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Blog, Oman

Oman: tips for the perfect holiday

December 24, 2017
Oman

In the past few years Oman has placed itself firmly on the tourist map, and yet I think it’s only recently that it’s seen a real surge in popularity, especially amongst the younger generation.  It has transformed itself from an easy winter sun beach destination (Muscat’s Chedi and Shangri La have been open for over 10 years) to one excellent for hiking, culture and desert experiences.   One of the many reasons I liked Oman is because it is so varied and therefore offers a completely different landscape (and experience) often only a few hours drive apart.  You can so easily travel from beach to rugged mountains to undulating sand dunes to wadi oasis.  It means you can have several holidays all in one, without getting on multiple flights.  And it’s only a 7 hour flight from London.

Here’s my advice on where to go:

The Jabal Akhdar Mountains: for hiking and scenery

Only a 2.5 hour drive from Muscat, and yet a world apart.  I would recommend make Jabal Akhdar your first stop.  If you’ve never been to the Middle East before, or are unfamiliar with the desert, then you will find the landscape en route to Jabal Akhdar very unusual.  We were there in November (after a long dry summer), so it was very bare and the mountains lacking much greenery.  Which is ironic because Jabal Akhdar actually means Green Mountain.  We were told that in December/January/February, when it can rain in the evening, the mountains will be much greener.  I can’t quite imagine that.

Jabal Akhdar OManJabal Akhdar, Oman

Stay at Alila Jabal Akhdar, the first luxury property in the Jabal Akhdar mountains, and most probably not the last.  Located right on the cliff edge, this is one of the most special hotels I’ve stayed.  With its showstopper infinity pool, simple but beautifully designed spacious suites and wonderful service, you can’t go wrong here.  Go for various mountain hikes (ranging from 1 – 7 hours), enjoy yoga with a view, relax in the heated outdoor infinity pool or jacuzzi, pamper yourself in their spa or just simply sit on your terrace and enjoy the view.   Dinner is included and the food is excellent.  Alcohol is expensive, but that’s the case throughout Oman.

Alila Jabal Akhdar, OmanAlila Jabal Akhdar, OmanAlila Jabal Akhdar, OmanAlila Jabal Akhdar, Oman

Alternatively, if the Alila is full, the Anantara is an option too, though it’s larger and less charming.  It is a bit more affordable though, and the location and views are exceptional.

Anantara Jabal Akhdar, OmanAnantara Jabal Akhdar, Oman

 

Wahiba Sands: for your desert experience

Who knew that camels could be quite so entertaining?  Wahiba Sands is a 3 hour drive from the Jabal Akhdar mountains as well as Muscat and absolutely worth spending a night when in Oman.  The sand dunes are breathtaking, especially at sunrise or sunset.  A camel ride is of course a must do; ultimately the most authentic way of travelling through the desert.  Depending on where you stay there are plenty of other activities you can do, like sand ‘boarding’, dune bashing in 4x4s, sunrise walks and star gazing.  The stars really are incredible here.

Wahiba Sands, Oman

In terms of where you stay, the most exclusive options are private camping.  Canvas Club and Magic Camp offer beautiful private tented experiences, with proper showers (though the heat can’t be guaranteed!) and the most comfortable beds.  We stayed at Canvas Club and it was the best sleep I had.  The experience here is second to none; arriving at the camp on camel back, enjoying the sunset with a mint tea, and dining under the stars by the fire.  If you don’t want to go all out cost wise, then Desert Nights Camp is a popular option too, with 26 Bedouin-style tents and all the luxuries of a five star hotel in the desert.

Canvas Club, Wahiba SandsCanvas Club, Wahiba SandsCanvas Club, Wahiba SandsCanvas Club, Wahiba Sands

 

Muscat: for beach relaxation, dolphins and a city tour

Muscat is the capital of Oman, but feels small, modest and low-rise (buildings cannot be higher than 14 stories) compared to other Middle Eastern capitals.  Positioned right on the Gulf of Oman coast, Muscat boasts a stunning mosque, a lively but fairly underwhelming souk, the Royal Palace (of the much-loved Sultan) and a number of excellent beach hotels.  Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is the absolute highlight, built in 2001 and no penny was spared to ensure it is the shining gem of Oman (and apparently cost a casual $150m to build).  The marble comes from Italy, the rugs from Iran, the chandeliers from Austria. They have a new Islamic Centre there now too, which is worth visiting as the people who work there speak excellent English and welcome any questions you might have about the mosque or Islam itself.  A city tour of Muscat can be done in half a day, and is worth tearing yourself away from the beach for.  We also did a dolphin watching boat tour which we loved.

Muscat Mosque, OmanMuscat Mosque, Oman

The two best places to stay in Muscat are:

  • The Chedi.  Loved by all, with many guests returning yearly, and I can completely understand why.  This monochrome beauty will tick all the boxes for design (and instagram) lovers.  The rooms are all mahogany and minimalist, with the hotel’s Asian heritage playing a leading role.  Its iconic long pool (ostensibly the longest in the Middle East) is indeed quite something, whether it be sunrise or sunset, or at night when you can dine by it and enjoy a sublime candlelit Japanese Middle Eastern dinner (some of the best food we had on our trip).  The dining, the pools and the spa are the big highlights here, and it is the perfect place to unwind and recharge your batteries.

The Chedi, MuscatThe Chedi, MuscatThe Chedi, MuscatChedi, Muscat

  • Shangri La Al Husn.  There are three Shangri La hotels about 30 minutes north of Muscat.  Al Husn has recently separated from Al Bandar, and it is most definitely a step up.  The main perks of staying here is the beach is far superior to the Chedi, and you can snorkel right off the beach, which is wonderful.  All rooms have outside space, which is lovely, and we really enjoyed the complimentary ‘add ons’ like the afternoon tea, the daily cocktail hour and the complimentary minibar. It is a much larger hotel to the Chedi and most definitely less stylish, but the service was outstanding.

Shangri La Al Husn, OmanShangri La Al Husn, Oman

 

Also don’t miss:

Nizwa.  Reached either as a day trip from the mountains, or en route from the mountains to Wahiba Sands, this is absolutely worth doing.  Try and go on a Friday so you can witness the famous camel and goat market.  Nizwa Fort has been carefully restored and is interesting to walk around, and you can pick up a few bargains in the souqs too (though don’t expect anything like the souqs of Marrakech/Istanbul).

Nizwa Fort, OmanNizwa Fort, Oman

The Wadis.  As close to an ‘oasis’ as I’ve ever been, these watering holes in the middle of arid, rocky land are incredible.  Some are more touristy and ‘built up’ than others; the touristy ones tend to be the ones easily accessible (like Wadi Bani Khalid).  Try going early in the morning and you should avoid the crowds.  The wadis worth visiting are the previously mentioned Wadi Bani Khalid (stunning but has become very touristy), Wadi Shab (you’ll need to hike a bit to get there, but it’s less busy) and Wadi Dumm.  En route to Muscat from the south you’ll also pass the Bimmah Sinkhole, which isn’t spectacular (unless someone dares to jump in – a 22m fall) but it’s right next to the road so easily added.

Wadi bani Khalid, OmanBimmah Sinkhole, Oman

 

Other tips:

  • Plaza Premium Lounge, Muscat Airport.  You will need (depending on what nationality you are – check www.visacentral.co.uk to be sure) to get a visa on arrival in Oman.  Standing in long immigration queues is never anyone’s preferred choice after a long flight with little sleep.  I therefore highly recommend getting the Fast Track Meet & Greet service at the Plaza Premium Lounge at Muscat Airport.  As we walked into the terminal before immigration, we were met and whisked to the lounge.  Here we gave our passports, paid for the visas and then sat down to enjoy a cup of coffee, while our visas were arranged.  This took all of 5 minutes.  Then we passed all the queues, collected our bags, and were out of the terminal within 15 minutes of landing.
  • Buy alcohol at the airport before flying.  Alcohol is expensive in Oman, and in some places they don’t serve it at all (like in the desert where they often don’t have a licence to sell it).  We found a few of the hotels also offered a free (non-alcoholic) mini bar, so having a bottle of vodka with us meant we could just mix our own drinks in our room.  Wine is even more expensive than spirits (and generally pretty bad too), and I really regretted not bringing a few bottles of my own.
  • Pack warm clothes for the mountains.  The Jabal Akhdar mountains have much cooler weather than Muscat, despite only being 2.5 hours drive away.  Especially if you’re there in the winter (October – March), it can get very cold at the night and in the early hours in the mountains.  Bring layers!
  • Cover up.  Make sure you bring loose-fitting trousers, and plenty of kaftans/shirts for during the day.  While staying on the beach you can wear what you want, if you want to go sightseeing it’s best if you cover up.  The mosque in Muscat will not allow you to enter as a woman without a scarf covering your hair and the rest of you fully covered!  I found thin linen shirts and kaftans generally really useful, also for in the desert.
  • Car rental is very expensive.  If you want to do the ‘Oman circuit’, you’ll need a car.  While petrol is cheap in Oman, car rental is absolutely not, especially as you’ll need a good 4×4 to deal with all the varied terrain.  Friends of ours spent £600 on a 9 day car rental. It’s worth looking into a local operator who can provide a driver/guide as they are generally really affordable.  Booking through a travel company like Abercrombie & Kent will mean that they can organise all the logistics for you, source the best guide, and make your trip even more enjoyable, while still providing value.

Alila Jabal Akhdar

Blog, Mexico, Tulum

Nomade, Tulum – STAY / EAT / DRINK

February 19, 2017
Nomade, Tulum

Nomade is one of Tulum’s newest arrivals, and there was a bit of buzz about it when it first opened; the little sister to the popular Be Tulum (next door).  There are so many places to stay in Tulum that when planning my holiday I found it hard to choose, but had read rave reviews in Conde Nast Traveller and heard from others who’d stayed there that Nomade was definitely worth while.  It also seemed to offer better value than some other places.

Admittedly when we arrived (having just left the paradise that is Esencia), it took a bit of re-adjusting.  This North-African inspired eco-resort is undeniably hip and bohemian, with a young crowd and Indi beats playing on the beach throughout the day.  It’s so different to anywhere I’ve stayed before, but after 24 hours here I had completely relaxed into the hippy, laid back vibe of the place and absolutely loved it.

It’s on the southern side of Tulum’s beach, and so is much less hectic than some of the resorts further north.  The quarter mile private beach is possibly also the best in Tulum, far more expansive than those of many other resorts.  Often for the first few hours of the day we would find ourselves practically all alone on the beach (thank you jet lag), and had the pick of whichever incredible ‘day bed’ we wanted.

Nomade, Tulum, Mexico

Nomade life is extremely chilled out, starting with a healthy set breakfast which I missed enormously upon leaving.  I loved the shot of warm water with lemon which accompanied the breakfast (fruit, yoghurt, eggs, and very fresh pastries).

Nomade, Tulum

It’s hard to describe quite how beautiful the beach and the sea is here.  So breathtaking, and the sea so warm that even we (and we are really not water lovers) swam regularly and often for long stretches, playing in the waves.

Tulum, MexicoNomade, Tulum

The rooms are basic and very rustic, especially if you’re used to minimalist or more polished interiors.  We had one of their Jungle Suites with a sea view, which was comfortable enough but to be honest I would highly recommend going for a Sea View or Ocean Front Cabana – these rooms are much much better as you’re right on the beach.  I rather disliked the mud brown splashed walls which I know fits in with their eco sentiments, but which didn’t really do it for me.  But that’s probably the only real criticism I had of this place, and I just know that if I return, I should pay extra to stay in one of the cabanas.

Nomade, Tulum

Activity wise there is complimentary yoga on the beach every morning, there are bikes to borrow and water sports to explore.  But you’d be surprised how quickly it is to slip into a routine of doing nothing but soaking up the sun, swimming, sleeping, eating and drinking.

Their sea grill restaurant La Popular is outstanding.  We had some of the best food in Tulum here, their tuna tartare with passion fruit was one of my favourites.  Service is a little rusty, and the (mostly French) staff can be quite gruff and impatient, but we’ll forgive them.  The bartenders were all delightful and could rustle up fantastic Margaritas.  The highlight of these dozy days was ordering two large Margaritas in plastic cups, and walking all the way up the beach (between 30 minutes to an hour) at sun set, until we got to our dinner destination.  So magical.

Nomade, TulumNomade, TulumNomade, Tulum

Every evening when returning from dinner we would be welcomed back at Nomade with hundreds of candles lining the pathways.  Truly a wonderful experience, and I would recommend it to those looking for a relaxed, simple but beautiful beach holiday.

 Nomade

KM 10, Carr. Cancún – Tulum

Mexico

Blog, Mexico, Tulum

Mur Mur, Tulum – EAT

February 19, 2017
Mur Mur, Tulum

Mur Mur wins my award for most Instagrammable place of Tulum.  We passed it a number of times as it’s in a great location near big hits like Harwood and Arca.  While it’s set back from the ‘main strip’, it’s very eye catching (and there are some pretty – though extortionate – boutiques surrounding it).

Mur Mur, Tulum

So one day we tore ourselves away from the beach and cycled to Mur Mur for lunch.

Perhaps it’s the combination of their palm tree printed arm chairs, moss green sofas and distressed wooden furniture that give Mur Mur the ultimate laid back but stylish vibe.   The sofas are so comfortable that getting up is the last thing you want to do, so inevitably you end up spending hours here, sipping a cold beer or glass of white wine and savouring the peace and quiet.

Mur Mur, TulumMur Mur, Tulum

This is the perfect place for breakfast or lunch, more cafe than restaurant – though they do have a cool cocktail bar (of course), which is also open in the evening.  Fancying a change from the Mexico cuisine overload, we opted for their sour dough sandwiches with side salads.  I went for the grilled vegetables and Rob for the chicken.  Expecting something far less refined, I was very impressed by the standard of the food.  It’s all locally sourced and you can tell how fresh the produce is.

Mur Mur, Tulum

The service here was slow, and they took their time with our order, but sometimes you need to remind yourself that you’re in Tulum not London and relax.  Having said that, our waiter was excellent, friendly, and knew his stuff – recommending beers and wine to us.

In short, while Tulum is not short on excellent restaurants, Mur Mur is a great day hang out.  Even if you’re not hungry, grab a beer and enjoy some time out of the sun in this delightful little establishment.

Mur Mur

Quintana Roo 15,

Tulum

Mexico

Blog, Mexico, Tulum

Sanara, Tulum

December 31, 2016
Sanara, Tulum

Tulum is heaving with hotels of all kinds, mostly of the eco, rustic variety.  While we stayed at Nomade, the other place I would have loved to have stayed is Sanara.

Sanara is a very small (19 rooms), eco boutique hotel, which focuses on wellness.  I love it’s minimalist white rooms, which are spacious, steps from the beach and come with lovely roll top baths.   You can expect daily yoga and can enjoy their spa and wellness centre, with various packages of ‘personal healing journeys’.

Sanara Tulum (photo credit Sanara)

Sanara is not your most affordable option in Tulum, but it’s absolutely worth spending a little extra for such a beautiful and relaxing hotel.

Still, if you don’t stay here it’s absolutely worth stopping by for a sunset drink or for a delicious, healthy lunch or dinner at their top restaurant Coconut.   We came here to enjoy one of their wonderful cocktails, and it felt a lot calmer than the more buzzing Nomade.

Sanara, TulumSanara, TulumSanara, Tulum

If you’re looking for a party, Sanara is not for you.  But if you want to unwind and leave Tulum feeling more ‘zen’, healthy and rested, then you’ve come to the right place.

Sanara

Tulum

 

Blog, Mexico

Esencia, Riviera Maya

December 10, 2016
Esencia, Mexico

There are not many places like Esencia.  This 28 room boutique hotel is the ultimate beach paradise.  Located between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, on Xpu-ha beach (known by some as the finest beach of Riviera Maya), it’s one of those places where you arrive and straight away decide never to leave again.

Once the private home of an Italian Dutchess, it was bought by a charming American in 2014, who has turned it into a beauty of a design hotel.  Most of the jungle suites are hidden in the Yucatan jungle, though the best rooms are in the main house, with incredible views of the turquoise Caribbean sea.  The rooms are whiter than white (with a hint of Mondrian colour and design), super stylish and unbelievably comfortable.

Esencia, MexicoEsencia, Mexico

While it’s hard enough to tear yourself away from your private jungle plunge pool (which can be heated to essentially turn it into your bath), the place you’ll want to spend most of your time is either on the whiter than white sandy beach, or by one of the sleek swimming pools sipping frozen Esencia Margaritas.  Watch out though, we were so elated when we arrived that we promptly drank four Esencia Margaritas without realising they were $30 (plus tax) a pop!  While white seems to be their signature colour, I loved the bright yellow colour highlights in their furniture and towels.

Esencia, MexicoEsencia, MexicoEsencia, Mexico

Days start with a morning class of yoga, aided by the soothing sounds of the ocean, after which a hearty breakfast of eggs and avocados (of course) is enjoyed at the Pool Restaurant.

Esencia, MexicoEsencia, MexicoEsencia, Mexico

If you’re feeling active then paddle boarding and snorkelling are an option, or you can walk through a dilapidated neighbouring hotel to a private cenote, for a swim in clear fresh water.

Esencia, MexicoEsencia, MexicoEsencia, Mexico

The Beach Bar is a place to spend a large chunk of your afternoon and evening, watching the sunset with a cocktail in hand.  And on to dinner, another treat of tacos and guacamole, while listening to a local band playing Mexican tunes.

Esencia, MexicoEsencia, Mexico

Esencia is a rare, special place, and sadly no longer a secret.  Celebs and fashion bloggers are loving it (as Esencia’s Instagram page will show) and their NYE party is set to be the place to be on Riviera Maya.  But despite the buzz, this is ultimately a place to retreat to and completely relax, to enjoy the peace and quiet, and to spoil yourself rotten.  Good luck trying to leave!

Esencia

Carr. Cancun-Tulum Km. 265

Predio Rústico Xpu-Ha

Xpu-Ha, 77710

Playa del Carmen,

Riviera Maya,

Mexico

Photo credit: All mine (and more on my Instagram)

Blog, Mexico, Tulum

Tulum: an overview

December 3, 2016
Tulum

Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not a hippy, nor does the whole ‘hippy thing’ especially appeal to me.  So I was a little apprehensive about going to Tulum.  Except, Tulum isn’t very hippy at all.  That’s really in its backpacker’s past.  Instead, it now seems to attract glamorous beach babes and all the New York cool kids (and a fair few celebrities).  It’s main selling point is its incredible white sandy beach and beautiful, warm sea, as well as offering fantastic restaurants, bars, boutiques and plenty of outward bound activities (snorkelling, paddle boarding, cenote swimming).

Tulum

STAY

There are so many hotels and beach shacks to choose from in Tulum, it’s hard to make a decision.  I’d read about Tulum’s newest opening in Conde Nast Traveller: Nomade, Be Tulum’s sister property right next door.  With its laid back vibes, stunning (and quiet) stretch of beach, wellness focus and Indi vibes, this has quickly become a Tulum favourite.  I’d definitely only opt for their Sea View or Ocean Front Suites – the other rooms can feel a little dark ( and I wasn’t a fan of their brown mud-like walls at all).  This is place for the young and lively, with chilled music constantly playing in the background.

Nomade, Tulum

Fashion bloggers seems to adore the eco-resort Azulik,  with some of the most amazing Tree House Suites overlooking the beach and open air baths.  This adults only resort is super private and exclusive.  While I didn’t stay there, I personally loved the feel of Sanara, a small and quiet boutique hotel (19 rooms) with wellness at the forefront, daily yoga and a top restaurant Coconut.

Sanara Tulum (photo credit Sanara)

 

EAT

One thing you’ll do in Tulum (apart from never want to leave), is eat well.  There’s a different restaurant or cafe to choose from every step you take along the Tulum strip.  Signs for ‘healthy food’, ‘cold-pressed juices’ and ‘tacos’ are everywhere (as well as ‘Margaritas’, of course).

Hartwood is by far the most famous restaurant in Tulum.  Open only for dinner, this buzzing restaurant is the place to be for fish and meat lovers (all food is cooked on an open fire).  Good news is you can actually book now (just send them an email).  But we found Arca a close contender, not just in location (it’s right next door) but also in terms of the quality of the food and experience.  The design of the restaurant and bar was beautiful.

Arca, Tulum

If you’re looking for traditional, outstanding Mexican food, then El Tabano is the top spot.  Super affordable, with a large menu scribbled on the black board, we had one of our favourite meals here (and they served our favourite Mexican wine: Casa Madero).  If you need a change from Mexican cuisine, then Posada Margarita (possibly nearly as popular as Hartwood) serves the best Italian food in Tulum.  Their fresh pasta dishes were incredible, and one of their salads for lunch on the beach works very well too.

For other lunch options, Mur Mur is an Ingrammer’s dream – all green and white furniture, big pot plants and a great brunch menu.  There are some lovely (if very expensive) boutiques down the little lane where Mur Mur is too.

Mur Mur, Tulum

Finally, Zamas is worth a stop, if not for the quality of the food (average tacos, but great avocado and goats cheese tostados) or the service (below average) but for the colourful terrace and beautiful views of the ocean.  But our favourite lunch place? Most definitely Nomade’s Sea Grill restaurant on the beach La Popular: the best seafood we had and the most incredible setting.

Zamas, Tulum

DRINK

You’ll never be short of alcoholic beverages in Tulum.  While it’s super laid back and finding a nightclub is close to impossible, there are plenty of bars, and plenty of relaxed beach club parties to be found (if you want to find them).  Gitano was one of our favourite bars, and certainly the swankiest (and most expensive) one out there.  Not so rustic or beachy, more polished and suave. Phenomenal cocktails for about £7 – £8 a pop.  La Patrona (right next to El Tabano, if you’re having dinner there) is much more low key, with a very limited cocktail and beer menu (all $8) and good Margaritas.

La Patrona, Tulum

If you’re looking for a place for a good sundowner though, then health-focused hotel Sanara’s Coconut Bar & Restaurant is ideal: with a lovely terrace overlooking the beautiful sea and beach.  Their herb-infused cocktails were delicious and if we’d had time I would have returned here for lunch.

But the best way to enjoy a cocktail in Tulum? Ask Nomade’s beach bartender for a ‘Margarita to go’ (i.e in a plastic cup) and walk the stretch of the beach, cocktail in hand, at sunset.

Nomade, Tulum, Mexico

More detailed blogs to follow about Tulum: keep an eye out.

 

Blog, Croatia

Dubovica Bar, Hvar

August 13, 2016
Dubovica Beach Bar, Hvar

Hvar Town is as popular as ever now, with young and old flocking to this pretty place for the beautiful sea, the vibe and the parties.  With so much going on in and around Hvar Town, it’s easy to forget that Hvar Island offers a lot more places to explore.

If you want a little more peace and quiet, and to explore nearby beaches, I’d recommend doing a little boat trip to the pretty beach of Dubovica.   Eight kilometres east from Hvar Town, on the southern shore of the island, you’ll find this stunning pebbled beach.  I loved its little dilapidated church, so picture perfect nestled behind a lonely palm tree.   The sea is very calm here, so it’s perfect for swimming.  Don’t expect any sun loungers or parasols though, but it is an unspoilt rarity in Hvar.

Dubovica Beach, HvarDubovica Beach, Hvar

On the east side of the beach there is a little rustic beach bar tucked away.  Here you can easily while away an afternoon, drinking beer or a glass of freshly pressed orange juice in one of their deck chairs and watch the world go by in the shade of the trees.  The owner is incredibly friendly, and it could not be any more relaxing (a world away from hectic Hula Hula Bar).  I’d really recommend this place for a chance to enjoy a slightly more local Hvar experience.

Dubovica Beach Bar, HvarDubovica Beach Bar, Hvar

Dubovica Beach Bar

Dubovica (15 minutes’ drive from Hvar town)

Hvar, Croatia

Blog, South Africa

Plettenberg Bay: An Overview

December 6, 2015

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STAY

Hunter’s Country House – This is just one of the most charming, prettiest places to stay.  The gardens were incredible, and I loved all the cottages scattered around the estate.  It is such a peaceful place.  You’re 10 minutes drive from Plettenberg Bay, so it’s the perfect location.  Their main sitting room with huge fireplace was so cosy, the perfect place for pre-dinner drinks.  We were upgraded to their top suite/cottage with private pool and garden which was heavenly.

HuntersHunter's Country House, Plettenberg BAyHunters Country House, Plettenberg Bay

Hunter’s sister property Tsala Treetop Lodge is meant to be very good too (on the same estate).

tsala treetop lodge, plettenberg bay

For the more affordable options: if you want to be in town then the boutique hotel The Grand is recommended.  Emily Moon is meant to be a good 4-star boutique hotel, it’s out of town but right on the river and is also meant to have a good restaurant.

The Grand Plettenberg Bay

COFFEE

Known as the place with the best coffee in Plett, Double Shot is a tiny establishment in a not very interesting mall. But inside it’s cute, with an array of delicious looking cakes and (apparently) a very special Dutch coffee machine.  I had a macchiato (more citrusy than the roasted Italian I am used to – the owner did warn me) – but wonderful. They’re also super friendly there, so if you’re in a rush you can go in a grab a take away for a beach walk or hike.
Double Shot, Plettenberg Bay

COCKTAILS

Plett offers a number of establishments where you can enjoy cocktails with a view.

The Grand, on Main Street, has a lovely terrace where the views at sunset of the beaches and the sea are lovely.  They have a good cocktail menu here.

The Grand, Plettenberg Bay

Equally, the Plettenberg Hotel (Relais & Chateaux) has a nice terrace with lovely views of their infinity pool and the sea. Seagulls will join you for a drink as you watch the sky and distant mountains turn a soft pink. While they don’t have Espresso Martinis on the menu, I asked and they made me a good one.

Plettenberg Hotel, Plettenberg Bay

EAT – BREAKFAST/BRUNCH

Fournil de Plett is the best bakery in town, and some what of an institution. It has a wonderful shaded courtyard, as well as a small sunny balcony (for those who wish to smoke). The selection of breads and pastries here is incredible. This is the place for a leisurely brunch, with a good number of healthier options too (avocado on rye, poached eggs, yoghurt).  Their home made lemonade is brilliant and refreshing too.

Fournil de Plett, Plettenberg BayFournil de Plett, Plettenberg Bay

Clare’s Cakes & Deli

Those of you with a sweet tooth will love Clare’s Cakes. They recently opened a Deli next door with delicious jams and cheeses.

Clares Cake, Plettenberg Bay

EAT – LUNCH

The Look Out – for a casual, beachside setting.

Wow, the casual but well-run place has one of the best beach views in the area. While it’s a bit rough and ready, the food is surprisingly good. The tuna sirloin, grilled rare, with wasabi and soya sauce was a real highlight. The tempura prawns were as fresh as they come. Portions are massive, prices low.

The Look Out Deck, PLettenberg BayIMG_4033

Other places apparently worth visiting for a beach side lunch is Enrico, about a 10 minute drive towards Port Elizabeth. Again, with fantastic beach views and good food – we didn’t make it as wanted to stay in town.  Likewise, for your wine fix its worth visiting the Bramon Wine Estate, it love countryside views and some great wines to accompany your lunch. Finally, if you want to eat in a trendier, more polished restaurant in town, then the Grand is the place for you.

EAT – DINNER

  • Fat Fish is raved about in Plettenberg. Some say it’s the best restaurant in town. Whatever the case, this is certainly the place to eat the best fish in town. Don’t come here for the views (a mixture of car park/large hotel/sea in the distance).  The interiors are nicely done, simple but stylish – but make sure you book well in advance if you want to sit inside. If you just want to turn up, like we did, then you can sit outside on thee terrace (again, don’t have high expectations) but be prepared that if can get quite chilly at night. You come here for the food. And it really was phenomenal. We ordered sesame calamari with wasabi mayo (so good, light and un-rubbery) and ceviche (kingsklip with cherry tomatoes) to start which were the right way to start dinner. For mains we ordered a (huge) selection of sushi. Highly recommend the tuna sashimi – the freshest I have ever had. Truly melt in the mouth.  accompanied the meal with a lovely glass of Franschoek wine, and left a happy bunny.

Fat Fish, Plettenberg Bay

Other restaurant recommendations:

  • Zinzi.  The fine dining restaurant of Hunter Hotels (Hunter’s Country house and Tsala).  Very popular and quite trendy.
  • Sea food at the Plettenberg Hotel.  It’s a Relais & Chateaux so the standards are high and the fish is fresh.
  • Emily Moon.  The restaurant is meant to be very romantic at this quirky hotel.
Blog, Cape Town, South Africa

South Africa: Best of

December 5, 2015
South Africa

VIEW – From the lovely winery Newton Johnson: of the Hemel en Aarde (meaning heaven and earth) vineyards, mountains and the sea.  Highly recommend it, and it’s only a 15 minute drive from Hermanus.  Shame the weather wasn’t a bit better!

Newton & Johnson, Hemel en AardeNewton & Johnson

SUNSET – From the top of Table Mountain.  Take the cable cart up, or, if you’re up for it, hike up (takes about 2 hours)!  But don’t underestimate how steep it is.  On a calm day it is still remarkably windy up on the mountain, but so worth it.  Watch the sun set and turn Cape Town a brilliant pink.

Table Mountain, Cape TownTable Mountain, Cape Town

WILDLIFE SIGHTING – A leopard trying to kill an impala at Rattray’s in Sabi Sands.  Sadly she failed, but it was thrilling watching her pounce.

IMG_3768

TOWN – Franschoek.  I loved the Cape Dutch architecture here: the white-washed cottages and the pretty churches.  Franschoek is filled with charm and lots of cosy restaurants, cafes and bars.  Grab the wine tram and stop off at all the wonderful surrounding vineyards (Mont Rochelle, Maison Estate).  Stay just out of town (15 minutes) at Babylonstoren, the most wonderful farm with the most beautiful gardens.

Babylonstoren, Franschoek

CITYCape Town.  It simply has it all.  Incredible restaurants and bar (from Kloof Street to Bree Street), the most phenomenal setting (surrounded by white beaches, Table Mountain and Constantia’s beautiful vineyards), lovely people, amazing wildlife (seals at the Waterfront, penguins at Boulders Beach, dolphins in front of 12 Apostles), so many outward bound activities on offer (hiking, surfing, horse riding) and super affordable.

Cape Town

COCKTAIL – Thai Green Curry Martini at the Pot Luck Club.  After a fairly disappointing run of cocktails during our holiday, I regained my confidence in South African cocktails.  I also tried their rosemary and elderflower Martini (equally good).  If you’re looking for a more casual bar, then 210 on Bree Street makes a fab Whiskey Sour for £2.

Potluck Club, Cape Town

BREAKFAST 12 Apostles Hotel & Spa. A combination of fantastic views (dolphins and seals playing in the beautiful ocean in front of you) and an array of treats like oysters and champagne.  Not a bad way to start your day.

12 Apostles, Cape Town

EXPERIENCE – Chasing lightening at Rattray’s on Mala Mala in Sabi Sands.  Super thrilling as well as just a tiny bit frightening.  I’ve never seen a sunset quite like it or lightning quite so constant and brilliant.

Rattray's Mala Mala

RESTAURANT – A toss up between the 10 course tasting menu at the Test Kitchen (awarded the number one restaurant in South Africa 3 years in a row) and lunch at the beautiful, elegant La Colombe (second photo).  Both meals I will never forget.

Test Kitchen, Cape Town

La Colombe, Cape Town

AUTHENTIC MEAL – Lunch at Mariana’s, in the tiny town of Stanford, down the road from Hermanus, is as authentic as it gets. Peter and Mariana run a small restaurant at their home (the Owls Barn): Mariana cooks, Peter hosts. It is so unpretentious, such a warm experience, with lovely countryside views from their garden and truly excellent home cooking.

Mariana's, Stanford

BEACHPlettenberg Bay and the surrounding beaches.  Too stunning for words.

Plettenberg Bay
CITY BEACH – Camps Bay.  It does not get more glamorous or beautiful than Camps Bay.  And to think it’s basically a ‘city beach’, a 15 minute drive from downtown.  The combination of the deep blue sea, lovely white sandy beach and the mountains as the backdrop is magical.

Camps BayCamps Bay

CAFEFournil de Plett in Plettenberg Bay.  Sip a homemade lemonade in the shade of a tree in their leafy courtyard, and enjoy a healthy brunch.

Fournil de Plett, Plettenberg BayFournil de Plett, Plettenberg Bay

SEAFOOD – The Look Out Deck, Plettenberg Bay.  I thin we just hadn’t expected the food to be so good, as the setting is impressive enough (stunning views of the – empty – Look Out beach).  The Look Out is not a fancy restaurant, it’s down to earth and a great day hang out, and that’s why when our food arrived we were somewhat taken aback.  Rob’s tuna steak was perfectly cooked and so fresh, with wasabi and soya sauce.  You’d pay a fortune for that in London, but here it was £8.

The Look Out Deck, PLettenberg BayThe Look Out Deck, PLettenberg Bay

HIKE The Robberg Peninsula. Wow.  There are three hiking options, one is an hour hike, one 2 hours and one 3 – 5 hours.  We chose for the middle option.  The hiking is easy enough, but is still a bit of work out.  You will see a huge colony of seals from above (and smell them – less pleasant!), as well as lizards, snakes and beautiful birds.  The beach you come to is deserted and breathtaking.

Robberg Peninsula South AfricaRobberg Peninsula South Africa

HOTEL –  A really tough one because all the hotels we stayed at were fantastic.  But I think Hunter’s Country House wins this one because it is just one of the most charming, prettiest places.  The gardens were incredible, and I loved all the cottages scattered around the estate.  It is such a peaceful place.  You’re 10 minutes drive from Plettenberg Bay, so it’s the perfect location.  Their main sitting room with huge fireplace was so cosy, the perfect place for pre-dinner drinks.

Hunters

SPAThe Marine Hermanus.  A Relais & Chateaux which unsurprisingly gets its spa right.  We enjoyed a grey afternoon being pampered in the spa – they offer couple treatment rooms, so while I enjoyed a facial, Rob had a Swedish massage.  Later we enjoyed the steam room.  It’s about £26 for an hour’s massage.  Too good to be true!  The spa at the 12 Apostles was also brilliant.The Marine Hermanus

VINEYARDMaison Estate, Franschoek.  All the vineyards around Franschoek are incredible, but we especially loved Maison, which have a fantastic restaurant ‘Kitchen’ and beautiful views of their vineyard.  The interiors have a Scandi/minimalist feel to them. Apart from that another wine we kept seeing in top restaurant’s was Paul Cluver.  The vineyard is in the Elgin Valley, on the way from Hermanus to Franschoek and Stellenbosch, and is also meant to serve very good food to accompany top notch wines in a beautiful garden setting.

Maison Estate, FranschoekMaison Estate, Franschoek

POOL – The Rock Pool at 12 Apostles. While their other pool is heated and has the view of the ocean, I loved the originality of the Rock Pool, and you really feel completely in nature here.  There are a number of hiking trails you can take or you can just relax on a sun lounger in complete peace and quiet here.

12 apostles

HOLIDAY READI am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes.  You just can’t put it down, from the first page you’re gripped.  It’s ideal for lying on the beach, or waiting at the airport, or relaxing by the pool.  My problem was I was so into it that I forgot to put suncream on (not recommended)…

Barcelona, Blog, Spain

Gallito, Barcelona – DRINK

September 13, 2015

Chiringuito.  Meaning ‘beach bar’; a key word in Barcelona.  Barceloneta – Barcelona’s main beach – is full of them.  They range from W Hotel chic (Wet Bar), to surfer-style rustic, to just plain grungy.  Yes, they are touristy.  But the locals love them too – you just need to find the right one.

And we definitely did.

Gallito, Barcelona

Gallito, which fits into the rustic surfer style category (with a trendy touch), was one of our favourite finds in Barcelona.  It’s on the far ‘W Hotel side’ of the beach, underneath the sail that is the W (and which you can’t miss).  Gallito has that laid back feel to it, where when you walk in (it’s partly outside and partly inside), that holiday feeling hits you just that little bit harder.  And when the rosé arrives that feeling is only accentuated (I recommend the house rosé at €22 a bottle – it’s that lovely pale pink colour).

Gallito, Barcelona

Gallito is unpretentious.  Its large shaded terrace is spilling with plants, and pastel-coloured materials slung over awnings tangled with grapevines.  They serve large fresh salads, plates of nachos with homemade guacamole (portions are small), melt in the mouth croquettes and whatever drink you want. Inside there are huge sofas to lounge on, low tables, colourful cushions.  There’s music but it’s not too loud.  It just puts you in the mood for a drink.  It’s as far from Nikki Beach as you’ll get, and I love them for it.

Gallito, BarcelonaGallito, BarcelonaGallito, BarcelonaGallito, Barcelona
This is really the place to head to after you’ve had enough sun, when your skin feels salty and your face feels warm.  It’s the perfect 5pm place, when you’re craving the day’s first drink.  Where you can slowly unwind if you want, or get the party started.  Where you can watch the sun set, and let the time slip by as you discuss plans for the evening.  We had some of our best times at Gallito that weekend, and I’d go back in a heartbeat.

Side note: we did try out the neighbouring Pez Vela chiringuito, as it’s the newest addition underneath the W Hotel.  But while the interiors were slick, we found it lacking the atmosphere and the buzz that Gallito had.   Pez Vela is perhaps a good lunch place, while Gallito is better for lounging and chilling.

Pez Vela, Barcelona

Gallito

Paseo Mare Nostrum, 19 -21,

08039 Barcelona

Barcelona, Blog, Spain

Barcelona: An overview

August 29, 2015

Barcelona is not the prettiest city Europe has to offer.  If Gaudi doesn’t do it for you, then some of its architecture may not appeal, nor some of its main sights (i.e. the Sagrada Familia and Park Güell).  But – bold statement I know – it is perhaps one of Europe’s funnest cities.  So lively, so vibrant, so cosmopolitan.  And it may also have been one of the best foodie weekends I’ve had in a while (well, since Bordeaux!).

Barcelona

Here are my top tips for Spain’s favourite city (though I maintain that Madrid gives it a good run for its money), with more detailed blogs to follow:

TO DO

I’d been to Barcelona a few times before and covered the main sights then.  This time my weekend was spent largely hopping from cafe to bar to beach.  But here are the sights worth seeing if it’s new to you:

*The Sagrada Familia is not my favourite cathedral (read: not a fan of Gaudi), and think it looks a bit like a melted candle.  But it is still worth seeing, purely because it is so unique.  And some people love it!

*Park Güell, right in the north of the city on Carmell Hill, and certainly a bit of a schlep up (there are escalators) is colourful and admittedly quite fun.  It’s a great place for photos of the city.  If you want the signature photos with the lizard then you need to pre-book tickets to get in.

Barcelona

*Apart from that I would enjoy walks through the older areas of Barcelona like Gothic and El Born, or Segway tours are also a very popular way of seeing the city.

*Lastly, the fact that Barcelona has a (very easily accessible) beach is of course a massive bonus.  Head to Barceloneta and soak up some rays, or grab a glass of rosé at one of the many beach bars (more on that later).  It does get very crowded in the summer, but that just means plenty entertaining people watching.

GETTING AROUND

The Metro is excellent (and quick), and, at 1 euro per journey, very cost effective.  It means that if you stay in slightly further afield areas like Gracia, you can be in the city centre within 10 minutes.  But, as the locals will tell you, Barcelona is a city of bicycles.  So renting a bike may well be worth it.  I walked a lot, and find you discover more of the city doing so.  But I appreciate that in 30 degree heat this may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Barcelona

EAT

Once upon a time I was not a fan of Spanish food.  This changed a few years ago when I went to Madrid and tried ‘real’ tapas.  Barcelona has so many fantastic restaurants and cafes I found it hard to choose which ones to try, but I was very pleased with my selection.  Here are a few highlights:

BRUNCH/LUNCH:

*For the healthy ones amongst you, there is no better place to go than FLAX & KALE, a beauty of a ‘Flexitarian’ restaurant, with a mind-boggling array of cold-pressed juices, inventive salads and fantastic tuna/salmon burgers. I’m still craving their blueberry quinoa muffins, and need to go back for their raw cheesecake.

If you’re looking for other healthy options, try Mother and Press & Reset.

Flax & Kale, Barcelona

*For those of you looking for a more ‘classic’ brunch, then FEDERAL CAFE (in Gothic or Raval) is a must go.  From the beloved smashed avocado on rye bread with poached eggs and all the sides you can dream of, to their very popular (I can see why) French toast with pears, bacon and maple syrup – this is a brunch no-brainer.  Their design is cool, and you can expect huge open windows allowing light to stream in.  Service a bit offish.

Federal Cafe, Barcelona

*For something a bit more upmarket (though their service needs working on), CORNELIA & CO transports you straight to Manhattan.  This chic eatery serves delicious small plates perfect for sharing, and is also a good choice for dinner.  They serve breakfast too (but sadly not in August).  Their shop is worth a browse, it has some lovely bits and bobs (I loved their copper salad bowls).

Cornelia & Co, BarcelonaCornelia & Co, Barcelona

DINNER:

We didn’t really hold back when it came to dinner, and Llamber and Boca Grande may be two of my new favourite European restaurants.  Both serve tapas, but not like the greasy, oily, carby mess I once knew.  This is as sophisticated and inventive as tapas gets.

*LLAMBER is more laid back, a little edgier, and slap bam in the trendy El Born area.  Beautiful interiors with red brick walls and a nice terrace outside too. Our favourite dishes were the asparagus and prawn ‘sticks’ with fondu, and the cheese (some of which were very strong) and meat sharing plates.  I also loved their tomato bread.  After dinner head to Passeig del Born for a few more drinks to end the night.

Llamber, Barcelona

Llamber, Barcelona

*BOCA GRANDE is an assault on all your senses (but in a good way).  The smell, the noises, the beautiful people, the food.  I could people watch for hours, but it was more the incredible intricate interiors of the place that properly fascinated me, with countless mirrors, rows of colourful bottles and dim lighting.  As garish as this sounds, they’ve made it look very tasteful.  Their squid ink risotto with cuttlefish was delicious, as was their tuna and avocado tartar.  Their gazpacho was the best I’ve had.  This is the perfect Saturday night dinner date place.

Boca Grande, Barcelona

DRINK

*Barcelona nails its rooftop bars, and the TERRAZA DEL PULITZER was by far our favourite.  While you’re not here for the views (below average), this leafy, trendy bar is clearly a favourite amongst locals.  I absolutely loved its vibe.  By 9pm on a Friday people were dancing like it was 3am in a London club.  But the music is chilled rather than too pumping, so it’s perfect for a pre-dinner drink and catch up with friends. Other rooftop bars like La Terrassa at Hotel Villa Emilia and the Sky Bar are apparently also worth going to.

Pulitzer Terrace, Barcelona

*LA VINYA DEL SENYOR: known as Barcelona’s best wine bar.  Located right opposite El Born’s Santa Maria church, this is the place to come and try a number of their excellent (and very well-priced) Rioja’s, while enjoying a beautiful view.  They’re open until 1am, after which you can stumble on to one of the many bars that El Born has to offer.

La Vinya del Senyor, Barcelona

*As if dinner at Boca Grande wasn’t good enough, heading upstairs to their famous cocktails bar BOCA CHICA is a must-do.  Reminding me a little of London’s super fun Mr Fogg’s (if you have not been, go), this glamorous, extravagent bar is the ideal place to start – or end – your night. It is ludicrously expensive, but totally justifiable.  Oh and check out their loos: an experience in itself.

Boca Chica, Barcelona

boca g

*GALLITO – our favourite ‘Chiringuito‘.  Barceloneta’s beach bars cannot be missed, especially for day time drinking. We visited a number, some disappointed (MOMA – don’t bother) but one became our favourite hangout of the weekend (Gallito).  We checked out the newer nieghbouring Pez Vela, but found it more uptight, more expensive and less fun than Gallito.  Gallito just gets it right.  It’s not too touristy at all, and has a large shady terrace, though even sitting inside on their large loungy sofas is appealing.  Their house rosé (18 euros a bottle) is delicious, as are their sharing plates (though the nachos and guacamolo are a little on the small side).

Gallito, Barcelona

STAY

We stayed in an excellent Airbnb in Gracia, with a lovely outside terrace (perfect for pre-drinking).  Admittedly probably the best (and most central) areas to stay in are El Born/Gothic/Eixample.  If you prefer hotels to apartments, then I absolutely loved HOTEL BRUMMELL.  In the quieter Poble Sec neighbourhood, this brand new boutique design hotel has everything you need.  The rooms aren’t massive, but they use the space cleverly.  With super comfy beds and rain showers and the penthouses have large terraces, you’ll be very comfortable here.  I adored their small pool and sunbathing deck, as well as their courtyard terrace.  You have access to yoga classes at the next door Garage, and can rent bikes and buy souvenirs at their cool little boutique. Plus, from rooms starting from 100 euros a night, it’s ridiculous value for money.

Hotel Brummell, Barcelona

Hotel Brummell, Barcelona

Other affordable hotels worth checking out are the Praktik hotel chain (Praktik Bakery being my favourite), or, if you want to splash out a bit, I’ve heard very good things about the stunning Cotton House Hotel.  You’re spoilt for choice.

Watch this space for more detailed blogs to come about my favourite Barcelona hangouts or check my instagram for more photos.

Blog, Italy, Puglia

Puglia: An overview

July 19, 2015
Ostuni

It’s remarkable that Puglia, the ‘heel’ of Italy, isn’t overridden by tourists. But that’s perhaps why it’s one of my new favourite holiday destinations and why you should go now, or as soon as possible.

Puglia is all about quiet, whitewashed hilltop towns, rich red earth, immense age old olive groves, bright blue skies, and its quirky and characterful Trulli.  It’s about charming locals, few foreigners, Puglian wines, and surprisingly stylish bars and restaurants with wonderful value for money.  It is completely different to any Italy I know.  Some will say it’s also about its small, sandy beaches with clear blue waters like those at Monopoli, Savelletri and close to Lecce, but we focused more on the villages and towns around the Valle D’Itria.  Every day we visited a new village or town, each with their own similarities and differences (apart from Matera, which is in a league of its own) and every one of them a joy to discover.

IMG_2551IMG_8631Here is a brief overview of my favourite places, each of which I will write a separate blog on over the next few weeks, but this is just to give you a taster:

BARI

Known to many as the ‘gateway to Puglia’, it’s where the airport is and where you can catch the ferry to Greece, Croatia and Montenegro.  While it has a slightly gritty reputation, Bari is not without charm.  Stick to the Old Town and explore alleyways decorated with washing lines, small market stalls, its lively harbour and the old city walls.  Bari has a vibrant nightlife and some great AirBnBs, and prices are low.  For breakfast head to Martinucci for a cappuccino and Pasticciotti (pastry from Lecce) with a view of the main square, for pre-dinner drinks and sunset views try Caffe sotto il mare, for dinner opt for Black & White with its great pizzas and charming service, and finish your night at my favourite local bar La Ciclatera, for a late night vino or cocktail.

Bari

IMG_8617

LECCE

While beautiful, Lecce is known wrongly as ‘Florence of the South’.  It boasts stunning Baroque palazzi and churches, but it is no competition to the grandeur of Florence.  Having said that, it certainly has its own charm, which makes it one of Puglia’s most famous towns.  Sante Croce’s intricate and slightly crazy facade is unforgettable, while the Duomo has a more gentle beauty and I loved drifting through its labyrinth of honey-coloured sandstone streets.  Around every turn we’d find a pretty archway, a frescoed stairway or an enviable rooftop terrace.  Lecce is a student town, so during the summer it is so peaceful often you’ll find yourself completely alone.  My favourite place was Doppiozero, a Deli and breakfast/lunch hangout (though they do dinner too) where every detail is thought through (and I love their juices).  If you’re in search of something more authentic, Trattoria Le Zie is as local as it gets, where they serve ‘peasant food’ to the highest standard, with big, welcoming smiles.

Lecce

Doppiozero, LecceDoppiozero, Lecce

OSTUNI

The most glamorous of Puglian towns, ‘la citta bianca’ sits high on a hill with views of both the sea and the countryside.  Built by the Greeks in 1 AD, Ostuni has a distinctly Greek feel about it, with white washed houses, colourful shutters, narrow winding streets and lots of staircases.  It’s also more popular with tourists (mostly Italian though), and the restaurant & bar scene is more developed here.  My favourite bar Controcorrente has unrivalled views of the old town itself (and delicious G&Ts), while the Cafe Riccardo and Mela Bacata are trendy local hangouts with a view of Ostuni’s surroundings.

Ostuni

Controcorrente, Ostuni

CISTERNINO

This was our ‘local’.  And how lucky we were to be just a 5 minute drive from this pretty white town in the Valle D’Itria (AKA Trulli country).  It seems to have some of the best restaurants in the area (while lacking in bars, but nearby Locorotondo helps out there).  There are pots of plants and flowers everywhere: blood red geraniums spilling over windowsills, big green ferns in shady corners and cacti a reminder that you’re in the hot south. We had dinner on the stylish roof terrace of La Capase (which was phenomenal), but Enoteca Il Cucco (we bought some lovely wines here) and Osteria Sant’Anna are both meant to be really good too.   Forno Pronto is what we really should have tried: the local favourite where butchers allow you to choose your meat and they BBQ it for you on the spot.  An excuse to return, not that I need it.

Cisternino

La Capase, Cisternino

LOCOROTONDO

You can see the beautiful facade of this tiny white washed town from afar, a contrast to Cisternino’s and Martina Franco’s blander ‘new towns’.  Locorotondo does bars as well as Cisternino does restaurants, but it’s all on a very modest scale.  Walking around you can’t help but notice its subtle poverty, while the houses are pretty, look closely and you’ll see the windows and doors are plastic and its ‘palazzi’ are modest to say the least.  But the locals are so friendly, and you don’t need a map as you wander through there quiet, winding streets.  You don’t really expect a stylish bar like BBeP (Barfi, Baffi and Pellicce) – which has a serious cocktail list – in a little place like this, nor the even trendier (but less cosy) Dock 101 with its all white and wooden decor, live music and views of the valley (across a road though).  The surprise just adds to the pleasure of an evening stroll in Locorotondo.

Locorotondo, PugliaBBep, Locorotondo
MARTINA FRANCA

The Queen of Valle D’Itria, this beautiful town is clearly a lot bigger and wealthier than its neighbouring towns.  It being our first outing in Puglia, we were not sure what to expect, and Martina Franca certainly exceeded expectations. On a Sunday it’s a hive of activity, locals going for early evening strolls, eating gelato, attending mass.  We watched the sun set and the light turn the sandstone buildings a warm yellow.  We found a newly opened wine bar, Cibando, on Piazza Roma and enjoyed trying the various types of Puglian wine (Nero di Troia was our favourite).  The staff were exceptionally friendly.

Martina FrancaCibando, Martina Franca
MATERA

A place like no other.  Matera is town built of ‘sassi’ (caves) built into the rock, and which are Italy’s oldest continually inhabited dwellings.  Best described in Carlo Levi’s book ‘Christ stopped at Eboli’ (a pre-holiday must read), which gives a detailed account of its abject poverty, and of how thousands of peasants (and their livestock) lived in the caves, in terrible conditions.   As the Lonely Planet rightly points out, Matera’s lack of development meant that it preserved its original state.  It has now gone through a re-birth of kinds, and many Sassi are now elegant places to live (especially in the more developed Sassi Barisana), some of which have become boutique hotels, restaurants and bars.  For me, Matera was one of the most fascinating places I have visited in Italy.  For lunch with a view try the Tarrazzino (though the views are ten times better than the food).  If you’re in need of a gelato for your stroll through the town, go for the I Vizi Degli Angeli.

Matera

POLIGNANO A MARE

Puglia’s most picturesque fisherman’s village, complete with pretty houses built into its steep Limestone cliffs, the bluest of seas, and a famous restaurant in a cave (and part of a mediocre 4 star hotel): Grotta Polignano.  It certainly leaves an impression and the views of the Adriatic sea and coastline are fabulous (as are the views of the daring cliff divers).  The village is bustling with tourists and locals a like, most of whom you’ll find on its tiny beach during the weekend (where I’d recommend making the beach bar Fly your base).   If you fancy something quieter, grab a fresh vegetable juice at Luna Coffee Shop (otherwise not hugely interesting) or have a delicious white pizza or seafood pasta at Bella ‘Mbriana, on the main (and rather beautiful) square Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II.

Polignano a mare

Polignano a mare

More detailed blogs on each place will be posted in the next few weeks on City Turtle, so stay tuned!  For more photos of my Puglian discoveries, check my Instagram.

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