Holidays and Other Excursions

Author: admin (Page 1 of 19)

Madeira – Winery visits

Thursday 25.1.24

Originally we had two outings planned – one to taste food locally in Funchal and the second to visit wineries.  The first was cancelled and we suspect that the company went out of its way to ensure the second trip went ahead.  We were told we would visit three contrasting wineries to showcase the variety of wine now being produced.

Madeira wine dates back over two centuries and on our previous visit we went to the Blandy’s wine lodge in the centre of Funchal.  Madeira wine is sweet and about 20 years it was felt that Madeira could undertake the growth of more grapes and extend production to regular table wines and two of the three wineries we visit today are part of the development with the government financing the processing plants which the growers rent to use.

Our first destination is Octávio Ferraz – Vinhos Madeirenses.  The owner, a former teacher, setup around 20 years ago/  He converted the terraces alongside the family home into a vineyard and became a small wine producer on the edge of the hill side between Funchal and Camara de Lobos.  The garden of the house has been developed as a fascinating little garden – with some fish in a pond, a couple of sheep, some chickens and ducks plus a couple of rabbits lollopping around the various levels – with the adjacent terraces planted with grapes.  A small vineyard and many plants adding to the aroma enables small production all of which is sold locally to hotels and similar and shows dedication to the cause.

The entire place is delightful but must be hard work given the terraces and the climbing up and down.  The stairs are numerous and we do not go to the terraces where the grapes are grown which are another couple of levels down and along from the gardens.  We are treated to a decent wine tasting before we move onwards.

Our second destination is a much larger scale producer and it also enables us to see a little more of the island as we head towards  the Quinta do Barbusano winery which is close to Sao Vincente in the north of the island.  There is a nice modern road under the mountains – the old road over the mountains would have taken much longer!  We have not previously seen much other than Funchal and the mountainous nature of the island becomes clearer.  The roads still twist a little – but nothing I am sure compared to the old mountain road.

The climate in the north of the island here feels different with salty sea air blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean and therefore slightly cooler with huge terraces planted to vines which we walk through.  A much larger production capability and as we later discover a wider range of wine types – although they also have other vineyards so production is not solely from this location.  Again it is family owned and the wide range can be seen in the photo above.

They also provide an excellent traditional Madeiran lunch that includes beef on bay laurel skewers along with boiled potatoes, salad and ‘bolo do caco’ with garlic butter.  There are some goats wandering through the vines which we spot whilst eating lunch.

We then return closer to Funchal and the Barbeito winery – this produces the sweet Madeira wine but being the youngest such producer – only since 1946 – it tends to be more innovative than the longer established producers.  Although sweet I feel I must do my duty of tasting the output.  All excellent.  This has a very small row of wines at the front – but most of the vineyard is further away.  I suspect that they also buy in supplies as they have some very large vats and barrels, although not to the scale of the port wine producers we saw in the Douro valley a couple of years ago.

We are returned to Funchal having enjoyed the services of a guide and a driver for the entire day.  Is too much drinking bad for you?  A wonderful trip out.

Madeira 20 – 27 January 2024

Hotel Cocktail

Hotel Cocktail

This is a return visit to Funchal for us – we spent a week at Reid’s Palace in June 2010 and hardly left the hotel – our intention this time is an expectation to see a little more of the island.  We did make an intermediate visit a few years ago when travelling on Cunard when we were moored in the bay ready for the fireworks on New Year’s Day 2012 – which were pretty fantastic and included setting an adjacent hillside alight.

As a result of an unbelievable offer this time we are staying at Hotel Porto Santa Maria which is adjacent to the Old Town of Funchal and only just above sea level.  With the main aim of seeing some sun during what has been a grey winter at home with a lot of rain.  The hotel is part of the Porto Bay group which also own Cliff Bay, adjacent to Reid’s Palace at the other end of town and other locations.  The central part of the hotel is of some vintage and has been sympathetically extended.  I do not believe it is full during our time here and certainly at breakfast they could manage the demand, although there were hints that sometimes a wait might be needed.  The hotel is well maintained, the staff were generally excellent and the other occupants to whom we spoke did seem to be repeat visitors – which in itself speaks highly of the place.

immediately outside the hotel and running  parallel to the sea – but one street back – is a completely pedestrianised street with restaurants on both sides – one end leading into the fort and the other end the centre of the town.  Most evenings we eat at one of the restaurants.  We had a good meal at the restaurant in the Fort itself – which can arrange special trips in some vintage cars they maintain.  Another night we ate in an Indian restaurant as well as a couple of others – all of a good standard and there were several more which I have no doubt could achieve equally good standards.

We had booked one night at a fado – which is not native to the island but has migrated here from the mainland.  Our choice was Restaurante Sabor a Fado – you come out of the hotel and it is the first fado you reach.  A small family run place – and the family do the singing as well!  The place was packed and whilst we might not understand a word of the singing the emotion was much to the fore.  There is at least one other fado a little further up the same road – so somewhere to go next time we visit.

We also booked dinner one evening at Reid’s Palace where they have rebranded or upgraded their main restaurant – Williams.  We had the tasting menu and wines and as might be expected from a Belmond restaurant was absolutely top class.  We took taxis both ways as there is a steep hill between the two hotels.  Reid’s has another restaurant – Ristorante Villa Cipriani which we sampled on our previous visit, but not this time.

Camara de Lobos

Camara de Lobos

Our hotel had a list of the visiting cruise ships which berth close to the hotel and the numbers on board have a huge impact on the usage of the open top buses and the cable car.  Many take the cable car to Monte and then return (half way) by the wicker toboggans.  We did this on our previous visit and whilst I would be happy to repeat the experience there are always new things to do.  We decided this time to take one of the open top bus routes (there are several) and it is best to choose a day when there are not numerous cruise ships in the port!  There are at least three open top tours and ours took us to Camara de Lobos – the neighbouring fishing port.  We stayed on – the vehicle was well loaded as there were cruise ships in port and we did not want to get stuck and unable to return – but they are supposed to operate as hop on and off – we did not see many people doing that.

We had one day out of Funchal – prior to departure we had booked two tours – one on foot sampling food in Funchal and a second to visit wineries.  The first was cancelled and I will make a separate post about our other day out.

Overall an excellent week away.  I suspect there remains much which can be done in Madeira which we have not covered and at some point we will return.



USA- Deep South – 13

NASA Gateway

NASA Gateway

Friday 10.11.23

A late afternoon flight departing Houston arriving at Heathrow early on Saturday morning.  After very nearly two busy weeks it seems appropriate to take it easy this morning, pack and get ready for the trip so no additional exploring.

The trip has been fantastic.  All of the anticipated highlights achieved and we have seen much of the recent history of American music from the part of the world.  Alongside that two of the famous names trains – The City of New Orleans and The Sunset Limited.  Graceland, Casey Jones, Tina Turner’s school and the related museum, a paddle steamer on the Mississippi plus the wonders of Space Center, Houston, particularly the Apollo Mission control room and not forgetting the peak at the history of Martin Luther King and Lookout Mountain.  And of course the Peabody Ducks in Memphis.

The organisation of the trip all worked extremely well, the tour manager was capable and able to ensure that matters run smoothly – a good tour manager knowing what is going to happen and ensuring it does and being prepared when things need to change (such as the breakfast in Memphis when the train failed to appear) as well as being visible and knowing answers when asked all make it so much easier for the participants.

After flying back from Vancouver in somewhat uncomfortable Premium Economy we bit the bullet and came back business class – so we were assured at least some sleep and relatively comfortable flat beds for this journey.

We have covered something like 10400 miles – probably more given some of the routings and city tours as routes were not always direct.  An excellent holiday.

USA – Deep South – 12

Houston Mission Control

Houston Mission Control

Thursday 9.11.23

And a day for the boys – Space Center, Houston.  We have a bit of a trek out of town this morning on the coach and the roads and usage demonstrate my earlier comments.

The Space Center Houston is huge and now far more than just the Mission Control  although that is our first destination as we have been given a timed trip shortly after our arrival on the site.  The main displays and visitor area are a ride away from all the cool stuff as the area occupied has grown over the years.

Mission Control has been returned to the layout and equipment with which we are familiar from the Apollo missions in the late 60s / early 70s.  The touring party sits in the viewing area overseeing the control room and we are played three recordings of those key events.  Apollo 7 landing on the moon followed by the recording of Neil Armstrong walking onto the surface.  The third recording is of the first report of Apollo 13 having a problem plus the surrounding story of bringing the participants back safely.  Obviously now the visible technology looks hugely dated and one wonders how it would be organised today.

There were rudimentary computers on board the space vehicles and mainframes processing data – but these days when we are conscious of how Formula 1 (for example) has intricate reporting detail on their engines, chassis, wheels and so on all being fed not only to the pit teams but also to their headquarters (which can be half a world away from the race) it is a very different data process that would now be put in place.

As well as the displays in the visitor center itself there are two other major exhibits which also require a ride to the other side of facility – one is a Saturn V rocket launcher – which lies on one side rather than standing erect.  The other is a visit to the astronaut training center which is a huge hangar with a huge variety of technical equipment where the potential travellers have to learn how to manage all of the equipment.

Shuttle Carrier and Shuttle

Shuttle Carrier and Shuttle

As with Graceland earlier on the holiday those with a particular interest could and probably should spend the whole day here – for the ladies of the tour this held the least interest.

USA – Deep South – 11

Union Station departure Board

Union Station departure Board

Wednesday 8.11.23

We are on the move again and our first stop this morning is Union Station where – given the usual generous Great Rail timings – we have a wait for our train to Houston.  As before all cases are handed over to porters and loaded aboard the train and we follow separately to our assigned seats.

Union Station probably handles less passengers (and many less services) than Sandhurst station on an average day.  So in European eyes it is unaccountably well appointed with a large number of seats, catering facilities and so on.  The other travellers are also here in plenty of time – walk up and go is not the way they do it here!  The train is scheduled to depart at 09:00 and we leave more or less on time.

Sunset Limited

Sunset Limited

We leave New Orleans by what seems a slightly twisting route eventually leaving the City over the Huey P Long Bridge with the train then coming to a stand on the raised section on the south side of the Mississippi river – and we are there some considerable time, although later in the day we appear to be back on expected timings.  Freight is always more important than passengers in this country of course.

I turn to listening to radio recordings – time to catch up on events in Ambridge amongst other things.  To break the day up we book lunch on the late sitting (yes there are two!).  The countryside rolls by – generically we are heading just about due west to Houston, Texas on the Sunset Limited which will (eventually) terminate in Los Angeles some 48 hours after the journey commences.  Our route passes through Lafayette, Lake Charles and Beaumont amongst others.

Historically this was not a rich area and from a passing train it is hard to establish any definitive conclusions – but it does not reek of prosperity – there are some nicer houses and there are some which are far less attractive – with I suspect a predominance of the latter!

Lunch is excellent and we stay talking at the table as they have cleared up and do not seem bothered about making us go.

Once on the outskirts of Houston we are routed through a freight route and we end up passing the station and backing into it – but that will be to enable it to head off on the remainder of its journey to the West Coast.  We arrive a little later than planned due to the Houston circumlocution – which means that eating out tonight is not on.

A quick coach hop to our hotel and with communications re-established (no wifi on trains) we can check in for our not too distant return flight.  Dinner is in the hotel tonight  and is perhaps one of the lesser meals of the trip.  The warm weather has gone and it is raining.  Houston is a modern city – at least in the centre.  It is, as might be expected, heavily dependent on the car – but outside our hotel there is a modern metro shuttling back and forth.  Time (and a wish not to be stuck somewhere distant) will preclude travel on it on Friday morning.

USA – Deep South – 10

Charles Street streetcar

Charles Street streetcar

Tuesday 7.11.23

Today is a free day as far as the tour operator is concerned but that is not how we see it.  There are shops, this is the USA and so it is time to acquire some Levi jeans as outlet shops are always very cheap and so our trips to the USA always include an opportunity to acquire jeans.

We head down to the mall by the river and soon my purchases are completed.  Less happily the food outlets are at the very far end of the mall and no-one is doing anything particularly breakfast like.  I think we all wanted a bacon butty or something similar even if it is not good for us.

With my shopping needs satisfied (three pairs of Levis – always bought on trips to the USA) I am released and I head for the Streetcars first taking the line along to the terminus at French Market.  At the time of our visit the Riverfront service is not running and only the service back from French Market runs to Cemeteries  “Canal Street line” is running and so I go to the other end of the line which is mainly a ride along Canal Street.  At the end I double back slightly and then take another streetcar to the other northern terminus at the City Park and Museum.  It is now mid-afternoon and incredibly warm.

Modern NOLA Streetcar

Modern NOLA Streetcar

Returning to Rampart Street I then take the service to Union Station – a location we shall visit tomorrow.  The service to Elysian Fields Avenue is not running so I return once again along Canal Street and can then take the historic trams operating to South Claiborne Avenue.  However for reasons which were poorly explained the driver of the streetcar insisted that I and others leave the vehicle at St Charles Avenue about 9 stops short of the terminus.  She was pretty insistent and it was annoying to then wait a good 10 minutes or so before there was a streetcar to return to the hotel.

This trip on the St Charles Avenue line as it is known was the most interesting as it traversed a very different part of the city – and the oldest in the world opening in 1835 and electrified in 1893.  It has operated continuously apart from storm disruption throughout.  The other lines at some point closed and subsequently re-opened.  St Charles Avenue itself is fascinating with a tree lined avenue and some stately houses on both sides.  Plus Universities and restaurants – which are too far in the wrong direction from the hotel for us to experience.

We dine at Mr B’s Bistro tonight – again in the French Quarter – a place which had been spotted on our walking tour yesterday and opposite the Hotel Monteleone where cocktails are taken.

By the way when arriving in a restaurant in the Deep South there is an absolute need to order a cocktail.  Obtaining a whole bottle of wine seems to require a member of management being summoned with keys to unlock some remote distant storage to enable a full bottle to be extracted.  This takes so long that the ordinary wine drinking punter can die of thirst before the bottle arrives.  No wonder people order cocktails.




USA – Deep South – 9

NOLA French Quarter

NOLA French Quarter

Monday 6.11.23

A walking tour of the French Quarter this morning – but watch out for the pavements!  They are very uneven and broken with holes in various places – so as the group wanders around the area those at the front are constantly warning about watching the ground – which makes it hard to observe the architecture and surroundings.

The surroundings are of course fabulous and there are far too many photographs which makes it difficult to select one for the photo in this post.  The history is complex – whilst known as the French quarter most of the buildings reflect Spanish influences – here is why.

The French had claimed Louisiana in the 1690’s founding the City in 1718.  However in 1763 the area was ceded to the Spanish at the end of the Seven Years War.  Two fires in 1788 and 1794 led to subsequent large scale rebuilding during the period of Spanish control – although retaining the “French” designation – which is what we see.  Through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 the territory eventually came under the control of the United States.

The French Quarter is not a large area and we end near St Louis Cathedral and then walk to the waterfront so that we can see the departure point of our cruise later in the day.

Lunch, much to the detriment of my normal regime, is beignets which in New Orleans are fried pastries of leavened dough covered with huge quantities of sugar, taken at the Café du Monde – a busy establishment.

Creole Queen

Creole Queen

We then amble along the river front noting the odd passing tram to the berth of “Creole Queen” – our paddle steamer for the afternoon river cruise.  Our destination is the Chalmette Battlefield – where in January 1815 the British went into battle against some sneaky Americans.  The British were banging their drums and making a huge fuss as they approached whilst the sneaky Americans quietly hid until they were able to destroy the British soldiers.  It was also an unnecessary battle as a peace treaty had been signed in December 1814 but had not been ratified as the news had not travelled across the Atlantic.  Our American guides – aboard the boat and also at the battlefield are of course entirely able to maintain their good humour given the poor organisation of British troops and the overwhelming defeat the Americans delivered!

In the evening we initially planned to eat at a nearby hotel – annoyingly a similar sized party arrived just in front of us and took the last table.  Annoyed!


USA – Deep South – 8

City of New Orleans

City of New Orleans

Sunday 5.11.23

An early start today (0545) and the coach takes us to the station.  Unfortunately the City of New Orleans is not arriving for some considerable time.  So we return to the hotel and we are able to have breakfast (thank goodness) before returning to the station.  A wait but the train does arrive and we all climb aboard for the best Amtrak can provide – we are upstairs with a great view over the countryside and we wend our way south towards New Orleans.  No great speed reached but there is a constantly changing landscape rolling past with many little junctions no doubt providing for freight traffic at many places.

Train timing obviously allows for the service to be horrendously late as it is probably going to arrive at its final destination on time!  Given the early start the odd doze is in order as well!

Our itinerary means that we disembark at Hammond, Louisiana where our coach has been waiting (probably for several hours).  The drive onwards is along Interstate 55 in Louisiana where Wikipedia confirms that 23 miles runs through the Manchac swamp and is one of the longest bridges in the world – with the railway running alongside for most of the distance before it veers away toward New Orleans.  It was completed in 1979 and although the map shows ground beneath us it looks more like water to me – and presumably the usual residents of any swamp!

Oak Valley Plantation

Oak Valley Plantation

Our return to the coach is predicated, as we are now really in the Deep South, by our visit to a cotton plantation – Oak Alley.  The house  appeared in “Interview with the Vampire” and other television programmes and films.  Care has been taken to try and explain the two stories – those who lived in the big house and those who lived, originally as slaves, in the huts which are probably in a better physical state now than they ever were when in use.

The weather has been much warmer since leaving Nashville and even though we are here in the later afternoon it is very warm.

Our onward journey picks up Interstate 10 which uses another long bridge  – I-10 Bonnet Carré Spillway Bridge – along the edge of Lake Pontchartrain and various wetlands before reaching the City of New Orleans, often these days referred to as NOLA (New Orleans Louisiana) where we will be halting for a few days.

Our hotel is not far from the famous French Quarter and we head there for dinner.  The first couple of places are already busy and Hard Rock has empty tables – and nothing available for an hour!  Across the way however is the Bourbon House which asks us to wait for a few minutes and a space is cleared – so it is all possible.

USA – Deep South – 7

Graceland Christmas Decorations

Graceland Christmas Decorations

Saturday 4.11.23

Today is one of the big stops on this trip – Graceland – and it is a huge draw.  We make an early start with the aim of beating the crowds which we almost do.  The estate has taken over a large area across the highway where we park and which holds the secondary exhibits with a bus to take us over to the house itself.  It feels a little like a rabbit warren as we head around the downstairs and then into the lower level – which clearly reflected updates at various times.  Exiting at the rear of the building we see the and then there is a final very tidy garden with the graves of Elvis and his parents.

Elvis' Rolls Royce

Elvis’ Rolls Royce

Back across the highway there are many displays – the cars being the first highlight and the two planes a little further away.  However for real fans there are many other displays and people could easily spend a lot longer here than our four hours.  Great Rail take the view that their travellers will not all be pure Elvis fans and so limit the time – however it is a reminder of how the King lived!

Sun Studio

Sun Studio

The importance of Elvis was covered at RCA Studio B earlier in our tour but the next stop on our return to Memphis is Sun Studio.  Here in August 1953 he recorded an acetate as a gift for his mother, plus another one off a few months later.  However the secretary Marion Keisker brought him back a third time for a recording session in July 1954, which simply did not work until very late at night Elvis started playing the fool – probably enjoying himself and apparently that was the start of the legend.  Three days later the track was played by a local DJ and most of the rest is history.  The Studio has an upstairs museum telling the history of the site and then downstairs is the studio itself together with a selection of instruments.  Real American history.  Many others recorded here of course.

In the evening we wander out to the main strip for a drink and to listen to music – not quite as loud or all encompassing as Nashville – before heading to the restaurant previously spotted – the Flying Fish.  A local delicacy is allegedly “po boys” and so tonight we eat as the locals.  Order at the counter and then called to the counter when ready.  So this is the local fast food and it makes a change – and actually tastes – so we have done well for local food in Memphis.


USA – Deep South – 6

Casey Jones Museum

Casey Jones Museum

Friday 3.11.23

We depart Nashville by road – but there is a railway element in our stopping place.  Jackson, Tennessee is our first halt as there is a small museum dedicated to the legend of the famed locomotive engineer, Casey Jones, later immortalised in a television series depicting various heroic tales.  Jones died in a tragic accident in 1900 when his train, running at some speed, encountered a freight which had not cleared the main line as there was insufficient siding space.  Jones had an impressive history of ensuring his trains ran to time and that night he was desperately seeking to regain lost time.  All long before track circuits and modern signalling systems.  He became embedded in American folklore and the TV series and catchy title song no doubt re-inforced that image.

However it tells a little story and we are able to see his restored cottage which was moved and attached to the museum.  It is all a little rundown and not all of our tour actually visit the museum which is a pity – but the group is not at all strong on rail people I believe.

Tine Tuner exhibits Flagg Grove School

Tine Tuner exhibits Flagg Grove School

We move on to Nutbush and Flagg Grove School which now preserves the house where Tina Turner was born and also in a relatively small but interesting museum we are able to see a collection of Turner memorabilia alongside brief talks of the importance of the Tennessee river, other music acts and cotton.  Cotton and slaves underpinned the economy here for a long time but the story is the story and cannot be changed.  This is a delightful museum and the visit is well organised ensuring that nothing is a long lecture and with some seats for those of us unable to remain standing for too long.

Our destination today is Memphis and we are based very close to the music strip – which is much smaller than the one in Nashville.  As we drive in I spot a restaurant which looks interesting – so make a mental note to check it out later.

The big hotel here is the Peabody and its infamous ducks so when in Memphis go to the local duck march!  if you are taking afternoon tea you get to sit near the fountain and can see the ducks proceeding to the fountain (in the mornings) or to the lift (in the afternoons) to and from their special roof top accommodation.  A strange ritual but it seems to pull people in.  After dinner we return for a drink from the bar!

Dinner is at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous which was recommended in Nashville.  It is along a slightly unattractive alley opposite the Peabody and if I had not been there in daytime we might have been less keen to turn along there in the evening, remembering that Memphis is allegedly one of the most dangerous places in the USA!  The restaurant is in a cellar and once downstairs there was a warm welcome and some dedication to delivering the excellent food – barbecue ribs of some description for most of us and a very popular place judging by the people coming and going.



« Older posts