10 Must-See Castles in Ireland

 Dunluce Castle © Westend61 / Getty Images

Dunluce Castle © Westend61 / Getty Images

An article I wrote for Lonely Planet's website. Note the heavy edit on Blarney Castle compared to my original!

Castles – whether ruined, regal or otherwise – are a feature of the Irish landscape. Successive waves of arrivals built fortifications to protect themselves from rival claimants to their newly acquired patch of land. Of the 1000 or so castles spread across Ireland, the most impressive are the ones built by the Anglo-Normans beginning in the late 12th century, some of which have survived (relatively) intact while others were given facelifts in accordance with architectural fashion. Still others were ruined following successful sieges, but even in their dilapidated state they still evoke the grandeur that they were built to convey.

Ashford Castle, Co Mayo

A contender for Ireland’s finest hotel is the 19th-century regal hunting and fishing lodge created by Arthur Guinness (of stout fame) out of a castle first built in 1228 as the seat of the de Burgo family. Guinness’ Victorian-style extensions were added to the original building, which itself had been transformed in 1715 into a French-style chateau; in the late 19th century the extensions were given a neo-Gothic makeover resulting in the building you see today. Despite its many styles, Ashford Castle is a stunner – and that’s before you even get inside, a five-star luxury hotel with all the trimmings including a sumptuous spa and its own cinema.

 Ashford Castle © Mustang_79 / Getty Images

Ashford Castle © Mustang_79 / Getty Images

Blarney Castle, Co Cork

Overshadowed to the point of irrelevance by a single block in its battlements, Blarney Castle is effectively a life-support system for Ireland’s most enduring yarn. No, you won’t get the gift of the gab by kissing the Blarney Stone, nor is the photo booth gift shop (where you can buy photos of you doing the latter) built into the castle itself original, but the remainder of this fine 15th-century castle is worth exploring, if only to climb the spiral staircase and walk the battlements of a proper medieval structure. 

Cahir Castle, Co Tipperary

Mighty Cahir Castle looks like a medieval castle should: massive walls, mullioned windows and thick walls are all surrounded by a broad moat. Founded in 1142, it was heavily damaged by cannonfire in 1599, but survived both the attack and Cromwell’s takeover in 1650, who did the castle a solid and left it intact. All very much to the contemporary visitor’s benefit: the most impressive bit of this awesome structure is the sparsely decorated Banqueting Hall – its thick white walls are adorned by a huge set of antlers. Just as you imagined it was in days of yore.

Carrickfergus Castle, Co Antrim

 Carrickfergus Castle © Richard Luney

Carrickfergus Castle © Richard Luney

Ireland’s most impressive Norman castle is also one of its oldest: established in 1177 by John de Courcy right after he invaded Ulster, it remains the best preserved medieval structure in Ireland – despite being besieged in turn by the Scots, Irish, English and the French. The castle’s central role in Irish history is explained in detail in the museum: the castle overlooks the harbour where William of Orange landed in 1690 on his way to fight the Battle of the Boyne. In 1778, American naval commander John Paul Jones won an hour-long sea battle with a Royal Navy vessel in the waters of the harbour.

Dunluce Castle, Co Antrim

Location-wise, Dunluce is a stunner (see the image at the top), a ruined castle perched on a stone crag overlooking the sea. It was built in the early 16th-century by the McQuillan family before being seized in 1550 by the MacDonnell clan, who later took on the title of earls of Antrim. The castle has known its fair share of drama: the Girona galleass was wrecked on the rocks beneath it during the Spanish Armada of 1588, with only 9 survivors among its crew of 1300; 51 years later, part of the castle collapsed into the sea along with seven servants. It is thought that Dunluce was the inspiration for CS Lewis’ castle Cair Paravel in The Chronicles of Narnia.

 Enniskillen Castle, Co Fermanagh

Sometime in the 1420s, Hugh ‘the Hospitable’ Maguire established this impressive castle on the banks of Lough Erne, but he didn’t have many opportunities to live up to his nickname, as he went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and died upon his return in 1428. Successive heads of the Maguire clan – later titled the lords of Fermanagh – improved on Hugh’s original keep, whose twin-turreted Watergate still looms over passing fleets of cabin cruisers on the lake. The castle is now home to the fascinating Fermanagh County Museum and, on the ground floor, the Lakelands Gallery, where you’ll find a 1000-year-old 35lb block of butter that was preserved in a bog until it was dug up in 1980.

Huntington Castle, County Carlow

 Huntington Castle © Fionn Davenport

Huntington Castle © Fionn Davenport

Irish history made it difficult for castles to have the same owners through the centuries, but not so the Esmonde family, who’ve held on to Huntington Castle since its construction in 1625 – around their 15th-century tower house. Still, they’ve added bits along the years, including Georgian terraces, flamboyantly castellated Victorian extensions and, in the old dungeon, even a temple of the Fellowship of Isis, a religion established by the current owner’s aunt and uncle in 1976 – a year after Stanley Kubrick used the castle as the setting for Barry Lyndon.   

Kilkenny Castle, Kilkenny City

Once the stronghold of the powerful Butler family, this huge castle is one of Ireland’s most visited heritage sites. Although it was originally established in 1192 on a wooden tower built 20 years earlier by the Anglo-Norman conqueror of Ireland Richard de Clare, aka Strongbow, most of what you see today dates from the 19th-century, when it was given a huge Victorian overhaul. The most eye-catching room is the Long Gallery, with its painted timber roof and carved marble fireplace. The walls are lined with portraits of generations’ worth of notable Butlers. The basement houses one of Ireland’s finest contemporary art galleries.

 The Long Gallery inside Kilkenny Castle © Mark Wesley / Tourism Ireland

The Long Gallery inside Kilkenny Castle © Mark Wesley / Tourism Ireland

Malahide Castle, Co Dublin

For over 800 years until 1976 the Talbot family home was Malahide Castle, on the edge of a handsome suburban village in north County Dublin. The three-storey tower house is the only bit that remains of the original castle, built in 1185; much of the rest was added in subsequent centuries, including the 18th century drawing rooms and the Gothic revival corner turrets, built according to 19th century fashion. The 45-minute guided tour takes you through much of the house to the Great Hall, where 11 members of the Talbot family ate supper before dying at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.    

 Trim Castle, Co Meath

 Trim Castle © Fionn Davenport

Trim Castle © Fionn Davenport

If you need proof of the durability of a medieval castle, the mighty keep at Trim is it. Basically unchanged since 1200, the 25m-high building is mounted on a Norman motte and is surrounded by a 450m-long outer curtain wall. Inside, the ground floor has models of what the castle would have looked like in its heyday, including a handsome whitewash on its outer walls. The tour takes you to the battlements at the top, from where you can imagine being a 17th century defender fighting off Cromwell’s attacks. You failed, by the way, as Cromwell took the castle in 1649. The castle had a starring role in 1996’s Braveheart, as the Tower of London and Edinburgh and York castles.  

Guide to Getting Hitched in Las Vegas

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Getting married in Vegas is more than a bit cliche, but a couple says ‘I do’ every five minutes in Sin City. 

If it was good enough for Elvis and Priscilla, Billy Bob and Angelina, Britney and Jason…well then, it’s good enough for the rest of us. What’s that I hear you say? None of those marriages were particularly successful? Ok, so one-in-two marriages mightn’t make it until the end, but those 50:50 odds are still a lot better than you’ll find in any casino, and nobody thinks you’re dumb for spinning the roulette wheel or going for a flush on a poker machine.

It’s easy to get hitched in Vegas, but it’s not that easy. You can’t just roll up with a belly full of tequila and marry someone you’ve only met for the first time three hours earlier. All Vegas weddings need a marriage license, and to get one (costing from $60) you’ll have to apply 24 hours ahead of time at the Clark County Marriage License Bureau (clarkcountynv.gov/Depts/clerk/Services/Pages/MarriageLicenses.aspx) – which can get pretty busy at weekends and during holidays. Also, despite Sin City’s reputation for lax morals, it’s pretty traditional when it comes to eligibility: you have to be 18; your spouse can’t be “nearer of kin than second cousins or cousins of half-blood”; and you can’t already be married to someone else who’s still alive.

So, now that you’ve determined you’re of age and don’t plan to marry your sibling, you’re free to take the plunge…but the question is where?

 Graceland Wedding Chapel

Graceland Wedding Chapel

Las Vegas’ most famous hitching post is the Graceland Wedding Chapel (619 S Las Vegas Blvd; gracelandchapel.com), where, from around $200, an Elvis impersonator will tie the knot and break into a chorus of Love Me Tender (or something equally suited to the occasion). They also offer – for an extra charge - fresh or silk flowers, a photographer/videographer to immortalise the beautiful moment and even the option of a live internet feed, so that Aunt Peg and Uncle Michael in Brentford, who couldn’t make the wedding because nobody told them about it, can share in the joy from the comfort of their sitting room.  

These add-ons are pretty standard nowadays in most of Vegas’ wedding venues, plus a whole lot of others, including limo service to and from your hotel, wedding rings and – because it’s Vegas – a candid photo shoot of the bride and groom for that ‘special’ wedding album.

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The All-Inclusive VIP package at the Little Church of the West (4617 S Las Vegas Blvd; littlechurchlv.com), a wooden chapel built in 1942 that featured in Viva Las Vegas, will cost around $3000, but you can get a basic ceremony for around $200.

What they don’t offer is a live feed, but you can also get that at the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel (1205 S Las Vegas Blvd; vivalasvegasweddings.com), which offers the choice of a traditional or themed wedding: you can opt to ride down the aisle on a Harley Davidson to get married by a biker dude (or dudette); say ‘I do’ while wearing a gladiator costume including a sword and shield; or exchange rings in a graveyard setting. This is Vegas, baby – where you can get pretty much anything you want.

If you’re in a hurry, you can get married in a drive-thru chapel like Vegas Weddings (555 S 3rd St; 702wedding.com), a cathedral-style chapel that also does more traditional sit-down weddings as well as outdoor weddings in beautiful settings like Lake Mead or the Valley of Fire State Park, about 60 miles northeast of the Strip.

Finally, if you want a no-fuss, no-nonsense wedding, you can book a slot at the county’s Office of Civil Marriages (330 S 3rd St), which is all well and good, but what’s the point of a Vegas wedding without a little Vegas schmaltz? I know that if I was to get married in Vegas I’d go for an Elvis-themed ceremony so that as we were exiting the chapel the celebrant will say, “Elvis has left the building.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travels With My Mother

 At the elephant camp at the Anantara Resort, Golden Triangle

At the elephant camp at the Anantara Resort, Golden Triangle

My mother’s 70th birthday present from the rest of the family: a two-week, keep-your-hand-in-your-pocket holiday to Thailand and Cambodia. And going with her would not be my Dad (long-haul flight terror) but me – her travel writer son who just can’t get enough of Southeast Asia. The perfect trip, right? So why was it that when I told friends about it the general reaction was ‘lovely idea, but two weeks is an awfully long time’?

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Mam and I have a terrific bond, but we don’t know each other particularly well. We haven’t lived in the same country for more than 20 years, so there’s plenty about her I didn’t know. Like what kind of traveller was she? The active explorer type or the sit-and-soak-it-in kind? What’s more, she’s 70 – what did I know about travelling with a septuagenarian?

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I found out soon enough. On our first day in Bangkok, we walked for most of the morning before ambling back through Chinatown to our hotel, the Shangri-La. I noticed that Mam was limping slightly, but when I asked her if she was tired she shook her head, smiled and urged us onward. Back in the hotel, she admitted that her leg was a little sore but that she didn’t want to hold me back. What’s the old joke? How does an Irish mother change a lightbulb? “Ah don’t mind me. You go out and enjoy yourselves; I’ll just sit here in the dark.”

The answer was to combine activity with relaxation, and in Thailand, that means a massage. Over the two weeks Mam tried them all: she had her muscles kneaded and pummelled by masseuses at the nationwide network of massage shops operated by the blind; she tested the luxury of the classic Thai spa (her top vote went to the simply magnificent Chi Spa at the Shangri La Hotel in Bangkok); and even put her body on the line at the massage school in Chiang Mai’s women’s prison, part of an outreach programme for soon-to-be-released prisoners. There were no boundaries in the pursuit of muscular bliss.

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After a few days in Bangkok we struck north for the wonderful Anantara Resort in the Golden Triangle, the jungle-clad, mountainous axis of Thailand, Burma and Laos, which meet at a fork in the mighty Mekong River. Broad and brown from mud, it's not especially beautiful here, but there was something about where we were that really caught both of our imaginations. Mam had first heard of it in the early days of the Vietnam War, and as we boarded a longboat she imagined the horrors of the American bombings. "Do you think it happened this far up?" she asked, hoping to be paddling through an important part of recent world history. I didn't want to break the spell. I told her I didn't know.

In the evenings, we talked a lot. The initial awkwardness soon gave way to Mam talking about her own life. She told me about her father, who had developed encephalitis when she was 12 and lapsed into an increasingly vegetative state before dying seven years later; of how his illness affected her family and cast a huge cloud over all of her teenage years. Then, for a moment, silence. “My father was a very adventurous man,” she said finally. “He would have loved all of this. As would my mother…I think I inherited their spirit.”

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In Chiang Mai, we got up at 5.30am to take part in the alms giving ceremony at a local Buddhist temple. The monks, lined up along the road, thanked us for the alms – a cup of water and rice wrapped in banana leaf – with a prayer for our well-being and health. Then we poured water at the roots of a nearby tree, careful to give thought to the recently departed. Mam’s favourite aunt had died just weeks before, but when I asked her later if that’s who she was thinking of she shook her head. “My mother,” she said. “Always my mother.”

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For as long as I can remember Mam has wanted to visit the temples of Angkor, so the last leg of our trip took us across the border into Cambodia – just a short flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap. We spent two days exploring the vast network of temples and other ruins – Mam particularly enjoyed tapping into her inner Lara Croft as she clambered about the root-covered ruins of Ta Prohm. “I will remember this trip for the rest of my life,” she declared over dinner on our last night. “It’s everything I had hoped for, but not at all what I had expected. I had no idea that Thailand has everything,” she said while tucking into her mango sticky rice pudding. “It’s got so much culture, so many interesting cities, beautiful countryside…everything! They should publicise that more!” She paused for a second. “Maybe backpackers know all about the diversity in Thailand, but I didn’t.” The next morning, as we waited for our airport-bound taxi, she looked wistfully at the city waking up outside, turned to me and announced that she would definitely be back.

 

Where to Stay…

…in Bangkok: Shangri-La Hotel (www.shangri-la.com) On the Chao Phraya River, this luxury business hotel has great views, great rooms and one of the best spas in the world, the Chi.

in Chiang Mai: Tamarind Village (www.tamarindvillage.com) A Lanna-style boutique hotel built around a 200-year-old tamarind tree right in the heart of the old city

…in Golden Triangle: Anantara Resort & Spa (www.anantara.com) A luxurious resort designed in Northern Thai style with the world’s best infinity pool

…in Siem Reap: Park Hyatt (siemreap.park.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html) An example of contemporary minimalism and traditional Khmer design.

Full of Beans in Colombia

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A piece I wrote about a recent trip to Colombia that was published in the Sunday Travel section of the Irish Daily Mail on Oct 29, 2017

When I told friends that I was going to Colombia, the reaction was predictable: watch out for the guerrillas. Stay away from Colombian ‘marching powder.’ Come back alive.

When I told them that I was flying from Amsterdam, one of my friends suggested that I didn’t even need a plane to reach the required altitude.

 A cafe in La Candelaria. So good they named it twice. 

A cafe in La Candelaria. So good they named it twice. 

There’s no doubt that Colombia has a troubled reputation to shake. This is a country that for most of the last 50 years has been synonymous with violence and bloodshed. Arriving into Bogotá’s El Dorado Airport after eleven hours of comfort aboard KLM’s newest 787 Dreamliner, I was expecting armed soldiers and a general vibe of suspicion and menace. Instead, I found an impressively modern airport and an air of efficient calm that wouldn’t seem out of place in Switzerland.

“Bienvenido a Colombia,” smiled the officer at passport control. “Is it your first time visiting us?”

It was indeed. I’d been put off in the past by the civil war that turned the cities into militarised zones and huge parts of the countryside into no-go areas. But the government and FARC signed a peace deal earlier this year that put a putative end to the fighting; amid the general post-conflict excitement I even heard of plans to launch guided tours of former FARC jungle camps – led by demobilised guerrilla fighters.

 The view from Monserrate of Bogota's urban sprawl. 

The view from Monserrate of Bogota's urban sprawl. 

Cities are always that bit more attractive if the threat of bombing or kidnapping is negligible, and so it is with post-treaty Bogotá, the huge sprawling capital set on a high plain cradled by the Andes. It’s a city so big that getting from one side to another feels more like migrating than commuting. To get a sense of just how big 1700 square km is, I took the cable car to the top of Monserrate mountain – home to a white-topped monastery that is a popular pilgrimage and incredible views of the whole Bogotá valley, spread out in all its glory; on clear days, you can see volcanic peaks of Los Nevados, 135km to the west in the Cordillera Central, the highest part of the Colombian Andes.

Monserrate aside, most of the tourist action is concentrated in La Candelaria, the cobbled historic centre full of rows of colonial-era houses and most of the most important official buildings, including the heavily guarded presidential palace.

I could see it from the windows of my hotel room, a gorgeous colonial house once lived in by Simón Bolívar, national hero of Colombia and much of Latin America besides. All the way down the street I could see clusters of armed soldiers, smoking and chatting, and everyone else just going about their business, occasionally stopping to join in the conversation.

 Soldiers everywhere in central Bogota...

Soldiers everywhere in central Bogota...

Peace may have broken out, but Bogotá isn’t about to stop being vigilant just yet: elsewhere in the centre, most public buildings are guarded by private security guards and their fierce looking bull mastiffs. And, because this is a Latin American megalopolis, I was told to keep a close on my belongings and to avoid the area at night. So, I kept my wanderings to daylight hours, visiting the excellent Gold Museum – home to more than 50,000 pieces representing all of Colombia’s pre-Hispanic cultures – and taking a fascinating tour of the city’s political murals.

I suspect that Bogotá is one of those cities that gets more interesting the longer you stay. I was there for only a couple of days so I never got past the ‘on edge and intimidated’ phase – even the knowledge that the greatest threat was robbery rather than kidnapping or murder was only scant consolation.

If Bogotá is big and overwhelming, the contrast with Cartagena couldn’t be starker. Smaller, safer and far more chilled out, this colonial city of less than a million people is the country’s most popular tourist destination and one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to.

The bulk of the attention is on the Unesco-protected old town, a gorgeous maze of narrow streets lined with colourful houses fronted by trellised balconies draped in bougainvillea.

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It’s Havana meets New Orleans, wrapped in a 13km bow of colonial stone walls.

 

 The houses of Cartagena's old town.

The houses of Cartagena's old town.

Across the harbour on the Bocagrande peninsula is the modern city, a mini-Miami of gleaming skyscrapers where moneyed locals live in fancy apartments and dine in the city’s hippest restaurants.

 View of Bocagrande from the old town, Cartagena

View of Bocagrande from the old town, Cartagena

 

Before the peace treaty, getting here by road from Bogotá was a 12-hour trip few dared make for fear of being kidnapped by FARC. Instead, it’s an easy 45-minute flight from the capital: as well as almost hourly flights with national carrier Avianca, KLM’s service continues onward to Cartagena from Bogotá before making the transatlantic crossing back to Amsterdam.

 

Cartagena is a cinch to explore on foot. Best thing to do is wander aimlessly about the old town and the working-class neighbourhood of Getsemaní, getting lost in the streets that spill out onto handsome squares where locals take shade from the tropical sun and play chess or listen to salsa.

 

And drink coffee. Cocaine might be the country’s most infamous and talked about export, but by far its most profitable powder comes from the Arabica coffee bean, of which Colombia is the world’s biggest grower. Colombians drink coffee by the bucketload, generally opting for a basic shot they call a ‘tinto,’ but their overall appreciation of how to make a decent brew would leave even the most pretentious barista in the ha’penny place.

 A palenquera, from San Basilio de Palenque, just southeast of Cartagena, a town founded by runaway slaves.

A palenquera, from San Basilio de Palenque, just southeast of Cartagena, a town founded by runaway slaves.

 

At Café San Alberto, in the old town, I took a quick half-hour course in the history and secrets of Colombian coffee – and walked out with eight bags of beans that should keep me in caffeine heaven for the next few months at least.

 

 The clock tower in Cartagena that enchanted Gabriel Garcia Marques

The clock tower in Cartagena that enchanted Gabriel Garcia Marques

Much like Dublin is intimately connected with James Joyce, so Cartagena is closely linked with Nobel-Prize winning author Gabriel García Márquez, who harnessed the complicated reality he observed in the city and transformed it into the magical realism of novels like 100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.

 

100 Years of Solitude was a rite of passage for most of us when I was in university, but it remains the only one of his books I’ve ever bothered reading. Still, the highlight of my time in Cartagena was a three-hour Márquez-themed food tour, where we’d stop at food stalls that Márquez had written about and sample local dishes like cheese arepas (flatbreads), patacones (twice-fried green plantains with garlic) and bollos (boiled taro wrapped in banana leaf).

 

For a proper feel of the Caribbean, I headed offshore about 10km to the Islas del Rosario, a necklace of coral islands where I tried stand-up paddle-boarding for the first time (I only spent the first half of the session falling off and getting back on again) and ate grilled red snapper caught minutes earlier by a smiling fisherman who insisted that it was “muy bueno.” It was.

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On my last night in Colombia I got an email notification telling me that series 3 of Narcos was now available on Netflix. For a moment, I felt a little strange: I loved the first two series, which told the bloody story of Colombian narco-boss Pablo Escobar, but I never imagined that I would be watching it in the very country where it all took place, albeit 30-odd years ago. I’d been told that Escobar had owned a house on one of the islands off the coast, but nobody could tell me which one. Instead, I was left to imagine it, and as I sat down to watch the first episode of series 3 later that night, I thought that Gabriel García Márquez would have appreciated the strangeness of it all.

 

Getting There

KLM (klm.com) flies three times weekly to Bogotá and Cartagena from Amsterdam from €859 return in economy, €2202 in business class.

Where to Stay

Bogotá Hotel de la Ópera (Clle 10 No 5-72; hotelopera.com.co; rooms from €113)

Cartagena Hotel Armeria Real (Clle del Pedregal No 25-28, Getsemaní; armeriarealhotel.com; rooms from €140)

Things to Do

Bogotá Graffiti Tour (bogotagraffiti.com; free but tips are encouraged, usually around €10)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Food Tour (foodies.com; €66)

Islas del Rosario (day tours from €20, not including lunch)

 

HorrOrlando: Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios

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I went back to Universal Studios in Orlando to challenge my fear of fear and its famous Halloween Horror Nights. This piece was recently published in the Irish Daily Mail.

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When was the last time a six-foot-seven-inch scarecrow stepped out of the foggy darkness to scare the bejesus out of you…and you respond by jumping back in mock terror and laughing like a maniac?

That’s just part of the fun of Halloween Horror Nights, Universal Studios’ all-scaring, all-screaming extravaganza that is America’s most elaborate Halloween event. The six-week menagerie of maniacs, monsters and murderers comes alive with the setting sun, when thousands of fans descend on the Orlando theme park to get their fear on.

Nine huge warehouses are transformed into haunted mazes and the streets of the theme park are divided into five ‘scare zones’ with their own distinctive horror theme. I turn a corner and find myself in the middle of The Purge, where I’m attacked by a lunatic with a loud chainsaw and then threatened by a huge, ghostly-looking guy with a bloodied axe.

Of course, I’m not really attacked. The chainsaw looks and – more importantly – sounds real enough, but it’s just a prop. And the ghostly guy is just one of thousands of ‘scare-actors’ who are under strict instructions not to come within an arm’s length of anyone, for as much as the event goes to enormous lengths to be as terrifyingly real as possible, it’s still a family-friendly experience open to all over the age of 13. Still, an arm’s length is close enough to keep me on constant edge.

 Scarecrow: The Reaping

Scarecrow: The Reaping

Most frightening of all – even more than being caught in the middle of a loud ‘battle’ between aliens and soldiers in the Invasion! zone – is when a young girl with heavy kohl eyes and the pallour of death stops no more than two feet from me. She just looks at me and then hisses. I almost wet myself.

 The Invasion! Scare Zone

The Invasion! Scare Zone

“It’s good training for the zombie apocalypse,” I hear someone say behind me. I look around and see a heavyset guy in his twenties wearing a Chucky t-shirt. I smile wanly but I don’t think he was joking.

Meanwhile, my heart is racing and I have that metallic taste in my mouth from an overload of adrenaline – and I haven’t even gone into my first horror house.

The horror houses - huge walk-through mazes that take up to five minutes’ each to walk through - are an elaborately conceived nightmare that take almost a full year to devise and build. Each one is a mini universe based on either a famous horror franchise – Saw, The Purge, American Horror Story, The Shining, Ash vs The Living Dead – or an original concept conceived by Universal’s art and design team, which has been honing its trick-or-treat arsenal for 27 consecutive years.

Although fright geeks are going gaga for The Shining, which makes its debut this year, there was huge online buzz for a couple of home-grown ideas - Scarecrow: The Reaping, set on a Depression-era Midwestern farmstead; and Dead Waters, set on a half-sunken riverboat in the Louisiana bayou. I’ve watched enough episodes of True Blood to know that those swamps are full of vampires and voodoo.

Last year, Universal scored a big hit with Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, and it’s back again with a house based on three seasons of the popular TV show - Asylum, Coven and Roanoke. The little surprises along the way include a tortured witch howling in a cage and an attack by a family of cannibals. Most frightening of all – even more than being lunged at by a man wearing a severed pig’s head – was when I was confronted by Cordelia, played in the TV show by Sarah Paulson. Her calling card is waving a pair of scissors she has just used to gouge out her eyes. What’s not to like?

 The Grady Twins from  The Shining.  No, nothing creepy about them  at all. 

The Grady Twins from The Shining. No, nothing creepy about them at all. 

Universal is hoping that fans will respond as positively to The Shining house, set in the Overlook Hotel as well as the infamous maze. Unlike other houses, this one is brightly lit which makes the walkthrough that bit more unnerving. The film’s iconic features all make an appearance, including Jack bursting through a door to announce that he’s home to the blood-soaked elevator and haunted room 237. I even have a stare-down with the creepy hand-holding Grady twins. Taking on Kubrick’s horror masterpiece was always going to be a risky affair, as hardcore fans would treat any misstep as sacrilege, but the creative team has clearly done its research and turned out a winner.

 The Dead Waters House, set on a half-sunken riverboat in the Louisiana bayou

The Dead Waters House, set on a half-sunken riverboat in the Louisiana bayou

If The Shining struggled with the weight of expectation, the contrast with Dead Waters couldn’t be starker. Nobody knew anything about this house, which is set aboard a full-sized riverboat half-buried in the Bayou swamp. I walk along the path by the alligator-infested waters and onto the ship, where the sloping floors add to the overall feeling of disorientation. Lightning flashes across the sky and inside the candles flicker in the half-light – it is in this eerie setting that I come across the Voodoo Queen and her village fiends, who execute a series of fabulous scares.

Most of the mayhem in the houses is generated by scareactors hidden behind nooks, drop windows and doorways, who pop out at strategic moments (what the designers call ‘boo-and-skidoo’) for maximum effect. But the sense of fear is heightened by a brilliantly effective bit of low-tech special effects called ‘SIF’ by the creative team.

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SIF – or ‘stuff in face’ (the team call it something a bit ruder) is any bit of material that brushes your face as you walk by. So, when I walk through lengths of twine in Scarecrow: The Reaping, the result is terrifying, especially when added to other special effects, like the sound of crows squawking and rats scurrying by in the dark. And then there’s the smell, dank and rotting, like you’d expect from a place where scarecrow guardians have risen from the blood-soaked soil to wreak revenge on the humans who let the farm go to rack and ruin.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any scarier, I hear a thud, and then the sound of a chain being dragged slowly across the floor. Another thud, and then the chain again. Thud. Something is coming, but when and from where? At this stage, I’m walking so slowly that the people behind me have caught up. I put my hands out and try to feel my way forward. Then he appears. All six-foot-seven-inches of him. The appropriately named Biggun has a giant skull with roots growing of it, and his roar is amplified by a speaker hidden somewhere in the room.

I couldn’t get out of there fast enough, and when I was out, I couldn’t wait to get back in.

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Fact Box

Halloween Horror Nights runs on selected nights until November 4.

Flight Only

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) has direct flights to Orlando from €560 each way.

Package Deal

Seven nights at Universal Orlando with Virgin Holidays (virginholidays.co.uk). Includes return flights with Virgin Atlantic from Manchester to Orlando, a Lagoon View room at the on-site Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, car hire and a Universal Orlando three park Explorer ticket with Halloween Horror Nights combo from £1780 (€1991) for two adults sharing. Price based on October 26th departure. 

 

 

At Home with the Gaskells

If you've any interest in the past, then you'll know what I mean when I talk about that feeling of excitement that comes from finding yourself in history's long shadow. For me, it was standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on the exact spot where Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his 'I Have a Dream' speech. Or taking my old-school Marxist dad to Chetham's Library and sitting in the very alcove where Marx and Engels studied the books that would eventually give shape to the Communist Manifesto. 

I get that buzz from more mundane moments too. In Paris, I've eaten in the grossly over-priced and underwhelming tourist trap that is Fouquet's on the Champs-Elysées, just because it was James Joyce's favourite, eating and drinking into the long night....and paying for it with hangovers and other people's money. 

History's footsteps are a big selling point of a visit to the Elizabeth Gaskell House, in the Longsight suburb of south Manchester. Before I've even stepped inside, an enthusiastic guide urges me to ring the still-working original doorbell, and do what Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Ruskin all did before me.

My guide is a fellow history wonk, a traveller of ancient shadows. 

Although closely associated with the Cheshire town of Knutsford (immortalised as Cranford), Elizabeth moved into the house at 84 Plymouth Grove in 1850, two years after the publication of her debut novel, Mary Barton. She fretted about the exorbitant rent of £150 a year (roughly £18,000 in today's money, which would be a steal in this housing market). In a letter to a friend she expressed her concerns about the morality of spending so much money "while so many are wanting," but was determined to mollify her guilt by "[trying] to make the house give as much pleasure to others as I can."

It's a commitment the Elizabeth Gaskell Society are keen to maintain. Every visitor is greeted like an old friend and encouraged to make themselves at home. I'm told to sit at the desk Elizabeth's husband William used, and to rifle through the period books that line the shelves in the study (not Gaskell originals, but copies of books they would have had in their collection). 

 The dining table, laid out in Victorian elegance

The dining table, laid out in Victorian elegance

In the parlour on the far side of the entrance hall there are copies of letters written by Elizabeth as well as her wedding dress, carefully displayed in a glass case. At the far end of the dining room, laid out as the Gaskells would have known, is her writing desk, flooded with light from the alcove windows. On it are facsimiles of letters, including one from her friend Charlotte Brontë (Elizabeth wrote her biography in 1857), who also hid behind the curtains in the large drawing room. 

There are no ropes or labels, and as much as the house and its contents offer an intimate portrait of how the Gaskells lived, they really come to life through the anecdotes related with great relish and affection by the friendly room-stewards. 

 Elizabeth's writing desk, with copies of letters to Charlotte Bronte

Elizabeth's writing desk, with copies of letters to Charlotte Bronte

How, during the bread riots of 1863, when the well-to-do citizens of Manchester were instructed to board up their windows to deter looters, William - a Unitarian minister at nearby Cross Street - and Elizabeth ordered that the windows be opened so that they could distribute what food they had to workers clamouring for sustenance.

The stories paint a picture of two social justice warriors, committed to ideals of fairness and decency for all, especially the teeming poor that kept industrial Manchester in gear. Their own relationship was one of equals, a far cry from the patriarchal mores of the time.  

I also liked the stories about Elizabeth's relationship with Dickens. He called her Scheherazade, because her powers of narrative were good "for at least a thousand nights and one," but he had less tolerance for her habit of submitting work at the very last minute and way over-length (like most writers, including this one): as editor of her 1855 novel North and South, Dickens had gone to great lengths to suggest cuts, which Gaskell completely ignored, commenting with a dismissive "I've not a notion what he means."

Elizabeth was, by the standards of the time, ferociously independent - in 1865 she bought a house in Hampshire without telling William. It would be their retirement home, away from the soot and dirt of Manchester's dark, satanic mills. When the house was bought and decorated, she cajoled William into making the trip south to visit the house, but no sooner did she reveal the big surprise she suffered a heart attack and died, aged 55. William returned to 84 Plymouth Grove and lived there with his two daughters until his death in 1884; it was eventually sold in 1913, when the Gaskells' daughter Meta died. 

The house was acquired by the Manchester Buildings Historic Trust in 2004, who then set about a laborious restoration (aided by £2.5m of Heritage Lottery funds). It was meant to finish in 2011, but the roof was damaged by vandals delaying the reopening until 2014.  

And while they've done a wonderful job of restoring this gorgeous Regency style villa, the real accomplishment is in recreating - as best as they can under the circumstances - the joyful ambience of the house. Elizabeth was courageous, charming, generous and, by all accounts, very funny: time in her house would have been a lot of fun. The house is now a museum, but it's a fun place to visit - the very kind of historical footstep I most enjoy walking in. 84 Plymouth Grove, M13 9LW; elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Splash Out at Manchester's Victoria Baths

 The main gala pool, once the first-class men's pool

The main gala pool, once the first-class men's pool

 Terracotta brickwork facade of the Victoria Baths

Terracotta brickwork facade of the Victoria Baths

In a city full of gorgeous buildings, the Victoria Baths in south Manchester takes some beating. It's a Grade II listed Edwardian classic, built to impress: when it opened in 1906 the Lord Mayor John Harrop declared it a 'water palace of which the people of Manchester will be proud'; the Manchester Guardian called it 'the most splendid bathing institution in the country.'

 The Angel of Purity

The Angel of Purity

It cost twice as much as most public baths to build, and you can still see where most of the £59,000 was spent - on the elaborate terracotta brickwork of the facade; on the floor-to-ceiling glazed green-and-cream tiles with which most of the public spaces are clad; in the stunning art nouveau stained glass in the windows, the best example of which is the Angel of Purity in the Turkish sauna (yes, the baths had three separate pools and a Turkish sauna). 

 The stairs up to the main viewing area of the gala pool

The stairs up to the main viewing area of the gala pool

 The baths had three entrances, depending on which pool you were using.

The baths had three entrances, depending on which pool you were using.

The baths were open to all Mancunians, but the pools were strictly segregated. 1930s Commonwealth and European champion John Besford, for instance, trained in the men's first-class gala pool (so-called because in winter time it would be boarded over and used for dances and talks) because he studied medicine at the University of Manchester and so could enjoy the cleanest water and superior facilities. 

Industrial workers and other non-professional types who couldn't afford the 6d to have a splashabout had to make do with the second-class pool, which didn't even have doors or curtains on the changing rooms. 

Women of all means were restricted to the women-only pool, which had its own entrance so that the lads couldn't gawp at the girls showing off even an inch of flesh. It also meant that they couldn't watch local swimmer Ethel 'Sunny' Lowry doing laps in preparation for her 1933 English Channel swim, the first English woman to complete the feat. (Her training regimen included eating 45 eggs a week!)

Typical Manc that she was, Lowry stubbornly opted against using the restrictive and heavy woollen one-piece suit deemed suitable for women in favour of a lighter two-piece that (gasp! horror!) exposed her knees: her brazen contempt for the mores of the day earned her the epithet 'harlot' when she returned triumphant from France.  

 Sunny Lowry, swimming the Channel in 1933

Sunny Lowry, swimming the Channel in 1933

 Sunny Lowry at Victoria Baths

Sunny Lowry at Victoria Baths

 The Aerotone - the prototype of the whirlpool bath - was installed in 1952

The Aerotone - the prototype of the whirlpool bath - was installed in 1952

Upgrades over the years included the addition in 1952 of Britain's first Aerotone, the precursor to the Jacuzzi; it was used up to the 1980s, including by members of both Manchester football teams. 

But not even whirlpool baths that look like instruments of torture can halt the progress of time, and in 1993 the baths closed as they had become too expensive to run. 

Essential maintenance was entrusted to the Friends and Trust of Victoria Baths, which was supported by Sunny Lowry and Olympian James Hickman, a five-time short course Butterfly champion who regularly swam galas at the baths in the 1980s.

The Trust's efforts to raise funds for its complete restoration were given a boost when the baths won the first series of the BBC's Restoration programme in 2003, which came with a prize of £3.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The money helped, as did the awareness the victory brought, but the baths still need around £30m for a full restoration and it won't come courtesy of the cash-strapped council, which has had to prioritise essential services over heritage projects. 

So if the baths are to be restored to anything like their stunning best it'll come down to the efforts of the trust. In 2011 they were granted a venue license for arts events, so they host gigs and cinema nights - it's hard to imagine a more atmospheric venue to watch a film or see a band play live. They also host weddings and other functions, and every Wednesday they run guided tours of the building, delivered by enthusiastic volunteers hell-bent on making sure you see just how amazing the place is.

The council mightn't get just how important this building is to Manchester's cultural landscape is, but even a quick peek inside should convince you of its significance. I strongly recommend a tour, and take comfort in knowing that not only are you visiting an architectural stunner, but that your being there is helping to save it.  

Victoria Baths, Hathersage Road, Chorlton-on-Medlock, M13 0FE. 

Looking for Oscar

This piece appeared in the Irish Daily Mail on Saturday, February 25, 2017.

Looking for Oscar, or scouring West Hollywood for the most elusive ticket in town.

Sunday is Oscars night, and Los Angeles is getting ready to show its stars the love for the 89th time. I know I’ve virtually no chance of snaring an invite, so the next best thing is to show up a few days early and soak up some of the atmosphere.

My LA home is the Grafton, a boutique hotel on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. It has tidy rooms with plantation shutters and a rock ‘n’ roll motif. On the first morning, fighting jet lag with an early morning cup of coffee, I see rapper Ja Rule drinking champagne in the bar telling his companions about a possibly teaming up with Kris Jenner. You heard it here first, folks.* 

 My bedroom at the Grafton

My bedroom at the Grafton

Welcome to West Hollywood, home to dark-edged tequila bars, raw food kitchens and a thick slice of Hollywood lore.

Across the street is the Comedy Store, which spawned generations of comic talent from Billy Crystal to Amy Schumer. Just down the street is the Chateau Marmont, where decadence and discretion made for some of Hollywood’s most lurid tales.

This is where Howard Hughes perved over sunbathing beauties with a pair of binoculars and, in Bungalow 2, John Belushi shot his last speedball in 1982. James Dean jumped through one of the windows because he thought it would impress director Nicholas Ray. He was right, because Ray cast the as-yet unknown actor in his upcoming teen melodrama, Rebel Without a Cause.

 The 1929 Art Deco Sunset Tower, once home to John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra

The 1929 Art Deco Sunset Tower, once home to John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra

Howard Hughes didn’t have far to go to spy on girls in bikinis, as for a time he lived in the nearby Sunset Tower, an Art Deco classic from 1929 that at different times was also home to John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra. It’s now a classy hotel with a restaurant dressed in panelled wood (for that perfect 1930s club vibe) and lined with autographed photos of a century’s worth of Hollywood stars.

The food is classic American (Cobb salads, New York striploin) served with efficient speed to a darkly lit room of chatty industry types: at the table next to me, three scriptwriters exchanged work tips and war stories. I’m sure I spot Mark Ruffalo in the shadows on the far side of the room.

 The Red Carpet Facial at Kinara; I've never felt so pampered. 

The Red Carpet Facial at Kinara; I've never felt so pampered. 

I need to get ‘Oscars ready.’ In a town where botox is as commonplace as green juice, I pick a less extreme option and treat myself to the Red Carpet Facial ($180) at Kinara, whose cult-following clientele include Halle Berry and Jessica Biel. My therapist Mirjana tells me I have amazing skin and feigns huge surprise when I tell her how old I am. I’m thrilled at the compliment and leave a big tip: I know how things work in Tinseltown.

I’m just disappointed that neither Halle or Jessica aren’t sitting in the high-ceilinged, boho-chic waiting room.

I venture down onto Hollywood Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood, once ground zero for the global entertainment business. Time hasn’t been overly kind and today, despite an intense cleanup effort, the birthplace of modern entertainment is a commercial monstrosity of bad tour hawkers, bored wannabe actors in superhero costumes and, oddly, the occasional snake handler.

These days the only stars are embedded in the pavement, but Hollywood Boulevard still has the hand- and footprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s (now TCL) Chinese Theatre, a movie house that debuted in 1927 with Cecil B DeMille’s The King of Kings, and, next door, the Dolby Theatre – the home of the Oscars.

I watch a crew redirect the crowds of snap-happy tourists away from the temporary stands being erected outside. On Sunday night they’ll be full of VIPs, although they’re not VIP enough to get a seat inside, close to the action. I ask someone when the red carpet will be laid down, and he looks at me like I’m crazy. ‘Sunday afternoon, of course. When else?’

I’m standing in front of the theatre, but I’m a million miles away from getting anywhere near the ceremony.

Instead, I opt for a 90-minute history lesson, courtesy of the Felix in Hollywood Tour. My guide Philip weaves historical magic over an unassuming half-mile section of Sunset Boulevard, transporting me back and forth across time, to when it was the birthplace of the film industry and, later, a key player in the history of recorded music. Philip has a flair for the dramatic and is a terrific storyteller: I’ll never look at Hollywood the same way again.

 Bedrooms at Laguna Beach are all decorated in an elegant California coastal rustic style

Bedrooms at Laguna Beach are all decorated in an elegant California coastal rustic style

The Oscars are still days away, so I head south about 50 miles to beautiful Laguna Beach. This is one of Southern California’s loveliest spots, a town packed with independent shops, art galleries, surfable waves, great hiking and an easy-going atmosphere. My retreat is the exquisite Ranch at Laguna Beach, a laid-back luxury resort tucked up against a couple of canyons just south of town. The rooms are elegant, the pool heated to a constant 26 degrees and the nine-hole golf course as scenic a track as I’ve seen. I may not have an Oscars ticket but I’m living like an A-lister.

 Laguna Beach, where the rich come to be idle in the lap of California coastal luxury. 

Laguna Beach, where the rich come to be idle in the lap of California coastal luxury. 

I head back to LA because I’m still hopeful and Hollywood is built on dreams. I’ll hang around West Hollywood and see what happens. Hey, Ja Rule was a guest in the same hotel as me and Mark Ruffalo and I ate in the same restaurant! Well, it was a guy that looked a lot like Mark Ruffalo. Actually, the room was pretty dark and maybe all I saw was an unshaven man with unruly curly hair.

I think I’ll just watch the Oscars on TV.

*I only found out later that the conversation I overheard Ja Rule having was about the ill-fated Fyre Festival, which ended in cancellation and the arrest of co-organiser Billy McFarland, who was then charged with wire fraud. 

Stay

Grafton On Sunset (8462 W Sunset Blvd; graftononsunset.com; rooms from $209/€198)

Ranch at Laguna Beach (S, 31106 Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach; theranchlb.com; rooms from $349/€330)

Eat

Tower Bar @ Sunset Tower Hotel (8358 W Sunset Blvd; sunsettowerhotel.com; mains $32-52)

Do

Kinara Skin Care Clinic and Spa (656 N Robertson Blvd; olgalorencinskincare.com; treatment $180)

Felix in Hollywood Tour (felixinhollywoodtours.com; $40)

Getting There

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies direct to Los Angeles from Dublin daily from €237 each way

For More Info

Check out visitcalifornia.co.uk and visitwesthollywood.com

 

Miami Nice

 Miami Skyline - photo by  Ines Hegedus-Garcia

Miami Skyline - photo by Ines Hegedus-Garcia

This piece appeared in the Feb/Mar issue of Cara Magazine

If Louis XIV were alive today, he’d holiday in Miami. The Magic City’s spell-binding mix of beauty and bacchanal is so intoxicating that it proved a ‘perilous attraction’ to Joan Didion and had Will Smith partying on the beach until the break of dawn. Miami’s multiple moods – supermodel glitz on Lincoln Road, defiant nostalgia in Little Havana, transgressive creativity in Wynwood – express themselves against one of America’s sexiest backdrops, a movie set of teal waters, white-sand beaches and blood-orange sunsets.

Most Miami Cubans may have outgrown Little Havana, but the sounds and scents of the barrio haven’t changed: the hum of salsa pouring out of the bodegas along Calle Ocho (8th St) and the sweet waft of cigar smoke around the old men playing dominos and cursing Castro’s memory in Máximo Gómez Park.

To the north, the Design District drips in art galleries and high end boutiques where even a memento of local chic can cost you thousands. But for real Miami opulence head down toward Coconut Grove and take a wander around the ornate Vizcaya Museum & Gardens (vizcaya.org), an Italianate villa built in 1916 by industrialist James Deering as a fitting residence for him and his extraordinary collection of art from the Renaissance onwards.

Super stylish, wonderfully offbeat and even sordid in parts, South Beach (SoBe) is the Miami stereotype come to life. Five-star hotels and designer boutiques sit side-by-side with grungy tattoo parlours and dingy dive bars. Along Ocean Drive bronzed beauties slip out of soft-top Ferraris to strut their stuff, barely noticing the beach bum rearranging his worldly possessions in a supermarket trolley. This is the Miami of the movies: of perfect skies and pastel-hued art deco palaces, of rollerblading families gliding through South Pointe Park, of pensioners in velvet leisurewear soaking up the sunshine of their retirements.

 The Broken Shaker; photo by Jonathan Hall / Los Angeles Times

The Broken Shaker; photo by Jonathan Hall / Los Angeles Times

Start your night with a cocktail in one of America’s best bars, the Broken Shaker (freehandhotels.com/miami/broken-shaker/) in the backyard of the Freehand Hotel (see ‘Sleep At’) and end it the following morning with a French loaf stuffed with goodies from the walk-up counter of La Sandwicherie (lasandwicherie.com) brings me back to life. For something more substantial – and a finger-lickin’ reminder that Miami is still in the south – try the soul food in Yardbird Southern Table & Bar (runchickenrun.com), across the peninsula in a converted grocery store.

Should you need respite from the city’s multiple charms, the southern end of Biscayne Bay is where you’ll find Stiltsville (stiltsville.org), a cluster of wooden shacks on pilings that over the years has served as a gamblers’ den, a smugglers’ haven and a bikini club with low morals and a high-class clientele. The Sun King would surely have approved.

 Stiltsville at Sunset - photo by  Ines Hegedus-Garcia

Stiltsville at Sunset - photo by Ines Hegedus-Garcia

Sleep At

Hipster A minimalist makeover to an Art Deco classic has resulted in the Freehand Hotel, a favourite with budget travellers who have a choice between a bungalow, suite or quad dorm. And, for everyone, the city’s coolest backyard bar for killer cocktails. Beds from $120. (2727 Indian Creek Dr, +1 305 531 2727, freehandhotels.com)

Rat Pack The Redbury embraces the shiny chic of the 1950s and the psychedelic wow of the 1960s: through the Georgia-peach doors are the paisley wallpapered rooms, all of which have working record players – so you can play the collection of LPs by Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Rooms from $200. (1776 Collins Ave, +1 305 604 1776, theredbury.com)

Fabulous Gold columns, huge allegorical murals and artwork by Koons and Hirst on permanent display, the minimalism-be-damned opulence of the Faena Hotel is the vision of Baz Luhrmann and his costume designer wife Catherine Martin. Together, they’ve given us the hotel version of Oz, complete with a swanky rooftop pool. Rooms from $420. (3201 Collins Ave, +1 305 534 8800, faena.com)

Smart Tips

Miami Moca Not coffee, but modern art: the Museum of Contemporary Art has avant garde exhibitions by big names, artist-led lectures and, on the last Friday of the month, jazz concerts for everyone. mocanomi.org