Online holiday reviews of books

Phil Hackett for Penguin

NOT our American dream!

Destination: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

If you think Long Island sounds perfect for families THINK AGAIN. Noisy neighbours with parties going on till all hours and the light pollution is terrible. To top it off our car broke down and the nearest garage said they couldn’t help because of a ‘local incident’. Won't be going back.

A misérables trip to Paris

Destination: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Took the whole family to Paris this month. What a waste.

For one, we could barely move for street urchins. They’re everywhere. My youngest had his bum bag full of francs nicked, only for it to later be returned by a different, nobler urchin. (They’re a bit hard to pin down morally, the urchins.)

And if it wasn’t the bloody urchins, it was this revolution they’re on about. If you’re going to visit Paris, don’t go during revolution, I’d say, or at least don’t bring the kids. Our youngest was scared witless the whole time, and we lost our teenage daughter in the crowds, only to spot her hours later atop a barricade, holding hands with a handsome young lad dressed head to rebellious toe in rags.

We didn’t stay long enough to see if the barricade came down; my husband couldn’t stand the racket, and we ran out of francs faster than we thought, between the cost of accommodations and the near-constant thievery (urchins). Our daughter's been a drama queen since – we practically had to drag her onto the plane. Next year, we’re doing our regular holiday to Butlin’s.

Terrible food and worse nightmares

Destination: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

I was so excited for my self-imposed writing retreat to the Yorkshire Moors, having heard about the untamed beauty of these northern grasslands. I was under no illusion that the weather would be good, given that Wuthering is famously “exposed in stormy weather” and subject to “Pure, bracing ventilation… at all times”. All the better for staying in and refining my prize-winning debut, I imagined. Having loaded up my case with thermal vests and socks, I was ready for a week of intense creative pursuit!!!

What I hadn’t anticipated was the utter lack of comfort inside this draughty old house. Ensconced in a bed that doubled up as a cupboard, to attempt sleep was to imagine entrapment in a coffin. When I did eventually doze off, I would be woken by the most persistent and inexplicable rattling at the window by someone begging to be “let in”.

The Yorkshire Moors of Wuthering Heights. Image: Martin Priestly

Wuthering is famously “exposed in stormy weather” and subject to “pure, bracing ventilation… at all times”. Image: Martin Priestley/Getty

I don’t believe in ghosts, so I’m blaming the food. Literal crusts of bread, boiled milk (arguably better than that fresh from the dairy, which was always handled with dirty hands), something generously termed “water-gruel” and cake and cheese. The only mercy being that there was never quite enough of anything to choke down. I wrote approximately four pages in total. Next time, I’m paying the extra £20 a night and staying at nearby Thrushcross Grange, which looks far nicer on Instagram.

Near-death experience in Concord

Destination: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Our girls trip to Concord, Massachusetts, was supposed to be a weekend of winter walks, good food and calm, but it hit the wrong note from the start. The house we were renting was lovely, but about five minutes after we arrived a racket started up next door. Two of the daughters were evidently in the midst of an epic fight (there was a smell of burnt paper lingering in the air and we caught some yelling about manuscripts and missed parties). 

For respite, we decided to head to the lake for a spot of ice skating, which locals had raved about. But we should have taken our not so peaceful arrival as a sign that things weren’t going to go well. We were only on the lake for a few minutes before I heard a massive crack and fell into the freezing water. I was rescued before too much damage could be done by a handsome floppy-haired man, but it hardly seems the most prudent way to meet people. 

Tranquility in Transylvania

Destination: Dracula by Bram Stoker

It might not look like the friendliest place, but my trip to Transylvania - intended to restore me and my wife after a stressful few months - was remarkably peaceful. After a few days of walking in the cold air, I found myself drifting off to sleep quickly. My wife, on the other hand, said there was something spooky about the beautiful castle on the hill we were staying in, and that she heard strange noises in the night.

Castle on the Hill in Transylvania. Image: Jeremy Woodhouse/Getty

"My wife, on the other hand, said there was something spooky about the beautiful castle on the hill we were staying in." Image: Jeremy Woodhouse/Getty

My wife said the castle’s owner gave off a creepy Halloween-like vibe, but he largely left us alone. I have to confess that when I did talk to him, I felt quite relaxed, so relaxed that I couldn’t really remember our interactions afterwards. I do remember him asking us to leave an online review, and even though I hate doing so, his hypnotising eyes persuaded me it was a great idea.

Since returning I’ve found myself avoiding the daylight and really thriving during the night, and I’ve also got an appetite for extremely rare steak, but I’m pretty sure that’s not connected… 

Getting cholera in the time of cholera

Destination: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Must-haves for your romantic honeymoon in Colombia:

1) a good camera

2) sunscreen

3) Imodium, lots of it

Beautiful place, but weddings going on constantly

Destination: The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights

My wife and I have always wanted to visit the twin cities of Sasan and Samarkand al-Ajam since we read in a book that their domes and minarets are as beautiful as “foaming water or banked rain clouds”. So we took a two-week break there this summer. And I must say, they really were to die for.

We took a guided tour of King Shahriyar’s palace from a charming young fellow called Al, and picked up a gorgeous old oil lamp in a local bazaar (can't wait to see how it looks when I polish it!). Crime is an issue, though. My wife had her camera snatched in a cafe, and when we reported it to the police, they said a local crime gang been terrorising tourist spots for months. But incredibly, the camera turned up a few days later... in a magic cave of all places!!!!

One weird thing though – there seemed to be an awful lot of royal weddings at the palace. A new one every day as far as we could tell. To the same king! And while they were beautiful – elephants and marching bands and enough razzmatazz to make Harry and Meghan squirm – we couldn't help noticing the public beheadings every morning after each ceremony. The language barrier was an issue, so we never worked out why the king wanted all those new brides dead. Something to do with his first wife getting off with a servant, I think.

Anyway, beautiful place, just hold onto your belongings and avoid the main square around dawn on weekday mornings.  

More like Monte Crusto - AVOID

Destination: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

I’d been begging my husband to take me to Tuscany ever since we got married 23 years ago. Finally he dips into his pocket and sorts out an all-inclusive and lo and behold it was awful.

My visions of watching the sun set over rolling hills and sipping rosé under towering poplar trees were swiftly crushed by our arrival: a bumpy passage on a smuggling ship! Of All Things!!! to some godforsaken backwater called “Montecristo”. Monte Crusto, more like: this lump of barren land in the middle of the Mediterranean had nothing to offer bar a few sheep and some ramshackle hut where we stayed. Our “all-inclusive” wasn’t entirely incorrect, given that we were not expected to pay for any of our meals, merely forage for them from the surrounding scrubland.

The only good bit of the trip was finding Dantès, a friendly bloke with a back problem who got us onto the next smuggling ship back, from which I immediately checked into the nearest five star hotel, much to my husband's disgruntlement.

Bulls were great, shame about the crowds

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

My wife and I had wanted to see the bull fights of Pamplona for years, so when we arrived we were really excited. Lots of people warned us beforehand the violence could be quite shocking but what was far more shocking to us was the behaviour - or should I say LACK OF - from the group of young men next to us (I don’t know why they were there - lost, probably).

Not only were they drunk and loud, one of them – a burly looking bloke – insisted on narrating the whole thing. “The bull stepped forward” “the matador swung his cape” – honestly, it was like he’d never heard of an adjective!!!

The bullfighting itself was very beautiful but next year we plan to go somewhere with less American expats. Paris, maybe.

World's worst journey

Destination: The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

When me and my best friend booked a trip to Mordor, we knew it was a destination off the beaten track, but the travel agent (an old guy with a long beard who wore robes) said it would be pretty straightforward if we stuck with our tour group, which he insisted on calling a ‘fellowship’.

He was wrong.

We had to walk through woods, mountains and underground caves, lost most of our party, and worst of all, fight off a gigantic spider. When we got to our final destination, Mount Doom, we dragged ourselves to the top, only to discover that there had been direct flights available the whole time – the travel agent just hadn’t bothered to tell us about them. 

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