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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Kenya: city safari

I'm woken, in the steely light of predawn, by a soft voice at my tent flap, telling me tea is ready and there's hot water for shaving. There's a melodic dawn chorus – Narina Trogon, white-browed robin chat and emerald-spotted wood dove.

Tucked among a grove of fig, ebony and wild olive trees in the hilly west of Nairobi national park, the collection of eight enormous safari tents, mess tent and lounge tent that form the Nairobi Tented Camp, has a remote wilderness atmosphere that is as alluring as camps in the Masai Mara reserve that take hours to reach. Yet I am just four miles as the pied crow flies – and just half an hour's transfer – from the glass and steel, heat and noise of the city centre of the Kenyan capital. It wouldn't be beyond the realms of possibility to come from the UK for the weekend.

The camp opened earlier this year and is the first within the park's 117 sq km, a rolling extravaganza of plains and woods, rocky gullies, marshes and dense forest, a natural wilderness which in another city would have been lost to suburbs.

The camp is extremely comfortable and well-judged, but deliberately simple, based on the principles of a traditional mobile safari camp with no concrete or permanent structures, and delivered with effortless cool by the young British manager, Kim Pierce, and her team of mostly Masai staff and wildlife scouts. Red-robed warriors escort me safely to my tent, which has its own toilet and warm shower. The hot-water bottles are a pleasant shock on a chilly night. Out of the bush kitchen emerge meals that would put most restaurants to shame – a scintillating ginger and carrot soup, lip-smackingly good stuffed chicken breasts, homemade bread and wonderful local vegetables.

"There is nowhere else on earth where you get such a dramatic contrast between nature and humanity," says Will Knocker, co-owner of the camp, an experienced safari guide and former Queen's Royal Lancer, as we set off on an early morning game drive in his customised safari vehicle.

With the engine switched off, we roll almost silently downhill, peering into the dark green trees, hoping to spot a leopard still on the prowl after a night of instilling fear in the resident bushbuck and impala. "Get the roof hatch up," suggests Will. "Stand on the seats, you'll find it much easier to spot the wildlife." Camera clutched in one hand and grasping a roof rail in the other, I'm like a boy with a pocketful of toffees. I can't stop smiling. There's a breeze in my hair, the first rays of sun are on the dew and, just ahead of us, a black-backed jackal is on a scent-guided mission, trotting with a purpose and strikingly handsome against the red earthen track.

"We're at the northern end of an old animal migration corridor, which was blocked off when Nairobi was founded 100 years ago," says Will. "We've got to protect it, and the only way to do that is to have paying visitors. That's why we were so keen to persuade the park authorities to let us build the camp. It took three years to get the go-ahead."

As dawn turns to day, a magnificent, quintessentially East African scene opens up like a vast stage set revealed. In the foreground, slender-tailed mongooses streak across the track and into the tall grass with their pennant tails fluttering, while other minor characters, from swooping hornbills to lines of army ants, distract us from our task of scanning the horizon for megafauna. In the middle distance, handsome acacia trees – some of the tallest in Kenya thanks to the absence from the park of tree-felling elephants – are positioned elegantly to provide shade for massive-horned buffalo and a tasty leaf salad for slow-motion giraffes. Further off, six identical male ostriches model their daring but uncomfortable-looking plumage, while on the horizon a large herd of quick-tempered zebra – a mob, as Will calls them – are making their way east, towards the water holes of the Athi Basin.

There's so much to see, it's hard to know what to ignore – stocky eland to the left of us, wildebeest to the right, a loan reedbuck, a great martial eagle high on a branch. The park has more than 500 species of birds – more than the entire British Isles. Footprints that look like a strange tank has rolled across the muddy track are in fact from a living tank – a sticky pug of a hippo on a night-grazing sortie from the river.

We stop every minute, and Will's patience, like the Embakasi river that marks the park's unfenced southern boundary, never runs dry. Lions, of which Nairobi national park has a solid and growing population, would be a wonderful camera catch, but they elude us. Instead, we're treated to a succession of presentations by the black rhinos, the park's iconic rare species. More than 10% of Kenya's 500 black rhinos live here, some of them within charging distance of the Mombasa highway. A mother, resplendently gigantic with her dual curved horns, guides her tiny calf through the scrub as we watch, entranced; three young females plunder tender thornbush shoots with their prehensile lips on a hillside in front of Nairobi's skyline; and a surly old half-blind bull stands four-square, irritably aware of our presence, his satellite-dish ears twitching involuntarily.

We get back to camp before the noon sun strips all contrast from the landscape, ready to flop on the camp's big sofas or swing in the hammock, download a few photos and soak up a Tusker beer or two under Africa's vast, starlit sky.

New England: the gold rush

"Fall", as a synonym for autumn, is special to the United States. There, true to form, America makes the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness into something uniquely commercial, turning an Old English monosyllable into a diphthong, ("fa-all"), and scaring up big tourist opportunities. Go to New England and you find these incandescent leaves igniting a last burst of tourism before winter closes in. Here in Robert Frost territory the upstate "road less travelled" fills with camper vans, posses of stray bikers, retirees and "empty nesters". It helps that, as October rolls around, the foliage of Vermont and New Hampshire never fails to perform the role allotted to it by nature. Especially in some trees, such as the maple, glucose is trapped in the leaves after photosynthesis stops. The combination of sunlight and the first chills of autumn turns this glucose blood-red.

So while America lurches from left to right in a nationwide nervous breakdown, this part of the US displays sturdy, traditional American colours: a spectrum of viridian-olive-green-lime-yellow-sepia-orange-russet-vermilion-purple. Among the beeches and silver birch, the willow, oak, dogwood and spruce, the arboreal palette ranges from amber, saffron and russet to ochre, orange and cinnamon. Laurels and white cedars don't mutate, of course, but it's not unusual to see maples seared in half between brilliant summer green and blazing autumn gold.

To witness the American fall in all its splendour, you have only to drive north from Boston, less than 100 miles into the heart of the Granite State, New Hampshire. Route I-93 snakes like an asphalt river through bluffs and escarpments familiar to the armies of the revolution. As you cross the border from Massachusetts the visitor is exhorted to "Live Free or Die", the New Hampshire state motto.

That's a peculiarly American proposition: rhetorical, intolerant and slightly crazy. Why, one is tempted to ask, should we not live, like most British people, under a mild domestic oppression and survive to fight another day? "Live independently and score useful tax breaks" might be a more appealing slogan. Still, "Live free…", coined by General John Stark in 1809, anticipated the maverick libertarians of the Tea Party movement by at least 200 years. New Hampshire is natural Tea Party territory: in the late summer sunshine there seem to be plenty of ornery conservative seniors shopping for anti-ageing cream. The economy is on everyone's mind. Just after the NH-Mass border, I passed a deserted car dealership with the foot-high letters: PUT OUT OF BUSINESS BY OBAMA'S POLICIES. (Well, at least the apostrophe was in the right place.)

Around Manchester and Concord, in contrast with the red-blooded libertarianism of the state, its autumn leaves are an impressionist palette from burnt umber to bleached, watery yellow. Winslow Homer painted such scenes but, remarkably, Cézanne never did. Perhaps everything seemed too English. Arlington, Shaftesbury, Rupert, Sunderland, Dorset, Rutland: many of the towns here are named after the courtiers of Charles II, and sponsor a powerful sense of the colonial past. I switch on the car radio to break the monotony of the interstate driving, and there is the mahogany voice of Garrison Keillor hosting the "Prairie Home Companion", still riffing on Lake Wobegon, the place where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average". Keillor must now be in the autumn of his career. A vintage cello tuned to A minor, his voice offers a mixture of ironic commentary and old-fashioned storytelling; it held my attention effortlessly until the radio signal broke up in the fold of the hills. We are passing through Laconia and the lake region round Meredith. Up here in October the place to head for is Lake Winnipesaukee. With late sunshine blazing on waterside moorings crowded with summer craft, townships such as Meredith, Center Harbor and Wolfeboro have the desolate appeal of the out-of-season resort.

The lake is ringed with hills from which you can get spectacular views of the fall's panorama. If you want to combine this with a bit of Gilded Age nostalgia, head for Moultonborough and Lucknow, the former home of Chicago footwear millionaire Thomas Plant. Renamed the Castle in the Clouds, this is really a poor man's Hearst Castle (in San Simeon, California), an Arts and Crafts-style mansion perched on a rocky escarpment overlooking rolling vistas of autumn leaves. The castle has the usual complement of rich-man's toys (primitive intercom; "self-cleaning" stoves; an Aeolian Co organ; busts of Napoleon). Appropriately for Recession USA, Plant's story was of rags-to-riches-to-rags. Despite his final bankruptcy, Lucknow has survived, more or less intact. Today, on my visit, it was a convenient vantage point from which to see the approach of rain from the west.

Actually this was no disappointment. After the sunshine, all that New England's leaves needed, for that authentic fall melancholy, was a seasonal downpour. Right on cue, next morning the weather arrived: bruised, rain-heavy clouds, a roaring gale and the rumble of distant thunder. So it was time to negotiate a route past fallen trees and swept-away roads and find some shelter. Out here in the sticks there are several overnight options. In the competition for leaf-watchers, a raging battle is fought over the word "inn". An "inn" sounds homey, comforting, warm and domestic. Inevitably many hotel chains have wised up to this: Hampton Inn, for example, is simply a heartless hotel chain glossing its functional cut-price utility.

Genuine inn-keepers fiercely defend their independence. In Bethlehem, New Hampshire, Brad and Ilja Chapman manage Adair, one of the loveliest inns in New England, a remote 1920s country house hidden down a twisting drive about 20 minutes from Meredith. They run the place themselves, with a chef and a couple of maids, and pride themselves on knowing their customers. The bedrooms have neither phone nor television, which contributes to the restful air. Ilja, who is Dutch, likes to talk about the "Adair family", which gives you some idea of what you might expect as a guest.

From Bethlehem I followed a route through the Franconia Notch State Park into the White Mountains towards Stowe, which in winter becomes a popular skiing centre.

Driving northwest on Route I-89, I crossed into Vermont, where "New England" begins to lose its meaning. Everywhere there are little reminders of the former French influence – fur trappers and traders – moving up and down the trails into New France (Canada). Montpelier, Barre, Vergennes… at Lake Champlain I stopped for my penultimate night among the leaves at the Basin Harbor Club, a residential playground offering golf, tennis and water sports, run by the Beach family and overlooking one of the most hauntingly beautiful stretches of water I've ever seen. When Bob Beach took me out on the lake in his powerboat we swiftly spotted two bald eagles lazily patrolling the shoreline.

For the final leg of my trip I had arranged with the poet and critic Jay Parini to visit Robert Frost's house (Homer Noble Farm) near the delightfully named Bread Loaf Community, just outside the college town of Middlebury. Here, the splendour of "the sere and yellow leaf", Shakespeare's image for his autumnal years, is matched by the sinewy lyricism of America's greatest 20th-century poet. His house, and especially the remote cabin in which he used to read and write, internally linked by a wind-up telephone system, became the apt culmination of my journey. Behind Frost's spartan retreat Norwegian pines soar like a sylvan cathedral. Through these grey-green columns the visitor can glimpse a riot of fall leaves: oaks and chestnut, spruce and larch. Standing there, then, at the height of the fall, I found Frost's memorable lines popping into my head: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep/ But I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep."

Northumberland's 'Star Camp'

More than 200 amateur astronomers have pitched their tents at the Kielder Star Camp in Northumberland, a twice-yearly gathering organised by the Kielder Observatory Astronomical Society. Armed with fleeces and flasks, and with an assortment of cameras, telescopes and tripods at the ready, they are spending five damp, chilly nights in the forest gazing at the night skies.

Viewing conditions are described as OK, but not brilliant, according to regular star camper, Martin Whipp. "We've had a couple of hours of clear skies on the first two nights. A fellow camper captured the Orion Nebula on his camera."

According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Kielder Water and Forest Park has the darkest skies in England, and on a moonless week like this the stargazers can also expect to see the Milky Way, shooting stars and nebulae, clouds of dust created by exploding stars. Jupiter is also high in the sky this week.

The camps are open to veterans and novices, as long as you abide by the "red light" rules so astronomers' night vision isn't affected – driving through camp at night with headlights on full beam will make you very unpopular. The campsite for the current camp is now fully booked, but day visitors are welcome to the main day, a series of talks at Kielder Castle this Saturday (free to everyone, from 11am to 4.30pm).

An NHS photographer by day, and secretary of the York Astronomers' society, Whipp has taken 90,000 images on his own camera in recent years. An estimated 3,000-4,000 of those, taken over three separate star camps in 2009 and 2010, were used to create this beautiful time-lapse video, which we came across on a blog by Julian Kay, another regular star camper.

As particle physicists Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw do the press rounds to promote their new book – The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen – in an attempt to explain scientific concepts most of us struggle to get our heads round (a tip: think of the Milky Way as an omelette), Whipp's video is a lovely reminder that you don't necessarily have to understand the secrets of the universe to marvel at its beauty.

Not just here for the beer: a Czech wine tour

When parts of Europe quieten in a moment of remembrance at 11am this Friday, in the Czech Republic corks will pop, glasses clink and the country will resound to one collective gulp. For 11 November does not just mark Armistice Day. Here it is also St Martin's Day, and that means something else: the start of the Czech wine season.

For a country so synonymous with beer, the term "Czech wine season" may strike the casual visitor as a bit odd. I didn't see a glass of wine for the first six months I lived in Prague, so I imagined they just didn't care for the stuff, or it was made in some secret cave my ropey Czech hadn't yet bought me the password for. But it wasn't a cave I was looking for. It was Moravia. Less than 150 miles south-east of the capital, sprawling with quaint villages and hundreds of lush, green vineyards, this is undoubtedly wine country.

St Martin's Day is when the first fermented wine of the year is tasted (Czech "beaujolais"), and it provides the perfect excuse to escape into the Moravian countryside to sample it with the locals. Of the four major Moravian wine-producing towns – Mikulov, Slovácko, Velké Pavlovice and Znojmo – I headed to the latter, a gorgeous place just north of the Austrian border. There are plenty of accommodation options listed in English on the town's website (znojmocity.cz), and I would recommend a stay in the sleepy, rural hamlet of Nový Saldorf, just 10 minutes' drive from the centre. The family-run wine cellar, U Smrcka (+420 739 144 688, usmrcku.cz, doubles from £28), which has cosy, modern rooms attached, is particularly charming.

Our host there, Mr Smrcka himself, perfectly epitomises the Moravian vintner: big hands, big belly and a plasticine face that ripples into an avuncular grin at the slightest joke. Leading me and my friends into his cellar – an ominous dark corridor with huge fermentation jars piled at the sides – he treats us to four different types of wine: two whites – veltlínské zelené (grüner veltliner in German) and ryzlink rýnský (rheinriesling) – as well as two reds, modrý Portugal and frankovka.

"This is the only part of the Czech Republic where the weather is warm enough to make good red wine," says Smrcka, firing a shot into our glasses with his beloved "wine thief" – a long pipette that extracts the wine from the barrels. And he is probably right. The reds you find in Prague are almost always terrible – but his two local reds are divine.

After the degustation, we pick out a couple of bottles we like and join the groups of settled-in Czechs upstairs to drink them and chat and listen to Moravian music. The food is the usual platter of cheese, meats, and vegetables, but we are treated to a local delicacy, znojemská okurka (gherkin flavoured with paprika). Smrcka ensures us that eating it will prevent a sore head in the morning – which it does, though this is possibly more because local wine-makers don't use chemicals in their wines. Either way, these locally-produced gherkins are delicious.

To discover other wines, the next day we take a leisurely two-hour walk along the River Dyje to Hnanice, a small, hamlet with a pretty little church, and a hill lined with wine cellars. These cellars, mostly just tiny doors cut into the hillside, open on weekend afternoons and you can just turn up without a reservation and sample away (if there's no one there, just dial the phone numbers on the doors to summon them). We explore a couple, but the one we choose to nestle in is the property of two best friends with huge beards who are more than happy to join us for a couple of glasses as the fruity aroma wafts pleasantly around. The walls, typical of the cellars here, sparkle with old coins stuck to the yeast residue from the wine.

We sample some delicious ryzlink rýnský, then adjourn to their terrace when the two friends wish to depart. Selling us a few bottles, and leaving an open one for us to finish at our leisure, we ask them on parting which their favourite is. "All of them!", the larger, white-haired friend grins back.

"So where are you going now?" I ask nosily, clearly affected by the wine. The two wine-makers look at each other sheepishly, look around, then whisper, "We have a secret. We are from Moravia, but we prefer beer to wine!" And with that, they walked off down the hill to the nearest pub.

The wine in Moravia may be excellent, but it seems the beer from Bohemia still reigns supreme.

The Wine Bar
This is a perfect stop-off after a day's sightseeing at Prague Castle, tucked as it is into one of the beautiful descending streets in Mala Strana. Fortnightly tastings are held, but an impromptu large glass of Moravian white, or a nice Italian red, will also do the job.
• Tržište 14, +420 257 215 739, thewinebar.cz

A stone's throw from Old Town Square, this spacious wine bar is a refreshing alternative to the countless beer halls surrounding it. The cheese and tapas selection is excellent, a perfect accompaniment to a cold glass of delicious muškát moravský.
• Na Perštýne 15, +420 224 239 602, monarch.cz

Vinný sklep Újezd
A charming stone-walled cellar at the bottom of leafy Petrin Hill, this drinking cave imports its wine from the Moravian village of Boretice — voted best wine village of 2006. It also has a great line in Chilean reds if you fancy something a bit fuller and fruitier.
• Újezd 19, +420 257 317 410, vinnyujezd.cz

Vinotéka Karlovo nám 17
This is a tourist-free cavern tucked off Charles Square specialises in wine from smaller Moravian vineyards. There is a healthy assortment of reds and whites, with friendly advice on hand, and a shop where you can buy reasonably-priced bottles to take away.

Seven natural wonders and how to see them

The Ecuadorian Amazon is disappearing at a mind-boggling and terrifying rate as illegal loggers and oil companies continue to destroy vast swathes of the forest. As a tourist, one of the best places to learn about the scale of the problem and what is being done about it is Yachana Lodge on the banks of the Napo river. As well as being a fantastic base for visitors to experience the forest and its wildlife, it also serves as a teaching base for the Yachana Foundation, which educates young people of the region. The foundation supports students from remote tribal communities on a three-year sponsored programme, the aim of which is to empower the next generation to protect their forest and livelihoods through sustainable tourism. "It's a drop in the ocean when you think of the scale of devastation being wrought and the might of the businesses responsible," according to Yachana sales director Hugh Yarbrough, but an important drop nonetheless, and one you can contribute to.
• Tribes Travel (01728 685971, tribes.co.uk), a British tour operator specialising in sustainable adventure tourism, offers a 10-day Andes and rainforest Ecuador package, including Yachana Lodge, for between £1,200 and £1,600, excluding flights

Most of the five million people who visit the Grand Canyon each year see it from the South Rim, the most accessible part of the park, but there are numerous ways to go beyond the main viewpoints and explore this astonishing feat of nature. The most traditional is by mule. Join an overnight ride along Bright Angel Trail and across the Colorado river, staying overnight at Phantom Ranch, the only lodge below the canyon ridge. A one-night ride costs $497.89pp (grandcanyonlodges.com), including accommodation, breakfast, lunch and steak dinner.

For the less energetic, the Grand Canyon Railway (thetrain.com, adults $70 return, children $40) takes tourists into the canyon along the century old railway line. The day trip starts from Williams, Arizona – with a shoot-out! Cheesy? You bet!

For the full-on Grand Canyon experience, AdventureX (adventurex.co.uk, £3,595, May and June only) has an amazing but pricey 16-day rafting and kayaking tour along the Colorado river, camping on wild, empty beaches and hiking up to Native American ruins.

Or if you're planning a mini gap and want to experience the canyon up close, Bunac's (bunac.org.uk) eight-, 10- or 12-week volunteer USA conservation programme is based in Flagstaff and features a number of conservation projects in national parks, including the Grand Canyon. The work involves assisting with re-vegetation, trail maintenance, fence building and protecting local endangered species. It costs from £295, camping and staying in shared houses.

In the shelter of the Great Barrier Reef lie 74 islands and islets – the Whitsundays. Sail among them from Hamilton Island on board Sunsail's Oceanis 323 standard yacht (0844 463 6578, sunsail.co.uk), mooring or dropping anchor en route to admire the glorious technicolour underwater views. A package costs £1,750 for a seven-night bareboat (uncrewed) charter for up to six people in two cabins and bunks in the living area, with snorkelling gear (excludes damage waiver and fuel). At least two of you need some prior experience. Hiring a skipper costs an extra £185 per day.

If you'd rather keep your feet on the ground, Mr & Mrs Smith's new holiday home rental collection includes some spectacular properties in Port Douglas, a gateway town to the Great Barrier Reef. For example, 6 Beachfront Mirage costs A$750 a night for six guests (around £84pp per night) but one look at its designer pool, vast kitchen, "media room" and swanky bedrooms might be enough to make you splash out for a few nights of luxury.

At the other end of the spectrum Port O'Call Eco Lodge, a 10-minute walk from Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas, is a great budget option, with shared rooms from A$36 per night. The hostel also runs a £200 volunteer package that includes accommodation at the eco-friendly hostel along with participation in a government monitored research programme where volunteers spend two days on board a boat with marine biologists helping to collect samples from frequently visited sites on the reef.

The Maldives' 1,192 small islands are scattered across turquoise seas and surrounded by reefs. The majority of resorts offer scuba diving but Baros (baros.com) has been designated the first Eco Dive resort in the country, and is the official training centre of the Maldives, where guests can be trained to help survey the local reefs. The small island resort has a Padi centre where you can arrange dives of the house reef 30 metres from the shore to 30 dive sites further afield, a spa and three restaurants. A runner-up in Trip Advisor's Travellers' Choice Awards 2011, it is popular among honeymooners but also has a family programme (for over 10s).
• Booked through Kuoni (0844 488 0138), a seven-night stay on a B&B basis costs £1,625 including flights departing 1 May from Heathrow

A journey to the remote archipelago is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. It can cost upwards of £5,000pp for one of the more upmarket cruises around the islands but it is possible to get up close to the endemic wildlife that inspired Darwin's theory of evolution for less than that. Journey Latin America has a 12-day Ecuador and Galapagos programme that includes five days on Isabela Island, staying in a local guesthouse in the only settlement on the island, Puerto Vilamil. By day you can bike or hike to various parts of the island to view the fearless wildlife, visit the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre and snorkel; by night you can discuss the day's sightseeing at the local bar or mingle with islanders in the main square. The holiday costs £2,526pp including domestic flights, most meals, transfers in Ecuador, guesthouse/mid-range accommodation and most excursions but not international flights, which are roughly £850 from London to Quito return

The only volcano on mainland Europe to have erupted in the last 100 years, Vesuvius is most famous for the eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD79. Explore these sites in style with The Traveller on a 10-day tour led by Roger Wilson, professor of archaeology of the Roman Empire at the University of British Columbia. The Traveller's £2,525 trip includes flights to Naples, B&B accommodation and some dinners.

Or DIY it by flying to Naples from Gatwick with easyJet, staying at Micalo, a designer bolthole in a converted palazzo, and making your own way to Pompei, or less touristy Herculaneum. A double room at Micalo booked through i-escape.com costs from €165 per night low season (until 28 December).

KE Adventure has two action-packed itineraries that include a dip in the world famous sea, the lowest point on the planet. A new week-long adventure begins with a walk through forest and farmland near Ajloun, north of Amman, where you overnight at a homestay, and visit the nearby Roman ruins at Jerash; traverses the Jordan Valley to the Dead Sea; and includes canyoning in Wadi Mukheries, cycling between farming villages, and a hike to Petra. KE's Dead 2 Red tour is a nine-day biking adventure from the spiritual site of Mount Nebo, down to the Dead Sea and taking in Petra, Wadi Rum and Aqaba. Both tours cost £995 land only or £1,445 with flights.

But for many the Dead Sea is a place for rest and recuperation, famed for its oxygen-rich air and mineral-rich water. Wallow in luxury at the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar resort which has nine fresh water swimming pools should you tire of basking in seawater.

Street food in Vancouver

I've eaten street food all over the world, and some of it was OK. In search of authentic, affordable dining, I've grappled with nuclear-sauced doner kebabs in Istanbul and Salford; I've sucked on spiced duck bills while squatting on a child's stool in a Bangkok gutter – the bill was low; meat pies outside the footy stadium in Adelaide were served as "floaters" in a messy sea of mushy peas; tacos eaten on a roadside in Mexico brought Montezuma's revenge; khinkali meat dumplings from the old Lenin Square in Tbilisi did the same. So when my mate Paul bragged that the food cart scene in Vancouver was the best in the world and 100% worth the trip, I had a familiar sinking feeling.

Paul Done is unofficial mayor of Gastown, the loft-living, macchiato-sipping area that is officially the hippest in central Vancouver. Eating the streets with Paul would be like touring the gentlemen's clubs of St James's with Boris, only better for my street cred.

To prepare for my day of kerbside cuisine I stayed in the discreet taupe-and-wenge wood embrace of the Granville Island Hotel. Granville Island, a regenerated former industrial area in False Creek, south of downtown Vancouver, dedicates itself to your stomach: there's a wonderful fresh produce market lined with food stalls, plus any amount of artisan sausage-makers, beardy microbrewers and burly lobstermen. There's even a boutique sake maker. This being Canada, everyone is super-nice and rather earnest.

Morning dawns and here's Paul, who forces my sake head and my sorry ass on to a push-bike. Vancouver, he explains, is very bike-friendly, with dedicated cycle lanes everywhere – even if the official mayor has made helmets obligatory. Paul fastens mine on extra-tight, just for laughs.

Boris bikes are made in Canada, and sturdy versions are an easy, cheap rent here – my hotel offers them for free. Cycling Vancouver's streets, parks and sea wall is a wonderful way to see this most beautiful of cities. With ocean on three sides, snowy mountains beyond, and a mild-ish, London-like climate, Vancouver seems to be inhabited by a race of attractive, big-boned Olympians who make winter sports cool and chilling in hepcat cocktail bars as obligatory as cycle safety measures. It is also home to a huge, established, thriving Asian population, who have had a wonderful effect on the way the city eats, as we'll see.

Until 2009, Vancouver's only legal street foods were roasted chestnuts, hotdogs and popcorn. Nice, but not lunch. Enlightenment dawned, and a panel was put together comprising two of the city's leading chefs, a nutritionist, a bloke who runs farmers' markets, a woman who understands fairtrade and sustainability, two local food bloggers and two members of the public, together with a couple of council faces. Together they identified suitable sites for food carts and invited proposals. They came up with a scheme whereby all carts are peer-auditioned, so you never get competing cuisines on neighbouring sites. Also, the authorities regularly inspect all prep kitchens – so no more sick jokes from me – and licence-holders have to reaudition every year, which keeps standards high.

Paul was right. Vancouver's street carts are the bomb. First, we breeze along to Japadog (japadog.com), where two nutty Japanese women serve ridiculously delicious fusion hot dogs. I eschew the Love Meat option, and plump for a spicy cheese terimayo: jalapeno and cheese dog, teriyaki sauce, mayo, nori seaweed. Six dollars, epic, genius, and nicely unweird.

Vancouver is an expensive city. The Canadian dollar is strong and there has been a hot influx of money from the Far East. Our next cart is great value in any language. Fresh Local Wild (freshlocalwild.com) is run by local celeb chef Josh Wolfe. Josh catches much of what he cooks, and custom-designed his state-of-the-art cart. The kitchen runs on recycled cooking oil; out back there's a cute veranda with seating. Cart cooking doesn't get any tastier than this. Paul orders pearly fresh halibut and chips plus homemade tartare sauce C$14 (£9), which I eat most of before tackling my own albacore tuna melt. The cart also has its own smoker, which issues steamed, then woodsmoked and grilled Sausages à Trois. What is it with these people?

As happened with telecoms, restaurants are becoming more mobile. For some years, the buzz in food has been sustainability. Vancouver shows us that not only should sustainability be a given, but that accessibility is the new thing. What we're starting to see here is that street food can compete seriously with great restaurant food. Some operators are swanky restaurateurs doing the recession-right thing. Other cart owners are funky idealists simply having fun testing out food concepts, although at around £32,000 (certified prep kitchen and cart) the cost of entry is not low. Vancouver's carts range from rollalong handcarts through converted ice-cream vans to all-steaming, all-roasting gin palaces like Fresh Local Wild.

Paul invites me to waddle back to my bike. A 10-minute puff later and we're at Cartel Taco (carteltaco.ca), where silk-soft Mexican tortillas are stuffed with Korean bulgogi beef and crunchy kimchi, the garlic and chilli-spiked Korean sauerkraut. I'm stuffed, too, but not so much that I can't pedal to Re-Up (reupbbq.com) for a round of southern-style pulled pork and beef brisket sandwiches. I let Paul finish them. Just the sort of man I am.

On the meandering way down to the mini ferry across False Creek to Granville Island, I sample the chicken karaage and pork slider at Roaming Dragon (roamingdragon.com), bonzai prawns at Feastro, the Rolling Bistro (feastro.ca), and Pepto-Bismol from the Safeway pharmacy.

Paul was right. Vancouver's food carts are exciting and easily as good as any, anywhere. They show that when a switched-on city council comes together with its people in a sensible, intelligent scheme, the result is the democratisation of quality food and a massive turn-on. I'm not just talking about Love Meat here.

The best Cantonese food in Hong Kong

The silvery fish is lying on the slab bleeding an astonishing red, half its head and side missing, but somehow not yet dead, like something tortured in Game of Thrones. Organs pulse. All around gasping dying fish are dumped on trays for display. In the steaming heat of Hong Kong's "wet" and "dry" markets, food shoppers prize fresh death over galloping decay.

Bass, carp, exquisite turbot, live out their last anxious moments before being dispatched and thrust into shopping bags. Clams of every sort and size, prawns, crabs, other exotic crustaceans spill on to the streets. Everywhere there is abalone, Asia's most prized shellfish.

Roasted ribs and belly pork with sublime crisp and fatty skin is packed for world class take-aways (the Chinese are maybe the most refined roasters of meat on the planet – though our British climate is just too wet and wrong, they explain pityingly). But the stall selling pigs' feet also has a table piled with service station sandwiches – rubber cheese and tomato, white slice – as though we are not here in Hong Kong but at a UK roadside stop.

Meat stalls punctuate the streets. Everything is eaten: lungs, liver, heart, tripe, huge splayed ribs of beef, slabs of hacked and bloody scarlet flesh, oxtail with or without its grubby hide. Fergus Henderson would be happy.

I marvel at the forests of green vegetables: fat broccoli stacked like timber logs, amaranths, spinaches, morning glory, all fresh in from the nearby New Territories, with local tomatoes and amethyst aubergine.

Next stop is a "dry" stall, where it is hard to differentiate between "medicine" and food. Here the air is musty, mysterious, fragrant with desiccated fish, spice and pet shop. Stacks of giant jars are packed with preserved abalone, curious black sea cucumbers, too, though these are not nearly as strange as the lizards splayed on sticks like alien lollipops.

We head inside the covered market, past the obscene eels swirling around their crowded bucket, the terrapins and turtles in washing-up bowls waiting to be made into soup and their sought-after meat to be gouged from their shell. Cages of concerned frogs, farmed to optimum size, are piled four or five deep. Their eyes follow me and seem to plead as I pass. Next, a gore-smeared live-chicken stall where your bird (white or black-skinned) is slaughtered and butchered in front of you, though this is officially discouraged since the pandemic of Asian avian flu.

Upstairs are the market cafes where shoppers and chefs come to eat. "Blood-tofu" (congealed bricks of pigs' blood) in noodle soup for breakfast: cheap iron-rich protein for a table of old ladies sucking on broth, while tables of younger couples tuck into their British-style bacon and eggs.

Hungry, I head to the ferry for Macau. Easier to get into than Hong Kong, where mainlanders still need a visa, Macau feels somehow more authentically Chinese, less laced with fading British influence and banking expats. Here, wage slaves come to lose their salaries and savings in the gambling rooms and casinos.

Here, too, of course, the ubiquitous international luxury stores, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Chanel, all shiny and seductive. It seems many aspirational Chinese have fallen out of love with their own culture, and "Continental" is the look of the day. Macau has a curious rundown charm, like Las Vegas built by a Bollywood crew: witness the paint-peeling "Tibetan temple", the shoddy "volcano", and the Wynn and Sands casinos.

I had asked my companion, Susan Jung, food editor of the South China Morning Post, to take me to her favourite restaurant in the region. Half expecting (even hoping for) a secret roadside stall, I was surprised at first to be booked into the three-Michelin star Robuchon a Galera at the Hotel Lisboa. Ignoring the decor (posh French designed by a blind decorator, with twinkling star shapes on the ceiling), this is supremely accomplished cooking – as you'd expect from the most successful chef in the world – with flights of fine wine at a minuscule mark-up. As with all fine-dining places here, though, raw ingredients are mostly flown from Europe and the US – even the eggs are from New Zealand not the New Territories. The local and sustainable debate is not yet playing well in this part of the world.

Smart ladies lunch while their husbands or lovers lose their money. Most men here are not much interested in food except as fuel to keep them going while gambling.

Two floors but worlds away, a group of men loiter and leer while young prostitutes in pairs, holding hands, parade like ponies. (Everything in Macau is for sale, and prostitution is legal.) With bleached skin, bleached hair, newly bought breasts and barely out of their teens, they are peeled off one by one by greedy grubby men with darker appetites. The single girls not chosen look momentarily abandoned, afraid. I hurry past the pricey swallows' nests soup and shark fin shops and out into the rank sea air.

The next day I join a Hong Kong food tour with four of the city's oral obsessives. The brief: we eat local food from the best specialist places. From 90 options (I said they are obsessives) we narrow it down to six. Two of the group are packing serious cameras with fat and long lenses (here, bloggers are known to hump tripods and stepladders to restaurants to photograph food).

Over four or more hours we trawl their favourite Hong Kong tastes, some delicious, some less so. While I like the orange-spiked beef balls in broth in a "temporary" market, I love Osama Tony's turnip puffs: an exploding lard pastry packed with sweet root rendered in fat. But it is the beef brisket shop that divides us and where I learn a Hong Kong lesson: that in China, as in Japan, texture aces taste. From the three cuts we order (of nine), I favour the one with ragged scraps of meat while my companions prefer the grisly gristly bowls. The same happens at the next stall. I gorge on thin noodles larded with shrimp roe but shudder at the goose intestine which shares my plate, though I do make a weak-willed attempt at the grey tripe. A mistake.

While I override my gag reflex to swallow unseasoned stomach lining, one of our group gives an insight into Hong Kong food blogging. Keen to impress his Mongolian fiancee's family, he has signed up to kill a sheep in traditional style. This involves making a small cut behind the breast bone, inserting his arm into the chest cavity and crushing its heart with his hand. Blood must not be spilled, though that rule goes out the window when it comes to killing cows. A committed blogger, he has bought a camera helmet so the sheep's death can be streamed to the internet.

Feeling queasy, whether from his story, the humidity or the unforgiving offal, I trudge with diminishing enthusiasm to the silken tofu stall. Here, I find another exercise in texture-over-taste, but there is something quietly alluring about the slippery curd.

Our last stop restores my flagging faith and spirits. I could happily feast at Piggy Grill every week for the rest of my life. Suckling pig (the logo features a dancing piglet with a baby bottle) is split, slow roasted on a low heat then sugared and finished over a raging flame like someone blowing glass. Soft and succulent, sweet with rendered fat and luscious, crisp toffee skin, this may be the finest plate of pork I will ever eat.

Early the next morning I join chef Richard Ekkebus at the Aberdeen fish market, the floor awash with slippery algae and running water from hundreds of overflowing tanks. Here, you can see black crabs, mangrove crabs, typhoon crabs in season, and every species and size of fish including sluggish 4ft dorado crammed into 3ft tanks, and trays of abalone blowing bubbles. At the back, skyscraper blocks overshadow boats packed with live-in fishermen and prawn pots.

Later, I sample Ekkebus's stylish cooking at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental's Amber restaurant. Stunning sea urchin, and unctuous red amadai (a deep-water Japanese fish – the "wagyu of the sea"), demonstrate why Amber sits at 37 in the San Pellegrino world's Top 50 restaurants.

My favourite stop of the day, though, even the entire trip, is at Ngan Ki Heung on Queen's Road Central. Every inch of this exquisite tea shop is covered with caddies, bowls and tiny terracotta pots. Here, I finally find the Hong Kong of childhood dreams – the exotic harbour city of sea-going junks, porcelain and watercolour prints.

Be warned, they are not overly tourist-friendly, but if you are prepared to while away an hour they may sit you down and make you tea in a doll-service-size pot. The water will be at 98 degrees and from a pitcher with a cleansing mineral stone. The tea will be made meticulously, the first cup will be thrown away. Your bowl may contain green Iron Buddha or a densely flavoured oolong. It may be the best tea you will ever taste. Savour the gracious ceremony, drink your tea slowly. It will refresh, revive and ready you to face the turmoil of the city's streets yet again.

Travel writing competition 2011: the winners and runners-up

Before taking the measurements, I Sellotaped the crocodile's mouth shut. But as I placed a ruler across its brow and dangled its inflated belly from the hanging scales, sharpened canines protruded over its lower jaw, and marble-like eyes glowered back at me in the moonlight.

As soon as I removed the Sellotape, the juvenile darted back into the inky water and we resumed our navigation of the lagoon, or cocha. "Too big," José informed me when the prehistoric head of an adult motored past us. Later, when a smaller pair of eyes reflected in his flashlight, he whispered "ready?" and reached out to grapple another scaly torso into our dugout canoe.

After three hours of crocodile surveys, José steered us back towards camp. I sat in silence, listening to the plop and pull of the hand-carved paddle and watching the sputtering remains of an electric storm light up our jungle home like a flickering cinema screen.

I hadn't wanted to visit the Amazon as "just another tourist", and so, deep within the Pacaya Samiria national reserve, I had joined a team of Peruvian scientists to help monitor key species in a protected segment of the world's biggest rainforest.

Home was wherever we made it; levelling the shrub layer with machetes, stringing up hammocks and building a campfire each evening was all part of the routine.

Every night I would lie in my hammock watching fireflies dance through the sinuous trunks, allowing the clicks and burps, hums and screeches, whistles and whoops of a billion jungle beasts to sing me to sleep.

Each morning, we'd awake before sunrise to cook porridge, pull on sweat-drenched clothes and pickle ourselves in Deet before setting out to search for flame-red snakes, pink-toed tarantulas and neon butterflies. As the sun's heat warmed the undergrowth, the forest would come alive with the smells of candyfloss and burnt toffee, freshly mown grass and warm hay, fried onions, wet dogs, crushed garlic and Turkish delight.

During the afternoon river surveys, we'd steer our canoes down unmarked tributaries, track giant river otters as they chased down the waterways, disturb flocks of white egrets as we emerged around meanders and, where the river bed widened, watch pink river dolphins leap through the piranha-filled waters.

It wasn't until I left Peru that I realised just how remote my adventure had been. As the aeroplane rose out of the jungle-locked city of Iquitos and levelled out over the reserve, I pressed my nose to the window and scanned the rainforest for a dent in the trees where our hammocks had been, or a whisper of smoke from an evening campfire. 

Five million acres of impenetrable green stared back. Unbroken, it reached out to the horizon, touched the sun and then dropped off the edge of the earth. Nothing, not even the cocha, was visible. Beneath this mass, my jungle home lay concealed, the teeming life of the reserve masked from the world above. The realisation of how utterly isolated I had been was incredible.
• For more information about volunteering, see the British Schools Exploring Society website, bses.org.uk
Lucy lives in Hove, East Sussex

The judge, Guardian Travel writer Kevin Rushby, says: "Lucy's story reads well, with a good opening followed by some excellent description of the jungle. I loved the pink-toed tarantula – a surprising image that really brought home how strange the Peruvian forests can be. Her experiences built to a fitting, and poignant, finish."

The prize: A 20-day Spirit of Shackleton Antarctica trip for one person, worth £11,339, with G Adventures (gapadventures.com).

"Mum, now you're free do something really different with your life. Don't lose your get-up-and-go." My daughter was taking me in hand, because, at the age of 60, I'd just ended a relationship with a musician who'd turned out to be more prodigal son than partner.

Anne, my visiting American friend, chimed in: "What happened to your Paris dream? Do a flat swap! We Americans do it all the time."

An ad on the internet – "My London for your Paris. Wanted: a month-long flat swap" – brought a response from Chloe, a photographer commissioned to document London life. She moved in with a promise to water my plants; I would look after her cat, Joe.

Chloe's bedsit (on Avenue Parmentier in the 11th arrondissement) had a shared bathroom on the landing. Café Plein Soleil, the neighbourhood bar, served as the living room. A simple late supper and small carafe of wine was a nightly pleasure. On my first visit, a pair of regulars – septuagenarians Hermine and Claudine, lap dogs in tow – befriended me. They preferred the cafe to evenings in their apartments. "We'd love to practise our English with you, and we can help with your French."

Paris-Plages was a nice surprise. For a month, the roads along the Seine are transformed into a beach resort with palm trees, cafe-bars, a swimming pool and even a library. All free of charge. Most days I went early, in time to nab a sunlounger.

With my Paris adventure drawing to its end I invited bonnes vivantes Hermine and Claudine to the beach guingette (open-air dance hall) for a farewell aperitif. Tipsy on joie de vivre, we danced the night away. Later, Hermine suggested that I return and use her spare room for a while, to see if I'd like to live in Paris permanently.

Thrilled by her offer, I've decided to go back in spring with a view, just maybe, to selling up and starting anew. My daughter and my friend Anne were most impressed and, they had to admit, just a wee bit envious too.
Sandi Dunn, London

It's 8.30am as I arrive for my first morning on a volunteering holiday at Khamai Reptile Centre in South Africa. I have never been near a snake before. I ask Matt, the curator, what he wants me to do. He would like me to climb inside the rock python's enclosure to give it "a bit of a scrub". I point out that the python – all three metres of him – is curled up at the bottom.

"Carefully place a towel over his head and that'll calm him. You'll be fine," says Matt. And so, heart hammering, in I go. Matt turns out to be right.

Next he takes me to meet the puff adders, the fastest striking animals in the world. He gently prods them from a safe distance and, though they warn him, they never strike. "People get bitten because they pick them up."

By now even I'm admiring their exquisite sandy colouring and zigzag patterning. "Snakes don't want to bite people," Matt says. "There's been a juvenile black mamba in the tree above you all this time. Notice how he didn't drop down and bite you."

This is the essence of a trip to Khamai, a centre that educates the often terrified local population that snakes do not need to be exterminated.

In the afternoon I get to work with another of the demonstration reptiles, the snouted cobra, learning how to handle it safely using a grabstick. Another day I participate in a dissection in the lab. You may also be involved in call-outs, removing snakes from local farms and houses. Not that it's all toil. Staff take us for hikes along the Olifants river and up to the magnificent Blyde Canyon.

At the end of my trip, as I enjoy a braai (South African barbecue) under the stars, I look back on an exhilarating fortnight. I have learned how to handle safely some of the world's deadliest reptiles and hopefully played a part in helping people gain a healthy respect for them. And my most perilous encounter was with Rocky, the park's parrot, who resented having his feathers clipped …
Adrian Cross, London

Cape Horn, looking towards Deceit Island. Photograph: Robert Ratcliffe

I have to be at the pier at 6pm for embarkation, but first I want to cash in my voucher for a drink at the Cape Horn Hotel. I already know what I want: a "calafate sour", made with pisco brandy and the black-blue fruit of the calafate. The calafate is native to Patagonia and whoever eats its fruit is said to be certain of returning.

To cap six months' journey through South America I'd booked a cruise round Tierra del Fuego, the remote "Land of Fire" at the southern tip of the continent. We are to be at sea for four days, are promised penguins and petrels and will sail between the pale blue tongues of glaciers licking the Beagle Channel; but for me the highlight will be a call at the infamous Cape Horn.

From the sea, Tierra del Fuego looks beautiful but empty. From the estimated 20,000 people who lived here at the time of Magellan, there are now only a fraction left.

At daybreak on day four we drop anchor in the lee of Hornos Island. It's the last speck of land in the Americas: 400 miles to the south is Antarctica. We skim across the rough sea in inflatables, shielding our faces from hailstones. On the island the wind is fiercer still: it is a raw, exposed, extreme place, and I'm here in late summer. Some 800 ships and 10,000 men are thought to have perished trying to round the Horn since it was first sighted by the Dutch in 1616.

Like many resonant places, Cape Horn is more about being there than about what you see. There's a small Chilean naval station and lighthouse, a monument to lost sailors and a tiny wooden chapel. But what you have mostly is the sense of being at the edge of somewhere terrible.

After 90 minutes we head back to the ship, to the aroma of bacon frying in the galley. It is good to be back on board, but after Cape Horn anything that happens, maybe for weeks to come, is going to feel like anti-climax.
• Victory Cruises (victory-cruises.com) has four-night trips around Cape Horn from $1,250 full board, departing Punta Arenas in Chile and arriving Ushuaia in Argentina
Robert Ratcliffe, Edinburgh

The scariest film I've ever seen is the Blair Witch Project. I know people who were bored by it, but it depends on whether you've ever camped in the woods. I grew up trading ghost stories around campfires, and that's why the film rang true – it's what you can't see that chills you to the bone.

A few years ago, while driving across Namibia, I stopped at a remote farm near the Fish River Canyon. The farmer's wife suggested that she drove me to the bottom of the canyon where I could camp and walk back the next day. We drove 10 miles further into the wilderness down a rocky track that she told me had been built by German soldiers. Then, with a friendly warning to beware of the leopards, and a promise to send a search party if I wasn't back before noon the next day, she was gone.

The canyon was perfect. I knew I was the only person for miles, and swam in rock pools, read in the sun, and eventually made a fire. As darkness fell, I unrolled my sleeping bag close to the fire and watched the embers slowly fade as the stars began to drip down from the Namibian night sky.

It was then that it began. At first there was a soft, shuffling noise, like someone trying to creep up on me. I tried to remember whether leopards were nocturnal. But soon it was obvious that this wasn't the quiet padding of a big cat. These were footsteps.

My imagination took over; these footsteps must be the ghosts of the soldiers who had died making the road. I clutched rather pointlessly on to my penknife, feeling utterly helpless.

The footsteps quietened and then returned, circling me slowly in the darkness. I held out until 4am, unable to sleep. During a quiet spell I packed up as quickly and quietly as possible, and marched out.

I arrived back at the farmhouse as the sun rose. Sheepishly, I told the farmer's wife of my ordeal. She laughed. "Oh, so you met the aardvark then? They sound just like humans."

Where's warm in autumn?

Average high: October 24C, November 21C
If Tenerife conjures up images of 18-30 package holidays and high-rise hotels, you haven't been for a while. The seedier side of the island does still exist, but a new wave of ecotourism is attracting a more discerning visitor, and it's a great place for whale-watching, hiking, and trips to the rugged island of La Gomera.

The Green Traveller website has just launched an online guide to sustainable tourism in Tenerife (greentraveller.co.uk/sustainable-tourism-tenerife), highlighting organic restaurants, nature-based activities and cultural sites. Best of all, the guide has a great selection of rural hotels and holiday lets, such as Casa Las Pérez, a two-bedroom cottage in the southern Granadilla de Abona district, where temperatures seldom dip below 20C, even in the depths of winter. Surrounded by ravines and well off the beaten track, it costs from around £68 a night, minimum stay three nights.

In the less developed north-west, Hotel El Patio in Garachico (i-escape.com/hotel-el-patio) is a rambling coastal estate where doubles cost from €74 a night (minimum four-night stay). It has a pool and 26 simple, cheery rooms with terracotta floors and views of a banana plantation or a lush courtyard.

Or splash out on Abama (+34 902 105600, abamahotelresort.com, doubles from €275 a night), one of the island's flashest hotels, with a funicular train that transports guests down to its private cliff-backed beach.
• Monarch (08719 405040, monarch.co.uk) flies to Tenerife from Birmingham, Gatwick, Luton and Manchester from £110 return

Average high: October 22C, November 19C
A bit like with Tenerife, the accommodation available in the Algarve may surprise you. Muxima (+351 91 601 2830, muxima-montesferreiros.com) is an African-accented, family-friendly eco retreat where guesthouses are encircled by a cork forest and the beach is close by. The rooms have porches or terraces for soaking up the autumn sun. There is 20% off breaks in October, taking the cost for a week to £244pp.
Average high: October 23C, November 19C
The heatwave may be over in Britain, but it has been a great autumn so far in southern Europe: temperatures were approaching 30C this week on the Costa del Sol. In Málaga, you could stay in the city with its old town and art galleries – try the stylish Hotel Palacio Blanco (+34 952 549174, palacioblanco.com, doubles from €75 a night) – or 15 minutes out of town in Alhaurín de la Torre. Here you'll find Rancho del Ingles (+34 699 414544, ranchodelingles.com), a self-contained retreat with pool and a choice of characterful villas. Villas cost from €62 a night, minimum two nights, and are full of quirky reclaimed furniture. The area may be overdeveloped, but you'll be blissfully unaware of that, holed up in your stylish garden. You can rent the whole complex (five villas) or individual buildings. Another delightful property, next door Finca Cardo (holiday-rentals.co.uk/p832968, from £700 a week), sleeps four.

Alternatively, autumn is perfect for walking in the Alpujarras, an hour-and-a-half from Málaga by car. Responsible Travel (01273 600030, responsibletravel.com) has £50 off short walking holidays in Andalucía in November. The group hikes pass through pine forests and narrow gorges and are fuelled by plenty of regional food and wine. With the discount a five-day trip costs from £349, including traditional accommodation, all meals and activities, but not flights, departing 3 and 24 November.
Average high: October 23C, November 18C
Mallorca is now a serious rival to Ibiza for its gastronomic restaurants, hip bar scene and fashionable crowd. L'Avenida (+34 971 634075, avenida-hotel.com), a super-stylish townhouse hotel in Sóller, north-west Mallorca, is offering winter sun mini-breaks from about £114pp a night for a three-night break in November. The building is a temple to contemporary luxury, especially the bathrooms: Philippe Starck details and roll-top baths. It is two minutes from the town square and 20 minutes by taxi from Palma.
• Easyjet (easyjet.com) flies from nine British airports to Palma, Mallorca, from £71 in November

Average high: October 25C, November 21C
If you wait until next month to go to Gozo, a small island off Malta, you may lose a few degrees in heat but you'll save more than a few quid. HomeAway.co.uk (holiday-rentals.co.uk) has a cosy 300-year-old farmhouse sleeping five that is much cheaper in November than October (about £354 a week). The weather will be mild, so you'll still be able to make the most of your private pool and roof terrace. There is a wealth of history on your doorstep, from caves where the first inhabitants of Gozo settled to what's said to be the oldest freestanding temple in the world. For those with more mundane concerns, there's a bakery selling freshly baked Gozitan bread within walking distance and the restaurants and bars of the capital, Victoria, are just 2km away.
 Average high: October 28C, November 22C
For a short, sunny adventure, north Africa (the peaceful bits) is a great choice. Marrakech is popular, as is the fun coastal town of Essaouira, but some say the city of Fez is more authentically Moroccan. Riad Le Calife (+212 535 762608, riadlecalife.com) is an atmospheric riad in the medina, with a very good restaurant. For a gang or large family, you could rent Dar Tamazerte (01948 770509, marrakechholidayvilla.com) from £250 a night including breakfast and maid service (minimum three nights). This private villa with pool in the Ourika valley near Marrakech sleeps eight.
• Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies to Marrakech from Bristol, East Midlands, Luton and Stansted from £62 return

Average high: October 27C, November 20C
Unlike its neighbours, Jordan experienced very little unrest during the Arab spring. It's a stunningly beautiful and historically fascinating country, quiet and small and easy to travel around, and still very warm and sunny at this time of year.

Those seeking a last-minute family half-term break could book one of a few remaining places on Explore's (0845 867 9434, explore.co.uk) group family trip there, departing on 22 October. It's educational but exciting, featuring Petra, crusader castles and Biblical settings. Children will love floating in the Dead Sea and camping out in the desert in a goat-hair tent. The trip costs £1,185 for children and £1,250 for adults, including flights, accommodation in modern mid-range hotels and a desert camp, breakfasts, one lunch and one dinner.

Average high: October 26C, November 21C
It's 27C in coastal resorts in Tunisia right now! Whether you want to collapse on a beach, explore historic sites such as Carthage, or shop and stuff your face in a souk, now is a great time for a trip. Lots of companies offer package deals. Seven nights half board at the small Vincci Flora Park in Enfidha, costs £307pp including flights from Doncaster on 19 October through Direct Holidays (directholidays.co.uk).

Or set up your own trip: try Dar Fatma (+216 71 981284, darfatma.com) is a charmingly simple guesthouse in lovely Sidi Bou Said, 20 minutes up the coast from Tunis. All-white rooms, grouped round a blue-and-white patio, cost from €96 a night B&B.
• British Airways flies from Gatwick to Tunis from £195 return in October

Average high: October and November 24C
Now is a great time to go on a South African safari: autumn here is spring there, which means warm weather, reasonable prices and, most importantly, baby animals! If you're lucky you'll spot newborn elephants, hippos, buffalo and impala. Fleewinter (020-7112 0019, fleewinter.com) has a week in October or November in the Kruger region, from £1,180pp including flights, car hire, safaris and three nights in a four-star guesthouse near the Kruger national park, three nights in a lodge near the north of the park, and one night in Tzaneen, Limpopo.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Highlands' coolest – and most remote – cottages

Durness: 58 degrees north, closer to the pole than Gothenburg and Juneau, Alaska. This is the land of single-track roads and passing places; of herds of deer and heather-coated mountains and cliffs that plunge into the icy sea. It is now also home to Croft 103, the only five-star accommodation for 100 miles in the extreme north of Scotland.

Impressive when you consider that by Christmas the sun will only be up for around six hours, if it's visible at all. The past two years, when temperatures hit obscene lows and the UK seemed to endure its own brief ice age, the wee village in Sutherland must have felt like a Siberian prison.

"Oh no, it was magical," says Fiona Mackay. "We're really going to push for winter bookings."

Along with husband Robbie, she is the owner of Croft 103 and Mackay's, a four-star hotel in Durness mainland, Britain's most north-westerly village. "There was one night we were finishing off our new cottages at the edge of the loch. The snow was all around, the sky was clear, the northern lights were great, and a big heard of deer came in off the hills to keep warm. It was just magic." It sounds more Philip Pullman than Dostoevsky.

It's just about possible to make the journey via bus from Inverness, but when the weather is good the drive – especially the stretch between Ullapool and Durness – is one of the most spectacular in the country, if not all of Europe. The lack of traffic is a bonus, not least because of the amount of braking that's required every time another impossibly beautiful landscape pops round a tight bend.

But this far north life tends to the extreme. Just as it's dark for a long time in winter, so the summer nights stretch past 11pm. At the Durness golf course there are tales of playing past midnight, and of watching killer whales hunting seals in the bay next to the 18th green. Nearby, Smoo is the largest limestone cave in the UK; similarly, out at Cape Wrath the Clo Mor cliffs are our highest sheer cliffs, and one of our best sea bird colonies. It's craggy and wild – just as the end the world should be.

In contrast with all that, the Mackays' new property is a picture of serenity. Croft 103 is actually two self-catering cottages: the Hill and Shore Dwellings, located a few miles outside of Durness. Well off the main road, they are set a couple of hundred yards away from one another, offering total peace and quiet. They look east over Eriboll, a vast sea loch where the last German U-boats surrendered at the end of the war, towards Ben Hope, the most northerly Munro.

Robbie led us down to the Shore Dwelling where we found a basket full of local cheeses, smoked salmon and other seasonal Highland treats. It's possible to request him to dive in the loch for fresh scallops to supplement the bounty, but we weren't so cruel.

Before arriving I had imagined self-catering in this part of the world would mean perilously waving a net around off a cliff in hope of catching a puffin. A few years ago, maybe, but today Durness is surprisingly cosmopolitan in its tastes. In the local newsagents we found perfectly ripe avocados, soy sauce infused with sesame and a respectable Argentinian malbec. Failing all of that, we were of course welcome to eat at the restaurant in Mackay's hotel.

But back at the cottage, the kitchen is all brushed aluminium and locally milled Douglas fir. Everything is, of course, brand new – the dishwasher, the oven sunk into the wall. You want to cook in a place like this.

The rest of the cottage has a linear design, so with all the doors open it's possible see from the front door to the bathroom at end of the building. This allowed me a very long track on which to run, then jump on to the gargantuan bed – a bespoke seven foot by seven foot – in the penultimate room. My Olympic effort barely got me half way across the emperor-sized monster.

The dash took me past a cosy rug in front of a woodburner, past a huge swallow-you-whole couch, and past a Bose sound system piped into the walls, next to a 50-inch plasma TV. Just to the right, though, there's a 50ft screen to watch the world in glorious technicolour. Enormous glass runs the length of the building, offering utterly spectacular views across Loch Eriboll from every room in the house. Perhaps the biggest achievement at Croft 103 is that despite all this glass, the near-Arctic location, and the polished concrete floors, it is quite a warm property.

The key is in the design, which the Mackays say is "carbon negative". While the front is all glass, the back of the property is cuddled by a small hill. The rear wall is also insulated with sheep's wool, and tyre bales salvaged from a nearby scrapyard. Many of the stones used in the construction were sourced on-site, and everything else – down to the toilet roll holders – bought from Highland suppliers, or designed and fitted by local tradesmen. On top of all this (literally) there is a wind turbine that generates enough electricity to power both crofts, and still export 10,000kw hours a year back to the grid. The Mackays aren't kidding about this stuff.

We went outside to enjoy the perfect silence. Croft 103 is aimed at couples looking for a romantic getaway – and it would suit that perfectly – but I couldn't help think that it would be a great place to write a book, too. A path to the end of the building led us to a barbecue and, to our surprise, a free-standing outdoor bath. We looked across the loch, to the purple and gold hills, and up to the cloud-free sky exorcising the earth of its last heat. "Hmm," we thought, glancing back at the hot water tap with suspicion, "maybe not today."

Thomas Cook reassures holidaymakers

Thomas Cook is reassuring holidaymakers it is business as usual for its flights, hotels and travel agents after the debt-laden tour operator admitted it was in urgent talks with bankers to raise a further £100m – just a month after it last asked its lenders for £100m.

The holiday company, which was founded in 1841 and now provides 7 million breaks for British travellers every year, already owes nearly £1bn to lenders including 17 banks and its debt could top £1.5bn by the end of the year. Tthe value of the company plunged by 75% on the stock exchange making it worth just £87m. In a message on Twitter, the embattled tour operator said: "Thomas Cook reassures all customers it is business as usual. Our holidays are fully protected and can be booked with complete confidence."

Chief executive Sam Weihagen said: "We are as good and reliable today as we were yesterday. Flights are leaving as scheduled, shops are open for business." He added Thomas Cook was "pretty confident" the banks would again prove supportive.

The group is Europe's second largest tour company and operates almost 1,000 high street travel agencies in the UK. As well as its eponymous brand, Thomas Cook trades under many other names, including Going Places, 18-30, Cresta and Sunset. In recent years the package holiday industry has come under severe pressure. The traditional two week "flop and drop" Mediterranean holiday has been hit by cutthroat competition which has slashed margins. Meanwhile more adventurous, internet-savvy travellers have taken their business elsewhere and once-profitable sidelines such as travel insurance have also been lost to online rivals.

At the same time rising unemployment, petrol prices and gas and electricity bills have put pressure on family budgets. In the squeezed middle lie tour operators such as Thomas Cook, whose travel agency chains might soon join bookshops, record shops and bank branches as yet another high street victim of the internet and the recession.

On Tuesday the company said bookings in France and Belgium had dropped by 20% in the last few weeks as consumer confidence has been hit by turmoil in the eurozone. The continued political uncertainty in Egypt, one of Thomas Cook's longest established holiday destinations, has added to its problems, as have the floods in Thailand.

Industry insiders said Thomas Cook must decisively stamp out doubts about its financial health before the new year, typically the busiest time for summer holiday bookings. Chris Photi, a travel industry accountant and turnaround specialist at White Hart Associates, said: "By January this needs to be 'old news'. Right now, would I want to be booking a Thomas Cook summer holiday? No. I may be covered if the group went bust, but why would I put myself through that uncertainty?"

On Tuesday the company's shares, worth more than 200p at the turn of this year, were changing hands for just 10p.

The company's financial dire straits have led to a string of senior executive departures in recent months. Thomas Cook's colourful chief executive Manny Fontenla-Novoa left abruptly in August. Over the previous four years he had received pay totalling £14.5m in cash and shares.

Like most travel companies, Thomas Cook enjoys huge revenue inflows in the first half of the year as holidaymakers book their summer breaks, but the group must also manage sizeable outflows in the winter months when the bulk of flights and hotel arrangements must be paid for.

For Thomas Cook the UK has been the source of the most persistent problems in recent times. The group had been expected to detail radical plans this week to slash the range of holidays offered to British customers and reduce its 41-strong fleet of aircraft servicing the UK. That cost-cutting push is still planned, but the details, along with the company's annual results, have been postponed while urgent negotiations continue with bankers.

Five weeks ago Thomas Cook announced it had removed concerns that it could breach its borrowing agreements this winter after securing an additional £100m loan and looser lending terms from the banks.

The biggest travel group failure in recent years was XL Leisure in 2008, which left the taxpayer-backed Atol consumer protection scheme to fund a £27m repatriation and compensation bill for 85,000 holidaymakers. The scheme was £42m in deficit in March despite a recent increase in the levy from £1 to £2.50 that Atol takes from travel agents for every holiday booking.

There are fears that the organisation could be overwhelmed by the collapse of a major operator such as Thomas Cook. But an Atol spokesman said: "We have lines of credit agreed with our financial backers which can be drawn upon.

There is not going to be a situation where we cannot meet our obligations." Atol is ultimately guaranteed by the Department for Transport, although the spokesman said it did not envisage a situation where Atol would seek taxpayer support.

Nationalisation of a travel agency sounds far-fetched, but has a historical precedent. In 1948, Thomas Cook was nationalised as part of the British Transport Commission and stayed in public hands until 1972. It was offloaded to a consortium of Trust House Forte, Midland Bank and the Automobile Association after spending years in uneasy competition with new operators specialising in cheap package holidays to Spain.

Vintage Porto

Be warned: stopping for a sandwich in Porto might floor you for the rest of the afternoon, at least if you tuck into the local speciality, a Francesinha – generous amounts of steak and cured ham stuffed between slices of toast, swathed in a mass of melted cheese and then doused with a boozy tomato sauce, with chips and beer optional but recommended. On the bright side for the health conscious, there's plenty of chance to walk it off in Porto's vertiginous streets, which rise up from the banks of the Douro river in a jumble of winding paths, broad avenues and shady squares. And multiple opportunities to stop and stare: at the 20,000 blue-and-white tiles (azulejos) depicting scenes from Portuguese history in the São Bento railway station; at the iron facades that adorn countless shops and restaurants, and which will, our guide assures us, survive the city's gradual modernisation; at the city's magnificent Romanesque cathedral; at the famous and wonderfully preserved Lello bookshop, in which a diminutive cart distributes stock on a shopfloor railway. If you get lost, navigate by the tall bell tower of the Clérigos church, visible from virtually everywhere in the city; or by the surviving sections of the 14th-century Fernandine defensive walls, hewn out of the granite on and out of which Porto is built.

Chances are, though, that these and other attractions – the vast glass-and-steel Casa da Música designed by Rem Koolhaas, the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in its beautifully landscaped gardens – are not the first things that spring to mind when you think of Porto. They aren't for my father – a semi-retired sommelier – or me. Speculating about what to expect on the short plane ride from Stansted, we can muster only one word: port.

It's a correct but partial view that the city's tourism officials, hoteliers and restaurateurs are keen to expand by drawing attention to Porto as a breath-of-fresh-air alternative to other European city-break destinations, such as Barcelona, Berlin and Amsterdam. For the first two nights, we stay in the palatial Yeatman hotel, which sits overlooking the Douro from the Vila Nova de Gaia region on the south side of the river. Barely a year old, the hotel is the brainchild and pet project of Adrian Bridge, the managing director of Taylor's, and although port and wine are central to its aesthetic – from the decanter-shaped swimming pool to the Caudalie Vinothérapie treatments in the vast spa – he is keen to make sure Porto no longer hides its light under a bushel.

For the fairly well-heeled traveller, the Yeatman is a luxurious and comfortable base, all hushed corridors you could drive a car down and impeccable service; right next to the byzantine network of narrow roads that connect the city's long established port-wine cellars and a short hop over one of Porto's six river bridges to the bustling north side. Those who prefer to stay right in the heart of town might try the Teatro, a more modern (and modestly priced) hotel that takes its design inspiration from the theatre that stood on the site in the 19th century. Going upscale again, there's the five-star, almost implausibly beautiful Infante Sagres, where the likes of Bob Dylan and the Dalai Lama have stayed. We don't bunk in with them, but the hotel has recently opened a brasserie-style restaurant called Book, and we enjoy a delicious dinner there.

We also visit a couple of posher establishments that seem to fall in with the image of the hip new Porto currently being promoted. They are fine, but it seems to both of us that they offer the kind of food and atmosphere not hard to find in most European capitals; self-consciously refined, artfully presented, comparatively expensive. But the one culinary experience not to miss is eating barbecued sardines in the harbour district of Matosinhos, a short drive from the city centre. Follow the smoke and head for the Rua Heróis de França, where you can take your pick from a lengthy row of plainly decorated restaurants, each with an outsized pavement grill and bursting with people – all piscine life is on the menu, but the sardines, newly caught and whacked on the barbecue with nothing but salt, are sensational (and unfeasibly cheap).

Porto's enthusiasts are right to point out that there's far more to the city than its most famous product but you'd be unwise not to pay it some attention. Sit on the banks of the river and sip it in its white, pink, ruby, tawny and late-bottled vintage incarnations, looking idly at the rabelo boats that are now a tourist attraction but were traditionally used to transport casks of the stuff down river from the Douro Valley. And, if you're here for more than a couple of days, don't miss out on the chance to head further inland to the small towns and never-ending vineyards of the Douro itself, less than a couple of hours away by car and also reachable by train to Régua or Pinhão, or by river cruise. We drive and experience proper dropped jaws when we turn off the motorway and arrive at the first viewing point: from high up, all you can see is a vast expanse of broad river and enough grapes, it seems, to keep the world drunk for ever.

In 24 hours, we manage to lunch on roast kid at Régua's splendid Castas e Pratos restaurant, visit the Douro museum, relax in the cool luxury of the Aquapura spa hotel and sample the wares of no fewer than four different quintas (including the Quinta do Seixo, owned by Sandeman, where, somewhat comically, we are shown around by a man in the trademark black hat and cape). At one, the family-owned Quinta da Pacheca, my dad and I sample the delicious wines and port so comprehensively that a cooling swim and a short nap are required before dinner (after which, of course, more port). We're certainly not up to the grape-treading that you can participate in at some of the smaller quintas – although most grape-crushing is now mechanised, traditional methods are still to be found. Spittoons are not much in evidence and so a word of caution: unless you are teetotal and have nerves of steel, consider enlisting the services of a driver to take you on quinta visits: when we visit, during the September harvest, the fairly challenging roads are further complicated by the constant traffic of grape trucks.

By the end, I feel I know more about port wine than I had imagined possible: that its grapes grow so well here because of the schist soil that regulates night-time temperatures; that one of its greatest producers was a woman named Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira; and that the little chapels that dot the riverside sprang up to bless the rabelo boatmen who might come a cropper in its treacherous shallows. I also realise that I will come back – here and to Porto – time and again, and that its champions are right to think it can give other short-haul destinations a run for their money.

Vintage shopping in Miami

'Don't let me buy any orange things, OK? No more kitsch orange pieces," says Barbara Hulanicki, as we head off on our vintage shopping expedition. Miami's South Beach is well known for sun, sea, sand and partying. Less well-known is its appeal for vintage fans – flea markets, fascinating shops and huge trucks full of designer dresses from house clearances. Keen to uncover this side of Miami, I'd put in a call to Hulanicki, fashion designer, founder of iconic clothes store Biba and long-time Miami resident.

My grandmother was a Biba shop girl, so tales of tight Hulanicki miniskirts, stylish 1960s plastic Biba raincoats for under £20 and celebrities flocking to the Kensington High Street shop filled my childhood. I grew up in awe of this shop, sad that I missed the era it defined and annoyed that my grandmother has no items left – she didn't keep one thing. The last time I interviewed Barbara she offered to take me shopping in Miami. So, here I am eating breakfast with her at the Front Porch Cafe on Ocean Drive (frontporchoceandrive.com), fuelling up in preparation. The plan is to do vintage shops on Saturday and the vintage/antique market on Sunday.

Barbara moved to Miami in the early 1990s to help Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood decorate his club, Woody's on the Beach, and she's made the city her base ever since. She travels around the world designing hotel interiors and clothing for labels from Topshop to Coccinelle. Orange, I'm discovering, is her achilles heel. Her office is littered with orange glass ornaments, ashtrays and lights. Even now, as she is telling me that she really must not buy any more orange, her eye is wandering through the window of a secondhand shop, where she can spy some tangerine bric-a-brac.

Barbara Hulanicki with a vintage find

But orange aside, when it comes to shopping, Barbara is an expert. "I am just a big hunter. I think they call them hoarders now. I'll show you some pictures of what our place in London used to look like. Remember Steptoe and Son? It was like that. I used to collect antique lights. I'd have loads of them, art deco-style. Before going to bed my [late] husband Fitz would turn them all off, and as he got into bed he would realise he had forgotten one.

"After each big shopping trip I get that feeling again, the thrill of it, and I have to try to curb my hunting. This weekend will start my shopping habit again – I just know it."

Our first stop is Las Tias (2834 N Miami Avenue, lastias.com), an upscale secondhand shop with a fur-covered chaise longue and a 1980s cocktail dress in the window. We jump out of Barbara's Mini Cooper and get started. I run straight to the clothes and purses, and leave her eyeing up the furniture – yellow pieces from a living room set.

"This person was very matchy, matchy," she says, stroking the pieces and imagining their former owner.

Then it's on to the women's clothes: old party dresses, 1960s print shifts (my favourite) and vintage shoes.

Having whetted our appetites we drive to C Madeleine's (13702 Biscayne Boulevard, cmadeleines.com), which is famous with editors, stylists and serious fashion fanatics.

"OK, hold your breath," says Barbara, as she swings open the door. She sees my eyes light up and says, "I knew you were going to love this store. You are going to have such fun. I might have to say goodbye to you, see you in two hours' time."

I start in couture, then move on to the 1970s section (think vintage Bill Blass dresses for around $300), by way of hat boxes and leather jackets (around $600), and finish up wondering if I can charge a vintage Pucci dress to my credit card. Sadly the prices are out of my reach, but Barbara still practically has to drag me out of the shop.

On the way back we make a quick stop at Divine Trash (7244 Biscayne Boulevard, getdivineonline.com). The owner, Donna, is fabulous. As we walk in, she is sorting through a collection of designer clothes that a celebrity has donated because she "can't wear anything twice". Barbara and Donna, both stalwarts of the vintage scene, swap stories of how much stuff they've bought since they last saw each other.

I head straight to the celebrity pile, and start digging. But then my eyes are drawn to the vintage dresses.

"I see you have a thing for antique white lace dresses … very interesting and summery, but what would you wear underneath it?" ponders Barbara as I'm trying on another lace top in the changing room. It could be worn as a dress, and is a bargain at $40.

Sadly, nothing fits, so we drive to a stylish new eatery called Gigi (3470 N Miami Avenue, giginow.com). It's in the design district, open till 5am at weekends and serves Asian fusion food and great desserts. The Design district has been transformed in the past few years. It's now a hub for a young cool crowd, with art galleries on every block and new places to eat.

Next day, I'm up early to find Barbara in my hotel lobby raring to go. The Sunday Lincoln Road Antique & Collectible Market (lincolnroadmiamibeach.info) is a short walk from the hotel but first we head to the nearby cafe at Books & Books for breakfast (927 Lincoln Road, booksandbooks.com) to feast on eggs Benedict, coffee and fruit. Under the hot sun, we start on the stalls.

"I love wondering what I might find, don't you? Nowadays I don't have any space left to store things but if it's haunting me, I have to go back and see if it's still there," Barbara tells me. Tanned muscular men and bikini-clad ladies on Rollerblades pass us, heading for the beach. But that's the last thing on our minds.

We find vintage Missoni and Chanel clothes, plastic furniture and an antique globe. Three hours later, we still haven't bought anything, but we've had a blast. We talk all things Biba ("I still get people coming up to me and describing exact Biba items – it's very sweet and I remember designing all of them," says Barbara), why vintage clothes are awesome ("that quality, it lasts for ages") and try to imagine the previous owners of some of this stuff, especially the nodding doll, and the lime green dress with one shoulder pad.

The lack of purchases hasn't dampened our spirits. In fact, we've set a date for early next year to do it all again and I've started the research. Top of my list is Fly Boutique (650 Lincoln Road, flyboutiquevintage.com), an Aladdin's cave of vintage wares from battered Levi's to Chanel pieces and vintage Versace waistcoats. I can't wait.

Where to go in December

Until now, tourism on the beautiful islands strung along Cambodia's 440km coastline has centred on simple, laid-back beach shacks. Now, the first luxury resort has opened. Song Saa (songsaa.com) is a collection of 27 villas spread over two jungle-clad islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Tourism development in Cambodia has not been without controversy, but the owners of Song Saa are keen to stress their commitment to sustainability, employing a team of four to oversee the protection of the marine reserve surrounding the islands and to manage projects with local communities.

But above all Song Saa is about luxury – the villas are vast and each has its own pool, the restaurant is headed by Neil Wager, formerly chef at the insanely luxurious North Island in the Seychelles, and a typical day will be spent wafting between the spa, water sports centre, yoga centre and infinity pool. Of course, private islands where you are pampered to within an inch of your life do not come cheap. But for the next three months the resort is offering a major discount, so if you are going to splash out on a once-in-a-lifetime week of luxury, now is the time to do it. Between 23 December and 13 February, an eight-night stay with full board in a jungle villa, plus a night's B&B in Phnom Penh and private flight transfers, costs from £2,141pp with AboutAsia (aboutasiatravel.com), a saving of £1,981pp. Offer excludes international flights.

Or for a tenth of that, a week's trip combining B&B at The Independence hotel in Sihanoukville and a B&B stay at Lazy Beach (lazybeachcambodia.com) on the island of Koh Rong Samloem, a two-hour boat ride from Sihanoukville, costs around £225pp in early December, including transfers, also through AboutAsia. Flights extra.

How do you enjoy the year-round sunshine of the Canary Islands on a budget without booking a tacky package? Answer: set sail! Tall Ships Adventures (023-9283 2055, tallships.org) is offering a seven-night voyage around the islands, starting and finishing in Tenerife. Open to anyone aged 18 to 75 – sailors and non-sailors – it's all hands on deck with everyone expected to muck in and help sail the ship alongside the professional crew. That means you might find yourself on night watch in the wee hours, rather than sleeping soundly in your bunk. A special two-for-one offer this December means it's cheap as chips: £382.50 full-board for two. The catch? You get what you pay for – crew sleep in "pipe cots" in shared cabins with eight to a cabin. Spacious it ain't. The trip departs 11 December, so you'll be home in time to celebrate Christmas with a healthy glow.

Does the prospect of the festive season bring you out in a cold sweat (all that shopping, the annual debate over who's going where and cooking what?) Then a cheeky pre-Christmas break at the Bell, a new pub with rooms in Ticehurst, East Sussex, could be just the ticket (01580 200234, thebellinticehurst.com, rooms from £90 to £145). It's so new (opening 11 November) its website isn't even up and running yet – though the holding page is enough to make us want to go.

If the relentless gentrification of tired pubs irks you, the Bell definitely isn't one for you. The new owner has pumped an astonishing £2.8m into the former coaching inn – surely some sort of gastrofication record. As well as the pub, it has seven guest rooms that mix quirky vintage finds with modern must-haves, including iPads and plasma screens, and some with real log fires, a guest parlour with honesty bar and a restaurant. It's so hot off the press we don't have details yet of the menu but the marketing blurb describes it as "traditional with a modern twist, using local ingredients". Twenty minutes' drive from Tunbridge Wells, Ticehurst is an archetypal south-east England village with a ramshackle churchyard, a handful of unreconstructed pubs and great walking on the doorstep.

Christmas shopping is one of those activities that should be fun but nearly always feels like a chore and ends up with a last-minute trudge along the highstreet or a trawl through amazon.co.uk. Bring back the fun – spend the weekend in Istanbul, and you can pick up some fantastic bargains that you know no one else will have bought, in between gawping at world-class sights from the Byzantine Ayasofya mosque to the Archaeological Museum, which houses the tomb of Alexander the Great.

If bargain hunting in the Grand Bazaar leaves you in need of a rest, book into a hammam for a restorative massage – the Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam is a 16th-century bathhouse where you can sweat out the grime of the city in spectacular surroundings, before hitting the bars and restaurants in the evening. For places to drink, eat and party, take a look at our brilliant insider's guide to the city.

Exclusive Escapes (020-8605 3500, exclusiveescapes.co.uk) has an offer on Istanbul breaks until mid-December. A three-night stay at the Sirkeci Konak boutique hotel costs £720pp, including return flights with Turkish Airlines, transfers and a private guide for half a day.

Bruges is atmospheric at any time of year; in the run up to Christmas it is even more fairytale-like, its pretty squares and cobbled streets strung with lights, and tempting aromas drifting from market stalls. An added festive factor is the 300 tonnes of ice and 400 tonnes of snow shipped in for the annual Snow & Ice Sculpture festival (25 November-15 January, icesculpture.be, adults €11, children €7). Sculptors create their frosty art works in a giant thermal tent where it's a permanent -6C. This year's theme is Disneyland Paris. A two-night stay at the Hotel Aragon on a B&B basis costs from £238pp including return Eurostar (London St Pancras to Brussels) and onward rail to Bruges with Inntravel (01653 617000, inntravel.co.uk). If you prefer to DIY your trip, the Bread and Butter B&B (+32 5033 4726, breadandbutter.be, doubles from €85 B&B) is a quirky guesthouse with vintage wallpaper and salvaged furniture, but check availability – it only has one guestroom.

Anyone who has considered volunteering over Christmas should check out Hands Up Holidays' (handsupholidays.com) selection of trips, which incoporate an element of charity work into the itinerary. It's not all give – you get to holiday in a fantastic destinations while doing your bit to help. In New Orleans community groups are still working on rebuilding lives – both literally and metaphorically – six years after Hurriance Katrina devastated the city. On this eight-day trip you can do your bit by helping to renovate houses, assisting in a homeless shelter, teaching IT skills or helping in a home for the elderly. You can stay in five-star B&B accommodation for £1,670pp based on two sharing, as shown on the website – or for £1,200pp at the four-star Hotel Monteleone on a B&B basis. The trip includes three full days' volunteering plus sightseeing with a local guide, but not international flights. The price also includes a £150 per person donation to the volunteer project. Dates are flexible.

Yorkshire plans to open a luxury hotel for dogs

 The proposed Keep at Raithwaite where dogs and their owners can sleep and spa in comfort.

Yorkshire is about to become a dog's best friend as the county's latest super-comfy hotel unveils plans to open the UK's first dedicated dog hotel and spa.

Raithwaite Hall in Sandsend, North Yorkshire, where £30 million has been spent on dolling up the stately pile, started taking human customers two weeks ago. It is now sorting out a 28-room 'dog hotel' with dedicated spa facilities including hydrotherapy pool, grooming, special food and the slightly ominous-sounding obedience classes. Presumably for those which get a bit carried away by all the fuss.

The suites will be in a separate building called The Keep, due to open next autumn, and essentially human rooms will include a special area for dogs to sleep in.

Paul Ellis, managing director of the northern England-based Skelwith Group, owners of the 80-acre Raithwaite Hall estate, says:

We've opened a fantastic hotel for humans and want to be able to offer the same guest experience to dogs too. When people are choosing hotels it is often easier to find venues that cater for their children than for their dog. Dogs are often a massive part of the family so we want to look after these travellers too.

Dracula. Will he try to book in?

Raithwaite is managed on behalf of Skelwith by the West Paces hotel group based in the US where dog holidays are part of the travel picture. The new Yorkshire outpost will be marketed heavily in the States in the hope of attracting visitors from an established clientele over there.

The market for dog holidays is relatively untapped in the UK as many places do not allow them to stay with their owners. That is changing but the potential for holidaymakers to take their dog on the family break could be a promising new source of income for hotelliers and guesthouse owners. Pets are a billion pound industry with pet food alone worth £1.8bn in Britain, without taking into account vet costs, toys and other pet-related paraphernalia.

The number of UK households with dogs has also overtaken cats for the first time in the last five years, with an estimated 8.3million dogs in the UK and almost a quarter of homeowners sharing their life with a dog in 2010 (22.9%: Source: Mintel for the Pet Food Manufacturers' Association). It is possible that dogs will outnumber cats in the UK for the first time during the course of 2011.

Raithwaite Hall was once the a shipping magnates's retreat and backs onto public footpaths which lead to the beach as well as inland towards the moors so there is plenty for dogs and their owners to explore. It's also only a short walk from Sandsend to Whitby, where in Bram Stoker's famous novel Dracula, the dodgy count first sets foot on English soil, disguised, appropriately, as a dog.

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