Newcastle: Out on the toon

Newcastle is the ‘hipster capital of the North’ and the UK’s best short break destination, says the latest travel poll. Can this post-industrial port town really deliver a top-notch long weekend of culture, arts and outdoor activities?

National Geographic Traveller (UK), August


Stay The Night: The Old Chapel, Stoke Fleming, Devon

A derelict chapel has been transformed into a luxurious holiday let, and now it offers every possible comfort, says Sarah Barrell

It takes quite an event to bring our family to church. A wedding or funeral, perhaps. Or, in this case, the conversion of a 19th-century chapel just outside Dartmouth into a high-end holiday rental. It began and continued its life as a United Reformed Church 140 years ago, subsequently serving as a shop, storeroom and boathouse. The chapel was bought in 2009 by the Imlah family, who restored the near-derelict structure to its original elegant form, adding a level of comfort not always associated with places of worship.

You’re never too old to party. Ask Durham

Independent on Sunday 13 November

City Slicker: Durham – The city is celebrating 25 years on the Unesco World Heritage list. Sarah Barrell offers ideas for new and returning visitors

Enclosed by a tight loop in the River Wear, medieval Durham, crowned by its colossal hilltop cathedral, is one of the UK’s most magical, picture-perfect cities.

A place of Christian pilgrimage since the 11th century, Durham has more lately seen the worshipful attentions of a burgeoning number of city-breakers plus Harry Potter fans seeking some of the early films’ locations. This year, the city celebrates 25 years since its walled old town became one of the first places in the UK to be inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list.

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Stay the night: The Randolph, Oxford

A great opportunity has been missed in the recent makeover of Oxford’s most venerable hotel, says Sarah Barrell.

Makeovers: they’re all the rage. Take a grand old hotel and do something oh-so-aching-moderne with the décor that it eclipses much of the original elegance. Not so with The Randolph, but sadly in this case, more would in fact be more.

Last year, this landmark hotel was promoted to AA Five Star status in recognition of both its service and its recent renovations, including the addition of a spa. Investment or no, the new look resembles the holdings of a fusty old dowager who has neither the money nor the vision to revive her rambling property.

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Hotel Of The Week: San Domenico House, London

The little Chelsea hotel with big aspirations.

A grand hotel on boutique scale, the 15-room San Domenico House, just off Sloane Square, is a little bit of Chelsea posh newly acquired by a flamboyant Italian family hotelier. The fact that place was converted from two redbrick Victorian houses to the original Sloane Hotel by a chic French designer only adds to its opulence. This has been duly noted by the AA which has just awarded it Best London B&B for 2008/09.

The view from the sunny, teeny roof terrace, of buses bustling up King’s Road and Battersea Power Station as a backdrop, belies the tranquil, almost villagey feel of the leafy, cobbled streets below. It’s enough to make you believe you’re the lord of the manor, despite being in a London terrace.

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Wales: Home to the self-proclaimed wacky festival capital of Britain

In the Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells, if it’s not the ‘Man vs Horse Marathon’, it’s ‘Morris in the Forest’. Sarah Barrell pays a visit

Festivals are in vogue. From Addis Ababa to Aberdeen, tourism organisations are desperate to jump on the festival bandwagon. Gone are the days when a highbrow arts festival, venerable sporting event or a superlative samba carnival was the only way to get on the international events calendar. From tomato-throwing festivals in Spain to cheese rolling in England, it seems, the “mine’s weirder than yours” ethos now wins. In today’s cut-throat festival climate a little individuality goes a long way – in the case of Llanwrtyd Wells (say: thlan-oor-tid) a little individuality took this tiny Welsh town from obscurity to international tourism stardom. Or as close to celebrity as a town with a population of 604 can hope to get.

According to a sometime listing in Guinness Book of Records, Llanwrtyd Wells is the smallest town in Great Britain. But it has latterly dispensed with its diminutive accolade, preferring to pitch itself as “The Wackiest Town in Britain” or, as one Welsh tourism website puts it, “the eccentric capital of Wales”.

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Making tracks: learning to drive a 4X4 in the Malverns

Reluctant motorist Sarah Barrell gears up for the Land Rover Experience in the Malvern hills

Sunday drivers. Nothing worse right? Wrong. Consider the annual rent-a-car driver. The unpractised arrogance of these only-on-special-occasions motorists strikes fear into the hearts of hire car firms. There ought to be laws against them. And I should know – I am one. You see, I hate driving. I hate it with a passion that only applies to things I truly suck at. Driving is something to be done only when it can’t be avoided. The idea of spending an afternoon doing it for fun? I’d rather go to the dentist.

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Essex is lovely: no, really. It is.

Put aside your prejudices, says Sarah Barrell, and explore the rural heart of this much maligned county

It may be news to those in Gants Hill or Billericay but Essex has gone posh. And we don’t mean “posh” as a prefix to Spice. We mean the kind of posh associated with muddy green wellies, chic converted heritage hotels and conservation-protected countryside. If you’re looking for a bit of English quaint within dashing distance of the capital, forget the holy trinity of Home County boltholes – Sussex, Surrey or Kent – head to Essex. Or, at least, “Real Essex”.

“We needed to raise our profile,” admits Essex councillor Peter Martin. “Essex has a high profile but perhaps not the one we want to promote.” Out of such diplomatic understatements Real Essex was born – a savvy marketing campaign launched last year giving the county the kind of PR makeover that determinedly eschewed false nails, Outspan foundation and the mere mention of white leather. Despite the campaign being met with a certain amount of snorting derision from the press, one year on, with re-branding established and the general approval of the tourism industry, it seems that Essex is not, as stereotypes would have you believe, taking it lying down.

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