Posts in Exotic Destinations
A Caribbean island hopping experience

Not many people have the Caribbean on their summer radar and that really is a shame. The rates are unbelievably attractive and the weather is good. Humidity is higher, it is true, but on the whole it is sunny and hot with short spells of occasional rain, sometimes only several minutes long – and then it's business as usual!

I hear opinions that the Caribbean is just all about beaches, hotels and a glitzy lifestyle and there is not much else. Sure, the islands  won’t make cultural destinations of the year any time soon, but there is still enough activities to keep one occupied in between the tan topping sessions.

Barbados has such a rich Dutch and British heritage and this gets reflected in many ways. A tour of Bridgetown combined with Mount Gay distillery visit - apparently the oldest rum distillery in the world - makes for an interesting day out. You should consider a visit to the colourful Speightstown with its impressive fresco or manicured Holetown, which looks really western with its beautiful residences and designer boutiques. Barbados is also home to a great number of gorgeous Anglican churches that fit harmoniously with the lush tropical settings. Or how about a visit to one of the historical plantation great houses, like Sunbury Plantation House or St. Nicholas Abbey? It is a great way to find out how sugar cane plantations operated centuries ago and taste yet more rum!

Nature lovers would be happy with snorkelling, swimming with turtles, visiting Harrisons Cave or one of the botanical gardens. I strongly recommend heading to the East coast for a day. Bathsheba is home to the famous reef break known as the Soup Bowl. The coastline is beautiful and rugged and its sea front restaurants and weird rock formations that point out of the sand are worth the visit alone.

When it comes to accommodation in Barbados, you are spoilt for choice – Sandy Lane, Cobbler’s Cove, Colony Club, Fairmont Royal Pavilion – the list goes on. I, personally, thoroughly enjoyed my stay at The Little Good Harbour – an intimate family-run property located in a quiet fishing village on the famed west coast. The atmosphere is very laid back and truly Caribbean, which in my opinion some higher end properties might sometimes lack. Accommodation ranges from one-bedroom suites to three bedroom units and is equally perfect for couples, groups of friends or families. I just loved my split-level Garden suite! Their restaurant, The Fish Pot is one of the best eateries on the island and is an attraction in itself. Book early! Needless to say, the food is outstanding. I particularly enjoyed my breakfast of flying fish on toast.

Cobblers Cove is another place where I would go back to in a heart beat. It is a member of the prestigious Relais and Chateaux hotel group and is everything that one would expect – small, charming, with a service that is equal to none. It is a truly special place!The suites are not only absolutely stunning but are also ideal for bird watching. I counted no less than a dozen of species from my balcony and even had a nest right next to my window. It is not surprising considering, its gardens are not dissimilar to Eden itself. Their restaurant is very famous as well and is well worth a visit if you are staying elsewhere.Once you arrive in St. Lucia you end up in a totally different world. Even though all the islands are known collectively as the Caribbean they all are very unique and have their own identity. St Lucia differs from Barbados like day and night. It is still relatively undeveloped and unspoilt and is sometimes referred to like Barbados 20 years ago. It's landscape is very different as well - it's is very mountainous and tropically green where Barbados is flat and bare. The jewel on the crown is of course the majestic Pitons.

If Barbados is more known for its night life, high profile visitors and upmarket restaurants, St Lucia is more about uniting with the nature and getting away from it all. Many hotels are eco friendly and are blended seamlessly into the surroundings. Even the attractions are mostly nature oriented like snorkelling, diving, zip wiring or visiting the sulphur springs of Soufriere.

I had a chance to experience two properties while in St. Lucia.

East Winds is a beautiful "all-inclusive" resort, but don't let the a-word put you off. It is very small, characterful and the food is to die for - very authentic, healthy and fresh. We fell in love with our deluxe cottage with a private terrace sheltered under the canopy of mango trees.At East Winds I understood the true meaning of a Caribbean holiday, where all you do is sip on a cocktail, look at the waves and read in a hammock. I came back recharged and looking several years younger. But it's not all about low-key rest. There are plenty of daily activities on offer for busy types.

Another property that I was very lucky to experience was Marigot Bay Resort by Capella. It occupies one of the most enviable locations on the island overlooking the famous bay as well the picture perfect marina. If you are after pure luxury, stunning views, poolside sushi and exceptional service with your own personal concierge then this is the place to be.

The rooms are elegant and contemporary and finished to the highest standard.If you are going for a longer holiday, why not combine a week on the beach with a few days at the Capella for a truly special holiday?

In conclusion I want to officially announce my island hopping experience a success and am already looking forward to another combination next year.

Dizzy heights in Dubai

Courtesy of If Only, I, along with other travel professionals, spent a few nights checking out the sights of Dubai, Ajman and Ras al Khaimah. The Burj Khalifa was the first visitor attraction we headed to. Bringing a new meaning to the term “sky scraper”, the world’s tallest building, standing at a proud 828 metres high with the world’s tallest observation deck at 452 metres, it is not to be missed. Entrance is best pre booked and offers sensational views over down town Dubai, the Dubai Mall, the artificial lake and the Arabian Gulf as a whole. The high speed lift was an experience in its own right.

As if one dizzy height was not enough for one day, my next achievement was the Leap of Faith at Atlantis the Palm’s aquapark. Throwing myself down the Leap of Faith, whilst worrying about doing myself a serious injury and hoping my swimsuit was still intact, the experience of racing down the slide at what seemed like 70 miles an hour, will be a memory I will never forget.

The aquapark is another “not to be missed“ attraction. If you love speed and thrills, there are plenty of waterslides and tunnels from the Aquaconda ride, the Zoomerango and NOT for the faint hearted, there is Poseidon’s Revenge, where a trapdoor opens beneath your feet to send you plummeting over 20 metres downward before rocketing you into a double loop. The lazy river and the rapids are a God send after such action.

Our first couple of nights were spent at the new kid on the block from the Jumeriah portfolio – Al Naseem. The contemporary interior design is inspired by sand dunes, blue skies, sea breeze and Dubai's heritage of pearl diving and Bedouin traditions. From the balconies and extended terraces, there are spectacular views of the sea, the resort's landscaped gardens and swimming pools and the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah. Pretty good view from my room, don’t you agree?

From Dubai, we headed north to Ras al Khaimah, staying at the Al Wadi, managed now by Ritz Carlton. The Al Wadi Nature Reserve spans across 500 hectares, so there is privacy and peace abound. Camel and horse riding, archery, nature walks and falconry educational talks are just some of the activities you can participate in during your stay. Understanding the history and heritage of falconry in the Emirates was very interesting. Bedouin tribes used the birds to hunt in the desert, to supplement their diet with meat. We didn’t need to use hawks for our dinner that evening as we sampled the menu at the Safran Restaurant where they are serving Indian food. An evening would not be complete without a night cap in the comfy Moon Bar under the canopy of stars.

Last stop was the gorgeous Oberoi Al Zorah in Ajman. Considering it can take over 30 minutes from Dubai airport to get to the Palm area of Dubai, this new resort in Ajman is going to be a strong contender for the winter sun market. It takes the same amount of time to reach Ajman as it does downtown Dubai. The Oberoi brand is synonymous with luxury and this resort does not disappoint.

It is unique amongst the other hotels in Ajman; elegant and modern, offering fantastic sea views. Accommodation is made up of suites and for families or friends travelling together, the two and three bedroom villas with private pools are incredible. The mangrove forest and 18 hole golf course as well as the spa are all welcome facilities from the hotel. The resort has to have the best swimming pool I have ever swam in. It is 85 metres long. Sheer heaven!

We flew Emirates airlines from Gatwick to Dubai. Taking just 6 hours 30 minutes to fly from London, the airline has to be my favourite of all airlines. Coming back on the A380, we took a peek around first class – can you believe there is a shower on deck? We enjoyed mingling in the cocktail lounge with other passengers until I was reminded that we had to head downstairs to economy again.

For more information on holidays to Dubai, Ajman, Ras al Khaimah and any other of the Emirates, contact Karen at Travel Matters Email info@travelmatters.co.uk and thank you to If Only for the privilege.

PURA VIDA in Costa Rica

Pura Vida – the best family holiday in Costa RicaBefore travelling to Costa Rica, my contact in San Jose had emailed “Pura Vida Karen!” I wondered what this phrase meant exactly and on arriving, after taking the direct British Airways flight from Gatwick, we were met by our driver “Pura Vida – welcome to Costa Rica” This phrase apparently was adopted from Mexico but it sums up the good life, everything pure, wholesome and good which is what Costa Rica is and these days well wishers say it as a greeting to each other too, thankful for the life they have. Costa Rica is a country with just 5 million inhabitants and over 25% of the land is protected by national parks and forests, it’s no wonder the landscape and the locals are content with their lot.

My trip started in the volcano territory of Arenal. In fact, most of Costa Rica is volcano country – there are over 200 of them in total but not all active. Arenal is an active one and last erupted in 2010 – there has been a fair amount of volcanic activity between 1968 and 2010. It’s a beautifully symmetrical cone and has the remnants of the black lava down one side of it. We took a couple of hours to hike around the volcano base and up to the lava field. As we walked, our guide pointed out the rather frightening calls of the distant howler monkey who was being rather territorial that afternoon.

On route we spotted a poisonous yellow viper and we passed several colonies of leaf cutter ants which were fascinating – we were amazed to learn that they can carry up to 50 times their body weight in a beautifully formed procession. There appeared to be some lazy ants hitching a ride, but were informed that those ants were in fact quality controllers and if certain leaves did not make the grade, it was the controllers’ job to dump the wasted leaf at the entrance to the colony.

Our stay in Arenal was at the Arenal Springs Resort. The hotel has wonderful hot springs in the grounds, 100% natural waters, rich in mineral salts as the pools are fed from underground sources of the volcano. There is nothing better than relaxing in these waters after a long hike around the volcano. Utter heaven!

Highlight of our trip has to be the white water rafting. We organised this courtesy of Travel Excellence who helped us throughout the holiday. What a treat! The Rio Balsa rapids are ideal for those first-time white water rafters and those with some experience, as it is gentle enough for those inexperienced rafters but enough of a challenge to make it exciting.

The Rio Balsa is dam controlled, so the water levels are good generally all the time.

As well as being challenged through about 20 or so rapids, you get to enjoy the river banks wildlife and nature – monkeys, sloths, birds, frogs, iguanas to name a few. There is plenty to do around here – zip lining, hanging bridges through the forests, a visit to the waterfall to name a few ideas.

Leaving Arenal we travelled around lake Arenal - man made, it is the country’s largest landlocked body of water, with a surface that covers nearly 33 square miles. Again, there is plenty to do; water activities on offer here including windsurfing, fishing, boat tours and kayaking.

Our last stop on this trip was the fun characterful surfing town of Tamarindo. On the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, it used to be a fishing village but has grown to be quite a mecca for surfers. It’s a beautiful stretch of coastline, surrounded by National Parks. Don’t be surprised to see more howler monkeys swinging in the trees and look out for large iguanas coming up the tables expecting leftovers!

Guanacaste, the west of Costa Rica has the feel of the wild west. When driving to the river for our river safari we saw a few  “sabaneros “(cowboys) who still raise horses and bulls in this particular region of Costa Rica.

A river safari up the Tempisque River, Costa Rica’s largest river, was a great opportunity to see crocodiles in the wild. As the boat gently chugs up river, the crocodiles slip into the water. Not sure if it was the season but we saw many baby crocodiles along the way, monkeys, tropical birds and more iguanas!

If I had more time, we would have stayed at the Osa Peninsula, one of the most untouched places on earth with mountainous terrain and isolated beaches. Other areas to look out for are Tortuguero National Park. That is an area of canals, lagoons and dense rainforests where you can see the turtles hatching along the Caribbean coast line.

Rain forest, cloud forest, dry forest and even mangroves (they can be called forest too, can’t they!) Costa Rica has it all. Its rich in diversity and surely offers the Pura Vida – good life for all who care to visit.

Karen Simmonds would like to thank Travel Excellence who assisted her & her family. Travel Matters offer bespoke travel arrangements to Costa Rica. Contact them 0208 675 7878 Email info@travelmatters.co.uk

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