Monthly Archives: March 2017

Exploring Beaches In The Gambia

In some cases, you need not even leave The Gambia’s sandy shores to soak up some sensational cultural experiences, while other traveller treats involve trips into dense forests, mangrove swamps and petite villages.

The village of Tanji

Set on a wide, sweeping beach, this tiny village is ripe with cultural and wildlife opportunities. Stand with your feet in the surf and watch the colourfully-painted fishing boats bobbing rhythmically in the waves as local women ferry the day’s catch to shore in buckets atop their heads. Behind you is the fish market, which heaves with Gambians shopping for everything from fish and flip flops to vibrant vegetables and loudly-coloured clothing. As the sun starts to set and the crowds begin to wane, the beauty of the scene seems to grow tenfold – the water sparkles, elegant silhouettes parade across the backdrop of a golden sky and the long light cuts deep into the incredibly atmospheric smoke houses.

The village also has a charming museum where you can explore a recreated Mandinka village, complete with huts and displays about this ethnic group’s traditional customs, beliefs, music and crafts. For a wilder, more nature-based experience, check out the Tanji River Bird Reserve, which hosts as many as 300 species of birds. This area also protects lagoons, woodland, dunes and Bijol Island, a noted breeding ground for Caspian terns.

The village of Tanji is less than 30 minutes’ drive south of Serekunda and the Atlantic coast resorts.

Gambian cooking lessons

Make your fish market visit all the more rewarding by turning the acquired foodstuffs into a traditional Gambian meal. To the uninitiated this is easier said than done, but for those who want to learn a thing or two about the nation’s cuisine there are some great cooking classes available. One such lesson is available at Yabony Home Cooking (, which is run by the irrepressibly charming Ida Cham-Njie from her home in Brufut.

The half-day course at Ida’s starts with each student choosing some Gambian attire from her large collection of garb in her courtyard, and then donning it before venturing out to Tanji’s fish market where ingredients are procured. Once back at Ida’s it is a communal affair, with everyone pitching in to help with various parts of the process – either peeling and chopping vegetables, pounding peppers and onions with an oversized mortar and pestle, or stirring aromatic components on the outdoor charcoal stove. During the proceedings Ida not only discusses the various elements of the dish being prepared (and its history), but also regales the group with stories from her life in The Gambia and teaches local games. The hours pass quickly and it’s soon time to sit and enjoy the fruits of everyone’s labours.

Dishes include delicious domoda (peanut butter stew) with fresh fish and rice, superkanja (okra stew) and the iconic benachin (one pot), which contains fish, chicken or beef in combination with ingredients such as tomatoes, carrots, spring onions, sweet potatoes, onions, aubergine, cassava, bitter tomatoes and butternut squash.

Gambian wrestling

Once the national sport of The Gambia, traditional wrestling is on the comeback. And while the entertaining pre- and post-match goings on – complete with strutting, chest slapping, oiling up and boisterous displays of physical prowess – are more theatrics than anything else, the matches themselves are impressive (and very competitive) displays of pure athleticism. The raw aggression is plain to see in the eyes of each competitor, and the speed and forcefulness of the grappling manoeuvres are a sight to behold. The victor is the first to ground his opponent within the sand ring. Some venues, such as the one on Paradise Beach, encourage audience engagement and raise the entertainment stakes by getting specific sections of the crowd to support particular wrestlers.

Street art in rural villages

Encountering world-class urban street art in remote villages of The Gambia isn’t something you’d expect, but thanks to the Wide Open Walls project you will be rewarded with just that. Started in Kubuneh in 2009 by British artist and lodge owner Lawrence Williams and the Gambian painter Njogu Touray, Wide Open Walls has been described by the latter as “a democratic and interactive street art project bringing artists of the world to celebrate through art, all good things in life, environmental awareness, peace, love and respect for our cultural values.” Renowned artists such as Roa from Belgium have now created more than 400 murals in some 14 villages within the Ballabu conservation area, which borders the Makasutu Culture Forest. Besides creating a valid art installation, the goal of Wide Open Walls has been to generate a sustainable income for the rural communities who host the works. Future plans include interactive sculptures to encourage recycling within the communities. To tour the sites, contact Makasutu (

Makasutu Culture Forest

It may be just 10 sq km in size, but this easily accessible wedge of nature is rich in diversity, with savannah, wetlands, palm groves and mangrove swamps all being present. Touring the latter in a piroque (traditional canoe) is a peaceful exercise, while guided walks through the other landscapes bring their own rewards, such as encounters with baboons, monitor lizards and hundreds of bird species.

Some culinary adventures in northern Kyūshū

Fukuoka and Saga prefectures, in northern Kyūshū, are accessible places to start a food-inspired tour of the region. From ever-popular ramen to the more nuanced flavours of fermented vinegar, here is a small selection of the many local specialities worth savouring on your trip.

Ramen in Fukuoka

Any conversation about food in this corner of Kyūshū has to begin with ramen (and for some it ends right there, too). The ubiquitous noodles may have their origins in China, but they are hugely popular in Japan, with every region having its particular variations. Fukuoka is the country’s top ramen destination, famous for its signature tonkotsu ramen, also called Hakata or Nagahama ramen: straight, thin noodles in a thick, rich pork-bone-based broth. You can slurp back a bowl at one of the many food stalls around Fukuoka city. There are about 150 of these hawker-style stalls (yatai in Japanese), which typically have a simple counter with a few stools and start service in the evenings. Most stalls set up along the river in the Nakasu area, in the Tenjin area, and in Nagahama near the docks.

Or, for ramen indoors, head to 40-year-old Ichiran, where customers dine in individual cubicles (presumably so one can give the noodles their full deserved attention). Fukuoka city is also home to the now international Ippudo ramen restaurant chain. There are a few Ippudo dotted around the city (the flagship store, established 1985, is at 1-13-14 Daimyo); a collaboration between Ippudo and the Kyushu-based Drum Tao performance group means that the ‘Ippudo Tao’ store at 1-13-13 Tenjin ( has taiko drums as decor.

Kudzu in Akizuki castle town

All that remains of the castle in Akizuki is a large gate and some hulking stone-wall ruins, but the 800-year-old village still draws visitors, especially when the laneways flush with pink in cherry-blossom season. Amid the old samurai residences, pretty bridges and temples of the historic centre is the similarly historic store Hirokyu Kuzu Honpo (0946-25-0215; 532 Akizuki), a 9th-generation family business. The speciality here is kudzu (or kuzu), also called Japanese arrowroot, a kind of woody vine whose large roots are processed into a starch powder. Heated with water and set, kudzu forms the basis of Japanese summertime favourites such as kuzu-mochi – a chilled firm jelly-like ‘cake’ sweetened with syrup or topped with nutty-tasting kinako (roasted soybean flour).

Hirokyu uses traditional methods to process the kudzu root at its Akizuki factory, dishing up kudzu-based fare at the attached cafe and store, which is housed in a 260-year-old wooden building. The cafe interior – with its stone floors, low tables, and old scrolls and photos – is worth a look even if you’re not keen on kudzu. Akizuki is about 40km southeast of Fukuoka city.

Fermented vinegar in Ōkawa

Shoubun Vinegar (; 0944-88-1535; 548 Enokizu, Ōkawa), run by the Takahashi family in the small riverside town of Ōkawa, has been a purveyor of rice vinegar for some 300 years. In a world of short cuts and mass production, Shoubun has kept true to handed-down techniques, fermenting organic brown rice in half-buried earthenware pots and allowing it to mature in wooden vats (kept warm in the winter months with a snug layer of straw matting).

While the original vinegar recipe may have been passed down from the ancestors, the modern-day Takahashi clan have developed a wide range of vinegar products, which you can peruse in the 250-year-old townhouse that fronts the factory. The yuzu-flavoured drinking vinegar (you mix it with water like a cordial) makes a great souvenir for that foodie friend who has tried everything. Upstairs from the shop is the small, low-ceilinged Ristorante Shoubun. In former times this would have been a storage area, but now visitors can dine under the dark-wood beams on a multicourse lunch in which every item features vinegar as an ingredient – from the soup and salad to the fish and even the (surprisingly tasty!) dessert. Ōkawa is about 60km south of Fukuoka city, and 12km southeast of Saga city.

Beef in Saga

If you’re more a meat-and-potatoes kind of eater, never fear, this part of Kyūshū also has some of the best wagyū (Japanese beef) in the business. Saga beef, of Saga Prefecture, is on par with Kōbe and Matsusaka beef when it comes to fine marbling and melt-in-the-mouth tenderness: a result of farmers paying careful attention to quality feed, clean air and water, a long fattening period, and providing their prized bovines with a relatively stress-free life. Not just any beef raised in Saga can be officially labelled ‘Saga beef’. It must meet strict certification standards (the right kind of cow, the right farm environment), and score above seven (out of 12) on the ‘beef marbling standard’ scale. If it doesn’t meet those standards then it’s just wagyū.

Kira (; 0952-28-4132; 3-9-16 Otakara, Saga city), not far from Saga Station, specialises in serving both official Saga beef and other wagyū in various styles – try it as a chef-prepared steak, grill your own thin slices at your table, have it in a shabu-shabu or sukiyaki hotpot, or steamed. There is also a Kira in central Fukuoka city.

Tea in Yame

After all that eating, a nice cup of tea might go down well. The forested, mountainous Yame region of Fukuoka Prefecture has been producing tea for centuries. The story goes that Buddhist monk Eirin Shuzui brought tea seeds and growing methods here from China in the early 1400s. A bronze statue of Shuzui (with tea seed in hand) stands outside Reigan-ji, the temple he founded in the area around the same time. Yame is particularly renowned for its gyokuro tea (translated as ‘jade dew’ or ‘pearl dew’), one of the highest grades of tea in Japan. Gyokuro has a slightly sweet taste – in part a result of the plants being shaded for a few weeks prior to harvesting.

Among the most well-established local tea merchants, Konomien (; 0120-72-0201; 126 Moto-machi, Yame city) got into the tea wholesaling business in 1865 and runs a small store for the public selling packets of tea leaves, tea bags, and tea-flavoured sweets and biscuits. At Konomien, the gyokuro leaves are dried using an old-school method: the leaves are scattered and gently swirled around by hand on a sheet of heavy paper, which is fixed atop a wooden box over a charcoal fire. (You’ll know if this process is happening by the earthy aroma wafting from behind the store.) Konomien also has a 120-year-old tearoom where you can sample the lauded gyokuro, a sencha or matcha, with a side of wagashi (Japanese sweet). Reservations to partake in tea should be made by noon of the day prior to arrival (reservation form online:

Make it happen

Getting there Fukuoka city is the main gateway to Kyūshū and is on the shinkansen (bullet train) line, about 2.5 hours from Kyoto and Osaka. There are also direct flights to Fukuoka from Tokyo and other major cities in Japan.

Getting around Local train lines and buses connect the main towns but a rental car is much more convenient for exploring this region. Large agencies such as Toyota Rent-a-Car and Nippon Rent-a-Car are at Fukuoka’s airport and main rail station (Hakata Station). Tip: Japanese addresses can be confusing; the best way to set your destination in the satellite navigation system is by inputting the phone number.

Stay Fukuoka city has a range of accommodation across all budgets and styles. For a ryokan (traditional inn) experience further afield, try Ohana ( in pretty canalside Yanagawa, just south of Ōkawa; or Akebono (, in central Saga.

Travel at Castles, cairns and gin-making in the Boyne Valley

Ireland’s west coast may have the wild coastline, but the east is the country’s historic heartland. Set within striking distance of Dublin, the Boyne Valley’s rich soils and rolling hills have been occupied and battled over for millennia. As a result, ancient tombs rub shoulders with Norman castles and peaceful canals bisect battlefields.

And as well as past glories, there’s food and drink to set your lips smacking.

Older than the Pyramids: Brú na Bóinne

At first glance, the famous cairns that cluster around the River Boyne, in counties Meath and Louth might elicit a shrug – most are simple passages leading into small chambers. But the more you look, the more fascinating they get.

Almost 100 Neolithic monuments make up the World Heritage Site of Brú na Bóinne (‘the Palace of the Boyne’), many dating from around 3200 BC, making them around seven centuries older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids. They’re decorated with strange swirls and shapes and aligned with the sun and the landscape, yet so distant are their pre-Celtic creators that archaeologists are still guessing how the great stones were transported (possibly by river, or even rolled on seaweed) and whether they were built to honour the dead, the sun or the sea.

Stone Age magic at Newgrange and Loughcrew

Newgrange is the largest and most popular tomb, as well as the easiest to visit, via buses from the nearby visitor centre. Its 80m diameter is impressive, but the real thrill comes when you clamber through its dark tunnel, feeling the silence under muffled breath and gazing up at the enormous sandstone roof slabs as your heart stills and your eyesight sharpens. It’s hard not to feel a thorough connection to the living history of this place, an impression that swells as you stumble back out into the bright light and gentle hills of the surrounding farmland.

A trip to Loughcrew can be even more magical. That’s partly due to the lovely 15-minute walk from the winding R154 road, which takes you on a fairly steep climb into the Loughcrew Hills and views that stretch towards Dublin on one side and the Mourne Mountains on the other. And it’s partly due to the silence – even the most famous monument here, Cairn T, sees far fewer visitors than Newgrange. In summer, there are guides here to show you around (late April to end August), while in winter you can pick up a key from the visitor centre.

The feeling of epic discovery is heightened by the fact – only rediscovered in the 20th century – that the amber light of morning pierces the chamber at Cairn T (on the spring and autumn equinoxes) and Newgrange (at the winter equinox), bathing their mysterious symbols in a warmth and life that belies their age. At Newgrange, there’s a lottery for the winter equinox, and if you’re not lucky enough to get a place, at the end of each standard tour an artificial light is shone, mimicking its glorious effect.

Druids, monks and mercenaries

Subsequent visitors also left their mark in this fertile region. The Celts (who decided the impressive cairns must be the work of the faerie folk) arrived around 500 BC. You can ponder the roots they laid at Tara, where a hill marks the seat of the druids and the ceremonial capital of the high kings of Ireland.

Christianity arrived around 500 AD, and Irish monasteries became vital centres of European scholarship – the market town of Kells gave its name to the magnificent Book of Kells, now displayed in Dublin’s Trinity College. The monastery that was its home for six centuries is no more, but you can explore its ruins, including a 30m-tall round tower.

Twenty kilometres south of here, at a bend in the Boyne, Trim Castle is grand enough to have featured as no less than three castles (Edinburgh, York and the Tower of London) in the film Braveheart. Its atmospheric keep offers wonderful views of the countryside around, and a very solid reminder of another set of arrivals: Normans who came as mercenaries and ended up as rulers.

The Boyne’s game of thrones

The Boyne Valley was accustomed to being at the heart of Irish affairs, but in 1690 it was the site of a battle that shaped European history. Over 60,000 troops clashed a few kilometres west of Drogheda (now one of the best bases for exploring the region), as James II and his son-in-law William of Hanover fought for the British Isles. Despite the valiant efforts of the Jacobite cavalry, William’s larger, better-equipped force won the day – James fled to France, winning the nickname Seamus a’ chaca (‘James the shit’), and cementing the power of Protestant landowners and clergy across Ireland.

The site today is home to an enjoyable visitor centre, which explains the twists and turns of the battle via exhibits and video.

The landscape of the Boyne Valley isn’t the most stunning in Ireland – there’s a fair bit of commuter-belt sprawl around these lovely rolling hills. But you can give your explorations a focus by taking a boat trip up the nearby Boyne Navigation canal with Boyne Boats ( A paddle up this quiet waterway on a traditional currach is a wonderfully intimate experience – the boats were used in the filming of Game of Thrones, making them an ideal spot from which to ponder the ambition and bloodshed of the conflict.

Kings, rock and whiskey

With power came wealth, and the stately homes of Anglo-Irish landowners dot the Boyne Valley and beyond. Substantial yet elegant Slane Castle was home to Elizabeth Conyngham, the mistress of King George VI, and it’s said the road between Dublin and Slane was built especially straight to speed the smitten king’s journeys.

The great estates have mostly been broken up, and the Conynghams have diversified: Slane Castle is a famous venue for concerts (including U2 – who also recorded parts of The Unforgettable Fire in the Great Library – and Guns ‘n’ Roses), there’s now a rather lovely organic glampsite ( on the hills above, and a €47 million whiskey distillery opened in late spring 2017. Visits to the house and distillery offer a neat perspective on changing times, from the burnished new copper stills to the grand paintings of distant aristocrats, as the Boyne takes its peaceful path along the valley below.

Nearby Beaulieu House ( has a gorgeous garden and a soaring hall, as well as connections to motor racing and the martyred 17th-century archbishop Oliver Plunkett.

Gin and local produce

The Boyne Valley is no fossil. Slane Castle’s whiskey is a traditional spirit given a contemporary twist (their first release is matured in virgin, seasoned and sherry casks), while Tayto Park uses Ireland’s most iconic crisp – and a dash of Irish mythology –  as the hook for a popular theme park.

Listoke Distillery (, meanwhile, takes a drink more associated with England and the Netherlands and uses local botanicals to tie it into the region’s buoyant food scene. A gin-making session at this 19th century house just outside Drogheda is enormous fun – you get to research and perfect your own mix of botanicals while drinking G&Ts.

Indeed, restaurants across the Boyne Valley are proudly touting their local produce, from lamb and goat’s cheese to pale ale, and there’s fine food on offer at restaurants including Tankardstown House ( and Scholars. And eating local food ties you back – in a satisfyingly filling way – to the landscape that has made this place a crucible of Irish history.

The Family travel myths worth forgetting

Travelling with children – particularly babies and young kids – certainly has its challenges, but it’s also one of the most eye-opening adventures of family life, as long as you’re prepared.

Long-haul’s a bad call

Sleep deprivation is a form of torture, that’s for sure. And just the thought of having to hush the baby or keep a writhing toddler still in the aeroplane seat for 10 or – gulp – up to 24 hours when, chances are, they simply will not sleep, is enough to make most parents retreat into a dark chasm of despair.

But the reality isn’t nearly that bad. Babies are often coaxed into a sleepy state by the drone of the plane’s air regulator. True, flying with young kids of a certain age – let’s say roughly between one and two years old – can be a constant trial, but once they are old enough to appreciate in-flight entertainment, two thirds of the battle is won. The trick is to understand what you’re getting yourself into and plan ahead.

Top tips: Take a night flight if you can, when your kids are at their sleepiest and the cabin lights will be dimmed, and tag-team with a flying partner so each of you gets some respite if the kids are playing up. Run your children ragged in the airport before boarding, and always overestimate the amount of carry-on clothes, nappies and snacks you think you’ll need.

It’ll be too hot – or cold – for little ones

Nobody wants to see their children wilt under a scorching sun, or shiver in an Arctic gale. But kids are more resilient than we think. Extremes of weather are just another point of fascination for fledgling travellers – be that the sultry 24/7 heat of Thailand, or the theatre of ice and snow in Lapland.

The tropics, in particular, are guaranteed to fulfil the wildest dreams of clothing-averse young ones. That daily struggle to get your kids dressed? Gone.

Top tips: In the tropics, hot nights call for air-con so your little ones can sleep easy. Pack cooling spray for sizzling days out. In freezing climates, bring portable hand heaters and insulating underclothes made of quality fabrics such as merino wool (widely available for kids, and even babies).

Beach is always best

All kids love wallowing in sand, right? Sand castles feed the imagination for hours on end, and chasing shallow surf is a game that knows no bounds.

Unfortunately, sand gets everywhere (ears, nose, nappy… you name it!); the salty stuff can be excruciating for grazes or baby eczema; the sun can be relentless, and kids get bored surprisingly quickly. The point is, try as you might, it’s not always possible to predict what’s going to float your kids’ boat.

Top tips: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes, and that applies to your children too. Pick destinations that have plenty to see and do around the beach and easy transport for day trips. Pebble beaches can also be great for stone-skimming – just pack sturdy jelly shoes.

Fussy eaters won’t touch a thing

Children aren’t known for their sophisticated palates, but it’s a myth that they’ll wither away if their familiar favourites aren’t available. Removed from their routines, you may find your children are more open to new foods. And trust us: every culture will have something that your child loves.

Spicy curry might be a no-no in India, for instance, but potato- or cheese-stuffed dosas could make them drool. The tropics will tempt them with seasonal fruit and freshly whizzed juices that’ll make their eyes pop. Local markets and hands-on, child-friendly cooking classes can also inspire tiny tummies.

Top tips: Pack a stash of snacks from back home to temper the new food experiences. Try using the one-bite taste-test rule. If all else fails, every country has a staple plain enough to satisfy the pickiest of eaters. Don’t beat yourself up if all they want to do is eat bread, rice or chips for the entire trip. Life’s too short.

Kids and fancy establishments don’t mix

Every parent will tell you there is nothing more embarrassing than watching your kids run amok when you’ve forked out for a sophisticated restaurant or hotel. In fact, many would argue that kids have no place in such fancy venues.

This view will always hold true with some establishments – and their clientele – but an increasing number of luxury businesses are catering for family travellers in new and interesting ways. Be that through the introduction of baby-sitting services and children’s spa facilities in swanky resorts, or because of the rise of more intimate luxury guesthouses and experiences.

Top tips: Redefine how you think about luxury. Businesses that champion personalised service (such as family-run boutique hotels) and private experiences (such as guided tours) are your new best friends, because they share one key principle: it’s all about you.

Road trips bore kids to tears

Trapped inside a tin can, with kids bouncing off the walls and whining ‘are we there yet?’. This not-so-pretty picture might be prophetic if you plan to cover several thousand kilometres of empty road in a week (wave goodbye to that Route 66 trip), but you just need to readjust your expectations. Small countries, for example, often make excellent road-tripping terrain for little ones.

Top tips: Consider European countries such as Montenegro, where distances are short, scenery is staggering and interesting stops are plentiful. Small, sleepy babies can make excellent road-trip companions; just coincide your driving time with their day-time sleeps. Got older kids? No problem – it’s all about engaging their imagination. Snacks always help, too.

Parents can wave goodbye to the night

The thought of spending your evening sitting in a darkened hotel room, talking in hushed tones and contemplating how on earth you’re going to get a bite to eat while your baby drifts off at 7pm is grim. But while travelling with babies and toddlers makes night-time exploration harder, it doesn’t have to mean you lose the evening completely.

Darkened skies can offer a whole new perspective on a destination and if kids can be encouraged to embrace a late-afternoon siesta, you might just find they’re fresher and eager to get out after dark.

Top tips: Choose accommodation carefully. A balcony with a view could provide a private oasis for evening relaxation near your sleeping baby. Look for small hotels with a garden, on-site restaurant or hip roof terrace – pack a decent baby monitor and these can all be convivial places for you to spend the evening if your kids need to hit the pillow.