Category Archives: Travel


I was walking through Newton Wood on the banks of the River Yealm in Devon, my dog stirring up the scent of wild garlic as he scampered through the undergrowth, when the sound of a large bird breaking cover stopped me in my tracks. A black shadow swooped over the wood’s gnarled Monterey pines, dived low across the water and skirted some expensive looking yachts before disappearing into the trees on the other side of a small creek, offering up a tantalising glimpse of white plumage as it did so. An osprey? I wondered.


The River Yealm

‘Buzzard,’ said a voice behind me, as if reading my non-ornithological mind.

I turned to see a bearded, grizzled local leaning on a stick, an equally battered-looking collie at his feet.

After a few minutes conversation about local wildlife, I asked him who owned the moorings for the flashy boats anchored in mid-stream. ‘That’d be those bastards at Kitley,’ he said, before ambling off.

I was taken aback. Rarely had I encountered such coarseness in the decade I had been coming to the village of Newton Ferrers on holiday. The Kitley Estate, I knew, was situated upriver on the Yealm, home to a rather grand, if austere, house, mainly used for weddings and conferences, which had been recommended for its cream teas. I determined to investigate what sort of bastards lived there. Which meant nothing more arduous than going for scones and jam.

The waterside village of Newton Ferrers is just about the last hurrah of the South Hams before you come to Plymouth. Popular with the yachting fraternity, it has nevertheless managed to avoid the overcrowded fate of Salcombe to the east. No clothing or gift shops dominate the main street of Newton Ferrers – there’s a Co-op, a butcher, a village-owned post office, a pharmacy and the Dolphin pub. All the essentials, none of the fripperies. It sits on the northern bank of a tidal creek off the Yealm estuary, facing its sibling Noss Mayo, which occupies the (slightly) more shaded side of the valley. The path over to Noss – known as the Voss – may not be one of the village’s most attractive features, but is certainly one of its best assets.

The Voss is a concrete walkway that is only uncovered at low tide, meaning you can cut out the twenty-minute or more walk around the creek via Bridgend and stroll across from the Dolphin to the Swan Inn on the southern side. From there is a second crossing (‘The Noss Voss’) which cuts across to the Ship Inn. All three pubs have outside seating areas where you can watch the tidal rhythm that dominates village life – low tide brings out the shoppers crossing from Noss, the kids for crabbing, walkers heading for National Trust forests to pick up part of the South West Coastal Path and, of course, the pub crawlers who will try and knock off all three inns before the waters claim the walkways once more.


The Voss

If there is a drawback for the holidaymakers to this bucolic spot, it is probably that there are no sandy beaches on the immediate doorstep, although you could argue this has been something of a saving grace. In fact, for sandhogs (and walkers) a seasonal ferry operates from Newton Ferrers harbour across to Wembury Point and the coastal path which will deliver you to Wembury Bay, where there is a marine life centre, a café and a series of sandy and rocky bays with excellent rock pooling.

But for me the best of the beaches is the brace of privately owned ones at Mothercombe, about four miles from Newton Ferrers, which are only open at weekends and Wednesday in season (parking: £4.50). The part of the beach with facilities (refreshments, toilets) is out-of-bounds for dogs from Easter-October, but I think the second pooch-friendly option on the estuary is the more dramatic of the pair. I still recall the first time I saw it at low tide, the sands marbled by a skein of sun-sparked rivulets and the air freckled with sand thrown up by the hooves of a half-dozen galloping horses.

I subsequently made enquiries about riding on the beach at the stables in Newton Ferrers ( and was told the outing was reserved for experienced riders, as the horses like to have their head once they realise it’s a day at the beach. My own style of riding being very regal – i.e. comparable to a sack of King Edwards – I have never actually tried the Mothercombe hack. It looks like fun though.


Newton Ferrers

On my recent trip I discovered that Kitley House ( does indeed offer a decent afternoon cream tea that is best taken out on the small terrace, overlooking the water and fields with rabbits, pheasants and geese. Whilst unwisely tackling my second scone, I glanced over the brochure outlining the history of the estate. “The Pollexfens (pronounced Poulston) resided at Kitley until 1710, when Edmund Polloxfen died,” it read. “Anne, the heiress of the estate, married William Bastard of Gerston Manor…”

Well, the estate is still family owned, and so I realised my fellow dog walker and I had been talking at cross purposes when he told me who owned the moorings. The Bastards of Kitley do. With a capital “B”. And very nice they seem, too.


  • The Ship Inn (01752-872387/ is the best bet in Newton Ferrers/Noss Mayo. Excellent fish and chips, lovely views. Cream teas at Kitley House (01752-881555/ from £7.50.
  • Toad Hall Cottages (01548 202020/ has a selection of self-catering cottages in Newton Ferrers/Noss Mayo, many that welcome dogs and offer short weekend breaks (three nights from around £300) out of high season.
  • Visit South Devon ( has detailed information on the South Hams, including accommodation and dog-friendly beaches.

Why SPECTRE (and Bond) is at home in Austria

You may have noticed that a new James Bond film has opened. You may also have noticed that part of it was filmed in the Tirol, in Austria, in an Alpine village called Sölden. Of course 007 and snow have a long history, going back to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (poor Bond, decent film, great soundtrack), so Spectre is continuing an 007 tradition which goes back to Ian Fleming’s love of the sport.



Fleming skied at a time when it was elitist, glamorous and dangerous. The glamour remains to some degree and as for the danger – you might have more forgiving skis and boots that don’t snap your ankle, but there’s still  whiteouts, avalanches, treacherous driving conditions and rogue cable cars. But that is all grist to the Bond mill – isn’t putting the spy in peril in a spectacular setting the essence of a 007 movie? It certainly is of the globetrotting Spectre.

But there are plenty of countries that have snow, so why did Mendes and crew choose Sölden? Well, the cynics might suggest that it was a village willing to close its main ski slope in peak season in return for the sort of publicity money can’t buy. Or possibly the Spectre scouts thought that the glistening glass cube of its mountain-top Ice-Q restaurant might rival Piz Gloria on the Schilthorn in Switzerland as an iconic Bond location.

The Ice-Q restaurant, Sölden, which isn't a rerstaurant in the movie

The Ice-Q restaurant, Sölden, which isn’t a restaurant in the movie

It is also possible that the scriptwriting team, always in search of a backstory these days, knew that, although Bond was not born or conceived in the Tirol, his DNA is all over it. thanks to his creator.

Ian Fleming was forced to resign from Sandhurst after contracting gonorrhoea from a prostitute and in 1927 he was despatched by his formidable mother to the town of Kitzbühel (having spent some time there the previous year) in the Tirol. He arrived in a place that eschewed stuffy Anglo-Saxon sexual mores. Which, once he had shaken off his initial torpor, suited the testosterone-fuelled Fleming just fine.

Fleming’s mother had sent the 19-year old to be tutored, alongside other English boys, by a very influential pair – the Forbes Dennises. Ernan Forbes Dennis had been the British ‘Passport Control Officer’ in Vienna, which if you speak spy, you will know is code for resident MI6 officer, although he was indeed also a keen educationalist and proponent of the theories of Adler. His wife Phyllis was a successful author who encouraged the young Fleming to write. Together they represented two cornerstones of Ian’s future life – espionage and writing.


     In the thirties he would also meet the splendidly named Conrad O’Brien-ffrench in the Tirol. He was an adventurer, explorer, an excellent skier and.. a spy. He worked for the Z Organisation, a kind of shadow MI6 that was sympathetic to Churchill’s insistence that Hitler wanted war. He set up a network of agents across Austria and Southern Germany. Ian and his older brother Peter (at that point a very successful author) often bumped into O’Brien-ffrench, as the man’s cover was that of a travel agent looking to open up the region to British tourism. When war broke out O’Brien-ffrench escaped from the Nazis by hiking over the Alps into Switzerland. Some claim he was later very influential in securing Fleming a post in Naval Intelligence during WW2.

Oetztal Alps credit Tirol Werbung.Aichner Bernhard

Fleming had learned to ski in the Tirol (and even today there is a downhill event in Kitzbühl named after him), although he always said it was a toss up between summer and winter as his favourite time – he loved the skiing but also appreciated that the girls weren’t so bundled up in their thick clothes in the warmer months.

The war put paid to Fleming’s sojourns to the Tirol. He would return to Kitzbühel when he was 50, with wife and son in tow, to try and recapture something of his youth, but according to his biographer Andrew Lycett the trip was something of a failure, even though the writer professed to have enjoyed himself. He was no longer an athletic young man who could have his pick of the locals, but an aging dyspeptic author in a failing marriage, with his bored wife and tragic son Caspar (who later committed suicide) in tow.

But Kitzbühel was never far from his thoughts and what he called his ‘golden years’ there made many appearances in his fiction. He decided that, as he had, James Bond would learn to ski in Austria. In Octopussy, the story of the Nazi gold and the mountain refuge was surely based on the wooden huts you can see dotting the Alpine meadows of the Tirol. And when James Bond marries Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, they are on their way to an idyllic honeymoon in Kitzbühel when she is murdered. He also left £500 each to three people in the town in his will when he died in 1964, exhorting them to “do something exciting” with it. Among them was Lisl Jodl, one of his many Bond-like romantic entanglements from the ’20s and ’30s.

So perhaps it was just serendipity and/or finance that brought the makers of Spectre to choose the Austrian Tirol  for the snow scenes (spoiler: Bond does not actually ski in this one), but conscious or not, they chose well.


I have just returned from a week touring the Hudson Valley and the Catskills in upstate New York. Most of it was for a piece for The Times and it was a very successful trip – good food, dramatic modern art, fantastic scenery, Robber Baron’s grand historic homes, and some possibly too close encounters with local wildlife. But one standout was the hotel we stayed in on the last night, mainly because it was so unexpected (it was the result of a tip-off from a native New Yorker who said: ‘Don’t ask questions, just book in’).

If you read a lot of the US travel press you might think that the recent renaissance of the Catskills – which is a few hours’ drive from Manhattan, up I-87 or 90 – means it’s a Williamsburg with trees and mountains, with a farm-to-fork restaurant at every junction, an antique Americana collection on every porch, a cool bar beside every creek. This isn’t true, there is a lot of driving around (by our standards at least) to sample the best of, say, Delaware County.

The town of Andes in The Catskills is good for Americana

The town of Andes in The Catskills is good for Americana

After a slightly disappointing first turn through district, the highlights being Andes (quaint, good vintage clothes, antiques, coffee and cookies) and Delhi (bookstores, covered bridges, more antiques) but not fly-blown Bloomville (Table on Ten restauarant and not much else), I thought maybe The Roxbury might not live up to its billing. However, there is often something about the typography and colour scheme of a place’s signboard that tells you that you are in safe hands. “Contemporary Catskill Lodgings” this one teased in limegreen and black and it delivered.

The Roxbury and backdrop

The Roxbury and backdrop

The Roxbury is a themed hotel, in that each of the 28 units is decorated to a particular brief, in this case a TV show or movie. Now, I’m not always a fan of themed rooms. Sometimes hoteliers think that all it takes is a hideous shagpile carpet, a lava lamp and a couple of DVDs and bam! The Austin Powers Suite. Or a bit of gold MDF and organza and you have the Arabian Nights room. That isn’t the case at The Roxbury Motel.

The owners, Greg Henderson and Joseph Massa both have theatrical backgrounds and it shows (Greg does concepts, Joseph is the craftsman) in the outlandish concoctions. What makes The Roxbury different is the attention to details – every room is done with passion and panache. Most are based on the sixties TV shows that were on constant re-run when the owners were growing up. So there is a Star Trek room, where the ceiling becomes the galaxy of dopplered stars as seen in warp drive, created by a massive coil of fibre optic lights in the roof space, and where the bathroom tiles glow to recreate the holodeck. For I Dream of Jeannie, the pair used an ancient Roman technique to create a perfect spherical space to represent the genie’s bottle. Gilligan’s Island is basically a huge inverted coconut cream pie as baked by Ginger and Mary Ann.

The understated Amadeus-themed room

The understated Amadeus-themed room

Best of all, though, is a three-bedroom stand-alone single-story house called The Digs. It was inspired by the purchase at auction of artifacts that were previously owned by a man who claimed to have worked for the Board of Education. Greg and Joseph discovered that they were from places such as Persia/Iran, the Far East and various destinations not open to the usual US tourist in the 50s and 60s. They decided the vendor had been a spy-cum-archeologist and so created a huge backstory which means The Digs is filled with the sort of items that might be boxed up at the end of Indiana Jones – and indeed there is a room with a ceiling full of bullwhips, snake wallpaper, a Mayan temple hiding a pull-down bed and a giant boulder above the lobby in homage to Indy. There’s also a fish tank so special it has featured on Animal Planet.

The Digs' ceiling lamps - from Cairo.

The Digs’ ceiling lamps – from Cairo.

But here’s the thing: despite all the frivolity, the hotel work – the products are excellent, there are bathtubs as opposed to mere showers, the fabrics, tiles, lamps, ceiling fixtures are sourced from the best suppliers in the world, there’s a two-part spa (hot tub and sauna in one wing, steam and treatments in another) and the sheets are as good as those in the Four Seasons.

As if this wasn’t enough, the pair have also bought a slightly sagging antebellum mansion down the road (see, which sits right next to a dramatic gorge and waterfall and they plan to do much the same with it (albeit more in keeping with the estate’s history than, say, The Jetsons room). Having toured the site, their plans are either insanely ambitious or just… No, I suspect The Roxbury at Stratton Falls will be ready within the two to three years they have allowed themselves. And I’ll be back.

The Digs living room

The Digs living room

See for rates. I flew with Virgin Atlantic ( and hired a car through Alamo. The ins and outs of a Hudson Valley fly-drive will be dealt with  in The Times Travel piece.


.. and with Sherlock, of course. The Times recently ran a piece of mine on Sherlock’s London. In fact, I wrote two versions of the story, the published piece and a second more prescriptive one on how to plan a weekend around the splendid Sherlock Holmes Exhibition at the Museum of London at the Barbican ( Given the global popularity of the series, a significant percentage of visitors are expected to come from outside London – so the idea was to help those not familiar with the city find other Sherlock sites. It does have some different recommendations from The Times piece, so I thought I’d reproduce it here.

FRIDAY AFTERNOON: “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” (A Study in Scarlet)

With the game afoot, your first port of call on arriving in London is to proceed at once to the Henry VIII Gate of St Bartholomew’s Hospital at Smithfields and its small museum (, which closes at 4pm. As well as a history of the hospital – where Arthur Conan Doyle (ACD) spent some time – the museum contains a plaque commemorating the first meeting of Holmes and Watson in the building, donated in 1953 by the Baker St Irregulars, a venerable conglomerate of Holmes aficionados.

The original Reichenbach fall

The original Reichenbach fall

But, of course, this was also the location for Sherlock’s dramatic fall from the roof in the BBC’s Reichenbach Fall episode, which led to the red phone box near the gate being plastered in “Believe in Sherlock” post-it notes. Also check the website of the spectacular glass-roofed triple-tiered Pathology Museum ( in the same complex, a gruesome yet fascinating insight into medicine in ACD’s day – he is rumoured to have penned some of his stories in the curator’s office. Sadly, it is only open to the public for special evening events and some afternoons but the website makes clear the Sherlock connection.
From St Bart’s it’s but a short stroll to The Museum of London (150 London Wall, London EC2Y 5HN) for “The Man Who Never lived And Will Never Die” (£12/£10) exhibition, which runs until April 2015.

Checking the famous Cumberbatch Belstaff, which is on display at the Museum of London

Checking the famous Cumberbatch Belstaff, which is on display at the Museum of London

FRIDAY EVENING: “I think that something nutritious at Simpson’s would not be out of place.” (The Dying Detective)

Where to eat like Sherlock? Try Simpson’s-In-The Strand (100 Strand, 7836 9112, 020 7836 9112, one of London’s most traditional and sumptuous dining rooms, pretty much unchanged since ACD’s time, when it was mention in the Dying Detective and The Illustrious Client. Famed for its carved roasts, the closest thing approaching a bargain here is the Fixed Price menu, served early evening until 7pm (not Saturdays or Sundays), £25.75 plus service. Ask for a window seat to emulate Watson ‘looking down at the rushing stream of life in the Strand’ and wear your best bib and tucker.

SATURDAY MORNING: ”It is a hobby of mine to have an exact knowledge of London” (The Red-Headed League)

An early start at Speedy’s Sandwich Bar and Café (187 N Gower St, 020 7383 3485, near Euston, a humble caff that has, thanks to its new incarnation as 221b Baker Street’s neighbour in the Cumberbatch/Freeman series, become an unlikely tourist attraction. Here you can dine on a Sherlock (chicken and cheese) or a Watson (veggie, both £4.10) wrap or just fill up on a traditional breakfast (it opens 6.30am weekdays, 7.30am Saturdays). From there, travel to Piccadilly and the Criterion Restaurant, where Watson first heard from Stamford the name of the man who would change his world forever. This is the meeting point for Britmovie’s “In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes” walking tour (11am,, £12). It concentrates mostly on the BBC series and recent Guy Ritchie movies, although it does include the site of the Strand magazine, as well as the memorabilia-packed Sherlock Holmes pub on Northumberland Avenue (, with its Hound of the Baskervilles association and recreation of the sitting room of 221b Baker St upstairs. It’s a good spot for a pint of Watson’s Wallop or Sherlock Holmes Ale after the tour ends at Somerset House (a Robert Downey Jr. location). London Walks ( also offers a two-hour Sherlock tour on Friday afternoons at 2pm (£9), which concentrates a little more on the ‘canon’ of ACD stories and finishes up at the same pub.

"It is a curious thing," remarked Holmes, "that a typewriter has really quite as much individuality as a man's handwriting.."

“It is a curious thing,” remarked Holmes, “that a typewriter has really quite as much individuality as a man’s handwriting..”

SATURDAY AFTERNOON: “The name’s Sherlock Holmes and the address is 221b Baker Street.” (Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC’s Sherlock)
One of the most famous addresses in the world has had a complex history – suffice it to say there was no 221 when ACD wrote his stories. Most people know that the subsequently designated 221 was once the Abbey National HQ, but no longer. The Sherlock Holmes Museum (020 7224 3688,, £10/£8) bills itself as at 221b, although it is actually at 239, but the townhouse is very similar to the one described in the stories. Some visitors find the museum’s exhibits to be authentically and atmospherically Victorian and Holmesian, others think shabby and careworn nearer the mark, but it certainly has a well-stocked gift shop. Be warned, there can be long queues – you might want to save it for early Sunday (9.30am opening). There is also a ‘talking’ statue of Holmes (see outside Baker St Station, with a script by Anthony Horowitz (House of Silk, Moriarty) and voiced by Ed Stoppard – you’ll need a smartphone to activate the call from Sherlock.

SATURDAY EVENING: “You don’t know Sherlock Holmes yet – perhaps you would not care for him as a constant companion.” (A Study in Scarlet)
Back to the lavishly ceilinged Criterion on Piccadilly Circus for an early evening drink – the bar is a better bet than the dining room – and its plaque commemorating Watson first being told of Holmes and his eccentricities.

Ernest Dudley Heath, Piccadilly Circus at Night, 1893

The Long Bar stills serves a couple of cocktail recipes created here by barman Leo Engel in the late 19th century. Try a Reviver – American whiskey, angostura bitters, lemon juice, soda (£8). Then take a leaf from Benedict Cumberbatch’s book and choose one of his Soho faves – Viet (34 Greek St, 020 7494 9888) for a steaming bowl of pho, Yalla Yalla (1 Green’s Court, 020 7287 7663, for Lebanese or Tapas Brindisa (46 Broadwick St, 020 7534 1690,, which featured in the first Sherlock episode A Study in Pink.

SUNDAY: “I have a box for ‘Les Huguenots.’ Have you heard the De Reszkes?” (The Hound of the Baskervilles)

The Covent Garden area features in several Holmes stories – the Christmas goose at the heart of the Blue Carbuncle is bought in the market and Holmes solves the mystery of The Man With The Twisted Lip at Bow Street Magistrates. Holmes and Watson attend a performance of Wagner in The Red Circle at The Royal Opera House (020-7304 4000,, where he would also have seen the Polish tenor Jean de Reske mentioned above. On selected Sunday morning, the House offers tours at 10.30am (75 mins, £12) of the beautiful auditorium and its backstage areas.

A Violin made by Duke of London, era-appropriate for Sherlock, but not the Strad he picked up for a song along Tottenham Court Road.

A Violin made by Duke of London, era-appropriate for Sherlock, but not the Strad he picked up for a song along Tottenham Court Road.

Alternatively, see a live performance of the German music Holmes loved. Sadly, St James Hall on Regent St, Sherlock’s other favourite music venue, no longer exists, but he (and ACD) would have been to the Renaissance-styled Bechstein Hall on Wigmore St, which was a showcase for the piano company, but during WW1 was renamed as the less Germanic Wigmore Hall. It puts on Sunday Morning recitals of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven etc for £12.50, including coffee or sherry. You can stroll afterwards to Upper Wimpole St where, at No2, a plaque indicates the ophthalmic practice that ACD set up in 1891, the year the first six Strand Holmes stories were published, and afterwards visit Marylebone Farmer’s Market ( – another Cumberbatch favourite.

WHERE TO STAY: The Park Plaza chain, which includes the Sherlock Holmes Hotel at 108 Baker St – which is not, despite the name, especially themed – has a London Museum Sherlock Exhibition Package at all its properties in the capital. It costs from £188 per room per night, including B&B, two exhibition tickets with exclusive fast track anytime entry, a souvenir book and 10% discount on purchases in the Museum’s gift shop. Details: 0800-169 6128,

The Sign of Four , Australian Film Poster 1923

The Langham, opposite the BBC on Portland Place, is an important hotel in Holmes lore (it was where ACD was commissioned to write The Sign of Four, Sherlock’s second adventure, when he dined with Oscar Wilde in 1889) and features in A Scandal in Bohemia, The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax and The Sign of Four. It also has a package with two tickets, from £329 B&B per night (020 636 1000,

* Robert Ryan is the author of the novel The Dead Can Wait, which features Dr. Watson (Simon & Schuster, £7.99). Thanks to The Museum of London for the images.


By early morning four-wheeler to the Museum of London, for the media preview of Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die, the museum’s major exhibition of all things Sherlockian with opens tomorrow (17th). You might think, given the continuing appetite for Holmes, this would be a shoo-in as a blockbuster event. But, as lead curator Alex Werner has said: ‘We found ourselves having to think hard about how you create an exhibition about a fictional character.’
That sentiment alone will raise some hackles. Werner does not subscribe to playing ‘The Great Game’, popular with many Sherlock Holmes societies around the world, in which all pretend that Watson, not Conan Doyle, wrote the stories and that Holmes was flesh and blood (albeit capable of Whovian-like regeneration). So you won’t find a reproduction of the sitting room at 212b Baker St, like the one at the Northumberland Arms near Charing Cross, complete with Persian slipper, violin and a copy of Bradshaw, claiming this was where Holmes tackled his three-pipe problems. Instead, the curators have assembled cabinets of the sort of artefacts Holmes might have come into contact with, without claiming the great man actually handled them (and so you will find an 18th century violin, a selection of service revolvers of the sort Watson and Holmes might have carried, and a case of drug paraphernalia of the correct period).



Then there is question of which Holmes do you concentrate on when creating a show about the world’s only Consulting Detective? There will be some visitors who will be disappointed to find this is not a Cumberfest, although he does appear on screens and his Belstaff ‘Milford’ coat and his dressing gown (originally used by Conan Doyle to suggest Holmes’ “bohemian” qualities) are on display. But it is not a celebration of the BBC version of the Great Detective. In fact, nearly all the Holmes are represented, from the well-known (Brett, Cumberbatch, Rathbone) to the half-remembered (Ian Richardson, Christopher Plummer, Richard Roxburgh), the point being to demonstrate that no matter how many times he is re-imagined, re-located and re-booted, the immutable essence of Holmes lies within Conan Doyle’s 56 short stories and four novels (rare examples of which are on display under glass). And, of course, it lies with the city where Holmes lived and so often worked.Unknown

This being the Museum of London it should come as no surprise that a large part of the show concentrates on the city that fed both Holmes and Conan Doyle, and it is very effective at conjuring up the gaslit, fog-bound streets that the author wrote about. Maps show Holmes and Watson’s movements about the city in several of the tales, and contemporary paintings of a hansom cab stand, the Strand, Piccadilly and “The Bayswater Omnibus” – shown above, as mentioned in The Adventure of the Missing Three Quarter – give visual life to the architectural and cultural backdrop to many of the stories.
So Werner and his team have done an exemplary job of touching all the Holmes bases while maintaining a focus on the city that helped gave life to this remarkably resilient creation. Criticisms? Yes. Not enough Watson. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Dead can Wait PBB front cover

* Sherlock: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die” costs £12/£10 concessions (020 7001 9844,


There are many sites of pilgrimage for Sherlock fans in London (The Criterion, St Bart’s, Baker St), but one that is often overlooked is The Langham Hotel, which sits in splendid grandeur opposite the BBC in Portland Place. A regular haunt of Arthur Conan Doyle, not only does it feature in A Scandal in Bohemia, The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax and The Sign of Four, it was also the venue for a memorable dinner which, arguably, ensured Sherlock became the iconic character he is today.

9. The Sign of Four

       It was on 30th August, 1889, that Conan Doyle accepted an invitation to dine with Joseph Marshall Stoddart, Managing Editor of Lippincott’s Magazine, who was in town looking for UK writers for the US publication, and Oscar Wilde. It was, Conan Doyle, later said, ‘a magical evening’, and from it came The Sign of Four, Holmes’s second outing, and, from Wilde, the not inconsiderable The Picture of Dorian Gray. (There are those who claim the playfulness in some of the Holmes stories was a direct result of Conan Doyle meeting the legendarily witty Wilde.)

7. The Sign of Four

       As Nicholas Utechin, historian for the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, points out, at this juncture Holmes was a moribund character. He had appeared in A Study in Scarlet in Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887, but it garnered scant attention, and it was by no means certain he would appear again. ‘The Langham dinner revived a career that was all but comatose,’ says Utechin.

       Last Monday, the 29th of September, Chris King, Head Chef of Roux at the Landau restaurant in The Langham recreated (or rather re-booted) the type of menu the men would have enjoyed at dinner, using a Victorian menu from the archives as a template. I was fortunate enough to be invited. The lunch included a beautifully intense consommé with shaved turnips and seared foie gras; dover sole in vermouth, tarragon and shimeji (mushrooms possibly not on the original list); rib of beef from the trolley and cheese with straw, praline and dandelion (see below).


Original Victorian Langham menu... with ads...

Original Victorian Langham menu… with ads…

Between the beef and the cheese was a surprise course – a chance to view the original first page of the manuscript of what was then called The Sign of The Four (the second definite article being dropped later). It, famously, opens with a description of Holmes and his notorious seven per cent solution:

The first manuscript page of ‘The Sign of Four’ by Arthur Co

       This precious relic has been loaned by the University of California Audrey Geisel University Library at the University of California in San Diego. Sadly, the rest of the m/s is in the hands of a private collector, but that one page of meticulous, very lightly corrected handwriting will be on display in the Museum of London’s “Sherlock: The Man Who Never lived And Will Never Die” (£12/£10) exhibition. This installation covers all aspects of Sherlock’s career, from the writings to Gillette on stage, silent films, right up to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Belstaff coat, and runs from October 17-until April 2015. See 

 10. The Sign of Four







In San Sebastian, you know things are about to kick off when Jesus goes out. I am just back from the firework contest there, which involves manufacturers from several countries (this year, Spain, Italy and Austria) setting off thousands of pounds’ worth of explosives every night at 22.45, an event signalled by the illuminated on the ‘Sacred Heart’ statue of Jesus that overlooks the town being switched off. I’ll write about it further nearer the time next year, no doubt, but it is spectacular and, although busy, a great time to be in one of the best seaside cities in Europe.


We stayed on the Gros side of town, near the Zurriola surf beach, which has a great selection of pintxos bars (Hidalgo 56, Bodega Donostiarra, Senra) and good value restaurants (especially along Calle Zabaleta) that don’t suffer from the scrum afflicting the Old Town. You can see the fireworks from the beach here, too. You also get very generous G&Ts hereabouts (these below at the Ondarra Bar almost opposite the Kursaal conference/arts centre), which help the evening go with a different kind of bang.




The Hotel Jalta sits in a prime spot on Wenceslas Square in central Prague. It’s tall and imposing, as it should be given its vintage: the Jalta opened in 1958, when Prague was in thrall to Moscow and public buildings had statements to make. The Jalta, though, is not just another brutalist piece of Socialist Realism. Instead, its lines, both inside and out, are softened by Art Deco and Nouveau touches – the figures carved on the facade, the balustrade of the sweeping staircases and the geometric patterns on the stone- and metalwork. True, the corridors are wide enough to drive a tank down, just in case guests got uppity, so the proportions are definitely in the mode of so-called Stalinist Baroque, but the architect, Antonín Tenzer, did a brilliant job of softening the totalitarian feel of such buildings.

Hotel Jalta Exterior
Nobody is quite sure how Tenzer got away with this subtle celebration of western decadence. Some say he had the ear of the Czechoslovakian president at the time of construction, Antonín Zápotocký, others that he was allowed a little leeway in return for keeping schtum about one of the hotel’s most intriguing amenities – its built-in nuclear bunker.

Papers, please

Papers, please

The subterranean shelter was the first part of the Jalta to be built, the hotel’s construction being a perfect cover for the surreptitious excavations needed. Able to house 150 people, with its own underground water supply and hospital, it was intended to be a Warsaw Pact command centre should, say, Moscow be knocked out in a ICBM strike, as well a bolt-hole for the Czech government.
The Jalta is still open for business, these days as a rather nice 99-room boutique hotel and restaurant (Como), but so is the nuclear bunker. By booking in advance (and paying £2.25) you can tour some of the rooms that have so far been opened to the public. Access is via steep stairs and through a hefty blast door. There are various stagy exhibits and artifacts, but the real star is the structure itself, which comes with what look like torpedo tubes, that are in fact ventilation and communication tunnels that lead to….well, nobody is quite sure. The full extent of the bunker is yet to be established. My guide to Prague, Eva Vondrusová, said: ‘Jalta was where the visiting foreigners all came and stayed. There was even a nightclub. And prostitutes, which was against the law, but nevertheless everyone knew the girls in the basement of the Jalta were for sale.’

The reason for this laissez-fare by the authorities is clear from an artifact sitting on a desk in one of the rooms – the Czech State Security’s switchboard. It looks like an ordinary old-fashioned wire-and-plug telephone exchange, but in fact this was the device with which the StB could activate the bugs in the rooms. On the hotel plan above the switchboard, the VIP rooms, where journalists and politicians were housed (with, the StB doubtless hoped, the odd call girl or two), are coloured red, so the listeners knew which rooms to go for first.
Eva tells me that the system led to some Le Carre-like tradecraft among the visitors. ‘When the reports of the listening devices were declassified, lots of them said that the operators couldn’t hear the conversation because of loud music or the shower was running. Everyone knew everywhere was bugged – and even the bunker was an open secret. When the Jalta manager was asked who in the hotel knew about the secret bunker, he said everyone who worked here. But those were the days when it was best you said nothing.’ Little wonder that almost everyone I spoke to in Prague brought up the subject of Ukraine and Putin and shivered a little, as if the old, cold days could sweep back at any moment. What lies beneath the Hotel Jalta certainly doesn’t feel like ancient history, not yet at least.

* Hotel Jalta, Václavské náměstí 818/45,
(420 222 822 111, Book a tour of the bunker through the concierge.

Thanks to Eva of CAT Guided Tours (00 420 602 618 354, for showing me the bunker and to Czech Tourism (020 7631 0427,

I travelled as a guest of Voyages-SNCF (0844-848 5848,, taking the night train from Amterdam to Prague. Of which more later. 


A Duck With A View

The first thing everyone mentions about Hutong, the Chinese restaurant in The Shard, is not the view (very good) or the service (very jolly) or the red-lantern and dark wood décor (very sleek) but the prices (very high).


They are as incredible as Renzo Piano’s you’ll-have-someone’s-eye-out-with-that skyscraper – like the building itself, they just keep on climbing, until you are hovering around £60 for a Peking duck. But everything in The Shard is expensive – when the Shangri-la Hotel opens in May, rooms will start at £350 a night. To visit the viewing platform unannounced you’ll be mugged for £29.95pp (you can knock a fiver off for pre-booking). So when my kids said they’d like to go up The Shard for their half-term treat  I knew I was going to drop at least a hundred quid for the four of us for the outing, before food and drink. (To be fair, there was a very useful kids-go-free special h/t offer for the viewing gallery, but both ours being over 16, we were looking at full price). Oddly, though, Hutong came to the rescue.

It had just launched a set lunchtime menu of dim sum, any five dishes (e.g. poached wontons with chilli-garlic sauce, ginger and spring onion lobster buns, baked Wagyu beef puffs) for £28pp. OK, so that’s really no bargain by Chinatown standards, but at The Shard it’s a steal (and certainly comparable to Yauatcha in Soho). And you do get four pieces of each one, they are freshly made every morning and they are pretty damn’ fine. Now, I hear you say, four times £28 comes to… but you don’t need one set lunch each. We did two of them (£56) and half a Peking duck (£30), which is flashily carved at your tableside, and left replete after two hours for £86 (plus drinks and 12.5% service). Still expensive, but I haven’t even factored in the view yet.

Hutong is on the 33rd floor, so only about half way up the this anorexic glass pyramid, but even so it’s worth trying to bag a window seat for the always-mesmerising London birds’-eye view (I particularly like looking down on HMS Belfast for some reason, although we were seated on a different side). And if you don’t get a window, there is always the lavatory, from where you can gaze along the river to Tower Bridge and across South London to Kent. In the men’s, the urinals are positioned in front of plate glass windows, so that you stare down on what looks like a vast Hornby construction, with trains snaking in and out of London Bridge Station, feeling like The Fat Controller. Or perhaps Bob Crow.

* Hutong, Level 33, The Shard, 31 St Thomas Street, London SE19RY (020 3011 1257,

photo 5This is the view from the table, looking over Borough Market and Tate Modern.

Thanks to Gina Ryan for the pics.


This is the full version of the Miami Beach hotels article which appeared yesterday (22.12.13). The hotels here have all opened in the last year or so. Miami Beach is never cheap, especially over the next few months, but if you are flexible on dates you can usually find a decent rate at any of these – and Aloft, B2 and Freehand are good value year round and the latter is worth a pop for a drink even if you aren’t staying there (see video below).

1001 SW 2nd Ave (001-305 854 6300,
LOCATION? Newly opened in Brickell, a business/residential district to the south of Downtown, with good public transport links, including rail from the airport.
WHAT’S THE STORY? The rapidly expanding Aloft chain bills itself as a division of W Hotels, but the relationship to its design-conscious big brother is homeopathic – a hefty dilution is involved in terms of scale, ambition and quality of fittings. Instead, think of Aloft as a bright, good-value, much hipper version of Premier Inn that does indeed offer some ‘style at a steal’ – rooms are a fraction of W prices.
WHY STAY? Generous sized bedrooms (160, including family-friendly twin kings), 42-inch plasmas, free wi-fi, decent sized pool (albeit it in the shadow of the garage’s spiral ramps), competitive prices compared to other Brickell hotels (Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons).
SHOULD I EAT IN? There’s a funky little lobby bar but no restaurant – the Re-Fuel snack bar offers DIY breakfast (£4.20) and munchies but luckily there is a very lively local food/bar scene a block or so away at Mary Brickell Village and along South Miami Avenue. Try the new, interesting and eccentric farm-to-table Box Park (111 SW 1st Avenue 001 305 356 8385,, mains £12-18).
BEST FOR: Fly-drive families and couples who don’t want SoBe prices.
IT’S A PITY THAT: It’s a schlep to the beach – a fifteen-minute drive.
BOTTOM LINE: from £79, room-only. Overnight valet parking £22.50 per night.

146 Biscayne Boulevard (001-305 358 4555,
LOCATION? Downtown on high-rise-filled Biscayne Blvd, right by Bayside shopping mall and the port.
WHAT’S THE STORY? Six months old, the first of a projected ‘value’ chain, b2 has refurbed an old property, going for no-frills functionality in 243 clean, bright rooms with very comfortable beds. There’s free wi-fi and loan of iPads and parking is £16, but you might not need a car (see below).
WHY STAY? Brilliant location if you need to catch a boat, good prices and they have a great deal with local car2go ( car sharing scheme – registration fee waived, 38 cents a mile, free parking, fuel and insurance.
SHOULD I EAT IN? The lobby-side Biscayne Tavern calls itself a gastropub, but its more a comfort station – stick to burgers (£9.50) and ribs (£9) etc. and you won’t go far wrong, but haute cuisine it isn’t. There’s an unusually excellent selection of craft beers.
BEST FOR: pre- and post- cruise stays.
IT’S A PITY THAT: there’s no pool.
BOTTOM LINE: Doubles from £107, room-only, £119 with breakfast. B Cruisin’ packages throw in early check-in and taxi to your ship (no b/fast), from £117 per room.

400 Ocean Drive (001-305 538 5529,
LOCATION? At the southern of Ocean Drive, away from the ‘Strip’; not right on the water, but that’s just across the street.
WHAT’S THE STORY? Another reboot of an older property, this intimate 18-room hotel, with a rooftop pool, channels New England and the Hamptons in a Ralph Lauren style. The resort fee of £9.50 per room includes everything you need for the beach (chairs/umbrellas/towels) and wi-fi. The majority of rooms have balconies and sea glimpses.
WHY SHOULD I STAY? The low-key at-the-beach atmosphere is a nice antidote to the normal SoBe posturing.
SHOULD I EAT IN? Yes. The Local House is a dine-in or –out-on-the-terrace option, which offers good vale fresh ingredients – goats cheese croquettes (£6), mac & cheese (£7), large seafood risotto (£15).
BEST FOR: Couples wanting a more relaxed Miami Beach experience.
IT’S A PITY THAT: With just 18 rooms, it fills up so quickly at peak times
THE BOTTOM LINE: Specials sometimes come in at £120 per room, including breakfast, although £180 is more the norm; valet parking is £22.

1545 Collins Avenue (001-305 604 5700,
LOCATION? Right on the sand, in the middle of the South Beach action.
WHAT’S THE STORY? £27m has been spent on the former Royal Palm to create a large (393 rooms) resort that harks back to the Miami glamour of the ’60s, with touches of MiMo (Miami Modern) in public areas and clean Scandinavian influences in the spacious rooms.
WHY STAY? It’s a one-stop resort, with free bikes, surfboards, paddle boards, skateboards, wi-fi, multiple bars and food outlets, lots for kids, two pools, fancy spa, huge gym, good service. Only the high prices might deter.
SHOULD I EAT IN? The Florida Cookery restaurant has fancy fusion cuisine – the oyster, oxtail
and alligator empanadas (one of each, not mixed together, £8.50) were certainly different and my South American-influenced spicy Mahi-Mahi (£18.50) had a welcome kick.
BEST FOR: well-heeled families and active couples.
IT’S A PITY THAT: It’s such a big resort – those pool areas can get crowded at peak times.
BOTTOM LINE: From £220 per night, room only. It levies a £21 resort fee per room for two loungers, umbrella, towels and fruit. Valet parking is £26 a night (although unlike some hotels they do tell guests they you can get public parking for £10 across the road). Featured by British Airways (see below).

1690 Collins Ave (001-305 673 0199,
LOCATION? Next to The Lincoln Mall shopping/dining/nightlife area.
WHAT’S THE STORY? This elegant, family-owned 87-roomer is a chimeric fusion of two historic hotels, The Gale and The Regent, with a rooftop pool and a basement nightclub added in the link. Rooms are compact but not claustrophobic, the best with terraces, all done in classic deco B&W, but very high tech with 55-inch plasmas with a pay per view you can download onto iPod/laptop.
WHY STAY? An atmosphere that feels a step up in sophistication from its generic art deco neighbours, at a reasonable price, on hippest corner in SoBe (opposite the SLS and Delano)
SHOULD I EAT IN? There is a good Italian on site for fresh pasta and wood-fired pizza (both from £11.50), but the star of the show is the dark, clubby Regent Cocktail Bar where the barman make daiquiris just like Papa Hemingway drank (£9).
BEST FOR: 24-hour party people (there’s that nightclub on site, open to 5am on weekends)
IT’S A PITY THAT: it doesn’t have direct beach access – you get squatting rights in front of the Setai up the street.
BOTTOM LINE: from £120 room-only, plus £16 per room resort fee- includes wi-fi, beach chairs, shuttle to and from beach or restaurants, and a £10 food credit. Valet Parking is £26 a night.

1701 Collins Ave (001-305 674 1701,
LOCATION? Grand – on the beach, right opposite the Delano on Collins Avenue.
WHAT’S THE STORY? A typically striking (and somewhat muddled) design job by Philippe Starck, with a little help from Lenny Kravitz, has rapidly turned the old Ritz Plaza into the local party scene du jour. There’s two pool areas, one for guests (it’s the one with a giant fibre glass duck), the other open to the public – for a minimum spend – at the cool Hyde Beach bar/club/gardens. Rooms, of which there are 140, are not huge by any means, unless you get a ‘villa’, and are mostly white with some Louis XIV styled screen prints to suggest a touch of decadence.
WHY STAY? It’s currently the epitome of South Beach bling, if that’s your thing. But the bar/pool scene is worth a bit of rubbernecking, even if you’re not staying.
SHOULD I EAT IN? Food is a big deal here – it’s open kitchen season. There’s gussied-up tapas at Bazaar by Jose Andres in two adjacent dining rooms, although I prefer the terrace of the Bar Centro, which serves a selection from his menu (platter of Spanish meats, £15; patatas bravas, £6.50), with drinks such as liquid nitrogen caiprinhas (£3.25). There is also a branch of Japanese sushi chain Katsuya. The bargain in the latter is the ‘Social Hour’, 6-9pm daily, at the hidden Dragon Lounge upstairs, when all appetisers are half price (tuna on crispy rice, £4.50) and the cocktails a very reasonable £5.
BEST FOR? Celeb spotters (Beckhams, J-Lo, assorted Kardashians), pool poseurs, people watchers.
IT’S A PITY THAT: The extras add up. There’s a £13 per room per day resort fee, but you have to pay extra for umbrellas (£6) and there is a minimum spend on drinks/food for the front row of pool chairs at the public pool (from £47.50pp, more on pool party days) even for hotel guests, which is very cheeky. Valet parking is £29.
BOTTOM LINE: Room-only from £160. Featured by Virgin Holidays + Hip Hotels (0844-573 2451,

2727 Indian Creek Drive (001-305 531 2727,
LOCATION? Way up at the top end of SoBe – much further and you’d be in NoBe.
WHAT’S THE STORY? Hard to believe that this shabby-boho enclave (once the Island Creek Hotel) is part-owned by Ace Hotels, but some of that brand’s magic has certainly rubbed off- this place is hugely popular, especially the bar and tropical gardens with pool.
WHY SHOULD I STAY? For the laidback, freewheeling atmosphere, the lots of activities organised/suggested and The Broken Shaker, a great and currently very hip hangout, with cutting edge cocktails from £9.
SHOULD I EAT IN? There are only wraps (£5-6) at the moment, but restaurant coming next year. Nearby Indomania (131 26th St, 001-305 535 6332, is good bet: blow-out Dutch-Indonesian rijsttafels from £15.50pp.
BEST FOR: Hipsters of all ages – but be aware that it’s a hostel, not a hotel.
IT’S A PITY THAT: It’s so far north of the main drag, but bike hire (£9.50 day) is reasonable. Street car parking only, but they have vouchers (£6.50 day)
THE BOTTOM LINE: A shared quad (with solid, Amish-built bunks) from £16pp; basic doubles £64 per room, both with breakfast included.

* I travelled to Miami as a guest of British Airways (0844 493 0758,, which features both The James (three nights from £819pp, room-only, with flights) and SLS (three nights, £789pp) and Starwood Hotels (