Camp Cypress registration going on

Summer is almost here! Looking for some summer fun? Sign your kids up to have an exciting summer while meeting new friends at Camp Cypress. Cypress Recreation and Community Services has begun registration for Camp Cypress, a Summer Day Camp for children entering 1st-7th grade. Camp is held at the Cypress Community Center, 5700 Orange Avenue, from June 13 – Aug. 5. Camp fee includes arts and crafts, games, sports, spectacular special events, camp t-shirt, and much, much more! This summer we will be going to many exciting places such as Big Air USA, Discovery Science Center, Aquarium of the Pacific, and Camelot Golfland. Weekly excursions are an additional cost. Camp hours are 9 a.m.to 4 p.m. each day. Extended hours are also offered from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. The fee is $105.00 per week for five days a week and an additional $25 for extended care. Each camper must bring a sack lunch each day. Registration is already under way and camp enrollment fills up quickly, so come down to the Cypress Community Center, 5700 Orange Ave. between 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and sign your kids up for an exciting summer! For more information, please call 714-229-6780 or visit our website www.cypressrec.com.

Climbing Gunung Merapi, Southeast Asia’s most active volcano

Every now and then life pulls the rug from under your feet and leaves you lying on your back – this sibling-esque prank is often referred to as a ‘reality check’. Dangling off the side of Merapi with one hand on a fern root and the other on the arm of Khalid was my mine. I had taken too lightly to climbing the most active volcano in Southeast Asia, and when the path I was walking on suddenly gave way, it turned out to be a mentally draining, yet emotionally rewarding challenge.

Known to locals as Fire Mountain, Gunung Merapi sits on the border between Central Java and Yogyakarta in Indonesia. There have been regular eruptions since 1548, with the most recent in 2010 where 30 people died.

Our walk was to start at 4:30am, under night at Desa Deles, the ranger’s hut at 1,300 metres. By 10am that day I’d be up 2,930 metres high on the summit of Merapi.

By 10am that day I’d be up 2,930 metres high on the summit of Merapi (c) Oliver Jarvis

The smell of sulfur was in the air, and our torches pierced through a feint haze that slid up the cliffside, our visibility was low and we had to mind shrub, after fern when making our way up the gentle incline.

Our three Javanese guides were trekking without torchlight, one was even in sandals, they used the moon and the stars to guide them.


Read also: Trekking through Romania’s Retezat Mountains


When the sun rose the air felt cold and we had our first rest break. Looking back down our path we could see the vast settlement that bowed down by the foot of Merapi. It’s hard to believe that so many people still choose to live there, but locals have their reasons; ideal farming soil and religious beliefs. Many believe that the previous eruptions are a result of spirits being angered by not receiving gifts, which they offer them at the summit annually.

The sun rise rays was flowing through the trees and the hike was about to get harder, as the gentle slalom route suddenly inclined along the cliff face.

The sun rise rays was flowing through the trees (c) Oliver Jarvis

We had to wrestle with branches, and grab what we could to pull ourselves higher. We’d sometimes encounter clearings in the jungle where we could peer out, always seeing Merapi to our left.

The group of 15 people was now dwindling, as experienced hikers thought they had met their match. Even the hike leader, German Carl had suspiciously caught a chesty cough when the path started to get steeper around 2,000 metres up. In the end five of us remained, with the guide in sandals who had now fashioned a ragged towel into a head scarf that made him look like Little Bo Peep.

We found ourselves alone on the side of the mountain (c) Oliver Jarvis

Those that remained were determined to conquer Merapi whether our blisters bled, our water ran out or Bo Peep lost his sandals. The steep incline under thick forest meant that we would gain altitude at a faster pace, and gradually the hills, and rice paddys below shrunk and cold streams of air came and went as we entered different air pockets. We found ourselves alone on the side of the mountain, no sign of Indonesian settlements in the distance, or anybody on the mountain top.

The ash was becoming difficult to grip with my shoes, and I found myself bouldering, up vines and branches just to follow the path. It was then that I misplaced my foot and the side of the path that I was on collapsed. Dangling off a cliff face isn’t like they show it in the Mission Impossible films; I wasn’t coolly gripping the edge of the cliff with my fingers, nor was I suspended up in mid-air like a character from Looney Toons, instead I was holding onto a fern root for dear life as Khalid grabbed my arm and yanked me back up.

Shortly after our stop at around 2,500 metres (10:30 am), we reached the dusty, dead plain of Devil’s Bazaar. This is where the locals gather every year to place their offerings to calm the spirits of Merapi. The volcano has erupted every 5 – 10 years without fail, yet the locals still make the treacherous climb to hopefully bring peace between themselves and the mountain.

With every step a rock would tumble down and ash would be kicked up into our shoes and mouth. We passed weather stations that looked like they hadn’t been touched since the Seventies, and yellowing shrubs trying to survive as we continued our walk through what felt like the world’s most depressing desert getaway. We were now face-to-face with the clouds that wrapped around our ankles and passed along the cliff tops.

We were now face-to-face with the clouds (c) Oliver Jarvis

The head of Merapi stood above us and the surrounding wasteland with the white haze of sulfur circling it like a halo, we had reached the final stretch.

With smoke rising from the peak we began our ascent. The remaining point was like an old pub fireplace covered in ash and dust which covered our faces as we tried to scramble up the cliffside on all fours.

(c) Oliver Jarvis

It was slippery. Every step we took we fell two steps down. Even Bo Peep in sandals seemed to tire, as more dust kicked up into our faces and the wind blew the clouds and ash into our sides. But I had to see the top, and so I pushed up the cliff face, hopping from rock to rock.

Standing on the shoulder of a giant, when I broke through the clouds I was surrounded by a deep blue and the air felt clearer. Finally I had reached the summit. I clambered up to the peak, which was an uneven rock around the width of a boardwalk and surrounded by a 200 metre crater drop which was covered by eery sulfurous fumes that seemed to escape from every rock crack. I was an ant on a pen nib, anxiously looking around, watching my step. The others joined me, and we waited a while in silence as the clouds sifted through our hair, and the monster of Merapi quietly slept.

We had to get down before nightfall, and luckily our guide knew a few tricks to get us down safely and quickly, no helicopter or ski lift. With our feet we skied down the side of the mountain, kicking up dust and dislodging rocks.

It was a huge challenge, but the summit will reward you in its own special way.


Oliver climbed Gunung Merapi with Java Lava

5 winter sun destinations easy to get to from the UK

As the days are darkening earlier and the sun is shying away from our skies, we know this is the onset of freezing temperatures and dreary grey skies. So why wait for next summer? Grab your shades and start planning your warming rays way before then.

We suggest five easy-to-get-to-from-the-UK destinations where you could be relaxing in the sun by teatime.

1Lanzarote, The Canaries

(c) Lviatour

The island of Lanzarote is part of a clutch of islands called The Canaries – that make up the Spanish archipelago and is ideal for beach lovers. Peurto Del Carmen is notorious for its heady nightlife, and those that prefer a bit more quiet and elegance should head for the beautiful beaches at Famara and Papagayo.

Putting aside the beaches, the volcanic island of Lanzarote puts on quite a show away from the coastline too.

Read also: 5 Must See Attractions in Lanzarote

The stretches of black volcanic rock landscape is trimmed by a chain of multi-hued mountains only broken by the green of the odd cactus plant that has managed to flourish.

The dark shades of the landscape offer a sensational contrast with the low-rise white-washed towns that have sprouted up along the coastline. There is the odd dash of colour courtesy of painted window panes usually, green or brown but overall the island has been protected by the kind of tourism that demands high rise architecture.

This is thanks to the initiative taken by celebrated artist and designer Cesar Manrique who insisted on maintaining the island’s natural beauty. Often his architecture works with it and he created some amazing homes by integrating them into the rock face of a volcano. Famously, Hollywood actor Omar Sherif had one built for him in Nazaret which he lost to the developer during a game of bridge.

Prices correct as of 3 January 2017 – click here for most recent prices

2Tenerife, The Canaries

(c) susannemyrin

Tenerife, the largest of the seven Canary Islands, has a year-round spring-like climate and an impressive mountainous landscape that makes for an ideal getaway especially if you like to ramble. But the island has a surprising secret.

Best known for its debauched night life, it’s worth raising an eyebrow at what naturalist Alexander von Humboldt said when he climbed Mount Teide, the largest peak in Spain: “I have never beheld a prospect more varied, more attractive, more harmonious in the distribution of the masses of verdure and rocks, than the western coast of Tenerife.” Teide National Park has been named a Starlight Tourist Destination, which means low pollution and a pristine night-sky superb for star-gazing.

Prices correct as of 3 January 2017 – click here for most recent prices

3Paphos (Pafos), Cyprus

(c) Paphoshotelbeach

This ancient harbour is a town of two halves. Here’s why: its lower part, Kato Pafos, has neon lights, bars and heady clubs and its upper part Ktima, is calmer, where locals live and work.

Yet Pafos is where you will find the island’s most fascinating archaeological sites and is famed for being the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love at Petra tou Romiou. The town’s forest has probably the most spectacular scenery on the island and the Pafos Mosaics, a compelling meze of intricate and colourful mosaics, is a pleasure. It tells of all sorts of hedonistic stories including the famous tale of Narcissus.

The main attraction is the Tomb of the King’s, a Unesco World Heritage site around two kilometers from Kato Pafos. It’s a bit of a misnomer, as these tombs do not have a single royal resident but they do look grand therefore where dubbed so.

Read also: Top Cyprus towns: Ayia Napa, Limassol, Paphos, Nicosia

There are several museums in Pafos, but if you only have time for one then make it the Byzantine Museum in Ktima’s main square. The oldest icon on the island, the Agia Marina, is housed here and dates back to the ninth century.

And as for the sun, it may not be exactly T-shirt wearing weather but it is most certainly an agreeable 12°C in January.

Prices correct as of 3 January 2017 – click here for most recent prices

4Bodrum, Turkey

(c) Georges Jansoone

It may have long been held in the traveller’s mind as a sleepy fishing port, but behind the pretty white-washed facade of this natural harbour there’s lots to entice the style conscious holiday-maker. And it seems it has always attracted sophisticates. Way back in the the 1st century BC, star-crossed lovers Mark Antony and Cleopatra would enjoy time here on their way to Egypt.

Several cafes huddle along the front and the promenade where tea is served in curved glass tea cups and ornate rugs add a dash of authenticity. And there are plenty of bars and restaurants to entertain as the evening draws in.

It’s most popular tourist site is inside the 15th century castle. This is where you will find the Museum of Underwater Archaeology though the display of shipwrecks is interesting enough, from its heights you get to see peaceful views over the town and the Aegean Sea.

At the foot of the castle is a wonderfully colourful bazaar. There’s plenty of traditional gear to buy, but like Donna Karan and Mick Jagger, don’t leave without a pair of typical sandals.

This is a beach destination and some of its best stretches of sand and bays within this peninsula are accessed by boat—choose between chartering a dinghy or catch gulet (a typical Turkish wooden boat) from the harbour.

Prices correct as of 3 January 2017 – click here for most recent prices

5Antalya, Turkey

(c) Saffron Blaze, via www.mackenzie.co

Around 2,000 years ago King Attalos II of Pergamon came across a glorious ribbon of coast that trimmed the deep blue sea where the waters met with spectacular cliffs. The backdrop was the Taurus Mountains. This was the Turquoise coast and this is where ie founded Antalya, the largest Turkish city in the Western Mediterranean coast. He thought he had found “heaven on earth”.

The natural scenery hasn’t changed much and over the years Greek, Roman and Byzantine antiquities were left here and there to be stumbled upon by today’s holiday-maker.

It’s old centre, Kaleici, is where most people stay. It sits just above the marina on an the site of an old Roman port. Mainly car-free it has a swathe of old Ottoman houses and quaint souvenir shops within a maze of narrow cobbled streets and for some light-touch touring, there’s a pleasant tram ride that runs along the sea front to the beach at Konyalti.

Prices correct as of 3 January 2017 – click here for most recent prices

This article was sponsored by the UK travel agent loveholidays. They offer a bespoke way of searching for your next getaway, giving you the chance to personalise your holiday with the ultimate flexibility. Plus, book confidently knowing your holiday is ATOL protected.

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London to Venice on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Over 20 years ago, when Britain became linked to the rest of the European rail network, the prospect of London to Venice on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express became a reality with a through rail journey. This is a step back into the nostalgic past of the 1930’s experiencing the opulence of Rene Lalique glass carvings, marquetry wood engravings and sumptuous seating and to-die-for silver service meals.

So I booked on the first departure of the season’s 2016 Venice Simplon-Orient-Express from London’s Victoria station bound for Venice. I knew the UK stage of the journey would be on board a former Pullman (similar to the Golden Arrow) with the second stage through France, Germany, and through the Alps to Switzerland and then into Italy.

The Venice Simplon Orient Express passing through the Brenner Pass, Austria (c) VSO

Imagine my surprise, horror and disappointment big time when having arrived at Folkestone on board the Belmond British Pullman, it was “everyone off”, then onto a bus for a drive to the Channel Tunnel terminal, off the bus, a walk through Passport Control, back onto the bus via a car park and then the bus drove into a shuttle train and onwards through the Tunnel. Inside the bus and once at Calais, it was stay on the bus for 25 minutes and a drive through the back streets of Calais to a railway siding where the real Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train sat waiting to “greet UK travellers!”

And when I asked “why the bus ride through the Channel Tunnel and not stay on board the train”, a spokesperson for the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express management said: “Our train is not licensed to travel through the Channel Tunnel”. Now that is what I call progress!

Once the real Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train set off from Calais everything was perfect. Staff were dressed in regal 1930’s uniforms; compartments were of the highest standard; food was outstanding although be warned, drinks ranging from a simple G&T to a bottle of wine were expensive. A Sainsbury red of about £9 costs about £80 on the train – but it was nicely served!

Staff dressed in regal 1930’s uniforms greeting passengers (c) Paul Youden

It was James Sherwood, owner of Sea Containers, who struck on the idea of resurrecting the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in the 1970’s and he purchased two of the original carriages at a sale at Monte Carlo in 1977.

One of the carriages was “Audrey” which had been located in the back garden of a lady’s house. As part of the “sale” the lady makes an annual pilgrimage to Venice in the carriage which was once her garden shed!

I was one of the fortunate ones to travel to Venice in carriage “Audrey” which is unique with the opulent wood panelling and fittings. One of the other dining cars displays the famous and glorious Rene Lalique glass carvings.

Inside a cabin (c) VSO

There is little doubt the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is an experience worth the expense – and worth paying for.

Even the Belmond British Pullman provides luxury of a bygone era starting with Brunch of smoked salmon and scrambled egg, Champagne and a variety of nibbles to enjoy as the Pullman train slowly makes its way through the Kent countryside to Folkestone. At Calais Ville station you are greeted with the full regalia of 1930’s era uniforms, your own carriage attendant, drinks in your compartment and no luggage to worry about at all as your main suitcase is taken care of until you reach your Venice hotel and your “flight bag” is already loaded and waiting in your compartment once you board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train at Calais.

On the first evening you are “encouraged” to dress for dinner. Men in black tie; ladies in an evening attire of their own choice such as a cocktail dress. It is Champagne in the Lounge Bar dining carriage before being called for either the 19.00hrs or 21.30 hours dinner.  The menu is a mouth-watering choice of fish and steak of cheese and dessert. The wine list is extensive and wines are of the highest quality but be prepared to “gulp” at the prices. But then I suppose you would not be making such a journey without taking “add-on costs” into account first!

Champagne in the Lounge Bar (c) VSO

There is a first class pianist; a Chef du Tran; a Head Waiter who ensures everything is “tip top”; and silver table service leaves you in no doubt people in the 1930’s really knew how to live and enjoy life.

The compartment is compact and you have only a wash basin. The toilet (one per carriage) is at the end of the corridor but the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express do provide passengers with a very nice (for keeps) dressing gown and slippers to make that middle-of-the-night corridor visit that much more comfortable!

After a night’s sleep of sorts and waking up to the snow-covered Alps and the start of the journey into Italy, breakfast is served in your compartment. There is an alternative of a Champagne and lobster breakfast for the romantic at heart in the dining carriage at around £150. Very romantic.

Breakfast (c) VSO

After breakfast you take in the fantastic scenery of the Southern Alps and northern part of Italy. Down the sides of Italian lakes before heading into Milan for the fourth and final locomotive change. At each frontier you have a new locomotive and driver from that country you are about to travel through.

Lunch on the second day comprises: Pan-friend scallops on the bed of pureed peas in mussel emulsion and red beetroot; this is followed by Duck breast roasted with redcurrants and accompanied by green beans. Then there is Zucchini flower stuffed with lemon grass-scented black and white quinoa. Finally, orange cheesecake with lime zest. And – oh yes – do not forget the wine and a generous opened-ended credit card to pay for a bottle of appropriate wine – or you will look the odd-one-out!

Exquisite cuisine (c) VSO

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express approaches the coast and soon Venice comes into view. It was Mussolini who dreamt on the idea of linking the main island with a rail connection across the Lagoon. These days a road runs alongside the railway with a huge parking house as cars have nowhere to go – nor are they allowed to go anywhere – on any of the islands. The train station is large, reasonably modern and hectic but once again Venice Simplon-Orient-Express staff are waiting on the platform for travellers. You are escorted – by water taxi – to one of the numerous hotels. The main hotel used by the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is the Belmond Cipriani Hotel (read our review) but I selected the Londra Palace Hotel on island where St. Mark’s Square was just a 10 minute walk away. This proved an excellent choice as not only was my hotel first class with excellent service but I avoided water taxis as I could walk to the Basilica, museums and explore the many narrow canals and bridges between this and the Grand Canal. I had an excellent choice of small cafes and restaurants for meals during my four days in Venice although nothing was “cheap” with the exception of a slice of pizza (3 euros) or “just one cornetto” (2 euros)!

A simple evening meal was about £20 and a good bottle of wine £15-£20.

If you hire a private water taxi – hotel back to the railway station – the cost was 70 euros for a 15 minute journey.

I took a 45-minute gondola ride through the narrow canals with an excellent Gondolier named Marco (everyone knew Marco). Coming from a family of many centuries existence in Venice his knowledge of buildings, construction and prediction that not only is Venice sinking and the water level rising but in 100 years’ time Venice will “be no more!”

Champagne service (c) VSO

Costs: Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, hotel and flight return. Approximately £2,250

Costs: Extra hotel days in Venice. At least £150 a day – without meals

Meals: Allow up to £200 per day for lunch and dinner with some wine

Hotel Londra Palace: Book On-Line for “deals” or use your local travel agent to plan and book your entire trip. I used: Howard Travel of Trowbridge, Wiltshire, and was expertly guided through each stage by their representative “Wayne”.

Koh Chang: The Alternative Thai Island

Koh Chang (c) Natalia Sidorova

Thailand was once the go-to place for hedonistic backpackers and budget travellers but recently the country has seen a meteoric rise appealing to all kinds of travellers especially those keen to explore the the southern Thai islands.

Phuket; much loved by expats, is a place for family holidays and weddings. Koh Phi-Phi island first came to the world’s notice back in 2000, with the movie starring Leonardo Di Caprio in “The Beach”. Koh Phangan is notorious for The Full Moon Party, and Koh Tao is a small island that is overflowing with scuba diving first timers, shops and enthusiasts.

Lesser known Koh Chang island has a certain innocence about the place with 70 per cent of the island covered in untouched jungle. Add in beaches and mountains too, and Koh Chang has bragging rights as one of the most naturally eco-friendly islands in Thailand.

Despite this, Koh Chang isn’t as offbeat as it might sound and there is something for every type of traveller. Here is a guide:

Holiday Koh Chang

White Sand Beach is the most developed beach and area of Koh Chang, and the first stop you’ll come to if arriving in a shared taxi (locally called songthaews).  Expect a holiday vibe here, with many families, couples and some backpackers. You can choose from many hostels and resorts on the beachfront and along the main road, you’ll find banks, supermarkets, and restaurants. The beach is split up into a north and south section with plenty of room for sun loungers, umbrellas and deckchairs.

Party Koh Chang

Lonely Beach is the place for solo travellers or partygoers in Koh Chang on a budget. The area has been likened to Khao San Road in Bangkok, although a lot less crowded and commercial. You’ll find lots of food vendors, tattoo studios, clothes shops, restaurants, bars and a couple of nightclubs here.

The beach itself is actually located prior to the lively area of Lonely Beach around only 15 minutes walk (or two minutes on a scooter) away. Even though you might think the island has as many people as any other Thai island, it doesn’t. The parties in comparison are small, and many people end up hanging around the area that precedes Himmel Bar.

Authentic Koh Chang

Bang Bao Pier (c) Laborant

Bang Bao was once a quiet small fishing village, although now popular with travellers, it still keeps its authentic set up and appearance. The fishing village is built in traditional fashion along with its interconnected piers, almost like a mini lost pirate colony. Worming your way around Bang Bao’s wooden networks you’ll come across guesthouses, markets, bars and restaurants. There are many restaurants but we recommending checking out Barracuda Restaurant for a real quirky and cosy dining experience.

Personal Koh Chang

Klong Kloi beach feels a little away from the rest of the island and that’s how we like it. Just to make sure, we recommend a budget stay looking over the jungle-clad river at Tree House Cottages. Klong Kloi is evidently still a little raw, with a small beach with sandy paths everywhere. Here you can relax by the beach, sit in a hammock and read and really take a step back from reality. As you arrive here via windy road, you’ll probably pass wild monkey families that may or may not be interested in you. Although keep your belongings safe, it does represent the casual approach this part of the island takes.

Couple Koh Chang

Kai Bae is ideal for couples that want a bit of variety. Although it isn’t as lively as Lonely Beach, it is no means dull either. There are small lively bars that appeal to most, and the selection of cuisine is generous with Asian and European options.

Kai Bae beachfront has a 1km long narrow but friendly stretch that attracts the book readers and sunbathers. Staying on Kai Bae main road strip, you can take a 30-minute walk through the jungle to the Kae Bae Waterfall past the elephant camps for a little added excursion.

Alternative Islands

Koh Mak (c) Phraisohn Siripool

Koh Mak is popular for couples and families and the island is only 30km away from Koh Chang. It takes 3 hours via wooden boat or 1 hour via speedboat. The island is fairly flat, so it’s ideal to roam around via scooter. Many people come here to relax, eat and the odd explore. You can visit Buddhist shrines, viewpoints and hidden beaches. Koh Mak is a quiet island with some restaurant filled lit up areas, but don’t expect big parties here.

Koh Kood has the lowest population in the whole of Thailand that gives you an insight to how things work here. There is no nightlife, but plenty of places to stay, and despite its little local population, there are more facilities than probably needed. Still, Koh Kood is a gem of a place that offers breathtaking beaches, fun scuba diving and hidden waterfalls. Only a short distance from Koh Chang, like Koh Mak here you’ll find it more ideal if you’re travelling in a couple or with family.

Where to Stay



Booking.com

Getting There

By road: Catch a coach from Khao San Road in Bangkok. The journey begins at 8am and arrives around 15:30, so will take around 7 hours in total reach Koh Chang Island. Cost: 450 baht including the ferry ticket. Once you’ve arrived on the island, it’s 150-200 baht per person in a shared taxi to your desired destination on Koh Chang.

If you’re taking a shared mini bus from your hotel, it costs a little more, around 950 baht including a ferry ticket. Times normally vary from 8:00am to 10:30am departure. Mini bus travel is normally a little quicker taking around 5-6 hours door to door.

Fly to Bangkok: Direct flights into Bangkok are operated by Thai Airways. Other airlines fly but normally involve a stop off in between.

Once in Bangkok you can fly to Trat from BKK airport which takes 1 hour exactly. These are operated by Bangkok Airways, 3 times per day; twice in the morning and one in evening. Please see the below for the times: AM: 8:20 + 11:20 | PM: 17:00

Flights one way normally cost around the 2,000-4,000baht which equates to roughly £45-90 GBP.

Once Landed: To get to Koh Chang from Trat Airport, you’ll need to arrange a mini bus or private transfer. Included in this journey you will need to take a ferry. The trip to the pier is around 30 minutes, and the ferry ride is about 45 minutes.

Shared mini buses are the cheapest, although slightly expensive still for Thai prices, costing around 500 baht (£12).

Private transfers can cost around the 2,000 baht mark, similar to the cost of the flight itself.

Hotel Review: The Athenaeum, London, UK

The Athenaeum main entrance

The five-star family-owned hotel situated in the heart of Mayfair is housed in an art-déco building opposite Green Park. Steeped in history, the hotel has hosted many high-profile guests over the years including Warren Beatty, Michelle Pfeiffer and other celebrities who are drawn to the hotel’s charm and glamour.

The décor is glitzy and glamorous in gold and pink in the foyer with striking bedrooms whose lush light fittings, funky art and sumptuous velvet couches feel luxurious.

bedroom with floor to ceiling windows

There are 134 bedrooms at the hotel, many of which have floor to ceiling windows with exquisite views across London. For families or large parties of guests, the hotel’s apartments offer everything you could want for a luxury hotel stay.

Who For

Perfect for tourists, newly-wed couples and families.

Food

The Athenaeum’s restaurant has been awarded a second rosette for its exceptional food and outstanding service. There is an all-day dining menu as well as a kids one and as to be expected in such a glamorous hotel – if you don’t like what’s on the menu, the chef will happily make you something to satisfy your needs.

Offering over 300 varieties of different blends, the hotel’s whiskey bar is reputed to be one of the best in any hotel in London.

Step inside the hotel’s Garden Room and you can enjoy afternoon tea against a backdrop of the hotel’s garden walls.

Accommodation

The standard rooms have all the luxuries you would expect from a five-star hotel. My apartment had a separate entrance.

large living room housing a dining table

The large living room housed a dining table and slick kitchen complete with a mini bar stacked with goodies-complimentary crisps, soft drinks, alcohol and Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream were additional comforts. Visiting with two of my three kids meant they were able to sleep comfortably in the pull down bunk beds as we slumped leisurely in our own bedroom.

Facilities

The hotel has a small gym and a steam/sauna room and a spa.

For the kids, there is children’s concierge on hand to keep them entertained. Board games, in-room entertainment including a PlayStation and DVD hire was included in our room. The hotel offers complimentary kids bikes, scooters and kites that you can take to explore the local parks.

Wi Fi Available?

Yes, it’s free

What’s nearby

Green Park station is opposite and an eight-minute walk takes you to St James’s park where you can feed the ducks (after getting free bird food from the hotel reception) passing Buckingham palace on the way.

Behind the hotel is Shepherd Market – a charming, village-like area full of small shops, Victorian pubs and restaurants.

A two-minute walk from the hotel is the Royal Academy and with Regent Street and Oxford Street close by, you can take the kids to Hamleys if you are staying as a family.

Value for money

Prices are expensive but in terms of location, you can’t be in a better spot!
Rooms at the Athenaeum start at £260.



Booking.com

6 exotic winter sun breaks from the UK

1South Africa: Johannesburg and Cape Town

Stellenbosch Vineyard, near Cape Town (c) wikimedia/Dfmalan

The passing of the late Nelson Mandela has put the world’s focus on one of South Africa’s major cities – Johannesburg. Also known as Jo’burg or Jozi, the big city vibe is discernible. Life is fast-paced and buzzes with cafes, theatres and a burgeoning art scene especially in the cultural districts of Newtown and Braamfontein. Indeed what was once a no-go zone is now a sought destination by tourists who enjoy its a stunning skyscape.

Since South Africa has hosted the world cup in 2010 the city and the nearby township of Soweto, Mandela’s birthplace have been regenerated. This is where the Apartheid Museum and the Old Fort Prison complex that held Mahatma Gandhi and Mandela captive can be seen.

Read also: Two faces of South Africa: Johannesburg and game reserves

From here, it’s just a short domestic flight to South Africa’s mother city, Cape Town – possibly the most beautiful in the land. To see it all take a trip to the top of Table Mountain – named so because a flat layer of cloud unfurls over its top) and from their choose your favourite beach. An hour’s drive away is the winelands grown out of fertile valleys and producing the famous wines of Stellenbosch.

2Dubai

Dubai Burj Al Arab (c) pixabay/PublicDomainPictures

It was once a fishing village, but today Dubai artfully crafts its world-wide reputation as playground in the sun. With so many shopping centres and high rise hotels it may be easy to forget that this is the Middle East.

This means you won’t see any debouched night clubs, Las Vegas style shows or casinos (gambling is illegal even though Dubai famously hosts the world’s must lucrative race horse). But you will see sensational architecture. One example is the seven-star hotel, Burj El Arab that overlooks reclaimed land that has been fashioned into sensational palm tree shapes. The Beckhams reportedly have a home here.

Read also: Top 10 things to see and do in Dubai

In August 2016 the city became home to the largest theme park in the world. They are expecting over four million visitors over the year. Every day it can host up to 30,000 adventures and offer several zones over 1.5 million square feet: Lost Valley – Dinosaur Adventure, Cartoon Network, Marvel, and IMG Boulevard. Incidentally, the haunted house is said to be so frightening that children under 15 years old are not alllowed in.

The brilliant skylines shows off modern and Moorish architecture, modern shopping malls galore – one with its own ski resort – and away from all this there is still the souq where you can haggle for something oriental. Weather here is extremely hot and the best time to visit is from November to March.

3Delhi

Red Fort, Delhi (c) wikimeida/A.Savin

India, a country of a billion people, is not for the faint-hearted but Delhi, home to 25 million, is a good place to ease you into what is a uniquely shocking culture, of in-your-face friendliness and tenacious touting.

Read also: India’s Golden Triangle: Delhi, Jaipur and Agra

In the centre, in New Delhi, there are monuments that speak of the Day of the Raj such as The Parliament house a circular colonnaded building that houses ministerial offices and India Gate an Arc-de-Triomphe look-alike memorial to British soldiers designed by Edwin Lytyens. Elsewhere, in Old Delhi are narrow lanes and sensational mosques that reflect Islamic India.

Some shoppers may find the noisy, chaotic bazaars exciting places to shop and haggle yet elsewhere there are mega malls. It is impossible to ignore the Red Fort, a sandstone fortress surrounded by an 18ft wall which founded Shah Jahan in 1648.

From here it’s just a train journey to Agra to see the great Taj Mahal.

4Sydney

Sydney harbour (c) wikimedia/Jacques Grießmayer

It’s about fun in the sun right now down under and affluent Sydney as a good place as any to be. It is on Australia’s south-east coast on the Tasman sea with a well-recognised shimmering harbour and an iconic opera house. And that’s without considering made-for-surfing beaches such as Bondi and Manly, the lively night life, shopping and myriad of festivals and galleries.

Read also: Top 10 things to see and do in Sydney

The city is built on hills around Sydney harbour and further in is the metropolitan area dotted with several national parks as well as the Royal Botanic Gardens. Life is outdoors and sporty and you could be tempted to jog, surf or cycle with the locals as they go about their daily routines.

5Barbados

Tropical beach in Barbados (c) Petr Kratochvil

When it comes to going on winter holiday we could do worse than follow Sir Cliff Richard’s lead to Barbados because for winter sun, this tiny island is a classic. The hurricane season ends in November after which the island is showered in sunshine for 10 whole hours a day.

Read also: What is there to see and do in Barbados

The island certainly has everything you would expect of a tropical paradise – coconut trees, humming birds, a rain forest, blue coral-reefed seas and miles of sandy beaches.

Bridgetown, the capital, is also the bustling commercial centre of the Island. Everywhere there are signs of the country’s heritage as a former British colony and also its passion for Cricket – Barbados’ national sport.

6Cancun

Cancun, Mexico (c) wikimedia/safainla.us

This remote corner of Yucatan has quite the party reputation. Between the Caribbean sea and the lagoon are many all-inclusive hotels shimmering along the 15-mile strip of Zona Hotelera. It is the place to enjoy tacos while soaking up the rays and perhaps later moving to the salsa rythms. But when you are all partyied out, it’s easy to make your way down to visit the fascinating Mayan world of Chichén Itzá for the day.

Read also: Top 10 things to see and do in Cancun


Which of the 6 destinations would be top of your winter sun list? Leave a comment

Image credits: South Africa by Dfmalan, Dubai by PublicDomainPictures, Delhi by A.Savin, Sydney by Jacques Grießmayer, Barbados by Petr Kratochvil, Cancun by safainla.us

NFL fans, ESPN reporters overly optimistic about team prospects

The study, published in PLOS ONE, also reveals which teams are most liked and disliked, as well as which teams have the most optimistic fans.

The main results are from an April 2015 survey of 1,116 US-based NFL fans, who were asked to predict how many games their favourite and least favourite teams would win in the 2015 season. As each team plays 16 games and only one team can win each game, the overall average number of wins across all teams will always be eight. However, the average number of wins across all favoured teams as predicted by fans was 9.59, showing that they were all overly optimistic and cannot all be right.

The ESPN data comes from an article published before the start of the 2014 season, in which an expert reporter was assigned to each of the 32 teams and asked to predict how many games that team would win. The experts were all optimistic about their assigned team’s chances, with a collective predicted average of approximately one more win than is possible (8.93). When the expert predictions were compared with the real 2014 results, they were found to be no better than a naïve forecasting model that assumes each team will replicate their previous year’s performance.

“We should perhaps take the predictions of experts assigned to a single team with a pinch of salt as they may not appreciate the bigger picture,” explains senior author Professor Brad Love (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences). “Previous studies suggest that just following a team intensely can lead to bias, so that is also probably going on here. Fans and experts alike can get focused on improvements or changes for the team that they follow and don’t realise that it’s an arms race with other teams who are also improving. NFL is the perfect system to study optimism bias because it’s zero sum — one team winning means another team losing.”

The team-specific data showed that the New England Patriots were both most liked (by 7.7% of respondents) and most disliked (17.3%) among the survey sample, perhaps unsurprising given their Super Bowl victory in the 2014 season. Fans and rivals alike expected the Patriots to do well in 2015, with fans expecting only one more victory in the 2015 season than Patriots-haters.

The gap between fan and rival predictions were similarly small (approximately one game) for the Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles. By contrast, the biggest ‘optimism gaps’ were for the Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals, with fans predicting an average of 6.6 more wins than rivals in both cases.

“It’s interesting that both fans and rivals of high-profile, successful teams are generally in agreement about their expected performance,” says Professor Love. “By contrast, we see the largest optimism gap for lower-profile teams that receive little national media coverage, enabling fans and local media to construct their own optimistic narratives.”

Statistically, teams that have performed badly in a previous season are likely to improve whereas successful teams are likely to do a little worse but still remain above average. This pattern can encourage optimism as fans of less successful teams can celebrate improvements whereas fans of successful teams can be content with a strong performance even if it’s worse than the previous year.

“Optimism bias is a well-documented phenomenon, but is difficult to measure in the real-world as there are so many factors to consider,” says Dr Olivia Guest, from Oxford University’s Experimental Psychology department. “Using the zero-sum closed system of the NFL, we have been able to conclusively demonstrate optimism bias since people’s collective expectations exceed the total number of wins possible. This could also help to explain why fans of other sports, for example English soccer fans, always overestimate their team’s chances. Sports fans who bet on games should be aware of the optimism bias before putting money on their team’s victory, as their expectations may not match the reality.”

NFL, NBA, and NHL teams have a disadvantage when traveling west

The results of this study highlight the importance of the direction of the circadian disadvantage on the probability of success.

“These results highlight the importance of circadian rhythms in sport performance. They also raise concerns about well-established practices such as early training sessions and late-night athletic competitions and the possible negative effects on performance and health,” said co-author, Geneviève Forest, PhD, Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO). “These results show that the effect of the circadian disadvantage transcends the type of sport being played and needs to be addressed for greater equity among the western and eastern teams in professional sports.”

The research abstract was published recently in an online supplement of the journal Sleep and will be presented Tuesday, June 14, in Denver at SLEEP 2016, the 30th Anniversary Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC (APSS).

The study reviewed the past 5 years of regular season games in the NBA, NFL and NHL and noted the winning percentage of the visiting team depending on the direction of travel (east vs same time zone vs west), and the number of time zones crossed for every game. T-tests and ANOVAs were performed to study the effect of the circadian disadvantage and its direction on winning percentage.

Georgia: Birthplace of Wine

If you reel off the great wine regions of the world, you think of France, Italy, and Spain, and possibly Australia, South Africa, and California. But real wine lovers should really be looking to the Caucasus, as it’s here that you’ll find 8,000 vintages, more than 400 varieties of grapes, and a culture which is inextricably entwined with viticulture. Wine making in Georgia has been recognised by UNESCO on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, and this year UNWTO chose the country to host their first conference on wine tourism.

What’s all the fuss about Georgian wine?

Chateau Mukhrani (c) Sophie Ibbotson

The Georgians invented wine making sometime in the 6th millennium BC, and so they’ve had plenty of time to perfect the art. The country’s medieval monasteries were veritable universities of viticulture, keeping meticulous records about grape varieties, terroir, and factors which affected production. Members of the church congregation were expected to tithe a certain amount of the wine they made for use as sacramental wine, and it was the most valuable asset that many of the churches possessed. Priests fortified the church wine sellers, and would defend them to the death!

Many of Georgia’s wine makers still produce wine using traditional techniques, and the resulting flavour is quite different from that of wines made using European methods.  Firstly, every part of the grape — including the skin, seeds, and even stalk — is fermented along with the juice. This gives the white wines a much darker colour, and hence they are known as amber or orange wines. The wine is fermented in a qvevri, a pointed terracotta vessel similar to an amphora, which is buried in the floor of the wine cellar. The qvevri is lined with lime and beeswax, and as it is subterranean, the wine is at a constant temperature throughout the fermentation process. Due to its shape, the sediment naturally sinks to the bottom, so there’s no need for the wine maker to add sulphites to separate it from the wine.

Qvevri (c) Sophie Ibbotson

It seems that every Georgian you meet has knowledge to impart about wine making! But as you travel around the country, there are definite spots of historical significance, and centres of expertise.

Uplistsikhe Archaeological Museum

Uplistsikhe (c) EvgenyGenkin

The earliest parts of the Uplistsikhe Archaeological Museum date from the 10th century BC. It’s a rock-cut monastery complex, similar in many ways to Cappadocia in Turkey, and amidst the vaulted caves is evidence of early wine production: 3m-long troughs in the rock where grapes were crushed under foot, and narrow channels through which the juice would flow into secondary troughs or pots.

Ikalto Monastery

Ikalto (c) Archil sutiashvili

The Ikalto Monastery, near Telavi, was an ancient academy, where priests were trained in theology, rhetoric, astronomy, philosophy, and wine making: the pillars of a good education. The recently restored complex of churches and  ecclesiastical buildings is scattered with grape presses and wine cellars, and lines of discarded qvevris.

Twins Wine Cellar in Napareuli

Twins Wine Cellar: climb inside a two-storey-high qvevri (c) Sophie Ibbotson

If you want watch wines being made, visit Twins Wine Cellar in Napareuli. This combined vineyard and winery is run by twins Gia and Gela Gamtkitsulashvili, and they’ve developed the site for agritourism: you can join in the grape picking and pressing, climb inside a two-storey-high qvevri, learn about the history of Georgian wine making in the museum, and meet the wine makers themselves. The twins use traditional techniques, and have 107 qvevris in their cellars, and also arrange tastings.

Where are the best places to drink it?

Pheasant’s Tears (c) Sophie Ibbotson

In Georgia, there are no shortage of places to stop and drink wine, but if you are looking for both quality and range, several options spring to mind.

In Tbilisi, Vinotheca has an excellent selection in their shop, and Barbarestan and Cafe Gabriadze both offer an extensive wine menu alongside mouthwatering Georgian dishes. Two wineries to particularly look out for (and drink whenever you can find them) are Lagvinari and Pheasant’s Tears, both of which are made in qvevris, and which are fine examples of the traditional Georgian style.

Note: If you are travelling from London, you can try before you fly at Hedonism in Mayfair. They stock Lagvinari, and the Georgian Wine Club has a good selection of red, white, rose, and amber wines.

What else is there to see?

Tbilisi (c) Sophie Ibbotson

Though the wine is wonderful, there’s more to Georgia than the mighty grape. The capital, Tbilisi, is culturally rich, with numerous museums, galleries, a botanical garden with waterfalls, dramatically situated fortress, and a charming Old Town packed with historic buildings, cafes, and shops. Quirky things you won’t find elsewhere include the Abanotubani district of domed sulphur baths, and the Gabriadze Theatre, which puts on extraordinary puppet shows, including a re-enactment of the Battle of Stalingrad.

Christianity arrived in Georgia in the 4th century, and so there are also some exceptionally old churches, several of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The 12th century Gelati Monastery has jaw-droppingly beautiful murals in vivid colours, and the Jvari Monastery near Mtskheta is said to have been founded by Saint Nino, the female evangelist who introduced Christianity to the country.

The Caucasus Mountains stretch across much of Georgia, creating a dramatic backdrop to valleys and towns, and numerous opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, and skiing. Gudauri comes alive in the winter months as the winter sports capital of the region, and the wildernesses of Svaneti, Tusheti, and Kazbegi are waiting to be explored.

Where to stay

Vinotel has to be the first choice for wine lovers coming to Tbilisi. It’s a boutique property in the Old Town with just 13 suites and rooms. The atmospheric restaurant and vaulted wine cellars are the big attraction, however, so even if you’re not staying, you can pop by for a wine tasting.

Larger and quirkier is Rooms Hotel Tbilisi, a design hotel with a passionate fan base of celebrities, artists, musicians, and lovers of Soviet-kitsch. Converted from a former print works, the hotel’s style has a glamorous hint of 1930s New York, but it’s still very much Georgian, with silkscreen graphics, antique mirrors, and leather furniture.

In the wine region of Kakheti, you can stay on the vineyard at Twins Wine Cellar. You have a choice of simple double or family rooms, all with views of the Caucasus Mountains. And of course you can drink wines straight from the cellars!



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Getting There

You can fly from London to Tbilisi return with Pegasus Airlines for less than £200. There are also good flight connections with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul, or airBaltic via Riga.

Brits and other EU nationals do not need a visa to enter Georgia, and can stay for up to a year.

Note: The national language is Georgian, but English and Russian are also both widely spoken, so you won’t have difficulty communicating, especially in Tbilisi and other tourist areas.