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.

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** 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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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. 

My Top Ten Cruises and Ships for 2014

Quantum of the Seas with North Star arm protruding
Quantum of the Seas with North Star arm protruding

 

You may have read about my top destinations for 2014…now here are my top ten cruises and ships.  I find cruises are the ideal opportunity to visit several new places.  I can see many ports and facets of a country, or indeed countries, without ever having to pack and unpack except when embarking and disembarking, of course.  If you haven’t tried a cruise yet, now is the time to splash out and go to sea!  Here is my pick of the best:

 

Bionic Bar with Robot bartenders. Image provided by RCCL
Bionic Bar with Robot bartenders. Image provided by RCCL

 

1. Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Quantum of the Seas

The 4,180 passenger Quantum of the Seas ‘changes everything’ (according to Royal Caribbean Cruise Line) and this is certainly true, particularly as far as technology is concerned.  This SMART ship has a dedicated satellite zapping down fibre optic type broadband that will create incredible bandwidth. This means superfast downloads and unbelievable connectivity.  Shazam!  Some of the other amazing features on board are: North Star (a London Eye type pod that pivots right out over the sea at about 350ft high), Ripcord by iFly which offers simulated sky diving, the Bionic Bar with robot bartenders mixing drinks and dynamic dining that encompasses 19 dining venues. I tried both Jamie’s Italian and Chops Grille.  Yum!!  And there is also first class theatre entertainment with shows like Mamma Mia.  The Anthem of the Seas will be sailing from Southampton in 2015.  Can’t wait.

 

Brazilian BBQ on Norwegian Cruise Line's Getaway
Brazilian BBQ on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Getaway

 

Sponge Bob Square Pants on Norwegian Cruise Line's Getaway
Sponge Bob Square Pants on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Getaway

 

2. Norwegian Cruise Line’s Getaway

At the beginning of 2014, Norwegian Cruise Line’s new ship, Getaway, had a spectacular launch in Southampton.  I wrote more about this ship than I ever expected to and it was, indeed, a beautiful vessel. Its bright and brassy livery and interiors are all about and dedicated to Miami, Florida.  And to top it off, the godmothers of Getaway were the Miami Dolphins Football Team Cheerleaders. I very much enjoy the exceptional venues (dining and otherwise) that Norwegian Cruise Line offers.  You can’t beat the Ice Bar for a bit of frigid fun and the Modern Churrascaria Brazilian restaurant is an all-time favourite of mine.  On this occasion, several people ‘walked the plank’ as part of a top deck that has water park type attractions.  Several also whizzed down a water slide tube while shivering in the English winter cold. At least the sun was shining!

 

Queen Elizabeth / Cunard
Queen Elizabeth / Cunard

 

3. Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth

I am cheating a bit here because I sailed on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth at the very end of 2013 but I thought she deserves a mention and more.  I flew out to the port of Pireus in Athens and joined the cruise in progress. We sailed to several Greek ports of call enjoying the wonderful sunshine and history of these islands.  This Cunard ship is not as large as the Queen Mary, which is an all out ocean liner, but I love her traditional wood décor through-out and beautiful salons, theatres and dance venues.  To me it brings back the grand and glorious golden era of cruising that will hopefully live on forever!

 

Fountains in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul
Fountains in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

 

4. Eastern Mediterranean Cruise on Azamara Quest

My first visit to Istanbul was one of my top ten destinations for 2014 and the highlight on my Eastern Mediterranean Cruise with Azamara Club Cruises.  The Azamara Quest luxury ship is mid-sized with a capacity of 686 passengers but still manages to create an intimate ambience.  The pool deck is fabulous and swimming in the ship’s salt water pool is a real treat. Other ports of call on our trip were Chania, Crete and Santorini, Kusadasi, Turkey; Dikili, Turkey and Patmos, Greece. The AzAmazing Evening Concert in Turkey, in one of the amphitheatre in Ephesus was a stunning event and meticulously planned.

Azamara Quest in Santorini Harbour
Azamara Quest in Santorini Harbour

 

Sao Joao fireworks in Porto from the Do'uro River.
Sao Joao fireworks in Porto from the Do’uro River.

 

5. Do’uro River Cruise, CroisiEurope’s Infant d’Henrique

The Do’uro River in Portugal is known mainly for its UNESCO heritage terraced vineyards and for the making of exceptional fortified wines.  Our itinerary and trip began in Porto on board Infant d’Henrique and that day was, by coincidence, the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist.  Incredible fun.  All the residents had sardine dinners along the river and then there was a spectacular fireworks display near the Ponte D. Maria Pia.  Sailing up the river was beautiful. I recommend the excursion to Vila Real to visit the historic Mateus House and to also try out the delicious pastries created during medieval times.

Interior of Uniworld's SS Catherine
Interior of Uniworld’s SS Catherine

 

6. The Rhône River, Uniworld’s SS Catherine

Launching a vessel with someone as famous and well known as actress Catherine Deneuve is always going to be an exceptional experience.  But when it is a six star vessel like her namesake, the SS Catherine, that brings everything to another level.  The launch was elegant and the meal that followed, luxurious.  This event was then followed by a cruise down the Rhone with visits to exceptional vineyard towns: Tain-l’Hermitage and Tournon-sur-Rhône. There was a special induction ceremony into the Touron-sur-Rhone wine-makers guild. Viviers was another stop on our voyage with a lovely village and spectacular climb to a well-known statue of St. Mary that overlooks the Rhone and the valley.

Cabin on Emerald Waterways' Emerald Star
Cabin on Emerald Waterways’ Emerald Star

 

7. Emerald Waterways

Another launch with a super celebrity was the Emerald Star river cruise ship which I joined on the Rhein River.  Twiggy was the godmother on this occasion though we saw very little of her during the actual cruise.  The ship is very modern featuring natural décor, white, black and crème coloured interiors and scaled back minimalist cabins.  Sailing through the famous section of the Rhein River, which is dotted with medieval castles, is always a treat. It was a dazzling afternoon and the beauty of this setting cannot be overemphasised.  There was an excursion to a beautiful spot in the Black Forest where they have refurbished, medieval farmhouses. This is not only a new cruise vessel but a brand new cruise line so expect to hear more about Emerald Waterways in 2015.

 

View from Stalheim Hotel near Flam.
View from Stalheim Hotel near Flam.

 

Bergen's Old Town
Bergen’s Old Town

 

8. Forever Fjords with Fred. Olsen on Balmoral

I just cannot get enough of the Norwegian coastline and ports.  This is such a rugged and gorgeous part of the world that I will always grab the opportunity to take a cruise to this wonderful destination.  And I also enjoy sailing with Fred. Olsen and writing about this good value cruise line. On this fjord itinerary, I got to see the Pulpit Rock which is a short boat ride up the Lysefjord Fjord near the port of Stavanger.  There were even mountain goats playing around on the craggy cliffs. Bergen and its old harbour plus bustling fish market is always a favourite destination as is Flåm and the incredible Flåm railway that climbs an enormous mountain traversing rivers and waterfalls along the way.

 

Hapag Lloyd's Europa 2
Hapag Lloyd’s Europa 2

 

9. Hapag Lloyd’s Europa 2

Nothing is better than Europa 2 according to Douglas Ward and his Berlitz Guide to the Top Cruise Ships.  This sleek modern ship, with luxury cabins with butlers, bathtubs and enormous balconies has a price tag that is not too unreasonable for well-heeled Brits.  There are speciality restaurants with exceptional cuisine (the Italian was my favourite) an amazing spa and spectacular pool deck as well as gorgeous art work through-out.  Though it was only a taster cruise on Europa 2 for me, I am looking forward to having the full experience in 2015.

 

The new Regal Princess
The new Regal Princess

 

10. Regal Princess, Princess Cruises

There was a launch in Florida this autumn of another brand new vessel, Regal Princess.  This new addition to Princess Cruises’ fleet was welcomed by well wishers including the former cast of the hit series The Love Boat.  Such a shame that, up to now, there has been little opportunity for the British press to experience the new ship but  I am sure this will be amended.  The sister ship of Royal Princess, Regal Princess has many similar amenities including the exceptional Sanctuary Spa. Watch this space for a report in 2015.

My Top Ten Trips in 2014

Storm approaching Boston
Storm approaching Boston

 

Sunrise traveling from Reykjavik and crossing Atlantic Ridge
Sunrise in Iceland.  Traveling from Reykjavik and crossing the Atlantic Ridge

 

Every travel writer worth their salt will tantalise you with a round-up of their top trips for the past year. So here is my list. Experienced new parts of both the U.S. and Europe I had never travelled to before though, I must admit, I did not go much further afield than that. But here’s hoping you get to enjoy and experience travel that excites you in the year ahead. Bring on 2015!!

Geysir on the Golden Triangle Tour
Geysir on the Golden Triangle Tour

 

1) Iceland
Relatively new as a winter destination, I went on a long weekend trip with hubby to Reykjavik and had a taste of what Iceland has to offer. The day of our Golden Triangle tour dawned clear and cold, perfect weather for seeing the natural sights. I decided my favourite thing to do in Iceland is luxuriating in the wonderful thermal pools – many of which are far from the capital city. Also seeing the Northern Lights is a surreal and soul-searching experience. I am really looking forward to my next trip there.

 

Hubby and me out lobstering off the coast of Maine
Hubby and me out lobstering off the coast of Maine

 

2) Maine
You haven’t lived if you haven’t lobstered in Maine. This is the real deal where you get to go to sea, set traps, handle the lobster and generally get to grips with what it is like to be a real fisherman and seafood scavenger on this rugged coast. We sailed out on a glorious day from Portland’s harbour and had the time of our lives. Just before coming to Portland we visited and had a wine-tasting at the Cellar Doors Winery near picturesque Camden. Another wonderful experience.

Pearl River Swamp near New Orleans
Pearl River Swamp near New Orleans

 

Typical French restaurant in New Orleans
Typical French restaurant in New Orleans

 

3) New Orleans
This intriguing historic city on the banks of the Mississippi River is all about the French Quarter and Mardi Gras. New Orleans’ residents consider themselves to be more European/Caribbean than American with immigrants from many backgrounds including Sicilians, Creoles, Africans, Acadians, Spanish, German, Cubans and the list goes on and on. The obsession with food must go back to the early settlers who were of French extraction. The first setters, who got on well with the local Indians, were Acadians; French Canadians that were booted out of their northern home by the English. They are famous for Cajun cooking (which entails lots of highly seasoned game). And speaking of game, I took a trip out to the swamp and really enjoyed the natural surroundings and wildlife.
Turtle soup, oysters, oysters grilled and topped with cheese, shrimp gumbo, crawfish and crab were just a few of the dishes I tried and enjoyed. And a trip to R’evolution Restaurant in the French Quarter was a revelation.

 

Pelican's at Robbie's Marina, Islamorada, Florida Keys
Pelican’s at Robbie’s Marina, Islamorada, Florida Keys

 

4) Florida Keys
Rock n’ Roll and Wild, Wild West begin to describe Key West which is one of the funkiest and fun-nest places I have ever visited. Sunset at Mallory Square is frantic and yet relaxing, with most folks trying out conch critters and washing them down with Margaritas. A few were even smoking Cuban cigars. A back water kayaking tour was one of the best activities of my year.

 

Florida Manatees © emol.com
Florida Manatees © emol.com

 

5) RHONE VALLEY
Lyon in France is one of those overlooked destinations that everyone should make the effort to see and experience. I stayed overnight in the historic old town staying at the Phoenix Hotel. Such a lovely part of town to explore. I then joined the river cruise vessel SS Catherine for a magical short cruise down the Rhone.

Golden domed capital building on Beacon Hill, Boston
Golden domed capital building on Beacon Hill, Boston

 

6) Boston
It is hard for me to believe that I have never been to Boston before now. It was tremendous staying at the XV Beacon Hotel on top of Beacon Hill and right next door to the golden domed State Capital. We also were very close to the famous Faneuil Market and scores of other historic sights such the famous Boston common founded in the 1600s. The proximity to water and the Freedom Trail, plus the many other great places to visit, such as the museum of fine art, make Boston a unique destination.

 

Fountains in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul
Fountains in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

7) Istanbul
What can I say about the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul? It is probably the oldest establishment of its kind in the world and such a rich experience for the senses. The spice market, the glorious pashminas and the hustle, bustle and bartering make this a feast for the eyes, ears and nose. Seeing the Blue Mosque, the Golden Horn and the Hagia Sophia for the first time was nothing less than spectacular.  I can’t wait to visit again and explore further.

 

View from the Do'uro River
View from the Do’uro River
Ovos Moles, a dessert created and exclusively sold in Vila Real
Ovos Moles, a dessert created and exclusively sold in Vila Real

 

8) Porto and the Do’uro River
Don’t miss the opportunity to take a river cruise with CroisiEurope on the Do’uro River if you possibly can. Visiting ancient Porto and learning about the making of port wine is fascinating but it is seeing the terraced vineyards, now a UNESCO heritage site, that make this cruise something different. Don’t miss the excursion to Vila Real to see historic and fascinating Mateus House and, when in the town, try out the specialist pastry created in medieval times and still baked to this day.

 

Nantucket Lighthouse on the west of the island
Nantucket Lighthouse on the west of the island

 

9)  Nantucket
This mystical island off the coast of Massachusetts was renowned for being the world capital of whaling for several centuries.  It is now a tourist destination without peer and boasts white sand beaches, and an historic town centre with clapboard buildings plus lighthouses, windmills and other ancient landmarks. An incredible place to visit. I stayed at the authentic and evocative White Elephant Hotel.

 

Hogmeade Village, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios
Hogmeade Village, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios

 

10) Orlando, Florida
Speaking of magic, at the tail end of the year I visited Universal Studios, Orlando to explore the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Island of Adventure and Universal Studios theme parks. I would recommend it highly to families as it is such an interactive, fun experience. The new Hogmeade Train and Escape from Gringotts were my favourite attractions as was the evening performance of the Blue Man Group. My guest and I had an authentic Italian meal at Mama Della’s Ristorante at the Portofino Bay Hotel where I tried both the creamy risotto and also grilled sea bass. We were entertained by the restaurant’s strolling musicians while sipping wine. A relaxing way to top of our stay.

 

All photos @roaming_scribe / Lynn Houghton