Malta: Knights’ Treasure

FROM my restaurant terrace, I can look out over Grand Harbour towards the fortifications of Valletta. Intimidating even now, in the age of aerial assault and cruise missiles, the massive walls must have seemed impregnable when they were first built. Made of the same honeyed sandstone as the island of Malta itself, they grow organically out of the rock. It is hard to believe they are the work of mere men and best not to think of the suffering endured by the slaves who built them here under the searing Mediterranean sun. Continue reading “Malta: Knights’ Treasure”

Sierra Leone: Rough Diamond

I HAVE been in Sierra Leone only an hour and am already having a party. I am staying at the airport hotel, following the advice of the guidebooks and British Foreign Office who advise against making the long crossing to Freetown, the capital, by night: “None of the options for transferring between the international airport at Lungi and Freetown is risk-free.” Continue reading “Sierra Leone: Rough Diamond”

Cayman Islands: Lion Hunting

“WE WATCHED them coming through the Bahamas, which they just devastated,” she says. “They lay 25,000 eggs every four days and have no predators here. They will literally eat everything on the reef.”

I am sitting on a shady terrace in the Cayman Islands, watching the sun ripple off the Caribbean and sipping a fruit punch, while Nancy Easterbrook tells me about the threat to local coral reefs from the invasive lionfish. She is a dynamic bundle of energy who, with her husband, runs local diving company Divetech and their livelihood depends on preserving some of the best diving in the Caribbean. Continue reading “Cayman Islands: Lion Hunting”

Panama: Canal Zone

THE TRUCK, belching black diesel smoke, slithers and slides as it struggles up the steep incline of the wet road. It is not much of a road, although it used to be once, sure. Then the weather and the jungle got at it, patiently aiming to outlast it. Now this stretch is a collection of potholes stitched together with some tar, tiptoeing past dramatic gullies washed away by landslips.

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Zanzibar: Island Life

THE STREETS of Zanzibar’s Stone Town are a maze of meandering alleys that lead you in circles. The best you can hope for is to emerge from their dark shadow, squinting against the bright sun, at an unexpected corner of the shore. Around the central tourist area, they are lined with shops whose shaded interiors hide mostly crafts – beads, paintings, fabrics and souvenir T-shirts. Further back, they start to supply more local needs: charcoal, soap powder, shoes and bread. Continue reading “Zanzibar: Island Life”

Osaka: Second City

AS I EAT breakfast in the restaurant of my hotel, I can look down on Osaka Castle. Sitting atop a massive mound whose walls rise dramatically from the dark green waters of its wide moat, the picturesque castle is already besieged by tour buses at this early hour. Later in the day, it will be overwhelmed by massive numbers of visitors, who will strip the shops of souvenirs and fill camera memory cards with pictures. Continue reading “Osaka: Second City”

Istanbul: Turkish Delight

FOR A visitor, it can seem you have to leave Istanbul to see it. Looking back across the Galata Bridge at sunset, the city’s most glorious sights are laid out before me: the floodlit minarets of the mosque of Suleymaniye the Magnificent; the Topkapi Palace dominating Seraglio Point; the soaring domes of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Continue reading “Istanbul: Turkish Delight”

Nicaragua: Keeping Faith

“THE GUYS were lying down behind the barricades and a woman started shouting at us,” says Francisco Roiz. A guide at León’s Asociacion de Combatientes Historicos Heroes de Veracruz, a museum of the 1972–1979 Revolution, he is telling me about his experience in this revolutionary stronghold as government forces attacked. “She was cursing us and asking us if we were waiting for everyone to be killed. Then she picked up a .22 rifle and started shooting at the National Guard. That made us all get up and fight. She saved our lives.”

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Bruges: Tourism Central

“EVEN IF you came here with no intention at all to buy chocolate, it would beat you into submission,” says an Englishwoman sitting near me at breakfast. I am not sure if that is a complaint or a justification for succumbing to the temptation of a near-endless array of chocolate shops. But welcome to Bruges, where tourists are spoilt for choice on every corner.

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Amsterdam: Canal Ring

“WE HAVE a saying in Dutch: ‘In de aap gelogeerd’ or ‘You slept in the monkey house’ – which means you’re in trouble, having a bit of bad luck. That comes from here.”
I’m in the In’t Aepjen (In the Monkey) pub, one of the oldest buildings in Amsterdam and one of only two still with a wooden façade. Inside, there is barely room for an ancient oak staircase and a tiny bar backed by shelves full of Dutch gin, glasses and curios that heavily feature monkeys in recognition of the pub’s name.

“A lot of seamen would drink here always,” says Frits, the only barman as well as the owner’s son. “It was also a hostel. When they couldn’t pay cash, they would pay with monkeys. Real monkeys. There were always monkeys on the ships as rich people wanted them for their homes. So the hostel became full of monkeys in cages and when the seamen came back on their ships, they were scratching themselves from the fleas.” Continue reading “Amsterdam: Canal Ring”