The Most Beautiful Places to Wake-up
Consider travel. Why on earth do we do it? It’s a very masochistic endeavour: deciding where to go, finding time to do it, overpaying agents, waiting at airports, delayed flights, aeroplane food, foreign languages, nowhere looking like it did in the brochure. What are we actually looking for? It’s so obvious, we never think to ask. Perhaps it’s the old cliché of escapism, or even worse, broadening the mind. If you know any holiday reps or air stewards, you’ll know this isn’t true. No matter how many times they work the London-Singapore-Perth route, they never get cleverer, more temperate or more rounded. So, maybe it’s for that one moment; that epiphanic snapshot of subjective beauty, forever imprinted on the mind’s eye. Or perhaps it’s just for the sunburn and cocktails. Either way, here are our most beautiful places to open your eyes to.
Swiss Cottage, Emma Inglis
When Georgina, Duchess of Bedford, chose to indulge her passion for the Alps and build a Swiss cottage in the grounds of her Devonshire Estate in the nineteenth century, she found a spot of incomparable beauty. Tucked into a wooded fold, high above the River Tamar, her cottage ornée has breathtaking views of a forested landscape from its eerie position nestled into the hillside.
Swiss Cottage is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. It is basic and simple, and furnished accordingly with sympathetic period pieces a la Suisse. But what it lacks in amenities, it more than makes up for in for charm. On a recent visit, I woke to the sound of the river and opened my leaded window to see the white-winged tips of an egret flit past. There was a pretty Swiss bowl in which to have my coffee and the wooden veranda, with the Tamar glinting below, seemed the perfect place to sit and drink it.
A short walk away is the Duchess’s former home, Endsleigh House, now an intimate hotel owned by a branch of the Forte Group, where I managed to grab breakfast served with deference by bibbed and tuckered waiting staff. I couldn’t help thinking that it was a breakfast of which the Duchess and her Duke would have approved – piping hot tea served in silver teapots and a choice of kippers or devilled kidneys on a hearty breakfast menu. After breakfast, I strolled back along the Gatsbyesque lawn to my Alpine hideaway, passing the Duchess’s ornate summerhouse embedded with shells and crystals, which clearly gave her as much pleasure as her little Swiss cottage.
Not before, nor since, have I woken in such a beautiful, perfect place.
Amsterdam, Laith Al-Kaisy
I can’t actually recall a beautiful morning. When I try, I imagine a scene from a postcard or a film – a consensual idea of beauty. It’s not as if I haven’t travelled. On the contrary, I could probably recount every place, every airport, every train, every hotel, every meal, every beach, every crazy local, every woman, every passport confiscation (Serbia-Croatia border, obviously), but I’ll be damned if I can remember waking up to beauty. The closest I’ve come to it is Amsterdam – though it was more a case of staying awake than waking up.
You’d find a prostitute before a pint of milk at the Oudezijds Voorburgwal Canal. This neck of Amsterdam prides itself on being culturally residual, like marooned silt left on the delta of society, as art and intellectualism evolved and escaped to other parts of the city. Its beauty is its honesty – and like any place or person, it’s most honest first thing in the morning.
At 5am, there are two groups of people: the workers and the stragglers; the bakers and the boozers. The atmosphere is paradoxical: the ethereal transition between dusk and dawn is foreboding, yet it’s just light enough to feel safe. Ink blot shadows scurry along the canal and walkways without sound. Quietness pervades the airless, utilitarian streets. If you’ve ever experienced an empty city – a city in a coma – you’ll understand the bliss.
As the sun vies for attention and the moon gently wanes, that’s when the city is aesthetically faultless. The smell is bread and pastry. Light smothers the canal and glazes the windows of the quaint, gabled buildings – it could quite easily be a village. Thinking back, of course it’s beautiful, in the way that most things beyond presumption are beautiful.
A beautiful place, then, is nothing to do with a picture on a postcard, or gilded sands with azure waters, or five-star hotels removed from reality. For me, it’s a city at its most bare and vulnerable; a city with its lid off and its lights out. The most precious and pulchritudinous thing about this little spot in Amsterdam is innate. It’s not contrived, advertised or explicable. It just is.
Too hard to choose, Graeme Morpeth
In my lover’s arms, with her satin smooth skin, and long tresses draped over me in languid, post-coital peace… the view across the balcony showing the last vestiges of sunset across the Andaman sea, fading quickly to that wonderful rich purple blackness that is the night sky in the tropics.
The Ed did ask me – though I think he was thinking about geography, rather than biology – to paint the picture. In truth, there are so many stunning places, it would be difficult to name but one, so perhaps a couple of locations to suit the mood might offer a better solution.
For the adventurer in me – and this will be during late August, and early September – a tent on the foothills of the Himalayas, at about 18,000 feet, close to Leh in the Ladakh region; scrambling out of my sleeping bag, rousing my companion (see above) and savouring the crystal clear air, bright sunshine, and the absolute quiet of the moment. A quick dip in the local stream with the water at about 1ºC, enough to blast away the cobwebs of sleep – for miles. And then it’s into the groove: tea and lots of porridge for breakfast before setting off trekking, following in the footsteps of Isabella Bird, the most famous female Victorian explorer.
To cater for my sybaritic side (and see above again): waking to the sound of the Aegean slapping gently on the hull of a tall ship moored off one of the countless Greek islands; a skinny dip before breakfast, then up to savour fresh brewed coffee, croissants and fruit to finish; and then another day tracing tales of brave Ulysses in the fabled Aegean Sea.
Now, excuse me, I need to go back to the beginning, she’s starting to feel neglected.
St. Petersburg, Emma Hare
As a former resident of St. Petersburg, I can tell you with some authority to cast out the image of grey communist tower blocks from your mind. This is a beautiful, chaotic place – a vibrant collision of modernity and tradition.
St. Petersburg is Moscow’s younger, prettier sister. Called the Venice of the North, because of the network of canals running through it, the city is more accessible and more upbeat than Moscow, which is an eight hour train ride away. (But if you’re looking to take a trip, trust me, in Russia, that’s not far.)
Right at the heart of St. Petersburg is Nevsky Prospect, my home for six months, and my favourite place in the world. Nevsky is the main street in the city, with a dizzying array of high-end shops, little cafes and the odd architectural masterpiece thrown in (the Hermitage and the Church on the Spilt Blood, to name just two). In summer, during the White Nights, when the sun literally doesn’t set, my friends and I would happily spend hours taking a sophisticated bar crawl down Nevsky, drinking far too many White Russians.
When winter hits Nevsky, a whole other side is revealed. Whilst temperatures plummet, brave Russian women hit the streets in mini-skirts and furs, and nip into cafes for a cognac to stave off the cold. Tourists scuttle into hotels to hole up away from the snow. Unlike them, the snow was always a welcome sight to me – winter changes Nevsky, and in spectacular fashion. There is no more beautiful place to be in the world than on Nevsky Prospect, watching the snow cover up the dirt of the city at the end of a long day. With a cognac in hand, of course.
Zermatt, Peter Robinson
There is something about Alpine air that’s really quite distinct. When you’re from England, you’re not used to regular snowfall and, as such, regress to a childlike state when presented with stereotypical winter weather.
So, upon arriving in Zermatt one December evening, despite everyone’s generally chipper demeanour due to the abundance of ‘travelling gin’, my sunny disposition was due to the fact that it was my first holiday on snow.
As we had arrived late that evening, under the cover of darkness and cloud, there was little to see of the grand Swiss mountain range. After the hilarity of the hot-tub, friends slipping on frozen stone and champagne, we fell into bed.
I awoke the following morning to a cup of fresh coffee being placed gently on my bedside table by one of the staff and rolled over to see a truly breathtaking vista: the sun rising over the Matterhorn. At 14,690 feet, the Matterhorn is an impressive site and dominates the skyline of the canton of Valais. I rallied every sober part of my body towards my time-lapse camera and bolted it to my balcony; these were scenes that couldn’t be missed. As I stood there, even though my feet were getting ever closer to that of adventurer Ranulph Fiennes and slowing freezing to the deck, I was transfixed by the Matterhorn. When I ascended the chalet stairs after coffee, it was reminiscent of Spielberg’s scene from Close Encounters when Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon finally see Devil’s Mountain. Everyone was transfixed, as if they were being called to gaze out the window.
Luckily, this moment of cinematic gold was broken by the sound of the chef placing his platter of smoked salmon onto the oak dining table. Ours was a shared experience – but one that none of us will soon forget.
Cancun, Huw Thomas
When I think back on the best place I have ever regained consciousness, it’s hard to get past the week my wife and I spent in a cabin on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. South of the high-rises of Cancun, it was a glimpse of what the mega-resort must have been like before it was swamped by large-scale tourist development. For someone whose formative seaside experiences revolved around the grey skies and sands of Aberystwyth in Mid Wales, the impossibly blue waters and miles of pristine white beach were revelatory.
The cabin itself, though comfortable, was far from luxurious. Its lukewarm saltwater shower and dim, solar-powered lighting would have been totally out of place in any of the glitzier hotels further up the coast. The only air conditioning came from gaps between the planks of the wooden walls, which allowed the cooling sea breeze to flow through. But Cancun’s concrete monstrosities could not rival its setting. Lying directly on a mostly deserted beach, a 30-metre walk from the door would find you up to your waist in the ocean.
The sound of the sea was a constant presence. It lulled us to sleep every night and eased us back into wakefulness every morning. Some days would begin with a pre-breakfast dip in the surf, nature’s own hangover cure. If we were feeling less energetic, it was the work of a moment to open the cabin’s door and watch the crashing waves from the comfort of bed. The unspoilt location allowed an unusual proximity to nature. Pelicans fished along the shore and land crabs would make a nightly pilgrimage from the tree line to the sea. We once found a gecko in our bathroom.
In an average hotel, such a reptilian interloper would be a cause of great concern. There, it felt like part of the experience. It all comes down to what you’re looking for in a place to stay. For some it’s round the clock room service and hot tubs, for us it was the possibility of coming face to face with wildlife while in the shower. In a choice between real or manufactured paradise, I’d make the same decision every time.