Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Tour de France

The Tour de France itself is open only to professional cyclists, but that’s not to say that you can’t get a taste of the action. You can bike the same route, or follow stage by stage as a spectator. Here are the highlights you can expect to see if you follow the route, plus our practical tips to make it happen.

Dusseldorf

The very first stage of this year’s Tour de France starts and ends in the German city of Dusseldorf. It’s a flat 13 km time trial through the city streets, mostly along the banks of the Rhine and therefore wonderfully flat. You can follow a similar route on a guided bike tour of the city, or meander your own way through the Old and New Towns. The parks and tree-lined promenade by the riverside are particularly pretty, and a great way to ease yourself into cycling, especially if you’re not terribly fit.

Liège

Stage 2 of the Tour de France is a long distance stage: 203 km from Dusseldorf across the border to Liège in Belgium. There are two short climbs along the way, and you’ll see a great deal of western Germany’s countryside as you cycle.

Though this section of the route is not overly arduous, you will be spending a lot of hours in the saddle. It’s essential you wear the right shorts or tights to avoid chafing. Jack Wolfskin’s Gravity Flex Tights are stretchy and breathable, and importantly are also waterproof — helpful for the unpredictable weather in Northern Europe!

When you arrive into Liège, don’t be deceived by the first industrial appearances. Climb the Montagne de Bueren steps for a rewarding city view, and treat yourself to a well-earned beer at the top.Troyes

Cycling and drinking wine may not always go together, but there are few things more pleasurable in life than biking through French vineyards. The organisers of the Tour de France know that well, and so Stage 7 runs 213 km through the vineyards of Burgundy from Troyes to Nuits-Saint-Georges. Champagne and Rosé des Riceys are just two of the local specialities: you can also keep your energy levels up with Troyes andouillette, Chaource cheese, and Prunelle de Troyes, a particularly potent prune-based liquor.
Bergerac

Competitors in the Tour de France take a much-needed rest day in the Dordogne before starting on Stage 10, the 178 km leg from Perigueux to Bergerac. The terrain here is a little hillier, but the rewards for visitors are ample: the famous cave paintings of Lascaux, truffles and foie gras for the foodies, and the attractions of Bergerac.

Bergerac’s Old Town looks as if it was made for tourism. The timber framed houses are medieval, there are lively markets in the squares, and you can wander along the bank of the Dordogne River down to the historic quay.

Rodez

By the time you reach Stage 14 (182 km), you’ll need to raise your game. The hills here might look photogenic, but as they rise higher and higher, your legs will start to burn.

Be grateful that you’re on a modern, lightweight bicycle. The first time that British riders competed in the Tour de France was in 1955, and their equipment and clothing looked very different indeed. The Wearwell Cycle Company, who sponsored riders in that first British team, have relaunched their collection in 2017, combining a hint of 1950s vintage style with the latest materials and designs. You can look the part whilst riding in complete comfort.

When you do get to Rodez at the end of the stage, inevitably you’ll be exhausted. Once you’ve recovered, do allow some time for sightseeing, however. Rodez’s cathedral is a masterpiece of gothic architecture; there’s an excellent circular walking tour around the Old Town; and the local park, Domaine de Combelles, covers 300 acres.

Paris

Everyone’s heard of the Maillot Jaune — the yellow jersey — of the Tour de France, and on the final race day, that’s what is on everyone’s mind. It’s considered bad form for other riders to don that colour shirt, but if you want to feel like a winner on your own bicycle ride, by all means flash some canary yellow.

The 21st and final stage of the Tour de France is from Montgeron through Paris to the Champs-Élysées. It’s a 103 km ride and when the roads are cleared for the race, classed as a sprint. If you’re competing with the Parisian traffic, however, your pace will inevitably be curtailed.

It’s in Paris that the excitement of the race builds to a peak, and where as a spectator you’ll find the best vantage points. Arrive in good time if you want a spot on the Quai d’Orsay or Pont Alexandre III; you stand a better chance in the grounds of the Grand Palais where there’s rather more room.

Watching the race reach its triumphal end on the Champs-Élysées is an emotional sight. And that’s even more true if you’ve cycled all — or even part — of the way yourself. Make time this summer for the Tour de France, the greatest c

UK travellers from resorts

There’s always been plenty of talk about protection for holiday-makers in case holidays go wrong. But now it seems that holiday providers need protection too; from UK travellers.

Many of these have turned out to be fake claims fuelled by a bevy of touts and claims management companies (CMCs) who encourage holiday-makers to become dishonest, even coaching them about how to get the “evidence” they need to make a claim. This would include eating in a hotel simply to blame the venue for the supposed food poisoning.

People have reported receiving cold calls from claim companies suggesting falsely, that “a fund has been set up to compensate for deficiencies in hotel hygiene”.

Let’s face it, it was only a matter of time before this scam was rumbled. The day of reckoning has come and we Britons have been identified as the biggest culprits and even been dubbed the “the fake sick man of Europe”.

As Nick Longman, managing director of Tui – the parent company of Thomson and First Choice – so succinctly said: “it’s totally embarrassing”.

Mr Longman, who was the first to create a black list of fake tummy bug claimants, said: “A hotel will have customers from four or five markets of Tui and it will only be the British Tui customers who are complaining.”

Recently a hotel in Greece fought back. One British couple from Darlington found themselves facing a £170,000 counter claim by the Greek resort hotel after making a food poisoning allegation. The couple later withdrew the claim saying that they only did it when contacted by a claims company.

The industry is now toying with ideas to deal with this “British problem” and this may well result in banishing UK travellers from all-inclusive resorts leaving all of us with far less choice – and having to dole out more dosh too; remember how bogus whiplash claims made insuring our cars more expensive?

Spanish hoteliers have come out fighting saying that bogus claims by British tourists have cost them £42 million. It turns out that the Costa del Sol, Costa Blanca, Costa Dorada and Benidorm have seen the highest number of scams.

In the meantime the Hotel Business Federation of Mallorca wants Brits barred from popular all-in breaks saying that if the compensation culture is not stamped out it will only allow UK sun-seekers self catering and bed and breakfast accommodation.

Since spring 2016 travel firm Tui has recorded around 15 times more illness claims than in previous years. They are typically worth around £3,000 to £5,000, sums that are often more than the cost of of the actual holiday.

But this has a knock-on affect as the operator has to revert to the hotels to claw back some of the money paid out. Naturally this leads to friction leaving hotels feeling hard done by, unsupported and reluctant to welcome UK visitors.

Operators such as Tui and Thomson are now inclined to stop selling to the British market. Tui’s Nick Longman, said “There’s a distinct risk that if this carries on as it is unabated, the hoteliers will say to us either ‘We don’t want to work with the British market at all’ or ‘We’re not going to offer you all-inclusive’.”

Thomas Cook’s UK managing director, Chris Mottershead, also warned that the scam could lead to the end of such holidays. ”It’s a very serious situation because it has the effect of stopping all-inclusive holidays for the UK market,“ he said. ”It has the potential of putting hoteliers out of business. They will stop British customers coming into their hotels.”

I applaud the effort made by ABTA, the Association of British Travel Agents who have launched the “Stop Sickness Scams” campaign urging the government to legislate in order to curb the incidence of bogus claims.

Easy money for one, means banishment and higher holiday prices for all.

So, on behalf of all decent British holiday-makers (and we are many), my message to the hoteliers of Europe is: please don’t abandon us – we are sorry.

Day trips from San Juan

 R0ads serve as a stage, and the performers are the rolling hills dotted with little country houses, the wild horses roaming freely through the forests, the fishing villages with tiny bars by the water – these are the enchanting sights travelers find when they dare to venture outside of the city and into the island’s core. Starting in San Juan, these day trips are less than two hours away from the city and reveal Puerto Rico’s raw beauty and cultural merit.

Luquillo – for stunning coastal views and local delicacies

Located on the east side of the island, Luquillo is only an hour away from the capital, and the drive there is pleasant and easy; just get on the PR-66 heading towards Rio Grande and then take the PR-3 South. Luquillo will soon materialize, tempting you to the shore with its blue-green waters and lines of the tallest palm trees around. Head to Balneario La Monserrate, also known as Luquillo Beach, if you want serene scenery, soft sand and easy access. Drive a little further and stop at La Pared Beach for a more rugged coast, a favorite among surfers who come here to catch the decidedly gnarly waves. After a day at the beach, just follow the locals, who are inevitably drawn to the Luquillo kiosks to find flavorsome dishes and cold beer. These beach-side kiosks offer many fried staples like alcapurriasbacalaitos and piononos, but other more filling dishes like roasted pork with rice and beans are also easy to find.

Culebra and Vieques – for an off-the-grid beach escape

Simply put, Culebra and Vieques are paradise defined, home to swathes of ivory sand lapped by calm, blue ocean and slim dirt roads snaking through dense tropical forests. Getting there can be as easy as hopping on a plane in San Juan and arriving thirty minutes later, or you can turn it into a road trip by driving to Fajardo and then traveling like the locals do, via an hour and a half-long panoramic ferry ride. If you choose the latter option, just be sure get to the terminal early to snag tickets – if you’re traveling on a weekday or a slow weekend, shoot to arrive half an hour early, but if you are venturing out during high season or on summer weekends, be prepared to arrive at least an hour early to queue. Either method of arrival will soon have you swooning over bright white sands like Culebra’s Flamenco Beach or Navio in Vieques. But it’s the laid-back, friendly local attitude will leave the biggest impression on your trip – life is definitely sunnier, saltier, and easier on these welcoming islands.

Fajardo – for tropical tunes and arepas

Fajardo is not just the place to catch the ferry to unspoiled Vieques and Culebra – this fishing town is also a prime spot for tropical escapism. Just one hour from San Juan, Fajardo sports an immaculate stretch of sand called Seven Seas Beach, a natural reserve known as Cabezas de San Juan, and some of the best arepas rellenas (white corn pocket bread) on the island. Head over to the village of Las Croabas for local dishes, drinks and music by the sea. If you’re feeling active, rent a kayak or a paddle board in Seven Seas and explore the peaceful coast, or hike to ‘playa escondida,’ a stunning hidden beach with views of Luquillo. Fajardo is also home to El Conquistador Resort, possibly the biggest and most famous resort on the island, and the pristine isles of Icacos and Palomino, only reachable by boat.

Guavate in Cayey – for celebrated cuisine and rural roads

Cayey is known as the home of the highly touted spit-roasted suckling pig, a local delicacy. This is not a dish you get at just any restaurant on the island, though, and many locals consider it mandatory to drive to Guavate to eat their way through the suckling pig route. Officially known as La Ruta del Lechón, this hilly rural road (officially Carretera 184) in the Central Mountains, became an even bigger attraction thanks to celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, who visit often. Along the route, culinary enthusiasts will find plenty of different lechoneras (restaurants) like El Nuevo Rancho, El Mojito and Los Pinos. The celebrated roasted pork is usually served with rice, pigeon peas and a savory slice of cuerito (pork rind) on the side.

An island for traveler

The most visited of the Grenadines and rightly so, beautiful Bequia is the quintessential slow-paced Caribbean island that really does have it all. Visitors can swim, dive or hike through dazzling natural beauty by day and then soak up the tropical atmosphere in the evening, sipping cocktails or tucking into a gourmet meal on a panoramic terrace.

Among its many draw cards are Princess Margaret Beach and Lower Bay, two wonderful stretches of sand backed by lush greenery, just a short hike from the capital Port Elizabeth.

As the second largest island in the chain, Bequia offers plenty of attractions for nature lovers. There are good drift dives along the leeward side of the north of the island while the remote hilly north of the island affords ample opportunity for exploration; climb some of the imposing forested peaks for fine views of St Vincent and other Grenadine islands.

Getting there: Visiting Bequia is a breeze thanks to its efficient regularfast ferry service linking it with Kingstown on St Vincent Island. SVG Air has flights from the airport on the south of the island to Kingstown, Barbados and St Lucia.

Mustique

Best for: Kicking it with rock stars

Mysterious Mustique, home to rock stars and the uber wealthy, is the island that fomented the image of the Grenadines as playground for the rich and famous.

The private island has some of the priciest accommodations in the region – if you have the bank balance, you can crash at the Balinese themed villa built by David Bowie. But you don’t need to be rolling in it to visit – day trips on yachts from Bequia allow visitors to get a taste of Mustique’s manicured lawns and pure tropical perfection. Visitors can lie about on pristine beaches and take a drink at iconic Basil’s Baroverlooking the main harbor – you never know who might be at the next table.

Getting there: There are no public ferry services to Mustique. Travelers can visit on a day sailing cruise from Bequia; a recommended boat is the elegant Caribbean schooner Friendship Rose. Visitors with accommodation can find regular flights from Barbados, Kingstown, Grenada and Saint Lucia with Mustique Airways.

Tobago Cays

Uninhabited and protected as a marine park, the gorgeous Tobago Caysare the highlight of any trip to the Grenadines. Surrounded by an impressive barrier reef, they offer some of the best snorkeling in all of the Caribbean with warm, shallow waters filled with hard corals that are alive with marine life, including a thriving population of marine turtles.

The beauty of the cays is no secret among travelers, but they rarely feel overrun thanks to their remote location and lack of development. A day trip here is a thoroughly relaxing experience with bouts of snorkeling, swimming and lazing on the sands interrupted only by freshly caught seafood meals.

Getting There: There is no public transportation to the Tobago Cays, but it’s possible to charter a small boat for a day trip from any one of the populated Grenadine islands; Mayreau is the cheapest departure point, followed by Union Island. To see the cays in style, book a sailing tour from Union Island on the pirate ship Scaramouche.

Mayreau

Tiny Mayreau may not have a hospital, school or any police, but the glorious lack of development doesn’t stop the small population of locals from having a good time. Mayreau is famed locally for its hard partying. In fact, those that work on the boats swear that Mayreau’s weekly beer order far eclipses that of far larger neighbor Union Island.

Apart from bar hopping, there are plenty of other reasons to pay a visit. The island is part of the Tobago Cays marine park and boasts spectacular beaches. Long a secret amongst yachties in the know, Salt Whistle Bay on the northern tip of the island is one of the most perfect bays in the Grenadines: a full horseshoe-shaped crescent of brilliant white sand lined with coconut palms that looks almost too good to be true. It’s a fantastic place to swim.

The undeveloped nature of Mayreau means there are plenty of rarely visited smaller bays to discover, and the small size of the island means you’re never too far from home (or cold beers) once you tire of exploration.

Getting there: Some southern Grenadines ferry services, including theMV Barracuda, call at Mayreau on the Kingstown-Union Island run. Alternatively, a school boat runs between Clifton on Union Island and Mayreau every weekday morning and afternoon. There’s no airstrip on Mayreau.

Canouan

A tale of two islands – Canouan is a peculiar place that, in some ways, shows the perils of tourism development. Once a normal Grenadine paradise, more than half of the island was sold off by the SVG government to private investors for a mega resort project leaving local residents bunched up in the village on the southern reaches of the isle without access to some of Canouan’s loveliest spots. Of course if you’re staying in the resort, you will enjoy access to absolutely stunning beaches with first class snorkeling and zero crowds.

While many of the nicest beaches are within the resort boundaries, there is also fine snorkeling and some lovely sands to the south and east of the village of Charlestown, although infrastructure on the island is limited for independent visitors.

Union Island

An outpost at the far southern end of the St Vincent Grenadines and across an international border, mountainous Union Island has traditionally been off the radar for many visitors but has recently been discovered by a new wave of adventurous independent travelers.

With a couple of laid back villages and no major resorts, it’s one of the best islands for visitors to mix it up with locals. The main street in Clifton is lined with little cafes and restaurants, and it’s a fun place to relax in the evening after sun-soaked adventures.

As a true Grenadine, Union is not without its share of astonishing natural beauty. Big Sand on the west side of the island is a wonderful crescent of powdery white fronted by brilliant turquoise sea and framed by jungle covered bluffs. The waters to the east of the airport runway on the north side of the island offer some of the best kiteboarding in the archipelago.