Tag Archives: Travel

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE FURRED KIND

You have to work hard to reach the finest view of New York’s Hudson Valley. The trailhead to the aptly named Overlook Mountain can be found just outside Woodstock, opposite a Buddhist Temple and you soon find yourself praying for good karma on the hike up. It is a rocky and relentless two-and-a-half mile climb, with barely a flat section until near the top, when you reach the spooky, eerie husk of a once-glamorous hotel. Its roofless hallways and public spaces are now full of trees and creepers and (a warning sign suggests) timber rattlesnakes. Take it as a waymarker that the end is nigh and move on, rather than explore its unstable interior.

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       At the summit of the trail is a small sign pointing through the undergrowth. “Scenic Outlook”, it says, and you damn well hope so after that climb, where you have mainly been looking at a solid wall of trees on either side. You struggle through the brushwood until you find yourself on a rocky outcrop, with the valley spread out below you, the wide, silvery ribbon of the Hudson itself on the left, the glistening waters of the Ashokan reservoir on the right and what feels like the whole world at your feet. It is both sudden and breathtaking and I can’t recall such a sneaky reveal of a fabulous view outside of the Grand Canyon.

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       You can gild this particular scenic lily by taking the steel staircase (if it is open – it’s manned by volunteers and usually weekend-only) to the restored firetower, which adds in a portion of the Catskill mountains to the north, humped like a series of green-backed cetaceans. I asked my wife if she thought the view was worth the long hike and the rickety steps up to the tiny cabin of the tower. “It’s worth the plane ticket over,” she replied. It was an opinion she was to revise on the return leg.

       The walk down was not that much easier than the ascent, but we were elated at having made it to the top on a hot, enervatingly muggy day. We were talking loudly and joking about rattlesnakes when two hikers who had halted some way ahead waved for us to stop. We did so. The man drew a finger across his throat. I instantly thought of Cabin In The Woods or any other number of city-folk-in-the-wilderness movies.

       But my wife hissed in my ear: “Oh my God, it’s a bear.”

       And so it was, a handsome black bear, inspecting the ferns, shrubs and trees that lined the side of the road about twenty metres to our right. Not a huge bear maybe, but when it reared up against a tree trunk, large enough to make knees knock. Every now and then it glanced our way or at the other hikers. It gave a few desultory sniffs of the air. It was a fine time to remember the half-eaten sandwich in my backpack.

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       Discounting the grizzly, which this was definitely not, there are two types of bear you are likely to encounter in the US, the brown and the black. “With one of them you make as much noise as possible and wave your arms,” I authoritatively whispered to my wife. “The other you climb a tree or play dead.”

       ‘Which one do you do for a black bear?” she asked.

       “I don’t remember,” I replied.

       Quietly, so as not to disturb our new ursine chum, she gave me a dead arm.

       All I could really recall was that a black bear can run at 35mph. A rough calculation suggested this was about 30 mph that I could manage uphill, even with a bear on my tail. We were stuck on that path for the time being.

       I subsequently discovered that there are at least 8,000 black bears in New York State. The population is growing and interactions with humans are increasing. So this year the autumn hunting season was extended into what amounts to a cull. Until the end of September, hunters were allowed to kill bears with “bow, crossbow, muzzle-loader, shotgun or rifle” in areas designated by the Department of Environmental Conservation. But I didn’t have any of those particular weapons on me and, besides, the innocent bear was mostly minding its own business. Mostly. Every now and then it would wander onto the track then, as if catching an elusive fragrance, it would be drawn back to a particular tree and start inhaling and snorting loudly.

       We were standing there for close to twenty minutes, waiting for this tree-junkie of a bear to get bored. Eventually, it looked up into the branches of its favourite trunk and, with an ease I still can’t quite comprehend and a speed that was both impressive and terrifying, it began to climb. With the crack of claw on bark and the odd grunt, it was soon in the upper branches, swaying like an overgrown, swarthy koala.

       ‘Not the climb-a-tree-to-escape species, then,’ I offered to my wife, whose expression suggested she thought my zoology degree was a waste of three years.

      It was time to go. We set off using a speedy gait that was a combination of Olympic race-walking and Lee Evans at his most hyperactive. We warned those coming from the car park that there was a bear in the air. Several, who had encountered bears before, turned back. Others, including a pair with what looked to me like a tasty morsel of a dog, carried on regardless.

       Later, nursing a slightly unsteady beer in a bar in Woodstock, I asked my wife what she made of the experience. “I was wrong about the view,” she said. “It was the bear that was worth the price of the plane ticket.”

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  • I travelled as a guest of Virgin Holidays (0844-573 0088, virginholidays.co.uk), which has a week’s fly-drive to New York from £929pp, including flights and Alamo car hire. Advice on what to do when you encounter a bear can be found on nps.gov/subjects/bears/safety.htm. The best course of action is to back away slowly. Attacks are rare. If you are attacked, with brown and grizzly bears, you play dead. With black bears, you shout and make yourself seem as large as possible. Don’t climb a tree.

      

 

MIAMI UNCUT

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).

ALOFT BRICKELL
1001 SW 2nd Ave (001-305 854 6300, starwoodhotels.com)
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, boxparkMiami.com, 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.

B2
146 Biscayne Boulevard (001-305 358 4555, b2miamidowntown.com).
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 (car2go.com) 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.

SENSE BEACH HOUSE
400 Ocean Drive (001-305 538 5529, sensebeachhouse.com).
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.

JAMES ROYAL PALM
1545 Collins Avenue (001-305 604 5700, jameshotels.com/Miami)
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).

THE GALE
1690 Collins Ave (001-305 673 0199, galehotel.com).
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.

SLS
1701 Collins Ave (001-305 674 1701, slshotels.com).
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, viphotels.co.uk)

FREEHAND MIAMI
2727 Indian Creek Drive (001-305 531 2727, thefreehand.com).
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, indomaniarestaurant.com) 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, ba.com), which features both The James (three nights from £819pp, room-only, with flights) and SLS (three nights, £789pp) and Starwood Hotels (starwoodhotels.com).

JASON AND THE GASTRONAUTS

I am interviewing chef Jason Atherton for the Sunday Times sometime soon and I recently realised I had a gap in my experience of his rapidly expanding gastro-universe. I had eaten at Maze when he was Gordon Ramsey’s small-plate protégé, had a memorable lunch at the Pollen St Social Club and a decent dinner at the Social Eating House (on the first full day of opening, and the debutante nerves showed a little) and a good-value lunch (£25.50) at Little Social, which for me showed Balthazar the way to do a Manhattan-influenced brasserie in London. But I hadn’t eaten at his latest joint, Berners Tavern, at the new London Edition hotel, just north of Oxford Street. Time to make amends before the meeting.
I used to have my breakfast meetings (a thing of the past, I’m pleased to say) there when it was the Berners Hotel, a low-key, faded five-star that clung to memories of its (distant) heyday. Now, it has been Ian Schragered – spruced and primped and Fabergé-d (look at the chandeliers) to brash, contemporary glory. Shrager’s still got that same quirk from the Royalton of trying to save on the lighting bills (maybe he’s heard about our energy companies), so there are corners of the public areas where flashlights ought to be provided, but it’s a very impressive lobby with, Schrager’s essential ingredient, a busy little bar. Oh, and that other trope of Ian’s – a phalanx of unnervingly attractive staff. You could certainly forget that, under its scrubbed, moisturized and waxed skin, this is a Marriott hotel.
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The restaurant is even grander, the walls covered with a Tetris of mis-matched artwork, a soaring illuminated cabinet of spirits centre-stage at the bar and a roof to remember. Nobody could tell me when the triple-height, ornately plastered ceiling dates from (although the marble floor in the foyer is apparently 1830s), but this was once the site of Messrs Marsh, Stacey, Fauntleroy and Graham’s private bank. Like all good banks, this had its share of scandal. Henry Fauntleroy was light-fingered to say the least, helping himself, with a little creative accounting and the Georgian equivalent of dodgy OTC Derivatives, to £250,000 (a very large fortune back then). According to the judge at his trial at the Old Bailey, the banker “squandered it in debauchery”. Some things never change. Well, that’s not quite true – they hanged him for his embezzlement on November 30, 1824, the last man to hang for forgery in the UK.
Still, back to the food. I am not going to list the meal beat by beat in time-honoured fashion (‘We started with the soup..’). We went fishy, apart from a playful “ham, egg and peas” starter (brilliant), with perfectly cooked fish, lime-chilli scallops, baby squid and a watch-the-white-shirt squid-ink risotto. It was all executed and served with admirable precision. Prices are commensurate with the setting, mind. We paid £110 for four courses, water, tea and a reasonable bottle of Torrentes, from the lower rung of a wine list that quickly ascends to the heavens.
One bugbear among the opulence, and Berners Tavern is far from alone in this, is that I don’t like those credit card machines which say, even though you’ve paid 12.5% already, ‘Would You Like To Add A Gratuity?”. It makes you feel Steve Buscemi’s Mr Pink (‘I don’t tip.. I don’t believe in it’) when you press ‘No.’ There should be a “Yes, but I’ll pay it in cash, thanks” option. Better yet, just shut up with the questions.
So, the overall verdict – rolling in the whole experience, ambience and food – is that Berners Tavern provided one of my best meals out this year in what is unlikely to be topped as the most splendid setting (it certainly rivals the Wolseley in that respect). And it’s open all day. Maybe I’ll start doing breakfast meetings again.

THE (SLIGHTLY) NERVOUS TRAVELLER: KIMBERLY McCREIGHT

Kimberly McCreight, 40, is the author of Reconstructing Amelia (Simon & Schuster), which has been compared (by The Sunday Times and Jodi Picault) to ‘Gone Girl’. She originally trained as a lawyer but realized she was in denial about being a writer, so left to pursue that career. Reconstructing Amelia is her fifth written novel, but the first to be published. Married with two daughters (6 and 9), she lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York.

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I never travelled as a child. I was brought up in the Tri-State area around New York, my parents were divorced, and we just didn’t get away much. So, as an adult, I was determined to make travelling a part of my life. The first chance I had to go abroad was to Japan when I was at college, to a small town between Osaka and Kyoto. Talk about a baptism of fire. But it was a fabulous experience. I was studying, but also got to do some touristy things – I climbed Mount Fuji. What I didn’t realise was, it’s a proper mountain. It was in the guidebook as a ‘must-do’, so I thought: how hard can it be? Well, it’s a tough climb and there is snow at the top and you really shouldn’t do it in running sneakers. My feet ached for days. I was walking like a Geisha. Lesson one of travelling for me: always double-check whatever the guidebook recommends.
I lived in London for a year when my then fiancé and now husband came to study. What I loved about being in the UK was how you could zip off to other countries so easily. I don’t think you appreciate that here. So we went to France, Italy, even Russia. That’s another thing I learned: don’t try and do St Petersburg on a budget. It was beautiful and fascinating, but we definitely weren’t prepared for the expense.
I am also trying to give my kids the chance to travel, because I do feel I missed out on seeing other cultures when I was young. One of my daughters has a fear of flying, which I think she got from me – I have a mild form. When we were on honeymoon in South Africa, I realised how small the plane was going to be taking us up to the Kruger – you could wind the windows down, for goodness sake – and I had to go to the doctor and get tranquilizers to get onboard. It was worth it, though. I have never been to a place that made me feel so insignificant. Not just the animals, but also the scale of it – one tree standing on an enormous horizon beneath an even larger sky. I can’t wait to go back.
We’ve fortunate in that neither of the girls are ‘Princess’ types, so we don’t get Disney pressure. It’s not much talked about as school, which is just as well – it’s such an expensive vacation. I looked at how much and then said: you know, we can go to the South of France for the same number of dollars. So we’ve just come back from Provence, although it was a challenge persuading my daughter about the flight. But by the time we got there, she was ‘what’s all the fuss about?’ She is also a very picky eater and I think it’s great to get children out of their comfort zone and into eating different foods. I told her she couldn’t afford to be fussy in France. Neither my husband nor I speak very good French, so I said we’ll be lucky if we get something that isn’t snails, and it worked, she tucked in.
We also try and go skiing every year. My husband is a very good skier and I’m.. not. But I try and hide that from the kids when we are teaching them. ‘You follow, dad, I’ll be right behind’ kind of thing. Normally, we ski on the East Coast, but last year we went to Vail in Colorado. It’s better in a number of ways. It’s less icy than the in East and it’s much less crowded on the slopes. Which means I can look like I know what I am doing – it’s much easier to fool the kids on the wide, empty slopes.
We are lucky because we can leave the children with the in-laws and get away by ourselves for short breaks. Often, though, we just stay in the city and do a show and restaurants. But a few years back we went to Costa Rica, which I love – it’s so lush and both the animals and the people are wonderful. We didn’t make the coast, but stayed in the centre, around the volcano. It was actually my second time there. After college I had backpacked there down through Mexico with a friend. Two girls backpacking alone in Central America – what were we thinking? Nothing bad happened, but the hassle was constant and relentless. We definitely had hassle fatigue by the time we had finished the trip. And again I made the mistake of believing the guidebook, that climbing the Chichen Itza pyramid on the Yucatan was easy. That thing is steep. I got to the top and thought: there’s no way I am ever going to get down.
I’m not very good with beaches. My husband is OK. In St Thomas in the Caribbean I kept insisting we go into town for dinner. Which was usually disappointing for one reason or another – I simply didn’t realise, that’s not really what you do in the Caribbean. It’s a beach holiday. Just stay put at the hotel. But I like a little adventure. So the next big trip is probably Macchu Picchu or possibly Kilimanjaro. That’s more climbing iconic sites – but this time, I’ll check what footwear I need.

* Kimberly McCraight talked to Robert Ryan

IT’LL BLOW YOUR HEAD OFF

I recently interviewed Ian Burrell, a (possible the only) “Global Rum Ambassador” for a piece in the Sunday Times Travel Magazine about rum in the Caribbean at Cottons his bar/restaurant in Camden (cottonscamden.co.uk). That will be out in the December issue (available in November), but in the meantime Ian’s RumFest is taking places next weekend (October 12-13, 12-5pm) at Excel, with over 400 rums, including dozens you’ll never had heard of. Tickets cost from £25, which includes tastings and seminars, see http://www.rumfest.co.uk. Meanwhile, here is a rough outtake from the filmed interview, where Ian explains the legend of ‘overproof’ rum. There’s a little slip of the tongue (Spain captured Jamaica, not vice-versa), but watch for a different, more polished version when the ST Travel Magazine comes out. For more on Ian see http://www.rumexperience.com.

THE LYRICAL TRAVELLER: DON BLACK

Don Black, 75, has written the lyrics to more than 2,000 songs, including the Oscar-winning Born Free and the classic James Bond themes such as Diamonds are Forever and Thunderball, as well as for many theatre shows. He is currently working with Andrew Lloyd Weber on the musical Stephen Ward. A concert featuring his songs, Lyrics by Don Black, with the BBC Concert Orchestra and guest vocalists, is at the Royal Festival Hall on October 3 (www.southbankcentre.co.uk). He also has a Sunday morning show on Radio 2. Married with two grown-up children, he lives in London with his wife, Shirley. Here he talks to me about his travels.
But first watch David McAlmont/David Arnold’s brilliant version of Diamonds are Forever. Dame Shirley who?

DON BLACK: “I used to manage Matt Munro and we went round the world together. Everywhere, from Sao Paolo to Sydney. Didn’t see any of it. I’d say, Matt, Ipanema beach is out there, let’s go. He’d say: “Relax, it’s just sand, have a drink”. Or in New York, it’d be: Let’s go shopping up 5th Avenue and he’d reply: “Don, it’s Crown Court today and they’re giving the verdict. I’ve got to find a TV.” Hopeless. It was ironic he used to open his act with ‘Around the World.’ Like he’d know anything about it. I’m all for combining work and travel, but you have to get the balance right. Matt’s wasn’t.
I’ve just got back from Barbados, working with Andrew Lloyd Weber, who has a place there, and the balance was about right. I lie by the pool all day, scribbling a few ideas once in a while. Then Andrew sits at the piano and plays something and says: what do you think of this? And we’ll work on that for a bit. Perfect.
We used to go to Barbados every year when the children were young. We’d stay at Treasure Beach, which is right next to Sandy Lane, and it was always fun to watch my neighbor Michael Winner hold court on the beach, deciding who he would deign to talk to or not. The kids loved it, but one thing I have instilled in my children is the love of a good deli. No, really, what can beat a good corned beef sandwich with pickle? So we were in Barbados one year and the weather was awful and we were miserable. Then, a nest of some sort fell out of a tree and hit Shirley on the head. That was the last straw., I said: how about we go to Miami? The kids said – is the weather better there? I don’t know, I said, but they’ve got great delis in Miami. That was good enough, off we went for corned beef and pickle.
Mind you, Miami hasn’t got much else going for it. It’s nice, sure. I once stayed at the Delano, Madonna’s favourite, and I’ve never felt so old in my life. Miami’s OK if you are young, but beyond the party scene there’s no ‘there there’, as Gertrude Stein once said.
New York, though, is my favourite city in the world. You know you are alive – I love the energy and optimism. You can walk forever and never get lost, as long as you can count. And the Rodgers and Hart song sums it all up: ‘I’ll take Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, too..’ Just going through the song is magic.
I know a lot of the appeal is nostalgia, but it gets me every time. I used to love the Waldorf Astoria, for instance, but I’m sure that was partly because it has Cole Porter’s piano.
I also had some the very best times of my life in Las Vegas, although it’s changed. When I went I saw Sammy Davies Jr and Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. Incredible entertainers. Now it’s all shows like Cirque du Soleil and fancy illusionists, which isn’t quite the same. And I suppose I should mention Los Angeles. We used to live there but I went back recently for a James Bond 50th anniversary tribute. Stayed at the Four Seasons, had dinner with the Broccolis – a little work mixed with pleasure, very nice. But LA is the capital of showbusiness – it’s great to visit if you are in the business, not so much if you aren’t. As someone said, it’s the only city where you can die of encouragement, because there is no such thing as a bad meeting. There is a shallowness to it – but on the other hand you’ve got places like Route One to Big Sur and great weather. It’s hard to hate, really. I always look forward to going back.
Growing up in Hackney, we didn’t do holidays. A day trip to Southend was about it. I didn’t go abroad until I started work at the New Musical Express in Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street – two hundred yards of hokum, as someone called it – meeting stars like Frankie Vaughan and Frankie Lane – old fashioned now, but the Robbie Williams of their day. Paris was my first trip out of the country and my first flight and I thought it was wonderful. Taking off and coming down over a necklace of twinkling lights. After that I became a stand-up comic for a bit and most of my travelling was to die in places like Bradford and Glasgow. I always say I wrote my first song while waiting for a laugh in Darlington.
I know this sounds terrible, but there aren’t many wonders of the world that would tempt me away, just to visit. Sightseeing doesn’t interest me and the thought of three weeks on a perfect beach would drive me mad. Besides, Shirley doesn’t swim. Shallow end in pools, only. The places I want to go to are towns like Sag Harbor, where Hemingway went to write. I’d like to copy that. And New England. I read a lot of poets like Edna St Vincent Millay, who was born in Maine, and Robert Lowell, who was from Boston, a city I would love to visit. I get this world of diners and liquor stores from them and, although it might have gone now, I’d really enjoy trying to find it.”