Hotel Review: Fashion Island Hotel, Newport Beach, California, USA

The tall unmissable building with a grand frontage of the Fashion Island Hotel is found at the end of a well manicured palm-tree lined avenue. It is heralded by a short, but squat, pillar announcing the Fashion Island shopping complex.

When we arrived the valet team were all over the car:greetings all round, opening the doors, luggage out of the boot and taken to reception, car keys in their hands, and soon the car was whisked off to the car park.

It’s an impressive welcome as was the walk under the canopy towards the doors that open up to a huge reception looking plush in shiny bright, creamy colours. It’s an uplifting sort of chic with the odd shout of colour to create contrast.

From the lobby we could just about see the blue of the pool peaking through the lush tropical plants as if to beckon.

Fashion Island Hotel is owned and operated by the Irvine Company (probably the richest real estate developers in America) who have their headquarters in Newport Beach. They took over the management from Four Seasons some years ago and have aligned it with the Fashion Island shopping mall next door. A perk of staying here is that you have access to a personal shopper.

Who for

This is a family friendly hotel (though no kids’ club) and pet friendly too. Sophisticats may love the high end shops steps away at Fashion Island mall. I was there with my partner and we loved the romance of its relaxed vibe and seamless service.


Fashion Island Hotel - guest room

There are 295 air conditioned rooms arranged over 20 floors. They come with sunny coastal style decor, original art and floor to ceiling windows letting in lashings of daylight giving off a pleasingly airy and spacious feel. King sized beds are comfy, work tables are handy, large flat screen TVs and a mini bar comprise the mod cons. Step out balconies or patios are a perk.

Tip: Ask about the view: some rooms have magnificent vistas over Newport Harbour and the ocean and some (like mine) take in the parking area of the Fashion Island shopping mall which is less attractive.

The large bathrooms are luxurious in marble and come with toiletries and a hair dryer.

Food and Drink

OAK Grill The Burger
OAK Grill – the burger

The hotel restaurant, Oak Grill, (built around a Ficus tree) serves contemporary Californian cuisine in casual chic surroundings  either indoors or alfresco on the terrace. When night falls the terrace is romantically lit making for a heady dining experience in the warm Newport Beach evenings to a backdrop of live music. I enjoyed a gorgeously juicy burger (yes, a burger) and can vouch for it. My partner loved the steak. There are also salads and fish and an interesting list of craft beers.

Aqua Lounge
Aqua Lounge

The Aqua lounge’s is where we enjoyed pre-dinner tipples amid decor that is doused in soothing turquoise hues. There are stools around the circular bar as well as sofas and  tempting mixologist-made cocktails have made this a popular local hangout. Bar food is available here.

During the day, there’s also a pool-side menu with attentive sun-bed service.


Fashion Island Hotel - pool

The hotel has a lovely pool surrounded by pretty tropical landscaping with plenty of sunbeds and cabanas. It’s not huge but very appealing. The gym is in good shape and the 4,000-square-foot spa with nine treatment rooms is satisfyingly relaxing especially after a Hawaiian Lomi Lomi massage.

There’s also, conveniently, a 24-hour reception desk and room service and the attentive valet parking is a joy but you do need to fork out USD35 per night.

Fashion Island Hotel - Club

And lastly, Island Club on the 20th floor is available to everyone for $50 per person, per night – and includes the nibbles and bites throughout the day in a comfortable sitting room style environment, upgraded WiFi and many other perks.


Yes its free

How Much

Guest rooms start at $295 per night.

What’s nearby

The Fashion Island shopping centre is steps offering popular stores such as Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, and Neiman Marcus all jostling for attention. Balboa Island just a few minutes away is a lovey way to enjoy beachside dining and fun including surfing and whale watching. A walk along the this skinny three-mile long finger of land – known as the Peninsula – makes for a lovely afternoon ramble.

Hotel Review: Myst Boutique Hotel, Tholos, Santorini, Greece

The Myst Boutique Hotel wraps its guests in comfort and tranquillity just steps from all the bells-and-whistles glamour and razzle-dazzle that Santorini can offer.

Its interpretation of traditional Cycladic style ditches the blazing white for gentle cream, grey and aqua; the cinematic caldera views for long rustic vistas across the plains of Tholos to the sea and the distant island of Ios.

But the sunsets from the northwest facing terraces are as dazzling as any on the island, the service as friendly and attentive, the accommodation as sweetly indulgent. And, if all that sensuous serenity begins to pall, the dining and shopping distractions of Oia, Santorini’s most famous – and expensive – village are a mere 800 metres away.

Myst Boutique Hotel - view of Ios from Myst
view of Ios from Myst (c) Ferne Arfin

Who for

Couples, solo travellers and friends who prefer a laid back, relaxed atmosphere. Family accommodations are in the works.


Three classes of rooms are arranged to take advantage of the best sea views – framed like pictures in an artfully positioned windows. All rooms except the poolside rooms have large private Jacuzzis on their terraces.

Myst Boutique Hotel - jacuzzi
All rooms except the poolside rooms have large private Jacuzzis on their terraces (c) Ferne Arfin

We checked into the middle class “Supreme Suite” to find a very comfortable king-sized, pillow-topped mattress, a small seating area, a dressing area and a luxury tiled shower room. At 300 square metres, the suite was not enormous but more than spacious enough for comfort.

Myst Boutique Hotel - room c Myst
room (c) Myst

On the private terrace, the hot tub and chaises longues were aimed squarely at the sunset – the rim of the tub flat and stable enough for our cocktails. The top of the line “Delight Suites” are twice the size with two terraces – for the sunrise and the sunset. They include an additional memory foam sofa bed so the suite can accommodate three.

Rooms have large flat screen televisions that are so state-of-the-art that anyone post Millennial will need an instruction manual to operate them (hint to management). There are also French designer towels and robes, high end toiletries from the Greek honey based Apivita brand, easy to operate room safe, and an in-room fridge supplied with bottled water (actually an unusual feature on Santorini).

Myst Boutique Hotel - bathroom
bathroom (c) Myst

Food and drink

The hotel had barely been open a few weeks when we visited so dining options were not fully developed. That said, dishes on the light menu of Greek inspired salads, pasta dishes, seafood and grills were fresh and well presented. Dining is on a terrace with pool and sea views. A small interior dining area, useful for bad weather, was bland when we saw it but it was early days. If the décor elsewhere is anything to go by, that will likely become more interesting.

Breakfast (included in the room rate) is both buffet style and cooked – from a menu selection. The buffet includes cooking “stations” where omelettes and waffles are prepared to order. Drinks from the poolside bar include cocktails and champagne.

All meals and drinks, including breakfast, can be served poolside or in guests rooms as well at no additional charge.

Myst Boutique Hotel - view from the room
Drinks and snacks can be served to the room at no extra charge (c) Myst

The Myst has a huge, sparkling horizon pool. “Floating” sun loungers – sunbeds for two, anchored in the shallow end of the pool, are placed for the best views of the Aegean and, when the morning mist burns off, the neighbouring island of Ios.


Yes, its free

How much?

Suites in season range from €518 to €725 per night. Poolside rooms start at €389.

Oia, Santorini’s capital of glitz, is a short – very steep – uphill climb or a €10 taxi ride away. The hotel plans to introduce a shuttle service to Oia in the current season. Oia Castle, a ruin with views, is a popular sunset spot. Amoudi Bay, a popular beach with cafes and the departure point for Caldera and volcano cruises is just below Oia and can be reached by taxi or a hike of 300 steps. Elsewhere on the plain, the winery Domaine Sigalas can be visited for tasting and shopping.

How to get there

There are direct flights, in season, from London to Santorini airport, about a half hour from the hotel. Outside of the main season, which runs from mid-May to mid-October, several airlines operate connecting flights through Athens and other European capitals.

Glamping Review: Secret Cloud House, Staffordshire, England, UK

Arriving here at dusk, you’d be forgiven for rubbing your eyes, thinking you’d stumbled across a fairy tale village. A boardwalk winds its way across a lush meadow toward a collection of five luxurious yurts, where wood-burning stoves send delightfully-smelling smoke twirling gently skywards. There is total peace, for the faint sound of laughter which carries on the breeze – and the whole scene is illuminated by the warm glow of candle and fairy lights.

We have discovered the exclusive, multi-award-winning Secret Cloud House Holidays, set on the edge of the Peak District: where guests can reconnect with nature without forgoing luxury.

Who for

Couples yearning a slow-paced, calming and environmentally-friendly break in nature with a lot of luxury to boot. Or hen parties and small groups looking for a bonding spa break in the outdoors. Small families too would be happy here.


Elderflower yurt - inside
Elderflower yurt

With uninterrupted views across the Staffordshire Moorlands, and the Peak District beyond, each luxury yurt (Blackberry; Foxglove; Bilberry; Elderflower; Rosehip – each with its own unique twist on decor), has its own wood-fired private hot tub, wood-burning stove and a see-through skylight which, on a clear night, means you can stargaze before nodding off.

The double beds, they say, are handmade, very comfy and dressed with Egyptian cotton linen, featherdown duvets and Staffordshire wool blankets.

Elderflower yurt - inside by night
Elderflower yurt – double bed dressed with Egyptian cotton linen, featherdown duvets and Staffordshire wool blankets

There’s a private eco-loo-with-a-view located just outside each yurt, while the spacious shower rooms have flushing toilets and are insulated with Staffordshire sheep’s wool and powered by solar thermal panels. Mod cons include: hairdryers, straighteners and full length mirrors. You will also find a charging locker to leave your phones safely, lots of books and maps on the area and a variety of board games for nights by the fire.

We stayed in Elderflower, perhaps the most luxurious of yurts, which is tucked right in the corner of the meadow and boasting a king-size French-style bed. This is understandably popular with mini-mooners and couples seeking a romantic break.

Elderflower yurt - love tub
Elderflower yurt – love tub

Food and Drink

Of course, you can cook-up a feast in the comfort of your yurt, each has a wood burning stove oven, a camping kitchen with gas burners and grill plus dining table and chairs. Or there’s your own outdoor barbecue.

A fridge freezer is provided and a large cool box too.

Each booking also receives a welcome breakfast hamper with local butcher’s sausages and bacon, milk from the local dairy, eggs from a local young farmer, and fresh bread from Bakewell Bakery. The owners also have links to local chocolatiers and a small Peak District coffee roaster who creates their very own Secret Cloud blend.

If you can drag yourself away from the comfort here, try breakfast at the Cottage Kitchen Country Café, just a five-minute drive away. The countryside café and farm shop offers some tasty menus for breakfast, brunch, lunch and afternoon tea. Highly recommended at any time is the county’s delicious local delicacy – Staffordshire oatcakes.

For dinner, a 15-minute drive brings you to The Duncombe Arms, a renovated historic inn with the relaxed welcome of a local pub, plus a fine dining restaurant, earning it a place on many of the UK’s ‘best dining pubs’ lists.


The onsite ‘Shepherds Rest’ massage treatment room has a menu of treatments taking place by candlelight in front of a wood-burning stove. Treatments start from £25, but it’s best to book in advance.

There’s also a central wood-fired sauna that comes with an essential oil menu – from the healing aromas of eucalyptus to mentally uplifting grapefruit.

Just in case the heavens decide to open, the wood-decked walkway connects the yurts, washrooms, sauna and the car park, so you can keep away from any mud and standing water on the field itself.

How much

Secret Cloud House Holidays: from £140 to £160 per night, including the private wood-fired hot tub, use of the wood-fired sauna, and a welcome Staffordshire breakfast hamper.

Head to Biddulph Grange Garden, an amazing Victorian garden, restored maintained and operated by the National Trust. A visit here takes you on a global journey from Italy to the pyramids of Egypt, a Victorian vision of China and a re-creation of a Himalayan glen.

Biddulph Grange Garden Chinese Temple
Biddulph Grange Garden Chinese Temple

Strap up your walking boots – or try a little pedal power – and explore the deep limestone valley of steeply wooded slopes and towering rock pinnacles of The Manifold Valley. A favourite for walkers, cyclists and horse riders, the eight-mile Manifold Track follows the route of the disused Leek and Manifold Light Railway.

Or climb the steps to Thor’s Cave, one of the most spectacular sights of the valley at 250 feet above the track. The magnificent views are well worth the climb, while the cave itself is believed to have been home to cavemen 10,000 years ago.

The historic market town of Leek, on the southern edge of the Peak District National Park, has an unspoilt town centre with imposing Georgian and Victorian architecture. As well as a raft of independent shops, thriving traditional markets include Wednesday’s weekly outdoor market and a monthly fine food market held on the third Saturday of the month.

Leek - St. Edward street
Leek – St. Edward street

For more details about what to do and see in Staffordshire, visit Enjoy Staffordshire.

Restaurant Review: Tonteria, London

Sloane Square is dominated by chic bars and luxury hotels, so I was intrigued to learn it is also the home of Tonteria, an underground Mexican tapas lounge inspired by Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

Tonteria opened 5 years ago when tequila was becoming all the rage in London. Co-Founder Alain Dona wanted to create a space that was inspired by the colourful culture of Cancun and the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum. The first thing you notice when you walk into the room is a giant, glowing skull that doubles as a DJ booth. Green creepers adorn the walls and the black leather upholstery and low lighting gives it a very intimate feel.

Despite the dramatic décor, Tonteria has a relaxed vibe, at least until the sun goes down. When functioning as a tapas bar, the music is pleasingly quiet, although a few of the songs seemed more suited to a hotel lobby. The menu has recently upped its game with a delicious selection of posh Mexican street food that’s both fresh and authentic.

Crispy tortilla chips and guacamole
Crispy tortilla chips and guacamole (c) Tonteria

Foodie highlights included tortilla chips with a generous dollop of creamy guacamole topped with pomegranate seeds and ricotta cheese. I was also very impressed with the patatas bravas with garlic aioli, spicy tomato sauce and coriander – the best I have eaten in London! The crispy squid was good but I felt the green pepper and lime salsa needed an extra chilli kick.

For desert we tucked into some excellent churros accompanied with a molten pool of dark chocolate dipping sauce.

For drinks, we sipped on glasses of delightfully slushy frozen margaritas. If you prefer your tequila straight, there’s a vast selection on offer at the bar including Patrón and Don Julio. You can even get your shots delivered by the “tequila express”, a model train suspended on the ceiling.

Alain told us that he wanted to create a venue that was “all about accessibility, kindness and service”. Our waitress, who was dressed to kill in leather and latex (she looked fantastic) was charming and attentive throughout our meal. Alain himself defied the club owner stereotype with his warmth and good humour, greeting and embracing every member of staff who crossed his path.

Funky interior with a Mexican theme
Funky interior with a Mexican theme (c) Tonteria

As if by magic (or maybe the tequila) the venue transformed from a tapas bar into a nightclub. The music volume sky rockets and the tunes (or maybe the tequila) make you want to get up and dance. The space is dominated by warm bodies swaying to the music, and if you’re still there at 1am, the fun really starts.

Tonteria is well known on the club circuit for hosting some riotous themed nights celebrating all things Mexican. On the night we were there, elaborately dressed dancers with sugar skull face paint performed some amazing dances with sparklers.

Tonteria is also a firm favourite amongst the celebrity circuit, who head there for Muertos Mondays. Previous visitors include Prince Harry, Tom Hardy and Rihanna, and you’ll often spot Ferraris and Lamborghinis parked outside on Monday night.

As we headed out of venue in the early hours of the morning, a quote about tequila from inside the venue came to mind: “One minute you are sexy dancing, the next you are on the floor, pantless, making out with a shoe.”

When it comes to Tonteria, nothing would surprise me.

When: The tapas bar is open on Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 8pm to 10:30pm and transforms into a nightclub at 11pm, closing at 2:30am on Monday/Thursday and 3am on Friday/Saturday.

Getting there: The nearest Tube station is the Sloane Square (Circle and District Line). It takes less than a minute to walk to Tonteria, which is right on Sloane Square next to The Botanist.

Where to stay: No matter how much tequila you have consumed, you should be able to manage the walk back to Sloane Square Hotel, which is less than a minute’s walk from Tonteria.

Travel Guide to Taiwan

You will definitely have heard of Taiwan. If you are reading this on an Acer or Asus computer or HTC phone, then you own a piece of Taiwanese technology, but this large Asian island is officially unrecognised by all-but 19 countries.

As a result of its complex history, Taiwan, or the Republic of China as it is officially known, is more American in its outlook than nearby People’s Republic of China, but the island has not lost its truly Asian culture and appearance.

Taipei – the foodie capital

The modern capital is Taipei, a large metropolis like most in Asia: towering skyscrapers such as the former world’s tallest building Taipei 101, bustling street markets selling every Chinese food imaginable, and award-winning restaurants to rival those anywhere else across the world.

As you walk around the city, you cannot escape the mesmerising smells of tasty food drawing you towards the street markets spread across the city. The most famous street food is to be found in Raohe Street Night Market, with its countless stalls selling everything from egg fried rice with Korean chili sauce, fried potato spirals, steamed blood cake, and the infamous stinky tofu. The food here is surprisingly cheap in comparison to European standards too.

Taipei street market food
Taipei street market food (c) Joe Worthington

Taipei is undoubtedly one of Asia’s foodie capitals – it even has a 3-Michelin starred restaurant. Le Palais was awarded 3 Michelin stars in this first year of the Michelin guide including Taipei.

Located inside the Palais de Chine Hotel, the Le Palais restaurant specialises in typical Chinese cuisine, with ingredients sourced locally where possible. Dishes including cubed beef on rice crackers, Peking duck and fried rice noodles are served in museum-like surroundings with pottery and gold statues sourced from around the world.

Taipei – the view

Panoramic view from Taipei 101
Panoramic view from Taipei 101 (c) Joe Worthington

In the Xinyi district, It is hard to miss the towering bamboo-style Taipei 101 skyscraper – formerly known as the Taipei World Financial Center – was once the world’s tallest building with an elevator that travels to the top in less than 40 seconds. The sweeping views across Taipei and New Taipei are simply spectacular.

Tainan – Taiwan’s ancient capital

Taiwan was ruled by the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese for centuries before the Chinese mainlanders arrived in large numbers in the wake of Chiang Kai-shek after he lost the Chinese civil war against Mao Zedong and the Communists. Tainan is almost a city dedicated to Chiang and his wife Madame Chiang.

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall
Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall (c) Joe Worthington

The Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall is a grand white palace dedicated to all things related to the former long-term president of Taiwan. At regular intervals each day, a changing of the guard ceremony takes place, where smartly-dressed Taiwanese Marines, after standing completely still on podiums in front of a statue of President Chiang, change places. This draws the crowds from across Asia.

Inside the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall
Inside the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall (c) Joe Worthington

Tainan isn’t particularly big, so the Zeelandia Fort is not far from the centre of the city. This former Dutch East India Company fortress was opened in 1634, at a time when the majority of Tainan was under water. The fort was used to control trade access to Asia and further afield.

Alishan – mountain retreat

You never can guess how thick the mist clouds will be high above Taiwan in the Alishan National Forests. Towering thick red and yellow cypress trees, some more than 10,000 years old, cast shadows over hidden Buddhist and Taoist temples and quaint streams and waterfalls. A former Japanese logging train, coated in a bright green moss from the constant mists that fall over Alishan, takes visitors through the dark forests, from Shenmu (sacred tree) station to the hill station close to Alishan House hotel.

Mist clouds above the Alishan National Forests
Mist clouds above the Alishan National Forests (c) Joe Worthington

Alishan is also famous for its rolling tea plantations, with teas ranging from green to thick full-bodied cultivated on the mountains of Alishan.

Where to stay

From ultra-modern to grand and historic, Taiwan has a large selection of accommodation options to choose from.

Home Hotel Da’an is located at the heart of the Taiwanese capital’s main shopping district, and close to a Taipei metro station. Large rooms with comfortable king-size beds, designer Taiwanese furnishings, large windows and a free buffet breakfast come as standard.

Tayih Landis Hotel, Tainan is a grand and ultra-modern hotel located in the centre of the historic former capital of Tainan. The 5-star hotel is spread across 315 rooms, with a grand piano in the lobby and a huge buffet breakfast in the large basement restaurant.

Alishan House is perched at the top of the mountains of Alishan National Forest, promising sweeping views across endless forests and mist-covered peaks. The hotel is split between a modern wing and historic wing, which has hosted countless diplomats, Japanese governors, and presidents from around the world.

Fact file

FLY: Emirates flies to Taipei from London Gatwick and Heathrow via Dubai. China Airlines fly direct between Gatwick and Taipei. EVA Air fly between Heathrow and Taipei with a touchdown in Bangkok.

Language: Traditional Mandarin Chinese is the official language of Taiwan.

Currency: Taiwan uses the New Taiwan Dollar (approximately £1:NT$40).

What’s the weather like: The weather changes little throughout the year, but in the summer months (June to October) typhoons and earthquakes are not uncommon.

More info: Visit Taiwan Tourism website

Summer in Mammoth Lakes, California, USA

Mammoth Lakes in California’s Mono County has a far-away-from-it-all location in a valley in the  eastern Sierra Nevada, yet remains in the centre of everything. It’s is just a five hours scenic drive from Los Angles, Las Vegas and San Francisco and a mere two hours from Lake Tahoe.

We drove for five and a half hours from Newport Beach (around 40 minutes from Los Angeles) along the CA-203 for 341 miles passing the Sequoia National Forest, the Death Valley National Park and the Inyo National Forest. Imagine the sensational scenery along that route.

We stopped off for a break in the quiet, dusty town of Lone Pine (87 miles from Mammoth Lakes) to check out the Museum of Western Film History – the story of filming in the area from the early days of the Round Up to the modern blockbusters such as Iron Man.

Mammoth Lakes is best known as a ski resort but when the snow finally melts what you get is a vibrant timber-clad village that is simply beyond quaint. It is surrounded by lush forest and bordered by the Ansel Adams and the John Muir Wilderness Areas. You can see the Minaret hills and peaks on the sky line and on the near horizon is the dizzyingly high Mammoth Mountain (11,053ft) that begs to be explored. The mountain is actually a volcano and you can even see steam escaping from its top from some vantage points.

There’s only around 8,000 locals in Mammoth Lakes and they seem unfazed by its elevation of 2,500 metres (8,000 feet) and its thinner air. They spend their time involved in marathon runs, bike tours (bikes are available to rent), kayaking, hiking or some climbing escapade or other when not working. In the evening there are alfresco film viewings in the village and live music and at the weekends a summer food market festival pops up.

Not sure if the term couch potato even exists here and with such a panoply of summer activities you would end up home alone in any case.

Panorama Gondola at Mammoth Mountain

Panoramic Gondola
Panoramic Gondola

Probably the best way to start exploring is to get oriented with a ride on the Panorama Gondala at Mammoth Mountain. Being whisked on a steep ascent of 11,053 feet (3,368m) to the summit of Mammoth Mountain is an exciting experience and delivers a joyful 360 degree view of the snow speckled Sierra Nevada. Even in June there’s still plenty of snow up there, certainly enough to build a snowman or two.

From here some people scramble up the Ritter range which emerges 13,143 feet/4006m high out of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. It’s a class 2 climb which means it’s mostly upright. I preferred to read about it and the area’s geology and history in the Eleven53 Interpretive Center.

Devils Postpile and Rainbow Falls

From the Mammoth Centre there is a 20-minute shuttle transfer to Devils Postpile National Monument. There are several hop off stops within its 324 hectares of lush scenery. We were told that we may spot a black bear. We didn’t.

But we did lose ourselves amid the fir trees and Jeffrey pines (whose bark we stopped to scratch to release its famous butterscotch scent) and the sound of bird song only bouncing back into the moment at the sight of tiny chipmunks and pine martens.

Devils Postpile
Devils Postpile

It’s hard to believe that Devils Postpile was naturally created by fire and ice. It is a column of basalt that was formed almost 100,000 years ago by flowing lava which cooled and split forming vertical and symmetrical 18 metres high columns forming an almost perfect hexagon. The columns have been made shiny and smooth by glacial ice.

Further along is Rainbow Falls, a waterfall on the middle fork of the San Joaquin river where it makes a staggering 101 foot (31m) drop. It is the highest waterfall in the area and on sunny days, a delightful rainbow hangs in the mist caused by the plunging water.

Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls

An information plaque says that the platy rhyodacite rocks in the surrounding cliffs were created by lava eruptions some 75,000 years ago. These are eroding thanks to the rushing water and pushing the waterfall back. By the time I got there it had already receded 500ft (150m). So no telling where it will be by the time you get there.

Bodie – a ghost town remnant of the gold rush

By rights, there should be tumbleweed and a chill wind passing through Bodie ghost town. The former gold rush town is 8400 ft above sea level and located 65 miles north of Mammoth Lakes.

Click on the image to enlarge:

In 1858 prospectors arrived and this led to the Bodie Boom of 1878 to 1882. The population reached 10,000 making it one of the top five biggest cities in California at that time. It even had its own China Town, a bowling alley and two churches.

You may think that bodes well, but the main street had an astonishing 65 bars and gambling dens which made it a pretty lawless place. With a 90 per cent male population, anyone could shoot someone in the back for cheating at cards or flirting with a “working girl” they had their eye on and get away with it. Basically you had to be a badass to live here. And those that survive would have a share of the gold mined valued at nearly US$34 million.

There are 200 buildings left (there were originally 2,000 but most burned down in a fire) including a bank and a prison and all still have the belongings in them. The townsfolk simply left everything and walked away. Furniture, kitchens have cutlery and schools have kids’ homework. Even the merchants’ stores have products on the shelves. It gives one hell of an eerie snapshot into life here.

Some say there are real ghosts that patrol the dirt streets and hide in its century-old buildings. The most famous is Rosa May a disgruntled working girl. Guides are available to walk you around town after sundown and you may even meet her.

Mono Lake

Mono Lake
Mysterious Mono Lake

Located just off Highway 120 East is South Tufa Grove and this road leads to the south end of Mono Lake. This bizarre desert lake has a stealth-like, silent existence where nothing much moves other than the alkali flies that hover around the lake. Certainly no fish can survive.

The turquoise-hued water, which is two and a half times saltier and 80 times as alkaline as the ocean, has no way out. It can only escape through evaporation. Yet this huge expanse of water has been here for over a million years.

White rocks – made from calcium carbonate and limestone known to geologists as tufa (too’-fah) – frequently emerge out of the water – some tall and strangled others wider but always in unusual forms. Ospreys make their home here and I took a close up look at the clear water and saw tiny white shrimp nestled on underwater rocks.


We entered the Yosemite from the eastern part of the scenic Tioga Park. It stretches an incredible 1,200 square miles yet 95 per cent is considered to be wilderness. The other five per cent is easy to traverse thanks to modern roads.

The highest peak in the park is Mount Lyell 13,114 feet and the lowest point is 2252 feet. That means in just one park you get to experience a staggering 11,000 feet in elevation difference and within that you get to see ancient giant sequoias especially in the Mariposa Grove, the deepest of valleys, waterfalls and huge stretches of meadows.

Environmentalist John Muir came here in 1869 as a sheep herder. He mapped the park and was the first to discover that much of the park was carved by glaciers. We saw some polished granite which looked and felt as polished as the worktop in my kitchen.

One sad note is that at one time the area was packed with California Grizzly Bears. The last was killed in 1925 and the only way to see one now is on the Californian flag.

Where to eat in Mammoth Village

Toomeys: This is a great place to have breakfast. Pancakes, eggs as you like them with potato and sourdough and great coffee too.

Skadi Restaurant: First impression are not always right, and this is proven by the intimate and refined Skadi restaurant. It seems almost hidden behind an industrial looking building but once in the scene is Swiss style chalet decor with just ten tables, a small four-stool counter and a Norwegian menu. Chef Ian Algeroen refers to his menu as California Sierra alpine food with a Scandinavian twist. For instance a smogarsbord of gravalax, smoked trout and horseradish and pork belly confit and roast spiced tenderlion.

Smokeyard: A fun, chilled out gaff where burgers and streaks are served. These are huge portions and I wondered if anyone actually finishes their food. Waiters always offer a doggy bag.

Old New York Deli: For snack attacks or picnic lunch (we shopped here for our picnic at Rainbow Falls) this place is great. Bagels galore with a huge selection of fillings even egg white egg and spinach.

Fact File

GET THERE: Fly to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) served by myriad of airlines.

RENTAL CAR: Hire a car with Rentalcars. Book online or download the app. An SUV for two weeks from LAX starts from £182, when booked at least a month in advance.

STAY: The Village at Mammoth offers spacious luxury self contained flats in the heart of the village close to the restaurants and shops. They have their own gym. Rental prices star from $169 / £130 per night. We stayed at Lincoln 1 which had its own gym.

EXCURSIONS: Lucas at Maws Shuttle offers a superb guided tour of the excursions mentioned here.

24 hours in Newport Beach, California

The opulent, refined town of Newport Beach with it’s 10 miles of waterfront along the Pacific Ocean, may be by the seaside but it is as far away from a budget bucket and spades brigade as can be. You’ll find it in Orange County along the sparkling and highly manicured Californian Riviera just a short drive from John Wayne airport.

You’ve probably guessed that the airport was named after the swaggering movie cowboy dubbed “The “Duke” who lived and died here alongside other Hollywood greats.

Newport Beach still exudes some of that old-time Hollywood feeling, and one way to capture it is through the history of its past resident celebrity greats and their amazing waterside homes, is by Duffy boat.

Must take a Duffy tour

The waterfront at Balboa village has a carnival style Amusement Area with its own colourful ferris wheel that marks out where you can pick up a Duffy boat to tour the harbour. These blue-topped open-sided boats are a quaint type of quiet bay or lake cruiser powered entirely by electricity and I can report, are great fun to manoeuvre.

Our guide, Carolyn Clark, pointed out the celebrity homes as we smoothly glided over the sun speckled harbour water: “That’s where Johne Wayne once lived,” she said nodding her head to a surprislngly unpretentious house on the water’s edge facing Balboa Is­land. “That’s where Shirley Temple lived – the house at the closest point to the Coast Guard Beach where the peninsula ‘bends’,” adding that the child star was named the first “Miss Newport Beach” at the age of 13. The original house was torn down and replaced by a beautiful home made of stone, glass, and wood.

It was a long list of stars and anecdotes that included Michelle Pfeiffer, Candace Bergen, Chuck Norris, Jay Leno and Nicholas Cage who famously fled Newport after a break in.

Must shop at Fashion Island

On dry land it’s all about the shopping. For those with deep pockets, Fashion Island is pretty stylish with its collection of 200 high end shops such as Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s, Urban Decay and Macy’s – you get the picture. It’s a pretty environment, fantastic designer shops with great views.

For a more quirky shopping experience I ventured through the streets along the town’s coast even taking a ferry to Balboa Island to check out the scene comign back with jerky from the Balboa Nut Company and some T-shirt souvenirs from the slightly cramped and slightly chaotic Pier Shop. And some sunscreen.

Must walk along Balboa Pier

Sun screen in hand, I headed for the Balboa Pier Beach and its beautiful sand dunes. It’s easy and cheap to park close to the beach and you can of course pitch up and sunbathe but, you can also see views without getting sandy – as I did. The pier stretches 920 feet along the blue waters of the Pacific ocean. It’s dotted with locals fishing for who-know-what – mackerel I think.

Certainly I didn’t see anything being caught during the couple of hours that it took me to saunter along its length. I nipped into Ruby’s restaurant at the end of the pier for a cuppa and headed back again stopping to rest on the benches simply to look at the view and the beach lovers splashing around or surfing.

Must check out Crystal Cove State Park

Crystal Cove is a hidden arc of beach just off the Pacific Coast Highway. It is famous for two things: The first is for having featured in “Beaches” Hollywood blockbuster starring Bette Midler. I cried while watching that film and standing close to the white-washed villa that featured in it, I could recall the emotional scene.

Secondly, the dozens of restored mid-century wooden cottages are hip as rentals and a walk along the beach gives snapshot of how Californian’s used to live. Restoration is ongoing but there are plenty available for rent. It’s inexpensive too starting at $35 a night. But it’s also pretty booked up.

And then there’s the Beachomber cafe.

Must eat

Crystal cove is also known for its Beachcomber cafe and its totally scrumptious beignets -these puffy treats are similar but lighter than donuts. There’s also a lovely menu of eggs as you like them served with rosemary roasted potatoes, fresh fruit or cottage cheese.

Beachcomber speciality: Fluffy and sweet beignets
Beachcomber speciality: Fluffy and sweet beignets

I was delighted to be offered a Mamosa which is champagne with a touch of orange juice and happily, the lattes are served in extra wide cups. This is such a lovely experience, I would have liked to return for dinner to watch the sunset while nibbling on their seafood.

If you don’t mind blowing the budget, the Fig and Olive in the Fashion Island is a stylish option. Front doors open up to a the sprawling creamy-hued 12,000 sqft space with wood floors and high wood beamed ceilings. It’s open-plan with several areas including an al fresco option on the patio, each with their own ambience but all dotted with olive trees. There’s an impressive wall entirely filled with olive oils – there must be a hundred or so from several European countries. It evokes a Mediterranean resort style atmosphere. I go there a tad early and took up residence on a red-cushioned stool by the marble-topped bar to sup a cocktail first.

The dining experience begins with a taste of three extra virgin olive oils served with rosemary olive oil fougasse bread.

Fig and Olive Orchard Room
Fig and Olive Orchard Room with a wall of olive oils

We started with Beef Carpaccio and the Fig Gorgonzola Tartlet alongside an assortment of Crostinis, and mains included a salmon dish and New Zealand Rack of Lamb. Every dish is either cooked or finished off in olive oil. Deserts include a Chocolate Obsession, Cheese Cake and Caramelized Apple Tart. The wine list has 30 wines from Italy, France and Spain and all are offered by the glass.

It was a less extravagant experience at Lido Bottle Works. It’s located in the lovely Lido Marina Village. This casually stylish restaurant offers unusually flavoured burgers in bacon jam and crispy jidory chicken glazed in coconut lime aioli. It’s an interesting food menu and its accompanied by an impressive beer menu.

The Oak Grill restaurant in Fashion Island Hotel offers the American classics in a light and airy restaurant which stretches outside to a plush and lush terrace.

Must stay

In such a stylish town, pick this stylish Fashion Island Hotel. It looks great, service is more than attentive and there is an appealing tropical themed pool. Check out our review of Fashion Island Hotel.

Fact File

FLY: Several airlines serve LAX aiport. From here you could fly to John Wayne Airport the gateway to Newport Beach. And a 9-foot-tall statue of the Duke will greet you when you arrive.

DRIVE: It’s a 40-minute drive from LAX to Newport. You can rent a car with Rentalcars. An SUV for two weeks from LAX starts from £182, when booked at least a month in advance.

Surprising eSwatini (Swaziland): culture, safari and vast, unspoilt landscapes

Swaziland is one of those countries which few people can actually place on the map. And just as few people can tell you that it’s actually no longer called Swaziland at all: King Mswati III changed the name of the country to eSwatini in April this year.

I arrived here as ignorant as anyone. I’d flown from London to Johannesburg with South African Airways, then driven four hours – much of it through the Kruger National Park – to the border with Swaziland. There were ostrich and rhino wandering loose outside the fuel station, which was the first sign of things to come.

It is unusual these days to arrive in a country with no preconceptions. The barrage of travel bloggers, glossy magazines, and documentaries on TV ensures that there are very few places left on Earth that we know nothing about at all. For me at least, Swaziland was one of them. I expected to learn something new; I didn’t realise I’d completely be blown away.

History of Swaziland

The best guess is that Swaziland has been inhabited for the past 200,000 years. The earliest people to live here were hunter-gatherers, and archeological excavations at the Ngwenya Mine – the oldest mine site in the world – show that it was already in use 43,000 years ago.

I passed through the Malolotje Wildlife Reserve, then continued on foot to the mouth of a cave. Early man would have sat here and chipped away at the red ochre, using it not only for rock paintings but for cosmetic purposes as well.


The Swazis have unparalleled pride in their national culture, and have preserved it remarkably well in spite of globalisation. The annual Incwala Festival and Umhlanga Reed Dance still draw participants from across the country, who perform before Swaziland’s revered king and queen mother.

Traditional dance
Men: traditional dance

Wherever I went, there was dancing, in city stadiums and in traditional villages. Men and women typically dance, sing, and drum in single sex groups, demonstrating to all those who watch their energy and strength.

Woman in traditional attire dancing traditional dances
Woman: traditional dance

It’s an incredibly creative culture. You only have to look at the age old designs of thatched huts, national costumes, and the handicrafts which people produce. Swaziland is famed for its glass blowing and its candle making. The textiles and jewellery are exquisite, too.


The one thing I really didn’t expect to see was a high concentration of wildlife: there’s a reason that people go on safari in South Africa, Kenya, or Tanzania. But remarkably, Swaziland’s national parks are rich in big game, including a wonderfully high population of black rhino.


I drove out at dusk through the Mkhaya Game Reserve, following jeep tracks through the bush. The hippos wallowed in the pools, the heads of giraffe poked out above the trees.

All of a sudden, the guide slammed on the brakes. In front of us, right in the road, were rhino. They seemed totally oblivious to the fact that we were there, carried on eating, then after a short while turned, pointing their bottoms towards us, and casually wandered off. My heart was in my mouth – I’d never seen one, let alone two, black rhino that close – but in Mkhaya, it seems, such sightings are everyday occurrences.


With vast, unspoilt landscapes and a low population density, large parts of Swaziland are a wilderness ripe for exploration. It’s almost always possible to get out and about on foot and by 4×4, but sometimes the environment calls for a little more excitement.

Swaziland’s first and only canopy tour is in the Malolotje Nature Reserve. Strung from cliff to cliff, and with a pristine forest below, are numerous zip lines and also a wooden rope bridge.

I’m not afraid of heights but I do like being in control, so stepping off a platform and trusting that a harness would hold me required great determination. The first ride was terrifying, the second less so, and by the time I hit the third and fourth runs, I was zipping along with glee.

Horse riding
Horseback riding

Horseback riding in Milwane Wildlife Sanctuary is a little more sedate but equally thrilling. When you approach a herd of zebra or antelope in a jeep, they tend to take fright and flee. But a horse smells less threatening, and it’s form is quite familiar, even with a rider upon its back. It’s magical how close you can get whilst riding; the safari experience is completely changed.

Where to stay in Swaziland

Eco lodges may as well have been invented for Swaziland. The visitor numbers are never huge, but the natural world is nevertheless fragile and deserves to be protected. The best places to stay in the country are therefore those lodges and hotels which make a serious commitment to sustainability, complementing rather than damaging the natural world.

Phophonyane Eco Lodge is hidden in mountain forest, a short distance away from the waterfall which gives it its name. Between the running streams and ponds nestle beehive huts and safari tents. Narina trogon flap in the trees, and the sound of the red duiker whistling carries on the wind.


For something a little different, I checked in at the Summerfield Botanical Garden and Resort. The 100 acres of gardens have been created in a single generation from a Swazi farm, and transformed into a tropical paradise with unbroken views of the countryside beyond. The villas and suites look to the mountains or the gardens, and you can dine each night in the Grand Pavilion restaurant which appears to float on the water.

Surprising Swaziland
Surprising Swaziland

Swaziland is no bigger than Wales, and just one third the size of the neighbouring Kruger National Park. In spite of this, however, it punches well above its weight with vibrant culture, varied and striking scenery, and rich wildlife which would understandably be boasted about by a country many times larger. It is a destination ripe for tourism development, and no doubt in time will be recognised for its many attractions. For now, however, it remains one of Southern Africa’s hidden gems, waiting to be discovered.

Fact File

Sophie flew to Johannesburg direct from London with South African Airways. Africa Exclusive offers a seven night holiday in Swaziland and South Africa, including four nights at Phophonyane Falls Eco Lodge and three nights at Nottens Bush Camp, from £2,233 per person.

Animals of southern Africa: 5 amazing wildlife experiences

From the Big Five to the pink flamingo, speedy cheetahs to the African Wild dog you can see them all in South Africa. Here we reveal where in southern African desert and bush you can see them and the best time to go.

We know that wildlife safari holidays in Africa can be very expensive. Fortunately, there are some cheaper options that offer the full safari experience and are run by trusted tour operators. Award-winning UK based tour operator On The Go Tours are running a “Falls, Deltas and Dunes” tour throughout 2019 which includes visits to all of the national parks listed in this article, as well as the amazing Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

The tour sits comfortably between luxury and budget (you’ll still be sleeping in either hotels or comfortable safari camps). Prices start from just £3,095 per person and includes transportation in an overland expedition truck, accommodation, park entrance, most activities and some meals.

1The Big Five in South Africa (Kruger National Park)

Rhinos at Mpumalanga

Kruger National Park is arguably the most famous in Africa, and it covers an area the size of Wales. All the species you are likely to want to see on safari are represented here, many of them in big numbers.

Kruger’s main attraction is the Big Five: elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, leopard, and lion. Historically, these were the animals most highly prized by trophy hunters, and they’re still amongst the most exciting animals to encounter up close on a game drive. You’re less likely to want to meet them on foot!

Conservation credentials: Kruger, one of the oldest national parks in the world, and is home to several endangered species such as the rhino, African wild dog and Martial Eagle. The park employs “rhino bodyguards” to help protect the animals from poachers.

Best time to visit: It is easier to spot the animals during the dry season during May to September when the the bush thins out, and at this time animals congregate around waterholes and rivers. If you can, avoid July and August as this is high season (coinciding with school holidays).

Kruger National Park is part of the “Falls, Deltas and Dunes” tour with On The Go Tours.

2Majestic elephants in Botswana (Okavango Delta)

Elephant Botswana

Botswana has the largest African elephant population in the world (around 130,000). Known for their intelligence and complex emotions these social creatures are able to express joy, anger, grief, compassion and love. They use their trunks to communicate and handle objects. The females form family units of ten or so, led by the “matriarch”. The smaller bachelor herds only join the female group to mate.

The delta offers a permanent source of water, and you may spot elephants as they gather to drink, bathe and frolic.

Conservation credentials: Elephants are poached by hunters for their ivory and this has become a serious issue. Local foundations such as the “Elephants for Africa” strive to protect future generations of elephants from this cruel fate through research and education.

Best time to visit: September and October are the best time to see elephants at the Okavango Delta as they congregate in large numbers around diminished watering holes.

Botswana Okavango Delta is part of the “Falls, Deltas and Dunes” tour with On The Go Tours.

3African wild dogs in Botswana (Chobe National Park)

African Wild Dog Chobe National Park

There are only around 6,600 African wild dogs in the wild. They native to sub-Saharan Africa and their population is declining. You do, however, stand a good chance of seeing African wild dog in Chobe National Park.

They are social animals and tend to hunt in a pack around dusk, so look out for them leaving their dens or pursuing prey when you are out on your afternoon game drive.

Conservation credentials: Africa wild dogs are in decline due to habitat loss and human-wildlife contact – they are blamed (often unfairly) for killing livestock. The African Wildlife Foundation employ scouts from local communities to monitor the wild dogs and alert herders if they are nearby. The foundation also help herders build livestock enclosures (called bomas) to protect the livestock from predators.

Best time to go: Chobe National Park changes dramatically with the seasons and can be visited all year round. Most people choose the dry season (May to November) when it is easier to spot the animals. Visit during the wet season (December to April) if you’re keen on bird watching.

Chobe National Park is part of the “Falls, Deltas and Dunes” tour with On The Go Tours.

4Desert adapted wildlife in Namibia (Namib Naukluft National Park)

Namib Naukluft National Park
(c) Olivier Bruchez

The Namib Naukluft National Park is the largest conservation area in Africa and though arid the animals have evolved to cope with the long periods of drought. The elephants here dig wells with their trunks; other animals such as giraffe, rhino, and even lions know to follow behind and drink where the elephant have dug.

There are four main areas: Sossusvlei and Sessriem, Naukluft, Namib section and Sandwich Harbour. The towering sand dunes are home to all sorts of tiny creatures including geckos and unusual insects such as the Namib Black Long-legged beetle.

Conservation credentials: Namib Naukluft National Park is the largest nature conservation in Africa, and the fourth largest protected park in the world.

Best time to go: The Namib desert is one of the world’s driest deserts, and is most pleasant to experience in April and May, where it is fresh and largely free from dust. June to August are cooler, while September and October tend to be dusty.

Namib Naukluft National Park is part of the “Falls, Deltas and Dunes” tour with On The Go Tours.

5Bird watching in Namibia (Etosha National Park)

Ostriches Namibia

Namibia is largely a desert, but in Etosha there are plenty of pans which retain water, which is why the birdlife is so rich. You can expect to see white pelican and pink flamingo, hornbill, ostrich, and stork, plus dozens of other colourful species which have adapted to this unique ecosystem.

Conservation credentials: The Etosha Ecological Research Institute attracts scientists from around the world to monitor water provision and advise on building artificial watering holes. Anti-poaching patrols are conducted by the Wildlife Protection Services by vehicle.

Best time to go: The best time for birding in Etosha is in summer when the pans are full and thousands of flamingo come to breed.

Etosha National Park is part of the “Falls, Deltas and Dunes” tour with On The Go Tours.

Travel itinerary through Vietnam from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam is a warm and wonderful country, one where east meets west and one where it’s cheap to eat and stay. There’s more than 2,000 miles of it, mostly between Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City (still often known as Saigon) in the south.

They don’t let foreigners drive here – a good thing as there are 45 million scooters in a population of 92 million and the people who aren’t steering seem to be on the back as they sweep down the pot-hole ridden streets.

vietnam scooters
Vietnam street

Not that locals worry, particularly the ones texting as they go. There’s only one single-track railway between the two main cities, a journey of 30-plus hours and even main road travel seems to be at scooter pace.

Tourist travel tends to involve plane hops and minibus jaunts accompanied by local guides. So, while it might not seem like a place for a touring holiday, there’s now a tourist trail from one end of the country to the other that can be accomplished with a bespoke travel company. It’s so relaxed that even the children will love it and with a family of four able to have a noodle dinner for well under £10, the value is remarkable.


Only 125 miles from China, sitting on the mighty Red River although the waterside is mostly hidden behind ramshackle apartment blocks. We stay in the old town, a warren of narrow streets lined with little shops and littler restaurants. The cosy Hanoi La Siesta Central hotel, new yet colonial themed, has a top-floor breakfast room with panoramic views.

Hanoi - lake

A perfect introduction to the city is the Vespa Adventures, a nighttime buzz around the streets on the back of a scooter sampling food at every stop. The streets might be awash with two-wheeled traffic yet there’s a zen-like serenity to it, everyone going the same 20-25mph and everyone equal. We sample grilled pork nibbles and Vietnamese coffee (strong and black over ice with a glug of condensed milk) from the rooftop Eden café overlooking 19th-century St Joseph’s cathedral. We have beer and bun cha (grilled pork and rice noodles) in Bún Chả Huong Liên, opposite the table (now a shrine behind a plastic screen) at which Barack Obama ate with TV chef Anthony Bourdain in 2016, filming the latter’s Parts Unknown. We wash down smoked, dried water buffalo with rice wine at Ray Quan, wedged by the railway track and its rumbling trains and eat more noodles (and banana blossom salad) at Vin Phong in the French Quarter.

Next day we visit the grounds of the Presidential Palace, where Ho Chi Minh chose to live in a small house by a carp-filled lake. This was where, in 1969, he died and he lies in state in an imposing mausoleum.

An unmissable experience is a walk across mile-long Long Biên Bridge (designed by Gustav Eiffel although much of his original was destroyed by US bombing) leapfrogging homes, banana plantations, island and river. Each side of the railway track is a footpath and a scooter road which in rush hour are filled by thousands of putt-putting machines. Stop for a banana at one of the many stalls.

Halong Bay

Vietnam Halong Bay

Two hours from Hanoi is this stunning bay that seems to go on forever, dotted with 3,000 jagged limestone islands. We take a two-day Bhaya Cruise, a boat for 30 passengers with wooden decks and rooms with colonial flair. We swim off the ship in the warm, placid waters, then call at Cua Van floating fishing village where the children explore in a kayak while we sit back in little boat rowed by a lady wearing one of the conical straw hats more normally seen keeping the sun off paddy field workers.

Vietnam - Halong Bay - fishing village
Cua Van floating fishing village (c) Nick Dalton

Come sunset we’re enjoying grilled fish in the dining room that runs the boat’s length before trying our hand at squid fishing (to be honest it’s a stick, twine and hook under a bright light, which isn’t wildly successful).

Next morning after choosing between pho (rice noodles in broth) and a fry-up for breakfast, we visit Hang Mê Cung cave on Lờm Bò island, a vast cavern where a prehistoric civilisation dined on sea snails – most of the shells are still here.


A short flight from Hanoi and we’re in Vietnam’s ancient capital (pronounced Hu-ay), home to the Imperial City. The UNESCO site, home to many an emperor, is modelled on Beijing’s Forbidden City, a vast complex of courtyards and pagodas surrounded by a lotus-filled moat. Much was destroyed by American bombs but restoration is underway. The peace here contrasts to the scooter-filled streets and our tour by cyclo (a chauffeur-pedalled tricycle).

Vietnam Hue palace
Hue Imperial City

The site faces the Perfume River as does the vast Dong Ba market, selling just about anything you could ever eat. We find Co Chau, a stall of some notoriety , having been visited by Anthony Bourdain in another edition of his show, where he ate (as did we) bun bo Hue, a spicy variation on noodle and meat broth.

Hoi An

A two-hour drive south passes vast lagoons, water buffalo squelching through fields and low peaks. This is the meeting of north and south; a road tunnel now carves through the mountains but we take the timeless, winding road over the top, giving panoramic views of Vietnam’s third city, Da Nang. This was where the Americans first came ashore, on China Beach, but it’s now a modern port (and cruise) city. Hoi An is a little farther, an ancient fishing port on the Thu Bon river. The local, traditional buildings, a world of carved wood, line streets free of even scooters. By night the river is illuminated by lanterns of tiny boats carrying tourists, candles floating in cardboard saucers and the lights from riverbank food stalls.

Vietnam - river - Hoi An
Hoi An (c) Nick Dalton

The big attraction is Red Bridge Cooking School. We start with a chef’s tour of Hoi An’s open-air fish market with crabs, shrimp, eels and plenty of less identifiable creatures then hop on a boat for a 20-minute journey upriver to the jungle-enveloped school. Here we learn to steam our own rice paper in which to wrap our neatly chopped vegetables and garden-grown herbs for spring rolls, then get to eat them and our other creations for lunch.

Hoi An place is a throbbing mix of local culture and international visitors. Our hotel, the La Siesta Resort & Spa, on the edge of town, is a place that combines Asian charm with American-style luxury – our room overlooks paddy fields as well as one of the open-air pools. It, like many other hotels, has a private stretch of beach on the coast, five minutes by free shuttle; we laze in the beautifully warm sea with views over modern Da Nang in one direction, the Unesco-protected Cham Islands in the other.

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City

Barely an hour’s flight from Da Nang, this is an elegant place of tree-lined streets, part of its French heritage, but with increasing modern flourishes. Bitexco Financial Tower, looming over the Saigon river, has a 49th-floor 360-degree observation level (and 52nd-floor helipad) while Landmark 81, which has just pipped it as the city’s tallest skyscraper has a viewing deck on the 79th of its 81 floors, plus lofty restaurants. We’re staying at Central Saigon Citypoint hotel where the 19th-floor rooftop pool (and bar) is the place to cool down.

We visit Reunification Palace, a 1960s architectural icon designed as the presidential palace for the south’s leader and where the two halves of the country were united in talks on April 30, 1975. Just in case things went belly-up, the subterranean war room has a tunnel to the waiting helicopter.

Ho Chi Minh Reunification Palace
Reunification Palace

The conflicts horrors fill the nearby War Remnants Museum, tanks and planes eclipsed by the hundreds of war photographers’ images.

The scariest place of all is Cu Chi Tunnel, a couple of hours away, part of a 150-mile warren that served up to 2,000 people during the conflict. We squirm at the man traps fashioned from all manner of metal and bamboo spikes, marvel at a rusting bombed tank and then dip into a 50-yard stretch of tunnel that leaves us so disoriented that we don’t even feel like firing a machine gun at £2 a shot.

Yet there’s far more to the city – the red brick Notre Dame cathedral, the grandiose Central Post Office, designed by Gustav Eiffel, who also designed the Opera House. And the 1908 City Hall, once the Hotel de Ville (based on one in Paris) is home to the council, or Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee.

Vietnam Ho Chi Minh City cathedral
The red brick Notre Dame cathedral

A modern treat is the Saigon Waterbus, a service that runs six miles, past glassy towers and colonial mansions, shack restaurants and fishermen. A return trip is only £1. Just sit back and soak up the value of Vietnam.