Thursday, 27 August 2015

Pedal power: Around Catalunya on two wheels

Cycle on holiday? Sure, I once rented a bike in Valencia for a few hours to cycle round the Jardines del Turia. But a cycling holiday? Well, let’s just say I'm more likely to be sporting a sun dress than pulling on padded shorts when on vacation. But when I got the chance to try out UK-based travel company Headwater’s Contrasts of Catalunya trip, a 6-day holiday relying on pedal power, I reconsidered my holiday wardrobe. After all, the yoga and pilates retreat I went on in Morocco turned out to be one of my most relaxing trips ever – could active holidays be the way forward? It was certainly worth finding out: after all, Catalunya is one of my favourite parts of the country, and true to the Contrasts of Catalunya name, the routes took us both along the Costa Brava and through the beautiful (and thankfully relatively flat) countryside of the Empordà.

The Emporda countryside

So before I knew it, my suitcase was packed with the aforementioned padded shorts and a cycling helmet nestling between sun and swimwear. I was Costa Brava-bound to show off my new gear on routes that would take us from Calella de Palafrugell to Platja de Pals, then inland to La Bisbal d' Empordà before returning to Calella. The routes sounded idyllic: apparently we’d ride through rice fields, alongside orchards and through the picturesque medieval villages of Pals, Toroella de Montgrí and Peratallada, pausing at our leisure (or perhaps when we were panting for breath).

Headwater has been offering self-guided cycling, walking and activity holidays for 30 years. Specialising in ‘relaxed activity holidays’, their trips are planned with the less-sporty in mind, making them well suited to very occasional cyclists like me. With holiday options in Europe and further afield, Headwater offers cycling trips in Andalucía and Asturias as well as Catalunya, plus walking holidays throughout Spain. Holidaymakers are provided with extensive route notes, a map and, in this case, GPS files to navigate from hotel to hotel by bike. There’s no group, no guides: you can travel solo, with friends or family and go at your own pace. There’s thankfully no need to pack light either: Headwater transport your suitcases to your next destination while you’re transporting yourself.

First & final stop: Calella de Palafrugell

My friend and I were met at the train station in Flaçà (almost 2 hours north-west of Barcelona) by our Headwater reps, who drove us to our first stop: Hotel Garbi, perched above coastal Calella with a commanding view of the bay. Having already received our route notes and detailed information about all our destinations by post, the reps briefed us on the practicalities of cycling in Catalunya and gave us tips on the towns we’d be visiting. Information absorbed, we were fitted with our transport for the week: two slick silver 21-speed bikes, complete with handy panniers. After a year out of the saddle, I was surprised by how wobbly I felt – how was I going to cycle 24 kilometres the next day? Clinging to the fact that the Headwater brochure describes the Contrasts of Catalunya trip as ‘ideal for first timers’, I tried to relax and enjoy my seafood dinner with a spectacular sea view.

All too soon we were bidding adéu to the Hotel Garbi and hitting the road. For all of two minutes: a few metres down the road, we turned onto a country track. Well-surfaced and wide, we rode side by side and contemplated the views across freshly-harvested fields, admiring hilltop villages in the distance. A few kilometres in, with the town of Palafrugell in sight, we paused for water – and to reassure each other that actually, this cycling lark wasn't so bad. It was certainly relaxed going so far despite the encroaching August heat: the terrain was mostly flat and the scenery stunning. Our confidence had grown: we pushed onwards, guided by the GPS files mapping our route. I greeted fellow cyclists with a breezy ‘Bon dia’, acting as though this was how I spent every Sunday morning. The road cycling was easy too; roads are blissfully quiet out in the country so we barely had to contend with traffic.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The faded charm of Faro, Portugal

The pace in Portugal is different. Although similar in some ways to its Iberian neighbour, Portugal lacks the frenetic fiesta vibe often associated with Spain. Instead Portugal has an old-school charm I adore, and nowhere is this more evident than Faro.

In addition to being the country's third city, Faro is the capital of the southern Algarve region. It's far from a bustling metropolis though: this seaside town is little and laid-back. In the cidade velha, Faro's partly-pedestrianised old quarter, storks swoop through the skies, settling on church spires. From the vantage points of their nests, they keep watch over Faro's residents as they go about their daily business in the streets below. Tourists mingle with locals, usually taking a break from a resort holiday to do a little shopping and admire Faro's discreet charms.

Faro's storks survey the streets

And they are discreet: Faro has no prime tourist attractions to speak of. Instead, visitors will find tumbledown houses alongside local businesses, sunbleached stone next to intricately-worked tiles. Local businesses mix with high-street chains, family-run restaurants nestle next to boutiques. Faro has a decadent air to it that's far-removed from the flashiness of some resorts. This is the Algarve at its purest.

In recent years, restoration work has been carried out gradually, bringing some of Faro's facades back to full glory. A few new businesses have opened up too, with high-end boutiques alongside chain stores. But in true Faro fashion, this development is low-key and slow-paced, a gentle polish rather than gentrification.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

How (not) to do Ibiza

A summer playground for the global jet-set. A boho paradise of sandy beaches and yoga retreats. A raucous party destination beloved of inebriated Europeans. Whichever tagline you go with, Ibiza certainly has more alternative personalities than your average holiday hotspot.

Growing up in the 90s and noughties, I was used to seeing San Antonio antics hit the headlines every year when summer rolled round. I saw the headlines change as Ibiza welcomed more of the celebrity crowd and became a boutique, luxury destination. For some reason, the White Isle had always intrigued me with its chameleon character. So I decided, for means of deadline setting rather than a genuine sell-by date concern, that I had to 'do' Ibiza before a certain significant birthday.

As someone who travels fairly err, frequently, the prospect of a holiday can lose the shine it should have. Not so with Ibiza. Flights for the August trip were booked in February, accommodation in March, club tickets in a fit of excitement in June. By the time the departure date rolled around, I'd read reams of Ibiza info – where to wine and dine, the best beaches, what to wear, the lowdown on the club scene. My suitcase was packed with more fringed items, flat sandals, bikinis and beach cover ups than were strictly necessary for a one-week break. I was ready.

Or so I thought.

All the Ibiza advice in the world couldn't account for the fact that when it comes to a party holiday, I was an extreme novice. From cereal bars in my handbag to overestimating what to wear to a beach party, I made all the Ibiza mistakes so you don't have to.

This actually happened. Don't make the same mistake.

The Don'ts

DON'T book all your club tickets in advance. My friend and I got a little over-excited and paid for four nights' entertainment before we arrived, based on which acts we liked rather than other factors like timing and venue. As a result, we went to Ibiza Rocks twice and missed out on iconic Pacha and Space, and did most of our partying in the afternoon/evening rather than all night in classic Spanish style. By all means, have a look online before you jet off (we managed to save €5 on Ellie Goulding tickets by booking in advance), but don't plan everything before you leave. Instead, listen to travellers' tips on the ground – you're likely to bump into a few island veterans who can advise you on where to go. And you're on holiday, be spontaneous.

DON'T dismiss package holidays. We booked our flights and an apartment separately, which gave us more independence, the ability to self-cater and a great choice of location. We ended up in Figueretas, a more Spanish area which is home to one of the closest beaches to Ibiza Town. We didn't want to be in the thick of the party action, so this suited us perfectly, but I'm not sure how much we saved in the long run. Apartment rental prices soar in summer, so it might be worth checking out package deals to see if you can save a little on travel costs.

DON'T arrive at clubs when the doors open. We attended a few events at Ibiza Rocks and Ushuaia with an early-evening kick off and, wanting to get value for money, turned up to the first one at the time specified on the ticket. This was a rookie mistake which gave us no alternative but to people watch until the warm-up DJ arrived. Yes, we arrived before the warm-up DJ.

So early, there isn't even a queue

DON'T go to Amnesia. Unless you like crowds so dense it takes you half an hour to elbow through them to get to the loo, music you have to be out of your head to enjoy, people smoking indoors and  suspecting the capacity rules have been totally ignored. It felt like an accident waiting to happen, so we left before it did. Es Paradis was a much nicer 'super club' experience: supposedly the most beautiful disco on the island, it's well decorated, numbers are controlled and the music was much better (ie had lyrics). It's not all about the super clubs either: I wish we'd tried some of the beachside chiringuitos with afternoon DJ sessions for something more chilled. I think this was what I was hoping for when we ventured to Bora Bora in Playa d'en Bossa: roll in off the beach, into the bar and have a bit of a boogie. What we found was roaring drunk revellers in full-on rave mode wearing scanty swimwear you definitely wouldn't want to attempt a front crawl in. Not really our scene, to put it mildly.

DON'T feel like you've got to go out clubbing every night. Two of the nights I enjoyed the most were the ones when we went for a long, leisurely dinner and enjoyed a wander round Ibiza Town followed by a couple of cocktails. For delicious French food by the water's edge, try Soleado on the Figueretas beach front, and for something more traditional in town, La Brasa has great Mediterranean cooking and a gorgeous garden.

The garden at La Brasa restaurant in Ibiza Town

DON'T go to Ibiza in high season if you aren't interested in clubbing. We were restricted by school holidays so visited in August, but clubs stay open into autumn, so for slightly better value visit in September. If you aren't interested in the party scene, skip summer and head to Ibiza any other time of year – the weather is decent all year round, and with a beautiful landscape, photogenic villages and great food, it's a top destination in any season.

Now, to prove I'm not a complete dimwit, here's what we got right in Ibiza.

The Do's

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