Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Baltic, Estonia's Top National Park, Lahemaa near Tallinn

Estonia's Top National Park ©Solange Hando

Set up in 1971, Estonia's oldest national park runs along the coast of the Gulf of Finland and stretches into the hinterland of which two thirds are forested. It's roughly an hour's drive east of Tallinn and a fabulous place to enjoy the country's natural and cultural heritage.

Traditional Farm in Lahemaa Forest ©Solange Hando

Here, besides pine and mixed forests, you find pastures and farmland, erratic boulders, fast-flowing rivers, lakes, waterfalls, springs, canyons, and marshes and bogs in the wild scarcely inhabited southern areas.

Spruce is particularly important in the local folklore and used for making cradles and coffins, thus symbolising life's natural cycle.

Splash of Colour in Lahemaa ©Solange Hando

The flora is as diverse as the land, from bog rosemary and cotton grass to bearberry, heather and Labrador tea. There are footpaths and forest roads ideal for cycling, board walks and beavers' trails while moose, brown bear, wild boar and lynx hide in the shadows.

Great flocks of whooping cranes can be seen in autumn and if you're lucky, you might spot a rare Ural Owl or a Black Woodpecker.

Palmse Manor in Lahemaa National Park ©Solange Hando

Visitors can explore the Oandu Nature Centre or the Forest Museum in Sagadi Manor to discover the life-sustaining gifts of the Estonian forest, rich in edible mushrooms, berries, water and wood.

Along with Vihula and Palmse, Sagadi is one of the ancient manors built on the fertile Klint escarpment and now beautifully restored as an integral part of the park's cultural heritage.

Lahemaa's National Park near Tallinn ©Solange Hando

As for the shoreline, stony or sandy, it is sprinkled with islands and indented with bays and peninsulas home to myriad seabirds, including the Eurasian oystercatcher.

Once the domain of fishermen and smugglers, it's a coast of ancient legends where every boulder has a story to tell and in the shade of the rowan trees, folk festivities survive, unperturbed by the modern world.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Dreams of Lonely Planet? 100 Pages to the Best Job in the World

Traditional Festival in Bhutan ©Solange Hando

Do you love travelling?
New people, new places, new cultures...
Have you ever dreamed of selling your stories ? 
Seeing your name in print and earning some cash?

'Be a Travel Writer' won't get you a dozen commissions overnight, or promise you'll be the next Chris Stewart or Simon Calder, but it will certainly set you on the right track and help you sell every feature you ever write.

If  you enjoy discovering places and meeting people,
If you can you write in simple English and take digital pictures,

This is for you.
Add it to your Christmas list and it could change your life...
Just 100 pages to 'the best job in the world'.

Only eight copies left on Amazon, more on the way, but don't let them slip away...

Good luck and I hope to see you on the road.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Sicily, Hotel Alberi del Paradiso in Cefalu

Alberi del Paradiso in Cefalu, Sicily ©Solange Hando

Set in lush grounds, framed by lofty palms and bougainvillaea, Alberi del Paradiso is a quiet retreat nestling on a slope above town and sea. Birds twitter in the garden, a stream gurgles by the old water mill and the scent of jasmine lingers in the air.

Just minutes from the sea, this low-rise eco-friendly hotel is within the Madonie Mountains Nature Park which claims the highest biodiversity in Europe.

The Reception at Paradiso Hotel ©Solange Hando

Step inside the light airy reception and you will be greeted by a particularly friendly staff. Nothing here is too much trouble, whether you wish to call a taxi, book an excursion or the free shuttle to take you into town or down to the beach (20 minutes on foot, steep climb on the way back). The shuttle stops early evening but if you wish to dine out, any restaurant will call you a taxi (10 euros).

Rooms and suites have balconies with sea or mountain views and air conditioning which controls humidity as well as temperature. Free WiFi and tea and coffee making facilities are standard and there's plenty of on-site parking, shaded by a solar panel roof.

Fresh Fruit, Breakfast Time ©Solange Hando

Breakfast is an attractive buffet, where you can squeeze your own oranges, to be enjoyed on a terrace which almost feels like a tree top house. The policy of 0 km (local products) and 0 waste (efficient recycling) also applies whenever possible in the al capone restaurant.

Prepared by chef Roberto Bonvissuro and his team, the best of Mediterranean cuisine is on offer, based on organic products from the Madonie mountains and the sea and accompanied by quality wines from a well-stocked cellar.

Light lunches and snacks are available in the bar.

Swimming Pool at Alberi del Paradiso ©Solange Hando

Other facilities include a sheltered outdoor pool, tennis court and a spa with jacuzzi, massage and beauty treatments (on request) in a quiet spot among the olive trees. 

Add a private beach with loungers and parasols, accessed by hotel shuttle, what more could anyone ask for?

View of Cefalu from the hillside ©Solange Hando

Excursions from Cefalu?  
Think Taormina plus Etna, the Aeolian Islands, Palermo or inland villages but it's always a pleasure at the end of the day to return to Alberi del Paradiso,  wonderfully peaceful yet so close to the resort with its fine sands, elegant boutiques and al fresco restaurants.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Hotel Jules César, Five Star in Arles in Provence

Jules César, Five Star in Arles, Provence ©Solange Hando

Recently renovated by top French designer Christian Lacroix, the Jules César, now upgraded to five star, is a stunning, often surprising venue, where local traditions and Baroque flourishes mingle with bright contemporary colours.

The name pays tribute to the rich Roman heritage which alongside the Romanesque monuments, has earned the city a place on the UNESCO list. The hotel is conveniently situated close to all main attractions and has ample parking space.

Striking Décor at Jules César ©Solange Hando

Individually decorated guest rooms range from classic, superior and deluxe to junior suites in Provençal, Lacroix, and in this former convent, monastic styles.

All are spacious, offering complimentary WiFi, hospitality tray with Nespresso machine and turn down service. Bathrooms are also spacious with power shower and Occitane toiletries.

Heated Pool at Jules César ©Solange Hando

Facilities include a secluded outdoor pool and two off-site spas, the vaulted Calendal near the amphitheatre, for Floramé aromatherapy and more, and Moana for Polynesian and other rituals.

The concierge can arrange travel and baby sitting but most of all, guests will appreciate the warm welcome and service with a smile throughout the hotel.

Scallops on Avocado Cream of Green Tea ©Solange Hando

Dinner is served in the gourmet Lou Marquès restaurant (or on the terrace in summer) where the décor combines bright chairs and wood panelling with black friezes reminiscent of the city's bull fighting tradition. 

The menu is definitely haute cuisine and whether you opt for deer morsels or sole with crispy oyster and red quinoa, it is to be savoured at a leisurely pace. Wine and food pairing is available for 35 euros.

Breakfast is in a rustic kitchen with glass roof and decorative indoor shutters while the brightly-coloured bar serves afternoon tea and pre-dinner drinks with tapas.

Jules César Luxury Hotel in Former Convent, Arles ©Solange Hando

But luxury aside, the Jules César top assets are the small but quiet grounds so close to the town centre. Walk around the cloister or relax under the trees in the adjoining garden and you are in a true oasis of peace where little disturbs the silence but birds twittering in the trees.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Auberge Cavalière, 4 Star Character Hotel in the Camargue, South of France

Four Star Accommodation in the Camargue ©Solange Hando

The Auberge Cavalière prides itself in the authenticity of its accommodation, comprising just 69 rooms on extensive grounds, most of them in traditional Camargue cottages.

There are four categories of rooms, including family rooms with mezzanine, mirrored in quiet waterways, pools and ponds typical of the Camargue wetlands created by the wide delta of the river Rhône.

Guest Room, Cabane de Gardian ©Solange Hando

Guest rooms are furnished in a variety of styles, so you can choose according to taste. All are spacious, beautifully equipped and with soft lighting to enhance relaxation.

A great favourite is the cabane de gardian (the horseback herders of the Camargue), warm colours, minimalist decor and a stunning ceiling complete with beams, moulded on the conical roof and oval shaped end wall traditionally designed to deflect the north wind.

Swimming Pool at the Auberge Cavalière ©Solange Hando

The auberge has a wellness centre and two outdoor pools by the restaurants.
The smaller pool is near the 'Entre Terre et Mer' where breakfast is served on the terrace, as well as the buffet lunch known as the 'table camarguaise'.

The larger pool (above) is next to the stylish 'Le Pont des Bannes' serving local dishes such as fish of the day or 'duo steak' (bull and beef).
Or you can enjoy the casual atmosphere of the Ragondin Bar.

Camargue Horses at the Auberge Cavalière ©Solange Hando

But for many visitors, the great attractions are the stables which give the auberge its name of riders' lodge'. The beautiful white horses of the Camargue roam freely in lush grounds, nurtured with care and working only two hours a day.

There are riding lessons for beginners (ponies for children) and guided outings in small groups around the 'étangs' and on the beach. Carriage rides are also available with tuition on how to guide your horse.

Pink Flamingos in the French Camargue ©Solange Hando

Other activities are on offer, such as tennis or table tennis, but nothing beats exploring the pristine lands of the Camargue. Hire a bicycle at the auberge cavalière and enjoy the views, the peace and the wild life to your heart's content. You're sure to love the flamingos feeding in the shallows but if you want to get really close, the bird park near the auberge is the place to go.

Then, when you feel like a change of scene, the village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is just on the doorstep, a little place with big festivals, barely 8000 residents, but the proud capital of the Camargue.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Résidence du Vieux Port, Marseille in Provence

Résidence du Vieux Port, Marseille ©Solange Hando

This four star hotel boasts a great location on the Old Harbour quay, just 30 minutes from the airport and within walking distance of the railway station, the old Bohemian district of Le Panier, the main shopping avenues and the stunning new museum, MuCEM.

Guest rooms range from Superior to Club and prestigious Suites such as the 'Sky Suite' with its own roof terrace and panoramic views on the 8th floor.

Most rooms have balconies. All have tea and coffee making facilities, free WiFi and Occitane toiletries.

Relax in Retro Style at the Résidence in Marseille ©Solange Hando

But  above all, the Résidence is a luxury hotel with a difference, blending modern comfort and amenities with a 50s retro style draped in bright cheerful colours.

You find them in public areas, corridors and lift and slightly toned down in guest rooms where red might contrast with light walls, white linen and black lacquered tops.

Tapestry by Jean Lurçat ©Solange Hando

Even before you reach the brightest spaces, the reception surprises you with an original tapestry by Jean Lurçat, the famous French artist who revived this ancient skill in modern times.

With its warm colours and flowing leafy patterns, this superb work of art almost makes you forget you should be checking in.

All set for breakfast at the Résidence du Vieux Port ©Solange Hando

Breakfast is served on the first floor, indoors or on the terrace overlooking the harbour, while dinner is in the aptly named Relais 50 where in Parisian bistrot style, guests enjoy fresh seafood and Mediterranean cuisine accompanied by the finest wines.

A three course meal starts at 27 Euros but expect to pay 50+ for a traditional Bouillabaisse, consisting of three kinds of fish in a tasty saffron broth (order at least 24 hours in advance).

Marseille Old harbour and Notre-Dame de la Garde ©Solange Hando

 The Résidence du Vieux Port certainly claims a convenient location and unique décor but for many visitors, the icing on the cake are the superb views of the Old Harbour and hill top basilica, the city's best-loved icons.

It's breathtaking in brilliant sunshine but equally enticing at night when myriad lights twinkle along the quay. You may well be tempted to keep your curtains open as you drift into a pleasant sleep with one of the best views in Marseille.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Taipei 101

Taipei 101, Taiwan ©Solange Hando

 Taipei 101 is celebrating its tenth birthday. Open on New Year's eve 2004, it was at that time the world's highest building, a feat of engineering which combined modern technology and Eastern philosophy.

Today, at 508 metres, it's only in fifth place but it remains a tower of superlatives and the most eco-friendly of them all. Figures still defy the imagination: 550 000 tons, 380 piles sunk 80 metres into the ground plus 30 into the bedrock, 32 000 sprinklers, 24 000 glass panels and so it goes on.

Taipei Tower ©Solange Hando

To top it all, the tower boasts the world's fastest lift to whiz you up and down to your chosen floor. There are 101 altogether, a binary number, symbol of the digital age, divided into eight sections, an auspicious number, and designed like tapering treasure chests to catch every droplet of good fortune coming down from the heavens.

Luxury Shopping in Taipei 101 ©Solange Hando

So what's inside?
The lower floors, 1 to 15, are for shopping, all gleaming designer boutiques and great swathes of orchids leading to a vast bustling food court.

The upper floors are for business and finance but floors 88 to 91 are open for the public, brave enough to cope with the entrance queues and dizzying heights.

 The Tuned Mass Damper ©Solange Hando

But before heading for the views, everyone wants to see the gold-painted damper, a massive pendulum, hanging between floors 92 and 87 and designed to swing and keep the tower straight in case of earthquakes and gale force winds.

Taipei stands on a tectonic fault where quakes and typhoons are part of life but for the past 10 years, the damper has done its work.

 One View from the Top ©Solange Hando

Now, Taipei is at your feet, skyscrapers, tiny pagodas, roads, parks and mountains beyond.
In poor weather, you may have to be content with the 'cloud walk'  when on a computerised floor, clouds disperse now and then to allow glimpses of the cityscape.

Then, you can enjoy the traditional milk tea and pineapple cake, send a postcard home, suitably franked, and look around the dazzling Coral Art Gallery and the adjoining boutique offering the most exclusive items.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Fortune Telling in Taiwan

Fortune Telling, Taipei Night Market ©Solange Hando

In Taiwan, visiting an astrologer makes perfect sense.

There's nothing fatalistic about it, it's simply a way to help you make informed decisions and move in the right direction. Even politicians and academics consult astrologers for advice, sometimes on a regular basis.

One of the most popular places to discuss your future is the Shilin night market in Taipei. Walk along the brightly-coloured alley, choose your fortune teller and see what the palm of your hand or the cards might say. It may be related to your name and the year, month, day and time of your birth.

Auspicious Waterfall ©Solange Hando

But of course, you can always give fate a helping hand.
Surround yourself with auspicious symbols, water, red lanterns, goldfish and more, and plan your living and working space according to Feng Shui principles.

Longshan temple in Taipei

Then you can make your way to the Longshan temple draped in clouds of incense from morning to night.

It's a bustling yet quiet place where you can consult the most revered astrologers in the land, pick a number to open a magic drawer and see your fate revealed or throw the red divining blocks which will answer 'yes' or 'no' to your question according to the way they land.

Offerings in Longshan Temple ©Solange Hando

Offerings of flowers, vegetables and fruit are left in the courtyard to ensure prayers are remembered and if a blessing is requested on behalf of someone else, a photograph can be added with a note, perhaps for a sick relative or a student about to sit important exams.

Taipei 101 ©Solange Hando

Does it work?
Just look at Taipei 101, the world's highest tower when it was built and a booming business and financial centre. Here, everything was designed to ensure good fortune, the binary numbers, the slender silhouette as strong as bamboo, the treasure chests piled on top of each other, the fountain, the coin decorations.

And guess what?
The tower sits right on a fault line and after ten years of tremors and storms, it still stands above the city, a proud icon of the digital age based on new technology and ancient beliefs.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Ashok Country Resort, Delhi Airport Hotel

Ashok Country Resort near Delhi Airport ©Solange Hando

This family run eco-friendly resort is set in a quiet location, just 4 km from Indira Ghandi International Airport and with easy access to the city centre.

It's a great place to relax before or after a flight, so conveniently located, but a world away from the hustle and bustle of Delhi.

Delhi Airport Hotel ©Solange Hando

Blending traditional elegance and modern facilities, this low rise building looks out to trees and lawns. Club or Luxury Premium, guest rooms are spacious and enjoy plenty of natural light.

Original art work and warm colours add a cosy feeling. TV, WiFi, air conditioning and tea and coffee making facilities are standard.

Ashok Country Resort ©Solange Hando

But the Ashok resort greatest asset are the lush grounds laced with mature palms, exotic flowers and manicured lawns leading to a small but welcoming swimming pool.

There is plenty of seating in the sun or in the shade and you can just while away the time reading your favourite book, watching the peacocks parading around or listening to the birds twittering in the trees.

Quiet Retreat at Ashok Country Resort ©Solange Hando

You can enjoy teas from all over India in the plush lounge bar and dine in style at the Picadilly where the menu is based on seasonal produce from the Ashok's organic farm (visits can be arranged).

The Mimasa Spa offers refreshing and energising rituals, including Ayurveda and scrubs and wraps using local ingredients, such as forest honey or sandalwood. Other facilities include free parking, travel desk, airport transfers and a small stylish boutique for last minute shopping.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Corfu 4 Star Louis Grand, Glyfada Beach

Glyfada Beach, Corfu ©Solange Hando

Glyfada beach is just 15 km from the airport and Corfu Town, a lovely location for the newly refurbished lti Louis Grand hotel tucked almost out of sight between the mountains and the sea.

The nearest village is 4 km up the hill but public buses and the hotel courtesy shuttle provide transfers into town, frequency according to season.

lti Louis Grand Hotel in Corfu ©Solange Hando

On this vast stretch of sand backed by greenery, the 6-floor Louis Grand fits neatly into the landscape with some 240 rooms, including family rooms, claiming mountain or full or partial sea views.
Rooms are finely furnished, light and spacious, with balcony or patio and all mod. con.

Interior courtyards and plush seating areas are scattered around the building, creating a cosy atmosphere where spotless marble floors add a touch of classic elegance.

Louis Grand Swimming Pool ©Solange Hando

The swimming pool overlooks the beach, next to the Pergola Bar serving exotic cocktails and Greek coffee. There's a full entertainment programme ranging from water sports or volley ball in the day to Corfiot folkore or quizzes in the evening.

Guests will also find a tennis court, gym, massage room and hair salon, plus internet services, a souvenir shop and car or bicycle hire.

Restaurant with a View at Louis Grand ©Solange Hando

The Figaretto restaurant and terrace offer fabulous buffets which include the best breakfast I've ever seen, four themed dinners every week and some spectacular sunsets.

Other dining options are the Asian restaurant, where it is wise to reserve, and the Sailors Beach for lunch and BBQ.

Louis Grand and its Beach ©Solange Hando

Enclosed by cliffs and accessed through the hotel pleasant gardens, the hotel beach is quiet though on a hot summer week-end, you may have to share the vast sweeping sands with the locals.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Discover Calligraphy in Taiwan Monastery

Fo Guang Shan Monastery, Taiwan ©Solange Hando

Isn't this a lovely place to discover the true meaning of calligraphy?

Tucked in lush greenery near Kaoshiung in southern Taiwan, Fo Guang Shan welcomes visitors with its own guesthouse and retreats and courses which include the ancient art of calligraphy.

Whether you opt for short or longer sessions, it's best to book early. The monastery attracts people from across the island and beyond, some just want to look around, others come in search of peace and uplifting vibes. 

Concentration, Key to Calligraphy ©Solange Hando

In Fo Guang Shan, there's far more to calligraphy than learning to draw characters. It's a spiritual experience and before entering the calligraphy hall, you will be asked to remove your shoes and lower your voice.

Sit quietly, body relaxed and balanced (that takes some practice) to allow the free flow of energy.
It isn't so much a physical activity but a journey into the soul, a kind of meditation when nothing matters but paper and brush and the page you are invited to copy.

Feel the Vibes, Taiwan ©Solange Hando

Meanwhile in the carefully tended grounds, hundreds of Buddha images glow in the midday sun and somehow you feel the vibes in the silence of this hall, as guided by nun or monk, you learn to breathe deeply, relax and go with the flow, left hand holding the paper down, right hand and wrist guiding the body and tip of the brush.

No need to worry about styles or strokes, just keep your eyes on the spot and forget everything else. Calligraphy isn't about what you do but how you do it, that's the most important lesson of all.

Fo Guang Shan Calligraphy ©Solange Hando

Adopt the right frame of mind and when you take home your carefully rolled up manuscript, it won't just be a souvenir but a lasting reminder of the peace you enjoyed in Fo Guang Shan.

All Taiwanese will tell you: creating characters is only the first step. To achieve a truly spiritual experience, each one must be transformed into a 'beautiful flower' and that can only come from the soul.

Calligraphy Hall in Fo Guang Shan ©Solange Hando

Did you know that in some quarters people shave a baby's hair to make a calligraphy brush? It brings good luck to everyone around.

You won't have to go that far in Fo Guang Shan but relax, respect and when you step out of this golden pagoda hall, you'll feel renewed and refreshed.