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Unspoilt Algarve

When most people (me included) think of the Algarve, they imagine a series of cheesy resorts full of Brits abroad. So when the Algarve tourist board invited me on a trip to discover that there’s more to the Algarve than the familiar tourist hotspots – I jumped at the chance to be proven wrong.

Budget airlines including EasyJet fly into the capital of the Algarve, Faro. And it’s only a two-and-a-half hour flight from Gatwick, making it the ideal destination for a weekend break. As I found out, it’s definitely worth spending at least a few days in Faro city before heading down the coast, as Faro has lots of hidden gems.

I wandered along the cobbled streets of the Cidade Velha (Old Town) to find a pretty little orange tree-lined square. And if it’s a bit of sea and sand you’re after you can relax on the beach at Faro Island. I hopped on a local bus (it costs less than €2 each way) which took 20- minutes from the centre of town.

A boat trip is the perfect way to be at one with nature and discover some of the Algarve’s less crowded golden, sandy beaches. The picturesque fishing village of Olhão is around a 15-minute drive from Faro. From here, I went with Natura Algarve to the tranquil Farol Island, with its towering white lighthouse.

The highlight of my day was a leisurely lunch at A do João (John’s House) a real hidden gem. Don’t be misled by the cheap-looking exterior, with its plastic tables and chairs, the food here is simply divine. I had freshly caught seabass cooked with garlic, it melted in my mouth, served with a vegetable cataplana, a traditional casserole usually made with fish or meat. The dishes change daily, depending on what the fisherman catch that day.

My next stop was the Ria Formosa Natural Park, a lagoon protected from the sea by 60km of beach and dunes. A twitcher’s paradise, I was lucky enough to see flamingos at sunset as I rented a bike and cycled around it. Don’t forget to take repellent if you’re at the Ria Formosa after dark or the insects will have a field day as I found out a little too late in the day!

I had to admit I was pleasantly surprised by what I’d discovered in the Algarve – it’s teeming with hidden gems – lush scenery, picturesque fishing villages and quiet, sandy beaches. And I just scratched the surface. Ana, the lady from the Algarve tourist board, told me she was from Tavira. A beautiful old town about half an hour’s drive along the east coast from Faro, it has quieter beaches (including its own secluded beach island) if you’re looking for somewhere to unwind. But I’ll be leaving the popular coastal resorts of Albufeira to Sir Cliff and his celebrity mates I’m afraid.

London’s best car boot sale

I was talking to a friend and happened to mention I was on a quest for second-hand furniture. She told me about a car boot sale in Wimbledon that’s supposedly one of the best in London, and a great place to pick up some real hidden gems. There was just one snag. To bag a bargain she reckoned you have to get there early, and we’re talking 7am early. I’m not a morning person at the best of times so I was in two minds – I really wanted to check it out but couldn’t decide if it was worth the trek and having to drag myself out of bed 5am, an unholy hour on a Saturday morning, to get there from the other side of London.

When my dreaded alarm went off I was all but ready to bail until surprisingly Sharps (who would live in bed if he could get away with it) persuaded me we should make the effort at least this once.

Two buses and a train later (neither of us can drive) we made it to Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium. Our first test was getting in – still half asleep we wandered up and down Plough Lane trying to work out where the entrance was, to the amusement of some of the stallholders we could see, but couldn’t get to. Having finally worked it out we were ready for some bargain hunting.

With up to 200 stalls this is one of the biggest car boot sales in London. I can’t remember the last time, if ever, I’ve been to a car boot sale so I don’t have much to compare it to. But there was an array of bric-a-brac, ranging from tat to some real hidden gems, depending on what you’re looking for. We arrived at 7am but to get your pick of the bunch it’s probably best to get there even earlier. It’s great for furniture, there were tables for a tenner, chairs, sofas – you name it – and don’t be shy about haggling with sellers either.

A word of warning though – it’s ruthless – buyers and sellers take no prisoners. If you see something you want get in quick before someone else does! We discovered this the hard way when we saw an iron garden flower stand which I thought would make a brilliant shoe rack. The owner was away from his stall so we asked his neighbour if he could tell him we were interested in it. He told us it wouldn’t be a problem and not to worry as they guy hadn’t sold it from last week. But when we came back we overheard him trying to buy it for himself! Luckily for us he backed down but when on the hunt for a bargain, trust no-one. Our only problem was then getting it home – I’ve now got muscles in my arm I never even knew existed – it was heavier than it looked.

We also picked up this wicked shabby chic dressing table, which came with a mirror and stool, without any run-ins, for an unbelievable £30 from a guy who does house clearances. And he agreed to deliver it for an extra £20, a result as it would have cost us much more to get a van or courier service (it was too big to fit in a taxi).

I’m not sure it’s something I could do every week (it’s open Saturdays and Wednesdays) but we’ll definitely be going back – we still need armchairs, a kitchen table, a coffee table… And I may even be willing to get up at 4am so we can be one of the first to unearth the hidden gems you’re bound to find there.

Free books

During the week I received a press release inviting me to a free one-day festival called Onedayland, organised by The House of Fairy Tales and PLOT, a new eco-arts collective. I have to admit that I’d never heard of either of these organisations, and the prospect of going along to see their artist’s studios or take part in kids’ playshops, which may well be a fun day out for families, wasn’t really doing it for me. That is, until I noticed that on one of the floors (the event was being held across five floors of a building in The City, London) they were giving away free furniture.

Having recently become a first-time buyer, and subsequently realising just how expensive even the most basic of furniture is, I persuaded Sharps that we should go along and at least take a look. Keen to bag a bargain, we got there just before the doors opened at midday. But, when we arrived, we discovered that the the furniture in question was in fact office furniture, great if you’ve got lots of space and are looking for an ex-office large desk, but sadly our visions of free leather chairs and kitchen tables went right out of the window.

But far from being a wasted journey we discovered a real hidden gem. A charity called Healthy Planet, who were behind the giveaway, also save books from going to landfill by giving them away for free. They run this brilliant initiative across the country, making money from businesses who allow the charity to use vacant office buildings until they have been rented out, saving the landlords money in tax relief. They get their books from a variety of places including house clearances and charity shops (I didn’t realist that charity shops only keep books for a certain amount of time as they get inundated).

As you’d imagine from the rooms filled with postbags , the array of books they have is amazing – everything from sci-fi and cookery to kids’ books and chicklit, with a mix of contemporary writers and classic literature – with a variety of new and old books. Anyone can come along, it’s free to get in, and Healthy Planet are keen to help the community, encouraging teacher and pupils to come along and kit out their schools. We were really excited by our finds and the Healthy Planet Books For Free shows it really is possible to get something for nothing, even today.

When in Eastbourne…

I have to admit that when Eastbourne tourism asked me if  I’d like to spend a weekend in Eastbourne I wasn’t over enamoured by the idea. Eastbourne has connotations of being somewhere people go to retire, and it would be fair to say that to a large degree this is true. But it does have its plus points (Eastbourne was named as one of the sunniest places in the UK) and though it may not be the most happening destination if you’re looking for a traditional British seaside town where you can chill out and relax you’ll still find plenty to do here.

The best way to see the famous Beachy Head lighthouse and coastal scenery of the South Downs National Park is by boat. We went with Sussex Voyages who run powerboat adventure trips from Sovereign Harbour. Or if you prefer to stay on dry land, you can hire a bike and go cycling, or take a walk across the South Downs.

As Eastbourne plays host to various sporting events including the AEGON International, from 11-18 June 2011 we felt it was only fitting to do something active. And being by the sea we decided in keeping with being by the sea that some kind of watersport would be the order of the day. Which is how we ended up trying our hand at windsurfing .

Visions I had of being swept off to sea were put to rest as we trooped off with about three other people to a nearby lake (it was slightly larger than a pond). But don’t get me wrong – I was more than grateful that less rather than more people could witness my futile attempts to stay afloat.

Sharps shot ahead across the water while I dismally clung on for dear life, trying to negotiate the steering. I’m not usually one to give up but after swallowing endless mouthfuls of pond water (I’m surprised there was anything left for the others to windsurf on) I begged the instructor to let me cut short my two-hour lesson. Sadly, he was having none of it. And though I finished the session slightly battered and bruised I’m secretly glad I persevered as I did manage to get from one side to the other unaided. I don’t think I’ll be an Olympic threat any time soon.

After all that excitement we chilled out by Eastbourne’s open-air Bandstand, which is the UK’s only fully operational Bandstand, and had an icecream down by the seafront (much more my kind of thing). For a great-value dinner and a few much needed sangrias we went to the Flamenco tapas restaurant which had a great selection of tapas for veggies and meat eaters. And they’ve even got sombreros you can wear to get you in the mood!

I’d like to say we stayed up and sampled Eastbourne’s nightlife but knackered from our windsurfing it was an early night for us and we headed for bed. When in Eastbourne…

Coastal Kent, Whistable and Broadstairs

Janice, the lovely lady at Kent Tourism has been trying to get me out of London for years to check out what Kent county has to offer. As I don’t drive (and neither does my boyfriend Sharps) we thought it might be a bit tricky (and a bit of a pain) for us to be able to hit the coastal trail. But when I saw the images from one of Visit Kent’s ad campaigns – and mistakenly thought they were of Australia’s Great Ocean Road – we decided it would be worth it! So Janice suggested we visit the quaint seaside town of Broadstairs.

Having heard rave reviews about Whitstable we stopped off on route to see what all the fuss was about. If you’re a fan of seafood you’ll love it here – head to Whitstable harbour where you’ll find stalls selling oysters, cockles and whelks for a pound – total bargain.

Oysters galore in Whistable

And you can wander along the beach and see the multi-coloured beach huts. Not wanting to sound too much like my mum, but make sure you take a jacket in case as it gets quite windy by the seafront.

Arriving at Broadstairs we were met by a Kent Greeter. Run by enthusiastic volunteers, this is a brilliant free service enabling visitors to find out more about what’s on offer in the area, including the best places for families to visit and how to get around. Click here for details on how to book an appointment with a greeter and see www.mykent.co.uk for more recommendations from locals.

It’s easy to see why Broadstairs and its sandy bays were Charles Dicken’s favourite holiday spot. Botany Bay is breathtaking (this is where the picture below is actually of as opposed to Australia) and just a short drive from Broadstairs.

Botany Bay Kent

We also stopped off at Joss Bay, a mecca for surfers, and contemplated giving it a try with a lesson at the Joss Bay Surf School (Joss Bay, Elmwood Avenue, 07812 991 195) but we wimped out (in our defence it was freezing, wetsuit or not). Lilliput Minigolf, located on Victoria Parade on the promenade in Broadstairs was much more our style. As well as crazy golf it also serves up great toasted teacakes.

And talking of food, the culinary highlight of the trip for me was my inadvertent discovery of quite possibly the best croissants in the world. We were staying at The Royal Albion hotel, located right in the heart of Broadstairs and by the seafront. When we went down for breakfast in the morning nothing seemed out of the ordinary at the buffet – the usual array of breakfast foods were on offer. For some reason I felt like having a croissant, it was almost an afterthought as I’m not usually a huge fan of pastries. If I said it was amazing, quite frankly it would be an understatement, as when I bit into the croissant I discovered it was filled with warm jam. Who would have thought, such a simple thing and yet so divine. My quest since then has been to find somewhere in London that sells jam-filled croissants (I’ve been dreaming about them) so if anyone can help please let me know!

The best Sunday lunch in Stratford

Last month I was in Stratford-upon-Avon with my boyfriend Sharps (it’s short for Shahpour) courtesy of Visit England. The last, and only time I’d previously been to Shakespeare’s birthplace was on a school trip (so years ago). I have a vague recollection of hanging out in the park by the River Avon before going to see an RSC production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I had studied for my English lit GCSE (I’m not that old!)

It goes without saying that a trip to the theatre is an absolute must if you’re in Stratford. This time round I visited the newly reopened RSC to watch a production of King Lear. Usually my attention span is limited to a 25 minute episode of Corrie but I was totally engrossed by the 3 ½ hour production, which culminated in a stage full of dead bodies as it’s Shakespearean tragedy I’m not really giving away too much of the plot here!

A visit to Shakespeare’s birthplace, located in the heart of the city centre on Henley Street is another must when you’re in Stratford.

Despite, or perhaps because of, being a journalist with a love of writing I was gobsmacked to learn just how great an influence the world’s most famous playwright had on the English language – did you know for example that it was Shakespeare who coined the following words and phrases: obscene, addiction, bump, arouse, addiction, bedroom, laughing stock, fair play and send him packing.

But my find of the weekend was The One Elm in Stratford, a hidden gem of a gastro pub just down the road from Shakespeare’s birthplace. My starter of cheesy leek, pea and chive pancakes with haddock was divine – and I don’t even like pancakes (in case you haven’t guessed I’m a pretty fussy eater)  – as was my main of sea bass.

We were at The One Elm on a Sunday, which meant Sharps got to tuck in to the roast of the day which was lamb. It came with all the trimmings, and quite possibly the biggest Yorkshire Pudding I’ve ever seen – even as a non-meat eater I had a clear case of food envy.