Honest Travel Guy

@andrew1waller


Welcome

Panama City Beach


YOU'RE eating dolphin, was the rather unexpected reply as I enquire about the identity of the delicious, slightly sweet-tasting fish filling of my taco.

I stopped eating momentarily and thought how could I look my children in the eye and confess to feasting on mates of Flipper or Fungie? I was assured, however, that mahi mahi is more of a distant cousin and bore little resemblance to its more loveable relative. Just as well - because I savoured every morsel of the favourite local dish as I looked out over the Gulf of Mexico here in Panama City Beach.

Tucked away to the side of Florida's 'pan handle', this resort is where hordes of Americans from the south eastern states take their vacation. And with 43 kilometres of sugar sand beach at their disposal, who can blame them?

The area is largely unknown beyond the US. But there is plenty of room to join the party and loads to do. Three inflight movies took care of the eight-hour flight from Dublin to Atlanta before a one-hour trip - with onboard wifi - completed the journey to the new Northwest Florida Beaches airport.

America's reputation for doing everything on a big scale showed no sign of wanting. Feeling peckish on my arrival, I ordered a 'large' chicken panini with pesto sauce. It was a feast unto its own.

Panama City Beach has a wholesome, homely feel - the kind of sentiment you attach to that favourite childhood holiday seaside resort.
Funfairs, waterparks, dolphins and plenty of beach - all the type of things that kids just happily spend hours doing without the ordeal of big theme parks.

I stayed in a condo - a sprawling 18th floor self-contained apartment at the Calypso Resort with stunning balcony views of the gulf. The abundance of these condos with beachside pools and bars reinforces the stamp of approval from the natives. Rather like Spanish villas, they are either owned outright by Americans families as holiday homes or rented for as needed.

There's always a certain piece of music that you hear on holiday that you forever associate with that place. Demi Lovato's Heart Attack was regularly blaring from my hire car radio. The record title wasn't far from my mind as a contemplated breakfast at Sunnyside Grill. On the plate in front of me was biscuit and sausage gravy. Excuse me? I can do sweet and savoury separately but chunky shortbreads soaked in a meaty sauce? My tastebuds were in total confusion. I nibbled through a quarter of the serving before reverting to my fried beach hash with jalapeños and cheese. It was the salad option by comparison.

How would I cope with this calorific bombardment?

After all, just the previous night I was tucking into a BLT - bacon, lobster and tomato in these parts - at the Caribbean and Cajun themed Boatyard restaurant. The incredibly thick doorstep slices combined to provide seemingly enough bread and fish for a biblical feast. Out of politeness, I took home most of the meal in a takeaway box but where I would find room for it, heaven knows.

With a tinge of guilt still lurking in my mind about the dolphin delicacy, I headed off to the Gulf World Marine Park where the more familiar bottlenecks and rough toothed dolphins were on show. Once again, my mind was put at rest that mahi, mahi really was OK to eat. Just as well, as we delighted in watching the dolphin show featuring three newborn babies swimming alongside their mummies and the most hilarious of sea lions. The park, which is a marine rehabilitation centre, also houses other wounded and unwanted creatures ranging from a swearing, waving parrot to turtles and snakes.

There was more fun for the kids at the Shipwreck Island Water Park with its giant speed slides, a rapid river ride, zoom flume hill, pools and a pirate ship to jump from. Thousands of people were there during my visit and yet there were no long queues for rides. There were plenty of places to eat, drink and relax. They also have lockers - so you're free to explore without all your belongings in tow.

Children can enjoy fairground rides experienced by their parents and grandparents at the Miracle Strip in Pier Park. Carousels, swings and car rides from the 1950s and 1960s have been reassembled in this delightful retro attraction. On its way next year, from that era, is the large wooden-built Starliner rollercoaster - the oldest of its kind in Florida. Families should also try out Wonder Works - an upside down building full of scientific wonders including a hurricane hut and shove game controlled by brainwave sensors. Your balance is thrown into total disarray in the inversion tunnel. I found myself clutching at the rail to stop toppling over as the kaleidoscope-type walls spun around me. The path hadn’t moved at all. My brain was just convinced it was.

Over at Andy’s Flour Power - where they serve the most scrummy rolled omelettes, there is also the sense of family loyalty - as generations frequent the breakfast cafe.
 
With so much coast and ripe conditions, Panama City  Beach is also a favourite with surfers. I enjoyed a stand-up paddling lesson with Waves 2 You - a company that visits you armed with a van load of surf boards and equipment for the experience.

St Andrews state park sprawls 700 acres of parkland, lakes and shore - perfect for a getaway camping, fishing or cycling trip. I learnt the technique of calling an alligator - a clicking sound in your throat. Even though I was safely on a raised area, I was kind of relieved I didn’t trigger a stampede towards me. A conservation park just at the edge of Panama City Beach feels like miles away from nearby traffic and is ideal for a lunchtime stroll or cycle.

You can take in some lively night-time entertainment at Schooners - hailed as the ‘last local beach bar’. Bartenders ring a ship bell to reflect the generosity of tips while there is also the nightly ritual of cannon firing out to sea. I was impressed by the Deep South drawl of the live performers - but then it dawned on me...that’s where I was.   
  Honest Travel Guy


Las Vegas

DON'T squander the family fortune came the request from home as I set off on trip to Las Vegas. There was never really any danger of any shirt being lost from my back as my run of successful flutters in my youth ended when I started raising the stakes higher than loose change.

And, in any case, as my Filipino taxi driver along The Strip advised: "There is a lot going on in Vegas these days. Gordon Ramsay has three restaurants here. It is not all about the gambling"

True. But my mind was contemplating a risk of a different nature as my helicopter took off to tour the Grand Canyon. I felt like a sphere in a ball pit - gently bobbing from the gush of air beneath.

The apprehension soon evaporated as we were guided across the Arizona desert to the awesome spectacle scaling and plunging close to the vast rocks like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie.  We also had a close-up view of the Hoover Dam whose construction workers' earnings baptised Vegas as a den of vice and gambling.




Such was the vast expanse of the territory it felt as though the helicopter was hovering in midair  and not hurtling along at 280kph. Shortly after we toured the dam, our pilot gestured towards the rocky range ahead and proudly announced: "Any moment, you'll see the Grand Canyon." And there it was in all its ruddy splendour. The seemingly motionless feel of the helicopter simply added to the sense of awe.

You can also see the Canyon by plane or by road but neither option offers such spectacular views and the alternative air transport does not stop-off.




The car option involves an eight-hour round trip compared to one hour in the chopper from the edge of the city. We landed for a champagne lunch  on a 450 metre ledge just beyond the skywalk and peered down at the Colorado River. You'll pay $350 per person for this simply amazing and unforgettable experience. For best photos, avoid the intensely bright sunlight of midday.

Back in Sin City, I discover how most directions in hotels start with the words "First go through the casino and then..." It was unbelievable how many times you hear this instruction, putting temptation literally in your path. The most hilarious example was when I looked for a route to the overhead monorail station I could see in front of me on the other side of the road.



Donny Osmond on screen as he performed at Caesars Palace

A signpost pointed me into the +MGM Grand Hotel & Casino. Surely, there would be a subway just in the entrance?  Not a chance. I was helpfully directed "the full length of the casino" before passing through a shopping mall and restaurants and finally reaching the short trip underground. At five dollars  a pop to use the monorail, it is a handy way to travel up and down The Strip and beyond.

After gambling, Vegas is next synonymous with entertainment. And while Celine Dion is resident Queen Bee at +Caesars Palace, Donny and Marie Osmond are still great value. Donny, in particular, proved he could keep up with the routines of dancers at least his age.


I'm sure legendary Vegas crooner Sinatra would be proud of Clint Holmes. There was a lump in my throat and hairs stood up on back of my neck to his rendition of West Side Story's There's A Place For Us. I also enjoyed Million Dollar Quartet - they really do sound and look like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lewis - Frankie Moreno and Jersey Boys. Matt Goss is also performing at Caesars and, to his credit, sounds a lot better than when he was more 'famous' over here.

I took in some comedy with Rob Becker's former Broadway one-man show Defending The Caveman. His humour about the sexes travels well. He explains how when he visits another couple with his wife, the women engage in extensive chat while his male host's entire repertoire for the evening will be: "Come out the back and I'll show you something."



I stayed at the Aria which dripped with luxury. There were bars, restaurants, a theatre, a gym and just about every form of gambling imaginable. My room included a remote control tablet allowing me to set a wake-up routine involving a bell, the TV turning on to my preset channel  and the curtains opening. How did I get to the lifts for my floor? Straight through the casino, of course.

MUST DOS

Give tips. It is considered the norm in the US - even when you buy a drink at the bar. A dollar a drink is a rule of thumb. Credit card payment machines in taxis give you the option of tips of 20, 30 or 40 per cent. Pay cash if you think that is too much.  

MUST DON'TS


Don't take a taxi somewhere without knowing how you will get back. You can't hail taxis on the street in the US. It is no fun walking for miles in 100 degrees heat with no sign of a bus. I was only going to buy a Club Penguin card from Toys R Us for my daughter.

USEFUL WEBSITES

Helicopter rides - papillon.com
Airline - delta.com
Hotel - arialasvegas.com

MORE PHOTOS OF GRAND CANYON FROM HELICOPTER












Honest Travel Guy


The Shard

IT felt more like looking down on Lilliput than London as I gazed in awe from the top of The Shard.

The big train set below was, in fact,  part of the busy commuter network while previous highest points of the London Eye and Monument resembled a hamster's wheel and a toothpick. As for the  people at ground level, they were mere dots. Western Europe's tallest building really is a glass above the rest.

You could only get higher views than this if you were craning your neck from the window of a passing plane on a clear day.

I was born on one of the highest points in the capital  so, naturally, I couldn't resist the opportunity to explore when the public area opened.

But unlike Dr Who I opted to take the lift rather than scale the outside on a Triumph motorbike. First off, you pose for the obligatory virtual photo which superimposes you outside. You are then zoomed up to the restaurant level in a kaleidoscope lift before switching to a second chute. There are two viewing levels three floors apart.

Heavens above...looking up to the very top of The Shard

The lower stage at Level 68 is totally enclosed while at the open top Level 72 you can stare up to the summit of the 308m structure and the heavens beyond.

I used to think that the London Eye, at a mere 135m, was amazing views but this is incredible. The viewing area is at 244m and you can see for 64km.

Even the bathroom has a window - a loo with a fantastic view.

On a good day, you can see Windsor Castle to the west of London in Berkshire. It's great fun picking out your favourite landmarks.

And, yes, just to the left of the Dome, I can just about see The Valley home of my beloved Charlton Athletic  but couldn't find the goals..cue football gag.

You can also scour around the metropolis with the hi-tech telescopes that display tags for the landmarks and allow you to zoom in and click on information. There are lots of them and they are free to use - so you normally don't have to queue and scramble around for change.

Long way down...how London looks from the top of The Shard

Talking of avoiding queues, I got my entry tickets through online ticketing site www.365tickets.co.uk. Prices were the same as on the door but I was able to print off the tickets at home so didn't have to worry about collection.

At the upper level, you get a sense of the elements outside. I decided to chance my arm and, seeing more steps tried to go even higher but a guide intervened stating: "Sorry sir, that is for maintenance area only."  I wondered what needed to be maintained up here. "Window cleaners. Some use the cradle, others attach themselves to ropes," came the reply.

Heights don't really bother me but my stomach churned as I looked straight down at pavement level and imagined what it must be like to be dangling on a cord out there with just a cloth, sponge and wiper in your hand.

French Spiderman Alain Robert, who has scaled the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building, would love to add The Shard to his repertoire of 132 daring climbs, but he has been banned. What would he cling to with all that glass?

Back on the ground at my hotel, I was closely inspecting  glass of a different variety as I sipped on a champagne mojito at the 5-star Plaza on the River.

The softly-lit bar area has a calming Sixties feel to it as you relax over a drink or two. Up in my suite, I was admiring the views of London again - this time from my balcony overlooking the Thames.  To my right stood the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Bridge and, beyond, the London Eye - this time a lot bigger and a huge coloured ring at night.

London night light...the capital from my balcony at  the Plaza on the River

To my left lie the swanky areas of Chelsea and Kensington. The hotel is in a great location on the Albert Embankment with Vauxhall Tube station just a few minutes walk away. The great thing about the suites is that you are effectively renting a luxury flat. They come with up to three  bedrooms - so you can have a holiday home for the family with the world's most exciting city on your doorstep.

If you want to chill out indoors,  there are TVs in the lounge and bedroom, a DVD player and free wi-fi. There is also a fitness suite and in-room spa treatments while downstairs you can dine at the Chino Latino brasserie - a Pan-Asian restaurant.

And for couples seeking a romantic getaway, you can order the intimacy kit for £15 (€18).  I was staying there alone so didn't want to raise eyebrows by ordering one.

But, if I find out what's inside, I'll let you know.

GETTING THERE:

Tickets to the Shard start at £29.95 (€35.50) per adult and £23.95 (€28.50) for children aged over 3 years old (under 3s go free). Visit  www.365tickets.co.uk  which matches the door price and allows you to print-off your ticket and bypass the ticket collection.

Plaza on the River – Club and Residence. Suites start at £179 (€212) inc VAT but excluding breakfast.   Romantic breaks from £399 (€473) including three-course meal, breakfast in bed and two spa treatments. Visit www.PlazaOnTheRiver.co.uk

Totally chilled...softly-lit bar area is perfect for intimate and relaxing drink

Bedroom with a view...you can wake up to stunning views of the Thames and the buzzing capital city



Honest Travel Guy


Oradour sur Glane



I WILL never forget the haunting feeling of standing in the middle of a small church where 445 women and children had been massacred by the Nazis during the last throes of the Second World War. Just yards away 197 menfolk of Oradour sur Glane were also ruthlessly executed by SS troops hellbent on eliminating the Resistance.


Since that day on June 10 1944, the village - near Limoges in France - has been left as it was on that awful day as a memorial to the dead. I looked at the tangled remains of a pram to the right of the altar as I tried to imagine how so many people crammed into that church before the soldiers opened fire.The building was then set ablaze to destroy the bodies before they were dumped in a mass grave days later. You can still see the bullet holes in the walls.


It was a similar story for the men who were divided into groups and sent to different buildings. They were shot in the legs before the buildings around them were turned into an inferno. The villagers had been rounded up in the square. The first to die was the mayor who approached the Nazi leaders to protest at the invasion. He was shot next to his car, which is still there today.

All around this village you will see other vehicles, equipment and homes just as they were. Close your eyes and you can almost picture Oradour as a happy and thriving place before the population was wiped out. At the bakery, you hear how the bodies of two babies were retrieved from the ovens. A metal Renault plate still adorns the wall of the garage. 


Plaques show the trades once plied at each venue. It is easy to believe, as I did, that the place had been bombed. It wasn't. Most of the roofs were wooden which burnt in the fires - leaving the look of a bomb site. Headstones in the cemetery bear the poignant epitaph "massacred by Germans". All that changed in this area is the museum and the 'new village' built on the next hill.

At nearby Bussière Poitevine, it is easy to imagine how this village could have met the same fate. Two days after the atrocity at Oradour, 21-year-old Adrien Girettes was gunned down by the Nazis - accused of being a member of the Resistance. A wall plaque marks the wall where he fell. You can also see the bullet holes in the surrounding wall.
France's Holocaust Museum? You will find other evidence of Nazi evil in other parts of Europe. But here you have a place left as a poignant memorial to such a brutal slaughter. It is often said of wars that we must learn and never forget. Go and see this place and you'll understand why.


Despite this horrific chapter in its history, the area is steeped in serene beauty.

I stayed in Bussière-Poitevine. Here life ticks away at a relaxed place. At the heart of this quintessentially rural French village lies the patisserie and the butcher. There is also the affectionally-known Monsieur Legumes, the grocer. Tell him you want to make a pear tart in three days' time and he will direct you to fruit with the exact ripeness for the task - and he'll probably throw in a cooking tip too.


The village is steeped in tradition. Lunch is 12.30 until 3 every day - and there is absolutely no altering that time. Mind you, if you wait to hear the bells of the 12th century church before returning to work, you'll be late. They always chime at five minutes past the hour with a few other spontaneous rings for good measure. No one knows how or why this delay occurred and no one really cares. Why worry about time when you can put the world to right over a pastis or two before dinner?
 

Quintessentially French....Maison Bussière, on right


And, if you find yourself at a meeting of the villagers, there'll be no rush either. The first and last 20 minutes are spent with everyone greeting one another with a kiss.

There's never a dull moment here. Markets occupy the main square twice a week and the village is favourite for cycle races. The annual Foulèes 20km run was the talk of the village during my visit.

I stayed at the Maison Bussière guesthouse run by British couple Chris and Charlotte Nightingale. They are living the dream. Within three years they met, fell in love, got married, left their jobs for a new life in France - squeezing in the move between wedding and honeymoon.


The guesthouse - or chambre d'hôte in French - is just a stone's throw from the village square. The renovated 17th century building is clean and spacious with three rooms - including one with an en suite bathroom. There is also free wi-fi. Standards match those of a small hotel and yet families - especially with children - have the comfort and freedom of feeling they are at home.

You can relax in the lounge where there is telly, Wii and DVDs. Unlike most chambres d'hôtes, breakfast is included and for €15 a head, you can add a three-course evening meal. Charlotte, with supplies from the likes of Monsieur Legumes, cooks all food from scratch. The slow-cooked boeuf bourguignon is to die for. You can also enjoy a beer and a wine.


Chris, a mountain bike tour leader, offers cycle hire, tours, maintenance and instruction. I couldn't wait to explore the meandering lanes of the countryside. Ex-cop Chris insists on a thorough preparation. Not only is the saddle set to your height but the handlebars and brake levers are adjusted for optimum use too. I have been cycling for years and, due to a weak side, have always set the saddle low for fear of losing balance. But after few tips from Chris, I was able to ride in the more efficient and comfortable riding position.

As I set off on a 20km ride, the narrow and smooth-surface country lanes feel like designated cycle routes as you amble through the scenic surrounds, whistling through hamlets with barns and barking dogs before passing a tiny chapel next to a river before heading uphill and home.

There are lots of things to do for the whole family within less than an hour's drive of Bussière-Poitevine. The Lac de Saint Pardoux offers every kind of watersport including sailing, fishing and pedalos. You can go bungee jumping off a viaduct or kayak and canoe in the Gartempe river. Petrol heads will also like the Val de Vienne racetrack where you can go for a spin. The venue has hosted events such as Superbikes, the GT Tour, and the Club Porsche de France. The picturesque towns of Bellac and Montmorillon are also worth a visit


Honest Travel Guy