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Wish I was still there... our best ever holidays

 

By Lee Henry

Five local celebrities take a walk down memory lane to recall the places, faces and events that made their vacations of a lifetime.

‘The sights fuelled lasting memories’

BBC Northern Ireland's Hearts and Minds presenter Noel Thompson (60) lives in Belfast with his wife Sharon, with whom he has two grown-up sons, Matthew and Patrick. He says: 

Snorta Mota was a 1954 London double decker bus, but for my wife Sharon and I it was a time and travel capsule that transported us on the journey of a lifetime. Along with 20 fellow adventurers, aged from 16 to 60, we boarded the bus in London's Earl's Court on Boxing Day 1983 for a two-month trip across Asia to Nepal.

And what a journey it was. We lived, cooked, ate and slept on the bus in convertible bunk beds. We danced on New Year's Eve on the Greek-Yugoslav border, to the bemusement of frontier guards. We bargained for carpets in the wilds of Eastern Turkey. We argued with Iranian police and blocked the main trade route to Asia until they let us proceed without paying the bribe they demanded.

We watched the sunrise over the funeral ghats on the Ganges at Varanasi, and we watched the sun set over the lustrous Golden Temple of the Sikhs in Amritsar. We rode on the backs of elephants through long plains grass, looking anxiously for tigers. And finally we glimpsed the high summits of the Himalayas as we climbed precipitous mountain roads in the Kathmandu valley, watching eagles and vultures soaring on the thermals.

We sampled local culture and food at every stop along the way, to the amusement of the local people, who must have wondered at this strange band of aliens in their improbable vehicle.

From Kathmandu, Sharon and I travelled on for many months through Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia until we reached Australia. It was an epic journey in every way.

The sights and sounds have fuelled our memories in the decades that have passed, but Snorta Mota has a special place in those memories. The songs we played and sang on those endless hours of travel still bring a smile to our faces when they come on the radio, and it's back on the road again …

‘Morocco is like another world’

Cool FM's Cool Goes Quiet night show presenter Melissa Riddell (24) lives in Magherafelt. She says:

I have never been anywhere quite like Marrakech, the capital city of Morocco, and wonder if I ever will again. We stayed very close to the centre, right on the edge of the main square, Jemaa el Fnaa, which is the hub of the city.

The place is alive, a feast for all your senses. Everywhere you look, there is something new and colourful to take in. There are people everywhere, snake charmers, horses, stalls and more oranges than you've ever seen in your life!

I visited Marrakech with a group of my girlfriends in 2014 and we had the time of our lives.

There is so much to do, so much to see. We tried to squeeze in as many of the 'top attractions' into our trip as possible. So we visited Jardin Majorelle, the most beautiful gardens, which were saved from dereliction in the 1960s when bought by the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

We took a trip up the Atlas Mountains. (If you're staying there, your hotel should offer lots of different day trips and excursions and this is one I highly recommend.) During this day trip, we had the opportunity to ride camels and feast on the local cuisine, seated literally on the edge of the river.

We also visited a co-operative, where we were shown how the locals make their own peculiar form of liquid gold: Argan oil, which you can eat or alternatively use for cosmetic purposes. Argan oil can be purchased in every nook and cranny of the city, but we had the opportunity to purchase its purest form, so naturally I bought three bottles.

When we reached the top of the waterfall at the end of our climb, we jumped in, because why not? Morocco is like another world.

You will never be stuck for things to do, yet, when needed, you can always retreat to the calm and serenity of your accommodation. Ours was palace-like. It's incredibly easy to get to and I thoroughly recommend you go and experience it for yourself.

‘Italian culture is a chill out for me’

Leading chef and author Paula McInytre (49) is a regular contributor to BBC Radio Ulster and Radio 4. She lives in Portstewart. She says:

My number one holiday memory from childhood relates to a family holiday at the Falls Hotel in Ennistymon in Co Clare. My brother and I went along with our parents and grandparents. There were always loads of other kids to play with and lots of fun was had. But the thing that stood out for me was the food. I remember watching the chef pick blackcurrants from the garden one afternoon and then them ending up in a fruit fool dessert that evening. I was spellbound by the alchemy of this and it really ignited my passion for seasonal, local food cooked simply.

These days, at least once a year, I visit the village of San Andrea in the Lazio region of southern Italy. The village is where the Portstewart-based Morelli family originated - people will know them, of course, from their ice cream - and their house there looks out to the dramatic Abruzzi mountains. I've been friends with sisters Nicole and Rossana Morelli for a lifetime and I fell in love with the place the first time I arrived there.

It's a complete chill out for me. I've got to know a lot of the villagers and they will organise truffle hunting expeditions, visits to cheese makers and vineyards when I'm there. I've been lucky to cook with some of the older women in the village and make gnocchi, pasta and cakes with them.

The markets there are inspirational, with fresh vegetables, cheeses and cured meats. I'll cook a couple of nights but mainly we will eat out, partake of the local vino and do very little else. One of my favourite restaurants is there, Osteria del Tempo Perso, run by Mama Sabrina and her two sons Marco and Matteo. It's worth the trip alone.

I always seem to arrive there when I really need it, usually after months of nonstop work, so it's the perfect place to revive myself. Sitting on the balcony, with the crickets buzzing in the background, in the late evening sunshine with some Prosecco in hand and laughing with friends - that's my favourite place to be.

‘Scents of Far East are unforgettable’

Singer-songwriter Anthony Toner (52), whose new album Ink is out now, lives in Belfast with his wife Andrea and has a daughter Sian. He says:

My wife spent part of her childhood in Thailand, and it was a longstanding promise that we would go there together some time. When we got married in 2011, it was a two-birds-with-one-stone opportunity to honeymoon there. We started in Chiang Mai followed by a few days on the coast at Pranburi and three nights in Bangkok.

It was my first time in the Far East and a whole series of First Times for me, such as waking up on the plane and looking out on the Himalayas or coming down the gangway in the heat and sensing the flicker of the geckos on the walls. Week two we visited temples, rode together on the back of an elephant, attended a Thai cookery school and floated downriver on a bamboo raft.

Of the three places that we visited, Bangkok was the most memorable. An incredible rush of sensations, the city was ancient and modern, filthy and clean, slow and brutally fast, all at the same time. We stayed in the exquisite Ariyasomvilla, which was redolent of old empire days - the mosquito nets, the slowly revolving ceiling fans the beautiful teak furniture.

Outside, street vendors sold food from steaming, sizzling little carts. Skinny dogs roamed the back streets and on the main roads, traffic hurtled past. Beautiful girls in cocktail dresses and high heels perched side saddle on the back of scooters, checking their phones while being driven by young suicide jockeys through chaotic intersections. At the lights, the riders would all crush together up to the line and then run for that green light like a stampede of roaring bulls.

Around us the night air was thick with sirens, the hiss of insects and the racket of traffic, and a unique Bangkok perfume of spices, fried vegetables, exhaust fumes, aftershave, drains and incense smoke. I will never forget it.

‘The North Coast never gets boring’

UTV sports reporter Denise Watson (45) lives in Lisburn with her husband David and her daughters Samantha (12) and Elizabeth (8). She says:

I like to holiday in Northern Ireland more than anywhere else. Every summer, rain or shine, we love spending time at my in-laws' caravan in Portstewart. The North Coast is an area of outstanding natural beauty and we're big fans.

We like to keep active with lots of walks and swimming. Visiting National Trust properties like Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge, the Giant's Causeway and Downhill Beach and Mussenden Temple never gets boring for us.

We love taking the old steam train from Bushmills to the Causeway too. But Portstewart Strand is our favourite place. Walking at sunset or running in the sand dunes always takes me back to my childhood.

Outside of Northern Ireland, I'd say our favourite ever holiday was the most expensive one: three weeks in Disney World in Orlando, Florida. We did it back in 2013 when the girls were four and eight and it lived up to expectations.

There is nowhere on earth like the Magic Kingdom. You become a child again when you walk into it and I found myself smiling all day. They do spectacular dance routines there, parades and character greeting sessions, which the children obviously loved, but the night-time fireworks display really takes the prize for most spectacular event. It is truly amazing.

As well as that, as those who have visited the States will know, Americans really do service better than anyone else. We found Disney World to be clean, well organised and the kids ate their food too, so no complaints from me! I'd advise anyone to visit Florida just once. You will love it.

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