Posts tagged authentic
Kerala with Karen

Cochin airport, our airport of arrival in Kerala, is the first airport in the world to be run on solar energy. It has more than 46,000 solar panels which take the bright sunlight and converts it into energy. The airport is extremely clean, spacious and with this accolade to shout about – we were already impressed by the “God’s Own Country” strap line and care that the people of Kerala have towards this part of India. We had read up about Kerala’s attitude to responsible tourism and our first encounter on arrival got some brownie points.

Kerala is one of the southern states in India and boasts over 600kms of coastline, the Arabian Sea, as well as a beautiful interior of countryside, banana and rubber plantations, mountains, waterfalls and the backwaters – meandering canals that take you past fields, coconut groves, small village hamlets and villages.

First stop for us was Cochin (Kochi)– we got around on tuk tuks as well as on foot and used the public ferry to cross from Willingdon Island to Fort Cochin. Walking around Jew Town, we past independent shops selling handicrafts, silks, spices, artefacts and perfumes. The walk was colourful, relaxed and interesting – there was no hassle from shop keepers or bartering.

Look out for the Chinese fishing nets on the beachfront, they are unique to Cochin. These nets are found only in Cochin, outside China! We checked out St. Francis Church as it is the oldest church built by Europeans in India. Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese trader who reached India from Europe by sea, fell ill and died in Cochin. His burial spot is within the church.

The second part of our Kerala adventure was 24 hours on the backwaters. We headed to Allepey and embarked on a houseboat to cruise this water network. There is over 900kms of waterways including five large lakes linked by canals, fed by no less than 38 rivers. They extend half the length of Kerala state. The kettuvallams (houseboats) were traditionally used as grain barges, to transport the rice harvested in the fertile fields alongside the backwaters.

Marari Beach Resort – is one of the CGH properties. It is a small slice of heaven on earth and we were blessed to be based here for several days. CGHEarth Hotels have a model which should be an example to any business. Their company ethos and response to nature and people are a force for good and are very much reflected in everything they offer - from their care to the environment in architecture style and locations of their properties to the staff, services and activities you can experience. A winning formula.

The last part of our family adventure in Kerala was a stay at Dewalokam. Run by the most hospitable of hosts, Jose and Sinta. Dewalokam is a working farm and homestay and offers peaceful surroundings by the riverside. You are treated to home grown produce and freshly cooked traditional Keralan food. A guided walk around the farm will teach you all about the various spices that grown here like pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger and turmeric.

Dewalokam is a working farm, run on organic and eco principles. The water is heated with solar power, vegetables grown with home-made compost, chickens and goats fed on vegetable waste and methane from the cows manure is recovered to provide gas for cooking.

We spent a relaxing afternoon down by the river, jumping off the rope swing into the water and paddling in the inflatable boat whilst glimpsing the azure flash of kingfishers' wings as well as spotting egrets, herons, white ibis and hornbills.

We had to leave a little earlier than planned from this retreat – there had been violent protests around Kerala after two women made history by entering the prominent Sabarimala temple. It had been closed to women before. Our hosts advised us not to travel on the road between 6am and 6pm for fear of being caught in the protests.I must add that this did not mar our experiences and impressions of Kerala one bit. Kerala is a world away from the somewhat chaotic areas of India's other states. Kerala is serenely beautiful, peaceful, mystical and a balm to the soul. Its culture, literature and development have always made India proud and with a literacy rate of 93.91 among its own, scholars believe that the education system in Kerala has already achieved the momentum required to lead the entire country towards positive development. We welcome and celebrate that fact and want to encourage you to visit Kerala for yourself.

Karen travelled with her family to Kerala in December 2018. Ask her for details or drop us a line for more information.

Six highlights of Martinque
 

Martinique, locally named Madinina - The Isle of Flowers, is enormously popular with the French, not surprising considering it's history and the number of direct flights from Paris. However, with croissants and palm trees, all perched near a live volcano, Martinique is the definition of a refined French-Caribbean island and is an excellent base from which to start a sailing trip around St Vincent and the Grenadines as I did last month with Dream Yacht Charter  It's worth tagging on an extra couple of days before or after your trip to explore the island. Here are a few of my highlights.

Beaches

The island is 80 km by 39 km and no point is more than 12 km from the sea. The number one reason that most people visit the Caribbean is for it's beaches and Martinique has some pretty fine ones. Sainte-Anne, the area at the southern tip of the island has many headlands and coves with some beautiful white sand beaches. Being one of the major tourist spots of the island, Sainte Anne is also known for promoting sustainable development, so brownie points there #20yearstravelmatters. Le Diamant, in the south has a lovely 4 km beach and the tourist hub of Les Trois-Islets also has a handful of  great beaches. My personal favourite however was the beach at Anse d'Arlet Bourg, a traditional fishing village whose 18th century Roman Catholic church doors open almost immediately on to the beach. It's a lovely setting and as I was there on a Sunday and am catholic, particularly special to celebrate mass followed immediately by a dip in the sea.

Markets

Markets are part and parcel of life in Martinique. Forget your five a day, you can choose from dozens of different kinds of fruit and veg, some familiar and others less so. After days at sea it was fun to observe and rub shoulders with the local population as well as immersing myself in the exotic scents, tastes and colours. I particularly loved the passion fruits the size of grapefruits and a fruit, bizarrely not nameless but called anon and part of the custard apple family with the flavour of banana, vanilla, pineapple and mango all in one. Meanwhile, on every menu fish is king, the village of St Luce walking distance from my hotel along the shoreline was an excellent place for a very affordable grilled lobster eaten al fresco in a beach shack.

Hotel

Martinique is not short of accommodation ranging from luxury hotels to apartments, Caribbean inns, resorts, villas and country guesthouses.  I stayed at Residence Pierre & Vacances, a brand I know from mostly ski resorts in France.The Pierre & Vacances Holiday Village Sainte-Luce takes its name from the attractive fishing village nearby. Bordered by white sandy beaches, it extends down to the sea with a vast tropical garden and even bigger pool.  The latter particularly got the big thumbs up from me, especially at night, lit up with multi colours changing from blue, to red to green (initially another case of had I been consuming too much rum!). The guests were mostly French (so a chic and stylish bunch around the pool, restaurants and bars) and lets be honest here, the French are not going to settle for poor quality food lacking in flavour and so the latter was impressive for what is essentially a 3 star property. Set along the central pathway, the air-conditioned apartments are grouped into red-roofed buildings, typical of the tropics and all in all it was perfect base to relax initially after my flight and from which to explore the island.

Habitation Clement

"All roads lead to ... rum" and as I drank vast quantities of it on my cruise around the Grenadines, I opted for a tour of a rum distillery to discover more about the pirates tipple of choice.  Wherever you are on Martinique, a rum distillery is never far away.The rum-making season is February to June, when you'll be able to see the distilleries operating. Today nine distilleries in Martinique welcome visitors for a sampling of their product. I chose The Clement Estate, a huge 160 hectare estate, located in the town of Le Francois. There's a century-old rum house, a contemporary art museum, gardens to wander around, an 18th century creole plantation house complete with antique furniture and of course plenty of  rum to sample.

La Savane des Esclaves

La Savane des Esclaves opened in 2004 is a traditional creole village recreated by Gilbert Larose, a Martinican passionate about his island and its history. He created the site as a duty to never forget the history of slavery and the knowledge and traditions of the inhabitants of the countryside after its abolition. There are a total of 13 recreated huts and attractions from a field slaves' huts on a plantation to a museum and exhibitions. It's very well done with excellent written descriptions. You come away with a better understanding of the horrors of the slave trade and I'd recommend combining a visit here with a stop at Anse Cafard Slave memorial, a cluster of stone statues overlooking the sea commemorating the fate of dozens of slaves who lost their lives in a shipwreck of the coast.

Carnival

Like many Caribbean islands, Carnival is a popular tradition in Martinique. Organised festivities start on the Sunday following Epiphany and reach their peak during the days around Fat Tuesday (Pancake Day) and climax the Wednesday night. This year the five days of popular revelry will take place from March 2nd - 6th. I was lucky enough to be in Fort de France (the capital) on Sunday 20th January to catch one of the pre Carnival parades and what a spectacle of colour, music, drumming, noise, dancing, jubilant crowds and some pretty wacky home-made costumes. If this was just a warm up, the actual main festivities are bound to be something special with a different parade on each day: on Monday a burlesque wedding, on Fat Tuesday red devils and on Ash Wednesday she-devils, rambunctious mourners in black and white outfits. Getting a tiny taste of Carnival was for me the undoubted highlight of my visit to Martinique.

I also loved the quirky historical sites, who knew it was the birthplace of Napoleon's empress Josephine and that it's part of the EU, so no roaming charges on your phone - all in all Martinique was a perfect combination of Caribbean beauty and European flair.

To find out more about Martinique

Written by Petra Shepherd.

 
Madeira - a huge botanical garden

Madeira resembles a huge botanical garden, for a nature lover like myself it is a constant feast to the eyes, ears and the nose. Even in winter many flowers stay in bloom and the island retains its lush vegetation.

With its mountainous landscape and abundant greenery Madeira somewhat reminded me of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. Being a subtropical island, Madeira once was all covered by the indigenous rainforest, but the original settlers set fire to some parts of the island to clear the land for farming, giving the island its name in the process. Did you know that Madeira meant "wood" in Portuguese?

I travelled in November and we were blessed with a lovely weather, although we did have two days of rain, the spells were short-lived and gave way to bright sunshine. The island is called the land of the eternal spring, as even in winter the temperatures always stay in mid-teens. Summers are pleasantly warm and rarely get scorchingly hot.

The weather of course can vary depending on the altitude. Thus, when we travelled to Pico do Areeiro we were greeted by chilly rain and fog. Not surprising, considering that at 1,818 m high, it is the Island's third highest peak.

It is peculiar that in a land where butterflies fly around even in winter, almost every year you can encounter snow at the higher peaks of Madeira. No wonder locals say that Madeira Island is the only place where you can have 4 seasons in a day!

Being a volcanic island Madeira, has several peaks and is an ideal destination for hikers and cyclists. I highly recommend hiring a car and going around, otherwise you are bound to miss out on the most amazing sceneries and in Madeira, every stop presents a photo opportunity.

Madeira isn’t celebrated for its beaches and its sister island Porto Santo is much more suited for the task. Being a ferry ride (or a short flight) away it combines beautifully with Madeira.

Alternatively, how fun is it swimming in a natural pool like the one in Porto Moniz in Madeira?

But Madeira is not all about nature, it is also paradise for seafood lovers and there is no better place to sample it than in one of Madeira’s fishing villages.

Maryna has seen two very different properties whilst in Madeira. The first one was a very modern, edgy SPA hotel located in a picturesque location in Calheta. She loved spacious rooms with balconies overlooking the mountains and the ocean, as well as their gorgeous roof top infinity pool.

The second property was the iconic Belmond Reid’s Palace, very different in style, considering it was the first five-star hotel on the island and still manages to retain its period charm. Afternoon tea at Belmond Reid’s Palace is considered to be one of the must-dos while visiting the island. It can also be combined with a tour of the hotel's famous gardens. Staying at the hotel is even better, of course!

Reid’s Palace has hosted many a distinguished guest over the years, one of them was Winston Churchill who wanted to escape somewhere ‘warm, bath-able, comfortable and flowery’ where he could paint and work on his memoirs. That fits the description of Madeira perfectly!

Next time you want to go somewhere “flowery”, you know where it is! And as always, we are always here to help.

Maryna travelled to the island in November.

Slovenia - #IfeelsLOVEnia

Ever since Ljubljana held the title of European Green Capital in 2016, I’ve had great interest to visit. Slovenia may be a small European country – but it packs a punch.

It connects the Alps, the Mediterranean and the Pannonian Plain and being a country, which has the word Love in its name, you’ll find it difficult not to fall in love with its scenic beauty. Mountains, forests, waterfalls, lakes – with over half of the country covered with forest, you’ll be truly inspired.

I can’t think of a better location for my first experience of Connections Adventure.

Connections is a global networking platform for individuals who specialise in high-end adventure travel. It draws together people from all over the world, setting up introductions to develop new business relationships in the most innovative way.

My base for the conference was the Hotel Intercontinental Ljubljana. Looked after perfectly by the gorgeous, Janette Skorc. The Intercontinental is the new kid on the block in the city. It’s Ljubljana’s tallest hotel and the location to the Old Town is very close by. I really enjoyed the views from the spa on the 18th floor – the foothills and the city can be seen from being seated in the sauna!

Each day was so varied and full of exciting treats. Instead of sitting desk bound to meet new potential suppliers and buyers, we were encouraged to undertake various activities together. The ethos being that a shared experience deepens relationships. I am converted.

After an introduction about the Connections Adventure formula and some group discussions, we heard an insightful talk from Caroline Bremner of Euromonitor International. “Will tourism be the new smoking?” We were encouraged to look ahead to future tourism challenges amidst climate chaos, restrictions, barriers, bans, personal quotas on travel to name a few topics

Lipica Stud Farm was where we headed for the afternoon. One of the oldest stud farms, operating since the 16th century, the Lipizzaner horses are world renowned. Such a special opportunity to understand more from a horse whisperer and a joy to see so many white horses on this estate.

Lake Bled – probably the icon of Slovenia tourism, doesn’t disappoint. Hire a bike to enjoy the 6km circumference of the lake, it’s a perfect way to enjoy the environs. If you want to be on the water, you could consider spending a day with some of the best athletes in rowing. I was fortunate to meet these two Olympic rowing heros – Luka Spik and Janez Klemenic. They tried to teach me the basic rowing skills.

Whilst at Lake Bled, the inspirational Natalia Cohen shared her story of perseverance, courage and sheer tenacity. Natalia was part of the first all-female team to row unsupported across the Pacific Ocean. Her skills lie in leadership, team dynamics, positive mindset and mindfulness – thank you Natalia for sharing your story. You can learn about her latest venture here Losing Sight of Shore.

Despite the terrific stormy weather we experienced whilst in Slovenia, we enjoyed some time in the ski resort of Krvavec. This resort is the closest European ski resort to any airport - just 20 minutes away. Imagine a cultural city break for the weekend with some time on the ski slopes too - then Ljubljana is your answer. Whilst in the resort of Kravavec, I discovered tubing – an exhilarating pastime of hauling yourself onto an inflatable ring and sliding down the mountain. Hilarious!

The hospitality throughout was authentic, rich and immersive. Dining was superb and I want to thank all the chefs and their teams for creating such delicious meals during my stay.

Micaela Giacobbe of Connections Adventure – your vision for networking in this manner is truly successful. The experience has been impactful and innovative. For me, it was well curated, executed and well organised. It has certainly fulfilled what it set out to do – create long lasting connections for suppliers and buyers alike. Thank you and your very capable team. Thanks too to the following people and organisations: Mattej Knific and Mattej Valencic from Luxury Slovenia DMC, Mladen Ljubisic from the Slovenia Tourist Board, Janette Skorc, Intercontinental Ljubljana.

Karen travelled to Slovenia in October with Connections Adventure. If interested to hear more about the country, contact her on 0208 675 7878 or email info@travelmatters.co.uk    

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.

The Byron at Byron Resort & Spa

Bryon Bay is Australia's easternmost town, home to excellent beaches and lush rain forests.  It really needs no introduction, having been a popular holiday destination seemingly forever. It was very much on the radar when my contemporaries were taking their gap year (we called it a year off!) and now my nephews and nieces back-packing around Australia are also getting to enjoy the town's unique vibe.

However, I've decided I'm now a flash-packer as opposed to back-packer, seeking comfort, good food and unique experiences. I was in Byron Bay in December and The Byron at Byron, my chosen resort for a two night stay ticked all these boxes. A friend, Elizabeth was also coming to join me, a 4 hour drive from her Queensland home (probably not a long journey by Australian standards) but nevertheless I wanted a treat place for us to stay and for her trip to be worthwhile. The award-winning The Byron at Byron Resort and Spa is Byron Bay's leading resort, offering exceptional accommodation, a day spa and restaurant. The resort sits within a 45 acre subtropical rain forest that teams with wildlife and endangered ecosystems and is just minutes from Byron Bay town centre.

Whenever I stay anywhere before I even check out the room I like to check out the swimming pool. The infinity pool at The Byron at Byron is not hard to miss and is perhaps one of the most iconic features of the resort. 25 metres (so excellent for doing lengths and plenty of room for everyone), deep blue tiles and more than enough sunbeds to go round. Life at The Byron at Bryon focuses around the pool, the restaurant, bar and reception area all over look it and from the pool to the beach there are acres of rain forest with the accommodation hidden amongst the trees.

My room was fully air-conditioned, a must in the Australian summer heat. Byron has an enviable climate of warm winters and hot summers. More than enough space with an L shaped lounge, galley kitchen and dining table for four. A creature of habit, I'd brought along my PG Tips for my morning cuppa but for coffee lovers there was a Nespresso coffee machine, also two balconies to relax on and listen to the rainforest coming to life and a shower and separate bath to soak in. No complaints here, except surrounded by trees there are of course no sea views and it can get a little dark. However, the sea is not far away.

A few minutes walk brings you to Tallow Beach, one of those jaw dropping Australian beaches that go on for ever and ever. The surfs not bad either. Australian's get up very early, so do as the Aussies do and join the power walkers on the beach at 7 am before heading back to the resort for breakfast and the rest of the day by the pool.

For the more active, the resort offers plenty of activities. Tennis, bike hire, a gym, 2 km of rainforest boardwalks and a complimentary rain forest walk. Guide Graham Read takes you on an informative journey through the tropical rain forest, giving insight into the history of this sensitive site and its transformation from a derelict area to what it is today. If you want to visit Byron Bay itself, there's a complimentary shuttle bus offering three services daily to and from the centre of town.

Elizabeth is a yoga fanatic and was thrilled that the resort offers a complimentary daily yoga class for all ages and stages but was not so thrilled by the 8 am prompt start. However, still a great way to welcome in the new day. The yoga class takes place on the spa deck and mats are provided.

I, on the other hand, am a foodie fanatic and dinner at the resort's restaurant by chef Matthew Kemp didn't disappoint. Matthew Kemp is one of Australia's most recognised and respected chefs. Michelin trained and originally from the UK, he opened his own restaurant,  Restaurant Balzac in Sydney's Eastern suburb in 2000 to much critical acclaim. Kemp fuses European cuisine and Asian flavours in his own individual way. The restaurant, bar, reception and relaxation deck have also all recently been transformed by leading interior architect Rachel Luchetti (also responsible for the The Four Seasons Hotel and Centennial Hotels in Sydney)  This major upgrade has only just been completed, so for all those who may already know the resort, I'd recommend returning to see the exciting changes, particularly the new statement copper island bar.  During my stay, there were a few members of the barmy army staying soaking up their sorrows from England's disastrous test series and various children happily enjoying the pool and smaller ones the wading pool.

All in all, the resort has a great vibe. If you're heading to Brisbane and the Gold Coast and looking for somewhere quieter to unwind, then I can highly recommend The Byron and Byron. It's also a perfect base to explore the Byron Bay region with it's strong cultural reputation and relaxed lifestyle, not forgetting the surfing, beaches and whale watching, between June and October humpback whales can be spotted from headland viewpoints such as the Captain Cook Lookout. This laid back corner of Australia has been drawing visitors for years and it's not difficult to see why.

To find out more about The Byron at Byron visit https://www.thebyronatbyron.com.au/

To find out more about Byron Bay visit http://www.australia.com/en/places/sydney-and-surrounds/guide-to-byron-bay.html

Petra Shepherd travelled to Byron Bay in December 2017

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.

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.

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.  

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/

A journey towards peaceful and sustainable travel

This guest blog is written by Louis D’Amore, President and Founder of The International Institute of Peace Through Tourism (IIPT) and Prakash Sikchi, CEO of Inspirock.

Founded in 1986, the International Institute For Peace Through Tourism (IIPT) is a not for profit organisation dedicated to fostering and facilitating tourism initiatives which contribute to international understanding and cooperation, an improved quality of environment, the preservation of heritage, poverty reduction, and healing the wounds of conflict and through these initiatives, helping to bring about a peaceful and sustainable world. It is based on a vision of the world's largest industry, travel and tourism - becoming the world's first global peace industry; and the belief that every traveller is potentially an "Ambassador for Peace.- www.iipt.org

The IIPT first introduced the concept of sustainable tourism development at its First Global Conference: Tourism – A Vital Force for Peace, Vancouver in 1988. It also produced the world’s first Codes of Ethics and Guidelines for Sustainable Tourism in 1992. The organisation also runs a regular and much respected conference programme which has produced a series of Declarations. These have had a positive impact on the travel industry and helped to shape and inform international debate on tackling poverty and improving cross-cultural understanding. Of particular note is the Amman Declaration on Peace and Tourism, which was officially adopted as a UN document and the Lusaka Declaration on Sustainable Development, Climate Change and Peace.

A Meeting of Minds

It was at World Travel Market, following a presentation by Prakash Sikchi, that he and Mr D’Amore first met. Prakash immediately identified with the mission of encouraging every traveller to be “An Ambassador for Peace” and to embrace the life changing experience and diversity afforded by travel. They spoke about IIPT’s history and plans for the IIPT/Skal International “Travel for Peace” campaign with the aim of connecting travellers with local cultures, businesses and some of the planet’s most stunning and inspiring environments.

As a result of this meeting, Prakash Sikchi and his colleagues at Inspirock began discussing how to support this valuable part of IIPT’s work and remain connected in a meaningful way with today’s modern traveller.

Following these discussions and a subsequent meeting between Prakash and Lou D’Amore it was decided to integrate an online trip planner onto the new IIPT ‘Travel for Peace’ website and make it a central component of the new Travellers for Peace campaign.

Looking to the Future

Over the last three decades the IIPT has been motivating the travel and tourism industry to be an even greater force for good and has been reminding travellers of the great privilege it is to see the world and visit new sites and cultures and, today, is introducing its aims and agenda to a whole new audience. The Travel for Peace Campaign is the first of several major initiatives that IIPT has planned for its 30th anniversary year. Hotels, travel agents, tour operators and all other sectors of the industry are invited to become charter members of the IIPT/Skal Travel for Peace Campaign.

For more information on becoming a charter member of the campaign – please contact Lou D’Amore, email: ljd@iipt.org.

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.

Responsible Tourism Awards celebrate 10 years

Responsible Tourism Awards 2016 - 10th anniversaryIt's that time of year again when I find myself being wrestling on and off the DLR to muscle in with thousands of fellow travel people visiting World Travel Market at London's Excel. And can it be really true that we are indeed celebrating 10 years of the responsible tourism awards, organised at WTM? Where has the time gone!

I want to celebrate how far the movement has come, a collective of individuals, organisations and destinations banging the drum for better places for people, treating communities we visit with respect, conserving and protecting the environment as well as the animals in the countries we travel to - making travel matter.

This year the judges of the Responsible Tourism Awards awarded two very different category winners:

Lemon Tree Hotels who are recognised for creating a socially inclusive work environment, employing people with disabilities and those from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  The judges were delighted to see a large major successful corporate with progressive employment practices at the heart of the business.

The joint winner was Tren Ecuador , who have created an experience for tourists with shared value including 23 station-cafes, 14 artisanal squares, 13 local museums, 2 lodges, 9 folklore as well as several community-based tourism operations. The result is a family of associated enterprises which creates 5000 livelihoods for people in local communities along the tracks.

As Justin Francis, founder of the awards said “As an activist you are never happy,” However, reflecting on the 20 years he has worked to make the industry take responsible tourism seriously, he did see signs of progress.

I agree with Justin on that - there are many more companies, hoteliers and destinations who have seen sense that sustainable and responsible business practice is the right way to go. Our finite world needs good stewardship. There are pressures facing our planet and its people which are too important for us to compromise. Let us look ahead to the next 10 years, especially with 2017 being the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

We've got some Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to meet and tourism is included as targets under three of them.

SDG 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all;

SDG 12: Sustainable Consumption and Production

SDG 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

We here at Travel Matters will endeavour to play our part and promote responsible and ethical travel practices, helping travellers make better choices, enabling a positive contribution to the communities and countries they visit.

Karen Simmonds is the owner of Travel Matters.

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

Marrakech and Essaouira

 Morocco is normally all about staying in a riad but occasionally you'll want to splash out and stay at a larger, more luxurious hotel with all the amenities - better the devil you know ! On a recent trip to Marrakech (a treat for my Aunt to celebrate her 70th Birthday) I was lucky enough to sample the delights of two sumptuous such hotels. The Four Seasons needs no introduction, the 5 star award winning luxury international hotel chain is known the world over, not only for it's quality of service  but all the little touches and attention to detail and that's before we even get on to the food. I've stayed at Four Seasons from Budapest to Buenos Aires, from Miami to Milan, there's no disguising I'm a big fan of the brand and was looking forward to seeing the Marrakech hotel which opened in 2011.

The great thing about Marrakech is that everything is within each reach of not only the airport but Jemaa el-Fnaa (the main square and entry to the souk).  However, if you're spending your day exploring the old city with all it's colour and vibrancy, you'll want an oasis of calm to get back to and that's exactly what The Four Seasons offers. It's just 4 km (minutes in a taxi) from Jemaa el-Fnaa and 5 km from the cities two other big attractions Majorelle Garden (or more commonly known Yves St Laurent's Garden) and the Bahia Palace.

The hotel is designed as a lush garden sanctuary (the 40 acres are run as a gated resort, so at all times you feel very safe), it never feels crowded and there is no shortage of sun-filled spaces to relax in. Two swimming pools frame a jar dropping fountain courtyard and I loved the fact that one swimming pool is adults only but the family one is equally tasteful, no garish water slides or water features here. However, the Kids Club still has plenty of activities to keep little ones amused - treasure hunts and movies, talent shows and musical games, even Arabic calligraphy. If you've got children, I'd recommend using the time when they're being entertained  to experience the resort's hamman. In Morocco, spending time in a steamy hamman is a centuries-old tradition.  The experience is all about water, moving from various hot and cold plunge pools to the humid warmth of the hamman itself.

Dining wise, we made the most of the balmy evening temperatures and eat al fresco, savoring Italian gourmet dishes at Solano, one of the resorts 3 restaurants but for some true Moroccan specialties we headed to another of Marrakech's top hotels The Royal Mansour.

Nestled inside the ancient walls of the city Yannick Alléno, the much-garlanded Michelin starred Parisian chef,  has created in La Grande Table Marocaine a stand bearer for Morocco’s culinary reputation. It was a truly unforgettable dining experience, bold flavours and unusual pairings, we started with sh’hiawtes or Moroccan-style vegetable salad followed by the restaurant’s signature dish, shoulder of lamb slow cooked at a low temperature to give it an unique melting flavour.

Marrakech is exotic but safe, easily doable over a long weekend and one of those perfect places to splash out on for an anniversary or big birthday celebration. I have no hesitation in recommending both The Four Seasons and The Royal Mansour (currently closed for renovation but re-opening again in early September)  as special treat hotels to spoil a loved one.

Essaouira, Morocco’s seaside city is easily combined with Marrakech (just over 2 1/2 hours away by road) or as a destination in itself, there are now direct flights from London, Luton with Easyjet or do as we did, fly in to one and out of the other. Through Classic Collection (one of the specialist tour operators we work with) we can easily organise a transfer between the two along with with a stay at a hotel in the city. Most people come to Essaouira for the wind and boy is it windy, for this is a town where the trade winds blow and has been attracting wind surfers and water sports enthusiasts for years. Yes, the beach is great and goes on for miles and miles but what got my attention was the old town and medina. Essaouira is the perfect town for that favourite sport of teenagers “mooching”. I was there during the May half term week and came across plenty of happy UK teenagers, enjoying the freedom of exploring the medina by themselves, all winding alleys and hidden staircases, bargaining and buying trinkets whilst younger siblings  accompanied by their parents were enthralled by the Arabian Nights mystery of it all, feeling themselves transplanted into the movie Aladdin.

The climate for May and October half terms is perfect. There are added distractions of horse and camel rides along with the essential time spent in the hotel swimming pool. My aunt and I stayed through Classic Collection at le Medina Essaouira Hotel, directly on the beach and only a few minutes walk from the old city walls. The pool is heated with a generous number of sunbeds, there's an elevated sundeck located out of the wind, catching the evening sun and rooms available with balconies and views out across the Atlantic Ocean. The hotel, although still 5 star is not of course in the same bracket as either The Four Seasons or The Royal Mansour but then again neither is the price. It's a perfect place to kick back and relax whilst also being a good reasonably priced family option.

The charm of Essaouira is that it hasn't been entirely taken over by tourism, the vibrant fishing harbour is just as busy as it always was and the medina is as important to locals as it is to tourists. Again, Essaouira makes a great two centre break with Marrakech, although each city is exotic enough in it's own right, easily accessible with some culinary surprises and as I also discovered some excellent hotel options.

Travel Matters can offer stays at The Four Seasons Marrakech http://www.fourseasons.com/marrakech/ The Royal Mansour, Marrakech http://www.royalmansour.com/ and through Classic Collection, a stay at Le Medina, Essaouira Hotel http://www.classic-collection.co.uk/hotels/morocco/essaouira/le-medina-essaouira-hotel-thalassa-sea-and-spa

Easyjet http://www.easyjet.com/en/ has flights all year round directly to Marrakech from London, Gatwich and to Essaouira from London, Luton

Thanks to Petra Shepherd for this blog entry.

Twitter @petra_shepherd

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.

Peninsula hopping in Halkidiki.

Nothing energises you quite as much as a break from it all, even if it is a short one. Lucky for me, I was able to have one last week. This time, I was given a fabulous opportunity to experience Halkidiki, one of Greece’s lesser known destinations. Halkidiki is a region in northern Greece best known for its three peninsulas and I was fortunate enough to see the two of them.

On first impressions, I realised during my road transfer to the hotel is how green everything was and how the air was thick with the smell of pine trees and blooming flowers. Greece is famous for its herbs; every time I go there, I bring back bags, full of mountain tea (also known as shepherds tea), dried camomile, linden blossoms and a very special fragrant variety of mint with tiny purple flowers. Old Greek women say that a cup of mountain tea a day keeps a doctor away!

On my first day in Halkidiki we were given a little tour of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city. Big as it was, it took years to have the underground train system built. Thessaloniki had such a rich history that it had three cities layered on top of each other in the course of centuries. In situations like that drilling involves a certain amount of delays, caused by a fear of potentially destroying an important historical monument or object. Only an archaeological committee could give permission to carry on the works after having examined the site exhaustively.

There is nothing better than sitting in one of the numerous promenade tavernas with a cup of strong Greek coffee and looking at the mount Olympus with its white snow top. Aristotle Place is the centre of Thessaloniki, a location that is never dull or quiet even during the midday siesta. Aristotle is a special figure for this part of Greece as he was born in Stagira, a small town on the northern coast of country, which many Halkidiki travellers visit.

While in Halkidiki, taking a cruise to Mount Athos is strongly recommended. This World Heritage site is located on the third and farthest peninsula – a perfect, hard to reach place for hermits and devout Christians. Mount Athos has its own autonomy within Greece and is known under the official name of Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain. It has its own flag and government - “Holy Community”, consisting of the representatives of the 20 Holy Monasteries. Until this day, women are prohibited from entering to make living in celibacy easier for those who have chosen to do so.

The lengthy boat trip is often split with a rest in Ouranoupoli, a traditional port town. There you can have a delicious and a very reasonably priced lunch in one of the many seaside tavernas. If you have a moment, do wonder off into the labyrinth of narrow characterful streets.

After a long and eventful day of sightseeing, coming back to Anthemus Sea Beach Hotel and Spa was a real bliss. This five star property has everything for a relaxing and comfortable holiday. Set on a private beach with crystal clear water, it is perfect for couples and families alike. The food deserves a separate chapter – very fresh, flavourful and authentically Greek.

If you are after a peaceful holiday, within easy access to civilisation, look no further than Halkidiki.

Maryna travelled to Halkidki and stayed at the Anthemus Sea Beach Resort.

If you would like to enquire about your next trip to Greece, drop us an email on info@travelmatters.co.uk