December 14, 2012 5:52 pm

My best discovery of 2012

From sea kayaking in West Cork to curry in Cuba, FT travel contributors reveal their favourite finds of the year
Festival goers at Portmeirion, Wales©Danny North

Festival goers at Portmeirion, Wales

Jan Morris: A rock festival in Snowdonia

Undoubtedly my grand surprise of 2012 happened close to home. A few miles up the coast from our house in Wales is the celebrated folly-village of Portmeirion, founded in the 1920s by architect Clough Williams-Ellis as a sort of merry architectural object-lesson, and a cock of the snook at philistine development. Clough was a friend, and I have loved his creation, warts and all, for 60 years and more. I laugh at its eccentricities, I relish its chutzpah, I share its ideology, I bask in its lovely setting beside the sea, and I use it as a kind of club.

Imagine my shock, then, when one day in 2012 I learnt a rock festival was to be staged there. Shock and horror! The noise of it, the churned-up mud, the inexplicable music, the yobs and the trendies and the inevitable mess! Even the name of the jamboree, Festival No 6, antagonised me: No 6 was the central character of cult TV series The Prisoner, filmed in Portmeirion in the 1960s. To my mind the series has been over-exploited there ever since. What a degradation, I thought, of so civilised a concept. Clough would surely be turning in his grave, and as time passed I could hardly bear to look at the sprawling marquees and pavilions that, week by week, threatened to transform poor Portmeirion into another Glastonbury.

Lo, to complete my cynical discomfiture, I was invited to appear at the festival myself. It was to be, I was assured, not just a rock festival, but a sort of multicultural one too, and perhaps I would care to give a talk about Clough, and the real meaning of Portmeirion? I felt it my duty to accept, stifled my scepticism, and braced myself for a grim ordeal. So, on a horribly wet and windy evening in September, I enjoyed my surprise.

It was marvellous. My audience in the seaside tent was not only kind but wonderfully perceptive. If there were yobs around, they were invariably polite. If there was noise from the innumerable bands, it was genuinely festive.

The village was transformed, not by crudity but by a real sense of fellowship and enjoyment, and the miscellaneous weirdos who wandered cheerfully around with backpacks and guitars perfectly suited, I thought, the more subtly subversive of Portmeirion’s purposes. Far from upsetting old Clough, a born non-conformist himself, the whole spectacle would surely have exhilarated him.

When I go back now, there is hardly a sign that the festival ever happened, so thorough has been the clean-up and the restoration. And, like nearly everyone else around here I am much looking forward to Festival No 6, 2013.

Next year’s festival runs from September 13 to 15. Visitors can camp, or stay at Portmeirion’s two hotels or in the cottages throughout the village

. . .

Paul Theroux: An African escape

My revelation in 2012 was a prime destination and the best way of getting there. Cape Town, between the swooping green flanks of Table Mountain and the aqueous glitter of Table Bay, is for its heights and cliffs, the only city in Africa with a claim to grandeur. I visited for the first time when I wrote Dark Star Safari (2002), but it was the end of my journey from Cairo and I didn’t linger. This year I returned and lingered, and I discovered it to be a city of great hotels and superb restaurants.

Flying in 2012
Busiest routes
Between  

Flights per day in 2012

 

Change from 2011

Seoul Gimpo and Jeju, S. Korea 166 5%
Sydney and Melbourne, Australia 147 8%
Sao Paulo and Rio, Brazil 130 2%
Tokyo and Sapporo, Japan 124 0%
Mumbai and Delhi, India 110 -7%

In the city centre, the Taj hotel is elegant, with the best Indian restaurant in town, the Bombay Brasserie. It is also near the venerable Company Gardens and great shopping, as well as the antique shops on Church Street (authentic African artefacts rather than tourist items), and the open-air markets. On the harbour, the Cape Grace hotel is within walking distance of the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront shops and is itself a destination for gourmets and drinkers (with 400 varieties of whisky in its downstairs bar). The hotels in Cape Town’s adjacent wine lands, in Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl, are world class.

Cape Town is distant, a daunting journey from the US. I sometimes think there is nothing to like about air travel. But that was before I discovered Emirates. In business class I had a cubicle that resembled the sort of roomette I had enjoyed on the best railway trains. The food and service were excellent. But the significant feature for me was the seat that, at one electronic command, converts to a flat bed. At almost 80in, and with a goose down comforter, it is perfect for sound sleep, the sort of rest that is helpful to someone about to embark on the splendours of Cape Town.

See www.capetown.travel, www.tajcapetown.co.za and www.capegrace.com. Business class fares from New York to Cape Town on Emirates cost from $5,607 return

. . .

Sophy Roberts: A wilderness playground

Before I even reached Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, a remote tented camp on the westernmost rim of Canada’s Vancouver Island, I knew it was right by the length of the indemnity form. The small print gave warning of the “many risks, dangers and hazards, including, but not limited to being bucked off, kicked, stepped on, trapped under, bitten or otherwise injured by a horse ... Being hit by a skeet or a portion of a skeet ... stray bullets ... and collision with animals.” It was the perfect place to take my eight-year-old, Danny. Like others of his age, he was increasingly turning to computers for adventure.

The hazards set in earlier than expected when Danny walked in his sleep at our stopover hotel in Vancouver; he was found at 3am trying to get into the wrong room on the wrong floor by hotel security. Then came the bears, which are everywhere at Clayoquot. Thus, on the first night, I put chairs, books and glasses by our tent’s zippered entrance to wake me should my son wander.

Little did I realise that within 24 hours, Danny would be unable to do anything but curl up beside me and sleep like he’d never done before in our luxury tent, with its wood-burning stove, wood-panelled bathroom, oil lamps and elegant furniture.

Not that such sybaritic luxuries, including the food, wine and spa, are the main draw. Clayoquot is about canoeing, whitewater rafting, paintballing, hiking, rock-climbing and riding. It’s about deep-sea fishing for enormous Pacific salmon – plucked out of the ocean with the ease I used to catch sticklebacks in streams – and taking long hikes among trees that seem to breathe a different air to the rest of the planet. It’s about watching bears crunch on juicy crab, and smelling whales as they breach and belch in front of the prow. It’s about cedars that predate the Normans, and ferns bursting up from forest beds like the shuttlecocks of giants. Clayoquot is at the heart of a Unesco World Biosphere Reserve just an hour’s floatplane journey from Vancouver.

Add to this the dynamic staff who manage activities, and one’s children are lost to the wild. A normally cautious boy, Danny would return at lunch and dinner to tell me about a new summit he’d scaled as we feasted on the most perfect lobster, salmon cooked on the open fire, or sweet, Fanny Bay oysters.

Not once did he bring up the fact he’d been frisked on arrival for his Nintendo. Which is why I intend to return with my husband in May next year – the perfect digital detox for adults before the kids’ holidays set in.

A week’s all-inclusive package at Clayoquot Wilderness Resort costs from C$9,450 per adult, C$4,725 per child. It opens from May 19-September 29 2013

. . .

Tim Moore: A technological awakening

As an unavoidable condition of writing a book about it, I spent the summer riding 2,125 miles around Italy on a 100-year-old bicycle. Just before setting off, my publishers coerced me into tweeting strada-side updates, suggesting an iPad as the ideal tool. I wasn’t having that: too big, too heavy and too annoying. There are few more horrible modern spectacles than some tourist holding aloft his digital tea-tray to photograph a holiday scene. An iPad would be an over-sized, over-priced thief-magnet, and seemed poorly adapted to the rigours of life aboard a wooden-wheeled bicycle with brakes made of wine corks.

Busiest airports
   

Total seats on departing flights

Change from 2011
Atlanta 55.7m 1%
Beijing Capital 52.2m 6%
London Heathrow 47.2m 0%
Tokyo Haneda 44.9m -1%
Chicago O’ Hare 40.6m -3%
 Source: OAG Aviation

My eventual choice was a no-name 7in Android, delivered from Hong Kong via eBay. Its Kindle-sized case packed the two essential features that were (and curiously remain) a rare combo in compact branded rivals three times the price: the facility to accept a 3G SIM card, and a micro SD slot. It also had the build quality of a petrol-station calculator but at £99 there was little to lose. I stuck it in a pound-shop neoprene sleeve, and then in a period-style leather pouch slung from my bike’s rusty crossbar. Twinned with a £10-a-month Italian data SIM, it proved a terrific assistant. I’d been dreading the faff of perusing and resizing photos from my proper camera via the SD slot, then tweeting them from the middle of some Apennine nowhere. But reception was rarely an issue, and free tools downloaded from the Google store made the nightly routine a pleasure.

The booking.com app checked me into well-reviewed local hotels I would never otherwise have discovered – generally at a large discount – and Google maps directed me to their door. Then I went up to bed and used it to read ebooks about old bicycle races (I was retracing the 1914 Giro d’Italia). In fact, looking back on those long, lonely days in the ancient saddle, I wonder if I fell slightly in love with my Chinese secretary. And though the bike predictably fell to bits, my £99 tablet is still tweeting its little heart out.

. . .

Chris Stewart: A singular mode of transport

I always thought kayaks were for Inuits, the sort of folks who would embark upon the half frozen waters way up above the Arctic Circle in an unbelievably delicate craft and hook a hundred-ton whale. Then, in the inimitable way of these things, the kayak started to impinge more upon my consciousness. Pepe from my local village in Spain showed me his, which had an electric motor; he would cruise around the Cabo de Gata in it. My crazy friend Jasper Wynn took his all the way around the coast of Ireland, surely the most lunatic undertaking conceived by man.

Then I found myself by chance upon the glorious coast of West Cork in Ireland, a place inhabited by the sort of people who manned these boats. I met a man who built his own sea kayaks of wood, like slender, stringless guitars, full of sleekness and grace. There were clubs of these people who would set out cheerfully into the wild beauty of these waters in the most awful conditions, gliding swiftly and seemingly without effort suspended between the tumultuous greys of sea and sky. As a way of getting to grips with the elements it looked like there was nothing to beat it. These people kept company with otters and seals, with basking sharks and dolphins, and chatted happily among themselves as they slipped easily through the waters.

I had to have a go. They gave me a short plastic number, and gracelessly and awkwardly I hurried along in their wakes. Flailing and splashing frenetically, I hobbled along like a berk but I was bitten by the bug. If you dream of the wind and the water and the waves and the wildness of cliffbound coasts with their crags and caves and coves, then the best way to get down and dirty in it is shoe-horned into one of these slender machines and by the sheer power of your arms and shoulders to propel yourself where you will. Alongside the windjammer, the bicycle is probably the most beautifully efficient machine devised by man... but the kayak is surely not too far behind.

A full day kayaking trip with Atlantic Sea Kayaking at Skibbereen, West Cork, costs from €95. It also offers multiday and night trips

. . .

Claire Wrathall: A Tuscan idyll

“What does it feel like to wake up in a Tuscan farmhouse?” Virginia Woolf asked the Anglo-American writer Iris Origo. “Come and see!” she replied.

Born into the same wealthy Europhile milieu as Edith Wharton, Origo is best known for War in Val d’Orcia, the bestselling diary she kept during the German occupation when she risked everything to provide refuge for dozens of orphans and hid a succession of partisans and escaped PoWs. But her other signal achievement was the restoration of La Foce, “a huge property just south of Pienza, looking on one side over the whole of the Val d’Orcia, and on the other most of Umbria”.

In 1924, aged 21, she and her Italian husband, Antonio, bought a derelict 15th-century Renaissance villa, along with 25 near-ruined farms and 3,500 acres. “A lunar landscape pale and inhuman ... a land without mercy and without shade ... treeless as mountains of the moon,” she called it. Together they worked to make it fertile and establish an idealised community, building new farms, a school, nursery, cottage hospital and social club, now a first-rate trattoria run by their granddaughter and still called Dopolavoro (“after work”).

The estate produces olive oil and cereals but its income comes from tourism too. The Origos’ daughters have turned nine outlying farms into secluded villas, converted a medieval fortress into apartments and opened a bed-and-breakfast. You can even rent the main house (which sleeps 19), with its library, fine paintings, antiques, murals and marvellous 1930s bathrooms designed by the underrated British architect Cecil Pinsent, who also created one of the loveliest gardens in Italy.

As it happened Virginia Woolf never made it to La Foce, but waking here and gazing out across this now enchanting landscape towards Monte Amiata, the highest volcano in mainland Italy, felt like perfection to me.

An apartment for two in the castle at La Foce costs from €550 per week. See also www.italia.it

. . .

Anthony Sattin: A flight to remember

I was intending to write about cruising the Nile, because the section between Cairo and Luxor was opened this year for the first time since the 1990s. And then there were the beauties of My Son, one of the many pleasures in Vietnam. But my thoughts keep drifting back to the beginning of the year and Myanmar.

Bagan, Burma©Alamy

This was my first trip to the country formerly known as Burma. I waited a long time for Aung San Suu Kyi to say it was OK to visit, and then some more, so I had to put up with a fair amount of “you should have been here X years ago, it was so much more ... ” That was fine, because what I found still seemed extraordinary. I partied in Yangon, walked in the Shan hills and floated on wonderful Inle Lake. But Bagan is the place that recurs most in my thoughts.

I had an overeager guide and there were times when he overwhelmed me with information (as he did with food when I accepted an invitation to lunch at his family house). There were too many stupas and pagodas to see and there were moments when I longed for more time to consider the view of the Irrawaddy river from the hotel pool. But it was worth every lost moment of sleep to get up before the chill dawn and drive out of town to board a hot-air balloon.

The tea was hot, the ride good, the British crew reassuring and then there was the view. It was spectacular. I saw hundreds of stupas emerge from the gloom, picked out by the first light. For a while they sank below a layer of mist and the smoke from morning fires, before their red tips appeared again above the grey. Worth travelling for, hard to forget.

Flights with Balloons over Bagan cost from $320 per person. See also www.myanmar-tourism.com

. . .

Peter Hughes: An ancient encounter

There may be nothing new under the sun but you can miss a lot right under your nose. Kamiros was one of the three ancient cities of Rhodes, but despite visiting the island half a dozen times, I had never seen its ruins. As Kamiros was there in the 5th century BC, and has been a stop on just about every tour along the west coast since, the failing was mine.

I saw the site at its best, early in the day and late in the season, when there were few others there. I was enraptured. It has been compared with Pompeii, mainly because of the way the buildings seem to have been cut off at the knees but also because the town is sufficiently intact to let your imagination generate images of life 2,500 years ago.

Built into a sun-seared hillside, fringed by pine trees and with the Aegean glittering below, it would have been like a small cathedral city. Kamiros was provincial but rich. Thronged with thousands of statues, bristling with columns, it minted its own coins. Then, as now, it was in a farming area.

At the foot of the hill was the agora, or civic area, with a town square, fountain, public bath and Doric temple. At the top of the slope stood a much more important temple to Athena and, below it, two grand colonnades of shops, the longest in Greece.

But it was the technology I found especially exciting: houses faced with powdered marble – as white as slabs but cheaper – and the whole town served by mains water and sewerage. Rain collected from the roof of Athena’s temple was stored in huge cisterns and then distributed in earthenware pipes. Look carefully and you can see them still – a thrilling discovery alone.

The Greek Ministry of Culture’s website has details of the site. See also www.visitgreece.gr

. . .

Lucia van der Post: An African retreat

I discovered Kenya’s Mfangano Island by accident. I was on my way to somewhere else entirely when all my plans went awry. A two-hour delay at Heathrow meant that an intricate series of connections was missed, and I was suddenly at a loose end in Nairobi for eight days. What to do? Riding to the rescue came the Grammaticus family, owners of Governor’s Camp in the Masai Mara, famous as the place where the BBC’s Big Cat Diaries are filmed, but also, too little-known, the owners of an enchanting camp on Mfangano Island, a little jewel of a place in the middle of Lake Victoria.

I arrived hot and dusty from three drama-filled days watching the migration reach the river just by Governor’s Camp. All day long the wildebeest gathered, moaned, went backwards and forwards, spooked by leopards on one side of the river, fearful of the crocs in the water and the pride of lions waiting on the other and yet knowing they had to cross. It was awesome, nerve-rattling and unforgettable. Peace and tranquillity was what was then required. Mfangano Island delivers it in spades.

The camp has just six rondavels – all with fantastic views across the lake. There’s very little to do but that’s the point and doing very little in blissful weather in a perfect little spot has a charm all its own. For three days I read, watched the birds, ate some of the most elegant food I’ve had in Africa. I had a great massage. I took a boat around the island, stopping off to see Mawanga cave and its thousand-year-old rock art. I could have fished for Nile perch, water-skied or swum in the lake but I didn’t feel the need. I sat overlooking the water with a book in one hand, a gin and tonic in the other and watched the sun go down.

Africa Travel offers a three-night stay at Mfangano Island from £865 per person, including all meals and activities, when booked with a Masai Mara safari

.......................................................................

John Gimlette: Appointment with death

A recurring theme of my travels this year has been death. In August, I described, in these pages, a Peruvian experience; open Inca graves at 3,000m; the recently-discovered corpse of Pizarro in Lima cathedral, and the remarkable sight of 25,000 skeletons stacked up in the city’s San Francisco Monastery.

Most Punctual Airport
5 of flights delayed 15 minutes or more 2012 Change from 2011
Phoenix 6.72% 0%
Las Vegas 8.59% 1%
Los Angeles 13.00% 2%
Denver 13.03% 0%
Munich 13.37% -4%
 *In Europe and the US

But equally intriguing (and rather nearer home) were the mummies of Bremen. Even if you don’t have the stomach for corpses, this north German port is well worth visiting. It’s a fabulously medieval city. All around the Marktplatz is the extravagant flummery of a golden age; cloisters, parapets, guildhouses, and a cathedral more than 1,000 years old. But best of all is the town hall. Vast, turreted, and baubled, here’s Renaissance bling at its most outrageous. Revamped in 1612, it now looks like a mountain of wriggling statues.

But it’s the mummies that leave the most enduring impression. There are eight of them, in the Bleikeller (or Lead Cellar) beneath the cathedral. No one quite knows how they’ve survived the past three centuries; hair, teeth, and nails all intact, and their skin leathery and dark. Shrunken sinews give them a gaping, shocked look. But their surprise is nothing to ours.

The excitement isn’t merely mawkish. Here, you’re peering into the faces of the 18th-century; a student killed in a duel (1705); the city’s chancellor (died 1730), and a labourer, aged 80; a Swedish officer killed in an explosion, and a mysterious woman, thought English, and labelled “Lady Stanhope”. What a remarkable cache of science! One soldier even shows signs of crude but enthusiastic surgery.

After all this, you might need refreshment. Across the Marktplatz, there’s Germany’s oldest coffee house. Better still, beneath the Town Hall, there’s the Ratskeller, established in 1409 with more than 2km of wine racks. The wine list runs to 79 pages. You can even order a flagon from 1653 (although it’ll cost you €10,000). The locals love it here – it may be subterranean and it may all smell like The Morning After but there’s no better place to reassure yourself that you are, still, joyously alive.

.......................................................................

Pico Iyer: Curry in Cuba

Twenty-five years ago, I used to go to Cuba every year, and the joy of it then was the illusion that I had the whole island to myself, touristically speaking. The only other visitors lining up for inedible canned peaches in the grim breakfast room of the Hotel Nacional were pasty-faced Bulgarians on package tours and a pair of North Koreans in dark jackets despite the sweltering heat. Yet the country around us was the most beautiful, the most unfathomable, I had seen.

Most punctual airlines
 

% of flights delayed 15 minutes or more

2012  

Change from 2011

Delta Air Lines 12.82% 0%
US Airways 13.19% -10%
British Airways 14.73% -3%
Air France 14.92% -1%
Lufthansa 14.95% -13%
 Source: OAG Aviation

When I returned this summer, for the first time in 18 years, it was, of course, to find many parts of Old Havana as touristed as Seville; there were hustlers, temporary sweethearts, choruses of “Guantanamera” on every corner. Yet one virtue of the opening doors of the past two decades is that you can now eat well in Havana. I had a surprisingly good dinner at the celebrated paladar (or privately-run restaurant) La Guarida, and good enough meals at two elegant places to which Cuban friends introduced me, Rio Mar and La Galería.

But the unequivocal highlight – and the greatest surprise of all – was to meet Bollywood on the backstreets of Havana’s Nuevo Vedado district. There (opened a year earlier by an enterprising Sri Lankan) was the ideal, cosy, spicy Indian restaurant of one’s dreams, complete with small terrace for taking in the tropical night. Stunning papas Bombay (or curried potatoes), whirling Hindi film music on the soundtrack and decor you could have found on London’s Brick Lane – not to mention prices much lower than elsewhere (good food in Cuba is such a novelty it’s often overpriced) – made for the most savoury culinary experience I’ve had in seven trips to the island.

The pièce de résistance was a gorgeous waitress in salwar kameez and bindi, a super-friendly waiter and a tall man in turban in the street to direct traffic – all appeared to be Indian but turned out to be Cubans, chosen on the grounds that they could pass for Indians.

If only Sri Lankans were allowed to take over the island’s economy, I thought, Cuba might yet again become the playground of the west.

www.laguarida.com

www.facebook.com/restauranteriomar

www.lagaleria-restaurante.com

www.bollywoodhavana.com

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