The Travel Desk with Fionn Davenport

News, deals and holiday ideas


Desolation of Smaug

The imminent release of Peter Jackson’s second instalment of the Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug, will once again remind the world that New Zealand is bloody gorgeous.

The most impressive scenes (depicting the entrance to the Lonely Mountain) were filmed in North Island’s Tongariro & Whangui National Park (, but only after intense negotiations with the local Maori population, who believe the mountain summits are tapu or sacred. Needless to say, the park is one of the most visited natural attractions on the island.


Going on tour in New York City

The most popular tours in New York include a 9/11 memorial tour (, a guided visit to Ellis Island ( and a tour of locations used in movies and TV shows (, according to the city’s official tourist office ( There are more than 100 types of tours on offer. So you can walk in Carrie Bradshaw’s fashionable footsteps, visit the fire station from Ghostbusters or go to New Jersey to eat capicola Tony Soprano-style.

After 30 years of visiting the city (and living there for the guts of 11 years), I agreed to go on a couple with my girlfriend. On a snowy January morning we took Duke Ellington’s A train to 125th Street where we were going to take a Harlem Renaissance tour. In between soul food snacks we would attend a gospel service at the Canaan Baptist Church on 116th St and visit the Apollo Theater. Except it never happened. The snow turned into a blizzard so fierce the tour was cancelled.

We had better luck with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (97 Orchard St;; $22), a 19th-century tenement restored to look like it did when it was the overcrowded, unsanitary home to hundreds of newly arrived immigrants. We had the choice of a number of different stories: the Levine family garment workshop, one of thousands of sweatshops on the Lower East Side; the Italian Baldizzi family, who lived here until the Great Depression; or but we opted for the Irish Outsiders tour.

Joseph and Bridget Moore moved into a small, two-room apartment at 97 Orchard Street in 1869. The most poignant moment of the tour came when our guide told us of the death of the Moores’ baby daughter after she had drunk poisoned swill milk, which was sold to poor families by unscrupulous traders. Our guide pressed a button and we heard the sound of keening. She began to explain what it was, but we smiled and told her we knew. “Have you been here before?” she asked. “No, we’re Irish,” we said. She smiled in embarrassed surprise.

Northern Lights

With some experts predicting that solar activity in the Northern Hemisphere will reach an 11-year peak in January 2014, now is the time to see the Northern Lights, which apparently has taken over from the Great Barrier Reef and the Egyptian pyramids as top of the travellers’ bucket list. Thomas Cook ( is offering limited two-for-one Northern Lights Hurtigruten cruises from €1,029 for six days, with a second person travelling for free.


Five of the best steak restaurants in Europe

Bistecca alla Fiorentina is a Tuscan favourite, generally taken from local herds of Chianina or Maremmana cows. At its best, it’s a two-pound plus, two-inch thick slab of beef with no more seasoning than a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Scarperia, about 25km northwest of Florence, is best known for its production of knives; it’s also home to this exceptional restaurant, where you’ll eat as fine an example of a bistecca as there is in Tuscany, for no more than €30.
Via del Giogo 3, Scarperia, Tuscany;
tel: 0039-055- 846198

CUT, London
Your steak is brought to your table swathed in napkins, such is the delicacy of the prime wet- and dry-aged beef at Wolfgang Puck’s London steakhouse, a sister restaurant to the Beverly Hills original. The prized meats come from South Devon Angus, Darling Downs and Australian Wagyu: a 6oz Filet Mignon will cost £86.
45 Park Lane;

It’s worth making the effort to get to Léon in northwestern Spain, home to the country’s best asador. Owner José Gordón sticks to local herds for his fine T-bones, entrecôtes and sirloins, which are washed down with lashings of local red. Prices range from €16.50 for a fillet steak to €70 for the ‘El Capricho’ beef steak.
Paraje de la Vega, Jiménez de Jamuz, León;

This highly-rated Parisian steakhouse specialises in cuts from the Aubrac herds, which produce rich, marbled T-bones, entrecôtes and faux fillet. It’s literally yards from the Champs-Élysées and is open 24 hours a day. The 500g T-bone is €48. 37 rue Marbeuf, 8th;

OX, Braunschweig, Lower Saxony
If you happen to find yourself looking for a bit of meat in medieval Braunschweig, about 60km east of Hanover, then the best (only?) steakhouse in town does terrific cuts of American beef, which you can then wash down with one of its excellent selection of schnapps, served off a roving trolley. A decent filet will cost around €45.
Güldenstrasse 7,


Mobile App check-in

According to research by consumer specialists GroupM Next, 57 per cent of business travellers aged between 21 and 39 book their hotels on a smartphone. To get ahead of the curve, global hotel giant Marriot has rolled out a mobile app that allows guests to check in on their phones. Already available for 329 North American properties, last week it launched the app for 20 hotels in 19 countries: Marriott’s two Irish hotels, the Shelbourne and the Powerscourt, will come online in the first half of 2014. You can download the app at



€399: 7 nights in Balcon del Mar, Puerto del Carmen in Lanzarote. Departing January 12th; price pps,
€599: 14-night wine-and-food cruise to Azores and Caribbean departing April 20th from Miami. Price for cruise only, tel 01-5140336;
€1,799: Five-star, 10-day trip to China – Beijing, Suzhou and Shanghai. Price includes flights,
€2,199: 11-night escorted tour of Belgium, Luxembourg and Netherlands departs March; book now and save €233 off the €2,432 price,