Where will you travel in 2017? Here are some of the places to consider.

2016 has been a tumultuous year and a great many destinations are becoming more difficult to travel to for a whole variety of reasons. But, never fear, there are still wonderful places to experience. Here is my list of just a few places to go in 2017 at a time of the year you might not have considered previously.

Sea Urchin, Caribbean Sea

Sea Urchin, Caribbean Sea

January
Enjoy sunny weather in the Caribbean when it is most grim back home  with the bonus of avoiding the stormy summer season.  Celebrity Cruise offers guests the opportunity to join chef, Antiguan Nicole Arthurton, in discovering how to make West Indian recipes step-by step. Nicole will use the bountiful garden harvest that is indicative of this island for her special recipes. Departing 7 January, 2017, the ‘At home with Chef Nicole’ experience in Antigua costs $235 (£178) per person; part of a seven-night cruise departing from San Juan, Puerto Rico. www.celebritycruises.co.uk

 

February
Get those ski books and poles packed as this is an ideal time of year for skiing (though do avoid half-term crush). Val d’esere in the French Alps is a spectacular choice for those looking for a bit of luxury when hitting the slopes. And we all know the French are famous for their après ski. Oh la la! www.crystalski.co.uk

 

This is a Holi shop in India

A Holi shop in India

March
Holi, the Festival of Colours in India, takes place the week after the full moon every March. Participants wear white clothing and colourful powders are thrown up in the air and onto everyone and everything. In 2017, Holi take’s place on March 13, with Holika Dahan (the bonfire night for scaring away evil spirits) on March 12. Hayes & Jarvis (www.hayesandjarvis.co.uk) is offering a nine-night private Golden Triangle with Rajasthan tour to India that departs      9 March, 2017.

 

Tulips in Amsterdam

Tulips in Amsterdam

April
Tulips are in bloom this month so take advantage of this spectacle by booking a river cruise along the ubiquitous canals and waterways of Amsterdam. I recently sailed on the elegant AmaCerto ship and can say this cruise line puts passengers requests and desires at the forefront of what they do. Seven-night Tulip Time itinerary travels through the Netherlands and Belgium. www.amawaterways.co.uk/europe-river-cruises-2017

 

Emery County Utah

Emery County, Utah, USA

May
Late Spring is a beautiful time of year to visit any of the National Parks in the U.S. but a trip to Utah can be beyond expectations. The Mighty Five (parks) boast insanely dramatic desert landscapes with rock formations formed over millions of years. Visitors can also escape to the mountains resorts of northern Utah for hiking and boating.  Delta.com has direct flights to Salt Lake City from London Heathrow from £685. www.visitutah.com/uk

June
The famous Wildebeest Migration of Tanzania and Kenya is well under way by June as great herds head north following the seasonal change and rain. When visiting this part of East Africa there is the option of combining it with a beach holiday. White sand beaches and warm water make places like Diani a tropical paradise. Intrepid Holidays feature an itinerary which has a game drive on the Serengeti and at the Nsorongoro Crater with a visit to Mto WaMbu, Managu and Irente-Lushoto as well. The ‘Road to Zanzibar’ group trip with Intrepid begins on 30th April and offers basic accommodation or camping. www.intrepidtravel.com

 

Norway in Summer

Norway in Summer

July
Experiencing the mid-night sun in the arctic is, without a doubt, one of the great joys of travel. Norway’s coastline is riven with deep, mystical fjords and, at the very top of the Arctic circle, Sami still herd reindeer as they have done for millennia. Go even further north to Svalbard and you are in the territory of polar bears. For those wanting to travel to Iceland, Greenland and other northernly populated areas; cruise-line, Hurtigruten, famous for delivering post to outlying seashore villages in Norway, would be an ideal choice. www.hurtigruten.co.uk

August
Costa Rica is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet and is perfect for nature lovers. It is also tipped as one of the bargains for 2017. Start at the beach and then ascend to the Monteverde Cloud Forest and pass through six different eco-zones on the way. For bird watchers, there isn’t a better destination. www.costaricaexperts.com

September
Late in September, if far enough north, the trees’ colours could already be starting to change. This startling phenomena is predominent where there are vast expanses of deciduous forests such as North America’s eastern seaboard. The islands and coastline of Canada is a truly inspiring place to be when the forest’s explode with colour. Not only is it a visual feast but visitors can also literally feast on tantalizing seafood such as in Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy and through out the region. www.keepexploring.ca

 

Kayaking near Key West

Kayaking near Key West

 

October
Though incredibly warm in the summer, the Florida Keys are just starting to cool off slightly in early autumn. For those who enjoy sports such as deep sea fishing, kayaking or diving, this is one of the best places in the world to come and experience these unique islets. Sunset is celebrated every evening of the year at the farthest southerly point in the U.S., Mallory Square, Key West www.fla-keys.com

November
Myanmar is in the middle of the dry season during November with warm temperatures and warm, welcoming people. Now that Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s democratic party is in power, this country has opened up to tourism in a big way. The valley of 10,000 temples, Bagan, is one place you won’t want to miss. The incredible golden stupa and complex, Schwedagon Paya, in Yangon is an important highlight as is Kandawgyi Park. Stay at Belmond’s Governor’s Residences for a taste of old colonial Britain. www.belmond.com/governorsresidence

 

Atlantic Ridge, Iceland

Atlantic Ridge, Iceland

 

December
Iceland has only just started promoting itself during the winter months and it is a magical time to see this ‘young’ island, geologically speaking. The scenery is beyond spectacular: the Atlantic Rift, the Geysers, waterfalls and the thermal pools are just a few of the spectacular sights. Get out of Rekyavik late at night to see the Northern Lights. Unforgettable. www.visiticeland.com

 

All photographs © Lynn Houghton – the roaming scribe

Off the beaten track Utah – Goblin Valley in Emery County

Spectacular Scenery in Emery County

San Rafael Swell in Emery County

The vastness and bleak beauty of Utah’s southern deserts cannot be understated.  Between Green River and Moab County (Arches and Canyonland National Park) and Wayne County (Capitol Reef) lies largely uninhabited land filled with amazing landscapes.  It is known as San Rafael Country.

Emery County aka San Rafael Country is possibly best known for Goblin Valley State Park.

Tina in the shade, Goblin Valley

Tina in the shade, Goblin Valley

 

Located  between Green River and Capitol Reef National Park is the turn off for Goblin Valley – Hwy 24.   This surreal landscape has been created mainly by water erosion and also weathering.  It is sandstone (softer parts of the rock eroded more quickly than harder layers) which create the bizarre shapes that dominate this valley.

Goblin Valley State Park

Goblin Valley State Park

 

The park was brought to the public’s attention when popular comedian Tim Allen starred in the film Galaxy Quest and the rock formations in the Valley became part of the story line.  Camping is allowed nearby and there are showers and bathrooms and also electricity in the yurts.

Snake Petroglyph on the way to Millsite Reservoir

Snake Petroglyph on the way to Millsite Reservoir

 

The amount of records carved into rock in this area by the ancient aboriginal peoples is mind boggling.  My favourites were the petroglyphs at Rochester Creek called the Rochester Rock Art Panel.  A short 1/2 mile hike from the roadside (Country Road 805) and you see how ancient peoples learned about family life. One image even depicts a mother giving birth!

Rochester Creek Petroglyphs

Rochester Creek Petroglyphs

 

Birthing depicted on petroglyphs

Birthing depicted on petroglyphs at Rochester Creek

 

If you are looking for a natural activity, how about scorpion hunting at night?  Using ultra-violet black-light torches to spot the creatures’ exoskeleton’s which glow in the dark, is something kids in particular find fun and frantic.  Perfect when camping.

Scorpions skeletons glow under black light torch

Scorpions skeletons glow under black light torch © gutsytraveler.com

 

Castle Valley Outdoors

Ever fancied going on an old fashioned shooting trip?  You and your party will be shooting in style at the expansive Castle Valley Outdoors property.   There are organised jaunts every autumn to shoot pheasant, chukar and quail.  You also can stay at the property’s lodge or one of its private cabins.

Shooting at Castle Valley Outdoors

Shooting at Castle Valley Outdoors

 

Antler chandelier at Castle Valley Outdoors.

Antler chandelier at Castle Valley Outdoors.

 

Fancy a spot of golf?  The views are magnificent from Millsite Reservoir Golf Course.  There is an enormous spillway/waterfall here and the owners provide golf buggies for everyone at only $36 for 18 holes.

Millsite Reservoir Golf Course

Millsite Reservoir Golf Course

Sandstone cliffs frame the Millsite Reservoir.

Sandstone cliffs frame the Millsite Reservoir Golf Course.

Getting off the beaten track can be a wonderful way to experience a new destination.  For a place as scenic as Utah, your efforts will not disappoint.

Images, unless stated, @roaming_scribe

Lynn stayed at the River Terrace Inn.  Visit: www.river-terrace.com/

For more information click Emery County.

 

Harmony of the Seas – Why you just might want to get on board

 

Harmony of the Seas in Southampton Dockyard

Harmony of the Seas in Southampton Dockyard readying for maiden voyage

 

If you live in the UK and have never had the chance to cruise on one of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Oasis Class ships, then perhaps this summer is the prime time to get on board?

Harmony of the Seas will have itineraries in the Mediterranean and cruise from home ports of Barcelona and Rome.

What can you expect on board the largest ship in the world?

Of course, it is enormous.  Measuring 227,700 gross registered tons it is 2,418 gross tonnes larger than Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, as well as 33 centimetres longer. It is 20 percent more fuel efficient than its sister ships due to a combination of new scrubber technologies, a redesigned hull and a new system that allows this ship to glide smoothly through the waves.

Looking down to Promenade Deck

Looking down to Promenade Deck from Deck 18

Harmony of the Seas holds 5,479 passengers but you will never notice crowds on this floating resort as they are spread over 18 decks.

The USP that is most remarkable is the ‘scooped out’ effect in the centre of the ship.  From Deck 18 down to Deck 6, the interior of Harmony of the Seas is quite literally scooped out and ‘inside’ cabins along here have a view of the outdoors.  It means there is light and air, live plants and open sky to be enjoyed from the middle of the ship.  Remarkable. Central Park is quite literally a park and is a sheltered, sunny place for al fresco dining.

 

Samurai Soldier at Izumi Sushi Bar

Samurai Soldier at Izumi Sushi Bar

Which leads on to the next attraction which is quite specific to Harmony of the Seas.  Dining.  It is incredibly varied – but do remember that there is an additional charge for these venues**.

In Central Park (Deck 8) you will find Jamie’s Italian serving sea food, meat dishes and pasta plus a quite decent house wine. Chops Grille as well as 150 Central Park and the Park Café are also in Central Park. Deck 6 features Johnny Rockets, Boardwalk Dog House and Sabor Taqueria and Tequila Bar for those who need a Mexican food fix.

On Deck 5 is Sorrentos’ Pizzeria, Promenade Café and Boot and Bonnet Pub as well as the quirky Bionic Bar.

Bionic Bar serving up cocktails

Bionic Bar serving up cocktails

 

Deck 4 offers Izumi – serving both Sushi and Hibachi – Jazz on 4 and also the Main Dining Venue.

Deck 12 has the futuristic Wonderland which I recommend everyone try once during the cruise.  Unusual but inspiring.

Windjammer Market Place, Solarium Bistro, Park Café, Vitality Café, Main Dining Room, Boardwalk Dog House and Sorrentos’ Pizzeria are included in the price of the cruise.  Coastal Kitchen on Deck 17 is for suite guests only.

 

The Ultimate Abyss Slide

The Ultimate Abyss Slide

And there is certainly loads to do for the kiddies and those that are young at heart.

GREASE is the Broadway musical that will be featured in the Royal Theatre.  It is the first time this musical will be on a cruise ship and advance pre-views say that it is amazing.

Up on Deck 16 is a fantastic fun-ride: The Ultimate Abyss Slide.  Young and old can participate as you sit on a mat with your feet and legs tucked into the large pocket in the front.  You then plummet ten stories down the 100ft. long tube to the Promenade Deck below.  Quite thrilling, indeed.

Stroking the snail on the mini-golf course on Deck 18

Me and snail communing on the mini-golf course on Deck 18

 

Also on Deck 16 is Flow-rider, plus a mini-golf course and the zip-line.

Perfect Storm Waterslides

Perfect Storm Waterslides

 

Deck 18 has the Perfect Storm Waterslides while the Promenade Deck has an old-fashioned Carousel, and also the quite thrilling Aqua Theatre.  Deck 7 has the ever popular climbing wall.

There is even a PADI Dive Centre on board for those interested in Scuba and in getting their certification.

There is even an entire neighbourhood dedicated to children. Kid’s Avenue (Deck 14) is a central boulevard connecting all the kid’s spaces. Areas include Royal Babies and Tots Nursery; a family crafts workshop; the arts studio Adventure Art; Adventure Science Lab; and Adventure Ocean Theatre where kids can learn about theatrical productions, take part in talent shows and sign up for hip hop dance classes.

If you have never sailed on a large ship, this might not be your cup of tea, but you will never know until you try it.

**************************************************************************

** Dining option prices

  • Johnny Rockets: $4.95 per person
  • Chops Grill: $30 per person
  • Vintages: as per menu
  • 150 Central Park: $40 per person
  • Izumi: Upfront charge of $3 for Lunch and $5 for Dinner plus prices as per menu
  • Wonderland: $45 per person
  • Jamie’s Italian: $15 Lunch / $25 Dinner

Food and Drink packages

  • The Unlimited beverage package: $56.35 per person per day and this covers anything to a value of $10
  • The Unlimited soda package: $5.18 per day
  • For unlimited sodas, mocktails, juices, shakes, floats and hot chocolate: $8.05 per day
  • Classic package (including beers, house wines, spirits and cocktails): $49 per day
  • Premium package (beers, house win, brand spirits and cocktails): $59 per day

For more information and to book: www.royalcaribbean.co.uk

Born to Fly! – Tandem paragliding in Tenerife

the Volcanic terrain of Tenerife

The stunning Volcanic terrain of Tenerife

“… you just run down the slope and jump off!” exclaims my pilot, Luis, with an endearing grin.  Standing stationery on a gritty bit of volcanic slope is one thing, but throwing myself off the edge is something else entirely.  We are at about 2,200 metres above sea level and waiting for the right wind direction to lift our chutes skyward and takes us flying over the valley far below.  Yes, I am tandem para-gliding for the first time in my life and wondering what on earth I have gotten myself into.

I am first to take off

I am first to take off – Wheeee!

I am not afraid of heights and seldom back down when it comes to adrenalin fuelled activities but, even for me, this is a nerve-wracking.

Lauren Jade Hill getting ready to fly

Lauren Jade Hill getting ready to fly

Six of us are para-gliding with an adventure company called Enminube (loosely translated ‘In my cloud’).  We depart from La Laguna on the north side of Tenerife and soon are travelling up to Teide National Park.  Ultimately, we will be‘flying’ over an area named Valle de La Orotava  and will land about a ½ hour later in Puerto de la Cruz.

IMG_8463

When you are perched in the stratosphere on Tenerife, the omnipresent Mount Teide appears to hover in the distance.  The views are breath-taking in their beauty with equal amounts of mountainous terrain, clear sky, forested valley floor and sea making the vista incomparable.

IMG_0043

As we assemble on the gravely incline, there is a bit of waiting before the wind – for that all important uplift – is just right.  The thermal drafts will get inside the parachute so that the pilots and passengers can float up and over the valley floor.

Hooked up to the harness, I can feel the weight of the pilot and the parachute behind me.  As I am the first one (?), I am quite terrified of running down the slope.  What if I slip and fall?  More than anything, I am afraid of doing it wrong and hurting us both.

Suddenly someone named Enrique is shrieking in my ear, “You were born to fly!”… it is time to take the plunge and I start to run.  Within three steps, I am airborne.  And it is utterly magnificent. I feel, quite literally, as if I am flying.  Soaring over the rugged peaks below is sheer joy.

Sunset from Mt. Tiede

Sunset from Mt. Tiede

Within about 5 minutes we are already beyond the rocky ridge and over the forest. The unique pine trees below me are completely fire resistance.  When Teide erupts, the flowing lava will burn and scar the trunk of these pines but they simply start sprouting green shoots a few months later.

I look behind and see my compatriots lined up and flying behind me.  I have to admit, it is exciting to take the lead.

Volcanic Tenerife and views from Mt. Tiede

Volcanic Tenerife and views from Mt. Tiede

Finally, below us is Puerto de la Cruz.  Luis points out the Hotel Botánico where I am staying and the Botanical Gardens nearby.  This is the lush, gorgeous part of Tenerife.

Lush gardens of Hotel Botanico

Lush gardens of Hotel Botanico

As we near the ocean, there is an enormous turquoise coloured swimming pool that comes into view. Not far from the pool is a parking lot where we will be landing.

An unforgettable experience.

Tenerife was host for the British Guild of Travel Writer’s annual general meeting and this was just one of the many sponsored activities organised by the Tenerife Tourist Board.

Images © roamingscribe unless noted.

Other participants were: Kiki Deere, Sue Watts, Petra Shepherd, Lauren Jade Hill and Lindsey Sutton.

 

2015 – An exceptional year in my travel world

 

Sunrise over the Mandina Bolong.

Sunrise over the Mandina Bolong.

2015 was a great year for a travel hack like me with visits to 20 destinations in 13 countries and the chance to write for four national publications for the first time.  Thanks, everyone for coming along for the ride!

Children with a prized donkey.

Children with a prized donkey.

Mostly I will remember 2015 as the year I visited West Africa during the height of the Ebola crisis but in the relatively safe country of the Gambia.  My favourite place was the Matasuku Forest where I stayed for two nights.

Coming in a close second was a week in lush, green Sri Lanka which was an eye opening experience.

Me and elephants at the Pinnawalla Orphanage, Sri Lanka.

Me and elephants at the Pinnawalla Orphanage, Sri Lanka.

 

Sigiriya is a rock fortress and soars 660ft into the sky

Sigiriya is a rock fortress and soars 660ft into the sky

It was also my first time to Japan and Korea.  This trip was far too short to get a handle on these fascinating cultures.

Tokyo on a rainy night

Tokyo on a rainy night

 

Young girl dress in Victoriana in Hiroshima

Young girl dresses in Victoriana in Hiroshima

 

I found out all about Charlotte, North Carolina but also visited Asheville and the Smoky Mountain National Park.  OK, I did try out a bit of moonshine as well!  Can you blame me?

Statue representing the Future at corner of Trade and Tyron Streets

Statue representing the Future at corner of Trade and Tyron Streets

 

Storyteller Tim at historic train depot, Bryson City, North Carolina

Storyteller Tim at historic train depot, Bryson City, North Carolina

 

Remarkably, this was the year that I visited Ireland (adored the place) and Sweden for the very first time.  But with two extraordinary cruise trips – one on the P&O Britannia …

Atrium on P&O Britannia

Atrium on P&O Britannia

which included a stop at gorgeous Santiago de Compostela in Spain and one on the American Queen steamboat – I also managed to slot in trips to seven states in the U.S.A.

The enigmatic Mississippi River

The enigmatic Mississippi River

 

The American Queen Steamboat

The American Queen Steamboat

One of these states was Illinois for the opening of Richard Branson’s Virgin Hotels, Chicago.  A whirlwind of a trip if ever there was one.

A ferris Bueller style parade at the opening of the Virgin Hotels, Chicago

A ferris Bueller style parade at the opening of the Virgin Hotels, Chicago

 

A week in Ontario, Canada meant a chance to spend time on breath-taking Manitoulin Island where I was able to get sleepy in a tepee – there were loads of great activities including zip-lining, canoeing and tree top walking.

Canoeing at sunset on Manitoulin Island

Canoeing at sunset on Manitoulin Island

A story for Easy Jet Traveller about Rimini and the wonderful food in Emiglia Romagna, Italy was definitely a highlight though it was my second trip to this country in two months.  The first was to Milano for the BGTW AGM which included a hop up to Lake Garda and Lake Iseo.

Finally, it was over to Los Angeles to visit family but also write a story about the crazy food trends there.

2016 – Bring it on!

Take to the Caribbean on Norwegian Escape

Norwegian Escape

Norwegian Escape

 

As if the destination wasn’t enough (who wouldn’t salivate over a holiday spent in the sun-drenched Caribbean), Norwegian cruise line has launched another ship to tempt you out to this engaging part of the world.

 

The coast of Grenada

The coast of Grenada. Image – Lynn Houghton/theroamingscribe

 

The itinerary will be The Bahamas; St Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands; Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands; St Maarten and Cozumel just off the coast of Mexico.  White sand and glistening green seas await!

4, Norwegian Escape

4248 passenger, Norwegian Escape

 

The new 4,248 passenger, 164,600 GT 15 deck Norwegian Escape will sail seven night itineraries from its home port of Miami.  The vibe of the Caribbean is not only on the ship , but even painted on the hull.  An enormous, captivating mural wraps around and displays a Marlin, dolphins, sea turtles and other creatures from the depths – all painted by Miami artist Guy Harvey.

Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville at Sea

Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville at Sea

 

On board, it is Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville at Sea up on Deck 17 that caught my eye.  I could just imagine sipping a frozen beverage after whipping and sliding through the twisty, turning, adrenaline fuelled Aqua Park up on Deck 18 and 19.   Keeping cool and wet while trying out the Aqua Racer in the hot Caribbean sun sounds like just my cup of tea.  And there are duelling water slides as well.  And in the evenings, Spice H2O is the outdoor dancing and bar venue that will keep on going into the wee hours.

678 Ocean Place

678 Ocean Place

 

On the other end of the relaxation spectrum, the snow room in the ship’s Mandara Spa keeps guests very cool.  Imagine coming out of the sauna and straight into the snow?  The thermal suite is an extra charge but certainly worth it before or after a spa treatment.  Cost is:
Day pass – $54 (port days only, limited supply)
7 night pass – $219 (limited supply)

 

Snow Room in the Mandara Spa

Snow Room in the Mandara Spa

 

 

Guests order from iPads in Food Republic

Guests order from iPads in Food Republic

 

678 Ocean Place is spread over three decks and has all the entertainment and dining you could ever want in one area.  There are 19 different dining options on Norwegian Escape and most of them are here.  Food Republic, the trendy Brew House as well as the Pincho Tapas Bar will certainly grab the attention of the younger guests. Teppanaki is where your food is created in front of you as you are seated at your table,  while Savor and Taste Restaurants are the mainstream options on board.

Teppanyaki Restaurant

Teppanyaki Restaurant

La Cucina

La Cucina

 

Le Bistro Restaurant serves delightful French cuisine and La Cucina is the Italian restaurant. Carney’s Steakhouse and Modern Churrascaria share the same space, aft of Deck 8, and both also offer outdoor dining on the Waterfront.  Yes, the Waterfront is the outdoor balcony seating for many of the restaurants.  Such a nice breezy option for guest’s dining experience when sailing in a hot climate.

 

Courtyard of the Haven

Courtyard of the Haven

 

The piece de resistance is, of course, The Haven.  This is a luxury ‘ship within a ship’ complex that has private key access and features a private pool and sun deck, private bar and restaurant as well as a private lounge.   All suite accommodation has exquisite bathrooms and stunning views.  The beds look incredibly comfortable and all the amenities absolutely shriek lavishness. There is even a 24 hour private butler and concierge for guests staying in the haven.

This is the second ship in the cruise line’s Norwegian Bliss class, the first being Norwegian Breakaway.

To book visit Norwegian Cruise Line or ring 0845 201 8900.

Clarksdale, Mississippi Sings The Blues

IMG_6560

Youths of Clarksdale

 

The Mississippi River

The Mississippi River

The psyche of the Deep South is influenced by the waters of the Mississippi River.  And everything is nurtured into life by this river and the incredibly hot, sticky weather that the summer brings. On a Mississippi River Steamboat voyage this last summer, I experienced first-hand how the river feeds the music.

Storm on the Mississippi River

Storm on the Mississippi River

 

The American Queen Steamboat

The American Queen Steamboat

Arriving into Helena, Arkansas, I am seduced by the lush countryside and the meandering of the Mississippi River as she flows lazily downstream towards the Gulf Coast. It is early morning, yet already warm as we disembark and climb up the riverbank. Several of my compatriots and I are embarking on a quest to hear some truly great music.

Mother and Two Daughters at the First Baptist Church, Helena

Mother and Two Daughters at the First Baptist Church, Helena, Arkansas

 

We are going to a good ol’ fashioned gospel service at the local Baptist church. Afterwards, we will tour Clarksdale where many blues musicians hail from and where this style of music flourished.
The choir members at the 19th Street Baptist Church have taken time off work to perform for us.

Singin' gospel music

Singin’ gospel music

A service sheet is distributed and the programme starts with a prayer and short message by the pastor. Then the choir kicks into gear. They bellow out songs with a passion and force that puts professionals to shame. Beautiful, stylish it may not be but it moves me to the core. I switched my recorder on as a mother and her two daughters’ belt out an a’cappella number that shakes the rafters. Soon everyone has their hands in the air and are dancing in the pews. The music and the rhythms are contagious.

The nice neighbourhood in Clarksdale

The nice neighbourhood in Clarksdale

 

Stevie Ray Vaughan

Stevie Ray Vaughan’s gear

After this uplifting experience I am soon travelling on to visit Clarksdale home of the delta blues. We cross back over the river and, low and behold, have left Arkansas and are now back in Mississippi! We head straight for the famous crossroads of US Hwy 61 and US Hwy 49; where Robert Johnson is reputed to have sold his soul to the devil so he could play the blues. There is a marker with a guitar to show the famous spot.

Clarksdale is also where Tennessee Williams, whose famous books and plays are legendary, spent a significant part of his childhood. Many of his characters, including those in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, are based on childhood acquaintances and people he knew from Clarksdale.

Lala sings honky tonk

Lala sings honky tonk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Intersection of Hwy 61 and Hwy 49

Intersection of Hwy 61 and Hwy 49

But the most fascinating place to visit is the Delta Blues Museum. Founded in 1979 and based near the old railroad tracks, there are dozens and dozens of displays dedicated to blues musicians from all over the U.S., with everything from posters, to records and guitars to clothing. A truly unique and comprehensive selection of artefacts.
It’s the exhibits celebrating the music of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Charles Musselwhite – all local musicians – that engage me. They have even erected the cabin Muddy Waters grew up in with his share cropper parents to give visitors an idea of the poverty many musicians grew up with.

Clarksdale - Birthplace of the Blues

Clarksdale – Birthplace of the Blues

Directly across the street is Ground Zero Blues Club, opened, and still run, by film actor Morgan Freeman. Serving up delta blues music and southern fried food, this is one hoppin’ joint I must say. I listened to a fantastic act; a singer, songwriter and blues piano player named Lala. She couldn’t hold a candle to Janis Joplin but she kept me entertained while I tucked into fried green tomatoes. Yum!

All images:  Lynn Houghton

Click for more information on Mississippi Blues Trail, the Delta Blues Museum and Clarksdale.

Click here for more information on the American Queen Steamboat.

Sigiriya – A Fortress in the Sky

Sigiriya is a rock fortress and soars 660ft into the sky

Sigiriya is a rock fortress and soars 660ft into the sky

 

22 km Northeast of Drambulla lies the 5th century UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Fortress in the Sky – Sigiriya.  The former palace lies atop a 660ft. rock and is considered the 8th wonder of the world.  On reaching the top of the fortress, there are mind numbing views for many miles of verdant landscape, punctuated by reservoirs and with misty mountains as a backdrop.

Frescoes, remarkably fresh for 1600 years old

Frescoes, remarkably fresh for 1600 years old

 

King Kashyapa
In the early 5th century A.D., Dhatusena, a young man of royal lineage, conducted a guerrilla campaign to oust foreigners. During this time, he had a son named Kashyapa of a woman of a lower caste. After the war was ended, he became King and married a woman of royal descent who became his Queen and had a son named Moggallana.  Moggallana was the heir to the throne because of his royal birth.  All lived together peacefully until Dhatusena killed the wife of his nephew, Migara.  Migara exploited Kashyapa’s feeling of insecurity about his position in the family and turned him against his father.  Kashyapa killed the King and Moggallana, his brother, fled to India in fear of retribution.  Kashyapa inherited the throne of the Anuradhapura Kingdom and built Sigiriya during his reign between the years of 477-495 A.D.

Cormorant in the outer moat of Sigiriya

Cormorant in the outer moat of Sigiriya

Sigiriya is now known as the Lion’s Rock because of the enormous lion constructed of brick at the entrance to the fortress.  All that remains of this magnificent beast are its enormous paws through which the last portion of staircase ascends to the very top of the rock.

The palace would have been nearly impenetrable to attack but there are also two moats surrounding Sigiriya to give extra protection.

 

One of the natural gates into Sigiriya

One of the natural gates into Sigiriya

 

Ancient Stairs
I begin the climb going up ancient stairs that have taken innumerable visitors to the palace at the very top.  The stairs are steep but in good repair.  The ascent begins by passing through a natural gateway.  If you can manage to walk up several stair cases for about 45 minutes, including a spiral one that ascends straight up for a few metres, you will be about ½ way up the sheer rock face and will be rewarded about by access to historic frescoes. The earliest work of Sinhala art is painted into the rock and shows vivid depictions of part of the King’s harem.  One woman is clothed but the rest of the harem are painted nude from the waist up and in great detail.

After viewing the frescoes and descending another spiral staircase, you come across a straight platform where the views to the south take in the moat below and many reservoirs in this vast landscape.  In the middle distance is an enormous white Buddha rearing up into the sky while hills, and ultimately mountains create the vast backdrop.

View from the Lion's Paw at Sigiriya

View from the Lion’s Paw at Sigiriya

An enormous, leafy park surrounds the rock fortress, large sections of which have had foundations re-constructed by archaeologists. Other sections have been left underground for future archaeologists for their digs.

Ready to climb to the top of Sigiriya

Ready to climb to the top of Sigiriya

The pleasure gardens constructed here were the first of their kind in Asia.  There are enormous pools, the outline of a meandering ‘lazy river’ waterway is still visible.  There is an outer moat which is filled with lilies.  Extensive foundations of administrative buildings have been uncovered.  Within these we know there were courtyards, fountains.

The audience room is hewn into an enormous granite boulder.  This is where the King could see subjects or guests that would not come to the palace at the top.

Ruins around the base of Sigiriya

Ruins around the base of Sigiriya

 

If travelling up from Dambulla on the Ambepussa – Kurunegala – Trincomalee Hwy/A6, turn right onto the B162. There will be a clearly marked turn off on the left for Sigiriya.

If coming from the North, take the A11 to Moragas Illukwewa Road (B294) and turn right.  There will be a junction with the B162 on the left and proceed to Sigiriya which is a right turn.

For more information about Sri Lanka visit: www.srilanks.travel/

For more information about Sigiriya click here.

Getting to Grips with The Gambia

Dawn on Mandina Bolong Tributary, Matasuku Forest

Dawn on Mandina Bolong Tributary, Matasuku Forest

I never expected the ‘up country’ or ‘up river’ part of The Gambia to be so completely different from the coast.  Roughing it does not begin to describe how differently people live in rural Gambia.

Aghi's Restaurant, Barra

Aghi’s Restaurant, Barra

I could title this particular blog ‘putting your money where your mouth is’.  I was the one who wanted to go ‘off piste’ in Africa.  No one twisted my arm to do it.  What took place was a bit disconcerting.

It started with the ferry ride from Banjul to Barra.  Normally that would not be an issue but,  as one of the ferries wasn’t working, it was a 2 ½ hour wait to board.  Another ½ hour later after crossing the river, our schedule for that day was thrown into disarray.  But, hey, this is Africa and sometimes infrastructure is not quite up to standards Brits are used to.  Get over it! (I said to myself).

Boarding the ferry in Banjul

Boarding the ferry in Banjul

Rather than motoring over to Georgetown after our tour of Niumi National Park and Jinack Island, we ended up staying in the area.  Unfortunately it was in a (not yet completed) lodge in Mayamba village near the ferry terminal.  It looked good from the outside but had no amenities. Though my room was clean, it had a useless mattress and cushions for pillows and a window that wouldn’t close. There was a family with domestic animals living in the back garden of the premises.  It didn’t particularly bother me but it meant that there were noisy goats eating grass outside my room at 4am  (at least, I think it was goats!)

Jinack Island Beach

Jinack Island Beach

It was a day later at Tendaba Lodge that everything unravelled.

Apparently, I was supposed to have a room with A/C.  When I was told that this message did not get through, I was philosophical and not too worried.  But I did make a fuss about having a proper mattress which, thankfully, was organised.

My room at Tendaba Lodge

My room at Tendaba Lodge

I was so pleased to have got a decent night’s sleep and was getting ready for breakfast when there was a knock on the door.  It was Ebrima, my personal tour guide. “Modou, the driver, is sick.  He has been vomiting since 4:00 this morning.  We must do the birding tour very quickly and then get him to the hospital.”  I was very concerned because Modou seemed like the sort that was indestructible.  But then I saw him lurching around and vomiting, I realised he was in a bad way.  It was either horrific food poisoning or something worse.

"What? Me, move? I am the King of the Road!"

“What? Me, move? I am the King of the Road!”

What Ebrima had failed to tell me was that he didn’t have a driving license. I was going to be the designated ambulance driver.  By now I was imagining that Modou had malaria or something equally horrendous so I took the keys and off we went.  And it would be 180kms to the hospital.  This was not a joy ride.

Village children in The Gambia

Village children in The Gambia

Within a few minutes of leaving the compound, we had to pull over to let our sick friend ‘use the toilet’.  Of course, there really weren’t any toilets in these rural villages (nor running water or electricity).

Villagers having lunch

Villagers having lunch

 

I somehow managed to navigate at top speed down the two lane highway avoiding: cows, goats, people, bikes…and dealing with police, immigration and military road blocks along the way.  At one military check point, the soldier became furious with me because I mis-understood his hand signal; I had moved forward when he wanted me to stop.  So, he then decided to search my luggage even though he could see there was a sick person with us.  Very, very frustrating.

But with steadfast determination – energised by the fear that someone could die on my watch – we managed to get Modou to the hospital before his symptoms became any worse.

What an experience for my first ever trip to The Gambia!  Next time, I might stay at the beach resorts.

Book a trip to The Gambia

All images The Roaming Scribe, Lynn Houghton

Bergamo – a city in the clouds

 

The Carabinieri of Bergamo

The Carabinieri of Bergamo

 

The ancient hill top town of Bergamo

The ancient hill top town of Bergamo

 

Many years ago I embarked on a journey to Italy with a group of opera buffs; one of my first ever forays abroad as a grown up. Being obsessed with singing at the time, part of the reason to visit Bergamo was to see a museum dedicated to Donizetti.

Through the archway of the Piazza Vecchia

Actually, it was a school that had a few exhibits dedicated to the great composer but it was still interesting.  I remember gazing into orderly shop windows and taking a ride on the funicular from the Cittá Bassa to the Cittá Alta.

But my most powerful memory was the pealing of church bells.

Now, on returning to Bergamo, I understand why I remembered the bells.  As our tour guide, Marco, regales us with stories of yesteryear, he tells us that the church bells were sounded every night one hundred times to announce the closing of the city gate.  This tradition began many hundreds of years ago and continues to this day.   No wonder I remember the incessant ringing.

Marco, our tour guide

Marco, our tour guide

And Marco told us a personal story about the alarm bells.  He had taken out a girl for the first time and he was nervous. They were sitting overlooking the valley when the sonorous and loud clamour of the bells began. The girl was startled and embraced him out of fear.  He was quite happy about that and it meant the date went very well from that point on.

The stunning hill top fortification, which had built up over millennia, was virtually abandoned once town folk decided it was safe to build homes on the valley floor below. Bergamo’s Cittá Alta, so the story goes, became a ghost town overnight. This came after the unification of Milan and Bergamo in the early 19th century under the rule of the Austrians; Bergamo was jointed together with much of the surrounding area including the alpine lakes.

Austrians had a strong influence on the Bergamese dialect which is full of distinctly Germanic umlauts.  An example is the word for a polenta dish: Chisöl.

WP_20150129_041

About a century ago, many Bergamese realised that they had a treasure on their hands and began to move back to the old city and to renovate it.  The popular and populated Cittá Alta is now one of the most expensive places to live in Italy, if not Europe.

Venetian fountain

Venetian fountain

As we drove through the city gate to began our tour, the first place mentioned was the famous gelateria and café “La Marianna” www.lamarianna.it.  La Marianna is famous for creating the chocolate ice cream flavour Stracciatella renowned the world over.

We walked through the Piazza Vecchia which was revealed to be built upon Roman ruins, something only recently discovered.  We were amazed at the beauty of the Cappella Colleoni (Colleoni chapel), which is annexed to the equally impressive Santa Maria Maggiore, a masterwork of Renaissance architecture and decorative art. It contains the tomb of the soldier Bartolomeo Colleoni.  On leaving the Santa Maria Maggiore, we noticed a strange coat of arms on the steel gate.  It was bronze and depicted three sets of male genetalia!!

A coat of arms with selection of male genitalia

A coat of arms with selection of male genitalia

 

We also popped into the stylish 5* Relais Lorenzo Hotel to see the ruins of the city wall which are nestled in the basement room of the hotel.  An extraordinary hotel in which to stay and spend a few days in this unique and ancient town.

Ruins of the city wall in the basement of the Relais Lorenzo

Ruins of the city wall in the basement of the Relais Lorenzo

On this occasion, another highlight was a wonderful lunch at DaMimmo Restaurant on Via B Colleoni.  Our meal featured local specialities including a Piccolo antipasta (made from polenta), a dish of traditional ravioli followed by a charred, roast lamb shank on a base of polenta.  The pièce de résistance was a simple dessert of cheese accompanied by miele del Parco dei Colli (local honey).  Bellisimo!

Traditional dessert

Traditional dessert

 

All images © Lynn Houghton

This trip was sponsored by www.wonderfulexpo2015.info and Turismo Bergamo and the Lombardy Region as part of the British Guild of Travel Writer’s Annual 2015 AGM.