermit monks are now thought to be the earliest settlers of the Faroe Islands. They arrived in the sixth century, bringing with them sheep as well as early Irish language. The Vikings landed sometime before 900AD. Between 1035 and 1814, the Faroe Islands were part of the Kingdom of Norway, (in union with Denmark from 1450). In 1814, the Treaty of Kiel transferred Norway to the King of Sweden, on the winning side of the Napoleonic Wars. However, Denmark retained the Faroe Islands, along with Greenland and Iceland.

How Did the Faroe Islands Get Their Name?

The name Føroyar (Faroe Islands) is derived from old Norse and means Sheep Islands, a name given by the Viking Age settlers.

Facts and Factoids

  • The Faroe Islands, formed by volcanic activity 30 million years ago, are now a cultural melting pot, with 77 nationalities forming a population of only 48,000.
  • The climate is deemed to be subpolar oceanic - windy, wet, cloudy, and cool.
  • The northerly latitude location results in perpetual twilight during summer nights and very short winter days
  • The Faroese language, spoken by all Faroese people, is most similar to Icelandic and the now extinct Old Norse language. English is also widely spoken, especially among the younger people.
  • National Geographic recently voted the Faroe Islands the world's most appealing island community, out of 111 island destinations worldwide. The Faroese are, apparently, noted for their friendliness.

What to Do in the Faroe Islands?

  • The scenery is stunning and wild-life watching, walking and fishing are the main outdoor pursuits. Faroe Islands - For Off the Scale Scenery
  • It's easy to get around by car as all the islands are connected by road tunnels, ferries, causeways and bridges. The ferries are fun, but the unpredictable weather can occasionally play havoc with the timetables.
  • The drawbacks? Accessibility, from mainland Europe, ( I had to fly via Edinburgh) the weather - and the prices - it's very expensive, even for the mid range accommodation that is generally on offer.

The Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands are not that far from the southern end of the Arctic Circle, at 62 degrees north (that’s the name of my travel agent here). Average summer temperatures are 11C, so I’ve brought my woollies (and my Greenland boots too, just in case). My sources (other passengers on the plane) are excited to tell me that I’m going to have a very good week - the forecast is remarkably good - sun and cloud every day. Exposed to the Atlantic systems, it’s one of those places where they say, 'If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes'. Though, because it’s located slap bang in the midst of the Gulf Stream it never gets very cold either.

Two taxis, one train and two flights (via Edinburgh) in Scotland) later I’ve arrived in the Faroe Islands. (Who knew that the EasyJet bag drop at Gatwick is the largest automatic bag drop in the world?) Landing involves banking through brown peaks and a dramatic approach across an emerald spit, falling away to a boiling blue sea. I’m told I’m lucky, as its unusual to see anything – there’s usually cloud covering these little volcanic islands.

Faroe means sheep, so the Faroe islands are the Sheep Islands and there are plenty of the animals (though at 80,000 not as many per head of population as in New Zealand), complete with frisking lambs, grazing the fields. They are penned in by stone walls and often accompanied by geese, minding clutches of fluffy goslings. There are no foxes (or rabbits) so there’s no need for too much protection from predators, though the same can’t be said for humans. I’m looking out for the reflective straps I’ve read that some farmers have started putting on their sheep’s legs so they won't get run over in bad weather and poor visibility. There’s not a sign of a tree, except for small decorative specimens in people’s gardens. The sheep eat them before they have a chance to get established.

Streymoy Island

I’ve landed on the island of Vagar, but I’m staying in the tiny capital, Tórshavn (boasting it’s the smallest in the world), so my last taxi involves a journey east, through a tunnel to neighbouring Streymoy Island, navigating past towering flat top peaks still streaked with snow and a great deal more blue water. Nowhere here is further than three miles from the sea. The little houses dotting the hillsides are either modern and colourful, or more subdued creosote covered wood, with green turf roofs. The churches have quaint curved and carved spires. It’s all really delightful in the sunshine.

Tórshavn, the Capital of the Faroe Islands

Once in town, my driver tells me we are navigating two of the three sets of traffic lights in the country. The last set is also in Tórshavn. My hotel is on the edge of a small peninsula, the old town, Tinganes, crammed with wooden turf-roofed houses. Just over the road is picturesque Tórshavn Cathedral, surrounded by little arty boutiques. There’s a harbour basin each side of the peninsula, packed with small boats and lined with chic quayside restaurants – and an Irish Pub. There isn’t a McDonalds anywhere (though I spotted a Burger King on the way in). Nearly half the Faroese population of about 50,000 live in Tórshavn, which is named after the Norse God (so many Lutheran locals just call it Havn) and pronounced something like Tor-shan.

The Northern Faroe Islands - Bridges and Tunnels

A trip across the islands to the north.  Back up Streymoy to Eysturoy. Down Eysturoy to the southern tip (opposite Tórshavn), north again  and east to Bordoy and Vidoy with views across to Kirkja, Svinoy, Kalosy and Kunoy and home again. There are four tourists in a minivan (a Danish guy, his Thai partner, an Anglo Malaysian lady and me). Our guides are Samal and his grandson Marius, representing their family business. It’s a very small world. It turns out that I have worked in the school in Kingston where the Malaysian lady is on the admin staff and I have eaten in the Copenhagen restaurant that is one of several run by the two guys

Klaksvík

First major stop is Klaksvík, on Borðoy, It's the second largest town in the Faroe Islands. Mixing up historical eras just a little, the modernist1963 Christian’s Church has a nineteenth-century wooden boat hanging from the ceiling and a 4,000-year-old font. (Originally a pagan offering vessel). The church is mainly built of basalt, a nd the wooden pyramid shaped bello tower is separate from the rest of the church. There's also a tiny museum - Norðoya Fornminnasavn, partly housed in an old pharmacy.

Think Iron Islands

The scenery today is nothing short of breath-taking, with soaring mossy peaks, waterfalls, patches of huge yellow buttercups (the national flower) and wild cobalt sea shores. The Faroes are definitely worth a place on a bucket list. Think colourful Iron Islands. There are even a few Yara doppelgangers wandering around in wet look trousers and waistcoats. There’s an amazing network of tunnels (undersea and through mountain) and bridges linking the islands very efficiently, though they are still digging more tunnels to shorten the journeys. Streymin Bridge, connecting the island of Streymoy to Eysturoy is the only bridge in the world that actually crosses over the Atlantic Ocean.

So Long and Thanks for the Fish

Some of the smallest Faroe Islands are uninhabited and several are home to just one or two families who strive to eke out a living. Samal is incredibly knowledgeable and tells us about every building we pass on the winding roads, old peoples’ homes, kindergartens, shops and fish factories. These abound in the many little ports. Fishing is the islands' single most important industry, providing more than 97% of the total exports. There are also fish farms in most of the fjords. Samal says that both these and the dairy farms are highly automated. The giant salmon rings are connected by tubes to a computerized mother ship which delivers dried food daily. They send a message for a diver if there’s a problem. (The second largest industry, perhaps surprisingly, is tourism.)

Everywhere is pristine, clean and tidy, with touches of modern Scandinavian design in the newer buildings. The British provided the infrastructure when they occupied the islands during World War II. Most of the fish was exported to the UK at that time, for much needed food supplies. The Germans bombarded the fleets, so many fishermen died. When the war was over the British departed. Now I know where Douglas Adams’ ‘So long and thanks for all the fish’ came from. And the taxi driver was wrong about the traffic lights. There’s one more set in the most northerly islands, on a ‘busy’ junction, near a school.

Vagar Island and the Puffins

Back to Vagar, on another van trip with Samal. It’s really just an extension of the airport transfer, but absolutely worth the journey for the incredible views of the rock formations at the western tip of the island and the Mulafossur waterfall. The falls drop spectacularly into the sea next to two grottoes. You used only to be able to reach ithem via a long and arduous hike over the mountains, but the Danish queen visited a few years ago. So, they blasted a new tunnel through to Gasaldur, where it is located. Puffins zoom in and out of their holes in the cliffs behind Gasaldur. They’re definitely my favourite bird, but hard to photograph as they dart so fast, wings twitching. One takes pity and poses on the cliff top for us, until an unkind fulmar knocks him away.

Back in Tórshavn

Samal gives me an additional tour of Tórshavn. He’s a really good guide - he literally goes that extra mile. I know what every building is now and we’ve circled the football stadium with its modernist bendy floodlights, several times. The Faroes doesn’t have a strong national team, of course, but they almost beat Scotland in 2002. One headline read: 'Faroes 2 Fairies 2.’

Most of the hotels and restaurants in town are owned by the same company. My hotel is one of them and it’s very well located, but fairly mediocre; it was all I could find at short notice. It’s the beginning of high season and there’s a medical conference on in the Nordic Hall.

Most of the upmarket restaurants in the Faroe Islands are clustered together, at the land side end of Tinganes, a group of charmingly restored timber buildings in Tórshavn. I’ve had to lie to get my table, as they don’t accept bookings for one person. I’m permitted entry when I arrive, unaccompanied, and I am served langoustine bisque, rack of lamb (what else?) and rhubarb compote. It’s nice, but not remarkably flavoursome. Then, a reconnaissance mission round the rest of the peninsula to work off some of the calories. There are a huddle of red painted, turf roofed government buildings at the harbour end. I discover that it is impossible to circumnavigate the point entirely without risking life and limb. My close encounter with the water tells me that it is incredibly clear.

A friend has sent me an article that claims the Faeroese are desperate for more female islanders, as there aren’t enough wives to go round. I’ve been on the alert for possible suitors, but I haven’t seen any likely candidates, just a few grizzled old men with walking sticks.

So, back to my little room. It’s hard to know when it’s time for bed, the nights are so short at this time of year. I’m using an aeroplane sleep mask.

Vestmanna Bird Cliffs

The Norwegians first settled here, so the area to the north I’m visiting (with Samal’s van again) is called Vestmanna (West Men). There are some Viking settlement remains and some colossal cliffs to visit by boat. It’s another beautiful day and all the locals are ecstatic; they say the weather this week has been extraordinary. En route we drive up the old military road and halt for a mountain top view over more fjords and islands. We blithely traipse over trodden down barbed wire fencing for a better look. Only I trip over it on the way back. I’ve now got two bloody knees and one bloody elbow. It’s the same elbow I banged in Micronesia, but I think I managed to save the camera this time.

Out at sea, I still need my coat, hat and scarf and there’s a swell running. The captain shows off by bobbing his small craft through grottoes and around 100 metre stacks. Yet more wonderful scenery. Sheep graze in perilous positions on the cliff edges. Apparently, they are roped up, lifted hundreds of metres from boats and left for half the season before being rounded up and winched to the other side of the headlands for the second half. Slaughtering takes place in October. The sea birds shriek overhead. There aren’t huge numbers of them (the dramatic rock formations are the draw rather than the bird life). They dive with impunity, knowing they are well out of reach.

The Price of Happiness

The islands may be pretty but they’re certainly not cheap. Dinner tonight in a quayside grill. Two courses (langoustines and lemon meringue pie) and two cocktails – ninety pounds. Perhaps it's because it's called The Restaurant at the End of The Universe. Though there are no Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters in evidence, just pisco sours - at least I won't need my towel. The prices are the only reason I won't be be sad to go home.

Read more about the Faroe Islands here

Laguna de Bay

Up at 5 a.m. today to travel south with Elaine and Alexis. Alexis has organised a driver called Ephraim and a Kia Spacewagon (so we can do a lot of shopping). We go via the South Super Highway and a Starbucks, to the Laguna area.

Laguna de Bay is a very large lake, which stretches almost all the way across Luzon, south of Manila. It's bordered, for some way, by the city suburbs. It eventually merges into hot springs and resort areas, lined with hotels and fruit stalls.

Pagsanjan Falls

Our first stop is Pagsanjan where we board canoes, to travel up river, to the falls. The canoes are precarious, paddled by two men, a father and son. The water level is dangerously close to the top of the canoe – they are really only designed for two passengers. Elaine is quite sturdily built. Another canoe, with an inboard engine, tows us along for the first stages and we pass settlements, women washing, children splashing in the water, little hut houses and animals grazing and bathing too. There are plenty of long horned water buffalo. The banks are lined with green water lilies and purple hyacinths bob up and down in our wake. The ubiquitous palm trees line the banks.

The boatmen take up their paddles, as we approach the first rapids. For the next hour. they toil upriver alternately using the paddles and dragging us up ramps, laid between the rocks. It must be exhausting and they take several well-deserved breaks. Around us, the riverbanks deepen into tall mossy green canyons, bright blue kingfishers dart ahead to point the way and clouds of iridescent butterflies hover over the rocks.

Too Much Water

Shortly before we hear the thunder of the falls, the heavens open and we are soaked. We stop at a stall on the bank for the boatmen to have a drink and some barbecue chicken – their breakfast. The woman in charge sells us plastic poncho type raincoats.

Back at the boat, we put on our rain wear, only to discover that the ponchos are in fact, large plastic bags, cut down one side. The falls themselves are pretty enough and contain plenty of water. Elaine and I take a trip behind them, on a raft made of lashed together bamboo, like a giant panpipe. I am up to my waist in water just resting on the raft. Our passage through the fall must be very similar to being in a proper typhoon. The noise is deafening and we are buffeted and soaked. An unmissable experience.

Then back down the river shooting the rapids properly this time, although enough water comes into the boat, on each passage, to keep Alexis busy bailing at the front.

The journey back is accomplished in a third of the time. The father tells us he had been doing that trip once a day for thirty years. The son has been working for six months.

Paete

We disappear in to the local hotel, to get changed (my clothes are still wet two days later) and then on to Paete and the local craft shops. All kinds of Filipiniana here. Much wood work, especially religious carvings. Also, papier-mâché masks, boxes, ornaments. Many are being decorated for Christmas. Then, we find a factory that is mass-producing these items and watch the artisans painting baubles and Father Christmases on sleighs. They use a process called taka, which involves a wooden carved mould. It was invented here, and is now used worldwide.

We have lunch in The Exotic Restaurant - delightful flower gardens and a huge python called Samantha coiled in a tiny cage. Next, we drive back through Paete town, passing a large rickety building full of men shouting. It is called the Paete Coliseum and Ephraim says the event is cockfighting.

Villa Escudero - Or Not

The rest of the day is spent journeying to Villa Escudero, which Alexis has been told is an attractive and historic hotel at which to stay. It is on a coconut plantation in a hidden valley. The countryside is very interesting, full of densely covered green volcanoes and through a town called San Pablo City, which seems to have a great many steelworks. Roadside stalls are piled with all manner of kitchen utensils and there are jeepney factories, and the odd shop labelled ERAP (President Joseph Estrada’s nickname though I’m not sure why) - Easier Retail Access for the Poor. The journey is long. On finally reaching our destination, we are told that the resort is full.

We have a quick peek at the pink walled mansion and drive on. Dusk is falling and Ephraim’s driving becomes more exciting, as he skirts the inevitable traffic jams, by driving on the wrong side of the road, Like a Bat Out of Hell appropriately blaring out of the stereo system.

We compromise on a new hotel called Lima City and eat in the Japanese restaurant, before falling soundly asleep. Next morning, breakfast at the Malarayat Golf Club - very attractively set in the middle of flower gardens and more lush mountain peaks - before Tagaytay is finally accomplished.

Tagaytay

The scenery here is stunning. The city is perched precariously along Tagaytay Ridge, over 600 metres in height for the most part. It stretches 20 miles from Mount Batulao in the west, to Mount Sungay in the east. The ridge is actually the edge of the original Taal Volcano caldera, which contains Lake Taal. There's a small sub volcanic cone, forming an island in the centre. This Taal is billed as the smallest (and one of the most active) volcanoes in the world. At the top is a small crater lake bubbling away below the surface.

The whole makes for fantastic views, from the ridge, and the roads winding up there. These are lined with stalls full of fruit and vegetables, so perfect, they look like the little models I had bought on fridge magnets the day before. I stock up with bright red gerberas, rambutans and slices of the huge jackfruit.

Lunch the next day, at Sonia’s Garden. A summerhouse festooned with white netting, set in the middle of an English style garden, full of exotic plants and flowers floating in stone tubs and sinks.

We return to Manila and more traffic jams, via a side turning down, at Alexis’ s suggestion, a long bendy dirt road. More spectacular views and past two abandoned villas, built by the Marcos family, and used just one night, for a party.

Boat to Taal Volcano

Elaine and I return to Tagaytay to climb the Taal Volcano. Driver Noli steers us through the inevitable jams and then on to the town and lake. Fantastic views, again marred by clouds. When is the promised dry season going to arrive? We take a boat across to the island in the centre of the lake. I laugh when Noli says he doesn't want to come because he’d get wet, but we soon find out why. Spray flies around us, as we pass the mini crater like peaks and the rows of moored brightly painted bancas (local boats), with very steep pointed prows. “Rent a hat ma’am 20 pesos, water ma’am, 20 pesos, guide ma’am, 500 pesos (one track up as far as I can see). Horse, ma’am, 1,000 pesos.”

The Climb Up Taal Volcano

We eventually settle for two horses at 350 pesos each, which is still a rip off. I tell the boys that I can't ride and I want a quiet horse. They bring me a white creature, with pink eyes that roll at me. He nips and won’t even walk up to the bench, where I am supposed to clamber on. I get my foot in a stirrup and am proud to swing a leg over unaided. The horse immediately bucks. Elaine has hysterics. The journey is reasonably sedate after that and the scenery would be great ,if we could see it through the clatter of pushing horses, crowds of people and clouds of dust.

Taal is billed as the smallest (and one of the most active) volcanoes in the world. At the top is a small crater lake, bubbling away below the surface, surrounded by wisps of steam from countless calderoles. Japanese and Filipinos pester us to have our photos taken with them. I’m black with dust and my eyes are streaming. What on earth will the pictures look like when they are developed?

The Return From Taal Volcano

We decide to walk down, much to the consternation of the guides. ‘You pay us ma’am not him. He is not to be trusted”. They follow us with the horse, worried we will renege on the extortionate deal we have agreed. I scramble around, watching the fumaroles. “Careful ma’am it’s dangerous”. Elaine mutters that we are over 21. Five minute later my feet slide from under me and I land, with no dignity and much too quickly, on the ground. Elaine orders me to get up quickly and not to show I am hurt. But I am, my hands are bruised. To give them their due, they do not laugh, but they cannot understand why we still want to wander slowly and admire the views. Once down the bottom, payment is demanded. “No tip ma’am?”

Back to the beach. “Twenty pesos to use the bench, to climb on the boat ma’am”. As we arrive back, it starts to rain, hard. We twist up the mountain, to Tagaytay town and a late lunch in Josephine’s, with plate glass, promising good views. If ever the clouds lift.

We fight more traffic home to Manila, stopping off in Alabang at the Festival Mall. Here, there is a shop called Europa Delicatessen – Coleman’s Horseradish, Branston Pickle, Heinz Ketchup, Bounty Bars, jelly babies and best of all, Sharwood's Hot Mango Chutney. Now I’m a real ex pat shopper.

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