Posts tagged family holidays
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.

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.

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.

Mauritius with Maryna

I must confess, that while many of you had little to no sunshine to enjoy in the UK, I had the privilege to catch some rays in Mauritius, courtesy of Beachcomber hotel group. Before I went to Mauritius I had a stereotype in my head, just like anyone else. What do we instantly think of this little Indian Ocean country? It’s a place where you can find some of the best beaches, world class hotels, scrumptious seafood dishes and a melting pot of culture. Tick, tick, tick, tick plus so much more, as I have discovered. It came as a bit of a surprise that being only the size of Surrey this island country kept me occupied for good six days.

In my opinion the southern and the northern parts of the island differ enough for them both to deserve a visit. The north west boasts of the best beaches on the island. If powdery white sand similar to that in the Maldives is your idea of a perfect beach than that is where you need to be headed. From there you can also take a day trip to Port Louis, the capital and the biggest city in Mauritius full of cultural and historical treasures that should not be missed.

On the other hand the southern part of the island is ideal for nature enthusiasts as well as for beach lovers. The majestic mountains and lush vegetation set the scene for a holiday that can’t be forgotten. This part of the island has also kept a feeling of “old Mauritius”, whether it is the manner of the people, their traditions or the unspoilt scenery.

A visit to La Vanille Nature Park will make for an enjoyable day out for the whole family. It is home to a vast array of wildlife including giant tortoises, who are extremely friendly and enjoy a good tickle under their chins.

A drive to Black River Gorges national park is as spectacular as the park itself, famous for its waterfalls, vistas, bird-watching and hiking.

While there take a short detour to the “seven-colored earth” of Chamarel, a major tourist attraction of Mauritius, created by volcanic rocks that cooled at different temperatures.

If rum is your tipple of choice or you are just fascinated by how things are produced then a visit to Rhumerie De Chamarel could be easily combined with the above activities.I was extremely fortunate to experience all eight Beachcomber properties, that are scattered around the island. Being the oldest hotel group in Mauritius they had a privilege to pick the best and most exclusive locations throughout the island before their competitors saw the potential of the destination.

It’s not an exaggeration when I say that their hotels can offers something for everyone. They range from four to an impressive six star and are perfect for families, golfers and romantic breaks alike.

British Airways offer an excellent overnight direct service to Mauritius from London Gatwick.

Maryna travelled courtesy of Beachcomber Hotels and their partner British Airways in December 2016

Responsible Tourism Awards celebrate 10 years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SDG 12: Sustainable Consumption and Production

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

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

Karen Simmonds is the owner of Travel Matters.

PURA VIDA in Costa Rica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sicily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen travelled with Prestige Holidays to Sicily in May 2016.

Peninsula hopping in Halkidiki.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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