Jamaica review: A rum time

How long is a Jamaican minute? As long as it takes.

The living is easy on this island, to quote its most famous son. And yes, the sun is shining too.

But the biggest selling point for Jamaica is its people. They have a wild sense of humour and a graceful flair for words, thanks mostly to their flirtations with Patois, a lively language that is part English, part French, part Spanish, part everything.

“There is a mystic vibration around this island indeed,” our bubbly Thomson rep Pauline says.

The vibrations are created by the language and the luscious landscape; Mother Nature went to town on the Caribbean’s most mountainous island.

Montego Bay’s biggest asset is Dunn’s River Falls, a short ride from Ocho Rios.

We arrive at the falls on the Cool Running’s catamaran, which Thomson guests have priority over on Saturdays.

She stops off at a reef where guests jump into the warm waters and snorkel if they wish.

As experiences go, there aren’t that many sea creatures in this spot, but the turquoise waters are glorious and make the juicy beef patty served afterwards all the sweeter.

When we disembark, we split into groups of 10, join hands and are led up the falls by a guide.

The terrain is rocky and slippy, but relatively easy to climb as a big group.

As with a lot of tourist experiences here, we are trailed by a daring camera crew, who snap footage of us spluttering in the water and dunking ourselves into the “crystal punch”.

Of course, there is a $30 DVD for sale afterwards. If you’re not interested, turn to your Patois phrasebook and say “Me no want it, man.” It is the only way to give a definite no.

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The climb takes just over an hour-and-a-half to complete and it is a joyous experience, one that you will definitely recommend to clients — especially because the journey home is topped with limitless servings of rum punch.

Locals say of Jamaican rum: One shot will open your eyes. Two shots will close them. Three shots will bring you closer to heaven. Apparently, they start their cars with the stuff.

There are rum bars beside every church, we’re told, so the wife can get the holy spirit on a Sunday while the husband gets the distilled spirit. Bear in mind, the island holds the world record for the most churches per square mile.

If you ever need to sober up, Blue Mountain coffee is the best option.

We take the Freewheelin’ bike tour of Blue Mountains. It takes a three-hour bus ride to get to the top, but our driver Woney puts on a fantastic performance to keep us entertained en route.

He says there are two sets of drivers on the island. CDs and CJs. CDs are careful drivers. CJs are crazy Jamaicans.

Woney is certainly the former: He has been driving since he was nine years of age.

He says that driving is a legal gambling in Jamaica, but he takes it easy and skilfully navigates the narrow roads.

“The left side is the right side,” he says, “and the right side is suicide.”

Bond legacy

Our journey takes us from one end of St Mary parish to the other.

We pass through Portland town, where Jamaica’s tourist trade was founded, and James Bond beach.

007 has had a lasting legacy in Jamaica. Three of the books were set here — Dr No, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun — the first Bond film was shot here, and Ian Fleming resided here at his Goldeneye residence, which is now a luxury boutique hotel.

As we pass through the farmlands, we see graves on residential properties, a common sight in Jamaica. It is legal to bury your loved ones at their home place.

“They are the best neighbours you could ask for,” Woney says. “They don’t complain about the noise and they never ask to borrow anything.”

When we get to the top of Blue Mountain, a trailer load of bicycles awaits. They are varied in size — and in brake power. Take your pick as quickly as possible.

Most of the journey down is spend looking at the gravel and loose rock rather than the surrounding landscape, but there are plenty of pitstops along the way to explore the coffee plants and coconut trees.

Coconuts are used for everything in Jamaica: Soap, rum, sun tan lotion. If you go to your doctor with heartburn, they’ll prescribe you with coconut water.

We also stop at a primary school, where the children shake hands with the group and perform two songs. A slip of paper is handed out afterwards, with an address to send pencils, paper and other supplies.

The finish line is at a waterfall, where local teens are eager to guide us into the deep waters — of course, you are expected to show your appreciation here as well, but with cash.

As with every transaction of this nature, the price is negotiable and it is up to you to argue a reasonable fee.

Vendors on the road will offer you something to drink — and something to smoke.

Here is a point of contention: We are given five variations of the marijuana law that was introduced in Jamaica last year.

Some say it is totally illegal, others say it is permissible to carry two ounces of the drug, the rest say three ounces.

The real Rasta man

If you are so inclined, the best thing to do is visit Bob Marley’s birth and final resting place in Nine Mile, a Rastafarian village where the drug is openly used.

You roll up to the village in the battered Zion Bus, which has a livery designed in the colours of the Ethiopian flag and is plastered in photos of the world’s first reggae superstar.

On the bumpy ride, our guide intermittently sings snippets of his songs while telling the story of the Honourable Robert “Nesta” Marley and the Rastafarians.

She also makes it clear that her company does not endorse the use of cannabis, but doesn’t prevent guests from doing so either.

Pauline, the Thomson rep, said there are four ways the drug is consumed in Nine Mile: Spliff, ganja tea, brownie — and by simply breathing the air.

While there is a distinct waft of the stuff, consumption is only visible at the bar. Two spliffs are circulated around our group. Our youngest companion, a 20-something year old from Brazil, decides to consume an entire joint by himself.

The inevitable happens: The drug here is very potent, so it doesn’t take long for him to start convulsing and breaking out in a sweat — the undesirably reaction is known as a whitey.

The only cure is sugar and sleep, and he is prescribed fruit punch and a nap. The Zion Bus guide acts fast — I am sure she is used to this.

Our Rasta guide at Nine Mile is called Crazy. We were warned that the guides here are from another planet — Crazy was on another planet as we shuffled our way to Bob Marley’s mausoleum.

Some people find the experience emotional. I found it baffling, each of us on edge waiting for Crazy to pick on us for the butt end of one his cryptic jokes, even as we walked sombrely around Bob Marley’s grave.

We see the single bed that Marley sings about in ‘Is This Love’ and the rock where he liked to meditate with a joint in each hand: “Have you ever seen a bird fly with only one wing?” Crazy reasoned.

It’s a shame that the overall product was a little disjointed. Perhaps with a more sober guide, we would have been able to embrace the experience.

Oh well. It is difficult to get stressed on this island. Everything is “irie” — Patois for “ay okay”.

When Bob Marley sang “everything little thing’s going to be all right,” you know he truly meant it.

Jamaican me crazy: Travel tips

  • Tell your client to book into the Club Mobay Lounge before departure. The $30 fee alone is worth booking for the immigration fast track alone. Plus it will spare them from the extortionate snacks on sale in the airport (a Mars bar costs around $6).
  • A new toll road is being built from Ocho Rios to Kingston, which will mean the journey time to the capital will be cut from nearly two hours to 40 minutes. There is some controversy about the route: The company constructing the route is claiming ownership of the land that includes Dunn’s River Falls.
  • Ireland has a strong connection with the island: A community of Irish immigrants came to live in a settlement in Blue Mountain. There are villages with a clear Irish influence: Dublin Castle, Kildare, Belfast, Ulster Spring and Irish Town. And the island’s first prime minister was part Irish.
  • When you mention that you are Irish, the first thing that comes to a Jamaican’s mind is Ireland’s three wicket win against Pakistan in the 2007 Cricket World Cup.

Conor McMahon travelled to Jamaica courtesy of Falcon Holidays. He stayed all inclusive at the Riu Ocho Rios resort in Mammee Bay. Prices from €1,559pp.

A version of this article first appeared in Travel Extra magazine.

A hard day’s night in Merseyside

The view across the Salthouse Dock towards the UNesco awarded skyline of Liverpool's Pier Head in January 2012.
The view across the Salthouse Dock towards the UNesco awarded skyline of Liverpool’s Pier Head in January 2012.

Virtually every bar, every hotel, every street in Liverpool claims some connection, however small, to the local tourist trade’s biggest asset, The Beatles.

Their legacy has helped establish Liverpool in each of its main markets —and across different generations, especially now that their hits are available to stream on Spotify and other services.

But the tourist board is keen to show us that there is more to Liverpool than just the sound of the sixties.

Down by the docks

Albert Dock is a great starting point for visitors to the city. Located on the city’s waterfront near Pier Head, it is home to a host of attractions, many of which are free to enter, as well as restaurants and bars.

It is easy to spend an afternoon simply doing a loop of the dock.

My first stop is Tate Liverpool, where the Constellations display joins together the stars of the contemporary art world.

You’ll find Grayson Perry alongside Paul Cézanne; Marcel Duchamp paired with Jasper Jones.

The exhibition spans multiple decades and movements, but it is possible to complete in less than an hour, so you can still get your cultural fix if you are tight for time.

There are also regular lectures and activities in the museum, many of which cater for children and families.

Liverpool travel review
Tate Liverpool

Next door, the Museum of Liverpool documents the city’s social history, while the Merseyside Maritime Museum and the International Slavery Museum tell the story of the city’s trading history.

Mop top memorabilia

The Beatles Story charts the rise and demise of the aforementioned Fab Four through a series of elaborate replica displays and genuine memorabilia.

The tour is narrated by Julia Baird, John Lennon’s half sister, with snippets of interviews from key voices from The Beatles’s history.

Visitors can peep through the music shop where the boys bought their first instruments — and left producer Brian Epstein to pay off the £200 debt, the equivalent of thousands of pounds in today’s currency.

They’ll see George Harrison’s first guitar and John Lennon’s glasses, bent at the nose after he through them to the floor during a heated argument with Yoko Ono.

They can stand on a recreated Mathew Street, where the band played the famous Cavern Club 212 times.

Disappointingly, the “real” Cavern Club is in fact a replica itself. The original structure was foolishly demolished, meaning there are now two Caverns that both profess to be the first.

Razzle Dazzle ferry, livery designed by Peter Blake
Razzle Dazzle ferry, livery designed by Peter Blake

While you are down by the dockside, you should take the ferry on the Mersey. Dickens used to do when his visited the North “for the air”.

The current livery was designed by Peter Blake, the co-creator of The Beatles’ famous Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band album cover.

Back in the city centre, there are lots of opportunities to shop, especially in the enormous Liverpool ONE district, where the nightlife is legendary.

The aspirational market would enjoy a girlie or lads weekend away in the district, which is home to the Roja Pinchos bar, one of the city’s hippest drinking spots.

Liverpool is small enough to navigate by foot, so if you are looking to repent after a night out, you can take a walking tour to the city’s two cathedrals.

The enormous Cathedral Church of Christ, Britain’s largest, is magnificent with its high gothic arches.

There is a beautiful neon sculpture by Tracey Emin arced over the Great West Window, and the Lady Chapel offers solitude to the footsore traveller.

There are a host of interesting sites nearby that Beatles fans should check out, including the famous Philharmonic pub with its  and Ye Cracke bar on Rice Street. Both were often frequented by the band, who used to sit near the ladies’ toilets to catch sneak peeks of women in the various states of undress.

Arthur C Clarke’s mysterious church

Down the road, the Metropolitan Cathedral is the Catholic Archidiocese’s mother church — but it looks more like the mothership.

The mother-of-God ship
The mother-of-God ship

It reminds this writer of a spacecraft that Arthur C Clarke would have dreamt up for one of his science fiction novels — an interpretation of what the future would look like from a 1970s perspective.

The interior, on the other hand, is beautiful, with circular seating and marble grey floors. Visitors can slowly wander around the nave and explore the vast collection of sculptures and iconographies.

No trip to Liverpool would be complete without a visit to the Scouser’s holy ground at Anfield.

The stadium tour is worth taking, even if you’re not a fan — although it might be a bit of a stretch to expect an Everton supporter to enjoy it.

Tour groups must now to stick together — the week before, a wandering tourist triggered a security alert by veering away from his group. You’ll never walk alone indeed.

We’re told that there is a 20 year waiting list for season tickets, and thousands of punters are left ticketless at every home game. That’s why the club is building extra seats and corporate boxes, which cost £80,000 a year.

The 1989 Hillsborough disaster isn’t far from mind. Unsurprisingly, there is no reporter from The Sun on this press trip. Even the Irish edition is boycotted.

Conor McMahon travelled to Liverpool as a guest of Aer Lingus and Visit Liverpool. He stayed at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, Liverpool. Aer Lingus flies Dublin to John Lennon International Airport 15w with fares from €19.99  one way.

This article first appeared in Travel Extra magazine.

Travelling on Tanzanian time


Butterfly is a tree hugger. A coconut tree hugger.

Using only a piece of rope for grip, he wraps his arms and legs around the trunk, and scoots his way to the top, 90 feet off the ground.

He is like a rockstar mounting the stage.

“Hello!” he cries to his audience below, with more sass than Zanzibar’s estranged son, Freddie Mercury.

When he reaches the peak, he performs a couple of daredevil tricks, just to make sure he’s got your attention, and when all eyes are on Butterfly, he launches into his rendition of the Swahili pop song, ‘Jambo Bwana’.

He shimmies his way back down as he sings. “Zanzibar’s got talent,” one of our American companions says. Indeed.

Butterfly is the star of the Kizimbani Plantation, where visitors are introduced to the plants that gave Zanzibar the nickname, the Spice Island. Cocoa, lemongrass, ginger; the smells in the humid forest are magnificent.

It’s the sort of experience you can’t bottle, although they did try to turn it into a range of fragrances and soaps.

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On the far side of Masingini Forest is the island’s main city, Stone Town. It is a bustling marketplace with street sellers on every corner flogging t-shirts, knick knacks and CDs. Some of them follow us on our walking tour, making their pitch as we pass through the streets.

The constant invitation to haggle can be irritating, and some visitors might find it a little overwhelming, especially if the seller puts on a particularly emotional performance.

Luckily, we have two Middle Easterns with us to teach the art of bartering.

First of all, the items are always overpriced, so if you are looking to make a starting bid, at least halve the price the merchant offers and work from there.

The sellers are happy to let you handle the items beforehand, so inspect them to get a feel for what you’re buying.

Stand your ground; don’t pay a shilling more than you think it’s worth, even if the seller insists you will put him out of business next year; you won’t. And make sure you both agree on the final offer before parting with your money to avoid any disputes.

Sometimes it is best not to think of these situations as a hassle, but as a bit of fun. It certainly gives your boring old souvenirs more of an edge if you’ve had to argue for them.

Of course, Stone Town was a centre of commerce in the 19th century, and was home to one of the world’s last open slave markets.

Visitors are invited to tour the remaining slave cells near St Monica’s Hostel.

Stepping into the chambers is a frightening experience, and when it quickly becomes claustrophobic with our tiny group, it is hard to imagine how the cell could hold up to 75 women and children.

The slaves would have spent two weeks here without food or water. Many of them died of starvation or suffocation.

Clara Somas’s monument in front of the anglican cathedral is harrowing: Statue prisoners are chained together in a pit using real chain.

Clara Somas's monument to the slaves
Clara Somas’s monument to the slaves

Our visit to Stone Town concludes at Mercury House, where the aforementioned Freddie Mercury spent his very early years.

Apart from a plaque and a collage of faded photographs, there is no real commemoration to the Queen singer, but the local trade relies a lot on his name to attract visitors.

The city’s connection with Mercury is as faded as the photographs: He spent most of his youth in India, and briefly returned to Zanzibar as a teenager before fleeing to England with his family during the 1964 revolution.

Then again, if Offaly can claim Barack Obama, Zanzibar can claim Freddie Mercury.

Pictured outside Mercury House
Pictured outside Mercury House

We take the ferry to Dar Es Salaam. The sea was choppy, not at all like the smooth sailing over to the island. Luckily, the journey to Tanzania only takes 90 minutes.

Even in the capital, everything runs on “Tanzania time”. A good Swahili phrase to bear in mind is pole, pole—  slowly, slowly — because the traffic is always hideous.

Hakuna matata will be your mantra; as the Disney song says, it means no worries.

From Dar Es Salaam, we take a domestic flight to Arusha, where we set on a four-hour drive through the desert to Ngorongoro Crater.

The highway was built by the recently elected Tanzanian president, Magufuli, when he was works minister; his road projects earned him the nickname the Bulldozer.

The roadway is smooth, so we glide through the landscape, passing villages and marketplaces. We pass the coffee fields and Mount Meru, the introductory climb for novices who have set their sights on Kilimanjaro.


Maasai boys line the road, whooping at tour buses. They wear black cloaks and white headdress after taking part in a maturity ceremony and know that foreigners would like to take a photograph. It is safe to stop, but you must be respectful and ask for permission before taking their picture.

You will be expected to pay as well — they strike our jeep with rungu sticks when one of the passengers takes a sneaky photo without permission or payment.

You should not pay any more than 500 shillings for the privilege and make it clear exactly who you are paying, especially if you meet a group of boys.

We stop for lunch in the Mto Wa Mbu district, home to 120 tribes and 24,000 people. The name, unnervingly, translates as River of the Mosquitos.

We are told that Tanzania is home to 30 species of banana, available year-round. The banana is used to make a range of foods and drinks: curry, soup, beer.

The delicious meal energises us for a game drive in Lake Manyara National Park, where baboons are in abundance.

Blue monkeys, zebras and elephants also make an appearance.

Pole, pole is also an phrase for a safari; the experience is all about slowly scanning the landscape in search for hidden creatures.

It’s not just about the big animals. There are all kinds of interesting life worth looking out for; birds, insects, and flora.

We can only go so slowly though, because we are under pressure to get to the Ngorongoro Crater gate before it closes at 6pm.

Our driver and guide Crispin puts the boot down, but we are still too late.

We arrive at 6.15pm. By that stage, the park rangers have lowered the barrier and are pointing to their imaginary wristwatches, indicating that it is hyena time.

After thirty minutes of negotiation, they let us in. We are reminded that the park belongs to the animals, so we have to keep the windows closed until we reach our resort.

“Anything can happen,” Crispin says ominously. And so we set out on an unscheduled — and illegal — nighttime safari.

Sadly, our safari in the dark is largely uneventful. We don’t encounter any big cats looking for prey, but we do catch a glimpse of a buffalo, a hyena and an enormous porcupine.

We stay at Sopa Lodges, which provides visitors with a nightwatchman to protect them from hidden predators. It is a gentle reminder that, although you are experiencing luxury, you are in the wild.

One of the perks of staying inside the crater is that you can start your safari early.

We set out at 6am, and start the morning with Thomson’s gazelles, ostriches and a herd of wildebeest.

Ngorongoro doesn’t have as many animals as the Serengeti, but the it is still a thrill.

We watch the drama unfold as a herd of naughty jackals tease the mooching lionesses as they guard a buffalo’s carcass.

We spot hippos lounging in the water, giraffes on the horizon and an amusing warthog couple.

Two of the Big Five made an appearance; a lion and an elephant stand near each other, setting up a perfect photo op for the long lenses.

We have lunch at Lake Magadi where we compare pictures and soak up as much of the landscape while we can.

It is not until long afterwards — when you are repeating the stories for the hundredth time and remembering the sights, the sounds and the smells — that you fully realise what you have experienced. And is for memories like this that we travel in the first place.

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I was hosted by the Tanzanian Tourist Board in Tanzania and Zanzibar. I flew from Dublin to Dar Es Salaam via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, and from Dar Es Salaam to Kilamanjaro Airport with Fastjet.


Travel Tips

  • In Zanzibar, the all inclusive Mélia resort is ideal for couples. The rooms are fresh, and include a semi-outdoor shower, and the private villas are impressive. The food is good, but not does not live up to the overall experience. That being said, there is a fantastic floating bar where you can enjoy sushi and cocktails.
  • If you are staying in Dar Es Salaam, your best bet is the Ramada resort. The next best option is Hotel White Sands.
  • For agents: Never sell Dar Es Salaam as a beach destination; the water is polluted even though the resorts insist that it is safe to swim in the sea.
  • Sopa Lodges in Ngorongoro are old, but still offer plenty of comfort. They also boast the best views of the crater.
  • Pack a jumper if you are staying in the crater. It gets very cool in the evenings, especially because you are at a higher altitude.
  • Mosquitos are rife in the crater. Give yourself peace of mind and take your anti-malarial medication.
  • When you are on safari, be sure to charge your camera batteries and bring a back up. There is a lot to see, and your long lens or zoom will double-up as binoculars.

Pillow Talk: My tour of Malta’s hotels

While Malta doesn’t boast many sandy beaches, it does provide plenty of opportunities to take a refreshing dip in the Mediterranean with most hotels and resorts offering direct access to the sea.

Sea access and airier spaces are a recurring motif in properties around the island. Wi-Fi is another must-have amenity.

Many properties are opting to replace Kid’s Clubs with activities. The Seabank is probably the most innovative property to embrace this concept.

Seabank’s showpiece is the large leisure area, which boasts the island’s biggest pool, 1,200 sunbeds (more than enough for everyone in the audience), ramps into the pool for disabled guests, water jets, jacuzzi, crazy golf, volleyball, beach football, archery and air rifle shooting.

The focus is all about experience – the more unique the better.

The Cavalieri, where we stayed, has rebranded itself as a modern art hotel. Management is transforming most of its bright entrance space into a gallery.

The foyer currently hosts abstract sculptures, pencil drawings and acrylic paintings, and new pieces were installed in October. Prices start at €800 if anything takes your fancy. The back of the downstairs restaurant will be converted into a gallery next year.

Malta is proving particularly popular with the French, who entered the top five markets this year. Our guide, Godfrey, says this is because agents are diverting clients from risky destinations like Turkey and Egypt and sending them here.

It’s debatable whether that’s a fair substitution, but Malta certainly offers a rich cultural and historical experience and fantastic hot spells during the summer.

A staunchly Catholic state, visitors can repent in any of the island’s 359 churches – or simply admire their beautiful structures. It’s possible to perform a wedding ceremony near the sea,  preferably 100 metres from the shoreline.

You’ll certainly be looking to cleanse your soul after a night out in St Julian’s Bay, “the party Mecca of Malta”.

Paceville is where most of the action is. The streets are lined with clubs and pubs offering cheap pints, cocktails and shots of every taste and colour. And there’s cheap food at hand to soak up the alcohol.

Millennials and Leaving Cert holidaymakers looking to indulge will hardly venture anywhere else. But they don’t run the place. There are also more mature premises with heavyset bouncers keeping order. The upstairs bar in Hugo’s Lounge is recommended if you want to hang out with tipsy thirty-somethings rather than drunken teenagers.

You can quickly get away from the revellers if you want.

If you’re looking for peace, head north to Mellieha or St Paul’s Bay. The latter is a bit busier, but still ideal for families and older couples.

Located 35 minutes from the capital, Valletta, Mellieha is a bit out of the way and although the whole island is well-serviced by public transport and tour buses, you might consider hiring a car – which could be a bit of a hassle. The island is, unsurprisingly, quite congested, and major road works are under way on the island’s east coast until 2015.

Valletta is also undergoing a big renovation. The V18 project will see ongoing restoration across the city until 2018 when it becomes European Capital of Culture in 2018, alongside Leeuwarden in The Netherlands.

Malta and its sister islands were captured by everyone at some point, it seems. The Phoenicians, the Romans, Moorish, Normans, Sicilians, Habsburg Spain, Knights of St John, French and, finally, the English all took advantage of the island’s central location and used it as a military base.

This mixture of influences is most evident in the Maltese language, which is a concoction of Arabic, French, Latin and English.

Foodies will appreciate the array of sea creatures that make it on the menu. If you love your seafood, you must try the hake and the fish cakes in Zeri’s restaurant in Portomaso, St Julian’s Bay. If you’re more into turf than surf, then go for the Aged Angus beef eye.

If you have the time, you could take advantage of the island’s location and visit some of its neighbours. It’s easy to get to Gozo, Malta’s closest sister. The island hosts one family, one hotel, one policeman – and thousands of visitors a year. Or else you could spend a day and take a mini trip to Sicily, which is only 90 minutes by boat. The staff in most properties will help arrange your trip.

Malta ticks the boxes for a week in the sun: easy access to the sea, cheap and delicious food and a vibrant nightlife (if you want it).

Next time you reach for the Canaries brochure, think about sending your clients this way for a change.

Conor McMahon travelled to Malta with lowcostbeds, a global, trade-only bedbank.

This article first appeared in Travel Extra magazine.

Lisbon, a wonderfully diverse city

This article first appeared in Travel Extra magazine.

São Jorge Castle, Lisbon
The view of Lisbon from São Jorge Castle.

With its cheap food, quality wines and boutique accommodation, Lisbon is one of the best mini-break destinations.

Although it’s raining hard when I arrive, I’m promised that Lisbon’s temperatures soar to 30 degrees during peak season, the perfect time to visit the strip of fish restaurants at Santo Amaro dock.

Sea bass in salt
Sea bass cooked and served in salt at Restaurante 5 Oceanos

Try the Spanish-influenced sea bass cooked and served in salt at Restaurante 5 Oceanos. Knock back a glass of white wine and enjoy the view of the River Tagos. The view is especially unique around two o’clock in the afternoon. That’s when you’ll see the hippo tour bus cruising by in the river (think Viking Splash tour without the shouting).

Of course, Portugal is the place to be if you’re a fan of seafood. Here, cod is king. It’s said that the Portuguese have invented 365 different ways to cook cod (one for every day of the year). I sampled only six but can confirm that if you’re banking on cod alone during a week’s holiday, you’ll do just fine.

The city has a rich cuisine thanks to its many colonial influences. But, there are some food experiences that are wholly Portuguese.

Pasteis de Belém pastries
Pasteis de Belém pastries
…and cappuccino

If you visit the wonderful Belém district, you must try a Pastéis de Belém pastry with cinnamon and icing sugar at Antiga Cafeitaria. These custardy, flaky treats were created by the monks at the neighbouring Jeronimós monastery. When the monks were evicted from the monastery in 1834, the secret recipe was passed on to the Clarinha family, whose descendants run the patisserie today. Be sure to get your timing right though; between the cruise ships and tour buses that pull-up nearby the café can get pretty full.

Although Lisbon is the oldest city in Western Europe, its architecture is quite diverse. Modern buildings sit comfortably alongside traditional structures, especially in the Belém district.

Lisbon monasteryJeronimós monastery is one of the oldest structures in Lisbon having survived the 1531 Lisbon earthquake and subsequent tsunami and fires. Colloquially known as “the pepper monastery”, Lisbon’s history is literally written on its walls. All the motifs that appear on the tiles that line Lisbon’s streets are here – sea monsters, elephants, lions, etc. – and the tomb of Portugal’s greatest explorer Vasco da Gama is housed at Jeronimós.

Museu Coleçao Berardo is only a five-minute walk away. The Berardo art collection is home to some of the 20th century’s greatest artworks. Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and David Hockney all find their place in the permanent collection, which is free to visit.

LX Factory

If you’re travelling back to the city centre, be sure to make a stop-off at the LX Factory in Rua Rodrigues de Faria. It mightn’t look like much from the outside, but this former printing factory is home to some of Lisbon’s most unique cafés, restaurants and shops.

Ler Devagar bookshop, LX Factory, Rua Rodrigues de Faria
Ler Devagar bookshop, LX Factory, Rua Rodrigues de Faria

Around 150 companies have set up camp in the LX Factory, making use of its old warehouses, cafeteria and shops to create a hipster haven. You could easily spend half a day here, wandering around the impressive Ler Devagar bookshop-café, admiring the artwork in Studioteambox Gallery and filling up on Landeau chocolate cake.

Conor McMahon of Travel Extra tucks in to a piece of Landeau chocolate cake
Yours truly enjoying a piece of Landeau chocolate cake

Comercio Square in the city centre is a popular meeting point for tourists, and the Lisboa Tourist Board has given the square a revamp by renting out spaces to new restaurants and attractions like the Lisbon Story Centre. The multimedia experience takes about 50 minutes to complete and tells you all you need to know about Lisbon’s long history.

Praça do Comércio
Praça do Comércio

Rua Augusta, one of Lisbon’s busiest shopping streets, leads off Comercio Square. The pedestrianized street offers the usual high street shops as well as a couple of unique design shops like Typographia, a shop that sells Portuguese themed t-shirts by Lisboan designers.

Parque das Nações
Parque das Nações

If you head away from Lisbon’s historic centre and visit Parque das Nações, you’ll find that the former Expo 98 site has been put to good use with attractions like Oceanário de Lisboa. Thanks to its unusual layout, the aquarium is very interactive and child-friendly.

Oceanário de Lisboa
Oceanário de Lisboa

Located only 30 minutes from the beach town of Cascais, Lisbon is a great destination if you’re after a short, cultural city break and want to get your share of beach time as well.

The city itself is relatively small, so it won’t take you long to find your feet, which is an obvious help if you’re only here for a short stay. And besides, Lisbon is the birthplace of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost articles, so if you do get lost, pray to him and he’ll help you find the right path.

  • The most exciting cod dish is the incredible bacalhau à bras with exploding olives by Michelin-star chef José Avillez. The young chef owns a string of restaurants in Lisbon, including Pizzaria Lisboa on Rua dos Duques de Bragança – a unique experience to be served pizza from a Michelin-star chef.
  • If you’re in need of retail therapy, explore the huge Vasco da Gama shopping centre in Parque das Nações. If you’re the gambling type, check out Casino de Lisboa next door.
  • If you hike up to the Saint Justa lift and onto Rua do Carmo, you’ll find the Santini ice cream shop, home to the best ice cream in Lisbon. The locals tell me it’s better to eat Italian-influenced ice-cream, rather than Italian ice cream.
  • Minesterium bar at Comercio Square serves great beer and cocktails at a very reasonable price. An XL glass of beer will only set you back €4.
  • Hostels are a relatively new concept in Lisbon. One of the best is The Independente near Bairro Alto. The boutique hostel is owned and run by three brothers who backpacked around the world, borrowing ideas from the best hostels to bring home to Lisbon. A night in one of the bright and spacy dorms with big cork bunk beds will cost €12 on average.
  • Thanks to the lower minimum wage, food in Lisbon is very cheap for Irish tourists. The Independente’s restaurant, The Decadente, serves a three-course lunch for only €10. The food is high quality and the surrounding décor is very fashionable. Plus, if you fancy an espresso after your meal, it will only cost you 60c.
  • One of the biggest annoyances for tourists is the constant hassle from “drug dealers” at every corner in the city centre (notice the quotation marks). The constantly pick on tourists to buy “hashish”. If you’re that way inclined, don’t be fooled: what’s on offer looks suspiciously like tobacco with green tea and herbs.
  • Tram 28 is a good way to get around the city and is very popular with tourists. It takes to you to 30 stops around the city. But it mightn’t be a great idea if you are travelling with small children. The cart can get very crowded.
  • The Yellow Bus tour will bring you to all the usual touristy spots as well as some of the more unusual attractions that you might want to explore.
  • Lisbon is a city of seven hills, so prepare for some serious hill-walking. The tiled paths can be slippery in the heat, so good footwear is essential.
  • Fashionistas must visit the MUDE fashion and design museum on Rua Augusta.
  • Lisbon Story Centre opened in September 2013. It tells the story of Lisbon’s colonies and the infamous 1531 earthquake through audio, video re-enactments, props and dummies. It’s a quick way to learn about the city’s history, but not as entertaining as it sounds.
  • Like most continental cities, Lisbon’s nightlife starts late in the day. Bairro Alto is a hotspot for nightclubs and bars.

Conor McMahon travelled to Lisbon courtesy of the Portuguese Tourism Board. Ryanair commenced flying from Dublin to Lisbon on April 1.

The Staves are mesmerising – but there’s something missing from their act

English band The Staves

“I said fuck in a church,” one third of The Staves, Emily Staveley-Taylor, observed as she addressed punters in the deathly quiet Pepper Canister Church. She was right, she did – and successfully managed to drop the F-bomb another three or four times as she explained how weird it was to swear in such a sombre environment – all the while slugging gingerly from a bottle of beer.

This kind of humour and gentle banter peppered The Staves’ first Dublin concert since their headline gig in Whelan’s last year. Last night, they charmed the audience with both their cheeky chattering and their freakishly hypnotic harmonies and catchy folk numbers.

The Staves are an ideal live act to see in a creaky, little church – their dream-like and almost nostalgic songs ring home with some of the whimsy associated with being in a church.

Their vocal abilities and sweet guitar playing were truly incredible. But – now, this might sound weird to all the die-hard folkies out there – truth being told, there is only so much three-part harmonies a listener can take without it getting a little, well, boring.

As the set progressed, the songs became less and less imaginative and slipped into that tired folk thing that’s really beginning to wear thin (you can blame Mumford and Sons and their feckin’ banjoes for that). But to The Staves credit, their electric tracks are bang on.

Anyway, this was a far, far cry from a bad gig. The Staves sisters are a really talented bunch and were nicely complimented by an equally brilliant bassist and drummer.

They paid the Irish credit for listening to them when no one else would, and treated us to a song in the crowd to which they received a standing ovation.

The Staves are always welcome to Dublin – it would just be nice if they dished out something really different next time round.

Trust me, Hozier will blow you away

Wicklow singer-songwriter Hozier

Wow – that was unexpected. This might sound a bit harsh, but my experience of EP launches usually involves a fairly unknown singer-songwriter nervously dishing out barely-formed songs in a club in the back-arse of nowhere to an audience of awed relatives and bewildered hacks.

But Hozier’s gig in the Unitarian Church last night was something really, really special.

Hozier (Wicklow native and former Trinity Orchestra singer Andrew Hozier-Byrne) launched his aptly named Take Me To Church EP at a sold-out gig in the gorgeous Unitarian Church on St Stephen’s Green – and absolutely mesmerised the audience with his soulful, R&B tracks.

The evening opened with very special guest Stevie Appleby (lead singer of Little Green Cars) who treated us to some of his solo material.

A far cry from the rousing Little Green anthems, Appleby’s cracked, shy vocals, fantastic guitar playing and mournful lyrics even managed to coax a few audience members to shed a tear – including the poor girl in front of me who mysteriously vanished during the gig (hope you’re okay, hun).

You can check out Appleby’s stuff here.

After a brief interval, Hozier stepped up to the altar opening with ‘Like Real People Do’ (taken from the EP). It was clear from the offset that the solemn setting of the Unitarian Church would play a big part in adding a little magic to the evening.

For the remainder of the gig, the Wicklow man was backed by a six-piece band that included superb female vocals and cello (which sounded great when the group launched into a rendition of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’).

Some highlights included ‘Cherry Wine’, ‘Angel of Small Death’ and the popular ‘Take Me to Church’ – all from the EP – as well as ‘Someone New’, oldie ‘Sedated’ and newbie ‘Work Song’. But it’s hard to single out tracks from a set that just got better and better as it progressed.

The gig was “lovely but terrifying” for Hozier – and awesome (in the true, biblical sense of the word) for us. The audience showed its appreciation with a well-deserved standing ovation.

Take my word – you should check out Hozier now before things really kick off.

Kid Congo Powers rocks The Grand Social

Kid Congo Powers live

Loud, comical and a little bit nuts, Kid Congo and The Pink Monkey Birds brought their swamp-punk sound to the suitably makeshift Loft Venue in The Grand Social last night.

A legend of the post-punk scene, guitar-player Kid Congo Powers has a seriously impressive rock n’ roll résumé – he was a core member of The Gun Club, The Cramps and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds during the golden age of underground music in the late 1980s.

Teamed with The Pink Monkey Birds, Kid Congo is an exciting live performer. What’s more, he is an instantly likeable guy. Onstage, he smiles incessantly whilst wielding his Squire guitar around, and he partakes in plenty of mid-song banter.

There is a hint of cabaret about the Kid – his gravelly voice sounds as though it has been marinated in whiskey, and he playfully cocks his eyebrows when he perfectly enunciates every syllable of every fragmented lyric.

For their Dublin date, the band delved into the guitarist’s impressive back-catalogue and aired tracks from their forthcoming album, Haunted Head. The single ‘Conjure Man’ and B-side ‘Lose Your Mind’ were particularly well-received.

The group’s exhilarating show insinuated a non-stop stomp-along and there was plenty of cringey dancing – that said, it is hard not to get lost in the dreamy, punchy sound of Kid Congo and The Pink Monkey Birds.

Make it your duty to see these guys live next time they come to town.

Haunted Head by Kid Congo and The Pink Monkey Birds is out in March via In The Red Records.

Atoms For Peace’s debut is a gem

Atoms For Peace Amok album cover

Supergroups can be risky business. With the exception of the Travelling Wilburys, a short-lived band that boasts a line-up of musical giants can easily produce some God-awful albums – who could forget the Highwaymen? Unfortunately, no-one.

With that in mind, when you listen to Atoms For Peace’s debut album Amok, you don’t exactly think “supergroup” – but that is exactly what the band is.

Atoms For Peace is the electronica-brainchild of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, long-time Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Beck and REM drummer Joey Waronker, David Byrne percussionist Mauro Refosco make up the rest of the whopper line-up. It doesn’t get much more super than that.

Originally the group backed Yorke when he embarked on a solo tour of the United States in 2009. But it was clear that the band would be an on-going project when it was officially given a name in 2010.

Three years on, Atoms For Peace have produced Amok – a master-class album in electronic music.

Packed tightly with clever drum loops, throbbing bass hooks and some gorgeous synthesised clinking and buzzing, the album meets its giant expectations.

There is a certain tribal quality to this record which is most evident on the percussive arrangement for ‘Dropped’ and ‘Stuck Together Pieces’. It is clear that the band members have drawn influence from their rich musical backgrounds.

But this is Thom Yorke’s baby, so his input into the group is most prevalent. Amok sounds a lot like a refined version of his debut solo album, The Eraser – but with stronger tracks.

Amok is certainly going to be a major contender for best debut of 2013 – even if it comes from a band made up of serious music veterans.

Not done yet: Push The Sky Away is Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ best one yet

Push The Sky Away album cover

The reluctant king of the Goths, Nick Cave, finds himself in a pensive mood on his 15th studio album with the Bad Seeds, entitled Push The Sky Away.

Following the release of 2008’s shimmering Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, Ol’ Nick took time out to blast away some more bluesy cobwebs with garage band Grinderman, who released a raucous, sexy second album.

During the hiatus, Cave also published his second novel, ‘The Death of Bunny Munroe’, wrote the screenplay to John Hillcoat’s movie Lawless and scored the soundtracks to multiple films with Bad Seeds violinist Warren Ellis.

To say the least, the Black Crow King was productive on his break, and it is evident on Push The Sky Away that he is continuing to enjoy a period of heightened creativity.

Returning to more subtle melodies and biblical lyricism, this is a tender and genuinely beautiful record that is full to the brim with contemporary cultural references.

Cave’s incessant Googling inspired the bulk of his new batch of lyrics, which explores all things 21st century, from the mysticism of the internet to the exoticism of untrue Wikipedia entries.

Ol’ Nick’s embracement of the zeitgeist has led to some peculiar wording – “Hannah Montana does the African Savannah/ As the simulated rainy season begins,” he croaks on ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ – note the title. What’s more, he (kind of) adapts text language for the single, ‘We No Who U R’. Not bad going for a 55-year-old father of four.

Musically, Push The Sky Away is controlled and imaginative, returning to some of the themes explored on Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus. This is the first Bad Seeds album that does not feature founding-member and guitarist Mick Harvey (he left in 2009) and it is clear that Warren Ellis has taken over as chief composer.

Ellis’s swirling strings and hurly-burly noises from unidentifiable instruments are the strongest musical components on this album – just listen to those rousing violins on ‘Jubilee Street’.

Cave himself said recently: “If I were to use that threadbare metaphor of albums being like children, then Push The Sky Away is the ghost-baby in the incubator and Warren’s [instrumental] loops are its tiny, trembling heart-beat.”

Push The Sky Away is proof that Nick Cave still holds the musical and literary worlds at the tips of his lanky fingers. Coupled with the Bad Seeds, he is in no way ready for retirement after 30 years of music.

Let’s hope the Australian songster pays a visit to Ireland sometime soon – in the meantime, you have got to hear this album.

Push The Sky Away by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is out now.