Wednesday, 4 March 2015

And the award goes to...

...and so, as all good things must come to an end, here I am back in sunny Blighty (no thanks to Virgin Atlantic, after an almighty delay and total chaos at JFK).

So, six weeks, about twenty-six different beds and over 26,000 miles...what's the conclusion?  Absolutely bloody amazing, in short.  Part of the reason for this trip was to see whether it was possible to enjoy whizzing round the world in such a short space of time (six weeks) and at an, ahem, slightly more advanced age than most who hit a similar trail.  The answer is YES to both questions, although tiredness was a factor at times.

Throughout this blog I've tried to avoid naming too many specific hotels and companies for fear of it looking like a PR-sponsored jamboree.  Its an accusation often levelled at travel writing, that we are just endlessly nice about people/companies who arrange the trips we go on.  The joy of this blog is that I don't owe anything to anyone - the travel features I'll be writing tick those boxes - so anything mentioned here is because I genuinely think its a great place.

So in that vein, I hereby announce the inaugural Fogg Blog Awards - a few suggestions, tips and recommendations for anyone lucky enough to do a similar trip - or just planning a holiday to one of the countries I visited.

First up...

The 'I Know This Country Like the Back of My Hand' Award for Best Tour Operator
This one has to go to New Zealand In Depth (  They put together a fantastic itinerary that showed me the best of the North Island, staying at a great mix of places, from lakeside cabins to swanky B&Bs.  Everywhere I went the property owners had met and knew the owner of the company, and had only good things to say,

The 'This Could Go on For the Rest of the Day' Award for Best Lunch
Sydney wins this one hands down with two fantastic restaurants; Coogee Pavilions ( on Coogee Beach - a great sprawling brasserie of a place, great for families and long lunches of cold white wine and seafood platters.  And also the Grounds of Alex (,

tucked away in a residential area of the city, a huge warehouse and fairylit garden, serving up fabulously hearty food, home-made pastries and cakes and freshly-ground coffee.

The 'I Have Actually Found Heaven' Award for Best Beach
Forget Bondi or Santa Monica, beautiful, isolated, unspoilt Kuaotunu Beach

on New Zealand's breathtaking Coromandel Peninsula wins by a mile.  My 5pm swim on a sunny Sunday afternoon was one of the highlights of the trip.

The 'Lets Do Something a Bit Worthy This Afternoon' Award for Best Museum
Another joint award; Chicago's amazing Art Institute ( has to be a winner, with a spectacular collection of art, including Impressionist galleries that rival anything the Met or the National can offer.  On a much smaller scale, the Burma-Thai Railway Museum in Thailand

was a fascinating, sobering, but gently-done exploration of the horrors of the 'Death Railway' in the Second World War.

The 'I'll Be In the Dining Car Waiting for Cary Grant' Award for Best Train Journey
Only one contender here, the E&O Express that glides between Thailand and Singapore;

all polished teak dining cars, white-gloved attendants and the fabulous jazz pianist in the bar.  Amtrak might compete on scenery but it doesn't quite match it for luxe-ness.

The 'I'll be Exercising Absolutely No Self-Control' award for Best Dinner
Two very different winners here; the lipsmacking (and mouth-burning) supper we ate on the Yarowat Road in Bangkok's Chinatown; fish steeped in chillis and garlic, crispy shrimp, oyster-sauce coated greens and egg fried rice, with cold Tiger Beers and the traffic rushing past.  And then Chicago's renowed Girl and the Goat (; some of the most inventive (and tasty) food I've eaten in a while.

The 'Meeting People is What Its All About' for Best Character
One of the biggest joys of the trip was the amount of interesting, charming people I met.  Favourite of all was Mr Cliff, an ageing photographer who sold beautiful pictures on the square in Santa Fe; his grandfather's photographs touched up and reimagined with new digital technology.  'Ah spent a lotta time gettin' drunk in your pubs' he drawled at us, grinning.  We loved him.

Honourable mention should also go the truly lovely Maurice, a Maori grandfather who showed me his local marae and revealed a few rainforest secrets to me.

The 'I'm Changing the Locks and Never Leaving' Award for Best Hotel
Tricky this one, because there are so many to choose from.  Budget-wise, Citizen M New York ( takes a lot of beating (it even has a rooftop bar) but you have to not mind the pod-style rooms.  The King & Queen Suites in New Plymouth ( was a great example of a new, fresh hotel with great values...but Crosby Street ( still rocks it for me.

The 'I'm Really Quite Grateful' Award for Making it All Possible
An entirely gratuitous plug, admittedly, but this trip would never have happened without the wonderful STA Travel ( - who were keen to get the message across that whizzing around the world is not just for twentysomethings.  It's  a message I'll be making sure I get out there.

So that's it.  The washing is on, the suitcase stowed and it's time to close the blog.  It's been an awfully big adventure.  I hope you've enjoyed reading about it.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

New York, New York

Somehow it's happened.  After just under six weeks and 21,000 miles, here I am in my final port of call; the gorgeous, glorious, hedonistic, hectic, unbelievably fabulous New York.

Not that getting here was easy.  After a six-hour delay at Chicago's Union Station (it actually made me feel a bit wistful for the trifling delays I normally suffer with Southern rail), the train chugged slowly through endlessly snowy landscapes, with great piles of the stuff piled up against houses and at the sides of roads.  By the time we finally pulled up at Penn Station it was 1.30am, rather than our supposed arrival time of 6.25pm.  Arriving at the hotel to discover they couldn't find our reservation was not what we wanted to hear.

But no-one can stay cross, or tired, in New York for long.  At first I wasn't going to write a blog post about New York, because it's all been said so many times before, but I think tips and recommendations are always helpful, so here's a few.

Pick your time when to go.  It may be perishing cold here right now, but in winter the ice rinks are open (the one below is at Rockefeller Plaza), all the tourist attractions are quieter and you're more likely to be able to get a table for dinner at the restaurant of your choosing.

Events like Restaurant Week ( which happens in February, are a great way to save money while eating in some top restaurants.  Try to come in the week rather than at a weekend when, again, the main sights and shopping areas will be far less busy.

In terms of where to stay, New York can be wincingly expensive. Location makes a huge difference - if you're in Midtown, you're close to all the sights, but if you stay below 14th Street - in Soho, the East Village, or the Lower East Side, you'll experience a more authentic side of Manhattan.  At the budget end, there's nowhere to beat Citizen M in Midtown (, where rates start at around £120 a night - a bargain for NYC.

If budget isn't an issue, then Crosby Street Hotel in Soho is, for my money, one of the best hotels in the city.  Part of the British chain, it matches English style with NYC chutzpah.  But the prices will sting.

Eating out can be a full-time occupation in NYC, and the best way is to try and encompass everything from classic diners to ethnic coffee shops to Italian pasta like Mama used to make.  We've eaten eggs-over-medium with hash browns and endless coffee at the Evergreen Diner ( in Midtown, delicious tapas at Barca ( in Soho, slightly strange cookies and 50p tea and coffees in an unpronounceable Chinese coffee shop, deep in Chinatown and fabulous Greek meze at the Kellari Taverna ( also in Midtown.

It's our very last day today, so we're just going to stroll - because that's the best way to see the city.  We'll head on up to the wonderful Flatiron Building

and then wander back down to Chinatown for a late lunch.  That's the plan, but when you wander in New York, you never know quite what you're going to find - yesterday we encountered a whole celebration in Chinatown, with dragons frisking about outside shops to ward off evil spirits for the coming year.

And then, after that, the airport will beckon.  But it's far, far too soon to be thinking about that...

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Are We Having Fun Yet?

So it must be time for another 'truth in travel' blogpost.  This one comes from the Metropolitan Lounge at Union Station in Chicago, where I'm waiting for an overnight train to New York.  It's late and I'm tired, and the best forecast at the moment is the train will be three hours delayed because of the latest Arctic blast.  Having checked out of a hotel at 11am, we've been on the go since then and am sorely in need of sleep.

But then travel can't always be fun.  It's not always easy.  Everyone has stories of being stuck on the tarmac for hours; the time they almost got swept out to sea, the twenty-four hour delay at the airport.  They might make a good anecdote some time in the future, but while they're happening they're frustrating, tiring, disappointing, infuriating and inevitably completely spoil that lovely, freewheeling feel.

Sometimes travelling just is tough.  Rocking up in February in Chicago has not been without its challenges;

 sub-zero temperatures, snow, wind, having to wear so many clothes to keep warm that you give up any idea of looking even vaguely presentable and just hope the bag-lady look is in this season.  But in spite of the weather, we've had a fabulous time - the city is like a dialled-down New York; hugely friendly, unpretentious and architecturally stunning, with public art everywhere - the most spectacular of which is Anish Kapoor's The Bean (actually called Cloud Gate) below

and an art gallery, The Chicago Institute of Art,  to rival New York's Metropolitan museum and London's National Gallery.

We've eaten soooo well - not just on the foodie tour (which saw us munch our way through hot dogs, chocolates, bratwurst and deep pan pizza) but at fantastic restaurants around the city.  We've done classic American fare at Wildberry Pancakes ( and more avant-garde dishes at the fantastically-named Girl and the Goat (  Deep pan pizza at Pizano's ( was a revelation; more like a deep-filled English flan, with shortcust pastry, than any kind of pizza.

When travel gets tough you motor on through; stick on the bright orange Carhartt hat that was the first one you could find to buy because it was so cold you thought your ears might snap off, and just keep on going.  There are inevitably going to be times when it's not fun, and if I'm honest one of those is right now.  But then I tell myself that whatever time I get on the train, when I get off it I'm going to be in New York.

It's a thought that brings a smile to my face.  Well it will, when the frostbite wears off.

NB: If the photo's are a little more professional than the usual content on this blog, it's because they're not mine.  The USB connector between my camera and my laptop is just the latest thing to be consigned to the ever-growing 'left-in-a-hotel-bedroom' list.  Still, at this rate my suitcase is going to be considerably lighter on the way home...

Monday, 23 February 2015

The Secrets of Santa Fe...

I hadn't realised that going from LA to New York by train would be seen as quite an outlandish thing to do, but everyone - from waitresses to train conductors, chatty fellow diners and taxi drivers - have all had the same reaction.  "Wow." Eyebrows reach up to their hairlines.  "By train?.  That's some journey."

And so it is.  An eighteen-hour overnight from LA to Santa Fe first - and what a place that turned out to be.  You haven't seen the middle of nowhere until you've been to New Mexico, where tufted desert rolls out to the horizon for mile upon mile upon mile.  

The station stop for Santa Fe is actually Lamy (population: 157).  From there we hopped a taxi shuttle for 20 mins to Santa Fe itself...which turned out to be a surreal mix of Sergio Leone film-set, a Native American Covent Garden and art-loving retiree town.

Santa Fe is unusual in the US in that it boasts some real, proper history.  Founded in 1610, it's the oldest state capital in the country, home to the oldest church and house and all architecture - restored and new - has to keep to the traditional adobe structures that would have characterised the original pueblo.

The historic centre of town, with adobe-lined streets fanning out from the historic central plaza, is a tourist's dream; endless boutiques selling (supposedly) Native American jewellery, art galleries, former trading posts converted into antique shops, cafes and upscale restaurants.  On a Saturday morning, even in February, the square was busy with shoppers, and the crisp, thin air (its 7000 feet up) gave it the feel of a ski resort (there is skiing nearby).


Browsing in the jewellery shops, we were slightly sceptical about the fact so many of them had 60% off sales (and such vast amounts of stock).  It all became clear when we got talking to Mr Cliff, who had a small stall on the main square selling beautiful photographs that were his grandfathers original, overlayed with 21st century colours and techniques.  "They're all Middle East owned," he drawled from beneath his cowboy hat.  "Sales on all the time.  Everything made in big factories out west.  If you want to buy, buy from the Navajo."

He pointed towards the Palace of the Governors, on the north side of the square, where a long line of Native America men and women sat on fold out chairs, with displays of jewellery laid out on cloths.   

I felt like a child at a birthday party; earrings, necklaces, bracelets all studded with semi precious stones and minerals - turquoise, tigers-eyes, moonstone,  most of it with a story from where it had been mined.

Second only to shopping in Santa Fe is eating - and even in February reservations are essential.  It's a very particular type of food - spiced meats bundled up in wraps or blue corn tortillas, swamped with green or red chilli sauce or refried beans, topped with cheese.  Huevos Rancheros - the classic breakfast dish - comes with two runny eggs buried among the general slick. 

Needless to say,  it wasn't for me - just watching someone else eat it was enough.

Perhaps what makes Santa Fe so unusual is the constant sense that that beyond the clutch of houses and businesses lies nothing; absolutely nothing, just pockmarked hills and barren desert.  It's an outpost, albeit an artistic and a foodie one, but one that drew me in, and made me want to explore further, across the empty wastes to other historic towns like Taos, steeped in Navajo history.  But there was, as ever, no time.  Forty-eight hours after we arrived we were back on the train for the 24-hour journey through snowy Colorado and Missouri to even snowier Chicago.

But there was something mystical, haunting, even a bit magical in those great empty spaces and that unique, historic town.  I'll definitely be back.

Friday, 20 February 2015

LA Story

It's interesting how this trip is reinforcing the basics rules of travel; do lots of research, don't try to do too much, sooner or later you will always leave your swimming costume in the bathroom, and never believe entirely what other travellers tell you.  So it has been with LA which, from everything I'd heard, I expected to be a smog-ridden, freeway-latticed sprawling conurbation with little soul, heart or centre.

After a day in Palm Beach (above) and a couple of days in Koreatown, in the heart of the city, I'm happy to report that yes, there are freeways everywhere, is is pretty smoggy and there definitely isn't one centre.  But leaving those factors aside, the city I've discovered has been very different to what I was expecting.

For a start, its the most ethically diverse city I've ever been too.  There's not just a Chinatown but a Little Tokyo, Thai Town, Koreatown and Little Armenia.  We've eaten freshly-baked Bungeoppang in a Korean supermarket

munched on wonderfully-cheesey borek in an Armenian bakery, and ordered up pad thai from a Thai foodstall in the 19th century Grand Central Market.

We've shopped in a Korean mall, which sold everything from traditional hanbok dresses to second-hand Korean books.  It also had a branch of Daiso, Japan's equivalent of a poundshop - which sold a dizzying array of things from kitchenware to pencil cases, make-up, gardening tools and stationery, with almost everything for a $1.50.  I almost had to be carried out.

Perhaps I've got more of a sense of place because we've walked a lot - something Angelinos, and many visitors, don't tend to do.  The pavements are quiet, many lined with statuesque palm trees, and the high-rise skyline I was expecting just isn't really there (with the exception of the financial district).  Instead we've found the original hispanic pueblo, just across from Union Station, where tribal dancers were - literally - shaking their tailfeathers,

spectacular views from the little-known (and free) viewing deck on the 37th floor of City Hall - we were the only people there

and a surprising amount of rather lovely period architecture.

But there have been moments of reassuringly predictable bonkersness too, most notably at our second hotel, the Line, currently LA's hippest address.  This is a hotel where two of the bedroom walls are plain, exposed cement.  The third wall looks identical, but its actually specially designed wallpaper, made to match, cement. The ceiling covering in the huge lobby is hundreds of crumpled t-shirts carefully pieced together and the restaurant menu doesn't have any words on it, just pictures. Could it be any more LA?

Three days isn't long, but LA struck me as a multi-faceted, multi-cultural city that in some ways is quite under-rated.  I wish we'd had time to do Hollywood and Beverly Hills, particularly in Oscar week, but at 6pm last night we pulled out of Union Station, headed for Santa Fe.  But that's a different story altogether...

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Tropical Island Holidays: Fantasy v Reality

So farewell, Fiji.   My week on the islands was definitely the most challenging of the whole trip; involving everything from tribal ceremonies to impromptu drinks with millionaire hotel owners and unexpected glass-blowing.  The itinerary was crazy, but the last three days on classic Robinson Crusoe-esque islands did give me some to reflect on the whole 'fantasy' tropical island holiday.

Before I go on, I should say that in my opinion, for a classic palm-trees-in-the-breeze, paradise-isle holiday, Fiji knocks it out of the park.  Compared to the Maldives/Mauritius these islands really have that castaway feel

  (not least because the island where Tom Hanks filmed Castaway is one of them). But one of the things this blog is for is to write honestly about things, and I do feel that this kind of holiday is something people spend thousands and thousands on, and sometimes end up disappointed.  So here's a few things to consider, based on my experiences in Mauritius, the Maldives and now Fiji, that travel agents and tour operators (and, sadly,  often travel features) may fail to mention.

First, the weather.  I've lost count of the people I know who have been on tropical island holidays and had bad weather.  Sun isn't guaranteed.

I was in Fiji during the rainy season, so grey skies were to be expected - but when I went to the Maldives, several years ago (supposedly in the 'dry' season), it rained all week. Weather patterns are changing everywhere and there are no guarantees; if you get a week of unbroken sunshine, anywhere, you're lucky.

Secondly, getting there.  Unless you're seriously loaded and can afford a seaplane or helicopter, you'll invariably go by boat.  These crossings can be pretty bloody scary; in Fiji the weather was kind and my half-hour zip across from one island to another was relatively smooth (while still being quite bouncy).

But in the Maldives, as we sailed towards hulking black clouds, I genuinely thought I was going to drown.  Choppy conditions are not uncommon.

Thirdly, wildlife.  If you come in the wet season, as I did, its a bit of a mosquito-fest. But all tropical islands are home to all manner of creatures; gekkos skittered across my floor, a crab was waiting on my doorstep one night, a frog the night before  There are bats in the trees and mongoose in the bushes.  The great thing in Fiji is there are no snakes and nothing poisonous.  But if you're not a wildlife fan, it can be an issue.

Fourthly, other people.  At Likuliku I went to have a sunset beer at the over-water bar.

I was by myself, so it didn't matter, but there was a gang of about eight Americans being really loud and shouty (and this is supposed to be a quiet, couples-only resort).  If I'd been trying to have a Romantic Moment, it would have spoilt it entirely.  Island resorts are often small, so you do trip over the same people all the time.

Fifth, it's all done for you.  Obviously a lot of people like this.  But if you're the sort that likes to go yomping off exploring, or discovering a place for yourself, it's virtually impossible.  Fiji has an incredibly vibrant indigenous culture, and many resorts run trips to local villages, schools etc.  But they are tour group excursions - difficult to explore on your own.

Sixth, the sea.  It's all about the beaches, right?

Yet quite often the beaches aren't really swimmable. In the Seychelles strong currents make some beaches unsafe for swimming.  In Fiji/the Maldives its often simply too shallow, particularly when the tide goes out.  If swimming/snorkelling in the sea is a big thing, choose your resort carefully.

If this all sounds overly negative, set it against the fact these islands are idyllically beautiful, utterly peaceful and have crystalline seas and all the swishing palms you could wish for. What you don't get - and what is so often sold - is perfection.  Fiji was full of character and tradition, and so different

that it seems almost dreamlike now, thousands of miles away in the familiar hustle and bustle of a first world city.  Santa Monica beach was drenched in sunshine this morning, perfect for an alfresco breakfast, but I missed the otherness of Fiji; the ladies with hibiscus flowers in their hair, how everyone beamed and said 'bula' all the time, the beautiful harmonic singing.  Expect different on a tropical island holiday and you won't be disappointed. Expect perfection...and you just might be.

Friday, 13 February 2015

A few thoughts on Fiji...

Its not even 7am in Fiji and I'm already up and sitting outside my bure

listening to the sea lap gently onto the sand.  There's utter silence apart from the birds, which is not surprising, considering I'm now half away from Vitu Levu (Fiji's biggest island) by boat, at a small island resort.  And it's idyllic.  The sea is so clear that when all the snorkellers had gone last night I wandered around up to my knees and fish as long as my hand swum by.  It's possibly the clearest sea I've ever seen.

But this state of general blissed-outness has taken a while to arrive at.  Fiji has been an interesting experience and the main lesson I would take away is always do some research about where you're going (you'd think I'd have learnt this by now!)  Never just assume.  Fiji is a country unlike any others I've visited and I was definitely on the backfoot for the first few days, playing catch up between my assumptions (chilled out beach islands) and the reality (traditional, village-based society with resorts along the coast).

I've also been quite cross at the itinerary the tourist board made up for me; a different hotel every night, which means constantly moving (Suva's tiny airport was quite an experience, this is the scales they use for weighing bags)

 and never getting the chance to stay long enough to really discover anywhere.  But now I'm here, on this tiny fleck in the middle of the ocean, I'm glad that I got to spend time on the main island, where I could get more an insight into authentic Fijian life.  Many visitors fly into Nadi, catch a cab through the expat houses and resorts on Denarau to the port and then spend their time here, or somewhere like it.  It's idyllic, but you don't see much of Fiji itself - this is the big market in Suva

and the open-sided buses everyone gets around on

And now is the time to come, I think, because tourism is changing Fiji, as it does everywhere.  It's seen as a force for good here - all the land on the islands is Fijian-owned, no non-Fijians can buy land, so there's no high-rise apartment blocks and even the biggest resorts are low-rise and non-intrusive.  Right now, life in the villages sounds like (mythical) Britain in the 1950's; doors are always open, everyone knows each other, people share what they have.  And a lot of cava drinking goes on.  But on every lamp-post in Suva, the main city, there are mobile phone advertisements and Stephen, the GM here on the island, was talking ruefully last night about the change he sees in what today's kids want for Christmas (iPads, phones etc) as opposed to his generation.

Change comes everywhere of course and its the classic tourism conundrum; it brings money in which is good, it often changes things for the better, but old ways tend to be lost.  In Fiji, however, tourism isn't new (my resort, Castaway, has been here for almost fifty years) so maybe the changes won't be too radical.  It is a different kind of tourism to anywhere else too - I've never been sung at so much - here's the reception committee for our arrival boat yesterday...

Today I'm moving again, to another island and there'll be another hotel tour and another hosted dinner; full-on again but a great way to gain more of an insight into the country.  Last night's was hilarious, with the hugely camp and very entertaining Lingo, who was rather like a Fijian Om Puri.  And this was my walk to dinner   

so I can't really complain.  Strolling back, the stars were mind-blowing.

Like the best of travel, Fiji has been fascinating, challenging, rewarding and utterly beautiful. Oh, and I've also learnt glass-blowing.  As one does on a South Pacific island, obviously.  Here's a pic as proof.  Happy Saturday.