Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Strap on your Helmet and Cycle the route of La Tour de France

I enjoyed a grand adventure in Vendée with Summer France, May 15 – 18, 2018 and wrote a feature story for 50 Connect. Here it is! 

Journalist Diane Priestley discovers cycling, canoeing, horse riding, succulent oysters and delicious French cuisine and asks: ”‘What’s not to love about a summer break in Vendée on the secluded west coast of France?”

I could never have imagined cycling for a solid two hours! To say I am not sporty is an understatement. But these e-bikes are miraculous and even a novice cyclist can master the pace and distance!

So here I am gliding with ease along a scenic coastal track in Vendée, on the west coast of France, where the famous Tour De France will start in just a few months in July.

How exhilarating to realise that more than 150 of the world’s best road cyclists will follow this very same route after departing from Noirmoutier-en-l'Île in Vendée for the 105th Le Tour de France. The Grand Depart will be a spectacular sight, with hundreds of spectators supporting the 22 teams as they begin the gruelling race of 3,329 km (2068 miles)!

But now in the tranquil seclusion of this unspoilt haven, I’m with a group of new friends. We are six enthusiastic UK journalists with our sweet Rosie from Heaven Publicity and our delightful hosts, the all-girl dream team of Summer France; Joanna, Gina and Lucy.

We arrived only yesterday, on a quick flight from Gatwick to Nantes, to perfect May weather of warm sunshine with a crisp breeze gentle on our stressed-out faces, as we left our worries behind to embrace four days of exciting activities and the superb French cuisine.

Comfortable and Spacious Villas

Our capable, multi-skilled team leader, the lovely Joanna Laforge drove us to our impressive villas, Le Domaine de Vertmarines in Saint Jean de Monts.

The comfortable and spacious villas are ideal for an extended family holiday with grandparents, parents and kids or groups of friends. The beautiful villa I shared with Eleanor, a bright young journalist from Kent, boasted four bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, a très chic dining room and huge comfy living room and private swimming pool and garden! 

Other villas are designed to suit couples of all ages seeking romance and togetherness. These charming French villas, 55 in total, truly offer a relaxed home away from home where many loyal UK holidaymakers return every year.
Summer France has seven of these beautiful holiday resorts in Vendée, where guests can soak up the excitement of the Tour de France and the unique coastal attractions and enjoyable leisure activities.

Scrumptious breakfast in the beautiful villa

These holidays are ideal for people over 50 seeking active, healthy and good-value breaks just a quick hop across the English Channel. And you can be sure of being pampered by the helpful locals.

Every morning we indulged in crunchy baguettes and delicious croissants and pastries fresh from the local bakery and good coffee before heading off on our e-bikes, which can be hired from the nearby cycle shop.

Bicycles, Horse, Canoes

The French do love their bicycles and there are a myriad of safe, off-road cycling tracks in picturesque Vendée, located in the Pays-de-la-Loire region in west-central France, on the Atlantic Ocean.

Vendée is home to sweeping sandy beaches, sparkling salt flats and fresh delicious oysters. Because of its position in west-central France, it’s easy to reach; less than 60 minutes’ drive from Nantes Atlantique Airport.

We also tried horse riding and canoeing! Let me tell you all about these wonderful activities!

All of us put our hands up as ‘eager beginners’ when it came to horse riding. So the skilful horseman at Club Hippique du Havre de Vie saddled up the quietest, plodding horses and made sure we were all firm in our stirrups for our gentle walk through the tranquil forest. What a truly serene and enchanting way to see the wild scrubland, breathe in the honeysuckle fragrance and commune with nature.

I adore horses so enjoyed getting up close and personal with my sturdy Irish Grey who was very well behaved and clearly knew the route with his eyes shut!

Plodding along in the tranquil forest
Paddling my Own Canoe

As if the thrill of horse riding wasn’t enough, that same day we experienced canoeing along La Route du Sel, through the marshlands of Sallertaine, with our trusty leader, the charming and handsome Luc.

I’ve tried kayaking before, but now I can honestly say I prefer canoeing with a partner as the two or more paddlers make a delightful, sociable activity. Well it was sheer pleasure once I got the hang of steering and stopped crashing into the prickly trees! (Sorry Rosie!)

The lovely Luc!
Luc guided us along the beautiful canals to the historic windmill, Moulin de Rairé, which has been milling flour since 1555. The miller led us up through the fascinating inner workings of the windmill and gave us an entertaining and enthralling talk, clearly passionate about keeping the old mill alive and his traditional craft of producing high quality, artisan flour.

Getting the hang of paddling! 

Delicious Cuisine

The French are legendary for their delectable food, so artistically displayed on the plate, and fine wine. The regional cuisine of Vendée is superb and prepared for guests with love and great pride.

Vendée is renowned for succulent, fresh oysters served straight from the sea and our group was treated to a visit to the oyster farm, l’Huîtrière de Vendée. The farm produces 50 tonnes per year through a complex process of breeding, growing and harvesting the sought-after molluscs in the surrounding seabeds.

After an intriguing talk by our host David, we sat outdoors overlooking the harbour of bobbing fishing boats and tucked into delicious fresh oysters with a light fruity white wine. Just heavenly!  

So Much Food! 

Our generous Summer France hosts lavished us with the very best of French cuisine at carefully chosen restaurants for lunch, apértifs and dinner.
We sampled delicacies at Le Comptoir Saint Jean on the esplanade followed by a sumptuous seafood dinner at La Langoust’in.

After working up an appetite cycling, our group savoured the region’s unique dark, thin and crispy crepes called galettes, at the creperie, La Suite. Following the massive savoury crepe oozing with scrumptious fillings, some hardy souls even managed to devour an equally huge sweet crepe and freshly made ice cream for dessert!

One delightful evening we enjoyed cocktails on the beach at sunset and then wandered to the superb restaurant, Kerlouis for a sublime dinner. The chef even looked after me as a vegetarian with a dainty compote of julienned veggies.

Our lovely hosts, Rosie and Jo 

Some of our group relaxing at sunset

The final food fling, with our bursting waistlines, was an exquisite three-course lunch at the historic homestead of Restaurant La Quich Notte, where the charming hostess served our rowdy group with pure panache.

The Summer France dream team – Jo, Gina and Lucy – capped off our stay with a barbecue of prawns and escargot, followed by a party in our villa on our final night. And before flying out we made like the locals and cycled into the markets to buy fresh produce for a delicious pool-side lunch, including my new favourite dip, tapenade and scrumptious handmade cheeses.

What’s not to love about a holiday in coastal Vendée, packed with fun activities, superb food and wine and meeting the charming locals and making new friends?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Vignette of Sunday afternoon at Ngor Island, Dakar, Senegal

 The leaden sky is heavy with salty spray. I decide to take the public boat across to the island, imagining sitting quietly in a beachside café gazing at the sea.

I join the cheerful day-trippers in orange vests crammed in the festive long boat as we bounce across the steely passage. The tiny baby with sparkly earrings looks precarious on her teenage mother’s lap.

I stagger, with soggy pants flapping, from the crowded boat. A solitary afternoon is not possible when you stand out like a swollen sore thumb to the clever boys hustling for a living. Ali spots me first and appoints himself my Guide of the island and quickly leads me through narrow sandy lanes. I’m not panicking. I know he’s only interested in the cash in the bag squashed firmly under my solid upper arm.

Pouring with sweat we reach the top of the cliff and what a surprise, there’s a rickety wooden stall with rows of enticing trinkets. I haggle for bangles from his savvy friend who spins a yarn about the traditional origins of his wares.

I flop on the mosaic bench with a view of “America”. I’m not sure about the accuracy of smooth-talking Ali’s geographical coordinates. I snap him smiling, he snaps me and handing back my shiny iphone demands I pay him now before we get to the mythical café. I negotiate hard that I will only pay after he takes me there.

So now I am perched serenely in the al fresco café watching dark bodies frolic in the waves as boats spill fresh arrivals on to the shore. A disabled vendor approaches with a bundle of goods and I buy some outlandish harem pants and we are both happy and smiling together.

A handsome young man resplendent in Reggae dreadlocks invites me to a party on the island tonight but I politely decline. 
And I wait for the return boat in the drizzle, breathing in smoky barbecued seafood, savouring another eventful day as a conspicuous white tourist in West Africa, gazing at a distant “America”. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Discovering the Endless Pleasures of Cruising

I experienced an exquisite taste of the ultimate holiday escape on board the magnificent Norwegian Epic Cruise Ship from June 5 to 8, 2016 and wrote this travel feature for 50 Connect.

This is a first. I’ve never been on a luxury cruise before so I figure it's time to discover what devotees rave about! I don’t know what to expect, other than cliché images of languid bodies lazing on a sun-drenched deck.

So with a surprising assault to the senses we step out of the hushed lift onto Deck 15 into a full-on salsa dance party with joyful music pumping and people jumping, their tanned arms and legs glistening in the sunshine as dazzling as their smiles!

Animated guests are chatting by the busy bar or sprawled on sun loungers flaunting flamboyant flesh with inhibitions flung into the high seas. Children are splashing in clear blue pools and zooming down water slides, squealing with delight! So this is cruising; utter devotion to pleasure, non-stop entertainment, pure hedonism!

How did this happen? On an ordinary, grey Sunday afternoon I am transported from Heathrow to Barcelona Port to board the Norwegian Epic for a cruise around the Mediterranean and glimpse into another world - a floating world of endless delights. When I meet up with my group of fellow journalists and bloggers, we’re given a guided tour, exploring the magnificent ship.

I am elated by the vibrant, frenetic scene swarming with excited, seasoned cruisers – people of all shapes and sizes, ages and nationalities happily rubbing shoulders in this unique international community.
Inter-generational family holidays are popular with grandparents, parents and kids enjoying a vast range of activities. The unstructured “Free and Flexible” concept has created this relaxed atmosphere with guests free to choose whatever activities they fancy, everything from rock climbing to sushi making! And guests can eat and drink whenever they like!

As Valentina, our Italian guide and Sarah, our London PR girl, show us around the 19 decks of this floating city, I am awe struck by the scale and splendour of the ship but strangely I quickly feel at home! The décor is opulent but also warm and homey, impressive and tasteful, not glitzy and kitsch.

We glide past the art gallery through the surreal Casino lounge on Deck 6 and marvel at the funky bowling alley and discover the heart of the lavish entertainment area; the plush Epic Theatre, the magical Siegel Tent, the Headliner’s Comedy Club and the groovy new Cavern Club, styled on the famous Liverpool club that launched the Beatles.
These elegant venues are surrounded by an array of exotic bars and restaurants; the Sake Bar, the Bliss Ultra Lounge, Malting’s Whiskey Bar and the exhilarating Ice Bar to name just a few. Fine dining restaurants include The Manhattan Room, Le Bistro for gourmet French cuisine, the Shanghai Asian Restaurant and La Cucina. Food lovers are in heaven! 

But if your taste buds prefer plainer fare and plenty of it, you can eat delicious, fresh food non-stop all day from the eye-popping Garden Café buffet! Most of the restaurants and bars are all inclusive so it’s tempting to eat and drink to excess! Despite this freedom to indulge, I see no evidence of guests behaving badly!   

My mind is racing! How is all this possible? I am trying to imagine the logistics of carrying food supplies to feed the hungry hoards and water to service the cabins with daily hot showers.

The secrets are hidden in the hull! Massive tanks carry tonnes of water and armies of workers service the guests every whim by racing along a super highway below deck.

This magnificent cruise ship is like a gigantic, graceful swan floating along serenely while the frantic work of paddling goes on beneath the surface.

The mighty Norwegian Epic has a capacity for 4100 guests with a crew of 1724 dedicated workers (with 865 staff just on food).

The gross tonnage is 155,873 and the overall length is 1,081 feet, as long as the Eiffel Tower is high! I realise just how long the corridors are when I get lost returning to my cabin!

My stateroom cabin is as spacious as a hotel room with a double bed and private balcony view of the ocean and distant landscape of the Mediterranean coastline. My concierge is cheerful and friendly and his housekeeping is impeccable. There are 2,114 guest staterooms; over half have balconies while the others are suites, villas and studios and 42 rooms are wheelchair accessible.

Epic was the flagship for many years, the pride of Norwegian Cruise Line, but she has recently been surpassed by the dazzling new Escape. And the Norwegian Joy will be launched in 2017.

The impressive fleet of 14 premium contemporary ships offers cruises everywhere from Alaska, the Caribbean and Europe to South America and New Zealand.

I wonder how many of these incredible “floating cities” cruise the world’s oceans and Google tells me there are 230 cruise ships currently operating and another 44 scheduled to come online in the next few years.

On Sunday evening we are treated to the spectacular dinner show, Cirque Dreams in the mysterious Spiegel Tent. Sitting high up we get a bird’s eye view of the thrilling aerial acrobatics with talented performers doing extraordinary contortions! Such feats of flexibility and strength have us gasping in disbelief! Intricate juggling acts, human balancing acts, skating duets, magical costume changes, risqué burlesque and humorous skits provide a feast of mind-boggling entertainment!

After the show I am happy to wander off to my cabin, full to the brim with sensory stimulation, while my younger colleagues head for one of the many enticing bars for an exotic nightcap.  

On Monday morning I start the day with a yoga class with Thomas, the Dutch instructor, and a group of Asian ladies. The Pulse Fitness Centre is immaculate! Having worked up an appetite, I join Jenny, a newspaper journalist from Aberdeen, for a gourmet breakfast in the Taste café.

Mid-morning is free time and the sun is blazing through a vivid blue sky so the only place to be is on deck in my swimmers, laying horizontal where I experience the “worries” and “problems” unique to cruising! Being spoilt for choice, I feel an anxiety creeping over me; the 21st century affliction known as FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out! What else could I be doing? The Salsa class perhaps? This is definitely a “First World problem” of our consumptive society, not suffered by the countless millions living in poverty and deprivation.

There are a few more challenges to deal with; claiming my ideal spot on a sun lounger amongst the human blanket covering the deck and once settled all I have to worry about is: “How’s my tan coming along?” Yes, this cruising experience is the great escape from life’s pressures and stresses!

Lying in the gentle sun, feeling the breeze caress my cheeks, watching the open ocean roll past, I listen to the hum of the engine, snippets of unknown languages and the upbeat music wafting across the crowded deck.

Adults and kids swish down the curly water slide, giggling and posing for snaps as they land with splash! For now, these playful pleasure-seekers are carefree with mundane life a distance memory!

On Monday afternoon our group is invited to a Behind the Scenes tour. Part of me doesn’t want to spoil the magical illusion of effortless perfection above deck by witnessing the reality of the hard work down below. But my curiosity wins!

Our charming Peruvian hostess gives a talk and slide show about the history of The Norwegian Way and it is surprising to learn that such a massive, complex company started out as a modest family business in 1924 and grew through the decades into the phenomenon it is today.
The mega-class Epic was built in France by an army of engineers and skilled workers and completed in 2010 at a cost of $US1.2 billion.

We’re shown around back stage of the grand Epic Theatre and sneak a look at the tiny dressing rooms the performers squeeze into amongst the racks of extravagant costumes.

And then we venture deep below deck to the “Highway 99” of human traffic that rushes from one end of the ship to the other delivering food and supplies to the pampered guests above. We are allowed to sneak a look at the massive galley of stoves and steel benches with the chefs and waiters enjoying a momentary lull before the dinner frenzy. There’s even a full-scale bakery producing fresh bread and cakes daily!    

I try to imagine the unusual lifestyle of cruise ship workers who spend up to six to nine months at sea before having a break on land with their families and friends. There are plenty of social activities for the crew and continual training sessions.

After the tour we meet four performers from the glamorous shows for a Q&A chat. The talented dancers and singers from around the world are clearly devoted to their art and strive for excellence, rehearsing and refining techniques before every show.

Next we visit the Splash Academy especially for kids! Clubs are divided into age groups, catering for toddlers from three to teenagers of 17, offering an exciting range of activities from crafts and sports to dress-up parties based on nautical themes. So whenever parents want to enjoy some grown-up activities, they can enrol their kids in supervised sessions, knowing they are having loads of fun!

Monday night some of our group opts for Japanese Teppanyaki while others choose to dine in French style at Le Bistro. I am delighted by my superb three-course vegetarian meal, which is just as artistically presented as the succulent meat and seafood dishes.

Burn The Floor showcases every style of dancing from aristocratic waltzes and ballroom extravaganza to punk rock and seductive Latin moves! The show is enthralling!

On Tuesday I wake up to a vision of Naples. The landmark Castel dell’Ovo looms over the Italian coastal city of pretty peach-coloured hillside buildings under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. What a picture! Today I get to tick my Bucket List!
Guests can choose from five shore excursions: Capri, Sorrento and Pompeii; the Amalfi Coast and Pompeii; the Ruins of Herculaneum; Walking through Naples, Pizza and Secret Tunnels or Sorrento and Naples Sightseeing with Pizza Tasting! Wow!

I opt for a walking tour of Naples. Our charming Italian guide, dapper in mint green trousers, declares: “I love you, I love you, I love you” through our headsets and swears the sun “smiles” here for 340 days of the year!

He leads us through bustling narrow laneways famous for stringing laundry overhead between the high rise apartments and explains that in these close communities neighbours know each other’s business, overhearing domestic arguments and sharing all their troubles and delights! “Nothing is hidden. There are no secrets in Naples!”

Our cheeky guide tells us the locals have four cups of strong espresso a day, which is considered “Napoli Viagra” and he recommends the famous “sfogliatella” lemon ricotta pastry with an espresso to kick start the day. I can not resist and yes, it is sublime!    

Volunteer tour guide, Faviona is eloquent, passionate and entertaining as she regales us with stories and quirky facts as we navigate the chilly underground tunnels of Naples! What started out as quarries for the rock to build the city in ancient times, evolved into an elaborate aqueduct system before being used as extensive bomb shelters for families in World War Two. The remains of beds, utensils and poignant photos capture the misery of waiting out the war underground.   

A gigantic Margarita Pizza in an authentic Napoli Pizzeria with beautiful hand painted ceramic tables and… yes, more espresso and irresistible pastry push my low-carb diet into the zone of No Return! I blame Italy for such indulgence!

Back on the ship, we explore the inner sanctum of the exclusive Haven where guests enjoy luxurious secluded lounges and Deck 17 all to themselves while
solo travellers can meet each other in their private club lounge.

Late afternoon I experience the bliss of the thermal pools and saunas and I’m so relaxed I drift back to my cabin to change for dinner at the savvy Manhattan Room.

What a sensational experience! I’ve tasted just three nights of euphoric cruising and I now understand why people see these vibrant floating playgrounds as a home away from home and get hooked on repeat cruises. Some even say it’s the only way to travel!

Miraculously these heavenly fly-cruises are affordable. Prices for seven nights start from just £599 per person!