Posts in Cultural Holidays
India - Maharajah style

India has always been considered a land of riches and abundance. No wonder it has been an apple of discord for so many nations for centuries. I had a privilege to experience India in what I can only describe as Maharajah style. In India they take luxury to a whole new level. The hotels, both newly built and converted palaces are just so opulent that they leave you speechless. Service was the best I have ever seen anywhere.We started our journey in Delhi, where I had a chance to stay in two completely different properties. The first one is a legend in its own right, The Imperial.

It is such a significant landmark, filled with historical artefacts and pieces of art, that staying there or indeed even visiting for a drink or a meal is a must. I should but mention their famous restaurant the Spice Route, deservedly one of the best restaurants in the world.

The second hotel that I really enjoyed is a newly renovated Oberoi New Delhi. The hotel has just reopened after almost two years and has a fresh and a modern look as opposed to the colonial Imperial. They also have something that no one else in Delhi can boast - a rooftop bar with incredible views and chilled ambiance. Fancy having a glass of champagne there?!

As a city, Delhi, is a curious mix of old and new. Even the two parts of the city - The Old Delhi and the New Delhi - differ so much in style and character that it’s like visiting two separate cities.

After Delhi we, of course, headed to Agra, located just under two hours away by train. Agra is home to the greatest monument ever created for love, the gorgeous Taj Mahal. If you do not want to rush back, why not overnight in Oberoi Amarvilas? This is the only hotel that offers a view of Taj Mahal. It really is very special!

Four hours later, and we are in Jaipur! The city is bustling and full colours and sounds. It had always been a rich city famous for its gems, palaces and eccentric maharajahs. In fact, I don’t think I have seen so many palaces withinn a square mile anywhere else in the world!

Speaking about attractions I can mention the magnificent Amber fort, The City Palace, the iconic Hawa Mahal as well as it’s bazaars. Rumour has it that the pink city itself is going to become a UNESCO heritage site soon.

When it comes to accommodation, you are just spoilt for choice. I really enjoyed my stay at Oberoi Rajvilas but was equally impressed by Taj Rambagh Palace. Both have an incredible atmosphere, especially in the evening. Both hotels offer you the experience of traditional Indian dancing at its best. Another two places that I have to mention due to their character and charm are Samode Haveli, if you are after a truly immersive experience right in the city centre and Sujan Rajmahal Palace, one of the oldest and most treasured palaces in the ‘Pink City’ of Jaipur.

After Jaipur we made our way to Udaipur, a city often referred to as Indian Venice. I could certainly see the resemblance! I loved the atmosphere of the city as well as beautiful views of the lake. I had a privilege of staying at the famous Taj Lake Palace. It is indeed a place to experience! Even going to the hotel by boat sets you in a certain mood of anticipation! All rooms are totally unique due to ancient architecture, after all the palace is over 400 years old!

If time allows and you need to recharge your batteries or wish to experience Indian countryside at its best RAAS Devigarhis the place to be.

It’s a stunning hill-top fort palace that has been fantastically restored into a luxurious, sophisticated and romantic retreat. I can see myself coming there to write my memoirs or some such thing, the pace is slow and the mountainous scenery is so beautiful and peaceful.

After Udaipur it was time to go back to Delhi and take an onward flight back to London. I can’t wait to go back and discover other parts of this magnificent country.

If you are interested to travel to India, give us a call on tel 0208 675 7878 or email info@travelmatters.co.ukMaryna travelled to India with Travel Matters in September 2018.

South Africa - one of the most spectacular countries in the world

There is no denying that South Africa is one of the most spectacular countries in the world. Distances are vast covering areas that not only differ in terrain, but also in climate and flora and fauna. And there is no better way to discover a country than on a road trip.

My husband and I have just returned from the most magical trip to the country having covered over 5,000 km. It was incredible to see how the country was slowly changing along the way from Cape Town to Johannesburg.

I’m always curious to see what countries look like outside the busy season. My conclusion is that South Africa in our summer months (their winter) is not only not lacking in anything but in many ways provides a superior experience.

The easiest answer is that rates are much more attractive and crowds are greatly reduced. The foliage is not as thick and allows for a better wildlife viewing. In their winter months the risk of malaria is significantly lower. In fact, I haven’t seen any mosquitoes at all! Winter is also the time when most snakes are hibernating. The last but not the least, the weather is very pleasant. During the day the temperatures in Kruger park area can go as high as 25-30 degrees, which is much preferred to 40 degrees that you would get in summer months.

Temperatures do drop as soon as the sun goes down but then you will be welcomed by a merry fireplace upon arrival from your game drive.

Since South Africa is such a big country, it is very difficult to cram all the information in so I decided to split my blog in two, writing about Eastern and Western capes separately.

We started our Eastern cape adventure with a stay at the Fugitive’s Drift Lodge. Traveling is extremely educational and some accommodation can be not only comfortable and gorgeous but also an experience in itself. One of them is definitely Fugitives' Drift Lodge and Guest House. Just wow! I wasn’t so impressed in a long time! It is THE place to stay if you want to learn more about the Anglo-Zulu War. I went on their Rorke’s Drift battle tour, the battle immortalised by the film Zulu. The talented guides will paint such a vivid picture of the events that it will leave you deeply moved. The accommodation varies from very comfortable and affordable to luxurious and all options have terraces with spectacular views. Guests are encouraged to explore the extensive grounds. It is very safe as they have no predators, but you are guaranteed to meet giraffes, zebras, kudus and impalas.

Our next stop was the kingdom of Swaziland or Eswatini as it is now known. I was really gutted that we only had one night to spend in this little country. Swazis are known for loving their king and why wouldn’t they? The country is extremely well run. As soon as you enter you see anti-corruption posters. The country is extremely clean, there are bins everywhere as well as signs urging people to keep the country clean. In addition, litter pickers clean the streets every morning. From what I have seen, Swaziland is a good producer of timber, but they do not just hack out all their forests without thinking about tomorrow. They plant special timber types and once one area gets cleared out they re-plant it with new young trees, so that they have a constant supply. The country itself is beautiful and people are just so helpful and smiley. The standard of living is good for Africa but if you go off the beaten track inland you will still find these charming traditional mud huts.

Swaziland is known for its safaris and culture, but not many people know that around Pig’s Peak you can also find ancient rock paintings. The Nsangwini Rock Shelter is the largest example of San art in the country and is said to provide the most comprehensive display in Swaziland.

4000 years ago, the San people used this Highveld area for spiritual rituals and for recording iconic moments in their lives through etchings on the ancient rocks. The paintings are remarkably clear and informative interpretations are given by members of the Nsangwini community, who manage and maintain the site.

The drive to the place is spectacular, mostly on orange soiled forest roads dotted with local houses.

The next day we made our way to the town of Graskop which serves as a gateway to the beautiful Panorama Route. It must have been one of our favourite places in South Africa. Allow at least two days to explore as the sites are numerous and the views are just to die for! The most notable stops are The God’s Window, Three Rondavels Viewpoint and Bourke’s Luck Potholes.

No trip to South Africa is complete without a safari and we managed to experience it two different ways, both with an experienced guide and a self-drive at the Kruger national park.

First, we spent two unforgettable nights at the Garonga Safari camp, situated in the Makalali Conservancy. The camp consists of the main camp with just six luxury tents as well as the Little Garonga offering three luxury suites, and that’s where we were very lucky to stay.

Safari drives always involve a fair share of luck and boy did we get lucky on our very first drive, where we witnessed a pride of lions devouring a giraffe with hyenas and vultures waiting for their turn nearby.

Or how about three rhinos grazing peacefully right in front of our jeep?

If you can’t afford to stay in a luxury lodge but are still keen to see wildlife, self-drive in Kruger is an excellent option. It is safe and easy, once you follow all the instructions. Or you can arrange a game-drive with a local guide at the reserve. Expect to see tons of zebras, kudus, impalas, elephants and giraffes. Wildebeests, rhinos, lions, buffalos and hippos are relatively easy to spot as well, but you may need to go several times. As always cheetahs and leopards are very elusive, but you are very likely to see them if you spend a few days there.

Our last stop before heading home was Johannesburg, also known as Joburg, Jozi and the City of Gold. The city that wasn’t supposed to be there if it were not for the discovery of gold, but now the second biggest city in Africa after Cairo. Impressive considering it is only over 120 years old. It is away from any source of water and is also relatively high at 1753 meters giving some people slight altitude sickness. These days the water to the city comes all the way from the mountains of Lesotho around 300 km away. Johannesburg is also home to the Cradle of Humankind.

We stayed at the Four Seasons the Westcliff. Having had a tour of the city, I don’t think you can be located in a better position. The area is safe, green and provides excellent views. The hotel is an oasis of calm and luxury in this hectic city. Having a glass of wine on the balcony and enjoying the views and the sun was such a bliss! As always, the service and the standard of accommodation was impeccable! Highly recommended.

Look out for the part two of my blog!

Maryna travelled to South Africa in June 2018. You can speak to her in the agency from Monday to Friday.

Santa Eularia des Riu - Ibiza

Santa Eularia des Riu is one of Ibiza's five municipalities and is the second largest region in Ibiza. Located on the Eastern shore, it also includes an impressive stretch of coastline with more than 20 beaches as well as rural farmland. It's a corner of the island far removed from the clubs of San Antonio opting for a brand of tourism that is respectful to the environment while honouring local roots and traditions. All elements close to our hearts here at Travel Matters. The area also focuses on family holidays and it was this aspect of the region that I set out to find out more about over the first Bank Holiday weekend.

Santa Eularia des Riu is the first municipality in the Balearic Islands to implement a family tourism seal guaranteeing that hotels, restaurants and attractions fulfil the needs and specific requirements for families.  Hotels with the seal have a long list of requirements to fulfil, too many to name them all but they include providing children's entertainment, child-proof wall sockets in rooms and common areas, children's menus in dining rooms and buffets, cots, baby baths, doors that do not catch little fingers. Every thought has been given to a child's safety, well being and enjoyment and if your child is protected and content, then there’s every chance you are going to be as well! This new initiative focusing on the family market is known as 'Family Moments'.

Es Figueral Beach

Es Figueral Beach

Most families will be visiting the region for the 46 km of sun-soaked pristine beaches with crystal-clear waters thanks to the sea grass growing on the coastal bed. The gently shelving water is a plus and I loved the fact that the Santa Eularia beach is the first non-smoking beach in the Balearic Islands. No danger of your toddler digging up cigarette butts when making sandcastles here. Santa Eularia also has some of the best gelato parlors I've come across outside of Italy. 

The beach of Cala Llonga (my personal favourite) has been certified with the Universal Accessibility IS 17001.  Basically this means that the beach is fully accessible for people with mobility issues, from the parking area to the sea including a service of assisted bathing with amphibious wheelchairs and crutches.  We're keen here at Travel Matters to promote multi-generational holidays and Cala Llonga would be a good resort to visit, if travelling with a grand-parent with mobility issues.

I was based for my stay in Santa Eularia itself at two contrasting hotels who have signed their commitment to the 'Family Moments'programme. The first Hotel Riomar is located just metres from the beach, with magnificent sea views and is a good starting point for the 3.1 km 'River Route' taking in highlights of the town's cultural, historical and natural attractions. On the other side of the bay, Aguas de Ibiza is a luxury design hotel with a free spa, outdoor pool and rooftop bar with views of the marina and the island of Formentera. This 5 star, all white, contemporary hotel, although fulfilling the family seal requirements would also make an excellent choice for an adult only mini break.

However, the big hitter, the grand dame so to speak of family focused hotels in the region is the Invisa Figueral Resort including Invisa Hotel Club Cala Verde and Invisa Hotel Club Cala Blanca www.invisahoteles.com. Located 10 km from Santa Eularia on Es Figueral beach, one of the finest on the island and with a good range of nautical activities - the likes of paddle surfs, canoes and pedalos. The hotel has some excellent family rooms, a water park that looked enormous fun for both adults and children and even the children's buffet had me drooling.

Santa Eularia des Riu was the cradle of the hippie movement on the island. If you have teens in tow then a trip to the hippy market every Saturday at Las Dalias in San Carlos is an absolute must. There are no shortage of stalls selling the sort of festival gear, peasant blouses and flower braids that are currently enormously popular and a fraction of the price you'll find at one of our local chichi boutiques or at this summer's festivals. I went crazy for the jewellery, stocking up my present draw for years to come. The biggest market though is the Punta Arabi Hippy Market on Wednesdays in Es Cana, but more touristy and the quality perhaps not quite as good. Toddlers on the other hand might enjoy a visit to Eco Finca Can Muson, www.ibizacanmuson.com also part of the Family Moments charter. This is a charming, simple rural farm where your little ones can feed the chickens and goats whilst you indulge in the delicious home-made cakes!

However, the undoubted highlight of my visit was the fact I was there for the May fiesta, the main celebration being the first Sunday in May. Next year on May 5th and a visit could easily be combined with the May bank holiday. There is folk dancing, a long procession of carts decked out in flowers and ribbons, people wearing traditional dress, flower shows, basically folklore fun for all the family. If there's something the Spanish do very well, then it's their fiestas. I tend to go to one a year (last year the Semana Santa celebrations in Madrid) and this was one of the most joyous and heart-warming I have ever attended.

Petra with traditionally dressed ladies at the May fiesta

Petra with traditionally dressed ladies at the May fiesta

In 1912, the painter Laurea Barrau remarked on Santa Eularia des Riu that, "Everything here is more beautiful than I could have imagined. A painter's entire life can be found here" This was my first visit to Ibiza and I too found the region not only very beautiful (the wild flowers were out in profusion) but welcoming, warm and above all particularly child friendly.

To find out more about the region visit http://visitsantaeulalia.com/en/

Petra visited Ibiza in May 2018.

Reeling from a trip to Rajasthan

I was excited as well as eager to return to India after several years. I had travelled to Goa for the beaches and Karnataka in my 20’s, enjoying the World Heritage listed buildings of Hampi, which are set among extraordinary volcanic boulders. Back then, I remember we had to hitch a lift on the back of a lorry for a five hour road trip as the public bus had broken down! I visited Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in my 30’s stopping at Agra, Gwalior, Varanasi and Delhi (that trip was done in a bit more style and class) -  so it was high time to visit Rajasthan in my 40’s, travelling in luxury with a favourite specialist to accompany me. My anticipation was fit to burst.

After arriving in Mumbai, we headed to our first hotel, the majestic Taj Mahal Palace & Towers. If you can, try to stay in the Palace Wing of the property. This hotel has seen many a famous person walk through her doors and the gallery of photos along the corridors are well worth a look if you have time.

Mumbai is also known as Bombay.  It’s the commercial and entertainment capital of India. It’s a city with vibrant street life, some of India's best nightlife and a wealth of bazaars & shops. We were guided around on a heritage tour taking in the art deco cinema, gothic and Victorian style buildings, the lanes of old Colaba, the Kala Ghoda art district ending at the Times of India Building opposite Victoria Terminus.

Mumbai’s long association with the British is reflected in the old-world charm of its buildings. The well-known landmark of the Gateway of India is located on the waterfront - an arch 26 metres high and was the spectacular view from my hotel room at the Taj Mahal Palace.

While in Mumbai, we took a visit to the laundry quarters – the Dhobi Ghat, the only one of its kind in world. Prepare yourself – it’s enough to make you feel very humble and grateful for the technical privileges we have with most of us having a washing machine in our our homes. The bustling Crawford market and Mangaldas Market, the largest indoor cloth market in the city are also well worth a visit. I found it fascinating to see the dabbawallas or tiffin wallas in action as we walked around Mumbai. I learnt that the lunch boxes are picked up in the late morning from the train, delivered predominantly using bicycles and returned empty in the afternoon. Its almost a seamless operation.

Next stop was the JAWAI Leopard Camp. This gorgeous tented camp is completely immersed in Rajastani countryside. We arrived after sunset so the welcome of lanterns and candlelight pathways was truly magical. It’s a rambler's and twitcher’s paradise.

Jawai’s diversity of birdlife is both resident and migratory. A walk with a Rabari herdsman leaves you spell bound as you sense the shepherds’ connection with the land and the animals he guides across the rocky landscape.

The Rabari have shared this land with wildlife for centuries and the experience at Jawai will only leave you with deep respect for life in rural Rajasthan. You may be fortunate to find the leopards who roam wild and free in this unspoilt wilderness also. We were lucky!

Next point of call was a stay at the Serai. A sister property to Jawai, it is an oasis of calm and a place of rest and rejuvenation in the desert. The property stands proud with luxury tents surrounding solid walls carved in sandstone. It was the local craftsman who worked with the stone and they built a gorgeous central pool in a towering inverted step well. Truly beautiful!

It is from the Serai that we drove to Jaisalmer. No trip is complete without a visit to Jaisalmer. The golden city was founded in 1156 A.D. built 80 m high on Trikuta hill. Jaisalmer was well protected due to the hostile landscape and Bhati Rajputs, who are known for their valor and chivalry. They levied taxes on the caravans that traveled the ancient spice route on their way to Delhi and went on rampage over the nearby fortress acquiring huge wealth for the city. Not only the royalties but also the merchants benefited and they displayed their wealth in their beautiful havelis. Today this desert city is famous for its intricately carved havelis and old Jain temples. The sand dunes make it one of the most important tourist destinations in the country and a ride on a camel is a must!

From Jaisalmer, we headed to Jodhpur. A popular city, featuring many palaces, forts and temples. It is set in the stark landscape of the Thar Desert. Jodhpur is referred to as the Blue City due to the blue-painted houses around the Mehrangarh Fort. Jodhpur lies near the geographic centre of Rajasthan state, which makes it a convenient base for travel in a region. The old city of Jodhpur is surrounded by a thick stone wall. We experienced a surprise excursion in a vintage car to the Mehrangarh fort before being driven back to the hotel by tuk tuk. Such glamour!

It was from this point in my trip that I sincerely felt like I had become a member of the royal family! Built between 1928 and 1943, Umaid Bhawan Palace, our base for the next couple of nights, is a magnificent piece of Rajasthan’s heritage and a symbol of new Jodhpur. It’s home to the Jodhpur royal family and currently the world’s sixth-largest private residence.

The staff treat their guests like royalty too. Drums, bells, trumpets on each guest arrival, wined and dined under the stars after a magnificent firework display – it was hard not to feel dizzy with the detail and fuss made of our group. I was so overwhelmed by the Indian hospitality, I struggled to hold back tears of gratitude.I love India and am truly smitten by her lure. I will be returning. Kerala is next on my list.

Karen travelled with Nikhil Chhibber from Western Oriental accompanied with other travel business owners. You can find out more about this trip if you call the agency 0208 675 7878 and speak to her or by dropping an email on info@travelmatters.co.uk.

Amalfi

When it comes to Easter breaks many travellers decide in favour of long haul destinations like the Middle East or the Caribbean. The Canaries are also a firm favourite, but other parts of Europe often get overlooked, as many assume it won’t be warm enough. Well…. I beg to differ having just come back from the famed Amalfi coast.

I have spent two very special days in Ravello, and think that April is a fantastic time to travel – the rates are not as inflated as in the summer, the streets are free and everything is in bloom of fragrant wisterias. We were fortunate to have a perfect t-shirt weather and some of us even needed sunscreen to keep them from burning in the sun.

I can’t recommend Ravello enough – its cobbled streets are incredibly charming and the views are spectacular. Not to mention that it is also ideal for those looking for a bit of culture, as there is a number of events held throughout the year and Pompeii is only a short drive away. No wonder that this medieval hilltop village remains one of the top wedding destinations. It is just impossible to take a bad picture there!

I had Palazzo Avino as my base – what a lucky girl I am! It is a stunning five-star deluxe hotel built in what was once a 12th century private villa for an Italian noble family and opened as a hotel in 1997. Palazzo Avino has been landed as one of the world’s finest hotels and boasts one-star Michelin dining. The views from my room were to die for and made my prosecco taste even better! Everything in the hotel is of the highest standard imaginable, starting with the impeccable service and luxurious furnishings and finishing with fine cuisine.

Talking of fine cuisine, taking a cooking lesson at the famous Nonna Orsola cook school is a great activity for the whole family, that can be arranged privately as well as a part of a group. Your lesson starts with a visit to their organic garden where seasonal vegetables get picked and then transformed into mouth-watering dishes under the supervision of Vincenzo, their charming and highly entertaining chef.

I learned a tremendous amount about Mediterranean cooking and how to cook very light and simple but tasty. Or how does making your own mozzarella sound? The whole process is a really good fun, not to mention that you will be acquiring a life-long skill.

No trip to the Amalfi coast or Naples is complete without going to Pompeii, a vast archaeological site that once was a thriving Roman city and got buried in meters of ash and pumice after the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius. The site really is impressive as some parts are very well preserved and give a valuable insight into what the city’s everyday life looked like. I didn’t expect Pompeii to be quite so large with numerous streets and a huge main square.

Visitors can explore the excavated ruins freely but I highly recommend hiring a guide. How else would I found out which buildings were shops or fast food stores, bakeries or laundry rooms? Or a very interesting fact that they used fresh urine for doing laundry and there was a special person collecting it around the city. No wonder that the laundry service was quite pricy!

Maryna travelled to the Amalfi coast with Highlife Marketing in April 2017. Call us on Tel 0208 675 7878 or email info@travelmatters.co.uk for prices and availability to the Amalfi coast.  

Vietnam & Cambodia

This guest blog is written by Mark Luboff who travelled with us in March 2017 to Vietnam & Cambodia.Arranged magnificently for us by Karen and her splendid team at Travel Matters and through the good offices of their associate partner, Go Barefoot, the Luboffs travelled the length and breadth of Viet Nam and Cambodia in just over three weeks in March/April 2017.

Hanoi is a busy, bustling city, full of noise, particularly the sound of scooter horns! It has a population of 8m and over 4m scooters and motor bikes! Uncle Ho is in his Mausoleum – the Russians we were told give him a makeover every two years!

Make sure you take a cyclo trip round the Old Quarter as this gives you a fascinating view of the hustle and bustle from street level. Personally, not sure you need to see the Water Puppet Show however – maybe just so you know exactly what it involves.

Our overnight stay on a junk exploring Bai Tu Long Bay was awesome – definitely worth escaping the more crowded Hu Long Bay. The limestone crags are impressive and at the same time almost mystical to wake up to in early morning. We kayaked and cave visited but really just loved cruising the waters and watching the amazing fishing families who live on their small boats 24/7 for the whole of their lives – how amazing is that?

Hue has citadels, pagodas and tombs but could be taken off the itinerary if pushed for time.

Hoi An on the other hand has great charm with many old buildings to explore all set off by a cacophony of brightly coloured lanterns and some excellent restaurants. The live music and dance show can be missed – or perhaps just an acquired taste!

We had a lovely trip into the villages to watch fishing nets being made and were then taken out on a boat to learn how [not] to cast a net – very much more difficult than it looks!

Lunch at the Family Restaurant was excellent with course after course being produced. The basket boat (sort of coracle) session could be forgone as it is rather touristy we found. An afternoon of cycling was well worth doing to see then countryside in action.

Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by the locals) is a big city – nothing much more to say about it. Our visit to a Cao Dai temple outside of Saigon was however fascinating and well worth doing.

Caodaism claims to have consolidated the best bits of many other religions. We attended a Mass but very little happens so we did not stay to the end.

Our three days cycling though the Mekong Delta area was very special allowing us to visit the small rice growing villages and see how the locals live - women working hard, men spending a lot of time in hammocks!

The bikes were in extremely good condition – suspension and gel seats. All needed as the roads/tracks can get bumpy at times and watch out for those bridges!We were also lucky enough to be taken on a small boat right through the back water, narrow streams of the Mekong River. A night at a guest house on stilts showed us the more basic way to bed down - the Elephant Ear fish was a particular delicacy served to us that evening.

The boat trip to the Cai Rang floating market was great fun and so very different from a trip to Waitrose! Indeed visits to all the food markets are well worth doing.

The young rice fields were so green, the dragon fruit so bright pink – we also saw chocolate being made. Yum, yum. The fresh vegetable soups were amazing, we, however, resisted the offer of the live silk worm and crickets combo!

On to Cambodia and a very different feel – but then the horrors of Pol Pot were only back in 1976 – 79. The current prime minister has been in power for 32 years now and has his own 10,000 troop of personal bodyguards ! We arrived just as the Khmer New Year three day celebrations were about to start. Lots of plastic toy water cannons action and the throwing of Johnsons talcum powder over everybody!!

Siem Reap is of course extremely well known for its Angkor Temples. We were rather surprised to be slightly underwhelmed by Angkor Wat itself – a lot of it in very poor condition and suffering from temple robbers liberating a lot of the statues – particularly Buddha heads. . Indeed we both rather preferred Bayon (masonic faces) and Ta Prohm (jungle temple – a la Tomb Raider).

The one hour foot massage included in our itinerary was quite an experience – my feet have never been so pummelled and caressed before !I suppose you probably have to visit Phnom Penh but apart from the Royal Palace compound which is definitely worth a visit we found little else of interest. Do have a drink at the Foreign Correspondents club which is full of history (you can almost hear the gun shots) and supper at The Titanic restaurant (do not be put off by the name) which has a great location and bags of atmosphere.

On our last night of the trip we went on a sunset cruise for two hours with supper included. A peaceful way to sip sundowners and enjoy the coastline which I am sure will be ‘chock a block’ full of new high rise hotels over the next few years. Nice to cool off after temperatures of 36 degrees and 85% humidity!

What a great trip, an amazing experience with many very happy memories. The people are the true stars with their welcome, their big smiles , their openness and frankness to talk about their countries and the recent history. The food is also great – morning glory with garlic and oyster sauce, the lobster and soft shell crab, the green peppercorns crème brûlée, the red snapper – the list goes on and on.

And all so well organised by our travel teams – great guides, great logistics, great hotel choices.

For more ideas about Vietnam trips, check out Travel Matters inspiration page.

Morocco with Maryna

They say that travelling is a great educator and educated me it did during my recent trip to Morocco. For some reason, I always thought that Morocco was nothing but a desert, speckled with lonely palm and olive trees. And orange trees of course, because who hasn’t seen Moroccan oranges at a supermarket?  All I can say is that the nine days that I spent in the country were incredibly rich visually, culturally and culinary.

In the world where more and more countries succumb to globalisation and westernisation, Morocco still holds the fort as a country with a strong national identity. I am a huge fan of road trips -  no other way of travelling for the exception of tracking or cycling allows you to truly get off the beaten track like driving does. Even though my trip was relatively short, I managed to get a really good taste of what Morocco is about. And the conclusion is that it is just a brilliant all-rounder – it has beaches, impressive landscape diversity, heaps of culture and pretty good shopping opportunities. It also offers a vast array of accommodation options, from charming budget to truly spectacular.

Going to Morocco in winter is a good answer to those expensive long haul trips, when all you want is a little bit of sunshine on your face. With low-cost airlines flying to Marrakech daily, I think it is silly to not use this opportunity - the flights are cheap, rates are low and crowds are virtually non-existent. You won’t get tropical heat, of course, most likely you will even need a light jacket in the evenings and mornings, but the weather during the day will be sunny and generally very pleasant. Temperatures drop dramatically as soon as the sun goes down, but then most hotels and restaurants will make a wood fire and that what makes up for the chill and makes Moroccan winters so atmospheric and cosy.

Morocco is a comparatively large country, and the scenery depends on where and when you go. From the window of our car I have seen rolling green hills, not dissimilar to those in Europe, snow-capped mountains covered in pine forests, endless desert and waterfalls. That is why Morocco is so incredibly romantic. Not to mention that any opportunity to practise the rusty French of yours is always appreciated, as well as an opportunity to dress up in a traditional kaftan and apply a slightly thicker eyeliner than is generally acceptable in Europe.

I spent two nights in Marrakech and had a chance to experience both the Four Seasons and La Maison Arabe. These properties are very different in style and I won’t bother you with my description of the Four Seasons as Petra has done so wonderfully in her blog on Marrakech and Essaouira.

La Maison Arabe is a legendary place in Marrakech boasting of rich history, a best restaurant in Marrakech and Winston Churchill as its guest. The place is cosy and charming and represents a labyrinth of corridors and passageways that once were five different buildings and are now blended seamlessly in the hotel’s architecture. Even though it is five star, their service is no lower than six.

Morocco is a country of colourful cities and towns. Marrakech is known as a red city, Tetouan as a white one while Chefchaouen is always spoken of as a blue one. This remote small town, where locals speak perfect Spanish has been given its blue hue by Jews, who inhabited the area previously and believed that the colour blue was a colour of God who lived in heaven and this way wanted to be reminded of him in their everyday life.

This place is incredibly photogenic, and the colourful Berber rugs look particularly good against the blue walls. Fes is another place that shouldn’t be missed, as it has the biggest medina in the world and is the UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also home to the world’s oldest university and traditional tanneries that use the same methods as hundreds of years ago.  The tanneries process the hides of sheep, goats, cows and camels, turning them into high quality leather goods such as bags, jackets and famous colourful slippers – babouches.

At the Chouara Tannery, hides are soaked in mixtures of natural, albeit pungent ingredients like cow urine, pigeon poop, quicklime, water and salt. They help to make leather softer and remove hair and excess flesh. It is a very strenuous job! In order to achieve the desired softness, the tanners use their bare feet to knead the hides for up to three hours.Moroccan cuisine with its flavourful tajines belongs to five most important cuisines in the world. Tajin is actually a name of a clay pot with a conical lid. Moroccans believe that the older the tajin the tastier the dish will be. Tajin is a perfect dish, when you do not know what to cook, as pretty much anything could be thrown in - meat, fish, vegetables, dried fruit, olives. Just cover it all up and let it sit over the charcoals for a few hours. Without a doubt my trip to Morocco was a success and I just can’t recommend it enough for those, who want to find themselves in a completely different world in just four hours.

Maryna travelled to Morocco in January 2017. Do contact her on tel 0208 675 7878 or email info@travelmatters.co.uk to discuss your ideas about travelling to this amazing country.

Teas and tigers - Petra in India

India has no shortage of luxurious and iconic hotels - The Lake Palace, Udaipur, Taj Bombay and Wildflower lodge, Shimla instantly spring to mind but in West Bengal and Darjeeling there are some equally spoiling and special historic hotels as I found out on a recent visit.

Unless you're flying to India to fly and flop on the beaches of Goa and Kerala, most people visit India on a tour either as part of a group or a tailor made experience, all of which we can arrange for you through various of the India specialist operators  we work with. The classic golden triangle of Delhi, Agra for the Taj Mahal and Jaipur and Rajasthan needs no introduction but increasingly popular are add ons to Varanasi, Calcutta and Darjeeling. Having visited India on a number of occasions it was the latter two that I was keen to explore and was thrilled to be able to do so in November last year.

I'm often asked, where my favourite destination is, it's never so much a destination but more what a destination has to offer. I love mountains, views, clear blues skies, history, raj style interiors, walks and delicious home cooked food, all of which Glenburn Tea Estate has in spades.

This heavenly little plantation retreat lies above the banks of the River Rungeet, deep in the Himalaya and is overlooked by the mighty Kanchenjunga. Home to generations of tea planters, it remains today a working tea estate. The main house has been lovingly restored with much devotion, care and commitment, whilst retaining the style of a colonial home. The bedrooms in the original bungalow have been charmingly decorated with different themes and are spacious, warm and cosy. The 4 bedrooms in the newer Water lily bungalow have stunning views  and are fresh, light, large and beautifully furnished with local floral themes.

Sitting on the  flower filled verandah, gazing across the gardens to Kanchenjunga was a special, timeless experience but there was also plenty to do with a tour of the tea estate and dozens of different walks, highly recommended is the one down hill all the way to the river and a sumptuous BBQ picnic.  Thankfully, there's a jeep on hand to drive you back. Glenburn is known for it's remoteness, be prepared for a particularly bumpy, potholed roller coaster ride for the last 40 minutes of your journey which will test the resolve of even the most hardy traveller, think of it though as a complimentary massage.   However, the journey hadn't put off two separate couples I met on my visit whose second visit it was that year, a sign that Glenburn is definitely doing something right.   Each night there's a different themed dinner serving dishes from all over Asia and India and special mention should also go to the incredible staff. This really is the ultimate Himalayan gem.

The Rajburi in the small village of Bawali, just south of Calcutta is the new kid on the block, a glorious neo-classical palace sitting by a lake surrounded by farmland. When the current owner first spied the Rajbari he was immediately smitten and vowed to bring it back from the beautifully elegant but sadly crumbling ruin that it had become. Replete with collapsing ceilings, trees growing through it, and the outside encroaching inwards from all corners, it was a monumental task but one that he has miraculously achieved and with stunning results.

The lofty, unpolished bedrooms boast an eclectic mix of traditional antique and rustic, chunky furniture contrasted with giant, flat screen TVs and all things modern. There are 30 rooms and suites all around the building and in various wings which immediately transport you to another time and another place. Outside is all turrets and columns, ornate courtyards, and balconies overlooking the lake, fields and fascinating temples unique to this region. When lit up at night,it is truly spectacular.

This was a hugely relaxing and restorative place to stay and a big plus for me, a glorious large swimming pool which I had entirely to myself. I'd recommend at least a night or two tagged on to a visit to Calcutta.

Visitors to Calcutta would understandably want to stay in the city itself with easy access to the main sights and here I'd suggest The Oberoi, a brand that probably needs little introduction. Calcutta is as you've probably imagined, busy, noisy, dirty and a complete assault on the senses but The Oberoi (fondly known as the Grand Dame of Chowringhee) offers not only a very central location, on Jawaharlal Nehru Road and near the bustling markets and cultural landmarks of the city but peace, a few great restaurants and yes, a large sunny pool so all boxes ticked for me.

West Bengal offers a remarkable range of experiences, none more so than a visit to the Sunderban National Park - a world heritage site, tiger reserve and biosphere reserve, basically a huge delta with an awful lot of mangrove trees. It couldn't have contrasted more with the mighty Himalayan mountains but made for a fascinating end to my trip with another unique place to stay. Sprawling across 11.5 acres, The Sunderban Tiger Camp overlooks the Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary and is on the banks of Pitchkhali River on Dayapur Island.

Like Glenburn, it too, was extremely remote (3 hours by car and then another 2 hours by boat from Calcutta) but also like Glenburn well worth the journey. Accommodation is rustic but still with all the amenities you need and I loved the fact that the interior of my little hut had been hand painted by a local artist with colourful kingfishers.

The latter were easily spotted throughout the reserve, tigers however proved far more elusive! Despite it's remoteness, meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) were delicious and varied served by the very friendly and hospitable staff. Most stays are offered as a package including all meals, boat trips and activities and offer excellent value.

India will be having a bit of a moment next year as it celebrates 70 years of independence. I'd encourage anyone to visit and as the tourist board tag line states it really is "Incredible India".

Petra travelled to Calcutta with Qatar Airways via Doha. Qatar Airways now offer a free 96 hour transit visa and city tour.

Travel Matters can offer stays at Glenburn Tea Estate and The Oberoi Grand, Calcutta through Western and Oriental and The Sunderban Tiger Camp through Trans Indus

To find out more about The Rajburi visit http://therajbari.com/

Crillon le Brave - a hillside retreat

Maison Décor, Maison Roche, Maison Soudain, Maison Salomon et Maison Philibert – all houses which make up the most delightful hillside retreat of Hotel Crillon le Brave. This gem of a property which combines old stone houses with higgledy-piggledy steps joining to various terraces and courtyards is set in the hillside village of Crillon le Brave, within a short distance to the glorious Mont Ventoux.

I travelled with a couple of colleagues late November to Marseille, a short flight from London. At Marseille airport, we were whisked up the meandering Provencal country roads to the village, Crillon le Brave by a chauffeur driven car. It is just approximately one hour transfer from the airport to the hotel. We were met by the wonderful staff team - professional and yet incredibly warm. This “get away from it all” property, also a member of Relais Chateaux is an absolute treasure.

The property boasts 32 rooms which are located in various adjoining village houses which date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. My room had terrific views of the surrounding countryside and the pool, which I had my eye on!  Beautiful stone floored bedrooms with olive and lavender coloured walls, comfortable bed, TV, a dvd player, and a Bose radio/CD player. The bathroom and shower area was spacious with the Bamford products to match.

On arrival, I also had my eye on the time as we were expecting to see the super moon around 6.00pm local time. The moon had not been this close to the earth for over 60 years and we were not going to see another super moon like this for the next 34 years, so I was keen to witness it. Sebastien Pilat, the director of Crillon le Brave knew exactly where the moon would be rising and advised where one should stand to watch. With such little light pollution (being up in the hills away from it all) and with a clear sky, lucky for us, it was going to be a treat to watch the moon rise. It was beautiful and sadly, my camera on my phone did not do it justice, so you’ll have to take my word for it!

First evening, we explored Carpentras, with its cathedral and other ancient sites, all located inside a circle of small streets. Look out for the entrance of the town at Porte d' Orange, the 14th century square tower that once formed part of the town's defences.

In the winter months Carpentras is well known for its truffle markets and the hotel hosts some super truffle hunting short breaks.

We had the pleasure of truffle tasting as well as cheese and wine tasting at the “Fromager Affineur” Vigier with the lovely owner and hostess, Claudine.

Avignon is a short distance from Crillon le Brave and as well as being a useful gateway for getting to the hotel, it is an important town to visit. For 70-odd years in the early 1300s, Avignon served as the centre of the Roman Catholic world. The town has been left with an impressive legacy of ecclesiastical architecture, especially the World Heritage listed fortress and palace known as the Palais des Papes.

Whilst at Crillon le Brave we had the opportunity to relax in the mini spa, Spa Des Ecuries. Using the beautiful natural products from Bamford, the body oils include unique herbal scents that marry perfectly with the Provençal setting: rose (refreshing and uplifting), rosemary (invigorating and toning) and camomile (calming and purifying). A half an hour massage after exploring the area went down a treat.

Dinner is a must at one of the hotels’ restaurants, Jerome Blanchet. You can read about his career here.

The principal menus are the four-course Menu de Saison, the seven-course Menu du Chef tasting menu, and each month, Jérôme creates a further menu dedicated specifically to the produce most perfectly in season at that time. The food is to die for and the setting is intimate and not at all stuffy or formal. I have never seen such a cheese selection as the platter offered at this restaurant.

My last morning, I had my obligatory dip in the pool before breakfast and spent an hour walking to the neighbouring village of Bedoin.

There are some wonderful circular rides and walks in the area so if you are the outdoorsy type, there is plenty of opportunity for hiking, walking and cycling. The ascent from Bedoin village to Mont Ventoux is a classic way up the mountain. The length of the climb from Bedoin at 300m to the summit at 1912m is 21.5km. Rather you than me!

Crillon le Brave is a perfect place to escape to with wonderful views of the Provencal countryside, outstanding restaurants and a gorgeous swimming pool with terraces. It has a dedicated and amazing staff team. Attention to detail and client satisfaction is the winning formula here. I’d love to return one day.

Karen stayed at Crillon le Brave with Highlife Marketing in November 2016.

The Vidago Palace in Portugal's enchanting Douro valley

For the the last 16 years I have been privileged to experience many hotels and destinations worldwide, but my true passion is still exploring hotels and destinations less known to travellers in Europe. Porto and the surrounding region is not on everyone’s bucket list, but it should be.

This area offers beautiful scenery with rolling hills and pine trees standing tall against the deep blue clear skies, wide empty roads, cascading vineyards along the calm, emerald waters of Douro Valley. The thermal water routes are regularly used by locals for many health benefits from digestive to skin problems and if you are fortunate enough to visit during the harvest festivals like I did, during the months of September and October, you will have an opportunity to see how the grapes are picked and the process of making great port. We visited Quinta do Crosto, with stunning views of the Douro Valley. It’s a small family run vineyard. You will be met by the owner, who is very passionate about what he does and explains how everything is done by hand and the grapes are crushed by feet and the wine tastes amazing because of it.

The thermal town of Chaves with its hot springs were known since the Roman times, where the water of the spring reaches 73°C /163 °F (the hottest bicarbonate waters in Europe) and anyone can get one cup of hot water a day, just like I did when I visited this culturally rich town, where the Roman baths have been rediscovered making it a very important discovery of the thermal complex used until the of the fourth century AD by Romans believing in its health benefits.

The Vidago Palace Hotel and the sister property Pedras Salgadas belong to the thermal system of these special group of thermal springs. The Vidago Palace Hotel is a perfect base for exploring this unique region of Portugal. The beautiful palace restored to its original glory is special enough to be currently used as a film set for filming ‘Vidago Palace’ a love story from 1930s during the months of October and November. This truly hidden gem of Portugal is only an hour drive from Porto, easily accessible from London, just over two hours flying time with British Airways and other airlines or other regional airports – this is a perfect mini break for either family or couple looking to unwind, recharge and explore. When I arrived at The Vidago Palace Hotel, I was transported into 1930 as the actors, actresses and film crew were in action using the entrance and the gardens of The Vidago Palace as a film set.

The Vidago Palace Hotel is positioned within a beautiful natural park with its own 18 hole golf course. The staff at the hotel will do their upmost to make their guests’ stay extra special, the service and the attention to detail is the highest I have ever seen and experienced. Once you step in, you feel as if you have travelled back in time, but at the same time you feel a very warm welcome. Every corner of The Vidago Palace is filled with treasured furniture, beautifully decorated throughout. The original wooden staircase is a centrepiece of the hotel, it feels like you could be in Downton Abbey walking to your room or down to breakfast. It has a very special feel! The guest rooms are beautifully furnished. A former ball room is now a very smart restaurant with a piano playing in the background during the evenings. The breakfast room is so comfortable with cushions scattered everywhere and a very wide choice of delicious breakfasts, you will want to take time here to soak in the beautiful details of the glass ceiling, the walls and the library filled with many books visible from the breakfast room. The spa offers many treatments using the thermal water as well as Aromatherapy Associates products. The relaxation area is filled with comfortable chairs and soothing lighting and plenty of herbal teas for the guests to relax after the treatments. The indoor pool and gym are open from 8am, perfect for taking a morning swim with lovely sauna, steam room, Turkish bath to refresh afterwards. The heated vitality pool is a nice addition with a variety of jets.

The outdoor pool has plenty of comfortable sun loungers. The bar area has lovely seating perfect for a pre-dinner cocktail or aperitif accompanied with a delicious snack.

The sister property of Pedras Salgadas is only 10 minutes’ drive away from The Vidago Palace Hotel. The hotel is located within a peaceful natural park with bicycles available for guests to hire. There is a pretty lake to walk around and the eco house accommodation is spacious, perfect for families or couples wishing to stay in a tree house. There is a spa with many unique thermal treatments as well as an outdoor pool and playground for the little ones to enjoy.

I came back refreshed and recharged after my stay at The Vidago Palace Hotel, from wine tasting to eating in a number of excellent restaurants, taking a boat trip down the Douro Valley and enjoying the spa treatments and the special ambience of The Vidago Palace Hotel. I would highly recommend this lovely mini break to anyone!

Silvia McBride travelled with Mason Rose to Portugal in October 2016 and is ready to take enquiries about this outstanding property.

La Dolce Vita - a short break in Puglia

Also known by it's Roman name Apulia, the 'heel' of Italy is currently one of those hot destinations that's on a roll. No longer such a well kept secret, I recently visited to see what all the fuss is about and check out two equally stunning but very contrasting properties. A Masseria is a renovated Puglian farmhouse and a visit to Puglia wouldn't be complete without a stay in one of these. For a one of a kind spoiling mini break, perhaps to celebrate a special birthday or anniversary, I can highly recommend Masseria Torre Coccaro. It's one of the most luxurious Masseria's around and opened as a resort hotel in 2002. The one hour drive from Bari airport (just under a 2 1/2 hour flight from the UK) is nothing to write home about, a rather dull flat landscape of endless olive trees. However, any sense of disappointment is quickly dispelled on arrival at the Masseria, a brilliant white building with lush pink bougainvillea rising high above the olive groves.  Instant smiles all round which only got bigger once we saw our room. To say that the ceilings were high and the bathroom big would be an understatement, the room complete with antique furnishings (and a welcome bottle of Limoncello) oozed character and charm.  Luxury hotel rooms, although faultless with their Egyptian cotton sheets and flat screen TVs do tend to be all rather similar, if you're looking for something a little different but still with all the mod cons, then this is the place for you. We didn't want to leave the pretty balcony overlooking the surrounding countryside and out to sea but having forsaken Easyjet's sandwich options (not too much of a hardship!) and with stomachs rumbling it was time to try out the Masseria's restaurant. Now, I'll be honest, I'll eat anything, my nephews and nieces have taken to calling me "the human dustbin" but the friend I was traveling with is much more discerning. Nicky along with her husband, has travelled the world, staying at a fair number of leading and small luxury hotels.  Her judgement  is impeccable and the restaurant at Masseria Torre Coccaro got the big thumbs up. The menu is original with many locally sourced products and being so close to the sea, fish is a must, even the names sound like some dramatic opera "Polpo e Patate con Salsa di Capperi e Sedano Croccante" octopus with potatoes and capers cream with crispy celery. We opted for seared sword fish steak on olive pate and summer salad, exquisite and worth the trip alone.

The Great British Bake Off, it would appear isn't just a phenomenon in the UK. Nicky and I were blown away by the amount of cakes on offer at breakfast, deep breath " lemon cake, strawberry jam pie, apple pie, pound cake, apricot jam pie, pasticciotto, muffins, bakewell tart, chocolate pie, ciambella, pistachio pie and not forgetting that old faithful madeira cake. Mary and Paul would be in "bake of heaven" and not a soggy bottom or collapsed gateau in sight! Cakes at breakfast might not be everybody's thing or piling your plate high with mozarella, stracciatella, burrata and ricotta but as a cheese freak I was more than happy to do the latter, accompanied by a generous portion of prosciutto.

Masseria Torre Coccaro is the antithesis of a big resort hotel with a multitude of swimming pools, they've just the one but it's gentle sloping nature, reminiscent of a beach makes it perfect for children whilst it soon gets deep enough for doing lengths. There were a few beautifully dressed and beautifully behaved Italian children staying on our visit and the hotel is that odd combination that somehow works, that you could visit for a romantic break (the hotel has been voted as one of the 100 most romantic hotels in the world by The Times), a honeymoon, babymoon with a new born or with children.  There's a children's club for 3 - 12 year olds.

Masseria Torre Coccaro is so relaxing, so aesthetically beautiful, that Nicky and I didn't really want or need to leave. We were more than happy to enjoy our room in the watch tower, sitting chatting on the balcony looking out over the courtyard and 18th century chapel before indulging ourselves in the cave like Aveda spa or falling into a carb coma (see breakfast cakes above) on the comfortable sunbeds by the pool.

Just a ten minute taxi ride away from Masseria Torre Coccaro, our second hotel Canne Bianche Hotel and Spa boasts an idyllic sea front location. It's one of the few hotels in Puglia with direct access to a sandy beach. However, this is not the hotel's only USP. It's the interiors that we both loved here. The tasteful lobby has a number of china pomos, something that you can also buy and take home with you. A pomo, which represents a "flower bud"" is a wonderful symbol of tradition, art and poetry and is also a lucky charm against magic spells.

In London, along with Karen I daily head to Tooting Bec Lido to swim an hours worth of lengths. However, with the heat wave this summer the lido has begun to resemble human soup, so you imagine my joy at having the large crystal clear salt water swimming pool at Canne Biance more or less to myself.  The saltwater giving you extra buoyancy in which to swim and I loved the fact that inflatables were banned from the pool. On our mini break we were content to swim, read, unwind and enjoy the facilities that both hotels had in spades. However, they were both well placed for exploring this fascinating corner or Italy. You will need a car but the 'White City' of Ostuni is just 20 minutes drive away whilst Alberobello, famous for its Truilli houses can be reached in 30 minutes or for a longer full day excursion, there's Leece, known as the Florence of the south, without the crowds. Again, Southern Italy is having a bit of a moment with neighbouring Matera used as the back drop for the new Ben-Hur and Wonder Women movies.

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Canne Bianche also has a spa and like Masseria Torre Coccaro a cooking school, where you can try your hand at Apulia regional cooking learning how to make the traditional ear like Orecchiette pasta. Other lessons on offer include golf, tennis, sailing, horse riding, snorkling, even piano. However, Nicky and I went with the "let's just chill" option and with the busy lives we all now lead, this is often the best. Canne Bianche has been billed as the ultimate Puglian pamper getaway for those wishing to simply unwind. Again, we didn't leave the hotel but returned to London mellower and heavier - I blame all those cakes!

Travel Matters can arrange a stay at Masseria Torre Coccaro http://www.masseriatorrecoccaro.com/en/home/ and Canne Bianche http://www.cannebianche.com/?lang=en

Easyjet http://www.easyjet.com/en/ has flights all year round directly to Bari from London, Gatwick

How the Mexican Weaving Communities Wove Their Way Into Our Hearts

Our idea of a 'holiday', or any kind of travelling, has changed over the years. We're after experiences now - we want to absorb culture and see, smell and hear new things. That's how we fell in love with the Oaxaca communities in Mexico.

I am a native Mexican who now lives in Cheltenham, and the authentic, colourful communities from my home country have long had a place in my heart. It was when I took Chris, my partner, to this area in Mexico that it had a truly significant impact on me. I had studied textiles and design in Mexico City as a young woman and on our visit I was so attracted to the many indigenous styles of my home country I just knew I had to share these wonderful sights, sounds and smells with other people. Our experience changed our life and work.

Because of my love of weaving and Mexican culture, I created a series of tours to allow others to appreciate this intense culture. Chris and I set up Weaving the World (www.weavingtheworld.co.uk). My aim is to introduce people to the traditional Mexican weaving techniques and at the same time provide direct income to the weavers themselves.

These craft-making traditions are so important to keep alive. Teotitlan, which we visited frequently, is one of several villages in the Oaxaca area where weaving forms an integral part of the livelihood of its few thousand residents. The local weavers were no match for industrialised weaving methods and cheap imports, and there was little appreciation of the time and skill that went into weaving using the time honoured methods of the region. Some local weavers moved over to using chemical dyes or less labour intensive methods of production, many simply abandoned their roots and moved to the city in search of work. There was a real danger that these age old techniques were going to disappear altogether.

All the local methods are natural and ecologically based, including the gathering of local plants to obtain dyes. Our Weaving the World tours show the entire process from start to finish and provide hands-on instruction, step by step, to produce our own projects. We go through the whole intricate process, with all students completing their own weavings and a celebration and exhibition of all of the works of art. It's traditional to toast the completion with a drink of the local mezcal - a rather strong alcoholic beverage made from the heart of the maguey plant.

Travel is about experiences, and we include as much authentic cultural experiences as we can in the tour including markets, black clay demonstrations, and local cooking. We feel passionately that travel is about much more than just seeing; it's about being part of something and understanding and absorbing the culture so that it stays with you in the future.

This is what Weaving the World is all about, and we'd love you to join us on our tours - the next one takes place in August, details of which can requested through Travel Matters.

Thanks to Palmira Serra for the guest blog piece.

Sicily

I had always wanted to visit Sicily, I just hadn’t had the opportunity to until now. I had heard how beautiful it is and having travelled extensively around  Italy, Corsica and Sardinia, I was intrigued to know just how special it could be. (After all, it is technically still Italy) Thanks to one of our preferred tour operators, Prestige Holidays, I was invited to experience the island for myself on what we term in the trade as a “familiarisation trip”.

Flying into Catania is exciting and dramatic, if skies are clear you get a terrific view of Mount Etna, Europe’s tallest and most active volcano. Standing at 3350 metres, it had a smattering of snow on it and the mouth of the crater was surrounded by a cloud of steam.

First impressions on arriving and driving to our first hotel, I noticed that most of the south eastern part of Sicily has plenty of baroque architecture still standing. There are plenty of remnants which survived after the dreadful earthquake in 1693.

Our first stop was the beautiful peninsula of Ortigia, surrounded by the Mediterranean on each side; it’s a beautiful town full of baroque architecture as well as Greek and Roman sites – piazzas full of restaurants, bars, shops and cafes. It’s a great base for discovering the baroque South East. I recommend hiring a car for sightseeing around the region and visiting truly unspoilt beaches as well as historical areas of Modica, Noto, Scicli and Ragusa.

An interesting twist to our afternoon in Modica, one of the area's UNESCO-listed Baroque towns, was a visit to the oldest chocolate shop in Modica. The Spaniards introduced the method of chocolate making to the Sicilians, something they had learned from the Aztecs and at the Antica Dolceria Bonajunto they are still making the chocolate with the same ancient techniques and ingredients. We joined in with a workshop and learnt how the chocolate was made.

It makes Modica a particularly appealing destination for food-lovers. The town hosts the international chocolate festival in December each year.

For anyone who has seen the BBC drama series Montalbano, based on the books featuring the Sicilian detective, Salvo Montalbano, by Andrea Camilleri, this whole area of Sicily will certainly inspire you.

Heading west from Modica, we stopped at a beautiful property, la Foresteria Planeta, a gorgeous agritourismo set on an elevated position overlooking vineyards.

The property is owned by one of Sicily’s wine producers Planeta, so a wine tasting opportunity could not be turned down. They specialise in cooking classes as well as wine tasting and the views from this property are simply irresistible. There are only 14 rooms here – such a gem of a property for those of you who enjoy being independent and exploring around. September would be especially interesting when the grapes and olives are being collected.

Lunch was at the famous restaurant Vittorio’s – a beautiful beach front premises and favourited by Rick Stein. On arrival, the chef was roasting artichoke hearts in an open fire – we knew we were in for something special. The coastline around this south west area of Sicily is stunning. Look out for the beach at Scala dei Turchi, a beautiful bathing spot surrounded by white cliffs.

Second base for us was just outside of Agrigento. It’s here where a visit to the ancient Greek archaeological site of the Valley of the Temples is a must for any visitor.  The Valley of the Temples is a Unesco World Heritage Site and I recommend taking a guided tour to bring the site to life.

Our last stop was Castellamare del Golfo in the north west of the country. The west of the country feels quite different from the south and the east – wilder, rugged, and even exotic with Moorish influences – a taste of North African as opposed to Italy. We were privileged to sail around the Zingaro Marine reserve, calm waters, rocky inlets and crystal clear water.

My favourite place on this trip was the area of San Vito Lo Capo – Sicily’s answer to Rio’s sugar loaf mountain. San Vito is a very laid back beach resort with some amazing eateries especially for lovers of sea food. Popular with Italians’, it’s only a matter of time when this stunning beach with white powdery sand will be visited by many more Europeans.

Some 700 kms later, I can truely say, I know Sicily better. It is very much "La splendida isola nel Mediterraneo."

Karen travelled with Prestige Holidays to Sicily in May 2016.

Botswana

Botswana - a miraculous transformation. Botswana is a very unique African country, it is a live example that no matter what continent you are on you can create a happy and prosperous society if you channel your money and energy the right way. Formerly the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, Botswana adopted its new name after becoming independent within the Commonwealth on 30 September 1966. It happened in a very civilised way as well – they asked politely to become an independent country and their wish was granted - no war, no bloodshed.

From that time on Botswana had a number of democratic elections, with the process no different and no less transparent than that in the West. A president is elected for five years and can be re-elected for the second term. Interestingly enough, when the time comes, they leave and get succeeded by someone else, unlike other African leaders who are less willing to leave and are known for their persistence and longevity on the political stage.

Up to 70% of Botswana territory is covered by the Kalahari desert, which didn’t help the country’s economy or prosperity much. The country had little to none infrastructure – no roads, no schools no hospitals -.until they found the diamonds.

All diamonds can be traced back to their origin and all profits get invested into the country’s economy. Formerly one of the poorest countries in the world, Botswana has since transformed itself into one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

These days there are roads, hospitals and free education for the first ten years. They don’t have universities yet, but the government came up with a scheme for that. It is estimated that there are approximately 800 Botswanian students currently studying in the UK. Their government pays for students’ flights, accommodation, tuition fees and even winter clothing.

Gaborone is a developed, multicultural city, as you would expect a modern capital to be. There you can find futuristic buildings, shopping malls, hotels and cinemas.

Another thing you can applaud for is the time, money and effort they invest into their conservation projects. They are definitely going to preserve their country for future generations. According to the statistics, there are around 150,000 elephants in the country. They are also involved in rhino relocation programmes – they bring rhinos from South Africa, where the poor animals get poached without mercy.

Botswana once had the world's highest rate of HIV-Aids infection, which has reduced significantly due to extensive funding. Leading the way in prevention and treatment programmes, Botswana has become an exemplar country for many others. It was the first sub-Saharan African country to provide universal free antiretroviral treatment to people living with HIV. The impact of the treatment programme has been widespread. New infections have decreased significantly and AIDS-related deaths have dramatically reduced. Nowadays almost all babies born from infected mothers are HIV-free.

I keep asking myself, what’s the reason for Botswana’s success? Was it the British influence? Was it a collective desire to make their country better for everyone? Or is it because Botswana is Africa's longest continuous multi-party democracy?

My conclusion is a combination of all of the above.

If you would like an exclusive safari experience and to sit under the shade of some of the oldest Baobab trees where Livingstone sat and pondered, do get in contact with us. Capacity is regulated and bed space in some of the biggest lodges do not exceed twenty five beds, so places are limited. 

Thanks to Maryna from Travel Matters for writing this blog and thanks to the Botswana Tourism Board for the use of the images.

Cambodia - cultural heritage, relaxed atmosphere, delicious food & tropical islands.

I have been to almost all South East Asian countries and the kingdom of Cambodia ranks firmly among my top choices. It doesn’t show it charms straight away though. I got almost scared away by its corruption, barren landscapes and littered streets. This is a classical case when you should not judge a book by its cover. In fact I am having a really hard time to sum up my unforgettable Cambodia experience in one short blog. How could it be easy? Cambodia has tons of cultural heritage, relaxed atmosphere, delicious food and tropical islands.

Let us begin.

Any Cambodian journey starts at Phnom Penh, a city situated at the confluence of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap rivers. A lot of travellers skip it in favour of other points of interest, but I do recommend staying there for a day or two, timing permitting. The Royal Palace and the Genocide museum are a must see.

Cambodia is still a relatively unspoilt destination. There are touristy areas like anywhere else and then there are parts where time stands still. I was fortunate enough to cycle the country through and through and it is amazing how undeveloped and untouched by globalisation the majority of villages are. Many people have never seen a European person before, I did feel like a celebrity or an alien at times. The villages are absolutely idyllic, with wooden stilted houses, grazing cows and dusty red streets.

Cambodia is a part of former French Indochina and you can reallyfeel it. First of all I hardly ever met any French people in other parts of Asia, but Cambodia had them aplenty. If a local person spoke a foreign language, chances were it was French rather than English.

Cambodia has got no less than sixty islands scattering the Gulf of Thailand. They are easily accessible from Sihanoukville, Kep and Koh Kong. These islands are Robinson Crusoe wannabes dream. Being next door to Thailand it’s amazing how untouched and deserted many of them are. Koh Totang, Koh Rong, Koh Rong Samloem and Koh Tonsay (mostly known as the Rabbit Island) are only a short ferry ride away. Pristine is the word that comes to mind when I think about these islands – the sand is so powdery and white and the water is so clear and transparent, you could wash a wedding dress in it!

Koh Tonsay is an ideal destination if all you want to do is swimming, staying in a hut, relaxing in a hammock and eating the freshest crabs in black pepper sauce. Kep pepper is itself a thing of legends. It is considered to be among the best black pepper varieties in the world. At some point in history all finest French restaurants were expected to use it.

And then there is Angkor Wat, the world heritage listed complex. Going to Cambodia and not visiting Angkor complex is like going to Peru and skipping Machu Picchu.

Siem Reap’s legendary temple complex needs little introduction. The largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, before being converted into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century. It is a very special place, pure magic! Very crowded as you would expect, so aiming to get there as early as possible might be a good idea.

Siem Reap is also a famous destination for silk lovers. Located a short distance away you can find a silk farm, where you can track the whole process of silk making, from a worm to a scarf. They still use organic dyes and wooden weaving machines. Some items are so intricate, that it takes the whole day to craft a meagre few centimetres.

Even now, writing this article made me really nostalgic. I am not saying goodbye, I am saying see you later, Cambodia!

If you would like to enquire about your future trip to Cambodia, don’t hesitate to email us on info@travelmatters.co.uk.

Maryna visited Cambodia in February 2015