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Monthly Archives: December 2016

Castles, cairns and gin-making in the Boyne Valley

Older than the Pyramids: Brú na Bóinne

At first glance, the famous cairns that cluster around the River Boyne, in counties Meath and Louth might elicit a shrug – most are simple passages leading into small chambers. But the more you look, the more fascinating they get.

Almost 100 Neolithic monuments make up the World Heritage Site ofBrú na Bóinne (‘the Palace of the Boyne’), many dating from around 3200 BC, making them around seven centuries older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids. They’re decorated with strange swirls and shapes and aligned with the sun and the landscape, yet so distant are their pre-Celtic creators that archaeologists are still guessing how the great stones were transported (possibly by river, or even rolled on seaweed) and whether they were built to honour the dead, the sun or the sea.

Stone Age magic at Newgrange and Loughcrew

Newgrange is the largest and most popular tomb, as well as the easiest to visit, via buses from the nearby visitor centre. Its 80m diameter is impressive, but the real thrill comes when you clamber through its dark tunnel, feeling the silence under muffled breath and gazing up at the enormous sandstone roof slabs as your heart stills and your eyesight sharpens. It’s hard not to feel a thorough connection to the living history of this place, an impression that swells as you stumble back out into the bright light and gentle hills of the surrounding farmland.

A trip to Loughcrew can be even more magical. That’s partly due to the lovely 15-minute walk from the winding R154 road, which takes you on a fairly steep climb into the Loughcrew Hills and views that stretch towards Dublin on one side and the Mourne Mountains on the other. And it’s partly due to the silence – even the most famous monument here, Cairn T, sees far fewer visitors than Newgrange. In summer, there are guides here to show you around (late April to end August), while in winter you can pick up a key from the visitor centre.

The feeling of epic discovery is heightened by the fact – only rediscovered in the 20th century – that the amber light of morning pierces the chamber at Cairn T (on the spring and autumn equinoxes) and Newgrange (at the winter equinox), bathing their mysterious symbols in a warmth and life that belies their age. At Newgrange, there’s a lottery for the winter equinox, and if you’re not lucky enough to get a place, at the end of each standard tour an artificial light is shone, mimicking its glorious effect.

Druids, monks and mercenaries

Subsequent visitors also left their mark in this fertile region. The Celts (who decided the impressive cairns must be the work of the faerie folk) arrived around 500 BC. You can ponder the roots they laid at Tara, where a hill marks the seat of the druids and the ceremonial capital of the high kings of Ireland.

Christianity arrived around 500 AD, and Irish monasteries became vital centres of European scholarship – the market town of Kells gave its name to the magnificent Book of Kells, now displayed in Dublin’s Trinity College. The monastery that was its home for six centuries is no more, but you can explore its ruins, including a 30m-tall round tower.

Twenty kilometres south of here, at a bend in the Boyne, Trim Castle is grand enough to have featured as no less than three castles (Edinburgh, York and the Tower of London) in the film Braveheart. Its atmospheric keep offers wonderful views of the countryside around, and a very solid reminder of another set of arrivals: Normans who came as mercenaries and ended up as rulers.

The Boyne’s game of thrones

The Boyne Valley was accustomed to being at the heart of Irish affairs, but in 1690 it was the site of a battle that shaped European history. Over 60,000 troops clashed a few kilometres west of Drogheda (now one of the best bases for exploring the region), as James II and his son-in-law William of Hanover fought for the British Isles. Despite the valiant efforts of the Jacobite cavalry, William’s larger, better-equipped force won the day – James fled to France, winning the nickname Seamus a’ chaca (‘James the shit’), and cementing the power of Protestant landowners and clergy across Ireland.

The landscape of the Boyne Valley isn’t the most stunning in Ireland – there’s a fair bit of commuter-belt sprawl around these lovely rolling hills. But you can give your explorations a focus by taking a boat trip up the nearby Boyne Navigation canal with Boyne Boats (boyneboats.ie). A paddle up this quiet waterway on a traditional currach is a wonderfully intimate experience – the boats were used in the filming of Game of Thrones, making them an ideal spot from which to ponder the ambition and bloodshed of the conflict.

Kings, rock and whiskey

With power came wealth, and the stately homes of Anglo-Irish landowners dot the Boyne Valley and beyond. Substantial yet elegantSlane Castle was home to Elizabeth Conyngham, the mistress of King George VI, and it’s said the road between Dublin and Slane was built especially straight to speed the smitten king’s journeys.

The great estates have mostly been broken up, and the Conynghams have diversified: Slane Castle is a famous venue for concerts (including U2 – who also recorded parts of The Unforgettable Fire in the Great Library – and Guns ‘n’ Roses), there’s now a rather lovely organic glampsite (rockfarmslane.ie) on the hills above, and a €47 million whiskey distillery opened in late spring 2017. Visits to the house and distillery offer a neat perspective on changing times, from the burnished new copper stills to the grand paintings of distant aristocrats, as the Boyne takes its peaceful path along the valley below.

Nearby Beaulieu House (beaulieuhouse.ie) has a gorgeous garden and a soaring hall, as well as connections to motor racing and the martyred 17th-century archbishop Oliver Plunkett.

Gin and local produce

The Boyne Valley is no fossil. Slane Castle’s whiskey is a traditional spirit given a contemporary twist (their first release is matured in virgin, seasoned and sherry casks), while Tayto Park uses Ireland’s most iconic crisp – and a dash of Irish mythology –  as the hook for a popular theme park.

Drink, dine and dance your way through a Queens night out

Happy hour

If you like to get started early, the pubs, cocktail bars, beer halls and lounges in Queens are ready with enticing after-work specials.Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden in Astoria has a giant patio area that makes it the perfect place to meet in the spring and summer, but the half-priced beer at happy hour makes it worth hitting up year-round. The interior and patio both have a classic beer hall aesthetic, with Czech, Slovak and American flags hung proudly from the fortress-like walls. Inside, you can catch sports and enjoy some classic Slavic cuisine with your drink.

Looking for a less conventional happy hour? Visit The COOP in Flushing. This Korean fusion spot has a great beer, sake and wine selection, but specializes in custom-made cocktails such as a lychee cosmopolitan. At happy hour you’ll find great deals on oysters and small-plate fare: kimchi egg rolls, fried chicken gizzards and their famous hot wings, which add a uniquely Korean flavor to the bar food classic. The ambiance at The COOP is tastefully modern, with dim lighting and flashes of neon – perfect to get you in the mood for a long night out.

Fueling up

When it’s time for some sustenance, you’ll be glad to be in Queens. The Astoria neighborhood has some of the best Greek food this side of Athens, and few restaurants are quite as revered as Taverna Kyclades. Its popularity means that there is usually a long wait for a table. Even in the winter you’ll find a crowd outside the restaurant, but the wait is part of the fun. The staff passes out glasses of wine, and the array of patrons make for pleasant company. Once you get in, it’s no surprise what draws so many people. Kyclades means ‘islands’ in Greek, and their food reflects that relaxed, unfussy island lifestyle. Whole, simply seasoned baked fish, grilled octopus, fried eggplant with garlic sauce – everything is done to perfection. Of course, you’ll want to make sure to add a bottle or two of Greek wine.

On the other side of Queens is Asian Jewels. During the day, this behemoth of a restaurant is known for its dim sum service, and at night they offer a full menu of Cantonese delights. The restaurant’s spacious, open interior is filled with large tables that either seat extended families, or mix-and-match smaller parties. The vast and varied menu features dishes familiar to most, like fried rice and sweet-and-sour pork, as well as traditional Cantonese dishes, such as beef with bamboo shoots and sliced cold jellyfish.

After-dinner cocktails

Cocktail culture thrives in Queens, even in the outer reaches of the borough. If you enjoy a few drinks after dinner, there are plenty of exciting options. Dutch Kills in Long Island City is one of the best. A speakeasy-style joint located in an unassuming warehouse building, its industrial facade opens up into a dimly lit den of liquor. The decor is an intriguing mish-mash of bygone eras, with saloon-style wooden booths and bartenders in mid-century tiki-couture. Most importantly, the drink menu is extensive and the bartenders skilled.

Further north in Astoria is Sek’end Sun, a restaurant with a large bar that specializes in crisp drinks that match its airy design. The ‘Infante’ – tequila, lime, orgeat syrup and nutmeg – is pretty to look at and a joy to drink, while the cachaça and ancho pepper based ‘Brazilian Bikini’ has a hard kick with a smooth finish. The specialty drinks at Sek’end Sun are $10 a pop, which is less expensive than most cocktail bars, and the creative menu makes it a great location for anyone who believes that variety is the spice of life.

Lively late-night entertainment

After a few civilized cocktails, it’s time to turn up the volume. Anyone in the mood for strong drinks, dancing and drag queens should head over to Icon Bar in Astoria. This gay bar provides all of the fun and atmosphere of similar Manhattan establishments, but has a friendlier vibe. It’s the type of place where you can walk in alone and leave with a group of new friends.

If you’re in the mood for a more structured late-night activity, take yourself to The Real KTV, located in the New World Mall in Flushing (newworldmallny.com), for a karaoke experience that is hard to top. This is an authentically Chinese spot that caters to all. The lighting and furniture are delightfully ostentatious, the drinks are strong and arrive quickly and the private rooms come with standing mics that will help even the most tentative performer let loose.

a guide to the locations of the cult classic

The Roadhouse

The heart of Twin Peaks country is the Snoqualmie Valley, in the hills east of Seattle. It’s at an easy distance for a day trip from the big city. Drop in first to Fall City, a town that is home to the building which starred as Bang Bang Bar, generally referred to as The Roadhouse. This was Twin Peaks’ adult entertainment venue, filled with couples and bikers listening to live music and downing a beer or two.

One of the most memorable scenes here featured the mystical Giant appearing in a vision to FBI Agent Dale Cooper, warning him of a murder with the line ‘It is happening again.’ Nowadays the century-old building houses the Fall City Roadhouse (fcroadhouse.com), offering food and accommodation.

Out back is another location: the cabin used to depict The Bookhouse, headquarters of the secret society known as The Bookhouse Boys.

White Tail Falls

Heading farther south-east to the town of Snoqualmie, the next major location is this impressive waterfall, falling majestically across our screens as the opening credits played to the haunting theme of composer Angelo Badalamenti.

In reality known as the Snoqualmie Falls (snoqualmiefalls.com), it’s a significant site to the Native American Snoqualmie people, who say the mist from the falls connects the heaven and earth. Since 1899 it’s also been the site of a hydroelectric power plant, which you can learn more about at the nearby Snoqualmie Falls Hydroelectric Museum.

Its great beauty makes the location a popular tourist attraction, and there’s an observation platform from which to catch that Twin Peaksselfie featuring you, the falls and our next location: The Great Northern.

The Great Northern

Sitting proudly above the waterfall, this grand hotel with timber interiors bearing Native American totems was the domain of scheming businessman Benjamin Horne and his daughter Audrey. It’s also where Agent Cooper was shot by an unknown assailant in the cliffhanger ending to the first season.

The first hotel built here was the 1916 Snoqualmie Falls Lodge, a small inn where travelers rested on their journey through the mountains. In 1988 it was remodeled and expanded to become the upmarket Salish Lodge. With its spa treatments and scenic views, it’s a good base from which to explore the Twin Peaks universe. At the end of the day the hotel bar will serve you a Dale Cooper cocktail in memory of the Twin Peaks agent, featuring gin, cider, and the establishment’s in-house honey.

Ronette’s Bridge

Across the Snoqualmie River from the Salish Lodge, Railroad Avenue takes you past the Northwest Railway Museum and the giant Snoqualmie Centennial Log which appeared in the credits of Twin Peaks’ pilot episode. A left turn on Meadowbrook Way will lead you back to the river and the most chilling of filming locations: Ronette’s Bridge.

This railroad bridge was the location where a dazed and injured Ronette Pulaski was found, having escaped the fate of the murdered Laura Palmer. In the present day the rails have been removed and the bridge is now part of the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, used by walkers and cyclists. Despite this healthy modern purpose, the dark girders of the structure still seem to loom ominously over the waters below.

Sheriff’s Station and Packard Sawmill

North of Ronette’s Bridge, 396th Drive leads through trees to the location which stood in as the sheriff’s station, occupied by Sheriff Harry S Truman and his loyal deputies. It’s instantly recognizable, though it’s now occupied by the DirtFish rally driving school (dirtfish.com).

From the parking lot, there’s a clear view of another Twin Peakslandmark, the Packard Sawmill. This facility was portrayed as the key asset of the Packard and Martell families. Opened in 1917 as the Weyerhaeuser Mill, the facility closed in 2003 and now only a single smokestack is left to bear witness to its history and television fame.

Double R Diner

Back over the river on Railroad Avenue, head southeast to the small town of North Bend. Here you’ll find the most fondly remembered Twin Peaks location, the Double R Diner. This old-school café, presided over by owner Norma Jennings in her retro blue uniform, was the quintessential small town eatery in the series. It was also a favorite haunt of Agent Cooper, who famously praised its cherry pie and ‘damn fine cup of coffee.’

Actually known as Twede’s Café, the family-owned diner that opened in 1941 has been through various ups and downs since its 1990s starring role (including a fire). With the filming of the new Twin Peaks season, it was transformed into its old appearance. If you visit now, you can still drink coffee, eat pie, and eavesdrop on small-town secrets.

‘Welcome to Twin Peaks’ sign

For a bonus location, steer your vehicle to 41483 SE Reinig Rd, Snoqualmie, then carefully pull over. You’re gazing at the view once graced by the ‘Welcome to Twin Peaks’ sign in the opening credits of every episode. The sign is no longer there, but the scenery hasn’t much changed. Sit back, take in the view of the mountains, and try to interpret the mysteries whistling through the mighty trees that Agent Cooper so admired.

8 ways to justify booking your next trip

1. Travel is an excellent way to destress and unwind

Although it’s hardly a shocker that travel has extensive health benefits, it seems that few of us manage to make the most of it. A third of British workers don’t take all their annual leave, while only four in ten Americans use their paid vacation days.

From reducing stress – yes, there is an argument for a day of cocktails and nap time on aCaribbean beach – to invigorating your mood, travel has so many wholesome benefits that it should really be bottled and sold in health food stores.

2. It could boost your career

Opportunities to test your transferable skills can arise more often than you change your underwear while you’re abroad. Need to evidence your problem-solving capacity for a job interview? Just whip out that story of your last trip to China, where you got from A to B relying solely on pointing, a few choice words of Mandarin and the lingua-franca of the travel world: charades.

3. You’ll meet a kaleidoscope of new people

Travelling gives you the opportunity to meet inspirational, impassioned and eccentric souls from around the globe. While not everyone may be your cup of tea, those with whom you share a few too many terremotos in a Santiaguino bar or trek into the rugged mountains of northern Laos stick around as friends long beyond your trip – and come with the added bonus of giving you free places to stay on your next holiday.

Going the extra mile and learning to chatter away in multiple new languages can also prove beneficial; bilingual people have reportedly been proven to seem more attractive.

4. It’s an excuse for a digital detox

We’ve all got a love-hate with technology, and travelling is one of the few chances we get to disconnect. Luckily, if you’re feeling up to your eyeballs in emojis, a digital detox is the perfect justification for that tour into the heart of the Amazon jungle or a cruise to the remotest stretches of Antarctica.

5. It’s an education like no other

Not only is travel a superb lesson in geography, it’s also a first-class education in cultural competency. Sure, reading about other countries can give you an introduction, but nothing beats exploring them on your own two feet.

It doesn’t take long to realise that your interactions with local people, as your learn about their way of life, are far more valuable than any class you could ever take.

6. It costs less than you think

Despite the oft-cited assertion that travel is expensive, budget flights, trains and car rental can provide affordable means of getting away.

Explore parts of the world such as Bolivia or Cambodia, where the cost of travel won’t leave you wincing at every purchase, or look closer to home for a refreshing but bank account-friendly break.

7. It’s a chance to get active

If you’re feeling like you’ve been cooped up in your office for too long, travel is the obvious antidote. Cycle between vineyards on a self-guided wine tour in the Wachau Valley inAustria or lace up your boots and trek the epic “Circuit” around Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia.

Active holidays leave you feeling refreshed, fitter and reeling from the incredible landscapes you’ve visited. The exercise-induced endorphins will also have you committing – momentarily at least – to a new fitness regime when you’re back home.

8. You can’t fight the urge to travel

The existence of one “wanderlust” gene might have been discredited, but it remains true that some of us have a greater natural tendency towards travel. Fighting it may only work for so long…