The Sun Never Goes Down on a Copenhagen Weekender
Posted on the 23rd Aug 2012 in the category travel

It’s the cheapest of all the Scandinavian hot spots and is a short flight from most of Northern Europe.

The fact the Danes have shed their brilliantly violent Viking ways and are now full-on party people must have helped to.

And Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) have ensured Copenhagen’s a great weekend getaway destination for British tourists by offering great deals and a very regular service.

You can finish work on Friday in Blighty and easily be partying in Copenhagen on the same night.

During the Summer the sun comes up early. And when I say early I don’t even mean weekday alarm clock early. I mean, well late from the night before early. As I staggered out of a club around 3am dawn seemed like it had already come and gone.Copenhagen is one of those destinations that will play with your senses, thanks to Mother Earth’s jiggerypokery.

Like the beginning of zombie horror movie 28 Days Later the streets of a mighty capital were empty during daylight. And to carry the analogy on every so often you could hear strange voices and hurried footsteps approaching around corners.

More often than not it was a drunken Dane shouting or singing to himself, the vast majority of which were good natured. There is something great about seeing drunkards in the daylight, and even better when you see groups of them and as they can see you their more often or not going to shout or say something, which I loved, the early hours in Copenhagen remind me of my only daytrip to Glasgow.

A huge windmill in the sea was built to power the oldest Amusement Park in the World - Tivoli Gardens.Like all the great cities there is a 24 hour metro as well a great tram system, the Danes love their public transport which fits in with the general green ethos of the place.

And by God the place needs power because I’ve never seen so many lightbulbs in one place.

Tivoli (I Lov It backwards) Gardens is the beating heart of Copenhagen. Open till midnight the giant amusement park was built by the Victorians and unlike Britain, where it probably would have been knocked down in the 1960s, successive generations have added to the attraction.

Whether it’s the rollercoasters, outdoor theatre, eating, drinking, superstars in concert or the world’s oldest Punch and Judy show Tivoli Gardens has it all. There are buildings built in all different styles of the world including Chinese and Moorish, a bit like the Epcot Centre in Disney World, but on a smaller scale but with lots more charm.

Copenhagen, a port city, has plenty of canals, which were mostly built by the Dutch so unsurprisingly the city shares characteristics of Amsterdam. One of which is an overarching sense of tolerance, the world’s very first gay bar is in Copenhagen and is still doing a roaring trade along with the rest of the scene.

The Danes, like the Dutch, had success exploring, conquering and trading abroad so there are plenty of grand buildings giving the place a grandiose feel of a past centre of empire. And as the country has one of oldest monarchies in the world there is plenty of Royal palaces, castles and musuems to explore.

There is a wonderful arts and culture scene which befits a capital city as well, the new Opera House is a modern architectural wonder and has become a huge success story.

A boat or kayak tour is a great way to see the city, either during the day or the night, I had a tour at around 5am and even had the bonus of seeing a group of naked Vikings jumping into the harbour.

Carlesberg is brewed in Copenhagen and you can visit their first brewery and their super-duper modern one. When the Danes drink it is the done thing to look them in the eye before and after you take a drink and say ‘Schkoll’. It is a Viking greeting which helped ensure they all drank each under the table at the same speed after nice days work plundering.

The drinking culture is still alive and well and the city’s nightlife is becoming one of the most talked about in the world. The whizzes at the Danish Tourist Board have come up with the Copenhagen cocktail, which aims to rival Shanghai Sling and Long Island Tea. Though the city is world renowned for beer there has been a ‘cocktail revolution’ in recent years.

This cocktail culture in Copenhagen has really spawned some effortlessly cool boutique bars. A lot of them have the feel of a speakeasy, deliberately surreptitious and the opposite of the shouty shiny bars that have become popular elsewhere. Bar 1105 even had Edith Piaf playing, where as Paul’s was like stepping into Chicago in the 1930s, except the barman played songs from is Ipod on the sound system. And the cocktails were amazing, from the effort the barmen put into them to their sublime taste, I had a Drugstore Cowboy which tasted like lemon curd and rum, which hit the spot.

The Danes are certainly a great party people, the ladies, and the men all seemed quick to chat and there wasn’t the snobbishness that blights so many other great city’s hotspots throughout the world. It is the kind of city where if you found yourself on your own it wouldn’t be a problem picking up some new friends for the night.

What do the Danish call Danish Pastries? Just pastries right? Wrong. They call them Viennese bread, and they are everywhere in Copenhagen. And if so inclined you can learn from some of the best pastrymakers in the world how to make the world famous cakes. We spent a innuendo filled couple of hours squirting cream with the best of them, at one of the city’s most historic bakeries.

Denmark is the home of the winner of the best restaurant in the world – Noma, and its fair share of Michelin Starred. We ate at Nimb, Tivoli Gardens which is was fantastic, the local speciality is herring and though never the most fashionable of fish it tasted exquisite. One of Denmark’s greatest exports, after beer and pillage, is the wonderful works of Hans Christian Anderson whose stories are so heart-achingly beautiful they should be a part of every childhood.

And the Little Mermaid is one of his most iconic tales, now known to a new generation after being given the sugary Disney treatment. Like a lot of the world’s most iconic statues the stories behind them are a lot more impressive than the real thing and the Little Mermaid is no different. Hans Christian Anderson’s melancholy masterpiece has made the statue one of the most famous in the world, she recently transfixed China on her first trip out of Denmark recently.

I struggled to see the beauty of the metalwork as our boat taxied behind her in Copenhagen’s harbour. I was glad to see the back of her. However, a couple of hours later when I our plane reached into the sky I certainly wasn’t glad to see the back of this remarkable city.

Here's hoping Belfast's Titanic 2012 goes down well
Posted on the 23rd Aug 2012 in the category travel

As our plane circled George Best Airport I peered out the window and saw shades of greens I hadn’t seen since the last time I was on the Emerald Isle.

Even in the rain Ulster looked as inviting as a perfectly poured pint of Guinness.  On the coast and framed by green hills Belfast is finally looking out to the world after decades of violently turning in on itself. 2012 is a massive year for Belfast, as big as the Olympics is for London. 

Two seminal new attractions, which aim to attract legions of tourists, have opened at a combined cost of over a £100m, years of arguments and countless redrawn plans. The new £90m Titanic Belfast museum opened in March to mark the centenary of when the doomed liner set sail for Southampton. Lovingly designed and built in Belfast’s famous shipyards there was collective shame and defiance in Belfast after the ‘unsinkable’ ship went down in icy waters off Newfoundland. 

“She was alright when she left here,” became the mantra of the city which didn’t want its shipbuilding reputation besmirched by disaster. But as the years passed something remarkable happened, a boat which was an abject failure became as famous as the Ark. The legend spawned endless films, books and articles and now Belfast wants a slice of the moneyspinning action of the Titanic story.

Over 30,000 tickets were sold ahead of the opening of Titanic Belfast which will have nine interactive galleries and all the latest corporate bells and whistles to make it viable. The iconic new building, designed by Eric Kuhne to look like four hulls, is on the site of the shipyard where it was built, bizarrely though, the headquarters of Holland and Wolf are going to wrack and ruin.

Walking around the grand offices, with its peeling wallpaper, empty staircases and decaying woodwork was fascinating and why some of the millions spent were not set aside to restore the historic building is beyond me. 

However, if the Titanica: The Exhibition at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum is a taste of what is to come then the new museum will be a success, looking at artefacts recovered from the ship and hearing oral history of survivors sent chills down my spine.

The Metropolitan Arts Centre is the other huge project which will open its doors this Autumn. This six storey multi-purpose art, music and exhibition centre is a dream come true for local culture vultures after several false dawns and will be a catalyst for an already thriving arts scene.

The £18m centre will be breathe new life into the Cathedral Quarter and attract the world’s best artists in all different cultural fields.  Belfast already has some impressive public art which too many British cities lack.
The Big Fish, the Balls in the Falls, the Spirit of Belfast and the Ring of Thanksgiving amongst others liven up the cityscape which due to the climate is more often is in different shades of grey. The powers at be have also paid for the honour to have the Cow Parade come to town in the Summer. Fibre glass cows will be dotted throughout Belfast and decorated by the local community and artists.

Radio 5, of course, branded the Cow Parade a waste of money. The default argument ‘money could be spent on schools’ was trotted out which is true but then again money could also be spent on special advisors, golden handshakes and parking permits for councillors.

Why should the London elite only have access to art? The Cow Parade will be fantastic for Belfast if not just for all the Facebook profile pictures of locals pretending to milk them. And I’m sure some of the pictures might make it into the Belfast Exposed which one of the most innovative photography projects in the world. Anyone who is interested can pop into the gallery and trawl through the thousands of photos taken by local people since the 1970s. The Golden Thread Gallery on Great Patrick Street also pushes barriers and documents some amazing outreach work.

PS-Squared on Donegal Street is another little gem of a gallery which happily features controversial modern art some of which even mocks the balaclava clad terrorists which held Ulster back for so many years.

Hilton was one of the first multi-nationals to invest in Belfast after the troubles and it has two five star hotels in the area. The Belfast Hilton is one of the tallest buildings in the city and has all the mod cons what the modern tourist and business guest wants, when I was there it was a fight weekend and there was a real buzz about the place. The only disappointment was the residents bar closed at 3am leaving a plenty of paying guests scratching their heads.

Belfast can cater for the clubber, live music lover, the fine diner and those wanting the perfect pub experience, in fact I did all in one night. The Garrick bar is a Victorian pub which never seemed short of patrons, served a mighty fine Guinness and had plenty of entertainment. The Vital Organs revival night on a Saturday was fantastic fun. It just finished too early.

A pint at the historic McHugh’s bar, Bittles and the Crown are all a must for any tourist as they have history dripping from the walls and atmospheres that the chain pubs on the mainland would die for. Berts Bar is a wonderful 1930s American style jazz bar in the swanky Merchant Hotel which serves good food as a procession of great musicians entertain on the stage. The Mourne Seafood Bar is worthy of any port city, simple, fresh food served by friendly staff in a warm venue made it the stand out restaurant in the city for me, the oysters were some of the best I’ve tasted and it is no surprise its oyster bar does a roaring trade.

Belfast has a musical heritage to be proud of and a musical tour of the city is great fun taking in the birthplaces and venues synonymous with everyone from Gary Moore to the city’s great ambassador Van Morrison. We even got to see some live music on the tour, as our bus was held up by a colourful and loud procession of Protestant pipers. The guys running the tour seemed a tad embarrassed by this sectarian show of strength but the religious aspect of Belfast can not be ignored. 

In fact most tourist tours take in the Falls Road and the Shankhill Road and the murals that can be both spellbinding and unsettling in equal measure.  But as the wonderfully off message chief executive of the MAC Ann McReynolds said: “Belfast is now seen as cool, as there is still that lingering frisson of danger.”
I’m not sure the PR people would quite put it like she did but it rings true, the city does have an edge, its history and divides ensure that, you see it when you look into the eyes of a pensioner drinking a pint in the corner, but as long as it remains there, Belfast can be a haven for tourists who want a fantastic few days away.

How Can You Not Love Mad Missouri and Bonkers Branson
Posted on the 15th Aug 2012 in the category travel

I’M from Southampton you know,” said the forty-something lady dressed as a maid.
Like a fool I believed her for a second despite her English accent being as bad as Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. She wasn’t from Southampton but her character was because I was in the world’s biggest Titanic attraction – over a thousand miles from the nearest sea.

Only in America, as they say in the Good Ol’ US of A.
I had ethical reservations about the giant profit making attraction in Branson, Missouri and hoped the poor souls who lost their lives would be remembered with dignity. However, after a thoroughly entertaining hour in Titanic (incidentally where you can get married) I exited through the giant mock iceberg after splashing the cash in the gift shop. My reservations were sunk when I bought a Titanic pencil sharpener, a flashing plastic ice cube iceberg, a Captain Smith bear, a fake captain’s hat and a replica Titanic whistle.

Branson, Missouri is a hop, skip and a jump from the world famous Route 66 and I’ve never been anywhere like it.
Standing outside the two-storey Titanic, complete with mock iceberg, to my left there was a giant Mount Rushmore without any dead presidents.
No George Washington but John Wayne, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Oliver Hardy. That’s who I think they were because it was hardly Venus De Milo workmanship and I hope the waxworks in the museum underneath were a bit more lifelike.
To the right of me a giant theatre with yellow VW camper vans with periscopes sticking out their roofs and huge cut outs of four blokes dressed up like The Beatles. Handpicked by George Harrison’s sister Louise, who has settled in Branson, The Liverpool Legends play their tribute concert to The Beatles every day. And the very entertaining and accommodating Louise Harrison comes on stage and answers questions. John Lennon was a dead ringer, George Harrison looked like an Osmond (who opened their own theatre in Branson), Paul McCartney looked like Paul McCartney when he looked diagonally to the left and Ringo looked like Albert Steptoe. However, it was a great show despite getting surreal when John ‘Just Give Peace a Chance’ Lennon, dedicated a Beatles song to the troops in I-raq.

Branson is an unreal place, with the biggest Hilton I have ever stayed in and where armies of moustachioed men in Orange t-shirts scurry round picking up chewing gum, and everyone kind of looks like someone famous. But it is certainly worth a visit. The place is massively popular with Americans because it offers family friendly entertainment and has more wholesome entertainment than a box set of Little House on the Prairie.
Silver Dollar City, Branson’s giant theme park, is great attraction for families and singletons alike mixing history with rollercoasters including the simply breathtaking Powder Keg ride.
The park’s magician sells DVDs entitled ‘12 Gospel Tricks with Everyday Household Items’ which is a big seller due to the religious nature of the region. A few hundred miles up Route 66, past the Miramac Caves where Missouri’s most infamous resident Jessie James hid out, is the sprawling city of St Louis.

The ‘gateway to the west’ is the kind of city that only America can produce with every amenity a resident or tourist could want. The world famous Thomas Jefferson Memorial Arch is a breathtaking superstructure which still looks futuristic despite being designed in the 1940s. The museum beneath the Arch charts Missouri’s amazing history and settlers who went out west after St Louis.

Missouri’s countless wonderful museums are testament to the state’s pivotal role in American history. The City Museum, however, is as modern as it gets and is a fantastic experience for children and adults alike, it houses the world’s biggest pencil which I was relieved to see because I’d missed the world’s biggest banjo in Branson.
In the middle of St Louis is Forest Park which has to be one of the best parks in the world. As well as countless sports facilities and also houses America’s best zoo, giant Art, History and other museums - all free! My memories of zoos is of mildly narked chimps pulling their hair out behind rusty cages but the St Louis Zoo is an amazing attraction where you are millimetres from Hippos, penguins, cheerful chimps, Lions and Tigers.

Across the city The Loop district is like an urban paradise. Voted one of America’s 10 best streets the music district is the only place where Chuck Berry plies his trade now. The beating heart of The Loop is Blueberry Hill which taps into the city’s amazing musical heritage.
Opened as a bar in 1970s it now incorporates restaurants, An Elvis Room, a concert venue and bizarrely a darts room.
Every wall is covered with either pictures of the owner Joe Edwards and mega-celebrities or every type of pop culture memorabilia you can think of.
And Blueberry Hill’s charm is because it is so personal, and is the antithesis of fake Irish bars with bikes hanging from the ceiling because everything is Joe’s. He is happy to chat to customers about his friend Chuck Berry who plays the last Wednesday of every month, or his memories of John Goodman, Ike Turner, Beyonce, Steve Winwood and the other legends on the wall. The Loop has brilliant bars, tobacconists, street artists, second hand record shops, memorabilia stalls, clothes shops and all types of weird or wonderful characters. Joe put it perfectly. “The Loop is how America could be, everyone from different cultures and creeds getting along together and learning about one another through music.”
As well as owning Blueberry Hill Joe has set up 2,000 seat music theatre and has just opened a bespoke boutique hotel called The Moonrise.
The area reflects the man who dragged it in to one of the coolest places on the planet, it is friendly, interesting and wonderfully laid back. There is every different type of food available in St Louis, which was set up by French settlers, from the award winning cheeseburgers at Blueberry Hill to the myriad of ethnic restaurants. St Louis is famous for its ribs and a must-see culinary attraction is Papa’s BBQ House. Food fans have been known to travel hundreds of miles to stock up on their stomach busting ribs, pulled pork, deep friend corn-on-the-cobs and other local fare. I’m still peppering my food with the stock of BBQ I bought at Papa’s.

A new addition to St Louis is Luminaire Place, a brand spanking new Casino complex which is the biggest outside Las Vegas.
Totally different from The Loop, everything clinically purpose built to provide entertainment including countless bars, clubs and restaurants, one of which Sleek is Michelean star quality and serves top grade Wagyu beef. There are two hotels on site, a spectacular roof top bar and a casino floor that floats on a bed of water to sidestep a Missouri state law that says gambling can only be by the river.

And that brings me to the mighty Mississippi, which majestically cuts through the city like only a natural phenomenon can. Every visitor should try a river trip on an old style paddleboat and I’d certainly recommend a read of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn before you go to Missouri, oh and maybe take in the film Titanic too.



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