Matfen Hall hotel in Northumberland, England.

Matfen Hall hotel, golf course and spa

Birds are chirping and geese are honking on the far side of the fairway as I raise the sash window of my vast guestroom at Maften Hall in rural Northumberland. It’s pleasant to wake with a view overlooking a championship standard golf course.

The country manor in which I’m staying belongs to Sir Hugh and Lady Blackett. The Neo-Gothic house dates from the 1830s though buildings have occupied the site since the Middle Ages.

I’m staying in Room 4, one of 53 guestrooms within the four star property. It’s one of the hotel’s Principal category of bedrooms.

Room 4 - a spacious, classically furnished guestroom.

Room 4 – a spacious, classically furnished guestroom.

Looking into the great hall

Out on the corridor I can peek through an arched window into the great hall, whose wall bears coats of arms belonging to families whose members married Blacketts. A lion is sculpted into the wooden balustrade of the broad staircase, which is a popular spot for photographing the brides and grooms who choose Matfen Hall as the venue for their wedding reception.

My room is classically furnished, has a dark wood desk, a table in the bay by the window and a broad, flat-screen television. Last night I relaxed by reading on the sofa while sipping a cup of Earl Grey tea.

Looking up at the high ceiling and enormity of the room it fleetingly crosses my mind that it would probably be big enough to practice three point shooting here, if a basketball ring was mounted on the wall. I’m sure guests in neighbouring rooms are pleased that isn’t the case—who knows what they might suspect I was getting up to.

Relaxing in the spa

When it comes to working out I’m planning on swimming a few lengths of the 16-metre pool, down in the hotel’s Aqua Vitae spa, before unwinding in the sauna and steam room. Unfortunately all of the treatment slots were already fully booked upon my arrival, so I won’t be getting a massage—next time I’ll know to call in advance of my arrival.

There’s a fitness room too, with weights, exercise mats and cardiovascular equipment. However, I’m planning a walk around the 300-acre estate and through surrounding farmland. The team down at the reception have already supplied me with a sketch map of trails in the area.

Gilchrist and Soames toiletries.

Gilchrist and Soames toiletries.

Matfen Hall Golf Course

A couple of the footpaths cut across the golf course that opened for play back in 1995. Now a mature parkland course with water features and a dry stone ha-ha, Maften Hall Golf Course has 27 holes arranged in three nine-hole circuits. That means guests playing a couple of rounds over a weekend can introduce variations to the 18 they play.

There’s also a nine-hole, par-3 course plus a driving range with ten bays. It forms part of Maften Hall Golf Academy, where golfers can request personalised coaching aided by computerised training aids.

The driving range stands close to a Go Ape Tree Top Adventure course, where people can monkey about while climbing and zip-lining.

The UK has voted for Brexit. Time to head to the bunkers?

The UK has voted for Brexit. Time to head to the bunkers?

Matfen Hall’s Library Restaurant

I’m looking forward to a traditional Northumbrian breakfast in the hotel’s refined Library Restaurant. As the name suggests, the tables are ranged beneath wooden shelves laden with leather bound books.

I dined there last after relaxing with a G&T in the comfort of one of the leather sofas in the subtly lit drawing room. With an ornately sculpted fireplace and gilt-framed oil paintings, it’s everything I imagine of a room within a manor house.

Oil paintings in the drawing room.

Oil paintings in Matfen Hall’s drawing room.

The restaurant carries two AA Rosettes and is regarded as one of the region’s premier fine-dining venues. It serves modern British cuisine made with seasonal ingredients plus organic lamb and beef supplied from Sir Hugh’s farm.

For my starter I plumped for the scallops then enjoyed succulent Beef Wellington for my main course. The jus had a memorably rich, chocolatey texture. I also ordered a delicious side dish of cabbage prepared with pancetta. For dessert it proved impossible for me to resist the call of the soufflé.

An amuse-bouche served at Matfen Hall's Library Restaurant.

An amuse-bouche served at Matfen Hall’s Library Restaurant.

A Dutch-style formal garden

First though, I’ll let my appetite grow by taking a morning stroll in the hall’s Dutch-style formal garden.

I exit from the conservatory, which houses a bar, and crunch across the gravel of the terrace, past an outsized draughts board.

Morning sunlight shines through the framework of the garden’s pergola to dapple the ground. The gentle scent of roses and fresh grass wafts through the summer air and I look forward to the day ahead in the Northumberland countryside.

Further information

See the Matfen Hall website for further details about the hotel, spa and golf course.

Matfen Hall is represented by HotelRez Hotels and Resorts. HotelRez is a representation company marketing more than 350 properties across the United Kingdom. Many of those hotels are historic country manors providing insights into local heritage.

Getting to Matfen Hall

Matfen Hall is in the village of Matfen, less than 30-minutes’ drive from the centre of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and around 15 minutes from Newcastle International Airport.

A clipper sails past the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island in New York City, USA.

Brunch in New York City, USA

Brunch is a meal that New Yorkers have made their own. It’s become a weekend institution that sees friends and families gather to enjoy good food and each others’ company. If you’re visiting New York City plan it into your itinerary.

As the term suggests, brunch draws elements from both breakfast and lunch. Most people meet for brunch late in the morning but sittings in a several New York restaurants continue well into the afternoon.

Even residents of a city that never sleeps—if we are to believe those famous lyrics of New York, New York, that iconic song popularised by Frank Sinatra—need the occasional lie in, so meeting to dine early on a Saturday or Sunday simply wouldn’t do.

New York - the city that never sleeps. Coffee 24 hours a day? No wonder.

New York – the city that never sleeps. Coffee 24 hours a day? No wonder.

Brunch is a weekend institution

That’s when brunch comes into its own, “because you don’t have to wake up early,” says Surita, who works during the week as a receptionist in a busy mid-town restaurant. “I feel brunch is mainly enjoyed during the spring and the summer when you’re hungover or after a busy week. You get to sit outside and enjoy Bloody Marys and whatnot” she says and names Barkogi (957 2nd Avenue; tel. 212-308-8810), a compact Korean fusion restaurant and bar, as her favourite brunch venue. The waffles come highly recommended.

Thousands of New Yorkers pour into restaurants, particularly on Sundays, to meet over brunch. Of course, not everybody does it every week, but like a good friend it’s always there when needed.

Greenwich Village is a perennially popular brunch destination. Negril Village (70 West 3rd Street; tel. 212-477-2804) is an upbeat Caribbean restaurant that opens at noon and serves dishes such as curry goat stew and a unique take on the club sandwich, prepared with spicy Jamaican jerk.

Brunch with benefits. New Yorkers leave the stress of the week aside during Sunday brunch.

Brunch with benefits. New Yorkers leave the stress of the week aside during Sunday brunch.

Brunch over in Brooklyn

Ask around and you’ll soon uncover a multitude of tips for brunch across New York’s five boroughs. Among them is Montana’s Trail House (44 Troutman Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn; tel. 917-966-1666), a laid-back, rustic-chic spot that serves seasonal cocktails plus dishes cooked with produce from local farms. Allswell (124 Bedford Ave, Brooklyn; tel. 347-799-2743) in a casual venue, a gastropub offering brunch until 4pm on both Saturday and Sunday.

Crispy bacon and fluffy, sugar-dusted pancakes drizzled with maple syrup is a popular, traditional North American breakfast treat that many diners also enjoy dipping into during brunch.

The country’s Tex-Mex cuisine means you can find dishes such as huevos rancheros, eggs served with a spicy tomato-based salsa on a tortilla. Brunch menus tend to be diverse. You’re as likely to see home-style granola and freshly prepared salads as you are tender roast meats.

Poring over the menu while sipping on a cocktail or slurping a freshly brewed coffee is part of the experience; nobody wants to be rushed into making a decision on a weekend. Brunch is a meal that’s best enjoyed in a relaxed mood and is something that shouldn’t be rushed. It sets the tone for a day of leisure and helps people ready themselves for the week ahead.

Some of the hot dishes served during brunch at the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

Some of the hot dishes served during brunch at the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

British origins of brunch

Brunch, like baseball, may well be seen as a quintessentially American activity but there’s evidence both had their origins on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in Great Britain. Back in 1895 the term was used in an article published in Punch magazine to describe a Sunday meal for “Saturday-night carousers”.

Party-goers in the modern age continue to embrace brunch. Why? Some might say it’s because the booze flows freely. Enjoying a glass of bubbly or the kick of a cocktail is part of the experience.

For those who’ve partied into the wee hours or simply overindulged the previous night, brunch offers a means of recover and, often, a hair of the dog. Of course, whether or not drinking alcohol really is the best cure for a hangover is a debate that continues to simmer, often as a topic of brunch conversation. The theory is regularly put to the test.

Seafood - eat it. The raw bar at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, USA.

Seafood – eat it. The raw bar at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, USA.

Brunch at the Waldorf Astoria

One of the best known and most celebrated of the many Sunday brunch venues in New York City is the Waldorf Astoria (301 Park Avenue; tel. 212-872-1275). The first seating is at 10am and the last is at 2pm, in the hotel’s elegant Peacock Alley restaurant, beneath the gleaming Art Deco grandeur of the famous lobby, where a pianist performs on Cole Porter’s grand piano.

The buffet’s vast spread encompasses a raw bar with oysters and clams plus a selection of caviar. In addition to the usual brunch favourites, classic dishes such as succulent Beef Wellington, lasagne and roast pork feature.

As you might expect, Waldorf Salad is available. There’s also seasonal fruits plus a chocolate fountain, into which berries can be dipped after skewering them on a wooden stick. Anyone with room remaining might be tempted by a honey-dipped roasted marshmallow.

Wherever you go to New York and whatever you choose to do, experiencing brunch is much a part of visiting watching a baseball game at Yankee Stadium or shopping in Macy’s.

More information

Find out more about the attractions of New York City on the official NYC Go website.

For more about the USA beyond New York see the Visit the USA site.

A chef roasts marshmallow at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, USA.

A chef roasts marshmallow at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, USA.

Schloss Kaltenberg in Bavaria, Germany.

The Bavarian Reinheitsgebot of 1516

In 1516 the Reinheitsgebot, regulating the pricing and ingredients of beer, became law across the Duchy of Bavaria. Some people herald it as a world first: a law governing food production had become valid across an entire territory.

The meaning of ‘Reinheitsgebot’

The term Reinheitsgebot is commonly translated into English as ‘beer purity law’ but it had broader implications. Restricting the ingredients of beer to barley, hops and water ensured that rye and wheat were available to bakers, so the populace had an adequate supply of affordable bread.

Barrels of impure beer could be confiscated. It also limited innkeepers’ margins of profit on beer sales and permitted Bavaria’s ruler to curtail beer production if barley become scarce. Shortages, and localised famines, were by no means uncommon in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Prince Luitpold of Bavaria

“I’m proud my ancestors have ensured the oldest food control law is still valid today,” says Prince Luitpold of Bavaria, a member of the Wittelsbach family in whose name the law of 1516 was proclaimed.

The prince is actively involved in the brewing industry as the CEO of the König Ludwig Schlossbrauerei, whose headquarters and production base are at Kaltenberg Castle, about 55km west of Munich.

A regulars' table (Stammtisch) for musicians in the Hofbraeuhaus in Munich.

A regulars’ table (Stammtisch) for musicians in the Hofbraeuhaus in Munich.

Safer to drink than water

In the Middle Ages, when many people drew their water from wells, beer was often a safer drink, at least when it was brewed without adulterating ingredients. Long before tea and coffee were introduced to Europe, it was common for people to wake and take a draught of beer. The beer drank on a day-to-day basis contained significantly less alcohol by volume than most brews available today. Even children would consume beer regularly.

“The Bavarian purity law is unique because it was the first real food law in times [when] beer really was seen as food for the people,” says Simon Rossmann, the head brewer of Giesinger Bräu, which was established in Munich in 2006, becoming the city’s first new brewery since 1889.

“The simple and clear law made Bavarian brewers focus to make the best beer out of defined materials and ensured the trust of consumers,” says Prince Luitpold.

Taps at the Klosterbrauerei Moench in Herrenalb.

Taps at the Klosterbrauerei Moench in Herrenalb.

No more dodgy ingredients

The introduction of the law of 1516 meant brewers could no longer mask the foul flavour of a bad brew by adding spices or more dubious ingredients. Prior to the introduction of the Reinheitsgebot there is anecdotal evidence that herbs, sometimes with toxic side effects, and dubious ingredients such the gall bladders of oxen were occasionally added to beer. Hops, in addition to imparting flavour, help stabilise and preserve beer. Nonetheless, in a pre-industrial era, long before people understood the implications of microbiology on brewing, batches of beer were prone to variations in quality.

Matthias Trum is the Bräu – a Franconian term for a brewery owner, brewmaster, patron and housekeeper – at Bamberg’s Schlenkerla Brewery, which is renowned for its Rauchbier (smoke beer). He holds the view that “the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot of 1516 did not revolutionise brewing.” He sees the law as a progression of local brewing legislation already on the statue books in cities such as Augsburg (dating from 1155), Regensburg (1469) and Bamberg (1489).

“What one has to keep in mind, though, is that all these purity laws had the main purpose of controlling been tax and only secondarily the quality of the beer. Even today the Reinheitsgebot is still part of the vorläufiges Biersteuergesetz – the preliminary beer tax law – and not of any food control law,” says Trum. Over time, amendments have been made to take into account developments in scientific knowledge and changes to taxation but, in essence, the Bavarian purity law of 1516 remains on the statute books.

The technology has changed but not the ingredients.

The technology has changed but not the ingredients.

A precursor of modern food laws

Trum acknowledges the Reinheitsgebot made beer safer to consume and regards its impact as significant. “If you will, the revolutionary element was something different: the fact that government at all made a law on how to produce a certain food was the precursor for all the food laws we know today,” he says.

“The real legacy today in my opinion is, that the Bavarian purity law defines what we – Bavarians, Franconians, Germans – mean when thinking of beer. It very much defines the product category. Even in the age of craft beer most Germans wouldn’t consider a, say, kriek or geuze [Belgian styles of ale] a ‘real’ beer,” says Trum. He adds that the continued dominance of lager on the world beer market is evidence that Germans exported this understanding to many countries.

An outdated law?

In light of the ongoing craft brewing revolution in many Western countries some people might argue that the continued application of the Reinheitsgebot handicaps the ability of German brewers to experiment and evolve. Others, though, would say changing the law would mean messing with a much-loved tradition.

“The law is up-to-date…Why dilute the definition of beer?” asks Prince Luitpold 500 years on from the introduction of the Reinheitsgebot.

The beer that’s being brewed in Germany seems to be going down well.

The coat of arms of a German brewery.

The coat of arms of a German brewery.

Wylam Brewery at the Palace of Arts in Exhibition Park, Newcastle-upon-Tyne,

Wylam Brewery moves to Newcastle

Newcastle has a new brewery. Lovers of craft beer will be pleased to hear that Wylam Brewery has moved into impressive premises within the city’s Exhibition Park.

The microbrewery, which produces brews such as Jakehead— a powerful, deliciously hoppy IPA—and All Gone South—a strong oatmeal pale ale—was founded back in 2000. The Happenings, a three day celebration of craft beer, street food and live music, held from 28 to 30 May, marked the brewery’s move from Heddon-on-the-Wall into Newcastle.

A Palace of Arts

Ale aficionados might say it’s apt that a skilled brewer of craft beers has taken over Newcastle’s Palace of Arts.

The bright, Art Deco influenced building is the last structure still standing from the 1929 North East Coast Exhibition, which four million people attended. The event was held to foster arts, craft and industry and gives the Exhibition Park its name.

For nigh on ten years the colonnaded building stood forlornly empty. Like the Exhibition Park itself, the Grade-II listed Palace of Arts experiencing a fresh lease of life.

Recent investment and renovations have transformed the park into a pleasant place to stroll.

Footpaths meander through the park, a five-minute walk from the University of Newcastle campus and the Great North Museum: Hancock.

Coots nest on the boating pond. Swans and other waterfowl can be seen on the water. The Café in the Park is a smart, laid-back meeting place with free Wi-Fi. Skateboarding, bowls and croquet count among the activities people can enjoy within the Exhibition Park.

A walk in the park?

A walk in the park?

Inside the new Wylam Brewery

The new Wylam Brewery premises host a brewery tap bar, which opens between Thursday and Saturday. The hip, roomy bar has a white tile wall and parquet flooring.

The lobby has retro chairs, sofas and low-slung wood tables. Books stand on wire shelves by exposed brickwork. It’s a place people can gather and chat over beer or while sipping G&Ts made with Jack Cains gin.

Gin in a brewery.

Gin in a brewery.

Events will be held within the building’s grand hall. The vast room had a cupola ceiling plus a stage.

The Happenings saw food being served within the great hall and from trucks outside. It is the first of the pop-up events that will be held at the brewery over the summer of 2016.

Burger please! The Fat Hippo truck during the Happenings.

Burger please! The Fat Hippo truck during the Happenings.

Brewing in Newcastle

Newcastle is also the home to the Tyne Bank Brewery and Big Lamp Brewery. However, many people are surprised to learn that the beer most commonly associated with the city is no longer brewed on Tyneside.

Since 2010 Newcastle Brown Ale has been brewed ‘down south’—seen from the perspective of people living on Tyneside—at the John Smiths Brewery in Tadcaster, South Yorkshire. It hasn’t actually been brewed in Newcastle for over a decade. Production was shifted to Gateshead, across the River Tyne, back in 2005.

Art Deco elegance. The Palace of Arts.

Art Deco elegance. The Palace of Arts.

Beers from Wylam Brewery

Wylam Brewery produces a number of beers that are strong in both character and flavour.

Jakehead IPA packs a punch, with an alcohol content of 6.3 per cent by volume. By comparison All Gone South looks light at ‘just’ six per cent. Stout fans might be tempted by a pint of Puffing Billy, which has a smoky, lingering flavour.

The Nomi Sorachi ale (5.3 per cent) has a pine-like citrusy tang and a long mellow finish.

The opportunity to taste more of the company’s offerings, at the place that they are brewed, looks set to draw craft ale fans to the Palace of Arts.

All Gone South? Yes, served at Wylam Brewery.

All Gone South? Yes, served at Wylam Brewery.

Further information

See the Wylam Brewery website for details of events and how to join a tour of the brewery (Palace of Arts, Exhibition Park, Newcastle-upon-Tyne; tel. 01661 853377).

For more information about tourist attractions and other things to do in Newcastle and neighbouring Gateshead, take a look at the NewcastleGateshead website.

Sandy Ingber, executive chef at The Oyster Bar in New York City.

Talking Taste: Sandy Ingber of New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar

“It’s a great place to work. Our employees are proud of the food they serve…if you want fresh fish come to the Oyster Bar in New York,” says Executive Chef Sandy Ingber as we chat in the long-established restaurant on the lower level of Grand Central Terminal.

He has worked at the Grand Central Oyster Bar since 1990. Along with Mohammed Lawal and Janet Poccia, Sandy is one of three partners in the popular restaurant that was established back in 1913—the same time that the iconic railway terminal opened.

Revamping Grand Central Terminal

The restaurant has changed markedly since 1990, when Sandy starter working at the Oyster Bar. A fire, in 1997, prompted major renovations. They included replacing about 75 per cent of the Guastavino tiles that give the arched ceiling of the Oyster Bar its distinctive character.

Those changes coincided with a wider revamp of Grand Central Terminal.

“Until 1997 Grand Central was really down in the dumps. There was a lot of homeless sleeping in the halls and on the ramps. There was urine everywhere. It was just a dirty, filthy place,” says Sandy of the now impressive building.

“Jacqui Onassis came and saved the day. She pushed for this renovation. When they re-opened, we re-opened also…we doubled our business overnight. It’s been bonkers ever since,” recalls the chef.

Why the Oyster Bar is renowned

“We’re a world famous seafood restaurant. We’re known as having the freshest seafood. We’re not the fanciest but we’re the freshest. That’s really our motto…from the time we opened we were the most famous oyster bar in America,” answers Sandy, who trained under the supervision of George Mortfogen.

Sandy’s day starts at two in the morning, when he goes to Fulton Fish Market to buy the fish and seafood that’s sold in the restaurant. He usually finishes between two and three in the afternoon.

A half-dozen oysters served at the Grand Central Oyster Bar.

A half-dozen oysters.

A New York tradition

“When the first settlers came here they found mountains of empty oyster shells. This whole area—all of New York Harbor into New Jersey, the canals, Long Island Sound—was just packed with oysters. It appealed to the Dutch. It was one of the draws for Europeans to come here,” says Sandy, looking into the eyes of one of the Europeans for whom that still rings true.

“There was always oyster carts trying to sell oysters. Even to this day the number one oyster for recognition in America is the Bluepoint, and that comes from Long Island Sound,” he adds, revealing the Oyster Bar has its own bed.

The influence of Jerome Brody

Sandy points to the framed portrait of Jerome Brody, who became the owner of the Oyster Bar in 1973, and explains how the former owner had the foresight to purchase plot GCOB1972 when he took over the restaurant. Norm Bloom now cultivates that bed.

“From 1913 to when Mr Brody bought the restaurant…it was basically a raw bar and served Continental seafood. It wasn’t a world famous American seafood restaurant, as it is now. The restaurant had been closed a couple of months. Through the 60s train terminals were winding down as cars and airplanes were becoming big. Grand Central had turned into a dump,” says Sandy with candour.

“In 1973 the ceiling was completely black. There was tacky purple stuff on the columns. But he had this vision, to open a wold famous seafood restaurant…he renovated this whole place then went out and sourced oysters up in Maine, and lobster from a guy called Bill Atwood,” he adds.

“It wasn’t the fanciest at that time. It was real straightforward American seafood. But Mr and Mrs Brody had travelled all over the Tri-State area to try to find fresh fish. All they could find was frozen; they were so disappointed. That was one of their reasons for opening this restaurant, so that they could offer—in this beautiful, oceanic part of New York state—fresh fish.”

Oyster stew at the Grand Central Oyster Bar.

Oyster stew.

Oysters over the summer

Oysters are served throughout the year, not just in those months with an ‘R’ in their name.

“We call it the ‘R’ month myth. There’s a time when oysters spawn. They’re not dangerous to eat, they’re just not palatable. They’re bloated up and fat, or they are dry,” explains Sandy.

“Through most of the 90s I had problems sourcing oysters in the summertime. Sometimes we only had two or three oysters on our menu. Nowadays I could put 40 oysters, if I chose, and none of them would be spawning. Summer is our slow time, so we cut it down to about 20 varieties,” he says before explaining how air freight has brought about that change.

“Oysters are brought in by air freight within around 24 hours of coming out of the water. They never have a chance to heat up…they are trucked to the Oyster Bar in a temperature controlled truck, cold,” he adds.

There have been changes in production over recent years too.

“The amount of varieties of oysters that are available now is tremendous—300 to 400 in this country alone. They don’t all spawn at the same time. That’s one of the reasons I can keep 20 oysters on my menu. I can source oysters all the time. We also have available southern hemisphere oysters, where it’s winter,” he tells me.

The raw and the cooked

The Oyster Bar also serves cooked oysters.

“One of our signature dishes is oyster stew. It’s one of our original dishes. We have little steam jacketed kettles, they create a fast heat. The oyster stew is a mild cream soup with clam juice, butter and oysters. The we add half-and-half and serve that,” says the chef passionately.

“Oyster pan roast has celery salt, sweet chili sauce, half-and-half, butter and clam juice. We serve it over toast,” says Sandy.

I glance at the Oyster Bar’s U-shaped counters know where I’ll be having lunch.

More information

Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant (Lower Level, Grand Central Terminal, New York City; tel. 212-490-6650).

People reading menu at the Grand Central Oyster Bar.

People reading menus at the Grand Central Oyster Bar.

Poás Volcano in Costa Rica.

Smartphone photography in Central America

Volcanic landscapes, Caribbean beaches and rainforests teeming with wildlife—including colourful tree frogs and birdlife—were just three aspects that excited me ahead of a visit Central America recently.

As an avid traveller I looked forward to the prospect of experiencing destinations around both Costa Rica and El Salvador.

In addition to visiting coffee estates and taking a look inside of the crater of a volcano, the journey provided an opportunity to learn more about the region’s history plus chances to try out white water rafting and zip-lining. Adventure travel is growing in Central America.

Historic sites in Central America

Joya de Cerén, an UNESCO World Heritage Site in El Salvador, has been compared to Pompeii in Italy. Both settlements were rapidly covered by ash in volcanic eruptions, providing archaeologists with detailed insights into everyday life. Thanks to finds at Joya de Cerén much has been learned about Mayan life prior to the arrival of Europeans.

At Chalchuapa, I would have a chance to peek inside of the church of Santiago, just a couple of minutes’ drive from Tazumal, a strategically important site whose history dates back eight centuries before Jesus Christ walked upon the Earth.

Tazumal is a stepped pyramid and the tallest in El Salvador. Yet, after falling out of use, it remained undiscovered until the first half of the 20th century.

The Mayan pyramid at Tazumal.

The Mayan pyramid at Tazumal.

The cuisine of El Salvador and Costa Rica

Over the centuries, migration to Central America has added European and Caribbean influences to the regional cuisine. Cooks make use of fruit and vegetables rarely found elsewhere.

For foodies that makes Central America a rewarding place to explore. Lime-infused cerviché, made with fresh fish, and pupusas, filled flat bread reminiscent of enclosed pizzas, count among the delicacies served in restaurants.

I look forward to reporting about my experiences in Costa Rica and El Salvador on this website over the months ahead.

A view of Lake Coatepeque

A view of Lake Coatepeque

Photography in Central America

As an experienced professional travel and food photographer I knew there would be much to photograph in Central America. In order to capture a selection of quality images I travelled to the region with a Canon Mark III digital SLR and Canon lenses.

However, after being out on the road, selecting and editing the best of my images can prove a time-consuming process.

So that I could capture images and quickly upload them to Instagram and Twitter, I also travelled with a Cubot X17 smartphone.

Uva Beach by the Caribbean Sea in Costa Rica.

Uva Beach by the Caribbean Sea in Costa Rica.

The Cubot X17 smartphone

The sleek phone captures photos on a 16 megapixel sensor using a lens with an aperture of f2.2 and a dual LED flash. The front-facing camera, meanwhile, has eight megapixels.

Gesture control technology triggers the camera’s shutter when a V-for-victory sign is detected.

The X17 runs an Android operating system. It has 3GB of RAM and 16GB of ROM. The CPU runs on a 1.3GHz, 64-bit quad-core processor.

The phone is capable of filming at 1080 by 1920 pixels. That represents full HD quality.

The Cubot X17’s camera has a number of photo modes. They include a panorama setting, beauty mode for portraits, motion tracking, a multi-angle view, an option with an inset image, plus a live photo mode.

After arriving at my hotel each evening I was able to quickly log onto the internet via Wi-Fi and distribute images via social media.

The results were pleasing. If you enjoy photography but don’t want to travel with a bag full of camera gear there’s certainly a strong argument for using just a smartphone and developing your mobile photography skills.

Further information

Find out more about the region by taking a look at the Central America Tourism Agency’s website. Known by the acronym CATA, the agency promotes seven of Central America’s nations. Take a look at to find out more about Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.

The Visit Costa Rica and El Salvador Travel are also useful sources of information.

All of the photos illustrating this post were captured on a budget Cubot X17 smartphone.

A volcanic peak in Cerro Verde National Park.

A volcanic peak in Cerro Verde National Park.


Luke Waterson, the author of the historic novel Roebuck.

An interview Roebuck author Luke Waterson

Brazil, Peru and Tierra del Fuego are among the locations featured in Roebuck: Tales of an Admirable Adventurer, Luke Waterson’s debut novel. But, like Waterson himself, the story of Roebuck begins in the south-west of England.

Roebuck is based on a true story, and is the story of its main character, Anthony Knivet. Knivet is the bastard son of a West Country landowner whose only chance of “making something of himself” is to attempt to attain his fortune by going to sea. He secures a place within the fleet of the explorer Sir Thomas Cavendish who is attempting a second circumnavigation of the world,” explains the 34 year old author from Somerset.

“When the fleet reaches the coast of South America, things start to go badly wrong. Disease sets in, famine sets in, some of the worst weather ever to wrack those shores sets in. Knivet is abandoned by his crew on an inhospitable stretch of the Brazilian coastline. And it is here, after various misadventures with the Portuguese and the cannibalistic tribes that inhabit Brazil’s interior, that Knivet finds his true calling: to unite Brazil’s indigenous tribes and lead them in battle in an event set to alter the course of Brazil’s history forever,” adds Waterson about his story, which is set during the 1590s.

Becoming a published author

“I have always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a little ‘un…I guess it was because of the stories my mum read to me back then, which inspired me to start writing my own. When you realise there is one thing in life that you love above all others, and for me that is writing, then “getting into it” is something you never stop unblinkingly focusing on,” says Waterson, who currently lives in north-west Scotland and has experience of writing travel guides.

“It’s a very special feeling seeing your novel on a bookshop shelf. It’s a physical, three-dimensional product that has a longevity beyond an article or even a guidebook. Particularly when you think “every idea inside that cover came from my imagination” or “my imagination is actually marketable to some extent.” Such thoughts, more than anything, give you the motivation to continue. It’s a very important thing as a novelist to feel that you work is respected within the industry – because you are putting your heart on the line out there a lot of the time,” he says with candour.

The challenge of writing historic fiction

Researching and writing Roebuck was a process that took three years.

“Staying focused over such a lengthy time period, sustaining the drive of the plot and keeping all of your characters “in character” – which can be equated to having thirty-odd different voices in your head, all talking at once – and trying to make sense of each and weave them into a meaningful narrative,” says Waterson of the challenges he faced in creating Roebuck.

”Writing historic fiction is like a re-education. You have to learn how to think and speak and act within the time period you have chosen before you can even begin to do anything else,” he adds.

Fiction based on fact

“The story of Anthony Knivet, as previously mentioned, is a true one. Concrete documentation for it is scant but it does exist. I suppose, as with the majority of historical fiction, writing about events that really did take place gives you a definite framework. A particular focus, if you like,” says Waterson.

“History has always fascinated me. And I really relish the research element, it’s far more time consuming than when you are writing other types of fiction. There is far more to get right. And to get wrong. But for me the research is an integral part of the overall enjoyment,” he explains.

Life as a published author

Waterson’s life has not yet changed significantly since the publication of Roebuck.

“I continue with my travel writing – because it is only for a very few people that a debut work of fiction immediately alters their lives. There are a few more interviews to do, a few more people seeking out my expertise on Elizabethan history and the early history of South America. But I would never want to relinquish my work as a travel writer – not completely. That work will always be there – a gleaming horizon for a rainy day. After all, it was my time in South America as a travel writer that partly provided the inspiration for this book. That time coloured in and fleshed out the 16th century Amazonian world I create in Roebuck. The truth is that not so much has changed in the jungle in 425 years as you might expect,” says the man who will be appearing at the Ilminster Literary Festival on 2 June.

Waterson is currently working on his second novel, set in ancient Wales. “If Roebuck was sometimes bloodthirsty, my new book is plain barbaric on occasion.”

Further information

Find out more about Luke Waterson via his website, Luke and his Words.

Roebuck: Tales of an Admirable Adventurer is published by Urbane Publications and has a recommended retail price of £8.99.

The view of Gateshead Millennium Bridge during Dine on the Tyne.

Dine by the Tyne over Newcastle & Gateshead

I’m securely strapped into a high-backed seat and my heart is pumping with increasing rapidity as we’re winched ever higher. Yet this isn’t a ride at a theme park, I’m at a lunch sitting of Dine by the Tyne next to the Sage Gateshead.

Twenty-two of us sit around a table that will eventually come to a halt 100 feet above the ground. Most of my fellow guests are laughing and chatting together. I wish I could relax too. This shouldn’t be a white knuckle ride but I notice the skin over my knuckles is taut as I grip the edge of the table.

Dine by the Tyne held by the Sage Gateshead.

Dine by the Tyne held by the Sage Gateshead.

A view of the Sage Gateshead

I’ve been placed on a corner seat. When I peek to my left have a stunning view over the arched roof of the performing arts centre designed by Foster and Partners, the architecture bureau of the Pritzker Prize winner Norman Foster. I’ve photographed the curvaceous building many times since it opened, back in 2005, but this is the first time I’ve viewed it from above.

The reflective panelling of the Sage Gateshead is gleaming in the spring sunshine but it’s surprisingly nippy, due to a wind that feels markedly more robust 100 feet above the ground. Beneath my feet a seagull glides elegantly inland from the River Tyne.

Dine by the Tyne being hoisted upwards.

Dine by the Tyne being hoisted upwards.

A gust picks up a serviette and whips it across the table. Our host, from the Hawthorns restaurant (Hawthorns at the Crowne Plaza Newcastle; tel. 0191 5623333), reacts like a ninja and grabs it before it flutters away. Two of the team from the Hawthorns’ kitchen will be preparing Executive Chef’s Chris Wood’s creations. Over the next 45 minutes a three course meal will be served.

A lunch sitting at Dine by the Tyne.

A lunch sitting at Dine by the Tyne.

Chefs from top Newcastle restaurants

Until today I hadn’t realised that chefs from a number of Tyneside’s leading restaurants were participating in Dine by the Tyne. Bob Arora from Sachins, my favourite Indian restaurant in Newcastle, and Dave Coulson, from the Peace and Loaf modern British restaurant in Jesmond, are among those participating. The team from Marco Pierre White Steakhouse Bar and Grill will be serving Champagne high tea later this afternoon.

A chef preparing food during Dine by the Tyne.

A chef preparing food during Dine by the Tyne.

Illogically, I fear that my seat will fall to the ground if I sit back into it. I’d hoped that my fear of heights wouldn’t kick in; after all I know that I’m safe. Nonetheless, my tummy muscles are aching and tight. Nervously, I take a sip of sparkling San Pellegrino mineral water and, simultaneously, grip the white table with my left hand.

Our host and the two chefs from Hawthorns stand in the centre of the platform and are connected by safety harnesses. Along with 21 other guests I’m sitting under a canopy looking into the area where they work.

A calming glass of red wine, Sir?

A calming glass of red wine, Sir?

Despite the blustery wind there’s surprisingly little movement. The table remained remarkably stable even while we were being hoisted upwards – so I have no idea why I’m feeling so nervous.

Dressed in high fashion

The ticket mentioned that the Dine by the Tyne dress code was smart casual. I’m wearing a chic, flower-patterned shirt but, unfortunately, nobody can see it.

During the safety briefing ahead of our flight a member of the Events in the Sky team told us we should wear our coats. Geordies might be renowned for nights out wearing revealingly little, even in deepest midwinter, but everyone here today is wrapped up like they’re southern softies.

Dining by the Tyne.

Dining by the Tyne.

Wine from Newcastle’s Bonbar

Our host offers me a choice of South African white wine or a French red. Normally I make meticulous notes when I dine but, frankly, I’m shaking too much to contemplate jotting down details about the vineyards or vintages. If I did reach into my pocket there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be able to hold onto my pen and an innocent onlooker, 100 feet below, might be speared by the tip of the ballpoint.

Given the circumstances I take a deep gulp, rather than a delicate sip, from the red wine that I’ve chosen. Two or three mouthfuls later I begin to relax into the flight. Maybe it’s that I’m becoming accustomed to the experience and starting to enjoy the view? It could also be Dutch courage kicking in.

Carpaccio of roe deer.

Carpaccio of roe deer.

This must be high cuisine?

Our host announces the starter is ready. A gin and juniper carpaccio of Northumberland roe deer with tiny sliced gooseberries, horseradish meringues and hazelnuts is served on a slate platter. Despite the adrenalin that’s coursing through me I appreciate the tenderness of the venison and the delicate flavours.

Between courses we spin around. The sun is shining onto Newcastle. We have views over the Tyne Bridge and Quayside that, normally, only seabirds can enjoy. Feeling ever more comfortable looking around, I swivel on my seat to capture a handful of cityscapes with the camera that’s strung around my neck.

The main course is served.

The main course is served.

Spring lamb is served for the main course, alongside wild garlic, fresh peas and heritage potato. As soon as I’ve eaten I turn to photograph the Gateshead Millennium Bridge.

We’re lowered to be served dessert, featuring rhubarb with aniseed, meringue and a creamy dollop of vanilla custard. As I tuck in we’re again hoisted upwards for the final ten minutes of the flight.

Despite my fear of heights causing my early apprehension about this experience, I have enjoyed Dine by the Tyne. The food and wine have been good and the views truly spectacular.

Dessert during Dine by the Tyne.

Dessert during Dine by the Tyne.

Further information

Dine by the Tyne 2016 was held from 12 to 15 May 2016. It was organised by Events in the Sky (Rex House, 4-12 Regent Street, London; tel. 020 33562843).

Champagne served prior to Dine by the Tyne and the wine served during the flight was from Bonbar (The Assembly Rooms, Fenkle Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne; tel. 0191 2328695).

A vegetarian dish served during lunch overlooking the River Tyne.

A vegetarian dish served during lunch overlooking the River Tyne.

The Grand Place at night in Brussels, Belgium.

Brussels after the bombings of 22 March 2016

Terrorism, unfortunately, is a part of 21st century life. On 22 March 2016 three suicide bombs were detonated in Brussels, killing 32 victims and injuring more than 300 people.

At the time of the explosions I was making my way from London to the Belgian capital on the Eurostar. The train I was travelling on was halted at Lille, in France, and all passengers asked to step down onto the platform.

After a few minutes, passengers were given the option of re-boarding the train and returning to the United Kingdom. Belgium’s border was closed, so travelling to my intended destination was no longer possible.

Needless to say, the mood on the train was flat as we journeyed back towards London.

The Atomium, one of the best known landmarks in Brussels.

The Atomium, one of the best known landmarks in Brussels.

Cultural heritage in Brussels  

I was planning an art-related visit to Brussels and intended to view a number of the galleries and museums. Due to the threat of terrorism, cultural institutions such as the Musée Magritte Museum and the Bozar, the Brussels Centre for Fine Arts, remained closed for several days.

While travelling on 22 March we had little information about the scale of the loss of life or extent of the damage in Brussels. It was, though, apparent that the city’s airport had been badly damaged and Maalbeek Metro station had been attacked.

A Metro station in Brussels.

A Metro station in Brussels.

Prior to choosing to travel by Eurostar I’d looked into the possibility of flying into Brussels Airport on the morning of 22 March. Inevitably, there was an element of “what if?” in my thoughts. Would I be writing this now if I’d chosen to fly that day?

By impacting my travel plans, terrorism has had a direct and negative impact on my life. It has hit my ability to earn a living and also denied an opportunity to experience Europe’s cultural heritage. Thankfully though, I haven’t been maimed by the shrapnel that was packed into the bombs detonated by members of ISIL in Brussels and nobody is grieving for me.

The bombs have not put me off travelling to Belgium. I hope to travel to Brussels at some point in the not-too-distant future to belatedly undertake the trip that was planned.

Buildings on the Grand Place in the heart of the Belgian capital.

Buildings on the Grand Place in the heart of the Belgian capital.

A Belgian response to the Brussels bombs

In the aftermath of the Brussels bombings I contacted Françoise Scheepers, the director of the Belgian Tourist Office in the United Kingdom, to ask how members of the British public responded.

We received many calls on the day of the attack, and we know that several groups cancelled or postponed their trip to a later date, particularly in the school and youth sector. Also the number of information requests has dropped compared to what we normally deal with. However we received many messages of sympathy and support by email, as well as via social media. We found great comfort in this sense of solidarity and compassion,” said Mrs Scheepers.

Steamed mussels - a renowned Belgian delicacy.

Steamed mussels – a renowned Belgian delicacy.

“People were at first completely stunned and saddened by the events, but have now started to get back to their regular lifestyle and their love of all the good things in life, although there is still a need for grieving,” she said three weeks after the attacks.

Unfortunately, tourism to Brussels has been detrimentally impacted by the bombings.

“Hotel bookings and visitor numbers are down. Some restaurants in the city centre have suffered a decrease in turnover as well, although in their case many blame this on the new pedestrianised area, which has considerably reduced the ease of access to their establishment,” commented Mrs Scheepers.

Tourists capturing a photo in Brussels.

Tourists capturing a photo in Brussels.

Nowhere in the world is safe

I asked what she would like to say to people who have cancelled their plans to travel to Belgium due to safety concerns.

“We do understand that, however the federal and local authorities are doing their best to secure the place. Unfortunately nowhere on earth is entirely 100% safe anymore, nowadays. Does this mean we have to be scared of living, of travelling? We think it is still possible to experience our destination, by exploring the less obvious and the less notoriously crowded places, and we are here to help discover such different types of experiences,” responded Mrs Scheepers.

A waffle, one of Belgium's best-loved snacks.

A waffle, one of Belgium’s best-loved snacks.

The director has a number of insider tips for anyone travelling to Brussels over the months ahead: “The brand new MIMA museum, together with the existing ones, like the Magritte Museum, the Bozar. As well as the different districts or “villages of Brussels” as I like to call them, such as Le Chatelain, Saint Boniface-Matongé, Sablons and the Marolles, Flagey and its ponds and farm. They each have their own distinct character and points of interest. Small, tailored visits with an organisation like ARAU are a perfect way to enjoy the city in all its best aspects, and on a very human scale.”

“Belgians will not be any different to the British after the London 2005 attacks: we shall keep calm and carry on,” she added defiantly.

Historic façades in the Brussels, Belgium.

Historic façades in the Brussels, Belgium.

Further information

Discover more reasons to travel to Brussels on the Belgian Tourist Office website.

Find out more about the city on the Visit Brussels website.

See the Eurostar site to plan rail journeys to Brussels.

Dusk on the Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium.

Dusk on the Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium.

Julian McDonnell wearing a top hat in London.

An interview with filmmaker Julian McDonnell

Julian McDonnell is the filmmaker behind the JoolzGuides series of videos about London. His work Take Me To Pitcairn has won three awards at tourism film festivals and is screened on Air Tahiti flights. With media commentators emphasising the importance of videos and filmmaking, I interviewed Julian to find out how he got into the business and to gain tips for up-and-coming filmmakers.

“I always wanted to be a TV presenter but struggled to find a way in. People kept telling me I should make a showreel but I thought people would ignore it if it was badly made. I had always enjoyed doing “selfie” films on my travels and used to do silly, ironic pieces to camera just to put on YouTube,” he explains. An inexpensive camcorder and a laptop with video editing software proved his way into the business.

The JoolzGuides London series

“At the moment I’m making a lot of mini videos about London. The aim is to show people that there’s more to London than the snazzy stuff in the guide books. It’s supposed to show you nice places that are right there but you might not necessarily know their significance. They have an element of charm and humour and they are intended to give people a feeling of what experiences are actually like, who you will encounter, how people behave – at the same time as giving a quick history lesson and some trivia which might be useful if you’re ever showing anyone around yourself,” says Julian.

“Someone once said that they are like an old friend or uncle showing you his home town. I genuinely love showing people around London so that should come across in the films. I’m hoping someone will pick up on them and feature them on their site or platform,” he adds.

Take Me To Pitcairn

“I always maintained that if I went to a genuinely mysterious place that people would respond. Not only is the subject irresistible but it is still a very difficult place to reach. More people visited the South Pole in the last year than Pitcairn. The island really is shrouded in mystery and controversy – from the day the first settlers arrived, in 1790 – after the mutiny on the Bounty,” says Julian about the destination of his most successful film.

“It’s hard to make films about places off the beaten track which aren’t overrun with tourists but Pitcairn is really remote. Just 47 people live there now and its history is fascinating: mutiny, adventure, steamy tales of passion and seduction, violence and longing, palm trees, tall ships, sunshine and huge shirts……what’s not to like?”

“Take Me To Pitcairn shows how hard it is to reach Pitcairn even 200 years on and depicts the genuine anguish and gamut of emotions which an unlikely bunch of travellers have to go through to follow their dreams. What is more, it has a strong message of hope and shows how friendships can be made in the oddest of circumstances and how you can do anything you put your mind to. It was a huge undertaking for one person who wasn’t even a film maker at that stage. I’m extremely proud of it,” says Julian about his work.

Julian at work editing a video.

Julian at work editing a video.

Equipment for making travel films

“It seems that every time you get a new piece of equipment it goes out of date and is superseded by something else,” says Julian, half-joking, when I ask him about the kit he uses.

“These days a Canon XA-20 with rode mic and also a Sennheiser Lavalier wireless mic. I edit on my MacBook Pro with Final Cut Pro. It’s useful to have a smaller snaps camera for unexpected events. I have a Canon quick shot G12. If I need more cinematic shots I use a Canon DSLR, but it’s not so good for running around and reporter-style filming, which is what I do a lot of,” he explains.

Advice for aspiring filmmakers

So what key advice does Julian offer newcomers to film making?

“The same advice that I heard Quentin Tarantino offer. The best way of learning how to make a film is to go and make a film. You can be taught a lot of things but there is nothing like the experience of running into certain obstacles. The amount of mistakes I made were of extreme value to me,” he says with frankness.

“Always keep the sound running and the video too if possible. It’s always when you switch off the camera that something amazing happens. It’s not a massive disaster if you don’t capture the video. You can always cheat it as long as you have the audio. I would also recommend, where possible, getting release forms ready to sign, just in case it gets picked up by the BBC and you need to have the right documentation,” he suggests.

“If anyone would like to be involved in making a film with me I’m always up for helpers. If there’s a part of London you particularly like and want to do a film with me about that or anywhere really, let me know,” says Julian.

Further information

View Julian’s London videos via or YouTube and keep abreast of news via the JoolzGuides Facebook page. Additionally, his corporate videos can be viewed under

Watch Take Me To Pitcairn on the film’s website or via YouTube.

Illustrating images supplied courtesy of JoolzGuides,

Julian McDonnell filming on Pitcairn Island.

Julian McDonnell filming on Pitcairn Island.