Barefoot Campsites, Oxfordshire
Campers can start the day with a wild swim at three small riverside sites near Oxford which are next to a safe stretch of the Thames. Those who don’t fancy a dip can hire canoes, and fishing permits are available. The sites offer back-to-basics camping, with no electricity, just gas-fired showers and composting toilets. Campfires and barbecues are encouraged. Visitors can take their own tents and small campervans, or book a bell tent or log pod.
• £12.50pp, May to September, barefootcampsites.co.uk
Best for messing about on the river
This woodland site offers activities on the Findhorn river: canyoning, tubing, cliff jumping, rafting, kayaking and fly-fishing. There are also gorge walks, a disc golf course and paintballing. There’s an outdoor kitchen with two fire pits, woodland showers and composting loos. Campers can pitch their own tents in clearings, or hire a bell tent or shepherd’s hut.
• Pitches in summer from £7 a night adult, £4 child, acehideaways.co.uk
Best for nature
Badgells Wood Camping, Kent
This newish site on the North Downs offers bushcraft sessions at weekends (and on Wednesdays in the summer holidays), that cover fire lighting, shelter building, woodland crafts and archery. More advanced workshops include game preparation and survival skills. In August, a Wild Things camp immerses under-16s in the natural world. The wood is home to rope swings as well as bats and badgers, and a 1km trench is a remnant of the wood’s time as an officer training camp. Tents and small campervans only.
• From £12.50 adult, £6 child, April-October, badgellswoodcamping.co.uk
Best for watersports
Enjoy a jetset break on a camper’s budget at this five-star site with private beach and pitches metres from the sea. It offers sailing, waterskiing, windsurfing, kayaking, paddleboarding and more. It also hosts Scuba Fest, a three-day diving event, each spring. There are two indoor pools, tennis courts and a cycle trail. It is open to tents, caravans and motor homes, and there are mobile homes to rent.
• From £10 a tent, March-October, pentewan.co.uk
Best for adventure
Camp Katur, North Yorkshire
This glampsite on Camp Hill Manor estate has quad biking, segway tours, adventure playground, bushcraft area, treetop adventure course, climbing wall and rope bridge plus zipwire. There is also an outdoor eco spa with wood-fired sauna and hot tub. Accommodation ranges from tipis and bell tents to pods and geodomes – the hobbit pods are good value in autumn.
• From £35 a night for two in a hobbit pod, March-November, campkatur.com
Best for would-be luvvies
Whitecliff Bay, Isle of Wight
Aspiring young performers can attend a four-day (Mon-Thurs) stage school at this beachfront site. Teachers will help them learn musical theatre material , and classes in dancing, singing and acting culminate in a live show. The park also offers a play scheme, and innovative activities such as hoverboards, aqua jets and airbourne archery. It’s open to campers and caravanners, with bell tents, vintage caravans, lodges and chalets to rent.
Six years ago I found a green, cloth-covered hardback book at my parents’ home. The spine read Climbing Days: Dorothy Pilley. Recognising the name, I sat down to read, intrigued; I’d stumbled upon the fabled mountaineering memoir of my great-great aunt.
Endpaper sketch-maps of mountain ranges led on to stories of thrilling ascents, love, camaraderie and derring-do on mountains around the world. It was vivid, packed with incident and humour, strikingly modern and egalitarian. I read it, then asked my father about the author, a woman who, 1935 memoir aside, I knew next to nothing about. The conversation that followed set me on a quest to discover more about Dorothy, or Dorothea as she was within the family, and her amazing mountaineering life and legacy.
Dorothea was born in Camberwell, south London, in 1894 to a family on the up. Her father, a chemist, teacher, and entrepreneur, had amassed a small fortune manufacturing baby food. Dorothea was sent away to the exclusive Queenwood school in Eastbourne to be groomed for a life of top-end housewifery, but promptly rebelled – a trait and spirit which endured.
Dorothy Pilley, right, with her husband Ivor Richards. Photograph: Pilley Family archive
As a young woman she kicked forcefully against the life and choices others thought best and seemly. Eventually, she achieved a level of autonomy through journalism (for, among others, the Daily Express, and periodicals including Lady’s Pictorial, the Englishwoman, and the Pall Mall Magazine) and by working as a secretary for the proto-feminist British Women’s Patriotic League. It was also during this period that she began to escape London to climb in the mountains of north Wales and Skye.
Snowdonia was central to Dorothea’s independent 20s. It was there she learned to climb on the nursery slopes of Tryfan
Snowdonia was central to Dorothea’s independent 20s. It was there, in 1915, that she learned to climb on the nursery slopes of Tryfan and the Idwal Slabs; there, in 1917, that she first met her future husband and climbing partner, the literary critic and scholar IA (Ivor) Richards; and there, in 1921, that she helped found the Pinnacle Club – the world’s first climbing club established by women for women. So it seemed apt that I began there too.
From the moment I decided to research and write about Dorothea, it felt crucial to engage with her mountaineering legacy in a physical way, to climb the routes and peaks she pioneered with Ivor. I travelled first to the Idwal Slabs – a formation the locals call Rhiwiau Caws (Slopes of Cheese). It is a great fist of rock, dark fingers pushing down into the wet earth. I hiked up the A5 from Bethesda in hard rain, then on into the bowl of Cwm Idwal to stand beneath the rhyolite cliffs and watch others climb the slick rocks, soaking up the scene and the sky.
A couple of months later I returned with members of the Pinnacle Club, a chastening and farcical trip: a circular several-mile walk around Ogwen in a deluge. We climbed nothing. Saturated and silent in a steaming car, we drove to their hut in the valley of Nant Gwynant. Drying out by the fire, we looked through their archive of letters and photographs of the club founders. Theclub members were kind and stoical and I was grateful for their hospitality. Several months later, writing up the episode, I discovered a Welsh phrase for such sodden days: Mae hi’n brwr hen wragedd a ffyn – “It’s raining old women and sticks”.
It wasn’t until I took part in a Conville Winter mountaineering course that I felt I’d experienced real mountaineering
In the months that followed, I learned the ropes on crags and walls around the UK in all weathers. However, it wasn’t until I took part in a Conville Winter mountaineering course in the Cairngorms that I felt I’d truly experienced real mountaineering. Run in conjunction with Plas y Brenin, the National Mountain Sports Centre, the Conville courses were established by Jonathan Conville’s family in the wake of his death on the north face of the Matterhorn in 1979. He was 27. A trust was established to provide subsidy and training to young mountaineers so they might enjoy the mountains in greater safety.
Dorothea and Ivor have been described to me as climbing aristocracy, whose feats and reputations spanned generations. To properly follow them it was vital that I learned to climb and belay safely on snow and ice and get to grips with spiky kit, such as axes and crampons. So, stood with a team of fellow Alpine rookies below the cliffs of Coire an t-Sneachda, I was taught to navigate, dig snow holes and take avalanche precautions.
“You need enough in your locker to survive and return to safety if things get out of hand,” explained our instructor, Sammy. This is the crux of the Conville course: that while risk can never be eliminated in the mountains, it can be managed.
“Risk was the salt,” wrote Dorothea, “but he or she would be a stupid cook who thought the more there is of it the better.”
Dorothea was every inch the swashbuckling heroine, a fierce trailblazer, yet always caring
And so, mindful not to be stupid cooks, we set about learning our place within the Cairngorm’s wild sphere.
There followed two trips to the fabled Dent Blanche in Switzerland: a beautiful, savage, massive Sphinx-like peak that forms the apex of Dorothea’s memoir. The first time, I travelled over with my father and we set about the mountain with great zest and enthusiasm but we suffered: poor fitness, altitude sickness, failure to reach the summit, arguments, angry hut guardians and then a benighting. That is a beautiful word but a horrible reality: the light broke down, visibility was low so we stopped for the night, sat on a freezing ledge above Zermatt with an intermittent grandstand view of the Matterhorn. That rather took the shine off the expedition.
My second attempt, made several months later with Swiss guide Jean-Noël Bovier, while far better organised and successful on paper, was equally eventful – and occasionally fractious. He got me to the summit, for which I’ll always be grateful, but at the cost of a thorough dragooning. The climb was a vertiginous boot camp of sarcasm, tough love and swearing. On the descent I fell through a snow cornice and nearly began to descend at a speed incompatible with life. It all happened in a flash but Jean-Noël’s skill and hawser strength saved me. We may have argued, but I love that man, won’t hear a word against him. I can’t thank him enough.
Would Dorothea and Ivor have approved? I hope so. They were fantastic climbers, but at the same time, wonderfully droll, funny people with a strong sense of the ridiculous. Dorothea was every inch the swashbuckling heroine, a fierce trailblazer, yet always caring. I hope they would have been pleased that I went out to meet them in their element. I grew to love and value them enormously along the way.
“It is the reverberation of one’s life among them,” wrote Dorothea of the mountains, “In each case the sense of an uncapturable significance will arise, and its secret – for the mountaineer as for any pilgrim passion – is almost an open one. Therein, reflected, is the experience of being ardently alive.’
Voodoo ray’s, dalston
There are three important ingredients for successful late-night food: it needs to be quick, delicious and fun. No one wants to sit down for a six-course, white-tablecloth meal at 1.30am and pay attention to their table manners. You want something tasty and you want it fast. And you don’t want anyone telling you to stop laughing so loudly. Voodoo Ray’s lives up to this because it serves pizza by the slice, a post-midnight pizza special and a solid drinks list – as well playing excellent music. Inside white subway tiles and flickering neon lights rebound the always-incredible disco/dance/electro/better-music-than-most-nearby-clubs playlist. It never feels like it’s overrun by super-smashed vampire clubbers. It’s full of the usual Dalston crowd of overgrown tweens dressed like Full House extras, drag queens, off-duty witches, people who freelance for Vice and people in search of an amazing slice of pizza before, or after, heading out. They have far-above-average toppings such as fennel chilli sausage and bacon dust, and it named a pizza after Giorgio Moroder. That’s a pizza mic drop right there.
• voodoorays.com. Open Mon-Wed 5pm-midnight, Thurs 5pm-1am, Fri-Sat noon-3am, Sun noon-10pm
Brittney Bean, co-founder of Mother Clucker
Spuntino has a grungy, Edward Hopper-ish quality that is perfect for night owls. Squatting in one of Soho’s still ungentrified corners, it doesn’t announce its presence with anything other than an understated number 61. You perch on stools round a central bar where cool, beautiful people knock up punchy cocktails and deliver food that’s perfect for the late-night reveller: sliders, delicate pizzette, perhaps the capital’s finest, fromage-iest macaroni cheese, oozing and bubbling in its cast iron skillet and laced with at least three different cheeses. Sophisticated versions of diner classics, with an occasional Italian accent is the house style. Despite being owned by the same people as the ever-expanding Polpo chain, Spuntino retains the air of a rackety insiders’ secret.
• spuntino.co.uk. Open Mon-Wed 11.30am-midnight, Thurs-Sat 11.3am-1am, Sun 11.30am-11pm
Marina O’Loughlin, Guardian restaurant critic
Bob Bob Ricard, Soho
It can be hard to find somewhere good to eat late at night in London. One of the reasons we opened Duck & Waffle as a 24-hour restaurant was to give people somewhere decent to go after hours – away from a nightclub or kebab shop. I love late-night dining at Bob Bob Ricard. It’s so elegant, chic and understated; inside are beautiful booths that are perfect for an intimate gathering but the restaurant doesn’t feel pretentious or stuffy. It also has “press for champagne” buttons in each booth – lethal when you’ve already had one too many. The menu has mainly Russian dishes but there are British and French influences too. One of my favourite things is the “iconic” steak tartare, which is made with foie gras and capers. I also like to get a couple of the smaller dishes, especially the oysters and lobster dumplings, and, of course, champagne. Eating there can get expensive but it doesn’t need to be; the house champagne isn’t going to bankrupt you but, compared with a kebab and a can of coke, it’s definitely a treat. Bob Bob Ricard is the kind of place you go on a whim but that’s the wonder of it.
• bobbobricard.com. Open daily, 12.30pm-3pm and 6pm-midnight; Fri and Sat 5.30pm-1am
Dan Doherty, executive chef at 24-hour restaurant the Duck and Waffle
Beigel Bake, Brick Lane
I’ve just had a kid, so it’s not often enough I find myself in the state, or the area, for Brick Lane’s Beigel Bake. But there have definitely been times I’ve been tempted to drive down after work and get something. It’s open 24 hours a day and makes its own bagels. It’s comforting to know you can go there any time and get something to eat. It’s usually exactly what you’re looking for at that time: hot salt beef, loads of mustard and bread. Sometimes I go off piste and get a salmon and cream cheese … but it never hits the same spot. You get an eclectic mix of people in there. Sometimes it can be a bit scary, other times a good vibe. But the staff have a good way of dealing with people. You get a few people asking for money, so you might give them half your bagel. It’s never quiet or empty. That area has changed a lot over the years but hopefully, it’s got the strength to stand the test of time.
• On Twitter. Open daily, 24 hours
Lee Tiernan, chef-owner, Black Axe Mangal
Meat Liquor, W1
I have a long history with Meat Liquor’s green chilli cheeseburger, having taken my first bite in a Peckham car park back in 2009, when the future restaurant was just a burger van. There was this guy inside (Yianni Papoutsis) going on about frying the chillies in butter and proportions of fat to meat; I knew then I was onto a good thing, and it’s still my favourite burger in London. If I’m in town, past midnight, then I’m inevitably drunk and it’s all I can think about. I head for theBond Street branch, a dark cavern of neon, graffiti, noise and meat-smoke. The burger arrives rustling in tissue paper, a frosty beer on the side. I’m no burger bore but there’s serious attention to detail here, and it shows. A glorious, messy fix.
• meatliquor.com. Open Mon-Thurs noon-midnight, Fri-Sat 11am-2am, Sun noon-11am
Helen Graves, writer at Food Stories
Ranoush Juice, Marylebone
Sometimes, I want somewhere to go and hang after a bar or pub, or even the theatre (I’d love to add club but I fear those days are over). You’re most likely to find me eating in Ranoush Juice when I’m drunk, in town and hungry for good food. I was bought up in Paddington, just off the Edgware Road. From the age of 15, when I started going out, Ranoush Juice was the place my sister Cora and I would end up. Despite living in Hackney now, I’ve been known to pitstop there for a takeaway in the middle of the night on many occasions. It’s essentially a Middle Eastern/Lebanese shawarma bar, but the shawarma is great and the vibe is bouncing. The decor is stripped-back and very neon and metallic, but it’s filled with fruits for the juice and different Lebanese treats on the counter. I will always get a shawarma wrap, as it comes with extra garlic and chill sauce, but if I’m eating in I’ll get loads of small plates. I love the hummus with lamb shawarma, the chicken livers and pomegranate, the soujek spicy sausages and a fatoush salad.
After taking a look at www.diamondpartybus.ca I was really psyched about renting one of their busses for a fantastic night out with friends. A lot of my friends have nice places that they either rent or own and throw parties. That’s kind of our thing in our group. Everyone knows that we are all good for a night of fun at various times per year. But with no place of my own to hold any sort of event, I always had to tag along and help one of my friends get out. I really wanted to be responsible to throwing one of the best nights ever on my own. I had no idea how to do that until I came across that website and realized I could do it on a moving vehicle.
I met most of my friends in a fraternity in college. There, we had big events where 100 to 300 people would show up. We had a really large frat house and we had the room for it. But we have scaled down and only invite the most fun and hip people to the get-togethers that we have now. We have to do this because people can get really rowdy and you don’t want complete strangers wrecking your home. So, renting something seemed like a good idea to me. No moveable furniture that can be picked up and thrown. Everything is secured to the wall or flor very securely. Also, there’s only enough room for about 15 people, so that would keep down invite list to a respectable number.
After I rented one and we partied all night, everyone talked about it for many weeks to come. Other friends said that they felt it would be better if they got a bus in the future instead of inviting people to their own residences. The idea really caught on, and now we have parties while rolling through the city about 5 times per year.
In a nutshell
This castle, built by William the Conqueror, is now in the hands of Merlin Entertainments (owner of mega attractions such as Legoland, Alton Towers, Sea Life Centres and the London Eye). The site has been turned into a theme park but the epic stronghold, one of the finest in the country, remains the centrepiece.
The castle has joined forces with the Horrible Histories gang, which has added an “adventure maze” and a comedy show telling the 1,000-year history of the castle in a half-hour play. With six history zones (from a Viking ship to first world war trenches), the maze is good fun for younger children, though the foliage needs time to mature – we could see through several hedges at a time. The two-man play is clever and very funny but much of it went over the head of my seven-year-old, George.
Best thing about it
For younger kids, the castle comes to life in activities (included in the price) such as a the falconry display, fun swordsmanship workshop, and guided tours specifically for four-eight-year-olds in which they see a real secret passage (and George was chosen to dress up as a knight in real chain mail). And though it’s been given the Merlin treatment (stalls selling toy swords at every turn and piped medieval music in the garden) the castle interior itself is still gobsmackingly impressive.
As well as four periods as a crown property under seven monarchs, there have been 30-plus owners of the castle: at least three died in battle, two were executed and one murdered.
What about lunch?
Sadly, there are no medieval banquets or hogs roasting on spits (surely an opportunity missed?), just the uninspired fast food found at all Merlin attractions. Best take a picnic and eat on the banks of the river Avon, which flows through the lovely grounds.
Exit through the gift shop?
Absolutely no way of avoiding it.
Warwick station, on the London Marylebone-Birmingham line, is a mile from the castle. And it’s only two miles off the M40 – the car park is an extra £6-£10.
Every day from 10am until 5pm (4pm in winter).
Value for money?
Yes, if you book five or more days in advance at £18pp (at the gate it’s £25.20 adult and £22.20 child). You could easily spend a whole day here and many kids’ activities are included. We had to leave after four hours, which wasn’t long enough to see everything.
In a nutshell
Do fish sleep? This is the perfect opportunity to finally put to bed all those awkward questions your kids have about life beneath the waves. The National Marine Aquarium (NMA) is now opening its doors at night so you can take in the rarely seen, nocturnal goings on in the UK’s biggest aquarium attraction.
Best thing about it
The fact that you and your kids can bed down in front of the Atlantic Ocean tank – the deepest in the UK, and populated with lemon, sand tiger and nurse sharks, as well as an array of rays. So don’t forget your sleeping bags, pillows and toothbrushes. Airbeds are a must for a comfortable night, too. But leave your PJs at home – go for something more practical, like shorts and a T-shirt.
Sharks can be soporific. Rather than raising stress levels, researchers at the aquarium have found that watching their effortless swimming displays can be sleep-inducing.
What about lunch?
Breakfast, you mean. Served at the Ocean View Café, overlooking Plymouth’s historic Barbican harbour. Included in the ticket price, a selection of cereals, toast and yoghurt is enough to satisfy the hungriest jaws. There’s also a midnight snack of popcorn and ice-cream once the previous evening’s activities are done, and everyone settles down to watch a movie in the huge space in front of the Eddystone Reef tank. For anyone still awake at the end (none of my lot made the final credits) there’s the option to sleep in front of the Atlantic Ocean exhibit. Incredibly, nothing but the sharks stirred until 7am the following day.
Exit through the gift shop?
Opens early for those who want to snap up a cuddly lemon shark before they leave; and by putting your hand in your pocket you will help the aquarium, a self-funded charity and one of the leading marine conservation institutions in Europe.
Drive into Plymouth and you’ll be reeled in by brown and white fish signs on all the city’s entry roads. Plymouth train station is a 15-minute walk from the aquarium.
There are three remaining dates available this year: Friday 3 June, Friday 12 August and Friday 28 October. It brings a whole new meaning to fish on a Friday.
Adult £30, child (5-15) £40. You can book for £30 a head as a private group for 50-plus children, with one free, supervising adult per 10 children.
Value for money?
Adults won’t begrudge the cost because upon arrival (6.30pm onwards) you will be met by a team of impossibly energetic, engaging and very well-informed “hosts”, who somehow manage to remember the names of all the children (up to 90) in their care. They’ll keep them (and you) hooked until the late-night movie with interactive talks in front of the tanks, with their subjects swimming by almost on cue. And there’s just enough gross-out marine life facts to keep young and old engaged until bedtime.
Merida cable car, venezuela
After years of closure, the world’s highest and second-longest cable car reopened earlier this year. This epic piece of engineering was built in the 1960s to take passengers on the 12.5km journey from Mérida to 4,756-metre Espejo Peak. It was closed in 2008, but modernisation works did not begin until 2011. In April this year it came back into operation and passengers can take a vertigo-inducing ride to its final station above the clouds.
Peak 2 Peak gondola, British Columbia, Canada
Another record-breaker (the longest free span between ropeway towers – 3.03 km, if you’re wondering), this cable car in Canada’s Pacific Coast Ranges offers passengers 360-degree views as they float between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. With a panorama encompassing volcanic peaks, coastal rainforest and glaciers – as well as the chance of spotting a black bear – an 11-minute ride will barely seem long enough. Summer and autumn activities in Whistler itself range from hiking the countless trails to mountain-top alfresco dining.
Want to feel the wind in your hair as you ride through the sky? A bit like the cable car equivalent of an open-top bus, the Cabrio cable car has two decks, with the roofless upper deck providing unbeatable photo opportunities of Lake Lucerne below, unobstructed by glass panes or even the cables themselves, which are connected to the sides of the car. The route up to the 1,900-metre Stanserhorn starts on an 120-year-old funicular railway; the Cabrio makes the final trip to the summit, where the panoramic theme can continue with dinner at the Rondorama revolving restaurant.
Mi Teleférico, Bolivia
While many cable cars (especially those of the 360-degree rotating variety), are designed as a tourist novelty, some provide vital transportation. This is the case in La Paz, which launched its ambitious cable car system in 2014 in response to the city’s overwhelming traffic problems. The route, which travels from La Paz to the even-higher-altitude city of El Alto (at 4,150 metres), affords passengers an impressive view of the city and the Andes. Gliding above the rooftops, the red, yellow and green gondolas are a great – and affordable – way to see the cities from a different perspective, while it’s also worth thinking about the cable car’s role in the lives of the citizens who use it.
Tianmen mountain, China
There’s a certain intensity to the mountains in Hunan province, which rise from the ground in steep, dramatic columns. There’s lots of opportunity for visitors to test their fear of heights, with a 1,400-metre-high cliffside walkway and three glass skywalks, the most recent of which opened last month (and then promptly closed down again to undergo “an internal system upgrade”). It also has the world’s longest cable car ride, which takes 30 minutes to travel 7km and concludes with an incredibly steep 37-degree drop. Passengers look down across the forest-covered valley and can see the notorious 99 bends road – a winding mountain route leading to Tianmen cave, a gaping hole in a rock wall, better known as Heaven’s Door.
Genting Skyway, Malaysia
Flying over lush tropical rainforest, the Genting Skyway is south-east Asia’s longest cable car. Opened in 1997, it carries passengers in brightly coloured, eight-person gondolas up from a base station at Gohtong Jaya to the Resort Hotel in the Genting Highlands, skimming over the jungle canopy below. Since its also south-east Asia’s fastest cable car, the 3.38km journey is a quick one, taking just 11 minutes to reach the top.
For most visitors, Málaga is simply a gateway to the beach resorts of the Costa del Sol, with few venturing far from the airport or into the city. Well, they’re all missing a trick because this once-shabby port has undergone something of a reinvention. There’s a sparkling new waterfront and millions of euros have been pumped into the art scene, thanks to mayor Francisco de la Torre’s vision to turn his city into a cultural hub, with a branch of the Parisian Pompidou Centre among the latest museum openings.
The Alcazaba fortress, Málaga’s more modest answer to Granada’s Alhambra, sits proudly in the historic centre – a maze of gardens and fountains – and above it 10th-century Gibralfaro castle stands guard over the coast. Round the corner lies the vast Renaissance cathedral, nicknamed La Manquita (“one-armed woman”) because its south tower was mysteriously left unbuilt.
While the city beaches are nothing to write home about, the food definitely is. The subtropical climate and maritime location mean there’s plentiful fresh produce, exceptional local wine, melt-in-the-mouth jamón and top seafood – the locals are nicknamed boquerones (anchovies) because of the quantities they eat. There are countless great bars and restaurants, and more opening all the time, but eat late if you don’t want to look like a tourist – Malagueños go out late, and dining after 10pm is the norm.
With dozens of low-cost flights a week, Málaga ticks all the boxes for an alternative city break or a stopover on the way to a beach holiday. It’s just surprising more people haven’t cottoned on yet.
You can’t turn a corner without finding a museum in Málaga: there are over 30 here. The newly opened Pompidou Centre is that museum’s first foray out of France. It’s entered via a striking, giant glass cube and houses permanent and temporary contemporary exhibitions (€7, under-18s free, centrepompidou-malaga.eu).
The brand new Collection of the Russian Museum in an old tobacco factory is also impressive – five rooms tell the tale of Russian art over five centuries, with works from the state museum in St Petersburg (€6, under-18s free,coleccionmuseoruso.es).
Next door is the Automobile Museum, which is surprisingly fascinating even for non-petrol-heads as, alongside the vintage and modern cars, high fashion from the 1920s-50s is on display (€7.50, under-threes free,museoautomovilmalaga.com).
Of course, the city is proud of its links with Picasso, who was born here. Besides his childhood home, the Picasso Museum (€7, museopicassomalaga.org, under-18s free) in a restored palace is a must-visit with over 200 sculptures, drawings and ceramics by the artist. A temporary exhibition of Louise Bourgeois (noted for her giant spider sculptures) runs until 27 September, too. If that’s not enough, theCarmen Thyssen (€6, carmenthyssenmalaga.org) showcases 19th-century Spanish art and, for cutting-edge curating, head to the brilliant Contemporary Art Centre (free, cacmalaga.eu) in the Soho district – shows by Brit urban artistD*Face and Korean street artist Shepard Fairey run until 27 September.
Besides the grand, marble-paved main shopping street Marqués de Larios, where shoppers can find high-street and designer names at bargain prices, thanks to the weak euro, Málaga is a treat for those who like discovering little independent boutiques. Calle Andrés Pérez, in what was a run-down part of town, is also a good place to browse. The shops and restaurants clubbed together to clean up the street and pay for street lights. Top finds include organic clothing at ColorHueso(no 7), antiques at Patio Almanzora (no 5) and vintage goods at Quasipercaso (no 1). For beautiful handmade jewellery, try P&C in the old centre (Calle Santa María 13).
The newly hip Soho district is being turned into an open-air gallery by the Maus(Málaga Arte Urbano Soho) project which has invited big-name international artists to create artwork on the city’s walls. There are giant animal murals by the Belgian Roa, pop-art style creations by D*Face and smaller works by local artists. More work to be added by Kenny Scharf, Aryz and Abraham Lacalle soon. Pick up a map and explore by yourself or join a guided tour by CAC (three free tours at 10, 11 and 12 on Mondays). For another alternative arty experience head to Plaza De Jesus de La Pasion, where artist Valerio “fishes for people” by dangling a rose and a note inviting guests to his studio to have their eye sketched for free for his “Eyecylopedia” or just to browse his work. Valerio is the man behind an alternative “art currency” circulating in the city – “the Valerio”, notes made from his printed etchings are being accepted by a range of “wholesome” businesses, from yoga studios to cafes (valeriogentile.net).
Italy offers so much to holidaymakers: food and wine, art and architecture, high peaks and bosomy Tuscan hills, but relatively few Brits come here for sun and sand. To UK tastes, Italy simply doesn’t do seaside very well: beaches are often given over to hotel and bar concessions, with rows of sunbeds differentiated only by the colour of their umbrellas and the trashiness of their euro-pop. Only a corner at the least attractive end will be spiaggia libera – for people who just want to rock up and lie on a towel.
Sardinia isn’t like that: lists of the island’s best beaches run into the hundreds, and there are many more unnamed coves and wedges of white, silver or golden sand around its 1,000km-plus of coastline, peninsulas and islands. Some popular beaches are concessionised – though even these tend to be so spacious that plenty of spiaggia libera remains. There are wild beaches for those prepared to tote their own supplies, but most have a shack selling drinks, ice-creams and snacks.
And if you think Sardinia is expensive, think again. Its image is skewed by the Costa Smeralda, an undeniably beautiful area in the north-east around the town of Porto Cervo, developed by the Aga Khan in the 1960s. Its rash of yachting, golfing, millionaire-style development has spread as far as Palau in the north and south towards Olbia. But elsewhere, from the Catalan-flavoured north-west to the south’s white dunes, from the rocky east to sometimes surfable west, Sardinia’s coast offers space, surprisingly low prices (though accommodation costs jump in August) and a friendly welcome – particularly in these euro-critical times, when fewer Italians can afford a trip. Add budget flights to Alghero, Cagliari and Olbia, ancient villages, nuraghe (neolithic remains) for history buffs, and all the pizza, artisanal gelato and great-value wine you’d expect, and Sardinia is the perfect holiday island. Here are a few coastal favourites, with places to sleep and eat.
East of the island’s capital, Cagliari, beaches suffer from proximity to the city and the SP71 coast road. But an hour’s drive west and south – blue sea on your left, flamingo-dotted lagoons on your right – is ridiculously fortunate Chia. For a little resort to have not one perfect crescent of pale sand but five can only be called greedy. Even better, the beaches are backed by a strip of protected dunes, so there’s barely a building visible from the shore; most holiday homes and hotels cluster on a hillside a mile away.
The central beach, Campana, slopes gently into clear water and has several bars (with sunbeds) plus windsurf and kayak hire, but the most impressive is huge Su Giudeu to the west, on a spit between lagoon and sea, its couple of bar concessions lost in the wide soft sands. My favourite is eastern Su Portu, under the stone watchtower. One end is slightly stony at the water’s edge, but its intimate size and almost circular shape make up for that.
Another hour round the coast, linked by causeway to the “mainland”, is the laid-back island of Sant’Antioco. From the harbour, steep streets lead to the old town and one of Europe’s oldest churches, fifth-century Sant’Antioco. It’s worth paying €5 to tour the Roman, Punic and early Christian catacombs, complete with frescoes, and at a pleasant year-round 18C. Young guide Marco told us how there are catacombs under the whole old town, and one elderly resident uses those below her house as cool summer sleeping quarters – cheaper than aircon.
South of the causeway, Maladroxia beach is justly popular, if narrow by Sardinian standards, but the town of Calasetta, on Sant’Antioco’s northern tip, is almost as well-favoured as Chia, with three white-sand bays in increasing sizes. The one nearest Calasetta, Sottotorre, is a pretty, perfect locals’ beach, with clear water and no concessions – but it’s worth driving a few kilometres to Le Saline andSpiaggia Grande, with their wide sweeps of sand, barely a building in sight, and free parking.
Calasetta’s grid of 18th-century streets is also home to a modern art gallery, theMACC (Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Calasetta, via Savoia 2, €3, open 6-9pm only). Nearby, Piazzale Torre has a 1756 watchtower, a great setting for sunset yoga classes (7.30pm Tuesdays and Thursdays), and there are great views towards San Pietro island from the belevedere, where oldsters chat on granite benches still warm from the day’s sun.
Where to eat
The outdoor restaurant at Torre Chia campsite (pizzas from €4, fish mains from €10, +39 070 92 30 054, via del Porto 21, campeggiotorrechia.com) behind Su Portu beach is a good budget choice. Sardinians are less fixated on carb-heavyprimi piatti than the mainlanders: it’s normal to leap straight from (substantial) antipasto to the main meat or fish event. A shared fish antipasto of six little plates was €9 and felt like a main meal.
You can dine on fish with your feet almost in the sand at Calasetta’s La Caletta(mains from €15, Via Sotto Torre 22, +39 345 253 3184), but we also enjoyed an evening in the hubbub of the central square. A few streets back on aptly named Piazza Belly, portions at Il Pirata (+39 078 188 025) were huge, service chaotic but friendly, and dinner for two with wine under €50. Try fregola sarda (pasta balls) with seafood sauce, and mussels with fresh tomato.
High in the Sierra Madre mountains, 280 miles north of Mexico City and well off the usual tourist trail, is one of the biggest and least-known artistic monuments of the 20th century. Las Pozas (the pools) was the eccentric vision of the wealthy British poet Edward James. An early sponsor of Dali and Magritte, between 1949 and 1984, James spent millions creating a “Surrealist Xanadu”, with Mexican follies sculpted from concrete to ensure their longevity in the rainforest.
The sprawling Las Pozas involves meandering across open bridges, past bamboo thickets and the crashing river to explore structures with names like The House on Three Floors Which Will in Fact Have Five or Four or Six, The House with a Roof like a Whale, and The Staircase to Heaven.
Venture through a round doorway and up the Road of the Seven Deadly Sins guarded by mosaic snakes and giant lilies, or climb the stairs that wrap around the open platforms of the Bamboo Palace to glimpse a waterfall in the distance while being serenaded by a deafening cricket chorus. Narrow paths weave among moss-covered ornate arches and towers on the 80-acre site, and huge abstract sculptures and staircases lead nowhere, but up to the sky.
In 2007, the Fondo Xilitla foundation bought the site to conserve the sculptures and to protect the surrounding land and gardens. Now workers ensure structures, with their flower-shaped arches and towering pillars topped with giant leaves, aren’t reclaimed by the ever-encroaching jungle foliage. James, who kept a menagerie of exotic animals here and put his need to build huge towers down to “pure megalomania”, never completed his tropical shrine to surrealism but his fantasy realm remains a joy to explore.
It must have been the summer of 1994 when I witnessed people dancing in pairs, actually a sort of 1950s rock’n’roll jive, to Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. I was 18 and being initiated into the dark art of drinking neat vodka by a bonfire on a moonlit beach.
That could have been why everything seemed so funny. The dancing. The vodka. The moon. Finding out that our hangovers had started before we had even passed out. Finding out that the only local hangover cure is offal stew. The whole experience was very childish. It put me off vodka for life – and has always brought me back to the Polish coast.
My late father came from Poland and met my mother, whose own parents had come from Ireland, in London. I was born and grew up in England and first travelled to Poland with my parents in 1978, as a two-year-old. But when I was old enough, I made it my own. As a youth, the country was the gateway to my “wild east”. It’s that other Europe where there are fewer rules and more adventures; where I fell into work as a foreign correspondent, partly thanks to the Guardian’s late Ian Traynor. That brought me further east, and the sort of experiences that as an infant Tintin fan I had only ever dreamed of.
Now, as a 40-year-old man visiting the prosperous and occasionally luxurious Poland (yes, really), it’s odd to imagine how harsh life was on our earlier visits. By bringing my mother to the country’s maritime resort of Sopot (in northern Poland on the Baltic) on a middle-aged, middle-class, working vacation, I’m not burning that ghost. I’m taking it out for a meal in a fancy restaurant.
Looking from the lighthouse onto the promenade along the south beach and Baltic Sea shores in the spa Sopot in Pomerania, Poland
The promenade along the south beach. Photograph: Hilke Maunder/Alamy
When you have the whole Mediterranean to choose from, the very idea of a Polish Riviera seems laughable. And yes, there is snow on the beach in January. But on 17 September last year, Sopot’s mercury hit 28C in the shade. Because like its people, Poland’s weather can be inexplicably hot, as well as utterly miserable. At least, like them, it is rarely boring.
The pier’s a simple walkway into the sea, with moorings and cafes instead of sugary souvenirs and scary fairground games
Poland normally has a chilly spell in late August, followed by a złota jesień (golden autumn). It’s something akin to the UK’s fabled Indian summer, which this year is proving anything but elusive. It is often heralded by a blood moon and is glorious, not just for the endless forests of copper and golden leaves. There is also an amber light created by a sun that is lower in the sky; and most importantly, heat.
Most foreigners who visit Sopot go because of some personal reason. A British man with a Polish wife who misses her homeland; an Irish IT worker living in Kraków who misses the sea; a German with heritage in the area, perhaps with nostalgia for the pre-war, German-speaking Zoppot of Günter Grass and, before him, the Kaiser. There is also a contingent of marauding Scandinavians, who maintain the tradition of sailing across the Baltic to pick up cheap Polish alcohol and thrills. The rest, and there are many, are mostly Poles seeking value that cannot be found in Spain, Greece, or for that matter, Brighton.
For as far as sea-towns go, Sopot is refined. First of all there is the wooden pier, the longest in Europe. It is a pleasant, simple walkway into the open sea, with moorings and cafes as opposed to sugary souvenirs and scary fairground games. Much of the city’s architecture is over 100 years old and has been well restored. This is thanks Sopot’s origins as a spa town, which grew up around mineral springs. These create an air around them that is so clean that it seems sweet. Breathing it makes you feel like you are trying on a nice new pair of lungs.
This also might explain why the place looks so different to the treeless, windswept coasts of England. Healthy-looking sycamore, oak, chestnut and willow line not only the streets but also the seafront; some are growing on the beach itself. This comprises several miles of fine, golden sand backed by a protected dune that has been colonised by long grasses and flowering wild roses. Behind that is the coastal path which links tasteful wooden bars where Polish beer is now rivalled by elaborate cocktails.
A favourite has become the Aperol-prosecco spritz, which is served with pierogi (filled dumplings). By day, these bars are bases for beach-volleyball players, paddleboarders and parents watching their small children construct giant sandcastles. By night, some beach bars become impromptu music venues with live jazz acts and solo acoustic performances.
There are permanent structures such as Zatoka Sztuki, which in the warmer months has a posey roof bar, with hot tubs and a view. Nearby is the legendary nightclub and art gallery Sfinks. It’s the Haçienda of Poland, but without the guns, and has had the clever idea of celebrating its 25th birthday every day this year.
The Crooked House on Bohaterów Monte Cassino. Photograph: Nightman1965/Getty Images
Sopot’s main promenade is Bohaterów Monte Cassino, named after the heroes of the second world war battle against the Germans in Italy, at which Polish and British forces fought side-by-side, and won. Particularly on the weekends, Monte Cassino can be crowded out by what are pejoratively known as dresiarze and blachary – boys who go out in sportswear, and girls who are assumed to like boys with sporty cars. For those who think they won’t fit in, it’s easy to escape.
A longer walk, or a ride on hired bikes, can take you along the beach path all the way to Gdańsk, for a feast of history if you want it. The city was Poland’s great seaport for centuries, attracting immigrants from Britain. Pinched by crusaders for a while (Malbork Castle, the largest in the world, is nearby), it was then the Prussian and German city of Danzig; then an interwar city-state; then the flashpoint of the second world war; and finally the birthplace of Solidarność (Solidarity), which helped bring the cold war to an end. Today, it has scrubbed up very well and is full of life. A 15-minute train ride takes you back to Sopot.
Fresh fish is plentiful. Stalls have a high turnover of flounder, a decent cousin of the plaice. At Bulaj we also ate excellent halibut (£11). The cosiest place to dine is Cyrano et Roxane (mains from £8.50), hosted by Frenchman Marc Petit and his Polish wife. They combine local ingredients with imports from Auvergne, such as livers for his homemade pâté de foie gras. If you want to go really fancy, there is L’Entre Villes (mains from £10), which feels like stepping in to some Polish oligarch’s Kensington mansion. We had starters, steak salad and partridge, all locally sourced and perfectly done, with impeccable service. Diners’ remorse meant that, of course, the next day was potato pancakes (from £1.50 for two) at a humble “milk bar”, Bursztyn.