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Ice, fire and feuds: on the trail of Iceland’s sagas

The tales of heroes and feuding families in Iceland’s chronicles inspire this countrywide walking, hitchhiking and camping trip

The sagas are “our national identity”, says Icelandic actor Oddur Júlíusson. Based on historical events that mostly took place between the ninth and early 11th centuries, they have been narrated in the farmsteads of Iceland since the Middle Ages. Júlíusson performs the Icelandic Sagas Greatest Hits in Reykjavík, a comedy version in both Icelandic and English of all 40 of the “family sagas” – tales of feuding, romance, surprisingly intricate legal processes, sorcery and sea battles. “We are constantly reminded of these stories,” he told me, “and we name children after characters in them.”

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Thirsty work in San Diego, the craft brewing capital of America

Raise a glass to the Californian city with more than 200 craft breweries and tasting rooms

It is early morning and I’m swimming in a coffin-shaped pool surrounded by gnarly ancient cacti, overlooked by a 12-storey floral mural. It was an invigorating way to wake up listening to the muted stirring of downtown LA – and I needed it after only two hours’ sleep. The night before, the Mad Men vibe at the stylish lobby bar of the Hotel Figueroa had led me to order a couple of late-night Old Fashioneds to help me on my way. Clearly, I should have had a few more. As my Californian sister-in-law told me: “LA for cocktails, San Diego for beer.”

Related: Beyond Comic-Con: San Diego’s beaches and Pacific views are its real stars

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Magic and mystery on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland

Its ancient standing stones are a big draw at midsummer but Lewis is rich in treasures of many other kinds – historic, religious … and gloriously outrageous

First light at Callanish. The stone circle on the Hebridean island of Lewis may be 5,000 years old, but it would not do to keep it waiting. Besides, coming here at daybreak is, from certain perspectives, positively tardy. Emma Rennie, a local photographer, considers 2am the best time to visit. “It’s beyond mindblowing,” she told me, ahead of my journey. “There’s silence, which the world is so short of nowadays, and millions of stars. I feel small and insignificant, and I love it.”

Callanish – or Calanais in Gaelic – comprises 49 standing stones laid out in a shape that, seen from above, suggests a Celtic cross. Despite this resemblance, the site long predates Christianity and, indeed, Stonehenge. The drama is heightened by its location on a ridge above a loch. You can gaze across the water to other prehistoric sites nearby – Calanais II and Calanais III. Like Led Zeppelin albums, the stone circles around here are numbered, and they are heavy. The central monolith at Callanish is almost five metres tall and weighs around 4½ tonnes. It has a pelt of lichen in pistachio green.

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Back to the wall: cycling Berlin’s Mauerweg

As the 30th anniversary of its fall approaches, a cycle ride along the route of the Berlin Wall reveals a once-divided city now open and welcoming

It makes for delightful cycling: dappled sunshine, a smooth path, birds in the trees. The only clue that this isn’t just any woodland trail is the height of those trees: the oaks and beeches are young, barely three metres tall.

That’s because we’re riding on what, until 1989, was the “death strip” – the zone between Berlin’s inner and outer walls, filled with tripwire machine guns, trenches and dogs, and guarded by soldiers in watchtowers. This November sees the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I’m riding stretches of the Berliner Mauerweg – the 160km trail tracing its path – to see how the city has rearranged itself in three decades.

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Top 10 budget beach hotels and B&Bs on Mexico’s Pacific coast

Enjoy ocean views from rooftop bars or just step out and get the sand between your toes. From Mazatlán to Pochutla, here are 10 charming beachside escapes

Mexico’s Pacific coast, more than 1,000 miles of it, is renowned for its beaches, as well as the resorts which have attracted Hollywood royalty. However, it’s also an area that can experience tropical storms, usually between June and December. The most recent was Hurricane Patricia, the strongest hurricane ever recorded at sea, which swept across the region at the end of October, but caused less damage than anticipated. Hotels are now operating as normal.

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Top 10 budget beach hotels, guesthouses and hostels on the Yucatán peninsula, Mexico

Well-known and deservedly popular for its jungle, coast and ancient ruins, the Yucatán peninsula can be a pricey place to stay – unless you pick one of these brilliant budget hotels and hostels

On the surface, this mid-size hotel in Cancún’s hotel zone is pretty unremarkable. The tile-floored rooms are big and clean, with terraces or balconies – though they’re not notably stylish. The restaurant is good, not gourmet. The pool is a sensible size. But set this against its glitzy, high-rise neighbours and check the rates, which are often lower than similarly appointed hotels on the mainland, 30 minutes from the water – and Beachscape starts looking pretty good. Then walk out on to the palm-shaded beach, one of the prettiest stretches in the hotel zone, and the place becomes a minor miracle.
• Doubles from $109, +52 998 891 5427, beachscape.com.mx

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Top 10 budget beach B&Bs in the Seychelles

The Seychelles islands of Mahé, Praslin and La Digue may be known for their luxury resorts but there is also a great selection of family-run, more affordable guesthouses just as close to the archipelago’s famous, world-class beaches

For a room with a five-star view, Colibri is hard to beat. Nine rustic rooms – all wood and stone – ensconced amid tropical foliage that tumbles down a hillside to the turquoise waters of Baie Sainte Anne. There’s no beach but you can use the small infinity pool overlooking the bay at neighbouring B&B Chalets Cote Mer, also owned by Sylvie and Stephan, and costing about €10 more a night. You also share the waterfront creole restaurant. The owners can help with car hire but it’s a five-minute walk to a bus stop – which will take you to Praslin’s most famous beach Anse Lazio and the Unesco-protected Vallée de Mai nature reserve – and the jetty for ferries to Mahé and La Digue.
Doubles from £112 B&B, +248 429 4200, colibrisweethome.com

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Top 10 budget beach guesthouses and B&Bs in South Africa’s Western Cape

From Cape Town and its peninsula to the Garden Route and the West Coast, the Western Cape is a dazzling part of South Africa, and its beachside accommodation doesn’t have to break the bank

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Tarifa holiday guide: the best activities, bars, restaurants and hotels

This beach town in the far south of Spain, only a windsurf away from Africa, mixes a surfer vibe with excellent nightlife

It’s the most southerly town in mainland Europe, only 14km from Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar. It’s a 1,000-year-old walled labyrinth with a youthful party scene and a world-class kitesurfing and windsurfing destination. In summer it’s also a destination for families who want just a shady dune, a bar and a place serving fish – all of which are available in abundance along the 35km of coast north of Tarifa, beyond the beaches of Los Lances (home to Santa Catalina castle, an emblem of Tarifa) and Valdevaqueros to Bolonia with its Roman ruins and the seaside village of Zahara de las Atunes. Its community swelled by surfers who came and never left, Tarifa is a curious mix of off-the-beaten-track, cosmopolitan and barefoot cool, an adventure playground that’s home to some of the best places to eat, drink and stay on the Costa de la Luz. It can also be windy. If it wasn’t, as everyone will tell you, Tarifa would be just another Marbella – and no one wants that.

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Alternative city breaks: Genoa – restaurants, nightlife and shopping

Mixing high art with the down-to-earth feel of an ancient port, Genoa is a treasure trove of fine foods and unpretentious bars

Tourists tend to overlook the capital of the Liguria region in favour of Turin, Milan or Bologna when it comes to city breaks in northern Italy, just using its airport to head for the Italian riviera. But the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, St George’s Cross, focaccia, blue jeans (the fabric was invented here by some accounts: “jeans” coming from Gênes, the French word for Genoa) and Joy Division record covers (I’ll explain that one later) is a joy in its own right.

Genoa’s long, narrow shape is dictated by its position between the sea and the Ligurian Appenines. Rarely more than a couple of kilometres wide, the city stretches along nearly 40km of coast – from the Voltri neighbourhood in the west to Nervi, a fishing village-turned-seaside resort in the east – with development snaking inland into a couple of valleys. Just east of the Porto Antico is the old city, Europe’s largest medieval town, a warren of tight caruggi (narrow streets) reminiscent of the Barrio Gótico in Barcelona or the centre of Naples. Genoa’s modern business/shopping area borders the old town, starting at the central Piazza De Ferrari.

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The best towns and small cities in the US: Ithaca, New York state

This progressive lakeside town has gone its own way since the hippy years: we showcase its best bars, live music venues and restaurants

In this series: Eugene, Oregon | Chapel Hill, North Carolina | Portland, Maine | Ventura, California | Missoula, Montana

When 24-year-old Svante Myrick was elected mayor of Ithaca five years ago, he gave up his car. He also gave up his parking space outside City Hall, decorated the spot with benches and plants and welcomed all and sundry to use it as they pleased. For several years it was Ithaca’s smallest park.

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Athens city guide: what to see plus the best bars, hotels and restaurants

Tour classical sites with locals and discover the guesthouses, restaurants and bars being opened by young entrepreneurs in a city buzzing with creativity

The revival of Europe’s classical capital has attracted plenty of artists, curators and digital nomads. But it’s entrepreneurial young Athenians who are opening pop-up restaurants, design collectives and guesthouses, regenerating derelict buildings in rough-around-the-edges areas such as Pangrati, Kypseli and Keramikos. Messy and unpredictable, Athens fizzes with an intense energy that burns bright into the night.

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Cantal, France, holiday guide: what to see plus the best restaurants and hotels

In central France, the Auvergne’s volcanic landscape offers year-round activity holidays, with peaks to climb, lakes to swim, restored farms to stay in and great value mountain cuisine

The Cantal is the rural heartland of France’s wild Auvergne region, right in the centre of the country and part of the Massif Central. Locals joke that there are more cows here than people and there certainly are not many tourists, despite a range of adventurous outdoor activities in summer and winter. Hotels and B&Bs could not be more reasonably priced, and the hearty regional cuisine – rustic rather than gourmet – comes in formidable four- or five-course bistro set menus, ideal for big appetites and small budgets. The Cantal also boasts some of the most spectacular sites in La Chaîne des Puys, the 80 or so extinct volcanoes that have just been recognised as a Unesco world heritage site.

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Holiday guide to Basilicata, Italy: what to see plus the best restaurants and hotels

‘Tourist hordes’ is not a phrase you’re likely to hear in Basilicata but given its rich cuisine, stunning national parks, ancient towns and great beaches, it’s hard to fathom why this seductive region remains so quiet

Imagine a region that has miles of white sand beaches on one coast, picturesque rocky bays on the other, two mountainous national parks, and one of the world’s oldest cities. Add lots of warm sunshine plus fine food and wine and you might expect the area to be a tourist mecca, busy with hotels and tour buses. However, Basilicata, the arch and instep of Italy’s boot, has all the above but – thanks admittedly to a history of poverty and difficult access – little mass tourism.

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Holiday guide to the Llŷn peninsula, north Wales

A haven for surfers and adventurers, ‘a timeless island feel pervades this often-overlooked peninsula’. Writers of the new Wild Guide Wales select the best coves and beaches, places to eat and seasonal campsites

With tiny lanes lined with wildflowers leading to empty coves and rugged cliffs, this magical, often-overlooked peninsula has a timeless island feel – some say the Llŷn is like Cornwall 50 years ago. Welsh is spoken more often than not, and sacred places abound. But it’s not stuck in the past: there’s a strong surf culture around Porth Neigwl (Hell’s Mouth), and you can taste the beginning of a good-food revolution.

The coast starts in rugged fashion on the north side with the towering peak of Yr Eifl, home of Tre’r Ceir, an iron age settlement with some of Wales’s best roundhouse remains. To the south, the coast is gentler – a string of pearly coves with tiny seasonal campsites. And at the distant tip sits Bardsey Island, glimmering across the tidal waters.

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