Posts tagged culture
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.

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.

Vietnam & Cambodia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morocco with Maryna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teas and tigers - Petra in India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Genoa for a long weekend - don't mind if I do!

When thinking of a long weekend away in Italy the city of Genoa doesn't immediately spring to mind, which is one of the many good things about a visit to this historical city : fewer tourists than Florence, Venice or Rome, and a shorter flight time to get there too. I went there almost by chance, having been invited to a special birthday party, and just marvelled in delighted surprise at the magnificent buildings : old palaces dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, whose walls are hung with  paintings by Tintoretto and Van Dyke; and cathedrals oozing with gold and beautiful marble statues.

Originally founded by the Phoenicians, this port in the northernmost gulf of the Western Mediterranean is described as a "vertical" city, stretching way up from the bustling port to the surrounding verdant hills. Entrance doors to houses are often on the balcony, and cars are sometimes parked on the roof.  To get a magnificent view of the city and the harbour you can either take a gentle hike up through the narrow streets or take a local bus (not forgetting to buy your ticket from a "tabac" kiosk beforehand - either a 100 minute ticket or for a couple of euros more, one that gives you the option to take as many bus rides as you like over two days), or-  even more fun - take one of several old  funiculars. I took a funicular from Staz Zecca ( right in the centre of the old city)  right to the last stop, turned left and found the most wonderful restaurant serving excellent food and offering a magnificent view of the city and harbour.

The old city centre is easy to navigate and small enough to wander around on foot. You might get a little lost at first in the many little alleys full of spice shops and fresh fish or meat kiosks, but "down" always leads to the sea, and no matter which corner you turn there is another fabulous  building to be investigated. Of course these palaces were mostly built at vast expense with the enormous amount of money made in the days when Genoa was a huge commercial trading centre. Never a great political power, Genoa however played a vital role in the European financial affairs in the 16th and 17th centuries. The influential Banco di San Giorgio that helped finance the doge's palace actually dates from 1407.

Apart from palaces and cathedrals, in a totally pedestrian area in the port there is a splendid Aquarium, where you can find sharks, penguins, dolphins, rays, alligators and hummingbirds. In contrast, a short bus-ride away there is the cemetery, with row upon row of funerary monuments, plus hundreds of well tended gravestones covered with fresh flowers - the many flower stalls by the entrance to this huge cemetery do a great trade. Among the tombs, there is that of Mazzini, one of the main heroes of the Risorgimento and a founding father of United Italy.

No holiday in Italy is complete without a certain amount of indulgence in  food and drink, and there is no shortage of cafes and restaurants where you can find whatever you want at whatever price. Pesto is one of the most traditional "tastes" of the area, and basil is considered to be the "King" of Ligurian cuisine, and both meat and seafood is plentiful. For breakfast "focaccia" (a tasty oven baked bread similar in style to pizza dough) is favourite along with a cappuccino, then topped with onions, olives and filled like a sandwich it makes an ideal afternoon snack. In my experience local wines were all good, certainly very drinkable, along with - of course - Prosecco, which I was lucky enough to be able to indulge in on the terrace of the beautiful Gran Hotel  Savoia. So, why not give Genoa a go for a long weekend? Like me you will probably decide you absolutely  must return and explore more.

Our guest blog is by Pat Pearson who travelled to Italy with Travel Matters in April 2016.

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

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

Let us begin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maryna visited Cambodia in February 2015