Red lanterns hung in London's Chinatown during Chinese New Year celebrations.

Celebrating Chinese New Year – The Year of the Monkey

The new moon of 8 February 2016 heralds the Chinese New Year. Firecrackers will flash and pop. Drums and gongs will sound. Dragons and lions will dance. The Year of the Monkey will begin.

The celebration is also known as the Spring Festival because it’s also about the arrival of springtime and the season of fertility. A good spring clean is traditionally part of preparations for the New Year.

Hong Kong’s Lantern Festival

The festival endures for almost a month. Preparations start eight days before the new moon can be seen. Celebrations conclude with the Yuanxiao Festival – also known as the Lantern Festival – 15 days after the Chinese New Year.

If you head onto the streets of Hong Kong you’ll witness people heading to temples carrying paper lanterns. In bygone times matchmakers kept their eyes open for potential couplings in the soft light of the lamps and the date still has romantic connotations.

Regional variations in Chinese New Year celebrations

Inevitably, in a culture as enormous as that of China, New Year celebrations vary markedly from region to region. For example, in northern regions families paste red paper cut outs of animals onto north- and south-facing windows, a tradition that is not followed in the country’s south.

Nonetheless, you’ll note the celebrations have a number of common elements wherever you witness them.

The Legend of Nian

The ancient legend of Nian is central to Chinese New Year celebrations around the globe.

Whether you’re in Shanghai, a village in Shanxi Province or strolling through the busy Chinatown San Francisco, knowing the story of the mythical creature will help you fathom what unfolds on 8 February.

With the fearsome head of a grimacing lion and the powerful body of a muscular bull, Nian dwelled in the mountains. As winter came to end his supplies were inevitably exhausted so Nian, in order to survive, had little choice but to sally forth from his barren upland habitant to seek out food.

Ravaged by hunger he fed upon crops, livestock and even people within the villages he visited. He was, it’s whispered somewhat gruesomely, particularly fond children; their tender flesh making them easy to devour.

The origins of Chinese New Year traditions

To save themselves and their terrified offspring villagers placed offerings in front of their doors. If Nian was placated and no longer hungry, why would he harm those inside the houses?

This explains why you’ll see Chinese business owners and heads of families offering food to the dragons and lions that dance through the streets during New Year celebrations. If you happen to be in a Chinatown restaurant on 8 February try to reserve a seat by the door and you could well find you have a prime spot for observing the creatures symbolically devouring food offered by the owners.

Cabbage is often chosen. It’s regarded auspicious, symbolising good luck and prosperity over the year ahead.

Chinese New Year celebrations in Newcastle-upon-Tyne's Chinatown.

Chinese New Year celebrations in Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Chinatown.

Firecrackers and red lanterns

After years of Nian’s unwelcome incursions villagers started to observe that he shied away from loud noises, people wearing red clothing and, like so many animals, fire.

When word of this got out people began hanging red lanterns outside their houses and red scrolls over doors and windows, to ensure their family’s safety. Gongs were struck and drums beaten. In more recent times firecrackers were ignited to scare away the fearsome beast from the vicinity of human settlements.

It seems this is working, for Nian has not been seen by anyone in living memory. Yet people persist in taking preventative measures around the New Year. After all, one can’t be too careful.

Some versions of the legend mention Hongjun Laozu, an aged Taoist monk who reasoned with Nian and eventually subdued him. It’s rumoured he may still riding Nian in the distant mountains of China.

Couplets outside of Chinese homes

In addition to lanterns you’ll also see couplets written on red backgrounds hung on houses celebrating the Chinese New Year.

Traditionally they consist of seven characters and wish people good luck – they are believed help to drive away evil spirits. This tradition dates back more than 1,000 years and began by people simply tying up two pieces of peach wood.

Dining together on Chinese New Year

It is important for Chinese families to celebrate together at New Year. That means dining together, even if it means a long journey sit with family members.

Ingot-shaped dumplings known as jiaozi feature in feasts in the north of the country while in the south stick rice cakes are eaten. During feasts it’s traditional for senior members of families to hand their juniors red envelopes containing money, symbolic of wishes for prosperity and good luck over the next twelve months.

Here’s wishing you wealth and good luck throughout the Year of the Monkey.

Chinese New Year celebrations in Newcastle-upon-Tyne's Chinatown.

Chinese New Year celebrations in Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Chinatown.

Six of the best – Places to enjoy Chinese New Year

Beijing, China – If you’re going to experience a genuine Chinese New Year, why not do so in the country’s capital? At the Temple of Earth (Ditan Park) you can observe re-enactments of Qing Dynasty ceremonies and view acrobats.

You can visit a number of temple fairs around the city. At the Changdian Temple you can taste traditional foodstuffs and browse stalls for handicrafts and calligraphy.

Hong Kong – A parade slinks through streets near Victoria Harbour on New Year’s Day. The following day a grand fireworks display will be fired into the night sky.

London, UK – Enjoy the celebratory buzz at restaurants in Chinatown, just off Leicester Square. Dancing and other artistic performances are held on Trafalgar Square.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK – Watch dragon, lion and unicorn dances take place along Stowell Street, from the colourful gate across the road from Newcastle United’s St James’ Park stadium. The 2016 event will take place on 14 February. Maybe some long-suffering football fans will take this as proof that there really is more chance of seeing a unicorn on the streets of the toon than of Newcastle United winning the Premier League?

New York, USA – Major celebrations are held in the Chinatown districts of cities around the USA. Take to the streets in New York to view the New Year Parade featuring floats, musicians and dancers.

Sydney, Australia – The city’s Chinese New Year Festival runs from 6 to 21 February. Dragon boat races and a fireworks display will be part of the celebrations held at Cockle Bay.

Vancouver, Canada – The colourful parade in Vancouver’s Chinatown draws thousands of onlookers and features dozens of dancing lions (note to members of animal rights groups: this means teams of human performers dressed in traditional costumes not big cats being tantalised by a whip-wielding, top hat wearing man with a waxed moustache). Take your camera to this spectacular event, which involves dancers from the Chinese community.

Red lanterns hung by the gate in London's Chinatown during Chinese New Year celebrations.

Red lanterns hung by the gate in London’s Chinatown during Chinese New Year celebrations.


The Stars and Stripes, the flag of the United States of America.

Super Bowl Sunday – America’s big day in

Super Bowl 50 takes place on 7 February 2016. The Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers, the respective winners of the American and National Football Conferences, will take to the field of the Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, to compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

The winning team will be dubbed American football’s world champions. To people outside of the United States of America that may seem a bold claim. Yet when the first Super Bowl was held, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1967, the game was a contest between the champions of the American and National Football Leagues, the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers respectively. The Packers won 35 – 10, thus earning the right to call themselves professional football’s champions of the world.

They retained the sport’s crown a year later, helping the team’s head coach, Vince Lombardi, attain legendary status. Lombardi died in 1970, the same year the two leagues merged, and the trophy was named in his honour.

Bringing people together across the USA

The Super Bowl is an event that brings people together throughout the USA. The day is widely known as Super Bowl Sunday and sees barbecues and parties held across the nation. It’s said that only on Thanksgiving, celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, is more food consumed than the day of the Super Bowl.

According to Nielsen, the company which analyses consumer data and provides statistics relating to television viewing figures, Super Bowl XLIX was the most watched American television programme of 2015. In fact, thanks to an average of 114.4 million viewers staying tuned, the game between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks was quickly declared the most watched broadcast in the history of American television. During the closely contested second-half, the viewing figures spiked at 168 million people – more than half the country’s population.

Despite the Seahawks holding a 10 point lead at the end of the third quarter the Patriots won what proved an exciting game 28 – 24. In the last minute, the Seahawks had driven the Patriots back to their own goal line, were in possession of the football and threatened to score. Yet with around 20 seconds on the clock Malcolm Butler, the Patriots cornerback, intercepted a pass from the Seahawks’ quarterback, Russell Wilson. Gaining possession secured victory for the Patriots.

The Super Bowl’s halftime show

The halftime break during the Super Bowl lasts for 30 minutes and, arguably, is American television’s most anticipated half-hour of the year. Thirty second advertising slots on the national network sold for $4.5m during the 2015 Super Bowl. The eye-watering sum of $5m has been mooted for ads during this year’s game. Some advertisers suggest the astronomical costs cannot be recouped. Yet a number of companies continue to make Super Bowl advertising the focal point of annual marketing campaigns.

Viewer responses to adverts aired during the Super Bowl are keenly monitored and analysed. The ads are much anticipated and some viewers tune in specifically to see them.

Online previews on portals such as Youtube also help generate a social media buzz around the adverts. During 2011 The Force, an advert for the Volkswagen Passat car, went viral, acquiring almost 17 million views ahead of the game. Featuring a boy dressed as Darth Vader, from the film Star Wars, it is accompanied by the pounding tune of The Imperial March. Thanks to its use of visual humour the ad was widely acclaimed a success.

Advertising during the Super Bowl

Frito-Lay, the makers of Doritos tortilla chips, engage people via their Crash the Super Bowl competition, featuring adverts scripted by members of the public. Online voting helps select the advert that will be aired during the game. The Doritos advert of 2009 – written by the brothers Dave and Joe Herbert from Batesville, Indiana – was deemed the best of all those shown during the Super Bowl in USA Today’s Ad Meter poll. That resulted in the Herberts bagging a $1m bonus from Frito-Lay. Despite its popularity, the company has announced this year’s competition will be the last.

Malcolm Butler’s interception was, from a marketing executive’s perspective, not the biggest of Super Bowl XLIX. Volvo, the Swedish automotive manufacturer, ran a much discussed media campaign eliciting more than 49,000 tweets during the four hours of the game.

Each time an advert for another manufacturer’s vehicle was aired Volvo encouraged viewers to take to Twitter and use the hashtags #VolvoContest and #VolvoInterception to nominate the worthy winner of a Volvo car. With a limited spend, the campaign increased brand awareness by generating publicity on talk and news shows, plus coverage in print and online media.

The most sought-after advertising spots are those dovetailed around the Super Bowl’s halftime show, in which some of the biggest names in music have performed. Coldplay will take to the stage this year, following Katy Perry during Super Bowl XLIX, a show seen by 118.5 million viewers. Michael Jackson (1993), U2 (2002) and the Rolling Stones (2006) are among the acts that have wowed viewers during the big game.

That famous wardrobe malfunction

The 2004 show, featuring Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson, is also memorable. Many people recall it for the furore surrounding the ‘wardrobe malfunction’ that resulted in Jackson’s breast being seen in living rooms across the USA. The incident sparked a debate on decency and overshadowed the game. The Federal Communications Commission slapped CBS, the broadcaster, with a fine of $550,000, which was subsequently overturned.

This year’s game is not being promoted with the usual Roman numerals; Super Bowl 50 follows on from Super Bowl XLIX. The Pittsburg Steelers have won six so far, making them the most successful team in Super Bowl history. The Buffalo Bills achieved the feat of reaching four consecutive Super Bowls between 1991 and 1994, winning none.

Anyone in the San Francisco Bay Area in the week ahead of game day can swing by the free-to-visit fan zone, Super Bowl City, which features family-friendly activities and cultural performances.

Without a doubt, there’s a lot of buzz about advertising and the Super Bowl halftime show. But, come the much-anticipated kick-off, for true football fans it’s all about what happens on the field. If you want to predict the winner drop us a line.

More information

Find out more about the sport on the official National Football League website.

See the Visit the USA, Visit California and San Francisco Travel websites in order to plan a trip stateside.

A map showing California in the USA.

A map showing California and the western USA.

Garbanzas stew served in Tenerife, Spain.

Top spots for Canarian cuisine on Tenerife

Sex, booze and sun-kissed sand – many holidaymakers flying to Tenerife see these as essential elements of their perfect vacation. Of course, ask locals and they’ll tell you there’s markedly more to the largest and most populous of the Canary Islands.

They’ll urge you to view the rugged, volcanic landscapes of Teide National Park, the home of Spain’s highest peak, the eponymous Mount Teide (whose summit stands 3,718 metres above sea level). Trekking in the ancient laurel forest of Anaga Rural Park, on the north-east of the island, is another tip they readily share. Tasting traditional Tenerifan cuisine in a tasca or guachinche, unpretentious and inexpensive eateries, is another way of getting to know the island and its culture.

The Costa Adeje in Tenerife, Spain.

The Costa Adeje in Tenerife, Spain.

Mass tourism and greasy food

You might find it hard to believe such dining spots exist on an island that, over the past four decades, has made its name as a mass tourism destination. After all, many of the millions who enjoy Canarian sunshine want to do so fuelled exclusively by the food they eat back at home.

Los Cristianos and Playa de Las Américas, on the south-west of the island, have won dubious reputations for their timeshare properties and boozy nightlife. Hangovers after heavy nights out on the Dorada, Tenerife’s local beer, create demand for fried breakfasts on the terraces of seafront cafes. The idea of people travelling abroad to dine on fish and chips or gammon and eggs has resulted in some food snobs refusing even to countenance a visit to Tenerife.

Rest assured, there’s more than just greasy British grub to be had on Tenerife. The island offers much for discerning foodies.

Wrinkly potatoes with dipping sauces

If you’ve ever visited Tenerife you’ll know one of the staple foods of the island is papas arrugadas – boiled potatoes still in their wrinkled, salt-crusted skins – served with a coriander-laced green mojo sauce. The red version of the sauce, mojo rojo, has a spicy kick thanks to the presence of chilli. Dipping the potatoes in the sauces can serve as a simple but tasty snack or as a filling accompaniment to fish- or meat-based dishes.

One such delicacy is carne fiesta, a succulent dish of cubed meat – often pork – that’s been marinaded in a garlicky, peppery sauce. Locals swear that red wine produced from grapes grown on the mineral-rich, volcanic soil on the north of Tenerife is the ideal accompaniment to the dish. I was warned carne fiesta doesn’t taste nearly as good when served with wine from the Spanish mainland or elsewhere in the world.

Tenerife's papas arrugadas with and mojo rojo sauce.

Tenerife’s papas arrugadas with and mojo rojo sauce.

Chickpea stew and gofio

Good, tasty food can also be simple, as I found when tasting sopa de garbanza, which translates as chickpea soup but is, in fact, more a of a stew. Chickpeas form the mainstay of the dish, which is often a served as a starter but could be a meal in itself, especially when accompanied by a basket of bread and carafe of wine.

I tasted a home-style version of sopa de garbanza on the terrace of the 4-star Hotel VillAlba at Milaflor. For dessert a mousse made from gofio, a flour from roasted grains, was served with fresh fruit. Keep your senses open and you’ll see and taste gofio in a number of dishes around the Canary Islands.

Gofio served and fresh fruit.

Gofio served and fresh fruit.

Top places to taste Canarian cuisine

Here are nine highly rated restaurants where you can try Canarian cuisine on Tenerife. There are, of course, many more on the island:

Bodegas Monje (Camino Cruz de Leandro 26, El Sauzal; tel. +34 922 585027) – After a guided tour of the vineyard while away an afternoon in the restaurant, which has a sizable terrace with ocean views.

Bogey (Las Madrigueras Golf Resort and Spa, Playa de Las Américas; tel. +34 922 777818) – A smart restaurant where Jesus Gonzalez and his team interpret traditional dishes from the Canary Islands.

Délicieux Tasca Restaurante (Antonio Dominguez Alfonso 6, La Noria; tel. +34 922 547186) – The décor of the dining room is bright and modern but it’s a good bet for local, Spanish and international dishes, including conejo en salmorejo (rabbit in herby tomato sauce).

Dula y Pipa (Trasera camino del Torreón 2, El Ramal; tel. +34 922 333509) – Chef Juan Carlos Clemente and his team put a modern interpretation on the island’s dishes at La Granja Verde, in La Orotava valley, where herbs, fruit and vegetables grow in expansive gardens.

El Lajar de Bello (Carretera General del Sur 35, La Camella; tel. +34 922 720382) – With a tiled floor, wooden ceiling and warm ambiance this restaurant is a good bet if you want to taste Canarian cuisine but have people with you who favour international dishes.

Meson La Finca Chayofa (Calle el Taroso 43, Chayofa; tel. +34 922 729189) – Taste Canarian delicacies or succumb to the tempting aromas of the grilled meat dishes at this restaurant that grows its own vegetables.

Restaurante Bodegón Casa Tomás (Callejón de la Iglesia 2, El Portezuelo; tel. +34 922 636971) – This popular yet highly regarded restaurant serves Canarian delicacies, including tripe and goat.

Tasca El Granero (Calle Isla Margarita 14, Arona; tel. +34 922 720745) – Sit below wooden beams in this compact eatery that has a reputation for its stuffed courgettes and succulent ribs.

Tasca José Mi Niño (Avenida Antonio Dominguez 24, Playa de las Américas; tel. +34 922 790114) – You can taste dishes from the Canaries and elsewhere in the Med at this inviting dining spot, where you’ll see murals on the walls and hams hanging. If you enjoy seafood why not try the local take on octopus?

Why didn’t we recommend ten of Tenerife’s restaurants? The tenth is down to you. Send us a message and recommend your favourite.

Additional information

For more information about the island and where to dine, see the Tenerife Tourism Commission and Todo Tenerife websites. The Real Tenerife and My Destination – Tenerife are both managed by locally based experts and are good sources of ideas for things to do and see.

Carne fiesta (marinaded pork) served in Tenerife, Spain.

Carne fiesta (marinaded pork) served in Tenerife, Spain.

The Old Station house at Mahone Bay in Nova Scotia.

Postcards from Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia

Mahone Bay is an attractive small town on the scenic Lighthouse Route that skirts Nova Scotia’s South Shore.

Thanks the to the narrowness of the inlet leading from the North Atlantic and the dense woodland surrounding this town of less than 1,000 residents you could be forgiven for thinking Mahone Bay sits by the shore of a lake.

Yet like so many Nova Scotian towns, Mahone Bay has a maritime heritage. It once had a reputation for ship and boat building.

The story of that industry and the settlement of the area, from the 1750s onwards, is told in Mahone Bay Museum.

The museum building, Begin House, dates from 1875. It shares an architectural element with many other heritage buildings in the vicinity, the Lunenburg Bump. It’s said that the wives of sea captains used to await the return of their man sitting by the windows of the dormers, which are located above the front entrances of houses.

The town is a pleasant place to stroll in summer, when it comes alive as a tourist destination. It’s known across Canada thanks to the much photographed churches down by the waterfront.

The three churches at Mahone Bay in Nova Scotia, Canada.

The three churches at Mahone Bay in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Don’t miss…

The famous view of Mahone Bay’s three waterfront churches. On bright summer days you may be lucky enough to see them surrounded by blue, reflecting in the placid water of the bay

The trio of buildings – St James’ Anglican Church, St John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and Trinity United Church – stand on the logically named Edgewater Street.

One of the locals I spoke to mentioned it would be worth returning in autumn, to see the churches set among the gold and red foliage of fall.

How to get here

Stuart flew from London Gatwick (LGW) to Halifax (YHZ) via Keflavik (KEF) with Icelandair.

The drive from Halifax to Mahone Bay takes just under an hour.

The waterfront bandstand in Mahone Bay.

The waterfront bandstand in Mahone Bay.

What to eat and drink

Despite being a small town, Mahone Bay has plenty of places to dine.

For seafood, including fish and chips, head to Oh My Cod (567 Main Street), whose name alone warrants a visit to the restaurant.

Normally I shy away from chains but couldn’t resist popping into Tim Hortons (33 Edgewater Street), a Canadian institution, for a cup of filter coffee and to pick up a box of 20 Timbits. Described to me as ‘the holes from doughnuts’ the golf ball sized snacks come in flavoured glazes. They are delicious (particularly the cinnamon Timbits) and ideal from sharing during a road trip.

Where to stay

Why not boast to friends that you spent a night in the Fisherman’s Daughter (97 Edgewater Street, tel. +1 902 624 0660)? This family-run B&B is a heritage building constructed during the mid-19th century. The cosy Captain’s Quarter, one of the Fisherman’s Daughter’s four guestrooms, gives you views of the bay plus an original claw foot bathtub to steep in.

More information

Find out more about on the town on the Mahone Bay website.

Take a look at the Tourism Nova Scotia page for ideas about things to see and do in the Province.

The Explore Canada site holds information about Nova Scotia and destinations throughout the country.

Having a whale of a time at Mahone Bay in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Having a whale of a time at Mahone Bay in Nova Scotia, Canada.

The Gorenjska Region. (Source:; Photographer: Ana Pogacar).

Trekking in Slovenia

After touching down in Ljubljana, you might be tempted to hire a car, board a train or travel by bus. However, one of the most rewarding ways of exploring Slovenia is on foot.

Trekking gives you the quietude and time to appreciate the chirp of birdsong and the relaxing sound of foliage whispering and rustling as it sways. Slovenia may occupy just 20,151 square kilometres of Europe’s landmass but if you take the percentage of ground covered by woodland as the measurement for ranking the continent’s most forested nations then it is third, behind the Scandinavian neighbours Sweden and Finland. Remarkably, around 58 percent of Slovenia is covered by forest.

Woodland and conservation zones

In addition to being one of Europe’s greenest nations, roughly 36 per cent of the country’s surface falls within the boundaries of conservation zones and nature protection areas forming part of the European Union’s Natura 2000 network. One of the strategic aims of Natura 2000 is to conserve the continent’s natural habitats and wildlife. Inevitably, trekking provides opportunities to catch glimpses of animals and birdlife and to form impressions as to the impact of the project.

The country has more than 7,000 kilometres of marked trails. Within Slovenia’s borders you’ll have opportunities to trek through Alpine meadows, alongside the shores of lakes and approximately 27,000 kilometres of waterways, on rugged uplands and by the country’s 46.6 kilometres of Adriatic coastline.

Two European long-distance footpaths

Two of the twelve European long-distance footpaths created by the European Ramblers’ Association intersect the country. Even experienced trekkers need around 30 days to follow the 600-kilometre course of footpath E7 within Slovenia, just a fraction of the transnational trail connecting El Hierro in Spain and Novi Sad in Serbia. It crosses Slovenia between Robič, on the Italian border, and Hodoš, by the frontier with Hungary. Approaching Hodoš will take you through rolling vineyards and onto a 418-metre high hilltop in the Nature Park Goričko, giving views into neighbouring Austria and Hungary.

The highest point on the trail is Mount Porezen, 1,632 metres above sea level, a peak offering views of the Julian Alps and, in clear conditions, the sea. The region witnessed heavy fighting during World War Two, so has points of interest for aficionados of military history. Thankfully peace reigns today, allowing wildlife to flourish. Chamois live on the slopes while, above, you may see golden eagles soaring gracefully on the thermals as they watch for prey.

Walking from Finland to Greece

The other long-distance footpath, the E6, cuts 6,300 kilometres across the continent on a north-south axis, between Finland and Greece. The trail runs for 350 kilometres within Slovenia. From Radelj, on the border with Austria, it takes around twenty days to reach the coast at Strunjan, by the elegant coastal town of Portorose, once a destination favoured by the well-to-do of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The path encompasses the Pohorje Mountains and Posavje Hills, meaning a trek on Mount Snežnik, whose peak reaches 1,796 metres over sea level.

If you enjoy mountain scenery then pack your boots and head to Triglav National Park, which covers an area of 838 square kilometres. It became a conservation area back in 1924 and remains Slovenia’s only national park. The three-peaked mountain which gives the park its name features on the country’s flag and, reaching to 2,864 metres, is the nation’s highest.

Hiking under Pernik Waterfall. (Source:; Photographer: Nea Culpa).

Hiking under Pernik Waterfall. (Source:; Photographer: Nea Culpa).

Mount Triglav and the Vrata Valley

Mountain huts provide refuge for those making an ascent to the peak, an exercise that normally requires a couple of days’ effort. Walking along the Vrata Valley provides views of the Peričnik Waterfall, where water first tumbles 16 metres before dropping a further 52 metres.

The area is popular with photographers and planning a trip in autumn means avoiding the steady stream of summer visitors. If water sports are your thing then plan to spend time at nearby Lake Bohinj, the country’s largest glacial lake.

European Destinations of Excellence

Walking here places you close to the Soča Valley, which in 2008 became the first of Slovenia’s five European Destinations of Excellence, known by the idyllic sounding acronym EDEN. The scenic area is criss-crossed by trails revealing the horrors of conflict during World War One, including the Path of Peace.

Kluže Fortress, built by the Austrians in the late 19th century, hosts exhibitions about the history of the fortifications and the ecology of the region. If you enjoy outdoor activities then the canyoning and kayaking are among the reasons to take off your boots, along with the seasonal trout fishing.

Trekking and Slovenian cuisine

Trekking, of course, burns calories and Slovenians are proud of their cuisine. In 1799 the first Slovenian cookbook was published and a memorial to the author, Valentin Vodnik, stands at Ljubljana’s central market. Refuelling is essential but dining is also a means of tasting local produce. Fresh water fish plus Tomlin and Bovec cheeses are among the delicacies of the Soča Valley.

As you hike through the country you’ll discover many other dishes served in restaurants and taverns.

Further information

Find out more about the country and its attractions on the Visit Slovenia website.

All photos are supplied courtesy of The photographer of the headline image is Ana Pogacar.

Dreznica in Slovenia. (Source:; Photographer: Paolo Petrignan).

Dreznica in Slovenia. (Source:; Photographer: Paolo Petrignan).

Atrium of the Marina Mandarin Singapore.

Marina Mandarin Singapore hotel

The gentle chirping of birdsong greets me as I step outside my hotel room on the 19th floor of the Marina Mandarin Singapore.

“There’s a man over there who tends to the birds every day,” says a fellow guest as she wanders past me on her way towards the lifts.

I’d assumed the lilting twittering was a recording but this is no ordinary hotel. The Mandarin Marina Singapore is a true five-star property. Sure enough there’s a man on the far side of the cavernous atrium tending to a nightingale within an elegantly shaped cage.

Singapore Slings in the Atrium Lounge

Morning light is flooding into the lobby. I look down at the chairs and tables of the Atrium Lounge, down on level four. Last night I’d sat there until the bar closed sipping delicious Singapore Slings served by waitresses in high-collared, Chinese style dresses.

Arriving from Changi Airport at 10.00pm meant I hadn’t had time to get over to Raffles for a Singapore Sling in the Long Bar. My disappointment at not being able to fulfil that wish was soon assuaged by the powerful kick of the first of several cocktails in the Atrium Lounge. To be sensible I’d also ordered myself a club sandwich – a hangover in the tropical humidity of Singapore would surely be no fun at all.

The Marina Mandarin’s atrium

I pause by the lifts and photograph down into the atrium. Its volume, subtle illumination and stylish design were sufficient to draw a murmured wow from me upon arrival last night.

Even in daylight it looks remarkable. This hotel opened its doors in 1987 but there’s nothing tired about the Marina Mandarin Singapore. Refurbs have ensured John Portman’s symmetrical design continues to impress.

In 2015 the Marina Mandarin was named Best City Hotel at the Travel Trade Gazette’s Travel Awards for the third consecutive year.

A breakfast buffet and a half

I cross the lobby and head up to the breakfast buffet, from which I sample an eclectic selection of sushi, dim sum and fresh tropical fruit.

It strikes me that I could stay in the hotel for a week without munching through even half of the buffet. European, Indian and local dishes contribute just part of the vast array of food available. I suppose in a transport hub such as Singapore it pays to cater for palates from a cross-section of global cultures.

The hotel, I’ve noticed, has five dining spaces, including Peach Blossoms, an upscale Cantonese restaurant, and a Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

A rooftop pool with NASA technology

Sitting in my room, last night, I’d been impressed to read the hotel’s 25-metre swimming pool utilises an ionisation system developed by NASA. Traces of copper, silver and zinc are used to maintain the purity of the mineral water in the pool – not a drop of chlorine.

At school I was told it is dangerous to swim during the hour following a meal. Cramps and drowning could result, we were warned. Is there any truth in that? I pondered the matter as I sauntered past the pool to enjoy a rooftop view of the Central Area’s bold architecture.

Skyscrapers occupied by financial institutions stand near the curved metallic rooftops of buildings known locally as ‘the big durians’, after the spiky fruit whose custardy core soon begins to stink when exposed to air. The iconic buildings host a performing arts centre, the Esplanade.

Buildings in the Central Area of Singapore.

Buildings in the Central Area of Singapore.

In the heat of the night

On arrival, last night, I slid open the patio door of my room and stepped out onto the balcony to photograph the view. Moving between the air-conditioned cool of the room and the humidity of the downtown Singapore soon caused my lens to fog with condensation.

As I waited for it to clear I looked over at the Suntec Convention and Exhibition Centre. I could also see the slowly turning wheel of the Singapore Flyer and tower-like structures within the Gardens by the Bay.

I was told the hotel overlooks the Marina Bat Street Circuit used in Formula One’s Singapore Grand Prix though, unfortunately, in the night I couldn’t make out familiar stretches.

Dawn over the Singapore Strait.

Dawn over the Singapore Strait.

Staying in the Marina Mandarin

The hotel has 575 rooms and suites.

I have been allocated a modern, spacious room with a king-size bed. An abstract contemporary painting hangs over the desk where I make use of the free wi-fi to check emails and check into my next flight. Meanwhile, CNN News, something I only watch when I’m in hotels, plays on the flat-screen television.

The marble bathroom features a bathtub and a walk-in shower cubicle.

I wish I was staying longer and could make use of the room for a couple of days but I have to hit the road again. Ultimately, if you want to return to a hotel, then you know it’s made a positive impression.

Bedroom in the five-star Marina Mandarin Singapore.

Bedroom in the five-star Marina Mandarin Singapore.

The Marina Mandarin Singapore

The Marina Mandarin Singapore hotel (tel. +65 6845 1000) is at 6 Raffles Boulevard on Marina Square.

The hotel is part of the Meritus group of hotels and resorts and operates a best price guarantee for online bookings via the hotel’s website.

Esplanade is the closest of Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) stations to the Marina Mandarin hotel.

Getting to Singapore

Stuart travelled with Singapore Airlines between London Heathrow and Singapore Changi Airport. Singapore Airlines operate four flights a day between the two international transport hubs. The flights take around 13 hours.

Further information

Find out more about the attractions of Singapore on YourSingapore, Singapore Tourist Board’s website.

Atrium of the Marina Mandarin Singapore.

Atrium of the Marina Mandarin Singapore.

2015 jury members Miro Branković, Alfi Kabiljo and Damir Trputec at the Zagreb Tourfilm Festival.

Zagreb Tourfilm Festival

One of my personal highlights of 2015 was attending the Zagreb Tourfilm Festival, where I had the honour of being President of the Jury.

The film festival was held in the Croatian capital from 21 to 24 September. More than 600 entries were received from around the world. I can vouch that reaching decisions was not always easy. Some long discussions ensued regarding the artistic and technical merits of films.

Following the gala dinner and awards ceremony in the ball room of the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel I had a chat with Spomenka Saraga, the Festival Director.

“The Zagreb Tourfilm Festival was the mutual idea of Zagreb Tourist Board and me. With the help of Zagreb city, a lot of enthusiasm and a great deal of energy we were able to realise it for the first time in 2012,” says Ms Saraga, an experienced film producer whose work includes the 2007 film Unique Dubrovnik. The film played a role in raising international awareness about the attractions of the Dalmatian city that many people today recognise from Game of Thrones.

Spomenka Saraga, Festival Director, Zagreb Tourfilm Festival

Spomenka Saraga, Festival Director, Zagreb Tourfilm Festival

Tourism movies and reportage

“At the festival we show tourism-related movies and reportage. They come from all over the world to promote the nature, architecture, people, culture and activities of different countries. We show diversity of the world with one thing in common; beauty,” says Ms Saraga.

“The movies from Bangladesh and Greece always stand out with beauty and humour. This year my favourite movie is Only in Ghent because it’s very different and has an alternative, anti-commercial tone,” she adds.

Stuart at the 2015 Zagreb Tourfilm Festival.

Stuart Forster at the 2015 Zagreb Tourfilm Festival.

Promoting Zagreb and its people

“For Zagreb it’s very important to have a festival like this because it promotes city and its people. It also provides opportunities to our guests to connect and network with people from other countries and festivals. This kind of promotion of the city is very good for the economy and tourism in general,” says Ms Saraga.

“We prepared a lot of interesting events for our guests. The festival started with a red carpet opening ceremony. Over the following two days we have excursions and sightseeing events for festival guests. There was an interesting round table discussion on the subject of tourism film production, a wine academy plus a presentation about Dubrovnik’s Good Food Festival,” explains the director of the event.

While you’re in Zagreb

“The Zagreb Tourfilm Festival’s attendees have had some time to see Zagreb,” explains Ms Saraga, who has worked with film production companies from around the world.

“I would recommend visitors take a look at Zagreb’s upper town because of its charm, romantic lanes filled with historical and cultural attractions. Highlights include St Mark’s Church, the Atelier Meštrović, where people can see artworks by Ivan Meštrović and the Museum of Broken Relationships. Lotrščak Tower and the nearby promenade have some great views of the city,” she says enthusiastically.

“To feel Zagreb’s pulse, I would recommend Flower Square – Trg Petra Preradovića in Croatian – which has a lot of cafés. Though it’s almost impossible to find a free seat to drink coffee because drinking coffee is part of Croatia’s heritage,” she adds laughing.

“For those who love spending time in nature, I would recommend a walk through the Ribnjak or Maksimir parks, or a visit to the Botanical Garden. It feels like you’re far away from the city but you’re just around the corner from the heart of the city,” she adds.

Take a look at the Zagreb Tourfilm Festival website to learn more about the event and find out how to submit films to the 2016 edition. The deadline for submitting entries is 30 April 2016.

Highlights of the 2015 Zagreb Tourfilm Festival

The film Time, from Switzerland, won the festival’s Grand Prix.

The category Best TV Documentary up to 60 Minutes was won by When the Villagers Left, about sustainable tourism in rural Vietnam.

Only in Ghent came top of the Best Film up to Seven Minutes category.

Share Istria won the Best Croatian Film up to Three Minutes award.

Further information

Screenings during the 2015 film festival were held within the Mimara Museum in the heart of Zagreb. Learn more about the city’s attractions on the Zagreb Tourist Board website.

See the Croatia Tourist Board site for ideas for travel around the country beyond Zagreb.

Getting there

Stuart flew from Newcastle to Zagreb with British Airways via London Heathrow. Zagreb is around two hours 20 minutes’ flying time from London.

The Awards Ceremony at the 2015 Zagreb Tourfilm Festival.

The Awards Ceremony at the 2015 Zagreb Tourfilm Festival.

Wasbar cafe and wash salon in Ghent, Belgium.

Wasbar café & wash salon in Ghent, Belgium

A man in his 20s squeezes past our chairs, places a bag on the floor and delves his hand deep into Mariette. I’ve never seen anything quite like this in a café.

Wasbar, in Ghent, is a cross between a designer café and a wash salon. Named washing machines are ranged along the wall next to me. Mariette stands between Marcel and Roman. I catch a waft of warm, moist, lavender-scented fresh washing. The man completes the task of collecting his clothes, apologises politely for his timing and strolls out.

Préparé sandwiches with sparkling water

When he arrived we’d just started to tuck into our whole grain sandwiches topped with préparé, sometimes known as filet américain in this part of the world, the Belgian take on steak tartare. I take a sip of Chaudfontaine Rood sparkling mineral water, served with ice and a wedge of lemon, and look around.

The place we’re in has a hip, laid-back feel. It’s nothing like the functional, slightly depressing strip light lit launderettes I used to wash my clothes in. Two trendy white lampshades fashioned from metal coat hangers protect single bulbs hanging over the adjacent table.

A lampshade in the Wasbar cafe and wash salon in Ghent, Belgium.

A lampshade in the Wasbar cafe and wash salon in Ghent, Belgium.

A place to hang out

This is a place where people hang out. A couple of women are chatting over coffee and cakes in ‘60s style soft chairs by the window.

There’s a piano in the far corner. Board games and books are stacked on shelves in the corridor leading to the loos. A big Electrolux sign is painted on a petrol blue wall above a narrow wall-mounted table.

Drawers have been hung vertically on the walls above the washing machines to create shelving. A handful display Wasbar’s price lists, some have instructions for using the washing machines and a couple hold potted plants.

A lampshade in the Wasbar cafe and wash salon in Ghent, Belgium.

A lampshade in the Wasbar cafe and wash salon in Ghent, Belgium.

A quirky yet inviting café

This place is quirky but it works. Thanks to dark wooden floors, wood-topped tables and smiling staff Wasbar makes an inviting impression. Even without a bag full of washing I’m glad we’ve stopped by while cycling around Ghent. The food is reasonably priced and tastes good.

Cakes are displayed under glass on the top of the pastel-tiled bar where Wasbar’s staff take orders for sandwiches and drinks. Chalkboard menus list lemonades, smoothies, ice tea and cocktails plus today’s choice of sandwiches.

I suppose dining at a café within a wash salon has one major advantage over most places – if I spill anything on my shirt I’ll be able to take care of the damage right away.

Further information

Wasbar is at Nederkouter 109 in Ghent (tel: +32 9 3354825). See the Wasbar website for up-to-date information regarding opening times.

See the Visit Ghent website for more information about things to do and see in the city.

The Visit Flanders website is a good source of information about the surrounding region.

Getting to Ghent

Ghent is around 56km north-west of Brussels. Trains cover that distance in around 50 minutes. Visit the website to book rail travel from the United Kingdom to Ghent.

Wasbar cafe and wash salon in Ghent, Belgium.

Wasbar cafe and wash salon in Ghent, Belgium.

Christmas tree by the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany.

Postcards from Berlin’s Christmas markets

Germany is renowned for its popular Advent markets. Berlin, the national capital since 3 October 1990, hosts around 60 of them, making it a good option if you’re keen to experience a handful of markets without travelling beyond the city boundaries.

Each market has its own character. Yet all Christmas markets look their most magical in the evening. Wooden huts selling gifts, food and drink look especially cosy at night with colourful lights twinkling around them.

WeihnachtsZauber at the Gendarmenmarkt

The Gendarmenmarkt, ten minutes’ walk from the Brandenburg Gate, is the location of the popular WeihnachtsZauber market. The name means ‘Christmas Magic’ in English. The stalls are housed within white tents topped by yellow stars.

Meandering around the market is as much about savouring the convivial atmosphere as shopping for presents. Fur hats and knitwear count among the goods on sale at stalls between the French and German cathedrals.

After a cup of mulled wine you can take a look at the memorial to Friedrich Schiller outside the Konzerthaus Berlin. Alternatively, you could simply return to the counter and order another, this time mit Schuss – that’s with a shot of rum or Amaretto.

Sign for the WiehnachtsZauber Christmas market at Berlin's Gendarmenmarkt.

Sign for the WiehnachtsZauber Christmas market at Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt.

Christmas market at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church stands are a reminder of the destruction wrought during World War Two. It is located at Breitscheidplatz on Kürfurstendamm, the street locals refer to as Ku’damm. Photos of the roofless ruins of post-war Berlin are displayed in the church, whose mosaic-clad walls bear the broad scars of repairs to damage inflicted during aerial bombardment.

The Christmas market surrounding the church comes alive at dusk, when locals descend for post-work drinks at stalls. You can rock in a swing and sip mulled wine or mooch between stalls while grazing on roast almonds and chocolate covered fruit.

If you’re an ardent shopper then cross Hardenberg Strasse to enter Bikini Berlin, a concept shopping centre with designer stores and windows looking into the city’s zoo.

Lights streaks by the City Weihnachtsmarkt am Gedachtniskirche Christmas market on Ku'damm.

Lights streaks by the City Weihnachtsmarkt am Gedachtniskirche Christmas market on Ku’damm.

The Christmas markets at Alexanderplatz

Head for the Fernsehturm – Berlin’s iconic television tower, once a symbol of the German Democratic Republic’s modernity – and you’re just a couple of minutes’ walk from Alexanderplatz and two Christmas markets.

During the run up to Christmas wooden huts on and around the square sell gifts ranging from Russian style fur hats, replete with hammer and sickle cap badges, to traditional wood figures carved in the Erzgebirge region.

The Wintertraum am Alexa is a cross between a funfair and a Christmas market. Located behind the Alexa shopping mall, this is the place to come if you fancy popping in to a haunted house, boosting your adrenalin via a vertical drop ride or taking a spin on the big wheel. The Ferris wheel stands almost 60 metres tall and provides fine views over the city.

The Ferris wheel at the Alexa Christmas market in Berlin, Germany.

The Ferris wheel at the Alexa Christmas market in Berlin, Germany.

What to eat and drink

A German Christmas market just wouldn’t be the same without munching on a mustard-smothered Bratwurst (grilled sausage) served in a fresh bread bun.

Berlin prides itself on the quality of its Currywurst mit Pommes (sausage served with curry sauce and French fries), a dish that locals claim was invented in their city in the wake of World War Two. You won’t have to look too hard to find a stall where you can try this popular combination.

If you enjoy doughnuts, why not try one of the Quarkbälle (quark balls) sold at stalls around Christmas markets. As the name suggests, quark features in spheres of heavy, deep-fried dough. Yum?

Freshly baked Handbrot, bread filled with melted cheese and a variety of accompaniments, including ham and mushrooms, is a tasty and filling option.

Inevitably, you’ll be just a few paces from a stall selling Glühwein, mulled wine. If you’re feeling adventurous and are in the mood for something a bit stronger then try a Jagertee or Feuerzangenbowle, warm drinks featuring rum.

A sweets and nuts stall at the Weihnachtsmarkt am Gedachtniskirche Christmas market on Ku'damm in Berlin.

A sweets and nuts stall at the Weihnachtsmarkt am Gedachtniskirche Christmas market on Ku’damm in Berlin.

Don’t miss…

The opportunity to go ice skating at the temporary outdoor rink by the Stage Theater am Potsdamer Platz. You can also slide in giant inner tubes on Europe’s longest mobile toboggan run. Like the ice rink, the 70-metre long ramp is part of the Winter World at Potsdamer Platz.

How to get here

Stuart booked return flights from Newcastle International Airport (NCL) to Berlin Tegel (TXL) with KLM via Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. The flights cost £173.83, exclusive of baggage charges for a suitcase.

The centre of Berlin is approximately 30 minutes’ bus journey from Tegel Airport. Regular TXL buses run between the airport and Alexanderplatz in the heart of the city. Purchase a Berlin transport system ticket for zones A and B before travelling. Singles and day tickets are available. Berlin WelcomeCards are valid for stays of between two and six days and brings the advantage of discounts at a number of attractions and restaurants.

Dining out in Berlin

If you’re in the mood for German cuisine in a long-established Berlin bar then try dining at Radke’s Gasthaus (Marburger Strasse 16, 10789 Berlin; tel: +49 (0)30 2134652). Dishes including Königsberger Klopse and schnitzels feature on the menu and you can order draught beers such as Berliner Kindl. Newspaper cuttings about key events in Berlin’s modern history are displayed in the corridor leading to the toilets.

Where to stay

The H10 Berlin Ku’damm hotel (Joachimsthaler Strasse 31-32, 10709 Berlin; tel: +49 (0)30 322922300) is a modern, 4-star property with 199 rooms. The facilities include a spacious lobby bar, an on-site restaurant plus a spa and beauty centre. Staying here places you a five-minute walk from the Christmas market around the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and ten from the iconic KaDeWe department store.

The nHow Berlin hotel (Stralauer Allee 3, 10245 Berlin; +49 (0)30 2902990) has 304 designer bedrooms and gives you opportunities to borrow DJ mixing decks, keyboards and electric guitars to play with in your room. The staff here are welcoming and helpful. A number of the pink guestrooms overlook the River Spree. The East Side Gallery is a couple of minutes’ stroll from the hotel.

More information

Find out more about the city and its attractions on the Visit Berlin website. The site also contains information on the start and end dates of Christmas markets held around the city.

See the German National Tourist Board’s website for ideas about attractions in Berlin and elsewhere in the country.

A Christmas tree stands by the Reichstag Building in Berlin, Germany.

A Christmas tree stands by the Reichstag Building in Berlin, Germany.

A Canadian breakfast of pancakes, crispy bacon, potatoes and maple syrup.

Maple syrup in Nova Scotia, Canada

Is there anything more Canadian than maple syrup? Rumour has it that even Mounties, lumberjacks and ice hockey players start their day with lashings of the dark amber syrup on their sugar-dusted pancakes.

I love a dash of the stuff to sweeten and flavour my morning porridge, so seize an opportunity to discover how the syrup gets from the tree to the table at the visitor centre of Acadian Maple Products near Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia.

Brian Allaway, the company’s President and VP Sales, welcomes me, explaining how he started tapping maple syrup as a hobby. The sap of maple trees is tapped, collected then heated so it reduces to just 1/40th of its original liquidity. Glancing at the wall I examine an old photo, showing an orange tarpaulin over a simple shack. I guess it must be where things began for the Allaways’ family business.

Brian Allaway, the President of Acadian Maple Products.

Brian Allaway, the President of Acadian Maple Products.

The origins of Acadian Maple Products

“We started as a hobby 33 years ago. I learnt how to do this as a child and I took my kids out into the backyard back in 1982 and showed them how to make maple syrup. We made a little too much, so I was able to sell some down at gift shop at Peggy’s Cove. A couple of weeks later he was looking for more, so I had to buy some from a producer and fill up all the little jars!” says Brian with a smile.

“The next year we tapped more trees and the next year more trees. Finally we built up our own sugar camp in 1995,” adds the former school principal.

“Back in 2003 my wife and I were retiring from another occupation and our son was graduating from university. He was wondering what to do with is life and said ‘I’d like to turn out hobby business into a real business,’” so, consequently, things became formalised. The building we are in dates from 2009 and provides work for 20 people.

A factory, visitor centre and shop

The front section of Acadian Maple Products houses a shop selling, you guessed it, maple syrup products plus the visitor centre, which has a window into the factory. Brian invites me to pull on a hairnet and a white jacket and join him on a tour of the premises.

The site is close to the port, so good for exporting products, and near enough to Peggy’s Cove to draw passing tourists into the shop.

Hygiene and quality control standards are high. Beyond five stacked 1,000 litre tubs of maple syrup Brian opens a chest freezer and pulls out a plastic bag jangling with vials.

“For every bit of maple syrup that comes into our plant we have a retention sample with a unique identifier number. This has to be kept frozen for two years. That’s for traceability purposes. So if there was ever any problem, we’d get a phone call emergency saying there’s people getting sick or whatever, we could go back to the individual containers of maple syrup that come in and send these off to a lab. They would identify which container and which producer the problem originated with. There’s never been a problem but we have to be ready,” explains Brian earnestly.

The company focuses its business on Europe, including the United Kingdom, and has recently begun exporting products to China. Brian explains it would take just ten minutes to trace to where batches have been shipped if there was ever a problem.

Machinery on the production line at Acadian Maple Products.

Machinery on the production line at Acadian Maple Products.

An analogue logistical system

Brian catches me looking at colouful stickers on the factory wall and explains the company uses the Just-in-Time manufacturing process pioneered by Toyota. In our digital age the analogue system clearly still works well here at Acadian Maple Products.

The factory remains open 50 weeks a year, the exception being around the Christmas and New Year period.

“We try to keep the plant running five days a week. A fishing boat doesn’t make any money when it’s tied up at the wharf,” says Brian, using a business metaphor very apt in Atlantic Canada.

The factory also packages maple-based products for small companies in the region. Maple butter, maple flavoured peanuts and maple popcorn are among the items bottled, bagged and wrapped on the production line in addition to pure maple syrup.

Machinery throbs and whirs. Every now and then a buzz pierces the rhythmic noise of the plant. I pause to photograph the team of women at work packaging maple sugar.

Brian leads us to the first floor of the factory where maple coffee is being roasted. The scent of brown coffee beans turning slowly in the roaster is delicious. An employee jokes his work is half-science, half-art based on time and heat.

Maple sugar straight off the production line.

Maple sugar straight off the production line.

Four grades of maple syrup

As we head back downstairs I learn how the flavour of maple syrup intensifies through the four gradations of colour, from golden through amber to dark then very dark.

In the shop I stock up on supplies for my porridge over the weeks ahead, rueing the fact I can’t fit any of the two litre jars used in the catering industry into my luggage. I also grab a bag of popcorn to munch on during the 45-kilometre drive between Peggy’s Cove and Halifax.

National Maple Syrup Day

Did you know that 17 December is National Maple Syrup Day in Canada’s southerly neighbour, the United States of America?

Further information

Acadian Maple Products is located on 13578 Peggy’s Cove Road in Upper Tantallon, Nova Scotia, Canada.

See the Nova Scotia and Explore Canada websites for more information about tourism attractions within the province and the country as a whole.

Maple coffee beans roasting.

Maple coffee beans roasting.