Wednesday, October 29, 2008

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Friday, June 20, 2008

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Friday, June 6, 2008

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Monday, May 5, 2008

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Friday, April 4, 2008

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Monday, February 4, 2008

Friday, January 25, 2008

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Something for the Weekend - Edinburgh

It is little wonder that Edinburgh is one of Europe’s stag and hen night hotspots and an ever-popular destination for a short break. With late night drinking, a town centre compact enough to stumble through in almost any state of disrepair and more than 700 pubs, clubs and bars, ‘Embra’ is better equipped to cope with and entertain weekend revellers and trouble-seekers than most other British cities.

Although there has been a bit of a style bar revolution in recent years, Edinburgh’s Cowgate, Royal Mile and Rose Street have all retained their reputations as homes to more traditional, rowdy pubs such as Biddy Mulligans, The Three Sisters, Deacon Brodie’s and Breck’s. On student nights and at the weekend in these old favourites, rugby supporters can come face-to-face with football fans, short-skirted hen night parties can find the stag party hangers-on they always dreamt of and freshers from Edinburgh’s universities and colleges can try desperately to sink that third tequila shot and squeeze the lemon in their eye.

For those seeking a more fashion-conscious and discerning clientele, George Street, The New Town and the streets around George IV Bridge and Bristo Square have suddenly become hang-outs for wannabe DJs, cocktail connoisseurs, young professionals and employees of Harvey Nichols. These bars are constantly vying with each other to see which has the edgiest décor, most eclectic playlist and most exotic top shelf spirits, and with booths, comfy seating and attractive menus of fusion food, some of the more notable ones are: Hector’s, Opal Lounge, The Villager and The Human Be-In.

Outdoor fun can be had by tagging along with one of the Old Town ghost walks. These depart from the middle of the Royal Mile every night and if you decide to go for it, you get to see the beautiful nooks, twists and crannies of Auld Reekie, hear about the city’s grisly past, run into some haunted souls under ground and have the wits scared out of you by the Hibs supporter who springs out on your costume-wearing tour guide at the bottom of Niddrie Street.

Of course no lads’ night out or messy weekend away with your student mates would be complete without the courtesy trip to one of Edinburgh’s late night spots. The choices are many and varied, ranging from pole-dancing and strip shows at the hilariously named Bottoms Up and Big Daddy O’s, to a cheese-fest at the Potter Row student venue and from folk music and drunken nonsense at Whistle Binkie’s to jazz and funk at The Jazz Bar and Cabaret Voltaire or indie nights at the Citrus Club.

Fortunately, the majority of the kebab and fast food shops in and around the epicentre stay open until after 3am, so you’ll be able to leave a club at kicking-out time and still get that deep fried Mars bar or battered haggis supper you’ve been longing for. You can even sit down for a pizza, a sambuca and a drunken food fight in Pizza Paradise at 4 o’clock in the morning, before braving the cold wind on North Bridge as you wend your way to The Scotsman Lounge or The Penny Black (both open their doors at 5am) to complete the famous 24 hour party that Edinburgh has to offer.

Who knows… if you’re lucky enough to avoid a killer hang-over after all your festivities, you might even get to do some shopping and sight-seeing on the Sunday. The imposing castle, Princes Street, Calton Hill, The Royal Mile, the Georgian New Town, Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags all combine to make Edinburgh’s city centre arguably the most beautiful in the whole of the UK.

Niven Whatley

Food Glorious Food - Murcia, Spain

Forget the rich tomato and herb-based dishes of Sicily or the exquisite cuisine of Lyon, European food lovers looking for a taste of something truly fantastic should make their way to Murcia in the southeast of Spain.

Whether you are a die-hard carnivore, veggie all the way or a little bit fishy, Murcia has a whole range of culinary magic and fresh produce to satisfy your tastes.

Known in Spanish as “La Huerta,” the garden of Europe’s hot climate, effective irrigation system, population of skilled farmers and vast areas of arable land have ensured that fruits, vegetables, spices and crops can all flourish in harmony in this seemingly dry and rocky region. Every day truckloads of farm-fresh cauliflowers, chillies, peppers, lemons and aubergines are sent from Murcia’s fields to destinations all over Europe.

The region does however hold onto plenty of its own supplies, a blessing you will appreciate as soon as you sample the tapas dished out free with your first bottle of the local Jumilla or Yecla red wine in many of the bars, taverns and street-side cafes in Murcia, Cartagena, La Manga and in the numerous rustic villages surrounding the lagoon known as Mar Menor.

Among my favourite vegetarian tapas are: ‘cabra a la plancha con tomate’ (grilled goat cheese and tomato; ‘ensalada Murciana’ (a salad incorporating lots of the region’s finest vegetables); and the classic ‘tortilla’ (Spanish potato and onion omelette).

With its long, clean coastline and of course the Mar Menor (the name of the lagoon translates as ‘Lesser Sea’ and it is Europe’s leading centre for water sports), it is no wonder that the fish and seafood in this part of Spain are second to none.

There is something quite special about spending a lazy few hours sitting in the lengthening shadows by the marina in Cabo de Palos, watching the sun set over the white buildings and hills to the west, enjoying the lingering warmth of the calm breeze known somewhat predictably as ‘La Brisa’ and stuffing yourself silly with prawns, squid, ‘dorada a la sal’ and ‘mejillones a la marinera’ (mussels in a marinière sauce).

Sunday is the traditional family day in Spain, and in Murcia, that translates as an entire day spent preparing, cooking and eating (or of course simply going to a restaurant).

Locals tend to go for a ‘caldero,’ ‘arroz negro’ (a rice dish cooked in black squid ink) or of course for the classic ‘paella.’ If you get the chance, and enjoy a bit of fresh seafood, it is almost criminal to visit Murcia and not succumb to the pleasures of the best paella you will possibly ever taste.

With such juicy fruit and vegetables and such a selection of fresh fish plucked from the Mediterranean every day, you might be surprised that Murcianos even bother with meat dishes – but one trip to the famous restaurant Rincón de Pepe will cure you of your suspicions, in much the same way as the jamón, chorizo and morcilla hanging from the rafters have themselves been cured.

This restaurant has such a long list of tapas and main courses that it is impossible to know where to begin. Indeed whenever I went there with my partner’s family I dispensed with the need to select between one thing and another, and just opted for pretty much all of them! This is actually not quite as gross an act as it sounds, because they have catered for gluttons like me with a ‘Menú de degustación’ (tasting menu).

Seriously, and I really mean this, do yourself the favour of trying this place out, and pay particular attention to the simplicity and succulence of the ‘chuletas al ajo cabañil’ (garlic pork chops), ‘jabalí’ (wild boar) and ‘habas con jamón’ (Serrano ham with broad beans). Mmmm….

The only one thing that could possibly detract from a wonderful Murcian gastro holiday is not having enough time to sample all the great restaurants, cafes and tapas bars the region has to offer.

Niven Whatley

Snorkling, scuba diving and caving in Mexico

Mexico may not be the first destination you think of when you are looking for madcap adventure, water sports and thrills, but when you look further at what this large and diverse Central American country has to offer, you will surely be surprised. Beyond the fajitas, margaritas and (delightful) señoritas there is a world of adventure and experience waiting to be discovered.

The eastern states of Quintana Roo and Yucatán are usually remembered for American Spring Breakers slamming tequila and grinding in the Cancún clubs and for the huge and impressive Maya-Toltec pyramids and ruins around Chichén Itza and the Mayan Riviera. However this coast also looks out over the vast Atlantic Ocean, the warm Caribbean Sea and the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

This has its pros and cons: the warmth, humidity and geography of the area makes it hugely vulnerable to the devastating effects of major storms and hurricanes, but it is also these factors that combine to support the world’s second largest reef, with its beautifully colourful marine life, stunning coral formations and breaking waves.

Aside from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and perhaps a few choice spots in the Indian Ocean, this reef is unsurpassable as a place to pull on those flippers and dive off the back of a boat. Many trustworthy (and otherwise) tour guides, boat hire companies and independent instructors send launches out over the crystalline waters to the best locations for swimming alongside stingrays, multi-coloured dolphin fish and tiger sharks. Scuba diving and snorkelling are both well catered-for here, and if you pick the right season and the right day (not a windy day on the eve of Hurricane Stephan’s summer visit), the subaquatic sights you can see are astounding.

For those who prefer slightly more off-the-beaten-track thrills, a 3-hour trip inland can get you to one of Mexico’s unique ‘cenotes.’ These are inland, water-filled underground sink-holes, where years of water coursing along beneath the surface of the land has eventually led to a collapse of the limestone roof at ground level, leaving huge gaping holes above, and access to freshwater natural wells beneath.

In this part of Mexico there are few or no rivers above the ground, and the Mayans used the underground springs and cenotes as their source of water, their religious places and the locations for sacrificing virgins… nice! These days the burgeoning tourist industry organises trips for camera-bearing foreigners, and aspiring Jacques Cousteau types.

Cave diving is not everyone’s cup of tea. It can get quite dark and cold down them there holes, but if sinking beneath the surface of a watery cavern and dodging the huge stalagtites and stalagmites is what gets you off, Mexico is truly unrivalled, as no other country on Earth can offer such exquisite examples of this phenomenon.

Diving of a different sort is also a popular pursuit in Acapulco, on the Pacific west coast of Mexico.

Brave (or perhaps stupid) young cliff divers congregate in this part of the world, which Mexicans consider to be more of a Mexican-type holiday destination than those out west, to challenge each other and themselves to competitions of incredibly daring high diving tricks.

This is one challenge I would personally shirk, not trusting my coordination, agility and timing enough to believe that I could throw myself off those cliffs without plunging into a literally back-breaking belly flop at the bottom, but if you are that guy or gal, Acapulco is not to be missed.

With the ever-present danger of eating some dodgy beans and falling foul of Montezuma’s Revenge, most might think a day at the beach or a walk around some awe-inspiring pyramids is adventure enough, but with all that this beautiful and welcoming country has to offer in the line of adventure, all you thrill-seekers out there could do a lot worse than visit Mexico.

Niven Whatley

Snapshots of Dubai

“Dubai was not what I was expecting it to be. Before I went there I had visions of it being a tropical paradise, complete with beaches, sand dunes and glorious sunshine.

The weather lived up to what we were expecting. The days were filled with blue skies and were followed by amazing sunsets. The only real downer was that we visited during Ramadan (the time of fasting for Muslims before the celebrations of Eid), and whilst the hotels were exempt from the rules, we found it very difficult not being able to even sip water in public.

While a lot of the public were very friendly, helpful and pleasant, the patriarchal nature of the place can be slightly unnerving for a Western female visitor at times, and during this religious period some days could prove to be a bit of a struggle for a tourist not au fait with the accepted practices.

Great for a beach holiday, but not necessarily all it could be for a romantic getaway.”

(Bethany Whatley, 24 year-old Financial Advisor. Rayne, England)

“As a destination for a pre-meditated culture shock and a taste of Arabian magic, Dubai perhaps doesn’t live up to places such as Oman, Egypt or Morocco, but it is truly a class apart in its own way.

Dubai is striving to be a world economic power and even more of a tourist hotspot, and development here is at fever pitch, with cranes, skyscrapers and multi-billion dollar hotels at every turn. It is already home to such landmark 6* and 7* hotels as the Burj Al Arab and to some of the world’s finest golf and beach resorts.

Walks through the local souks (bazaar-like markets) can mesmerise visitors, as they stride past exotic scents of halal meat dishes, ground spices and burning incense. Shoppers can be forgiven for looking lustfully at the burgeoning displays of Middle-Eastern gold jewellery and deciding to buy their relatives a full wardrobe of the national dress (dishdasha, agal, gutra and gafia). Haggling is always a good skill to have on a trip here.

With the adventure and photography opportunities presented by beautiful red sand dunes on one side, the allure of clean sand beaches and blue sea on the other and majestic dhows moored in the Creek, Dubai certainly can be a fantastic destination - just remember your sun block and plenty of cash for the inevitable shopping spree!”

(Niven Whatley, 28 year-old Media Sales Executive. London, England)

• “Dubai - multicultural centre in the United Arab Emirates with a warm and friendly atmosphere.

• A place where people from all sorts of backgrounds can interact.

• Relaxed living with a variety of cultural influences

• A place for the future, where massive development can be seen taking place before your very eyes.”

(Colin Whatley, 22 year-old Masters Student. Glasgow, Scotland)

“From the timeless tranquillity of the desert to the lively bustle of the souk, Dubai offers a kaleidoscope of attractions for visitors.

The emirate embraces a wide variety of scenery in a very small area. In a single day, the tourist can experience everything from rugged mountains and awe-inspiring sand dunes to sandy beaches and lush green parks, from dusty villages to luxurious residential districts and from ancient houses with windtowers to ultra-modern shopping malls.

The emirate is both a dynamic international business centre and a laid-back tourist escape; a city where the sophistication of the 21st century walks hand in hand with the simplicity of a bygone era.

But these contrasts give Dubai its unique flavour and personality; a cosmopolitan society with an international lifestyle, yet with a culture deeply rooted in the Islamic traditions of Arabia.

Since earliest times, Dubai has been a meeting place, bringing together the Bedouin of the desert interior with the pearl-diver, the merchant of the city with the sea-going fisherman.”

(From the website

“The nightlife here is booming. There are so many clubs to go to, I cannot even mention them all here.

I suggest you get Time Out Magazine when you come and have a look inside it.
In that magazine you can see some of the choices you have here.

Meeting people here is very easy............”

(Comment by contributor, ‘mismanzoor’ lifted from a tourist forum )

“I would really recommend the Bastakiya Walking Tour offered by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding It's a tour of the old windtower houses next to Dubai Creek.

Bastakiya is full of restored original Dubai homes, many now used as cafes and art galleries. It's a very small area, but one of the few truly historic parts of Dubai. Do the walking tour, have a lunch in one of the cafes there (I recommend XVA or Basta Art Cafe - you'll pass both on the tour), then walk around the corner to the Dubai Museum in the afternoon. Afterwards you can walk along the creekside and perhaps take a trip across the creek in an abra (water taxi).

A great day out with real Arabian flavour.”

(Comment by contributor, ‘trailingspouse’ lifted from a tourist forum )

“The normal tourist probably does not venture out into the 'outback of Dubai.'

If you do, I strongly recommend visiting if you are looking into adventure, and if you are looking at glamorous fun I suggest you look at

Visiting areas outside Dubai can also let you see some beautiful sights. If you have kids take them to the Children's Museum. Dubai also has some nice parks for a BBQ and a walk, especially the Creek Park and Zabeel Park.”

(Comment by contributor, ‘dxblime’ lifted from a tourist forum )

Madness in the Middle Kingdom

Outsiders have always regarded China as a land of mystery, opportunity and extreme contrasts. Until very recently, the world’s largest population was strictly kept within clearly defined, exclusive and long established geopolitical, cultural and linguistic boundaries.

Only in the last 15 or so years have we been able to visit and bear witness to the vast wealth of natural beauty and historical intrigue and the frenzied clamour of the Chinese people for the trappings of a suddenly tangible future.

However China’s imposing capital, Beijing, is not just drawing interest from historians, adventurers and world travellers for being home to the world’s longest wall and the setting of thousands of years of glorious dynasties and imperial palaces.

There are more and more visitors to the city finding their own funny little quirks and “well-kept secrets” there, and in recent trips I managed to see some of those that I coaxed out of previous visitors and expats in the city.

Clearly no-one in their right mind would leave Beijing without visiting such massive draws as the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall, but even a visit to these places can throw up a few surprising, and at times hilarious, sights, and I’m sure I won’t be alone in thinking that these are the best bits of the city experience.

As the crowds in Tiananmen Square begin to form early in the morning, you might be forgiven for giggling at the colour-coded tour groups from far-flung corners of the country. Nowhere else in the world do tourists look this much like characters such as Jennifer Yellow Hat out of children’s reading books. If huge groups of 30 or 40 octogenarians from the Sichuan countryside, sporting cheap, badly made, brown suits, with yellow caps perched on top of their heads and blindly following a student with a yellow flag, a whistle and a loudspeaker doesn’t get a laugh out of you, the furtive hawkers are sure to.

One after another opportunistic street vendor with a rosy-cheeked smile seems to line up to offer you exactly the same gaudy tat: miniature plastic kites with party political slogans on; musical lighters which play the tune “Red Oriental” whenever you unsuccessfully try to fire them up; £1 watches with pictures of Chairman Mao as their faces, and his hands clicking past the seconds: perfect as silly gifts for kitsch-lovers.

Walking round Tiantan (Temple of Heaven) is also a sure way to see some sights peculiar to Beijing. Any tree in the surrounding park could be concealing a trigger-happy cameraman waiting to snap you unawares. Someone I met told me of his experiences with this: “I was casually walking round, taking it all in and trying to stay in the shade, but I had this strange feeling of someone secretly following me. Eventually I thought I must be imagining it, until all at once a local jumped out from behind a tree, with a flash digital camera and snapped a quick picture of me and my girlfriend.” This experience is actually a fairly common occurrence, but the photos are not any sinister attempt to spy on you, nor an attempt to make a quick buck selling you a keepsake photo. In fact, these photos seem to be treasured by Chinese tourists as proof of seeing a westerner or someone with blonde hair. Someone, somewhere in China must have a photo of my chubby, sun-blushed face up on the mantelpiece!

Sections of the world famous Great Wall near Beijing can offer some of the world’s most breath-taking sights and stunning hikes, as well as holding the secrets to a grand and warlike past, but few overseas visitors would be likely to incorporate a go on the year-round bobsleds in their day-trip itinerary. In fact, after a bit of a march, endless photo calls to really capture that elusive prize-winning shot of the wall winding its way over the surrounding hills and an hour or two imagining great Chinese generals of the Ming Dynasty pacing up and down on sentry duty, a hair-raising ride back down to the bottom is a highly exhilarating (if rather bizarre) way to unwind [pun intended].

The wall between Jinshanling and Simitai is certainly the most authentic, rugged and awe-inspiring section within a day of the capital, and a tough 10km walk past its twenty-something sentry posts is nothing short of spectacular. However even up here adventurers are likely to experience some of that uniquely Chinese randomness. When I did the walk with a group of friends and colleagues, we had been advised to shun the relentless advances of the vendors on the wall, but as I progressed I actually started enjoying the banter with these canny salesmen, as the assortment of goods offered went from the sublime to the ridiculous. Beginning with the usual tacky mementos, we got through water, sun hats, energy drinks, beer and at the finishing post I was even offered a shot of the singularly horrid local bai jiu (white spirit). I took it. However I am certain that these guys were not only there for the money they could make – they actually truly seemed to enjoy our company. A couple of stragglers in our group were struggling with some of the high-peaked middle section of the route, and swore blind they wouldn’t have made it (definite exaggeration) if it wasn’t for the jovial chit chat and endless encouragement of the Nei Monggol folk along the way. They said they felt like Edmund Hillary with their own loyal Sherpas!

Eating out in Beijing is always a treat. Food is fairly cheap and usually good quality, service is always swift and immaculate and there is culinary representation from such a wide variety of world cuisines. When you visit it is imperative to try out the best Peking duck outside of (well… actually inside of) Beijing. Visit the Li Qun Roast duck Restaurant hidden in the hutongs (old-fashioned, grey walled alleyways) south of Tiananmen for what I found to be the best meal I’ve ever had.

To find this restaurant, you basically have to be with someone who knows it or to get very lucky, because a lot of the hutongs are very run-down, warren-like mazes of poor people’s housing, and the front of the restaurant itself is fairly inconspicuous. It was only when we saw the token photo of Bill Clinton eating there that we dared to order food in possibly the grubbiest, smelliest place I’d ever eaten. It wasn’t a mistake, and the duck was quite frankly superb, utterly authentic and unbelievably inexpensive, and the food, unlike the crazy seating areas and downright disgusting toilet, was also safe and clean.

Perhaps the quirkiest place of interest for me was Mao’s Mausoleum, at the south end of Tiananmen Square. Between the huge, walled set of slanted roof palaces that make up the Forbidden City and the winding streets full of antique curios and tea shops in Liulichang, Mao’s final resting place is a typically Communist-style square block, with PLA guards and a plethora of kite sellers around the perimeter.

Once you have left your valuables and camera in a strange kiosk across the road and (if you are a Mao-sympathiser) bought your bunch of flowers, you join a queue of several hundred people who have travelled far and wide to pay their respects to the controversial leader and instigator of the Cultural Revolution. The queue moves surprisingly swiftly, and it’s only when you get into the building that you find out why. A preserved Mao lies “in state” in the inner chamber, looking like some kind of macabre waxwork. The perennial smile on his face means even death cannot belie the charismatic charm he used to his political advantage throughout his tumultuous life, and either way you don’t get too long to brood on the strangeness of the whole thing, because the escorting PLA guards instantly usher you on through and out the other side, where you have a postcard foisted on you. You are then quickly shown the steps of the exit, where the weirdness of what I had just experienced really hit me… I had just filed past a pickled dictator in a glass box!

The most unexpected of all the places my friends or I visited was the well-kept secret of Beijing’s underground city. Unlike Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh, this dates from the 20th Century, and was actually made for Mao and his posse. Once again, the main entrance to this is hidden away in a hutong area, and the only things to give it away are a small, dusty, almost camouflaged sign, and a well-disguised tour guide wearing khakis and sitting on a small chair in front of it.

The underground city is not really what it says it is. In fact, it was commissioned as a nuclear war-proof shelter by Mao, during a period of his dictatorship in which he suffered from extreme paranoia, and was convinced the Russians or Americans were going to ‘unexpectedly’ attack. It consists of innumerate long, poorly lit, dank passageways, and the subterranean network actually stretches between the Forbidden City, Tiananmen, Tiantan, Summer Palace and even has connections out to the port of Tianjin (80 km away from Beijing) and allegedly to Shanghai (a 1 hour flight to the south). These days you can only access some of the tunnels, but along the way there are mildewed relics of a time now passed, such as propaganda wall hangings, old gas masks in little corners and original instructions for escaping a nuclear attack – all quite odd and very unnerving.

If you can hold them off, I would strongly recommend going around on your own, without a tour guide - the glare of a super-powerful torch and the echo of a megaphone underground do rather spoil the effect - but please don’t venture too far down the unlit, semi-barricaded paths, as the outside doors will be closed precisely on time, and a night down there would probably not be too much fun.

As a centre of culture, Beijing certainly has its moments, but in my opinion it is the clear-cut differences from other cultures, the clash of an imperial past with a high-paced future and its little idiosyncrasies that give Beijing its eclectic mix. For me, these are the highlights that make Beijing a truly unforgettable travel destination.

Niven Whatley