Posts tagged nature
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    

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Botswana

Botswana - a miraculous transformation. Botswana is a very unique African country, it is a live example that no matter what continent you are on you can create a happy and prosperous society if you channel your money and energy the right way. Formerly the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, Botswana adopted its new name after becoming independent within the Commonwealth on 30 September 1966. It happened in a very civilised way as well – they asked politely to become an independent country and their wish was granted - no war, no bloodshed.

From that time on Botswana had a number of democratic elections, with the process no different and no less transparent than that in the West. A president is elected for five years and can be re-elected for the second term. Interestingly enough, when the time comes, they leave and get succeeded by someone else, unlike other African leaders who are less willing to leave and are known for their persistence and longevity on the political stage.

Up to 70% of Botswana territory is covered by the Kalahari desert, which didn’t help the country’s economy or prosperity much. The country had little to none infrastructure – no roads, no schools no hospitals -.until they found the diamonds.

All diamonds can be traced back to their origin and all profits get invested into the country’s economy. Formerly one of the poorest countries in the world, Botswana has since transformed itself into one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

These days there are roads, hospitals and free education for the first ten years. They don’t have universities yet, but the government came up with a scheme for that. It is estimated that there are approximately 800 Botswanian students currently studying in the UK. Their government pays for students’ flights, accommodation, tuition fees and even winter clothing.

Gaborone is a developed, multicultural city, as you would expect a modern capital to be. There you can find futuristic buildings, shopping malls, hotels and cinemas.

Another thing you can applaud for is the time, money and effort they invest into their conservation projects. They are definitely going to preserve their country for future generations. According to the statistics, there are around 150,000 elephants in the country. They are also involved in rhino relocation programmes – they bring rhinos from South Africa, where the poor animals get poached without mercy.

Botswana once had the world's highest rate of HIV-Aids infection, which has reduced significantly due to extensive funding. Leading the way in prevention and treatment programmes, Botswana has become an exemplar country for many others. It was the first sub-Saharan African country to provide universal free antiretroviral treatment to people living with HIV. The impact of the treatment programme has been widespread. New infections have decreased significantly and AIDS-related deaths have dramatically reduced. Nowadays almost all babies born from infected mothers are HIV-free.

I keep asking myself, what’s the reason for Botswana’s success? Was it the British influence? Was it a collective desire to make their country better for everyone? Or is it because Botswana is Africa's longest continuous multi-party democracy?

My conclusion is a combination of all of the above.

If you would like an exclusive safari experience and to sit under the shade of some of the oldest Baobab trees where Livingstone sat and pondered, do get in contact with us. Capacity is regulated and bed space in some of the biggest lodges do not exceed twenty five beds, so places are limited. 

Thanks to Maryna from Travel Matters for writing this blog and thanks to the Botswana Tourism Board for the use of the images.