The SUNDAY TIMES 'Travel Section'

My Hols 7 May 2000

Since his debut in the landmark borstal drama Scum, the actor Ray Winstone, 43, has made a career-long speciality of menacing characters, including Ray in Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth. He is currently renovating a house on the Essex/ Hertfordshire border, for himself, his wife, Elaine, and their two teenage daughters
I REMEMBER when I was a kid, I saw pictures of the Maldives - you know, palm trees on a beach - and I said: "I'm gonna go there. I don't care how I get there, but I'm gonna go there." And I got a cheque from a job I did and I said: "Right, we're going."

It lived up to every expectation. It was just amazing. The sea is like turquoise glass. It is the eighth wonder of the world. It's the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It's everything. And it's one of those places I know I'll go back to again and again and again.

The islanders are fantastic. They get a pittance and you're told not to tip 'em by the tour company. Don't spoil 'em. We went with Gary Oldman's sister, Mo, and her husband, Jim, and this little guy who was looking after us, we each gave him £100. And I suppose it's like a year's wages, but he can send his kid off to school now, and that's not us being good or anything, it's just a thing you do. I mean this guy really looked after us.

We used to go out on boat trips in this dhoni - that's what they call it - and there are loads of islands that are deserted, and he'd take the family out for the day to this deserted island. And he'd catch fish and cook them for us - there on the beach.

You could walk out for miles, it seemed, up to your waist. I remember standing there and I could hear this noise behind me. Whoosh. I turned round and this thing, this marlin or swordfish, whatever it was, dived out of the water behind me and straight over the reef. Now it's one thing seeing that on telly, but seeing it for real... And I turned round and realised that nobody else had seen it and I was gutted, because you want to share it. It was fantastic... unbelievable.

Another time, I was snorkelling with the kids and this shark came in. A little shark, about as tall as my youngest, swimming about. And I went over to the kids and - it's amazing how calm you become - I put them behind me. Someone else might have put them in front, I suppose. But we just watched this shark circle around us, about a hundred yards away. Then away it went.

It was an experience I will remember and treasure for the rest of my life. It was ... as it should be.

I shall go back there. I want to do a shoot there. I keep coming up with these story ideas and they're all set in the Maldives, but so far I haven't been able to get anyone interested.

But one of my favourite holidays was in Newquay. There's a hotel called the Atlantic. I went with my family and my mate Karl Howman - you know, Brush Strokes, Babes in the Wood and all that. And he'd taken his family and we were in a 100mph gale. This hotel was run by... well, they were fabulous people, but it was a bit like a cross between Fawlty Towers and the Addams Family. You went in the bathroom and it was so big and draughty you could fly a kite.

There was always some event going on in the evening, like a fashion show - you can imagine what a fashion show in Newquay was like - and old-time singers. It was the funniest holiday I've ever had. I never stopped laughing from the minute we got there.

I love Scotland as well. A couple of years ago, at new year, a few of us rented the west wing of this big old house in Tarbert, on the west coast. On New Year's Eve, just before midnight, the door opened and four people walked in. It turned out to be Lord Irvine's son and all that mob. They were really good people, A bit "chappy" - not like the Labour party you'd expect, but then that was before the Labour party got in.

We sold the cars once, to go to Florida. We were all skint. But it was more important to get away than to have a car. You can always buy another car when you come home. We had four weeks over Christmas and New Year. It was just something I wanted to do... the idea of having Christmas dinner and a Christmas tree round the pool.

Florida was one of the best places for fishing. I'm not a fisherman really, but we chartered a boat and we caught 120 fish. There were these two puffer fish we called the Dangerous Brothers. They used to come up to the top of the water and we'd catch one, and the other one would keep following us. So we'd put the first one back and then we'd catch the other one. And it went on like this. We kept putting them back, but every time we caught one of them you could see his mate getting the hump. It was almost like they should have had dark glasses and porkpie hats.

I always think it's better to rent a villa or a house. In a hotel, you've got to worry about what everyone else thinks or whether you're being too loud in the bar and upsetting someone. I like to be a little bit loud when I go away. As you can imagine.

I love architecture and Barcelona's one of my favourite cities. That is one great city. I love New York, too. I like to go round places like Harlem and the Bronx. I just put an old coat on and have a walk about. I want to see the real places. I don't just want to see where the holidaymakers go. In LA, I walked around Watts. Probably quite dangerous. I had a walk down the Falls Road, in Belfast, about eight years ago. I must have been completely insane. But I want to see a city for what it is.

There are places I would never have gone to if I hadn't been an actor, like Agua Amarga, where we filmed Sexy Beast. There were times when I really got the hump with Spain. I was going to Puerto Banus quite a bit and it's like Bethnal Green in the sun. But Agua Amarga is in a national park, a little village set right by the sea. It was absolutely stunning.

There's all these places and they're just there for everyone to see. I've even taken my kids out of school to go on holiday, because I think it's that important. They can speak French and some German, and I'm really pleased about that. I only speak English . . . and I even have a bit of trouble with that.

Ray Winstone talked to Chris Gill

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