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Italy

  • Where To Sleep When You Ski: Nira Montana

    April 24, 2016

     

    Last month, Ed and I were lucky enough to fit in a skiing trip to La Thuile, Italy. Skiing for us is a huge luxury and one of our most relaxing trips of the year. Though of course, it’s active, your mind is thinking about nothing but sliding down slopes all day long, and come lunch or dinner time, options are usually limited so you don’t have to think too hard about that either – especially here in Italy: it’s pizza or it’s pasta. What’s more, spas and ski resorts tend to go hand in hand, so you can start and finish your day in the sauna. Heaven. 

    Nira Montana was the perfect base for our 4-day trip, set in the beautiful Aosta Valley, in which you have the luxury of being able to ski both the Italian resort of La Thuile and the French resort, La Rosière. Location-wise, the hotel is brilliant: a 10-minute walk to the slopes and main ski lifts, or a short at-your-request shuttle ride. It’s a very sleepy resort, and to my liking, après-ski doesn’t really exist here. As soon as we stepped inside the hotel, we felt spoilt. Nira Montana feels rich and homely, with wood and stone interiors, a roaring fire in the lobby, low sofas, fine Italian furniture, and complimentary hot chocolate and mulled wine to welcome you and warm your cockles.
     
     
     
    We checked in and headed straight up to our room. All 55 rooms and suites have their own balconies, so you can sit outside and connect with nature, in awe of the grand, snowy surroundings. Though cold (!), I loved being out there to watch the sun fall over the mountains in the evenings.

    Our king-size bed allowed for maximum post-piste R&R! Every day after finishing on the slopes, we went to the supermarket to buy an €8 bottle of Prosecco and a bag of crisps, and had the most luxurious of early evenings sharing them in our room before dinner. The life!

     
     
     
    We had breakfast in the hotel every morning, which was great. The sophisticated buffet set us up for the day, with fresh fruit, hams and cheeses, boiled eggs, and a selection of Italian cakes. Come evening, the space becomes Stars Restaurant, at which we ate at on the second evening. It was stunning. The Italian restaurant uses the finest and freshest local ingredients for regional and seasonal focused menus. We lost count of our courses (something to do with the paired wines perhaps…!) but it was a truly delicious and special occasion.
     
     
     
     
    We never got round to trying it, but the bar area looked lovely too. In fact, there really are ample lounging spaces here, for those who don’t fancy hitting the piste all day, every day. 
     
    The boot room downstairs magically had our skis, snowboard and boots in it when we arrived — something we’d set up beforehand. Oh, the luxury of not having to queue at the ski shop! And not having to return skis to the shop every night gave us complete freedom. 
     
     
     
     
    Leaving the best bit until last though, let me tell you about the spa. Ahhh! Nira SPA is the dream (and known to be the nicest spa in the area). It’s simply beautiful, and in a sophisticated boutique hotel like this, reliably serene and quiet. In fact, we were probably the most boisterous ‘kids’ in the there! The beautiful warm pool looks out to mountains and has various massaging hydro-jets. There’s also a steam room, sauna, and relaxation lounge, plus a broad treatment menu if you’re so inclined. Never one to miss time in the pool, Ed and I hit the spa pre-ski and post-ski every day of our trip! It’s the most luxurious way to soothe those weary thighs! 
     
     

     

    Thinking about future trips already, I would definitely love to come back here, not least because the hotel was perfect but the resort was too. La Thuile is great for intermediate to advanced skiers – plenty of long, sometimes challenging blues, great reds, and pretty hairy backs runs too! Loved being able to ski over the border into France – very awesome. 

     
    We flew to Zurich from Gatwick with Swiss International Air Lines, who were brilliant — a world away from the budget carriers, though still with admirably low prices. Even flying short-haul, we got complimentary wine and a sandwich, and I loved the little touch of a ‘welcome’ Swiss chocolate bar when we boarded.

     

  • A Bank Holiday In Sicily With Booking.com

    June 3, 2015

    I went to Sicily with Booking.com to learn that sometimes, spontaneity is best. For a meticulous planner like myself, the idea of not booking a hotel at least 2 months before a trip is simply ludicrous. I like to have it all mapped out, know where I’m going and if possible, be paid up too so that when I’m there I don’t have to think about budgets. 

    Usually this approach is foolproof, but I can think of several occasions when my scrupulous planning has actually caused dilemmas and/or left me out of pocket. Take last summer, I pre-booked and paid for all of the hotels for a road trip from Slovenia to Split well in advance of our trip, planning for a 1 day here, 2 nights there and so on, according to various recommendations on forums, only to get there and realise that actually, maybe we want to spend an extra night here on the beach. And I certainly didn’t accommodate time for stumbling upon Electric Elephant festival and spending a couple of days there. In short, I ended up forking out way more for accommodation and wasted nights than I would have done if I’d just rolled with it.
     
     
    But how easy is it to just roll with it? The vision I can’t get out the back of my mind is that if I do just roll with it, I’ll end up in some grimy hostel, sharing a bunk with a stranger who keeps me up all night. And that ain’t no holiday to me… In reality, that’s not how it is…
     
    Encouraging me to leave my comfort zone Booking.com sent me on a trip — a mystery trip — not telling me the destination so I had no way of even researching properties let alone booking them. Oh god. Their new app is ultimately Tinder for hotels. You put in your filters and budgets and what not, and swipe as you like until you find a hotel you like the look of. You could do this months in advance and settle up the bill with just a few taps, you could generally browse in your lunch break, or like me, you could do it using airport wi-fi in the destination of your trip.
     
    I spent the whole flight fiddling with unease, before arriving at Catania airport in Sicily, finding a seat and some wi-fi and starting to frantically swipe away on my iPad, consciously lowering my expectations in preparation for a night in a hostel. In reality, I really had nothing to worry about. There were plenty of places left. Plenty of nice places left. Places I would have picked months ago that now had a savvy 40% off. Who’d’a thunk I’d be saving money by cutting things so fine? Not me that’s for sure. Granted, this probably isn’t the case for everywhere you visit. You’d be risking it to rock up at JFK expecting a cut-deal Manhattan hotel for that same night but for more off-the-beaten track destinations, ones that aren’t flooded with business travellers who’ll pay anything last minute, you can rest confident that you’ll get a good deal.
     
     
    Back in Catania, I wanted beach so I added that to my filters, swiped and found Grand Baia Verde Hotel - with 30% off the usual price I'll add — just 20 minutes out of the centre of Catania, on the coast and towards the northern village of Aci Castello. I booked both nights there and then, and jumped straight in a cab. Despite having only booked it a half hour before, it as all sorted on the booking system when I arrived and my room was ready immediately. So far, so good.
     
    My room on the ground floor was lovely. It had a private outdoor terrace, which was flooded with sunlight all day, a comfy bed and a spacious bathroom. The communal pool and patio area was the highlight, overlooking the ocean and with steps down to a rocky inlet of glistening, clear waters.
     
    Later on I decided I could probably do with being a little more central for the rest of my weekend so decided, as lovely as this hotel was, to cancel my second night and seek somewhere more central. There were no charges on Booking.com to cancel my second night, and a few swipes in I found the perfect option for the next night: an apartment just above the city’s main thoroughfare, Via Etnea. Ferrini Home was a completely unexpected delight. I figured there must be a catch for being just €99 the night before but I struggled to find one.
     
    Slap bang in the centre of the city this was a slick open-plan studio with a sunny balcony, wooden floors, modern bathrooms and kitchenette — complete with a complimentary bottle of Sicilian wine. Here I had free wi-fi, coffee, and a particularly helpful receptionist for the building who hooked me up with a tour of Etna and shared a whole bunch of dining recommendations. It was far more like an Airbnb, only I didn’t have to commit to it months before, could just stay the one night, and could pay up on departure.
     
     
    If you’re in the midst of planning next year's holidays and multiple-stop road trips, remember Booking.com has plenty of hotels and apartments with free cancellation up to 24-hours before too, so keep those in mind if you want some security, whilst keeping the flexibility. Otherwise, just wing it! And you’ll probably end up saving some of those precious pennies. 
     
     
    5 things to do in Catania:
     
    Stroll up Via Etnea popping in and out of Italian boutiques, stopping to look back and admire Mount Etna — there aren’t many shopping streets where you can do that, huh?
     
    Climb Mount Etna! An absolute must-do. Any hotel reception desk or tourist information office will be able to point you in the right direction of a tour. The smaller the tour group the better for a more immersive experience
     
    Eat arancini at Spinella. Those glorious risotto balls are a Sicilian speciality, and any local will tell you Spinella is the place to enjoy them.
     
    Get out of the centre and explore the pretty villages along the northern coast. Aci Castello is just a 30 minute bus ride away and a gorgeous little town to wander about in the evening. Be wowed by the black lava ‘beach’ — don’t go expect white sands...
     
    Soak up the sun in Orto Botanico, a public park and botanical gardens on Via Etnea. It’s the perfect place to kick back in and soak up the sun — especially when you’ve had one Aperol Spritz too many.
     

    This piece was created in partnership with Booking.com