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Paul Critcher

City, country, mountains or sea… travel writer Paul Critcher wants to see them all. Whether it's a package holiday in Greece or a six month jaunt around Thailand, he still gets the same excited butterflies in his stomach as he sets off on a new trip. This year Paul is hoping to find some great family adventures to share with his teenage sons.

Dive in - travel with purpose


Travel for its own sake is all well and good, some people can do it for years and are perfectly content, but to my mind having some sort of purpose attached to your travelling can make the experience all the more worthwhile.

And, judging by the popularity of activity holidays and sports tourism, it seems that a lot of you agree with me. A simple beach holiday combined with a potter around some of the local sights doesn't cut it in anymore - people want an 'experience'.

What that experience is, of course, depends on you. But there is an abundance of experience-led holidays to choose from – everything from photography tours to cooking masterclasses. Just take a look at some of the trips on offer from holiday specialist gotolearn.com to get an idea.

Several years ago I dived in (literally) to my own activity holiday, when I learned to scuba dive on a holiday in Egypt. It was one of the best things I ever did, giving me some fantastic memories and revealing a whole new world to me – I even ended up working in the industry for several years.

Learning a new skill in a group situation on holiday or while travelling can be magical. Here's why you should consider it:

• Sense of achievement
• Learn a new skill
• Open your mind to new experiences
• Make strong friendships quickly
• Get out of your comfort zone and feel alive
• Conquer your fears

I felt all of the above when I took up diving. I learned about the equipment and skills such as mask clearing, buoyancy and equalising. I bonded with the other trainees and am still friends with a couple of them more than ten years on. I got over the discomfort of having to flood my mask and completed all the course requirements to become a qualified diver, a huge sense of achievement.

But most of all, I got to discover the wonderful treasure of the underwater world. At first I was simply bowled over by schools of golden anthias and fan corals waving in the currents. As my diving progressed there were more milestones as I saw turtles, stingrays, dolphins, manta rays and sharks. It was amazing to find out that there was a whole new world for me to discover under the waves.

Diving might not be for everyone, perhaps skiing, kayaking or climbing floats your boat. Whatever the case, I'd encourage you to try something new – you never know what you might achieve.

For those interested in taking up diving. These websites are a good place to start www.padi.com www.bsac.com


Roman Holiday

"What's your favourite city?" It's an impossible question but there was no way out of it – I was going to have to answer.

The question was posed to me by a flirtatious waiter who had spent the last few minutes chatting up
my other half (much to her delight) and, for the sake of appearances, was now including me in the conversation.

I didn't think too long and instantly replied: "Roma!". It made sense - when in Rome, after all – as a general rule of thumb, everybody likes visitors to think highly of their hometown even if they hate it themselves.

With the trattoria filling up, the charming cameriere took his leave and went to welcome some new diners. Judging by the attentive service and generous portions that followed I had given the right answer, and as we sat nursing our chilled glasses of Frascati, me and my companion spent the rest of the meal discussing which was our favourite city.

Yes, an impossible question. Sydney, New York, Rio, Toronto, Buenos Aires all cropped up as early contenders, so we decided to limit the field to Europe (I know this blog has been a bit Europe focused
so far, but we'll spread our wings soon) and consider the best cities to visit for a break as opposed to
living in the city or going there on business.

Okay, so the field had narrowed considerably, but that still left a very long list: Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Helsinki, Istanbul, Vienna, Munich, Budapest, Athens – I could go on, but you get the idea.

"I'm not even sure it's the best city in Italy," said my wife. "What about Venice, Florence, Bologna..."
She had a point, but given that I said to the waiter that Rome was my favourite I feel the need to set
out my reasons for choosing Rome.

Well, it's beautiful, every corner you turn reveals another delight. I could spend a month in the Forum alone, but then there's the Colosseum (I love the Colusseum), the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps,
the Pantheon, Piazza Navona... and I haven't even mentioned St Peter's and the Sistine Chapel yet.

Out of town, there's Ostia Antica where there are wonderful ancient remains including frescoes,
mosaics, ancient buildings and an impressive ampitheatre. In Rome itself there are plenty of green
spaces to escape the hustle and bustle, nowhere better than Villa Borghese with its gardens, museums
and fountains.  

Fountains are a Roman speciality, from the Baroque splendour of the Trevi Fountain to the many water fountains dotted around the city that provided much needed refreshment in the heat of summer.
Talking of refreshment, you won't be disappointed with the food and drink. Whether it's a quick slice of pizza, a mountain of rich gelato or something more substantial, Rome caters for all.

My ideal foodie day would comprise a coffee and pastry in the morning in one of the many cafés near
the Spanish Steps (shoppers will also enjoy the many designer stores found in the area); a quick lunch of artisan pizza near St Peter's and finally a long multi course dinner in Trastevere (an area behind the River Tiber populated with lots of cafés ,bars and restaurants).

Trastevere is the place for people watching and I can't think of a better way of spending my time than sitting in the shade of an awning sipping a cappucino and watching the world pass by - heaven.

So what's my favourite city? Roma, of course. Until I visit the next one...

Shining a light - Torre de Hercules

The Torre de Hercules is the oldest Roman lighthouse still in use today. A World Heritage Site it rises from a peninsula that juts out from the city of La Coruña in Galicia in northern Spain, the Torre has guided seafarers through the treacherous waters of the Costa del Morte (Coast of Death) since the second century.

You can climb the stairs to the viewing platform at the top of the tower – one side provides clear views of the port city and the other looks out onto the wild Atlantic.

The coastline is rough and the weather is often damp here in Spain's wettest region, but the Torre stands tall. In whimsical moments I like to think of the Torre as a defiant symbol of humanity's battle with the elements. Here, the balance is just right - the Torre doesn't seek to control the wild sea, but merely guides the sailor safely away from the rocks.

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Europe - North and South

With a world of travel possibilities at my fingertips, I struggled to decide where to kick off this opening foray into the blogosphere – should I celebrate the food of Japan or moan about the bore of endless waiting in airports? Perhaps Brazil should be my destination of choice in a World Cup year or maybe I'll take in an altogether remoter destination such as Antarctica. But they say you should write about what you know, so I'm starting somewhere a bit closer to home - Europe.The question is which Europe?

One of the grand old cities (London, Paris, Rome) or some of the beautiful natural landscapes (the Med, the Alps, the pine forests) or a foodie tour (tapas in Bilbao, a Provençal stew, pizza in Naples). It's impossible isn't it? How do you cover the whole of Europe in a few hundred words - not easy this blogging lark.

Fortunately I've got a plan, a while ago I visited two island nations that reveal the wonderful contrasts to be found on the continent – Europe's northernmost capital city Reykjavik in Iceland, and its southernmost counterpart, Valletta in Malta. Although these places are wildly different, there is some common ground between them. Namely, stunning natural features, fascinating people and distinctive cultures and cuisines.

In terms of natural features, Iceland's combination of volcanic activity, geysers and icebergs is quite simply breathtaking. Your number one consideration when visiting should be to check (and then double check) that you've packed your camera – and think about investing in a good one. Iceland has the most dramatic landscape, from the Gullfoss waterfall to the Geysir hot springs, to the Thingvellir National Park – all of which can be covered in the Golden Circle tour which takes in all of three of these top attractions.

Perhaps it's the cold climate, but the adjective that comes to mind when I think of Icelanders is "cool" (as in awesome). Icelanders have a gentle humour and a self awareness - they're proud without being overbearing and it takes a lot to impress them. I liked the people I met in Iceland a lot.

It's a tough ask for any destination to stand up to the natural beauty of Iceland, but Malta and Gozo (the country's neighbouring smaller island) have some exquisite scenery, albeit not as dramatic as their northern counterpart. The Azure Window at Dwerja in Gozo offers a wonderful photo opportunity and is located near to the Blue Hole, a world-class dive site attracting visitors from all over the globe. The Grand Harbour at Valletta is a combination of the natural and the manmade, with its impressive fortifications repelling potential attackers.

Brits sometimes get a hard time overseas. The legacy of Empire and our sense of entitlement has meant that at times we can be subjected to gentle mockery and, of late, a poor points total on Eurovision. But the Maltese genuinely like us, the legacy of a colonisation that started by invitation and ended amicably, and a large tourism market. In short, the Maltese are keen to give visitors a "warm" welcome, have a shared cultural history with the UK and for the most part speak English extremely well (true of many Icelanders as well), a combination which UK tourists appear to find highly alluring as they visit these islands in their droves.

Simply wandering around the baroque splendour of Valletta was a pleasure, and I particularly enjoyed a visit to Nenu The Artisan Baker which serves up a traditional ftira, a sort of Maltese pizza. I went for the potato and onion topping – wonderfully tasty but I was absolutely stuffed. In contrast, to the rustic ftira, was the delicate sushi lunch I had at Lava restaurant at The Blue Lagoon spa near Keflavik airport in Iceland. The spa is fed by geothermal sea waters and is only a few minutes drive from the airport. So, upon arrival or before departure, you can immerse yourself in the milky waters which are packed with minerals, slap on some reviving mud, have a couple of beers and chill.

If you go, make sure you shower thoroughly after bathing in the spa, the minerals can damage clothing and have a bit of a sulphuric smell. We sat behind a fellow spa visitor on the plane ride home who, to the consternation of his fellow travellers, had failed to take this advice - pooeey!

So, take your choice – the naughty north or the sexy south – I loved them both.

• Click to read my full travel reports on Reykjavik and Valletta Don't forget to register for the FREE Be Happy digital magazine and newsletter CLICK HERE

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