Posts tagged responsible family travel
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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look out for the part two of my blog!

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

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.

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.

A journey towards peaceful and sustainable travel

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

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

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

A Meeting of Minds

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

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

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

Looking to the Future

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

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

Responsible Tourism Awards celebrate 10 years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SDG 12: Sustainable Consumption and Production

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

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

Karen Simmonds is the owner of Travel Matters.

The Vidago Palace in Portugal's enchanting Douro valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us begin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maryna visited Cambodia in February 2015