Category Archives: Travel writing

Cae Mabon: the verdict

* Two final posts before this blog moves to a new platform. This was written late summer as a pitch for a major family travel contract. I didn’t get it. Maybe you can tell me why below.

David Atkinson wanted some family-bonding time with an eco theme. But would his daughters swop pink for green?

So we’re back from another family holiday in Wales. Snowdonia this time – since you ask. A little eco-retreat village near Llanberis called Cae Mabon.

Run by the storyteller and children’s author Eric Maddern, it comprises a group of cabins in the forest, built around a central roundhouse, and boasts a back-to-nature feel.

Every August it offers an open week for families.

Watch a video of Cae Mabon here.

But why here? Simple. This year it was just me, Maya (aged six) and Olivia (aged two), so I wanted no airport queues, other kids to play with and, overall, a get-away-from-it-all feel.

I definitely didn’t want Disney.

I guess I was also following the call of my own hireath by heading for North Wales. I wanted to introduce the girls to the nature, culture and landscape that formed part of my own childhood.

After all, they’ve served me well.

Exploring the options

Wales has lots of options for a go-green break without overdosing on the mung bean curry. Before making my decision, I checked out the following:

  • Bluestone, South Wales. Wales’ answer to Center Parcs has all the family bases covered and a greener take on short breaks
  • The Centre for Alternative Technology, mid Wales.  Courses, activities and simple accommodation, all with a truly green ethos
  • Anglesey Farm Stays, North Wales. A group of farmstead guesthouses around the island for a back-to-nature break

But, in the end, I chose Cae Mabon for the ease of access (a 90-minute drive from home), the back-to-nature feel and the promise of family-friendly activities to keep the girls busy.

The verdict

Overall, the girls really enjoyed the break and I appreciated the back-to-basics approach to a holiday that Wales does so well.

I thought the best things about Cae Mabon are:

  • Lots of playmates. Maya loved playing with the other children, while I swopped parenting tales with the other dads
  • No cooking. It’s fully catered and all healthy vegetarian food. There’s also juice, fruit and hot drinks available all day.
  • Joining in. Both Maya and Olivia loved the songs and storytelling session around the fire. The session on building a fairy den was also a hit.

But I thought the following would improve the experience for families:

  • Eat early. Timings are a bit late for kids, especially young children – 7.30pm is too late for Olivia’s dinner. Serve up early and the kids will be happier.
  • Think terrible twos. The majority of activities are geared to slightly older children – it’s perfect for ages 7-11. But little ones can feel a bit left out. Cae Mabon needs to widen its age appeal.
  • Spell it out. Nobody was there to show us our cabin when we arrived, or explain things. Thankfully, when I was struggling downhill with two children and four bags, the chef came to my help. I’m not expecting room service but a bit of thought goes a long way.

Have your say

Have you taken your family to Cae Mabon? Or do you have a favourite green escape in Wales, one where kids are welcome?

Post your tips below.

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Filed under Travel writing, Wales

Family holidays in Wales

So here’s the dilemma. I’m trying to choose a family-holiday escape suitable for my two girls aged two and six.

I’m looking for something with a back-to-basics feel and a close-to-home destination. I don’t want Disney. I want to bring the girls closer to nature, dip out of the daily grind and spend undivided time with them to build cherished childhood memories.

Tricky decisions

The destination bit is the easy bit. Wales, obviously, for its good value for money, simplicity, the friendly people and the natural beauty.

But what to do and where to stay? Now that’s the problem. I’m looking at the Family Holidays section of the Visit Wales web site but I’m confused.

There’s too much going on but not enough sense of insider knowledge. I want a shopping list for groceries but, for a once-a-summer family break, I want to feel an expert is sharing their personal insider knowledge with me.

I also want to know what other families are doing and for them to share their top tips with the forum.

And, on a practical level, I want to navigate my way around the site easily, accessing material from a central page, not having to follow an endless stream of links around labyrinthine sub-directories.

A new look

So how to improve it? Personally, I would make the following suggestions:

  1. Make it more personal. A weekly blog to be written by an expert voice, highlighting a great thing to do that week.
  2. Give it a face. I want to know who the expert is and why they’re qualified to advise me on where to take my children.
  3. Human interaction. Stop using pictures of people with their backs to the camera. If you’re on holiday in Wales, wouldn’t you be smiling?
  4. Work with the medium, not against it. No more chunky text but a clearer writing style better suited to reading on mobile and tablet formats.
  5. More multimedia. Use of image galleries, short video clips and audioboos to make it less static.
  6. Use social media. Push content through Twitter then harvest comments, tips and other user-generated content to compile lists of tips, or provide follow-up story ideas.
  7. Cross link. Bring new material to a wider audience by promoting it on Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and other platforms where Visit Wales already has a presence.
  8. Make it a good read. The tone needs to be inspiring and fun as well as informative. You need good, updated information but it needs to hold your attention too.
  9. Keep it fresh. It needs to be relevant to what’s happening now – half term, St David’s Day, Easter egg trails etc.
  10. Simplify navigation. One page for family holidays with a lead story and a menu of links, plus a column of social media. People read differently online, so lead the eye naturally.

Well, that’s what I’d do. Maybe you have other suggestions – if so, post them below.

Booking confirmed

And as for our summer hols? Well, in the end I chose a holiday based on a recommendation from a friend in Cardiff.

Maya, Olivia and I are going to spend a few nights at Cae Mabon near Llanberis, staying in one of the lodges. We’ll be joining in the bushcraft and listening to owner Eric Madden’s story time each evening.

The girls are excited. We check in August 13.


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Filed under Online writing, Travel writing, Wales

Behind the scenes: Holland cheese trail

Hit the North has a thing about cheese. In fact, the more potent, smelly and ripe the better.

I’ve been trying for ages to get an idea off the ground about Dutch cheese. Not the plastic-tasting Edam from my local supermarket but real, artisan Dutch cheese, the likes of which would give the French a run for their roquefort.

This week, I finally made it, following an unofficial cheese trail from Gouda to Friesland with the help of guide Kees Kaldenbach.

I was trying to get an angle on the way cheese making keeps the rural traditions of Holland alive – something we often miss amongst the cliched images of clogs and windmills.

It’s about trying to find a new way to look at a familiar destination, something I hope makes some of my stories stand apart.

My time in North Holland this week also led to think about how Holland is not seen as a food destination. Yet surely there are some interesting chefs and restaurateurs out there?

Maybe, like the cheese makers, people keeping alive the village recipes and farming favourites? I’d love to know if anyone has any suggestions or links.

My story will run in the Daily Express in a few weeks time. Meanwhile, here are some images from the trip.

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Behind the scenes: on assignment in the Alentejo

Hit the North has been out country. The Alentejo region of Portugal, since you ask, on assignment for Wanderlust magazine.

The feature, combining wildlife spotting in the Vale do Guadiana Natural Park and hiking the Rota Vicentina, will be out probably in the autumn.

It wasn’t the smoothest assignment at times but I think I found a good angle in the end. Let’s just say that, after much searching, I found the quintessential example of rural village life.

Look out for the full story but, by way of a preview, here are some images from the trip.

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Filed under Tourism, Travel writing, Uncategorized

Behind the scenes: public art in Ghent

The third and probably final in a series of trips to Ghent, Flanders, took a public art angle with TRACK.

It was an odd story to cover: somewhat chaotic, at times baffling, often frustrating. Not easy in a short timeframe.

Still, I did come away with copy – thanks mainly to a smiling Italian artist and a book about Flemish sociology.

Here are some moments from the trip in images; check my Twitter feed for links to published stories.

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Wales Coast Path – the final walk

Hit the North is hanging up his walking boots for a while.

I’ve spent the last couple of months guest blogging for Visit Wales about the Wales Coast Path.

The project had its official inauguration at the weekend and we were there – sheltering from the wind behind Flint Castle.

I will be back to walk more section on a warmer day. After all, the whole 870-mile trail starts from here (pic above) in Sealand, a suburb of Chester just on my doorstep.

It’s the one with the sewage works in case you get lost.

Until then, however, and for those who missed it, here’s the list of links to the five blogs:

  1. North Wales
  2. Ceredigion
  3. Llyn Peninsula
  4. Carmarthenshire
  5. Glamorgan

I’d love to hear your comments and feedback.

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Jungfrau Express centenary – full version

This story appeared in an escorted touring supplement in the Telegraph over the weekend.

The paper doesn’t post the link online, so I’ve reproduced the text here for anyone who missed it. The trip was arranged by  Great Rail Journeys.

It started with a small, pink piece of paper and a date: August 12, 1963. My father, Christopher, remembered the day well when he found the old Swiss Rail Pass amongst family heirlooms in the attic. He was in his early twenties then, on holiday with his parents, younger brother and sister, the latter celebrating her 21st birthday at the Schweizerhof Hotel in Interlaken.

Nearly half a century later, dad and I are stood outside the building that once housed the Schweizerhof, the icy stillness of a winter morning in Interlaken engulfing us. We had decided to return but this was more than just a meandering trip down memory lane.

My mother had died some eight months before and dad hadn’t been on holiday for years, having nursed her through the final years.

We deserved a father-and-son bonding break after a difficult year, but dad felt he wanted the security of a group trip to ease him back into taking holidays. After a bit of surfing we decided on an eight-day trip with GRJ – the tour appealed for the efficiency of Europe’s high-speed rail network.

The basic premise also suited us well: from a hotel base in Interlaken, we would take an organized excursions each day to places across the region, plus have the benefit of a Swiss Rail Pass for the free day.

While I remained unsure about an organised tour, the St Pancras rendez-vous on a chilly December morning assured me the age range was broader than I had expected. Our group was a mix of rail enthusiasts, some clucking elderly ladies and a majority of early retirees trying a group trip for a first tentative time – many were people much like us.

What’s more, the pre-Eurostar chatter focused on the fact our trip to Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland coincided with a major anniversary: 100 years of the highest mountain railway in Europe, the Jungfrau Express.

Soon after our visit, the Swiss artist Gerry Hofstetter used the north face of the Jungfrau to illuminate a series of installations, launching the centenary celebrations that will culminate on August 1, Switzerland’s national day.

Trans-Europe Express

Having settled into our base at Interlaken’s Metropole Hotel, following a long trans-Europe rail transfer via Luxembourg, we regrouped after breakfast for the first full-day excursion.

The rail journey from Interlaken to the picture-postcard village of Murren was our first real taste of the snow-tinged mountain air. The village is best known for its cable car ride up to the cloud-scraping Mount Schilthorn, whose revolving restaurant featured in the Bond film, On His Majesty’s Secret Service.

Lunch at a local cafe of traditional roast potatoes and pork was a chance for dad and I to talk about holidays he had shared with mum – they met on a holiday to Italy in 1966. The triumvirate of peaks, the Eiger, Monch and the Jungfrau, although slightly obscured by mist, were our silent companions at lunch and we reveled in the sense of mountain-air calm.

Not even the kitsch soundtrack of Bond theme tunes could spoil the moment.

That night, we dined as a group in a room off the main restaurant with large round tables and a fairly basic choice of menu options. There was a smattering of chatter about prescription specs but the table talk also took in the misdemeanors of Fred the Shred (courtesy of two ex-Royal Bank of Scotland employees) and tips on how to survive the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from a local resident travelling by herself after a friend dropped out.

A few glasses of wine helped things along but we did notice people turning up early on subsequent nights to bag the best tables.

The next day we visited Grindelwald, a bustling little village overshadowed by the north face of the Eiger with its towering 3970m summit.

After some gentle exploring, we took a group carriage ride down to the village of Grund, following country lanes of sugar-coated fire trees and icing-sugar hillsides, before stopping for mulled wine and ginger cake in a little café. The low-slung winter sunshine glanced off the mountains around us.

Top of the world

We used the free time later that afternoon to explore central Interlaken, the town pitched between the twin lakes, Brienz and Thun. Dad remembered a Sunday afternoon stroll along the Hoheweg, Interlaken’s main street, plus a horse and carriage ride along the Hohematte, the central park with unobstructed views across to the Jungfrau. Both have survived the years.

He also remembered an evening show at the Kursaal concert hall, now disappointingly a casino, and buying chocolates at Schuh, the grand old dame of Interlaken cafés. Schuh is today, we find as we stop for coffee, still going strong, expanded into a genteel coffee shop with an adjoining exclusive chocolaterie.

The highlight of the trip for both the serious railway enthusiasts and casual rail fans such as us was the ride on the centenary-celebrating Jungfrau Express.

“In the pantheon of great rail journeys, the Jungfrau Express is right up there,” says follow traveller Callum Macleod of Wiltshire. “It’s not a scenic journey in the same way as the Glacier or Bernina Express, but the feat of engineering fascinates me.”

Italian miners first blasted through the mountain to Jungfraujoch on February 21, 1912, to complete the construction of the railway tunnel. They’d been trying since 1896. The railway brought a new breed of genteel visitor to the Jungfrau region and, today, carries around 700,000 passengers per year.

Just getting to the train is quite a journey in itself. We changed trains first at Kleine Scheidegg, where ski runs whoosh beside the track in a blur of goggles and baby grows, and cable cars trundle overhead.

From here to Europe’s highest railway station at Jungfraujoch, located at an air-thinning altitude of 3,454m, the feat-of-engineering railway climbs cautiously through a tunnel at a steep gradient of one in four. There are two stops during the 20-minut climb to admire our progress from enclosed viewing platforms and an audio-visual explanation of the journey throughout.

As we stepped out of the train into what feels like a space station, we were bombarded with Asian tour groups, promotions for watch companies and a scrum of captive-audience eateries.

More calming was an al-fresco platform adjoining a domed research station, where I imagine serious-minded boffins in white coats resolving global warming while tourists outside try to identify Italy on the snow-meets-sky horizon.

On the road again

On the way home back to London via Cologne the next day, I fell into conversation with first-time clients Chris and John Harwood of Lancashire.

“I would have liked a bit more flexibility about the meal times but it is nice to hand all the catering arrangements over to someone else,” says Chris. “It helped having someone to explain what train and what platform,” added John. “We’d have been lost on our own.”

For dad the convenience of a group trip made sense: like-minded company, an experienced tour guide and a ready-made itinerary. While I prefer my travels to be a little independent on the whole, I could see how the experience has given him confidence to travel again.

In fact, he has just booked another trip. He’s heading to Melbourne to visit the sister whose birthday they celebrated in Interlaken that day in 1963. Amongst his luggage will be a small, pink rail pass to pass on the idea that, no matter what age we are, we all deserve a holiday now and then.

Light installation by the Swiss artist Gerry Hofstetter

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