Tag Archives: tour
July 28, 2017

Experience the nostalgic pleasure of steam train railways around North Wales

Experience the nostalgic pleasure of steam train railways around North Wales

Four steam trains in three days – what a treat. I was on on a very special trip to experience the delights of North Wales Heritage railways, sampling itineraries from specialist railway tour operators Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries.

Ffestiniog Railway

Ffestiniog Railway steam train Merddin Emrys

Engine driver Paul on Merddin Emrys

The heat is overwhelming. There’s a smell of coal dust, hot metal and sea-salt. Steam hisses and a seagull squawks overhead. Adults ready their cameras, children giggle with excitement and the sense of anticipation builds. “Keep right in to the side there and watch that pipe; it’s boiling hot and will give you a nasty burn if you touch it.” Engine driver Paul ensures I’m ensconced in my tiny corner of the cabin, gives a brief nod to stoker Andrew, a piercing whistle shrieks across the river estuary out to sea, there’s a chuff-chuffing from the steam train and we are on our way.

View from inside Ffestiniog Raliway steam engine cab

View from inside Ffestiniog Raliway steam engine cab

I’m on the very splendid Merddin Emrys, a push-me pull-you Double Fairlie locomotive built in 1879, on the  Ffestiniog Railway, fulfilling a life-long dream to travel on the footplate of a steam train. The Festiniog Railway Company, in North Wales, is the oldest surviving railway company in the world. It opened in 1836 to take slate from the quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog for export around the globe. We used to holiday in nearby Llandudno and I remember seeing the little train chugging along the track and wishing we could go on it … and now I’m finally here.

Minffordd Station - Ffestiniog Railway steam train - photo Zoe Dawes

Minffordd Station

The train slowly gathers speed as we pass fields of sheep and quaint cottages. People wave as we rumble through Boston Lodge and cows stop grazing to gaze at us as we steam by. At Minffordd, where we pass another steam train going in the opposite direction, I have to leave the engine and join the other passengers in one of the lovely old wooden carriages. We slowly start the steep climb into the mountains where the scenery becomes wilder through the glorious Snowdonia National Park. Sunlight glimmers through wooded groves and we disappear into a tunnel before doing a loop-the-loop at the Dduallt Spiral.

Ffestiniog Railway Bara Brith and Welsh Cakes

Bara Brith and Welsh Cakes

Afternoon tea arrives; a plate of local Welsh Cakes and Bara Brith (fruit loaf) are most welcome. Against railway rules I put my head out of carriage window and watch the steam train puff its way round the curve of the narrow-gauge track. The sight and sound of this sturdy little engine brings back many memories of childhood and a world where time seemed to go at a much slower pace. We arrive at Blaenau Ffestiniog Station and we have a quick look at the brand new, very luxurious, Pullman Observation Carriage, with beautiful wood panelling and maps of the railway route carved onto the tables. On the platform we watch as Paul and Andrew jump on top of the engine to check it and fill it with water.

Steam train at Blaenau Ffestiniog

With its twin funnels and gleaming red livery,  Merddin Emrys is a fine example of a Victorian steam train and I feel privileged to have spent some time in its company.

Welsh Highland Railway

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

We had started the day in castle-dominated Caernarvon, boarding the Welsh Highland Railway, UK’s longest heritage railway, that took us inland, past the foot of Snowdon and on to the pretty village of Beddgelert. Our train was pulled by a mighty fine black locomotive, NG/G16 No.87, built in 1937, originally used in South Africa and rebuilt in the Ffestiniog Railway’s own Boston Lodge Works. En route we got superb views out towards the Lleyn Peninsula, beside old slate mines and tiny railway stations, past lakes emerging from steamy windows, near rushing waterfalls and on up into the mountains.

Lake View from Welsh Highland Railway steam train North Wales

View from our railway carriage

Clare, our very informative host from Ffestiniog Railway Company, outlined our route on the map and gave us some facts and figures about the company and its rolling stock. Well-equipped walkers got off at one of the halts to hike up Wales’ highest peak.

Welsh Highland Railway route

Welsh Highland Railway route

As we crossed the impressive Glan-yr-afon Viaduct I gazed up towards the summit of Snowdon, shrouded in mist. This stretch of the track is one of the steepest gradients in Britain, 1-40 and we snaked our way back down through the forest toward Beddgelert, Snowdon playing hide and seek along the way.

Welsh Highland Railway steam train Snowdonia - North Wales

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

As we disembarked in Beddgelert, the rain arrived, not so unusual in this part of Wales. However, by the time we’d got our coach to the quirky village of Portmeirion it had stopped and the sun was peaking out again.

Llangollen Railway

Llangollen Railway Station and 80072 steam train

Llangollen Railway Station and Steam engine 80072

The following day we headed off into the valleys for a ride on the Llangollen Railway, the only standard-gauge heritage railway in Wales. As with many other railway lines, this was originally built for the mining industry, but Llangollen has been a tourist destination for many years. It’s a very attractive town on the River Dee and the railway is its biggest attraction. The quaint Station Building sets the scene with old suitcases piled on the platform and uniformed guards, drivers and other staff bustling about making sure everyone gets aboard in time for departure. We had a reserved carriage all to ourselves again, with scones, jam and cream laid out on crisp white linen – very civilized. The velvet-upholstered seats and lacquered wood panelling all conspired to give that feeling of nostalgia for rail travel in stylish luxury.

Llangollen Railway reserved carriage North Wales

Reserved Carriage

We were being pulled by beautifully restored locomotive 80072, built in Brighton in 1953 to run on the south coast, but left to rot for many years after the Beeching cuts of the 1965, which is when the Llangollen Railway also closed for main-line travel. There are few transport sounds more evocative than the huffing of an engine as it builds up steam on its way out of a station. We got that experience a number of times as there were a three stops along the line, which runs beside the sparkling River Dee, to Corwen. The return journey was equally delightful and everyone thoroughly enjoyed our very special steam train journey.

Llangollen Railway steam train -photo Zoe Dawes

Llangollen Railway steam train

After lunch we went on a leisurely glide along the Langollen Canal on a horse-drawn boat – perfect end to a perfect day.

Snowdon Mountain Railway

Wyddfa steam engine Snowdon Mountain Railway - photo Zoe Dawes


On our final morning we set off early to get the 9.30am Snowdon Mountain Railway steam train from Llanberis Up the Mountain. We went up and down in glorious sunshine, pushed up by Wyddfa, a Swiss-built engine from 1893, driven by Paul and stoker Robert. It was a truly epic journey – watch out for the story in another article …

Top of Snowdon with Mountain Railway train North Wales - photo Zoe Dawes

Top of Snowdon with Mountain Railway train

Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries Steam Train Tours

I travelled to North Wales courtesy of Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries. Our group stayed in Llandudno at the very comfortable Dunoon Hotel, with superb food in charming surroundings. We also had an excellent Italian meal at the Wildwood Restaurant in the town centre.

Dunoon Hotel Llandudno

Our group at Dunoon Hotel

Great Rail Journeys Railways & Castles of Wales Tour includes a stay at the award-winning Dunoon Hotel, journeys on the Welsh Highland, Ffestiniog and Snowdon Mountain Railways, and excursions to Portmeirion Village and Caernarfon and Conwy Castles. GRJ Independent can also tailor make holidays to the region for those wishing to travel to Wales on an individual basis Save up to £30pp when booking on or before 15th August 2017.More details Railways and Castles of Wales.

Rail Discoveries Railways of Wales Tour includes a stay at the Kensington Hotel, journeys on the Welsh Highland, Ffestiniog and Llangollen Railways, a horse-drawn boat trip on the Llangollen Canal, and excursions to Portmeirion Village and Caernarfon Castle. Save up to £30pp when booking on or before 15th August 2017. More details Railways of Wales.

Andrew and Paul on the Ffestiniog Railway steam train - photo Zoe Dawes

Andrew and Paul on the Ffestiniog Railway

Love Narrow-Gauge Railways? Read my review of Small Island by Little Train – a narrow-gauge adventure by Chris Arnot.

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North Wales Steam Railways


November 22, 2016

A rippa of a day in Margaret River, Australia

A rippa of a day in Margaret River, Australia
Canoeing on Margaret River Western Australia - photo zoedawes

Canoeing on the Margaret River

“It’s a rippa of a day. Hope you’re enjoying yourselves. It’s so beautiful here and hardly anyone ever does this.” Apparently ‘a rippa of a day‘ means ‘absolutely fantastic’, ‘here‘ is Margaret River, after which the nearby town is named, in Western Australia, and ‘this‘ is canoeing along the river. We’d just had a brief rain shower and now the weather was clearing as we paddled slowly along the wide and tranquil stretch of water. The roots of huge trees entangled the shores and their tops towered over us, swaying gently in the breeze. I was in a canoe with our guide for the day, Sean Blocksidge, who runs the Margaret River Discovery Company and food blogger Niamh Shields. Also on our tour were a honeymoon couple from Australia and another couple from America.

Paddling canoe on the Margaret River, Western Australia - photo zoedawes

Paddling our canoes

After our canoe trip, we went to the waterfall on Margaret River, in full spate due to an exceptionally wet winter. We sat down beside it and Sean explained its significance to local Aboriginal people as a tribal camp ground. He’d brought along some bread and three types of honey for us to try. “This is honey-gold. It’s called Karri, from the local Karri tree [eucalyptus diversicolor], which grows round here. It has strong healing properties and is highly valued.” They all tasted good but this one was a real winner.

Karri honey at Margaret River waterfall Western Australia

Karri Honey

We headed off in Sean’s 4X4 to Prevelly for a quick coffee at the White Elephant Cafe and to have a look at one of the area’s premier surfing beaches, Gnarabup. This area had also been hit by big storms so the weather was unseasonably cold and wet. Even so, we could appreciate it and see why, in the summer months, it is one of the most popular places not just for surfing but also to relax and enjoy this lovely coastline.

Gnarabup Beach Western Australia - photo zoedawes

Gnarabup Beach

Having been refreshed, we set off to explore some of area’s countryside and Sean regaled us with tales of his life and local history. including the horrific bush fire of 2011 that destroyed a vast swathe of the area. Luckily no-one was injured, but one of Western Australia’s oldest homes, Wallcliffe House, built in 1865, was gutted. It was an important example of early colonial architecture and home to one of WA’s finest collections of antique furniture. Driving on through the lush countryside, we passed dozens of vineyards. Margaret River is famous the world over for the quality of its wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonney but increasingly for other, lesser known wines and blends. With its consistent growing seasons, mild winter, pleasant summer, good rainfall and fertile soil, it is home to over 150 wineries – and the number is growing.

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Riesling Margaret River WA

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Riesling

The previous day, Niamh and I had experienced an excellent Wine and Food Tasting at the Leeuwin Estate, one of the five founding wineries in Margaret River. Not only do they produce superb wines but they have a unique collection of modern art, which they use for the labels on their very distinctive Art Series wines. (Watch out for more in my next article on Food and Drink in Western Australia.)

Fraser Gallop Estate Margaret River Western Australia

Fraser Gallop Estate

Now we were visiting Fraser Gallop Estate, an up and very much coming winery that’s already producing some distinctive award-winning wines. Francine Davies showed us round. “The Fraser Gallop Estate winery is custom designed to process a maximum capacity of 300 tonnes of grapes, particularly designed in layout and size for the fermentation of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Semillon Sauvignon Blanc blends.” We then had an informal lunch of local food, including octopus, duck and chicken liver pate, smoked trout and venison chorizo. Sean explained each wine and we sipped glass after glass with much relish. A big favourite was the splendid 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, “Just suck it up,” said Sean in typical Aussie fashion – and we did! NB: this estate is not usually open for public visits.

Wine-tasting at Fraser Gallop Estate - Margaret River - Western Australia - collage zoedawes

Wine-tasting at Fraser Gallop Estate

After such a hedonistic lunch, it was time to get some fresh air and we headed back to the coast. The Cape to Cape Track is a 135km route beside the Indian Ocean  from Cape Leeuwin to Cape Naturaliste, past dramatic seascapes and pristine beaches, along undulating paths. We parked up and set off a steady pace, walking through a vibrant patchwork of plants, shrubs and trees. This part of Australia is known for its wild flowers and in spring they burst with colour and scent. (We were visiting in October, the perfect time to see them.) Beneath us waves crashed against the shore and overhead seabirds wheeled. Sean told us to look out for migrating whales; we saw none, possibly due to the stormy weather. Sea spray brought the zing of ozone and the ocean was dappled with sunlight.

Spring flowers on Cape to Cape Track Margaret River - Western Australia - photo zoedawes

Cape to Cape Track Margaret River

After about an hour we had to turn round, but not before Sean had taken a photo of each of us perched on a rock above the cliffs. Windblown and happy, we then returned to the vehicle, making the most of our time out in this glorious scenery. Back in the town of Margaret River, Niamh and I said goodbye to Sean, who suggested we drive to a road near where we were staying, to see kangaroos having their evening meal. Here they are …

Kangaroos at Margaret River

We stayed at Basildene Manor near the town of Margaret River. This beautiful boutique hotel was built by Percy Willmott, a lighthouse keeper at Cape Leeuwin, in 1912. He created a splendid home resembling a relative’s grand country estate in England. It’s welcoming, luxurious and delightfully quirky, with lovely grounds and truly scrumptious home-made cakes.

Basildene Manor Margaret River Western Australia

Basildene Manor

I travelled to Perth, Fremantle, Rottnest Island and Margaret River courtesy of Tourism Western Australia #justanotherdayinWA and would like to thank everyone, including a great bunch of fellow bloggers, who made this such a memorable adventure.

Zoe Dawes aka The Quirky Traveller on the Cape to Cape Track - Margaret River - Western Australia

Happy memories …

More about my trip to Western Australia: Rottnest Island in search of the quirky quokka and Top Places to Eat and Drink in Fremantle.


The Quirky Traveller Top Tips for Margaret River - Western Australia

December 9, 2014

7 Money-Saving Tips for Holiday Travel

7 Money-Saving Tips for Holiday Travel

Save money on holiday travel - the Quirky Traveller Top Tips

I love spending money on the niceties of life – for example, a decent bottle of wine, turquoise ink for my old fountain pen, a pretty pair of earrings. A teenage son eats into the family budget. Electricity bills, mortgage payments and running a car are unavoidable expenses. Sadly, I’m no good at saving money. So why on earth am I writing an article on money-saving tips? It’s because I can’t save BEFORE a holiday that I have become quite good at saving money ON holiday.  So here are some of my favourite money-saving tips that might help you too.

Grand Bazaar Turkey

Grand Bazaar Turkey

1.  Before you leave home, find out if there are any special deals on ticket prices for the kinds of places/attractions you want to visit. It may be a Water Park for the kids, a museum or theatre, but very often there are online deals that you can buy in advance with considerable savings on the ‘door rate’.

2.  Check out what local transport tickets are available. Again they may be cheaper to get in advance but most cities and many regions have great offers on rail/bus/tram travel which you can usually buy from stations etc.

3.  As soon as you arrive at your holiday destination, check with your travel rep/hotel concierge/B&B owner where the locals go for good value food and drink. You will not only be able to eat cheaper but often get much more delicious meals than going to more obvious tourist restaurants and bars.

Sibora Restaurant Gran Canaria

Sibora Restaurant Gran Canaria

4.  Watch out for lunch-time menus, especially if you are staying in a Mediterranean country. Many eateries have really good midday ‘specials’ that often include 2-3 courses and a glass of wine or soft drink for under £10 or thereabouts.

5.  Don’t be afraid to haggle or ask for a discount when you are shopping. Many countries in the world are quite used to this, and even if they are not (ie the UK), in the current tough economic climate, many shops are now prepared to offer a discount, especially if you are buying more than one item.

Local products in Monemvassia, Greece

Local products in Monemvassia, Greece

6.  Get your souvenirs at local markets and smaller shops. Invariably you will get a better deal on just about everything (see above) but you will often find excellent quality hand-crafted gifts at prices well below what you’d pay in the big tourist stores.

7.  Tours can add a lot to your holiday expenses yet can be a great way to get to see local sights. Hotels often add a hefty % to their trips, which can usually be found for a fraction of the price in the nearest town travel agents. You can find a wide variety including river cruises, city walks, bus, cycle and food tours etc. Sometimes they may also include pick-ups at popular hotels so ask around and find a bargain.

Tasting tea on a food tour in Montreal

Tasting tea on a food tour in Montreal

Hopefully, if you can save £££s on these few money-saving tips you’ll have plenty more to spend on enjoying yourself even more on holiday.

June 23, 2013

A magical mystery tour of Montreal’s culinary heritage

A magical mystery tour of Montreal’s culinary heritage

Dragons beard candy maker montreal - photo zoedawes

Mrs Chin started spinning the long piece of white sugar dough so fast it was impossible to see, counting aloud as her hands twirled and doubled the number of strands – 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512! With a deft flick she curled a piece of this white magic into a ball, filled it with sticky peanut, sesame and chocolate paste and popped it into a box. A treat fit for a king – or in this case, an Emperor.  A notice in front of the little stall in the heart of Chinatown, Montreal, informed us that these sweet indulgences were served up at Imperial State Banquets.  The strands were said to resemble a long beard and the Emperor’s symbol was a dragon – hence it became known as Dragon’s Beard Candy.

Fitz and Follwell food tour in Montreal

I was on the unique Fitz & Follwell Flavours of ‘The Main’ Food Tour with friendly guide Ingrid, taking in some of the quirky, eclectic tastes, sights and sounds of culinary Montreal in the beautiful and historic Quebec Region.  “For three centuries, Montreal immigrants have settled along the city’s main boulevard, known interchangeably as St. Lawrence, St. Laurent, or ‘The Main.’ French, British, Chinese, Eastern European, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Latin American and North African – all have found their time and place on this historic street.”

Wings - Fortune cookies Montreal

Along with fellow travel blogger, Keith Jenkins and Hugo LeClerc of Tourisme Montréal, we’d set off from the ornate Chinatown Gate on our first stop, ‘Wings’, a family-run business established in 1897, now in an unprepossessing concrete building down a back street. They are Canada’s oldest producer of Fortune Cookies, noodles and many other Asian food products.  We were each given a fortune cookie. Hoping for some life-changing message or notification of imminent wealth, mine simply said something about Patience being a Virtue!

My Cup of Tea - Montreal food tour

Down the road at ‘My Cup of Tea’ an enthusiastic tea connoisseur showed us yet more Chinese magic as he filled transparent teapots with dried flowers which slowly blossomed into graceful shapes drifting around in delicate-scented, vari-shaded liquids.  Dainty glass bowls were filled and, as we tasted many different flavours, he explained the history, provenance and health-giving properties of this popular drink.  What I loved about this shop was its elegant, contemporary decor, so different from the faux-traditional appearance of some tea emporiums.

Banh mi montreal

As we left ‘Asia’ we were given another taste of this multi-cultural city – a Vietnamese baguette or Banh Mi.  A tasty morsel left over from the French occupation of Vietnam, mine was a scrumptious mix of minced pork, carrot, daikon (white radish) and coriander on a fresh and crunchy French stick.  By now I was very grateful I’d not had a big breakfast …

Next stop on the tour was the Montreal Pool Rooms, ‘Depuis 1912’ as the T-shirts on the guys serving poutine proudly proclaim in this typical ‘greasy spoon’ diner.

Montreal Pool Room Diner

Hands up who’s heard of Poutine?  It’s Quebec region’s favourite fast food – basically chips, gravy and cheese curds – and believe me, it tastes far, far better than it sounds.  According to Wikipedia, poutine  ‘originated in rural Quebec, Canada, in the late 1950s. Several Québécois communities claim to be the birthplace of poutine.  One often-cited tale is that of Fernand Lachance, from Warwick, Quebec, which claims that poutine was invented there in 1957; Lachance is said to have exclaimed, “Ça va faire une maudite poutine” (it will make a damn mess) when asked to put a handful of curds on some french fries, hence the name. The sauce was allegedly added later, to keep the fries warm longer.”‘

Poutine on the street - Montreal

As food experiences go, eating poutine with a plastic fork out of a polystyrene box beside one of Montreal’s busiest streets, rates in my Top Ten Foodie experiences of all time.  It’s a sensuously smooth, carbohydrate laden, scrummily divine taste sensation!

Spanish Library and delicatessen - Montreal

There followed further excursions into the city’s cultural heritage with visits to a Hungarian shop with a huge selection of sausages and paprika, a Spanish library- cum-delicatessen, past Portuguese and Italian grocery stores and then on to world- famous Schwartz Charcuterie Hebraique.

Schwartz Charcuterie - Fitz and Follwell Food Tour

Schwartz Charcuterie – Fitz and Follwell Food Tour

Founded in 1928 by Hungarian Jewish immigrant, Reuben Schwartz, its popularity was vividly apparent by the lengthy line of hungry punters patiently queuing down St Lawrence Boulevard. Their smoked meat is cured for 10 days in a secret marinade of herbs and spices and is melt-in-the-mouth delicious.  Ingrid said that Canadian singer Celine Dion had recently bought Schwartz’s and locals were hoping that it wouldn’t lose its unique appeal.  Judging by the crowded dining room, there’s no sign of that yet.

Schwartz diner - Montreal

You know that scene in Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning of Life’ when the waiter says to Mr Creosote, “and finally Monsieur, a wafer-thin mint?”  Well, that’s how I felt when Ingrid said, “and finally, we’ll pop over the road for potato latkes.” I managed one mouthful of this Jewish favourite with a smidgeon of sour cream before metaphorically exploding with all the amazing tastes, heavenly aromas and fascinating facts I had experienced on this excellent Fitz and Follwell tour.   If you visit Montreal, and everyone should go at least once in their lives, then do take time to explore the city through your taste buds – it’s a truly sensational experience you’ll never forget.

Fitz and Follwell tours montreal - photo zoedawes

Fitz and Follwell tours

A few days later I was off to quirkily beautiful Quebec City where I had yet more marvellous foodie experiences, this time very haute cuisine!

Many thanks to House Trip for providing a lovely place to stay in Montreal and to Explore Canada and Tourisme Montréal for organising my very first visit to Canada.  Discover more about the region’s history, attractions, activities more at Bonjour Quebec.

May 13, 2013

Walking round Reykjavik – Europe’s most northern capital

Walking round Reykjavik – Europe’s most northern capital

If you’ve been to Iceland you’ll understand the singer Björk.  Born and raised in Reykjavik, she epitomises this country’s quirky, eclectic energy.  Visitors on holiday can get a brief glimpse of Iceland’s natural attractions and history by doing The Golden Circle, including Gulfoss (Golden Waterfall), the geothermal field of Haukadalur where Strokkur Geyser erupts very few minutes and the UNESCO World Heritage site, Þingvellir National Park where the original Parliament met.  All this is can be done in a day trip from Reykjavik, Iceland’s historic and vibrant capital city.

Reykjavik and Hallgrims Church Iceland = photo zoedawes

Reykjavik with view of Hallgrims Church

In spite of a very changeable climate that Brits will feel at home in and those from warmer countries may find ‘challenging’, Reykjavik is one of the party capitals of Europe.  Lively techno and hard rock bars vie with cool cafes and trendy eateries.  But it’s the fascinating cultural scene, unusual architecture, every-changing seascapes and crisp, sparkling air that I loved.  Standing on The Square  one look at the unassuming, low level Alþing (Parliament House) tells you that this is a country that seems at ease with its identity and has no need to dominate. The white-walled Cathedral next door would not look out of place in a provincial town.  And that’s the secret of Reykjavik’s appeal – it’s small, accessible and utterly charming.

Tjörnin, Reykjavik Iceland - photo Helgi Halldórsson/Freddi

Tjörnin – photo Helgi Halldórsson/Freddi

The best way to explore the city is on foot. In a few hours you can see all the main sights ‘downtown’ – we had a guide but it’s not difficult to navigate.  With the sea on one side and linear streets you can’t get too lost.  In front of the Tourist Information Centre on little Faxaflói Square we were shown a rather strange looking sculpture of tall concrete stakes with steam coming from the running water.  Apparently this represents the founding of the city when a Norwegian Viking settler farmed this land and called it Reykjavik aka ‘steamy/smoky bay‘.

Faxafloi Square sculpture Reykjavik

At the nearby Landnamssyningin (Settlement Exhibition) I tried to imagine what ancient island life was like around 1000 AD from the remnants of a turf wall and some Viking objects.  Can’t say I succeeded but worth a try!  Much more appealing was the Kraum Centre for Icelandic Craft in House No 10 Adalstraeti,  said to be the oldest wooden house in centre of the city. As you can imagine, these houses are prone to fire and decay being so near the sea so it is amazing that any have survived.  There was an intriguing collection of pottery, jewellery, household utensils and clothes, all with a definite Icelandic twist in their creation and construction.

Kraum Craft Centre Reykjavik

Shoppers are well catered for with a great mix of international names and very high quality local  brands.  In the city’s largest shopping centre, Kringlan (a few minutes’ drive from the heart of the city, you’ll find names like Karen Illen, Deisel, Next, Zara and Hugo Boss.  One of the most well-known local names is 66°North, created in 1926 to provide outdoor clothing to protect the fishermen and labourers from the extremes of Arctic weather. Now uber-fashionable, their garments combine practicality and contemporary design.  I got a very snug fleece that looks good and is very cosy on the Lake District fells in winter!  If you have time, just go off the main streets to discover quirky little shops selling all manner of tempting goodies.

The Sea Hat shop - Reykjavik

Laugavegur is the main shopping street.  Woollen items are a favourite and the Hand-knitting Association of Iceland has a couple of shops in town.  Or you could try a quirky chocolate volcano on an iced cake from a bespoke chocolatier …

Chocolate volcano on iced cake

Heading towards busy Hafn (harbour) we could smell the fishing boats before we saw them.  Serious looking craft bedecked with industrial-strength nets were bobbing about near the ferries, a military vessel and other shipping that regularly sail around these chilly waters.  There’s also a ferry taking day-trippers over to Viday Islandwhere we had dinner one memorable night.

Hafn - Reykjavik Harbour

Looming over it all like some enormous honeycomb is the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre.  Home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, this state-of-the-art building was only completed in 2011.  Music concerts, opera , art exhibitions and international conferences are held all year round  and there are a couple of shops as well as an excellent restaurant.  Eating a delicious lunch of fresh seafood and local dishes we had a breath-taking view of the harbour’s icy blue waters as the sun shimmered through the geometric windows.

Harpa Concert Hall Reykjavik

This is a glimpse of a few of the highlights of Reykjavik’s attractions.  Look out for the next article on the city’s Art Museum and Culture House, lovely Tjörnin (The Pond), a boat trip to Viðey Island,  a privileged glimpse inside the Höfði House, where Gorbachov and Reagan met for the Reykjavik summit and a visit to the Presidential Palace to meet the outgoing Icelandic President.

President's Residence Reykjavik

I travelled to Iceland courtesy of easyJet, offering regular flights and holidays to quirkilicious Iceland, and stayed at the luxurious Hotel Borg, in the heart of the city on Parliament Square.

Parliament building Reykjavik

Read about my experience of The Iceland Golden Circle here. It’s very quirky and special!

November 18, 2012

Discovering divinely delicious food in Gran Canaria

Discovering divinely delicious food in Gran Canaria

“Whoo – that’s the best meal I’ve had all holiday.” When a teenage boy tells a waitress that, you know something is very right.  When the main ingredient of that meal is a fish you’ve never heard of, in a foreign island far from home, then you know it is probably extraordinary.  But more of that later!

Tapas in Mogan, Gran Canaria

The climate, landscape and people help determine the cuisine of every region and the delicious food in Gran Canaria is the product of all that plus a unique eco-system.  This volcanic island off the west coast of Africa has succeeded in creating an appetising blend of Spanish, African, European, traditional and contemporary cuisine using the freshest and highest quality local ingredients.

Mountain village of Moya on Gran Canaria

Local fish include stone bass, sea bream, combtooth blennies, tuna, shark and the huge marlin; adventurous souls go out daily on fishing boats to do battle with these huge sea creatures.  Black Canarian pork is a real treat with rabbit and goat also found on island menus.  Other meat is imported, most especially for the tourist market.  Gran Canaria’s most treasured gastronomic secrets is the sheep and goats’ cheese produced in small quantities. Flor, Mediaflor and Guia cheeses hold the Protected Denomination of Origin label.  Possibly the most well-known are the tasty little Canarian potatoes.  Served in virtually every restaurant, most families have their own special potato recipes to bring out their lovely flavour.  Garlic is another favourite ingredient lending its distinctive essence to a wide variety of culinary delights.

Gran Canaria restaurant Sibora, FontanelesDuring a week’s family holiday at the luxurious Holiday Club Resort at Sol Amadores my son, his best friend and I went on a fascinating tour into the heart of the island.  It was especially interesting as we were visiting places that were off the main tourist route so we got a sense of how the local live.  What surprised me most was the varied scenery and how every acre of vaguely fertile land is farmed in some way or other.  Large areas of the south-east west coast are used to grow Canary tomatoes, exported to Europe, along with magnificent varieties of peppers, cucumbers and onions. Even in the very harsh, barren areas prickly pears, aloes and various cacti are found, being used in very imaginative ways.

Growing food on Gran Canaria

We stopped for lunch in the mountain village of Fontaneles at Restaurant Sibora.  In typically ‘rustic’ surroundings ie lots of ornate, highly carved wood, plenty of fading blue-tinted photos of island sights and some VERY quirky objects the use of which defeated us, we had a suberbly simple and delicious meal.  A starter of spiky peppery onion soup was followed by silky smooth goats’ cheese, delicate fish fritters and ‘Patatas Arrugadas’ and the restaurant’s red Mojo Picon, made with red peppers and garlic, complimenting the salty, dry potatoes most harmoniously.  

Wrinkled potatoes - Canarian patatas arrugadas - on Gran Canaria

Here’s the recipe if you’d like to try it for yourself:

Canarian Patatas Arrugudas (wrinkled potatoes)

2lbs approx of small, clean potatoes (floury, older potatoes are fine)  2 tablespoons coarse sea salt *

Place the potatoes in a large saucepan, cover with enough cold water in to cover and add the sea salt.  Bring to the boil and cook for 15-20 minutes till cooked and soft.  Pour off all the wasre then leave the potatoes to cool in the pan.  This is the most important part of the process – a layer of salt will encrust the potatoes.  Best served warm ideally with Mojo Picon or other tasty sauce.

* Edit Friend Liz who lives in Gran Canaria adds this to recipe (see Comments below): “I am not sure two spoons of salt is enough – I use a lot more! My local recipe says 250 gr salt for 1 kilo of potatoes. They only take as much salt as they want apparently and they never taste too salty.” Cheers Liz!

The main course was a simple dish of succulent falling-apart pieces of pork in a sweetly herby sauce (rosemary I think) and chunky, crispy chips.  The boys finished off with ice-cream and I had a crème caramel, as good as any I’ve ever eaten in Spain.  Clean plates all round.

In a nearby village we found a quirky general story selling an enormous range of local foods including cheeses, piquant cured sausages, flaky pastries including Bienmesabe, made with island almonds, lemon and cinnamon, densely scrumptious cakes, spicy sauces, flower-infused honey, fruit jams, red and white wines and the usual very sweet licqueurs that will be relegated to the back of the cupboard once you get home.  There was also a veritable pharmacy of aloe products all promising various health and beauty benefits.

Gran Canaria local produce

In the VERY touristy resort of Puerto Rico it’s easy to find ‘English’ type food and not so easy to get find decent local food.  However, it was at Grill Costa Mar (opposite the Fishing Excursion stands in the Port area) that the boys declared their delight at the fishy dishes put before them.  This little gem of a restaurant serves supremely fresh fish straight off the nearby boats.  After smoked mackerel pate, mayonnaise and garlic bread pate we chose the specials – chunky white marlin, wahoo (tastes a bit like chicken – see photo above) and quite simply the best tuna steak I have ever eaten.  Accompanied by some citrusy Spanish white wine and crusty bread rolls it was a sublime meal.  It was the wahoo that produced the “whoo” from my son, perfectly summing up the delicious food on Gran Canaria!

Fish meal at Grill Costa Mar, Puerto Rico on Gran Canaria

We stayed at the luxurious Holiday Club Sol Amadores on Gran Canaria.  They are members of the Timeshare trade body Resort Development Organisation.  and their owners can stay in a wide variety of different properties around the world.

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