Posts tagged experience
Iceland - land of glaciers, waterfalls & geysers

If you are a lover of nature and adventure then there are few places in this world that could compete with Iceland. Maryna was very fortunate to visit this beautiful country courtesy of Exsus. The beauty of Iceland is such that it was a location for many films and TV shows, the most recognisable of which is probably the Game of Thrones.

Waterfall in Iceland

Waterfall in Iceland

Although Iceland has been receiving a lot of tourism in the past few years, I was completely charmed by its unspoilt nature and, having travelled from London, fresh and clean air.

Icelanders are very protective of the environment and their dedication to recycling, reducing the consumption of plastic and conservation was very close to my heart. Iceland is not a cheap country but everything that you get there, be it locally produced clothing or food, is of the highest possible quality. In fact, foodie as I am, I was quite surprised to discover that food in Iceland was absolutely delicious. It was not only the exotic produce, like Minke Wale, wild goose and rain deer but their pairings with interesting flavours like jam and peanut butter that brought it to a whole new level. Iceland caters very well for vegans and vegetarians also, so not a chance to go hungry, as they grow many vegetables locally in green houses.

Their minimalistic approach to accommodation was right up my street also. You won’t find monstrous hotel complexes in Iceland, the hotels tend to have 60-70 rooms on the average and blend seamlessly into the landscape. Expect a lot natural materials, like wood and lava stone, very comfortable but with no bells and whistles - it is all about the view! Most hotels where I stayed had floor to ceiling panoramic windows with the views of the surroundings.

From some windows you could even enjoy the northern nights! Talking about Aurora borealis, the best time to see them if from September until the end of March, although I travelled in April, I was very lucky to see them too.

Iceland has two distinct seasons, summer and winter. Summer, from April to September, is the time for road tripping, hiking, cycling and whale watching. It is also a good time to see colonies of nesting puffins that come to Iceland in the summer. Winter is all about winter activities and northern lights, although some roads could be closed.

From my experience beginning of April is a good compromise between the two, you may already have a chance to spot wales and dolphins, weather permitting and if you are lucky, see the northern lights, like we did, although days do get increasingly longer and it is not typical to spot them past March.

April is also a good time to see two sides of Iceland, the white snowy Reykjavik and the Highlands as well as mossy green area around Vik.

Only three hours away, Reykjavik is a perfect getaway for an adventure weekend. The city itself is quite attractive with its harbour and numerous cool restaurants and bars, but there is also a possibility to jump on a whale/puffing watching boat departing several times per day or take a helicopter tour and observe Iceland’s unparalleled beauty from above.

There are several tours to chose from ranging from one hour to half a day, or even a full day private tour. The last but not the least is of course the Blue Lagoon, ideally located half way between the airport and the city and thus a perfect stop over en route to/from the flight. Or if you have 3-4 day, why not complete the Golden Circle, covering 300km loop from Reykjavik into central Iceland and back? The Golden Circle is a popular tourist route with three primary stops: the national park, Thingvellir, the Gullfoss waterfall and the geothermally active valley, Haukadalur.

If you want to avoid crowds at the stunning Gullfoss waterfall we can highly recommend taking the secret way to it with a fun and exhilarating ATV experience at Einholt farm.

If you have more time, the breath-taking landscapes of Southern Iceland and the south coast are simply incredible and an unmissable part of Iceland holiday.

You will have a chance to visit the village of Vik, Iceland’s most southern village and an ideal base for visiting the many natural gems of the area. Just a short drive away are the impressive Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls, the famous Reynisfjara beach and the Reynisdrangar Pillars, simply known as the Black Beach.

I particularly enjoyed my visit to the glacial lagoon of Jokulsarlon, whose deep blue waters are dotted with icebergs and are home to hundreds of seals in winter. Icebergs then travel into the ocean dotting the beach with crystal-like pieces of ice in the process. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the beach is called Diamond beach.Another memorable experience was Falljokull glacier track and particularly walking in a deep crevass. It was fascinating to learn about the way glaciers form from our knowledgeable guide.

All in all, I can honestly say this was one of the most memorable trips I have ever taken and will gladly discuss it if anyone is planning a trip to the country. Maryna travelled in April 2019 to Iceland

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    

India - Maharajah style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look out for the part two of my blog!

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

Santa Eularia des Riu - Ibiza

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

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

Es Figueral Beach

Es Figueral Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

Petra with traditionally dressed ladies at the May fiesta

Petra with traditionally dressed ladies at the May fiesta

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

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

Petra visited Ibiza in May 2018.

Cyprus in Spring

Cyprus isn’t the place that people readily think of as a destination for Easter holidays, yet having just returned from this beautiful country I highly recommend April as the brilliant time to go. The temperatures are very pleasant and the weather is generally sunny. In fact, Cyprus boasts an impressive 326 days of sun per year. Those who can’t imagine a holiday without swimming in the sea will probably find the water still a bit cold, but then many hotels offer heated pools and staying in pleasantly warm water with gentle sunshine on your face is just pure bliss.For me, April in Cyprus is the definition of perfect weather - mild t-shirt weather that allows you to explore cultural sights and natural wonders comfortably, yet keeping your vitamin D levels in check.

On this trip, I had the privilege to experience two gorgeous hotels – The Anassa and the newly renovated Columbia Beach Resort.I spent three magical nights at the Anassa, courtesy of the Thanos hotel group. The hotel is celebrating 20 years this spring, but its style could only be described as timeless. It is also a regular nominee for World's Best Spa having recently come third according to Conde Nast.

Although Anassa means queen in Greek, it was us who were treated like royalty and all meals that I had there could only be described as feasts. When it comes to food, the chefs at the Anassa do not take shortcuts. Everything is fresh, flavourful and of the highest quality. Even their cheeses are freshly handmade from organic sheep milk - feta, haloumi, ricotta. The location of the property is idyllic, within a national park with a stretch of unspoilt beach.

The hotel is very family friendly and guests can hire bikes, catamarans, go hiking, play tennis or even go scuba diving off St George's island to spot turtles and sea sponges. Columbia Beach Resort is a member of the Small Luxury hotels of the World and has been a favourite of ours for quite some time and has seen a large number of repeat clients. It has been recently renovated and offers traditional as well as more contemporary accommodation, depending on the part of the resort that you choose. The location is really picturesque with its long pebbly beach and the backdrop of mountains. The activities on offer will please even the pickiest  - there are water sports, professional BMC bicycles for hire, as well as the longest pool I have seen anywhere. The resort also has crèche and a kids club. Family hotels do not get better than that!

Cyprus is so much more that a beach destination. The beautiful Troodos Mountains have a network of walking paths with pretty picnic spots, as well as numerous quaint traditional villages. The area is also famous for its religious sites and monasteries and shelters a number of stunning, frescoed late-Byzantine churches. I highly recommend visiting Omodos with its pretty cobbled centre and 12th-century monastery. It makes for a good lunch stop while exploring the mountains. I also loved our visit to Kykkos Monastery which is one of the most opulent monasteries in Cyprus and also has a museum. The location is very picturesque indeed! For wine lovers there are several wine routes to follow and they all are really panoramic. How do you like our stop below?

Paphos is one of the historical centres of Cyprus, with a medieval fortress and the Kato Archaeological Park, which houses some of the world's best-preserved mosaics. In fact, Paphos was awarded European Capital of Culture 2017.

To sum it all up, sunny Cyprus ticks virtually all the boxes for a year round holiday.

Maryna travelled to Cyprus in April courtesy of Thanos hotels and Columbia Beach Resort.

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.  

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.

Crillon le Brave - a hillside retreat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Vidago Palace in Portugal's enchanting Douro valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.