Sunday, November 2, 2014

Coasting on a Sunny Halloween: Margate

From Zimbabwe to the Kent coast. Last week I visited Margate for the second time this year, the first instance in June to review the locally famous Ambrette for an Esquire piece on Britain's best Indian restaurants, and the second to spend a bit more time in the town after that previous eye-opening visit.

For me, The Ambrette epitomises Margate's transformation from faded seaside town to arty heavyweight, which was a joy to walk around following an absence of around 25 years since last visiting as a boy. From the new Turner Contemporary Gallery to the Banksy-style wall murals around the Old Town, Margate has much more of an edge to it these days, which is pleasing to see after the evidence of its decline in the last couple of decades.

Was just as pleasing to see the plans of the imminent return of Dreamland, the iconic amusement park I'd visited twice as a boy, which has lain dormant for the last ten years. Was quite poignant during my previous visit to see it for the first time in its sorry state through the railings of the car park it currently dwells within.Will definitely be back for its resurrection next year as the world's first heritage amusement park.

While on the subject of that scene, as I mentioned to the Dreamland representative over afternoon tea at the Sands Hotel, I wish the council would do something with that tower block, and I don't mean knock it down - just paint it or give it some kind of arty cladding, in keeping with the rest of the town's new aesthetic. Many local residents and workers don't seem to mind it, but you can see why it's regarded by many others as a bit of an eyesore.

The view over the sea from the Sands Hotel balcony was my parting shot - not quite a Turner sunset but pleasant enough to see what this coastal spot's still got going for it.

And so concluded my Turner's Margate tour. The hotels I stayed in on each visit are also indicative of what the town has to offer on the accommodation front, from the Edwardian charm of Walpole Bay Hotel to the more contemporary stylings of the newer Crescent Victoria, and both at highly reasonable tariffs.

And as the post title mentions, this visit was blessed by the warmest weather seen on record for Halloween, which made the beach strolls around Botany Bay even better, sans the summer crowds.
So yeah, see you next year Margate.

My latest feature on Margate will appear in Waitrose Weekend magazine in January.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Zimbabwe - the Forgotten Land

It's been another lively year so far for getting about - return visits to Liguria, Czech Republic & Lake District - but all of it blanches in comparison to a 10-day tour in spring of the forgotten land of Zimbabwe in southern Africa, which is starting to bang the tourism drum again after years in the doldrums.

The intro to my recent Rough Guides feature sums up the situation:
"It’s been a tragedy for the people of Zimbabwe that the country has garnered so much unfavourable publicity over the last 10 years, with headlines ranging from its controversial land redistribution programme to the ensuing collapsed economy. In the last few years, however, it's made a steady recovery following a new currency, a fairer power-sharing government, international airlines returning to its capital and the EU having long lifted its travel warnings, helping sow seeds of a tourist renaissance..."

Hwange National Park © Kris Griffiths 2014

As the article goes on to explain there are a plethora of reasons to visit the now much safer nation, from the remotest of wild safaris to the world's largest waterfall in Victoria Falls, where I foolhardily bungee-jumped 110m into its gorge (YouTube link).

Other highlights include ancient ruined cities like Great Zimbabwe in Masvingo, after which the country was named, and cave paintings in Matobo more than 10,000 years old. Photo opportunities were never-ending.

There was a bleaker side to it all though. So many of the people here are still destitute, as journeys through townships in Harare and Bulawayo made clear. 

They're crying out for the tourist dollar, especially after years of absurd hyperinflation, and it's good to know your money goes into their hands, not to Mugabe's enduring regime. Unfortunately there were only so many mini bongos I could buy from the market stalls, so did my best to sample as many local brews at bars and hotels as I could outside meal times – all helps.

Hopefully Mugabe will be history sooner rather than later as it's certainly off-putting seeing his framed mug everywhere you look, not to mention his people on the streets while he commissions giant statues of himself with their money.

Bulawayo street dwellers © Kris Griffiths 2014

The good outweighs the bad though, and hope springs eternal.
Give Zim a chance.

(More city & safari photos at my Flickr gallery.
Full Rough Guides feature on reasons to visit Zimbabwe.)