Archive for April, 2012

30 Apr 2012

Leave the car and visit the Knoydart peninsula: by boat, boot or bike

No Comments Biking, Booting, Tours

Forget stressful airport transfers and illogical sat nav instructions: be cool and arrive at your destination by boat. Visit the Knoydart peninsula in North West Scotland: inaccessible by road, so boat, boot or bike are your default modes. It’s remote, stunning, has four Munros and is a haven for walking, diving and photography, but it also offers top class cuisine and is famed for its hospitality, culture and community spirit.

Sunset over Skye

Across the Sound of Sleat from Skye, Knoydart is actually part of the mainland. However, unless you walk, or mountain bike from Kinloch Hourn you need to arrive by sea. Known as the Rough Bounds, it is one of the last real wildernesses in Western Europe. In 1999, the Knoydart Foundation , a partnership composed of local residents, the Highland Council and the John Muir Trust, was set up to “preserve, enhance and develop Knoydart for the well-being of the environment and its people”. Today, it is a thriving community, home to about 100 residents who welcome visitors to share its rugged beauty and enjoy its relaxed, genuine way of life.

As you can’t drive into Knoydart, why take the car? It is perfectly possible to reach Knoydart by public transport, the most civilised option being the overnight Caledonian sleeper:  board at Euston, or stations through the Midlands, wake up in the southern Highlands, then breakfast in Fort William before catching the West Highland Line to Mallaig.

West Highland Railway

Frequently voted one of the top railway journeys in the world, this 42 mile ride takes you past Britain’s highest mountaindeepest loch and shortest river, before reaching its most westerly station. Travel between April and October and the steam engine, Jacobite  will power you across the 21 arch Glenfinnan Viaduct, immortalised in the Harry Potter books, past the monument to the 1745 Jacobite rebellion and alongside the iconic silver sands of Morar, the setting for the films Highlander and Local Hero.

If you have a few minutes to spare, drop into the Mallaig Heritage Centre  beside the station, where the imaginatively presented exhibitions tell the history of the Rough Bounds and show the rapid transformation of Mallaig into a busy fishing port after the railway was completed in 1901.

Head towards the harbour and, keeping to the left, you will arrive at the public steps on the small boat pier. Here, a small boat will take you on the last leg of the journey, across Loch Nevis to Knoydart. Doune is on a rocky headland on the western edge of the peninsular and the accommodation is run by two couples, Martin and Jane Davies and Liz and Andy Tibbetts and their families. Doune Stone Lodges offer fully catered, comfortable double or twin rooms, en suite toilet, shower and porch, while the Doune Bay Lodge is designed for larger families, clubs, corporate events, and consists of eight rooms, open-plan living area and kitchen.

The setting is idyllic, with unforgettable sunsets behind the Skye Cuillins to the west, and the absence of mobile reception and power-thirsty hairdryers and trouser presses adds positively to its unique ambience. The lodges are effectively and sensitively equipped: warm duvets and invigorating showers – particularly welcome after a bracing day in the hills.

Doune Dining Room  is one of only seven institutions currently holding the Destination Dining Award for providing the best of food in the finest of settings. Everything is home-made, seafood is caught locally and Jane and Liz’s organic gardens provide most of the vegetables and soft fruit. While meat eaters can tuck into locally-produced lamb and venison, my vegetarianism was expertly satisfied, with a sumptuous nut pate and mouth-watering desserts particular highlights, and fully catered means exactly that, with breakfasts, packed lunches and evening meals all included.

Ladhar Bheinn

Three Corbetts, added to its four Munros make this hill-walking heaven, particularly for those who seek peacefulness and solitude.Ladhar Bheinn, at 1020m (3,346ft) is the highest and most dramatic mountain, although like many peaks on Knoydart, it is difficult to access. Martin and his team are generous with their local knowledge and, by using their boat Mary Doune, it is possible to sail to many mountain approaches.

That said, it is not necessary to go stratospheric to enjoy the beauty of Knoydart. Sailing from Doune, we headed north along the Sound of Sleat with Sandaig Islands clearly visible in the distance. Turning east into Loch Hourn, our progress was observed by some bored looking seals basking in the April sunshine, while Alastair, our knowledgeable skipper, identified Beinn Sgritheall as the snow-clad peak dominating the northern shore.

Barrisdale Bay

Scrambling ashore on Barrisdale Bay, it was impossible not to be moved by the still beauty of this sandy inlet. From here to Inverie, the “capital” of Knoydart is a trek of about eight miles through a spectacular mountain landscape. Passing the Barisdale bothy and campsite, the route climbs steadily along the pony path through Mam Barrisdale, until, at the top of the path, the cylindrical outline of Loch an Dubh-Lochain appears on the horizon. From here it is a relaxing stroll along the Inverie river to the Old Forge pub  in the centre of the village.

Loch an Dubh-Lochain

The Old Forge, the most remote pub in mainland Britain, is much more than just a pub. It has won many accolades for its beers, wines and locally-sourced food and also provides a rewarding coffee and slab of cake, as you relive your walk, climb or dive. But it is also the undoubted hub of the community; the stock of musical instruments in the bar testament to its famed reputation for impromptu entertainment. Its website  is a treasure trove of local information, advertising local jobs, advising on hill-walking routes and listing local accommodation.

Staying on Knoydart can be as lavish or basic as you want to make it. It is possible to wild camp on the beach, backpack in a bothy or indulge in a luxurious b&b. Match your requirements to the surprisingly wide variety available  – check out the Knoydart Foundation and Barrisdale and forget any excuses for not experiencing this magnificent corner of Britain.

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25 Apr 2012

Sulovske Skaly: Slovakia’s best kept secret

No Comments Blog, Booting

Climb, hike and cycle among the rock towers, gorges and ravines of this beautiful but unknown part of Slovakia – but hurry before everyone else discovers Sulovske Skaly too.

The Sulov Area

It was hot and dusty and, as we jumped from the train, I half-expected some Henry Fondaesque assassin to ambush us at the isolated junction. But we were in Slovakia not the Wild West and Branko, our in-house translator, assured us, correctly, that the next train would arrive in five minutes.

Slovakian trains may be crowded and functional, but they are regular, cheap and punctual and 30 minutes later we gasped in collective amazement at the spectacular rock formations straight in front of us as we finally arrived in Sulovske Skaly  a “rock city” made up of contorted slabs of limestone around two hours north west of Bratislava.

Even for those able to differentiate their Slovakias from their Slovenias, this region remains undiscovered. Lower in altitude than the better-known Tatras to the north-east, its rock towers, needles, windows and gates, separated by deep waterless gorges and ravines, form a national nature reserve, deservedly popular with Slovakian walkers and climbers. Its forested and round-topped limestone ridges are also much more typical of Slovakia’s mountains than the Tatras, but you’ll find little tourist infrastructure and few English speakers.

Penzion Sulov

Our base, Penzion Sulov, was an attractive self-catered, wooden chalet, equipped with hot showers, comfortable double bedrooms and even a tennis court, and represented amazing value at a week’s cost of only 70 euros each, particularly as it also boasted satellite TV and more than enough space to store and dry the plethora of equipment needed for a hiking/climbing holiday. Situated only five minutes’ walk from the starting point of the climbs and hiking routes, this accessibility put it in a class of its own: no driving hassle or petrol costs, simply get your kit and walk out the door.

The hiking trails offered something for everyone, with expertly-marked paths, colour-coded for difficulty levels ranging from gentle rambles to strenuous hikes. Although elevations peaked at around 800m, some ascents were steep and, with handrails and ladders in strategic points, hikes often resembled via ferratas.

Maniska Tiesnava Gorge

But, with spectacular views from the highest ridges, plus outstanding rock features, castle ruins and a relatively unspoilt ecosystem, this region offered many of the best elements of hiking, concentrated in a compact area easily reached by foot or cycle.

Make sure you visit the 13 metre high Goticka brana (Gothic Gate) rock formation, admire the views from the ruins of Sulovsky hrad (castle) and see the Sulovsky vodopad (waterfall).

During the last 20 years, the Sulov area has developed into something of a paradise for climbers and, today, it is regarded as one of the most interesting areas in Central Europe. For our rock fiends the climbing proved to be a revelation, surprising even the veterans with the quality of the bolting and testing grades on the often bizarre-shaped rocks. And, uniquely, we were the only Brits, as apart from a lone American, our fellow climbers were exclusively Slovakian.

The Súľov rocks are famous for a remarkable collection of plant species, including some very rare orchids. In general the region, although rural, is relatively uncultivated, resulting in delightful meadows of pastel-coloured wildflowers. We didn’t manage to meet the resident lynx, but the forests echoed to the clatter of noisy, brightly coloured birds, while surreal looking butterflies and cleverly camouflaged leaf frogs remained unperturbed by our presence.

Butterfly in meadow

Around a mile away was the hamlet of Sulov, with its brightly painted houses and attractive old church. Its small general store supplied us with enough provisions for the first couple of days and the family from the small bar in the village centre went out of their way to cook us a hearty Slovakian dinner of gulas (goulash) and bryndzove halusky (potato gnocchi) on our first night. But this is an area not yet geared up for tourism. Bars and cafés, although welcoming, were thin on the ground and did not routinely offer meals without prior notice. Coffee was, however, universally excellent.

We self-catered and, from outside the chalet, there was a fairly regular bus service to the nearest town, Bytca. Slovakian buses , like their rail counterparts, are clean and punctual, if rather basic. Towns in this area tend to be an odd mixture of some ornate traditional buildings, interspersed with bleak blocks of Stalinesque flats, along with some pioneer outposts of McDonald’s and Tesco.

Bytca offered little for foodies, but Branko did lead us to one gem: Expresso-Jadran (Micurova, 369/8, 01401 Bytca), a small, unprepossessing café near the bus station. Owned by Branko’s fellow Bosnian, Kurtovic Hasan, a refugee from the civil war of the 1990s, it offered a bewildering range of delicious home-made ice cream and some seriously scrumptious pastries, particularly a mouth-watering sour cherry strudel, to accompany its strong, heady espressos.

If you want a cheap, peaceful, safe holiday with a range of outdoor activities for all ages right outside your door, in a beautiful, undiscovered, part of Europe, then visit Sulovske Skaly before everyone else does. Don’t go if you need wall-to-wall tourist infrastructure, upmarket restaurants, clubs and bars, fast food and western consumerism.

How to get there

Sulovske Skaly may be unsung, but it’s easily reached.Take the train (use Seat 61  for info on rail travel throughout Europe). Slovakia, nestling cosily between Vienna and Budapest, by rail is a breeze, more civilised and, with group bookings and unrestricted luggage, can be better value.

Map of area

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11 Apr 2012

Austerity: the new excuse to discredit a green agenda

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How long our green and pleasant land?

In just under two years, the long-promised “greenest-ever government” has metamorphosed into the biggest single obstacle to reducing carbon emissions, creating a green infrastructure and encouraging all of us to adopt a greener lifestyle.

The real truth is that this corrupt government is in bed to such an extent with its wealthy friends in the big, polluting, carbon-heavy industries, the energy providers and shareholders of utility companies, that to adopt a real green agenda would compromise its friends and paymasters.

And undermining its friends in high places would also mean jeopardising its vital sources of income. So, £4m will buy your ear time at one of Dodgy Dave’s Dinners, but this kind of wealth will also buy you influence to poison scientific fact about climate change.

Perhaps the most insidious fact to emerge from the Tory donor – or should that be diner? – scandal, was the revelation that the climate change sceptic mouthpiece, the Global Warming Climate Foundation fronted by the climate sceptics’ poster boy, Lord Lawson (well, OK, I accept that Nigel Lawson and poster boy could well be the oxymoron of the year), is bankrolled by a wealthy Tory donor, Michael Hihtze.

So, the future of the planet is threatened by the Tories’ greed and willingness to indulge their rich donors and incorporate their baseless dogmas into government policy. And, while we might regard Nigel Lawson as a has been, bad taste joke, now best known for fathering the infinitely more famous Nigella, it is a serious, and potentially tragic, matter.

Climate change denial has gained much undeserved credence in recent times and, combined with the pernicious effects of the economic slow down, is now, despite having no scientific basis, being taken seriously and used as an excuse to curtail and slow down the green agenda. The Tories here mirror their right-wing counterparts in the USA by being in hock to the big multi-national polluters, carbon emitters and energy providers, whose donations, in return for a platform for climate change denial, result in another, depressing, nail in the coffin for the planet.

But, despite the drip-drip of anti-environmental publicity, it appears that the ordinary public have, fortunately, not been taken in by this misinformation. Polling from YouGov   shows that people believe more should be spent on renewable power and  a survey conducted for Asda   found out that, despite economic hardship, people do continue to care and be worried about environmental catastrophe. Late last year, another survey, this time from the government’s own climate change advisers, found categorically that green measures do not lead to skyrocketing energy bills and placed the blame unequivocally where it belongs: on rising gas prices and from satisfying the demands of utility shareholders

Logically, austerity should lead to a more responsible attitude towards waste and reckless consumption: a timely reminder of how the desperate days of World War Two instigated the remarkable creativity of Utility design and the wonderful graphic art reminding us to Waste Not Want Not, or Dig For Victory would not go amiss. But today, other countries, particularly in Scandinavia and north west Europe also provide excellent role models as to how green initiatives can provide jobs and stimulate the economy. And at the other end of the world, in Australia, large run-off tanks are now de rigueur in homes to catch rainwater that is then used in washing machines and dishwashers – surely a sensible idea to adopt here as much of south east Britain begins a hosepipe ban?

George Osborne was, apparently, “shocked” to find out that many of his fellow millionaires paid little or no tax. Perhaps he will be just as shocked to hear that, despite negative propaganda from his Treasury, a majority of the electorate do worry about climate change, do support investment in renewable sources of power and do want affordable ways of insulating their homes. But, there again, as revealed very clearly from the Asda poll, these tend to be ordinary people who do pay tax, who struggle to heat their homes and find affordable transport options.

Are we still all in this together, George?

It is not a case of Britain not being able to afford to follow a green agenda: we, like the rest of the planet cannot afford not to.

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