Irritating Things About Hotels

angry hotel roomThe weather at home has been diabolical. You’ve saved hard all year for your two weeks of sun, sea and sand, you want to chill and relax, but how likely is this? I suspect most of us think flying is the most difficult, stressful part of our holiday, but what about the hotel you’ve so carefully chosen? How likely is it to raise your blood pressure?

Having recently spent three months travelling, many of the places I stayed in failed to get the basics right. Here is my personal list of irritations.

The welcome – you arrive at your hotel reception hot, sticky and tired only to be faced with so many simultaneous issues even the most proficient multi-tasker is challenged. The form you need to complete requires your passport to be retrieved from the bottom of your bag, you’re asked to produce a credit card for extras whilst trying to listen to the fast patter about meal times and location of the pool. If you’re lucky, you’ll be juggling a cold flannel and welcome drink.

Lighting – why is there always a sequence for switching on and off the huge number of lights? If you don’t suss it quickly, you end up recreating the sound and light show at Egypt’s Karnak temple every night before you go to bed. There’s always one light bulb that doesn’t work and lighting levels are generally insufficient for reading anything but a large print book.

The safe key – having got to your room, you find the safe and a sign saying, “key available at reception for a deposit”. So, you traipse all the way back to reception when you’re invariably in the room furthest away. One safe I encountered required my fingerprint to open it, or not as was generally the case.

The safe location – why is the safe always in the most difficult location at the bottom of a dark wardrobe requiring you to get on hands and knees to open it?

Wi-fi – once everything is safely stowed, you try to connect your lap-top but realise you need a password, which after looking at the information sheet, is “available from reception”. Why don’t hotels automatically provide safe keys and passwords without being prompted? And why is it, that the more expensive the hotel, the more they charge for wi-fi?

Double rooms for one – when you’ve paid for a double room, which usually means that two people will spend the night in it, why is there only one chair even when there’s ample space? And why only one suitcase rack – how many couples travel with one suitcase between them?

Bathrooms – a constant source of irritation. I cannot count the number of times when I’ve started the week with three face-flannels only to find they disappear one by one. My towels will be replaced, but not my flannels. When I hang up my towels to be kind to the environment by saying I’ll use them again, why do they ignore me and replace them anyway? And having being let down so many times, one of my “must pack” items is a universal sink plug.

The loo – I appear to be very unlucky, as invariably during a week-long holiday, my partner end up with his hand in the cistern to either stop the constant dribble of water or get the thing flushing properly.

Well, having got that off my chest and feeling much better, what about your thoughts on the most irritating things about hotels? It could be something general (I’ve not even mentioned ‘the lift’, ‘fixed coat hangers’ and ‘towel sculptures’), or a splendid one-off irritating experience.  The winner might even win a one night stay at my least favourite hotel at their own expense.

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Your Holiday Decision: To Relax Or To Explore?

This is the question many people deliberate over each year when deciding upon what to do for their holiday. Is relaxing by the beach ‘a waste of time’ compared with exploring a new country?

 “Too often travel, instead of broadening the mind, merely lengthens the conversation.”
 – Elizabeth Drew

I think she’s obviously had a bad experience from a couple of travellers at a dinner party! In my opinion travel/exploring really does broaden the mind. Now I’m not suggesting that you subject friends to the horror of your 2000+ slide show presentation with 5 hour video of your holiday, not even Guantanamo Bay would employ that sort of level of torture!

Having said that, travel/exploring makes sure you have at least one thing  interesting to talk about and gives you a new perspective on the day-to-day things in comparison with other countries. One of the best things about exploring a country is experiencing everyday things for the first time, no matter how small they may be. For example, why do we, as a nation, have cereal or toast for breakfast?  Why not try another country’s breakfast for a week? Go Mexican and have a burrito!

However, there is something to be said about going away just to relax and recharge your batteries. It may be the only time of year you can properly rest and switch off. You might be so exhausted that all you want to do is lie by the pool with a book and a cocktail. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Everybody needs that from time to time. All I would say is that if you do that please don’t do it on the doorstep of an amazing culture and sights to explore. If you do take a least a day trip or two. Bear in mind the words of James Michener…

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.”
– James Michener

Exploring a country firsthand challenges your perception of it. You finally view the world how it is, not the way you thought it was through all the influences of media, friends and family. You will see cultures and people in a new light and nothing will ever again be black and white to you again.

“I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.”
– Bill Bryson

If you go on holiday to explore a new country you’ve never been to, even the most mundane part of the  journey somehow becomes a bit more exciting, as you’re heading into a completely new experience for yourself.

What I would suggest is this: why not compromise and have a few days or both relaxing and exploring? When it comes down to it, holidays are pointless unless they change something on the inside, whether it be the reset button on your stress levels or changing your life in a completely new direction from an amazing experience you’re had. Both are important and equally valid outcomes from holidays. At the end of the day its down to personal choice and what is right for you at that point in your life.

It’s important to remember that when you do choose, make sure it’s what you want to do and not what your others expect/want you to do.   You’re the one who’s worked hard all year, it’s your money paying for it, it’s your holiday entitlement being used .  It’s your choice, so make sure that it’s a holiday you can enjoy, otherwise  what’s the point?

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British Virgin Islands – Virgin Gorda

The Baths:

Virgin Gorda is a small island just off Tortola in the Caribbean.  On the south side of the island is a national park known as The Baths, which is one of the most beautiful and unspoilt places I have been lucky enough to visit. There is a short climb down a hill to a quiet beach, which is gorgeous itself – flanked by palm trees, white sand underfoot, and the waves lashing against the granite boulders along the coastline, evidence of the islands volcanic beginnings. You would be forgiven for settling your towel down right there, putting Morcheeba on your Ipod and forgetting everything, but there is a real adventure to the left of the beach at the entrance to The Baths. You enter a series of caves, only just dark enough to evoke a sense of mystery rather than fear, with beams of hot sunlight through the cracks in the rock.  There are rope banisters and ladders as you make your way through the grottoes, so it’s not particularly difficult terrain, the caves are quite large and nothing is too steep, it is definitely an adventure and not a fitness test. The caves are gloriously cool, a welcome respite from the Caribbean heat and they open up into small little secluded beaches, one after another, all different and with stunning views out to sea. It is up to you how far you go, some may wish to settle on one of the beaches, or sit on top of the caves looking out over the Caribbean Sea with the wind in your hair. There are many golden photo opportunities, so make sure to take your camera.


There are rest facilities at the initial beach at the bottom of the hill in the form of a cafe, which serves drinks, basic food and has a toilet. If you are on a tour you will probably be taken around the island to the various viewing points for photo opportunities, Gorda Peak being particularly pretty. If you went with the taxi option your driver will definitely be able to take you around. Always agree prices upfront and don’t be afraid to haggle!  As a guide I’d say $10 return to The Baths is about right, you will probably share a people carrier with others going to The Baths. Add on another $15 for the full tour and return to the ferry. Don’t pay the driver until he picks you up, then you won’t have to worry that he will be there! You get to the island on a ferry from Tortola (unless you can afford to charter a plane from the island’s airport), which takes around half an hour and costs $30 return.  The ferry operates around every half hour, but make sure to check times, especially of the last one! There will be taxis waiting at either end, so if you don’t mind the 5 minutes extra planning, the ferry/taxi option is much better value.

You can plan your trip in advance using

Beat The Holiday Bulge!

Fiona Kirk_Fat in the City_HeaderRecognise this very frustrating scenario? You have been super-disciplined for a few weeks or longer , you have lost weight, you are looking and feeling good, you are ready to bare all on the beach and determined to enjoy every single minute of your well-deserved break. But, somehow or other all that fun seems to result in the pounds creeping back on and your return home sees you having to find yet more of that iron discipline. Here are a few tricks that can really help while you are on holiday:

Bin the Starch: If you do nothing else, this is the one that is most likely to keep your waistline feeling trim throughout your holiday. The heat is enough to make you bloat a little and when you add starch it may be a real struggle to slip into your shortest shorts of your skin tight sheath dress when you go out in the evening. If you manage to say no to the bread, pasta, pizza, cones and wafers most of the time you can enjoy the odd ice cream sundae and mile-high cocktail guilt-free.

Big up on fat busting fats: essential fats (particularly Omega 3s) fill you up, keep cravings for sugary foods and drinks at bay and boost the production of enzymes which help transport stored fat into our energy factories to be burned as fuel. Have local fresh eggs for breakfast, replace salty snacks with fresh nuts which are abundant in hot countries, gorge on delicious, filling avocados stuffed with local fish and drizzle nut and seed oils over salads.

holiday buffetHave chilled soups for starters: soup keeps the stomach wall stretched for longer than solid foods, even when water is taken alongside so our appetite is dulled and we eat less during the rest of a meal (studies show that it can be up to 200kcals less!) Most hot countries pride themselves on their regional soup specialities; Gazpacho, Ajo Blanco, Vichyssoise etc so be adventurous, give them a try and feel smug that you haven’t overdone the calories!

Consider taking water tablets: Direct exposure to the sun over a number of hours in a day causes water retention as the body holds water in the cells to prevent dehydration and should you have too much exposure and suffer from sunburn, the situation worsens. Whilst it is vital that you drink more water than usual throughout the day when in a hot climate (at least 1.5 litres), you may also wish to consider taking water tablets during your holiday to assist in the release of retained water and avoid feeling and looking bloated. Whilst water tablets contain natural products, they can interfere with the effect of certain medications so check this out with your GP. Also, if you are pregnant, breast feeding or under 16 years of age, don’t think about it, just ensure you stay hydrated. And, stop taking them when you return home.

And, if you haven’t left it too late: do a 3 day cleanse before you go to give your system a metabolic boost so it can better cope with a bit of indulgence on holiday: first thing in the morning and every few hours thereafter have a mug of hot water with ginger and lemon (it’s also great chilled), have fruit on its own (sliced/diced/smoothied) until lunchtime, a bowl of meat, fish, bean or lentil soup for lunch, crunch on raw vegetables in the afternoon if you are having hunger pangs or experiencing energy dips, have a stir fry with plenty of vegetables and some protein (poultry, game, lean red meat, fish, shellfish, tofu) or a big mixed salad (also with a good helping of protein) for dinner and a mug of chicken bouillon or miso soup before bed.

Christmas Indian Style

Bringing in the catch in Cochin

Bringing in the catch in Cochin

We resolved months before December that Christmas was going to be different. Instead of driving 200 miles up the A1 from London to Yorkshire on a dark, wet Christmas morning, we’d be being chauffeured on a warm, bright sunny day up through the tea plantations to Munnar in Southern India. We hoped to leave all the Christmas trappings behind in London. Did we succeed? Well partly . . .

Christmas Eve was spent in the Brunton Boatyard Hotel overlooking Cochin’s harbour. It was wonderful to have a bath and watch the boats out of the window at the same time.

The bath at the Brunton Boatyard

The bath at the Brunton Boatyard

A sunset cruise seemed the ideal way to finish the day but we didn’t anticipate the extra guest, Santa Claus, who boarded the boat with us. Although the day had been warm and sunny, it was an overcast evening and the sunset was somewhat disappointing.

Whilst changing for dinner, there was a knock on the door. I expected the housekeeper wanting to turn down the bed with a ‘pillow chocolate’, but no, it was a group of stanta hatted, hotel staff singing carols and delivering invitations to their Christmas Eve gala dinner which they’d been setting up in the garden grounds all day.

Hotel staff singing Xmas carols

Hotel staff singing Xmas carols

We declined politely as having read marvellous reviews of the Malabar House Hotel, reputed to be one of the best boutique hotels in India and its ‘classy, movie star cool’ restaurant, the Malabar Junction, I’d booked a table well in advance from England. I envisaged a small, luxurious, intimate restaurant and was therefore rather shocked to be led into a large, open-air courtyard set up with enough tables and chairs for 100 people. We were led through the gathering diners to a small table at the front beside the stage where three musicians were playing traditional Indian music.

At least this group played traditional Indian music

As we waited for everyone to arrive, we looked at the menu on our table to discover a six course set dinner (veg or non veg) which included roast turkey in mushroom sauce with rosemary roast potatoes and ‘our special Xmas pudding with vanilla sauce’. As we settled down with a reasonably priced bottle of Grovers Estate wine (made in India in conjunction with the French), Santa Claus arrived and introduced the Anglo-Indian choir of Fort Cochin who sang traditional carols throughout the evening. Once I’d got over the shock, we thoroughly enjoyed our meal.

Following an early Christmas Day breakfast of dosa and sambal we left at 9am for the four-hour drive to Munnar. Although it was only 80 miles, the roads were narrow, steep, winding and rutted but the scenery was amazing.

Tea Plantations

For Christmas Lunch we squeezed into a small café recommended by our trusty guide book and chose potato curry (Rs 6) and beef fry (Rs 25). We sat surrounded by locals and soon realised that everyone was eating with their fingers. Fortunately we’d ordered a couple of chapattis which we used in the absence of cutlery, to scoop up the curry as we hadn’t managed to perfect the technique of rolling the rice into balls with fingers. With a couple of fresh lime sodas, our lunch came to less than a pound.

The traditional Christmas afternoon walk was through Eravikulam National Park with its spectacular views of the Western Ghats. We were also fortunate enough to see, albeit at a distance, a couple of Nilgiri tahr a rare, but almost tame type of mountain goat.

A walk in the park

A walk in the park

Our hotel for the evening was the Government run Tea County Hotel and although not as luxurious as the other hotels on our trip, it was perfectly comfortable and didn’t appear to recognise Christmas. We sat on our terrace to watch the sun go down over the hills in front of us and opened the duty free champagne we’d been carrying around with us since leaving London. As it got dark, all the shrubs and trees lining the long driveway were lit with small fairy lights, their only concession to Christmas and a truly spectacular sight.

A buffet dinner of various curries, followed by the lighting of a bonfire which toasted us in the cool, hill-top air was a marvellous end to a very different Christmas.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

“We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone.”

Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance written by Robert M. Pirsig is probably the oddest title that you can possibly find in the book shelves. However, this novel has not attracted many readers because of its peculiar title, but rather due to its philosophical depth written in a way comprehensible to everyone. The book is centered around one protagonist who is on a 17-day motorcycle journey through the United States with his son Chris. Throughout the book one central question is reiterated over and over again: “What is good and what is good writing?” More precisely, the main character asks “What is quality and how is it defined?” Although, this may not seem an obvious philosophical dilemma for the untrained eye, the reader soon realises in a very beautiful narrative that it is virtually impossible to define quality. In fact, what is it? Who sets the standards? What is quality based on? What in fact is quality? These questions, which are rooted in his past, drive the protagonist slowly insane. Pirsig leads the reader cunningly throughout many epochs of history addressing the central question of quality and its implications to our modern world.

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

“For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses.”

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”

Picture: courtesy from Random House UK Ltd

This book is certainly a modern classic dealing with a very deep philosophical question. Do not be afraid of technical terms about motorcycle maintenance, for that really is a way of Pirsig to draw the attention of your mind to details in a very unfamiliar way. This book is mesmerising and unique in style. Are you ready for an outstanding piece of modern writing which will stimulate your brain and change the way you perceive the world?

Malaga: Don’t Just Pass Through

Malaga beach and town

Malaga beach and town

Being a holiday snob, I like countries that have a totally different culture, require at least a five-hour flight and a couple of inoculations. And as I have an aversion to talking to people when I’m away, I don’t want to encounter fellow Brits. So when I won easyJet flights to Malaga I wasn’t exactly excited.

How long should we go for? A friend referred to Malaga as ‘a bit of a dump’ suggesting it should only be regarded as a gateway to more interesting places like Nerja or Ronda. Would a long weekend be too long?

I asked the Saturday Telegraph for advice. Their response: stay in Malaga but explore the surrounding mountains, coast and historic towns like Granada and Antequera by bus and train.

However, having bought the Rough Guide to Andalucia, we decided there might be more to Malaga, so as our flights were free, we splashed out on an eight-night trip at the five-star Vincci Seleccion Posada del Patio. It was centrally located with a roof top pool for cooling off at the end of the day. In its LeDiner restaurant, dishes were paired with a specific Moët & Chandon champagne. Did you know the best fizz to accompany a hamburguesita is Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 2002 Blanc? Our basket of breads (ciabatta, cebolla, tomate and olive) was accompanied by small plastic ‘drippers’ of olive oil and three flavoured salts: chocolate, not as bad as it sounds, herb and pimento. To follow, we went for something a bit more ‘grown up’ than burger and fizz.

Our favourite outdoor bar, d’gustar, in the shaded Plaza de las Flores was near our hotel. It was ideal for an aperitif (two glasses of cava for under 8 Euro and complementary tapas) on the way out or night cap on the return. With a number of other bars in the Plaza, it was also great for people watching.

Paseo del Parque

We found so many things to do. On our way to La Farola lighthouse, we walked through the lush gardens in Paseo del Parque. At the redeveloped marina with its boutique shops and restaurants, we boarded the Vision Submarina for an hour’s tour of the marina and surrounding area.

Malaga Marina

We visited Alcazaba fortress, now a museum, and the linked Castillo Gibralfaro reached by a very steep incline of steps and mainly shiny paved walkways. A small kiosk at the top provided reviving cool sodas whilst smugly watching people alighting from taxis and buses to avoid the climb. After the small museum of soldiers’ clothing, weapons and dummies dressed in period items, we entered the ruined castle with fabulous views across the port and city.

The view from Castillo Gibralfaro

The view from Castillo Gibralfaro

After checking out the 130 paintings in the Museo Picasso I discovered I wasn’t a fan and at his birthplace, the Casa Natal Picasso, the audio guide narrative didn’t match what we saw.

The bullring, ‘Plaza de Torros la Malagueta’, was almost empty. I’m not sure I could sit through the gore of a bull fight, but I could imagine it being a spectacular sight. After climbing to the top of the stadium, we made our way to the museum and its 3 rooms full of posters, bejeweled outfits and capes: pink not red and yellow on the other side. The matadors were obviously stars and very small.

Worthy of Strictly Come Dancing!

I particularly enjoyed Museo Carmen Thyssen, a relatively new and modern art gallery where I easily spent a solitary couple of hours with only the guards for company. Here the audio guide was brilliant with lots of information about the most important works of art.

A more quirky location was the English Cemetery with its fascinating history of how non-Catholics, suffered the indignity of a burial upright in the sand until their necks were below the tide line. When the bodies started to surface in the water, the British Consult William Mark, persuaded the authorities to bury the bodies in what became known as the English Cemetery.

We could not leave Spain without a visit to a flamenco show, Kelipé, held in a very small, dark room in the bowels of a shopping centre. Our seats, on the front row and virtually on the dance floor, were fortunately near the door as it was extremely hot. The guitarist and male and female dancers were excellent and there was lots of clapping, stamping of feet, wailing (singing) and sweat pouring down their faces.

Getting into the grove!

Museo Vidrio y Crystal de Malaga, the Museum of glass and crystal, was an unexpected delight. Arriving early the pleasant man who sold us our tickets turned out to be the owner and our guide of his magnificent house. The rooms contained glassware, stained glass windows, paintings furniture and all manner of objects. Many were from Britain and Ireland and the first items we saw were a pair of stained glass windows by William Morris who was born in our home town of Walthamstow. As the windows were mounted at body height we were able to get up close and see the detail and repairs. The display was extensive and the final highlight was a huge gallery of coloured glassware covering one wall.

A stunning display of glass

A stunning display of glass

At the Museo del Vino we had a self guided leisurely tour reading about the grapes, soil types, different wines across the Province of Malaga and the wine making process. Our tour ended with sampling a red and a yellowy white which were not really to our taste, but as the glasses were generously filled, our 10 Euro was well spent.

As the weather was so good, we walked the twenty minutes to the beach, hired a couple of sun beds and spent the day topping up our tan. We didn’t have to walk far along the 9.5km promenade before hitting a plethora of restaurants and bars for lunch.

Cycles with Zebras

Zebra ParkingCycling with zebras is not something you are likely to forget in a hurry. At Hell’s Gate National park, its high time you did away with your safari stereotype, put down the North Face khakis, slip on your trainers and get on your bike. Located just an hour and half from Nairobi, this national park is home to zebras, giraffes, elephants, birds, the endearing hyrax and a host of wild deer and antelope. While you won’t see any of the big cats that roam other parks, their absences means you are free to explore by bike. For the adventurous, there are night safaris, rock climbing and a long gorge to climb down. Be careful in the rainy seasons when flash floods can make the gorge a deadly trap. However, its just as rewarding to cycle down the dirt path, stopping to take in the rock cliffs that served as the inspiration for Lion King. After you realize that, its hard not to sing Hakuna Matata at all the warthogs. Try not to… you’ll probably offend them with your awful Kiswahili! And there’s nothing worse than an offended warthog!

Hire a bike!

Further from the lake is Mt Longonaut, an extinct volcano that towers over the flat landscape. It’s a beautiful hike that goes from the base of the volcano and then circumnavigates the crater. While no guide is necessary for the summit walk, it is worth hiring one to explore inside the crater, where thick vegetation and crumbling rock faces constantly hide the path. Book well ahead if you wish to camp in the crater and be sure to check all camping equipment is good quality as it gets cold at night. The hike is not a challenging one, but good footwear is necessary. Be aware that in the rainy seasons, flashfloods can degrade the trail further. Bring plenty of water, as there is no shade during the walk.

View from the SummitWhen your legs get tired, head towards the lake for a boat ride amongst the hippos. If you don’t fancy waiting for a boat to fill or are on a tight budget, just sit by the lake long enough, a hippo or two will drift by. Near the lake, everyone knows someone who knows someone who’s been eaten or partly eaten by hippo. After a while it gets to sound a bit like an urban legend, but the dangers are real. Be sensible and listen to your guide. Even if you don’t see a hippo, there are hundreds of birds wandering its shores, making it a favourite spot for bird watchers. Enjoy a drink (try a Stoney Tangawazi!) at one of the food stalls that dot the shores of the lake along the more popular access points or follow a random path to see locals going about their daily life in their wood salvage houses.

There is a range of accommodation options- from camping in the national park or lakeside to luxury resorts. The Sanctuary is a remarkable venue for lunch or a few nights stay. Safari animals brought in to star in the film Out of Africa were never returned to their natural habitat. Finding their new home blissfully free of predators, what was once handful of animals took the “discovery channel” route and now roam in herds across the hotel grounds. If you are on a tighter budget, the camping is excellent and there is a selection of hostels, including the YMCA. Most of the resorts will offer food at a price, but there are few local restaurants around the lake. For a good feed, at a good price, head to Naivasha Town. Meat lovers will love the disco nyama choma (barbequed meat) spot on the main street- just look out of the disco lights and listen out of the pounding bass! While hardly picturesque, this a good spot to shop for supplies, as well as catch matatus to and from Nairobi and the rest of Kenya.

Whether you are after a hippo or a nightclub in a greenhouse, you will find it around Lake Naivasha. Its close proximity to Nairobi makes it a popular spot for travellers and locals alike. It’s the perfect spot of an active weekend, followed by a luxurious massage and watching the moon rising over the lake. What are you waiting for? On yer bike…Zebras, giraffes and the odd hyrax are waiting!


Mt Abu: In Search of the Eccentric, Esoteric and Enlighted

Peace and tranquility at Mt. Abu

Bearing the unique distinction of being the Rajasthan desert’s only hill station, Mt. Abu emerges from the sweltering desert as a cool oasis. With its picturesque lake, famed sunsets, and abundance of temples, it is a favoured tourist spots for people across India. For many, it is where they will spend one of the most awkward weeks of their lives. Nearly 90% of all Indian marriages are arranged ones. As a popular  honeymoon spot, Mt Abu is filled with shy girls with intricate mehndi and their new husbands studiously avoiding eye contact or taking posed and costumed pictures in front of Mt. Abu’s many vistas. Young men bent on drinking binges away from watchful parents, families and the religiously devout all brave the curving roads and overcrowded buses to enjoy Mt. Abu’s delights. With their white bangles covering their arms from elbow to shoulder, sharply filed teeth, and elaborately embroidered and mirrored clothes, the local Rajasthani women fill the place with colour and light. As popular as it is with locals, Mt. Abu has yet to make it on the foreign tourist  checklist. As a foreigner, you’ll soon find yourself the main attraction. It’s a brief flash into the life of the celebrity, with complete strangers vying for pictures, handing you babies and asking for your autograph.

Mt. Abu is famous for its many temples and religious sites. There’s Peace Gardens for mediation, ashrams for pray and contemplation, temples for pooja and religious schools for study. Elaborate temples and schools serving the Brahma Kumaris, Jainists, Hindus and more esoteric sects abound. From the ancient Dilwara to the modern Madhuran, the temples and schools are a part of daily life. People clamour for blessings, children play and incense fills the air. The Dattatreya temple is a tough climb in the heat of the day. While its more sensible and tempting to start early, the thick morning fog obliterates any view. Remember that the temples are still active places of worship and be respectful. The markets surrounding the temples give the unfortunate impression capitalism is the greatest god here. Many spend more time haggling over the intricate Rajasthani bangles than heeding the priests!

Nakki lake is nestled into between the hills.  Young couples paddle together on swan boats, as families and friends row past admiring the surrounding mountains and Maharaja Jaipur Palace. Ancient Rajasthani men with bushy mustaches and calloused feet push squealing and giggling grown-ups down hills in “Rajasthani Helicopters’- oversized prams to the uninitiated! There’s a famous market nearby which is filled with temptations. It feels remarkably like an English seaside town- down to the penny arcade, softie ice cream stands and questionable magicians! The shops themselves tell a completely different story. Aimed at the abundance of Indian tourists, they offer an impressive range of exquisite sarees, costume jewelery, bedspreads and fluorescent-bright pictures. Heading away from the Nakki lake market you will encounter the Main Market filled with street stalls and more expensive shops filled with exquisite Rajasthani designs. Follow the other paths to a  Tibetan market or the local market. All twisting alleyways, delectable sweetshops and tiny tea stands, the local market is well worth exploring and is considerably cheaper than the lakeside area. Get into holiday mode and enjoy an illicit beer by the lake, pose with the replica Eiffel Tower and pick up some stunningly beautiful or uniquely tacky gifts for friends.

Located 5km from the town centre, Gohmuk is a popular ashram and picnic spot. While taxi services will get you there in an overpriced flash, a leisurely walk will let you work off all the sweets and offer some stunning photo opportunities. Mt. Abu rises out of the Rajasthan desert offering views of the harsh landscape, lush forests, ancient rocky outcrops, villages, temples, and more. Bring plenty of water as it is a steep climb with little shade until you reach the top of the hill. From the top of the hill, descend the 750 steps through the forest to the ashram. Enjoy the cool forest air, the impressive views and know that what awaits you at the bottom is worth the walk if only for its eccentricity.  Overcome your inhibitions and enjoy a cool drink of sacred water or explore the temple. Look out for the langurs which inhabit the places as well as leopards, scorpions and sloth bears!  The walk to Gohmuk is just one of the many hikes in the area. There are a variety of tour companies that arrange everything from rock climbs to gentle walks, many in the Mt. Abu Wildlife Sanctuary which covers part of the mountain. Take the usual precautions and enjoy exploring the unique landscape.

The shopping down, the gods appeased and the photos snapped, the world and his newly acquainted wife gather on the mountain’s slopes to watch the sunset. Famous across India, Mt. Abu’s sunset attracts hundreds of people every evening. Arrive early for a good seat and enjoy the freshly grilled sweetcorn, sweetly spiced chai or some chili’d chickpeas as you wait.  Watch Henna tattoo artists create beautiful works of art or take a short ride on a bedazzled horse. Depending on the time of year, the sunset doesn’t always live up to expectations. For many, the Mt. Abu sunset holds such religious significance that simply being there is enough to fulfill a dream.

Peace and tranquility at Mt. Abu

Arrive at Abu Road Train station early and visit the market. With its wide selection of Rajasthani clothes, esoteric shops, and tropical fruits, it’s the ideal beginning or end to your Mt. Abu trip. With its pleasant climate, it’s easy to see why Mt. Abu is such a popular summer haven from India’s more drastic climes. It does get wet during Monsoon season and, while cooler than the rest of the area, is still hot during the day. Bearing in mind it is a desert and temperatures will drop drastically at night. During winter, temperatures may fall below freezing during the night. Rain or shine, enjoying a cup of Rajasthan’s famous masala chai is always the perfect way to shelter from the elements. With its surfeit of newlyweds and priests, Mt. Abu is a wonderfully eccentric place to experience a different way of tourism. Whether its nature, culture, shopping or sport you’re after, Mt. Abu is more fun than a runaway Rajesthani Helicopter ride!

Nicaragua – “Contra” to Expectations

“I love my country, but I love Nicaragua more.” This phrase was frequently heard whilst travelling throughout Central America.

Prior to setting off, our knowledge of Nicaragua was pretty limited: we’d read travel guides but relied on a travel agent to ensure our itinerary included the most interesting destinations. More knowledgeable friends worried about our safety bearing in mind the country’s recent turbulent past in terms of political unrest and civil war.

Expectations were mixed as we crossed the Costa Rican/Nicaraguan border at Penas Blancas/Sapoá, particularly as Eduardo, our Costa Rican guide, pre-warned a chaotic experience was in store. Having dragged our bags across the rickety, disused railway bridge, Guillermo (call me William) provided a warm welcome. He eased us surprisingly quickly through the crowds and formalities. On asking how he’d managed this he replied “I told the border guard he looked a little hot, and suggested he buy a cool soda with the money I handed over”.

Nicaragua has much to offer and we found it one of the most diverse countries in Central America. Granada and Leon, both previously the country’s capital and with a history of bloody rivalry, are now colonial havens but with different characteristics.

Granada, our favourite, not only had a traditionally Spanish style central plaza and catedral, but beautiful cobbled streets teeming with life. And unlike many Southern and Central American cities, it was safe to walk around even at night. A horse- drawn carriage took us around the many churches, including Convento y Museo San Francisco, the oldest in Central America, with its plethora of wide-ranging artefacts. We also tried our hand at rolling cigars at Donna Elba and had an excellent one-hour massage at Seeing Hands, a charity training blind masseurs, for a bargain $15.

Leon was literally one of the hottest locations in the country and a more political, feisty place with lots of attitude. An elderly ex-revolutionary with no English took us painstakingly around the hundreds of photographs of fallen heroes in Galeria de Héroes y Mártires. He coaxed us onto the rusting, corrugated roof for stunning views of the plaza and catedral. Unfortunately when I was on the catedral roof later, I stepped backwards into thin air and, like a cartoon character hung motionless, until falling flat on my back. This resulted in a badly grazed shin and bruised dignity.

We took the choppy, 60 minute crossing from San Jorge to Isla Ometepe. The ferry, brought over from Holland, wasn’t built for tropical climes as it had heating rather than air conditioning. As the windows were sealed we were advised to sit on the open top deck. Two volcanoes dominate the figure of eight shaped island: Concepción is active and the tallest at 1,610m, whilst Maderas is smaller. We escaped the heat in Museo el Ciebo to view petroglyphs, coins and Pre-Colombian pottery. We swam in Ojo de Agua: two huge open-air pools, surrounded by big old trees, which were filled with a constant stream of thermal spring water from an underground well.

Nicaragua’s 50+ volcanoes dominate its landscape and influence everyday life. Mombacho, in the cloud forest, was grey, cool and misty but on the way down we enjoyed a tour of Café les Flores coffee plantation. At Masaya, one of the most active, there were stunning views and strong, sulphurous smells from the smoking crater and signs advising “park facing the exit” in case urgent evacuation was required. We also encountered many road-side signs with a running person and the words ‘ruta de evacuacion’.

Another boat trip, up the Rio San Juan, took us to the impressive El Castillo, where in 1780 a young Horatio Nelson took the fortress only to find that the Spanish had actually left it to him to share with the mosquitoes. Most of his command perished. Later on an evening caiman spotting trip, our intrepid boat guide donned a cap with lamp, jumped from the canoe into the river and after some frantic thrashing in the water, emerged with a three-foot mini-crocodile for us to stroke and photograph. It was gently returned unharmed to the river.

There are over 83 protected areas covering 20% of the country and we were lucky to experience so much of the wildlife, birds and flora. During a hike around Indio-Maize forest reserve our guide impressed us with her howler monkey impersonations, which led to the monkeys literally pelting us with almonds in an attempt to shut her up. On Isla Juan Venando we saw crocodiles, crabs and other crustaceans. Whilst we missed the Olive Ridley Turtles laying eggs on the beach, we saw captured wild iguanas being released into a pen to protect them until they laid their eggs. In contrast iguanas were being sold illegally on the road sides: they’re meant to be a delicacy and aphrodisiac.

A trip on Lago Nicaragua, took us around its 365 Islets, many of them privately owned with luxury homes. One in particular was home to three friendly monkeys, Pancho, Lucy and Junior. When Pancho had been swinging from tree to tree in an attempt to impress Lucy, he’d hit an overhead power line and fried his tail. This did not stop him from jumping into passing boats for photographs and treats.

Everyone we encountered was friendly and genuinely keen for visitors to enjoy their country. We arrived on my partner’s birthday and on the way to our hotel William asked casually if we liked beer. On arrival at San Juan del Sur, he pulled up outside a beachfront restaurant and treated us to celebration beers. I was not forgotten: having visited Granada’s ChocoMuseo I told William ”women would rather have chocolates than flowers on Valentines Day”. When Valentine’s Day arrived three days later, he presented me with a box of local truffles: something my partner failed to do.

We also found a self depreciating sense of humour when describing their cuisine: “you can have rice and beans, beans and rice, or mixed beans and rice, three times a day”. To be fair, it was more varied, but only just! We fared better with drinks. El macuá, a blend of light rum, guava and lemon juices with sugar was an excellent pre-dinner cocktail, whilst the award-winning Flor de Caña rum was the perfect night cap. Toña and La Victoria beers were pale and refreshing in the heat of the day.

Our accommodation was varied: Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Eco Lodge, described by Lonely Planet as “the very best hotel in Nicaragua”; Hotel Victoria with small, simple wood panelled bedrooms had exemplary service; Villa Paraiso remembered for winds, midges and breakfast magpies; and El Convento, a former convent, with lush gardens and antiques everywhere.

The New York Times recently published “The 46 places to go in 2013”, with Nicaragua featured at number 3. We’d certainly agree that after “fighting its image as a land of guerrilla warfare and covert arms deals”, “Nicaragua’s moment, might finally have arrived”. Try it and you might find yourself saying “We love England, but we love Nicaragua more”.

Exploring The Ancient Wonders Of Athens

The ancient city of Athens was first inhabited around 7,000 years ago and has been a major city of the eastern Mediterranean ever since.  Named after the goddess Athena, Athens is still synonymous with civilization, culture and beauty.



Most modern democracies can trace their roots to the ancient Greeks and the writings of Solon in 594 BC established what is now judged as one of the world’s earliest constitutions.

Many of the monuments that dominate Athens, are instantly recognisable to any visitor, including the magnificent Parthenon, also known as the temple of Athena.  The Acropolis dominates contemporary Athens, the word actually means ‘high city.’  The Acropolis itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the whole area should certainly be explored by anyone visiting this beautiful city.  Many of these monuments date back to the time of Pericles in the fifth century.  The influence of Pericles cannot be denied; he was the most important statesman of his epoch and it was thanks to his efforts that the Parthenon was erected.  Visitors to the Acropolis can enter from Dionysiou Areopagitou close to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. There is an alternative entrance from Theorias and yet a further entrance close to the Kanellopoulos Museum.

Important landmarks

The Odeon of Herodes Aitticus is also known as the ‘Herodeon and is at the base of the Acropolis.  This beautiful open-air auditorium is still a venue for live music and theatre.  If possible go and enjoy any of the wonderful plays by the Greek classical writers, including those by the humourist Aristophanes.  Masked actors in the style of the ancient Greeks perform some of the plays.

A useful route for any tourist who wishes to visit Athenian antiquities is the Dionyssiou Areopagitou Street that manages to link all of the major Athenian archaeological sites.  Many of the hotels in Athens are close to this part of the city so if sightseeing becomes too exhausting then tourists can always retire to the comfort of their hotel.

Anyone that seeks a short introduction to the sometimes-baffling world of the Ancient Greeks and Athenian civilisation will benefit from a trip to the ‘Foundation for the Hellenic World.’ Situated just two kilometres from the centre of the capital, visitors can take a virtual trip around the Agora that was so beloved of the ancient Greeks, and also take a trip on a three D Kivtos Time Machine.


Visiting Athens can become very tiring, especially under the blue skies and scorching heat of the high summer months.  The spring, when temperatures, settle around the balmy mid 20s Centigrade is a far easier time for anyone to start exploring this fascinating city.  Early autumn is also recommended; late September and October are considered the best months as most of the local tourists will have departed for their homes making Athens far easier to navigate.


Athens is a vibrant and bustling modern city despite having its roots steeped in antiquity.  It’s relatively easy to take a metro from the airport right into the centre.  The transport system also encompasses trams, buses and of course the taxis with their incessant horn blowing.

Image reproduced from

The Nightie: India’s Go-To Outfit

Like it or not, what we wear defines us- what we do, how much we earn, what music we listen to, young, old, off to the shops or out for a night on the town. Even so called wardrobe staples come in a bemusing array and will inevitably be shunned by one group or other. There is something comforting about the discovery of an article of clothing that seems to defy this. One that is found in all levels of society, equally at place in a posh resort or sea-side shack, on the socialite or the knitting grandmother, the lawyer or the beggar, the conservative of one religion and the liberal of another. The Indian nightie is, in its own way, as much of the Indian culture as its more recognizable sari or kurtis.

It will come as little surprise to even the uninitiated that the sari is a time consuming- if nearly universally flattering- garment. Many younger people eschew it in favour of Western clothes or the considerably faster-to-wear salvas kamiz. The blouse, traditionally worn in lieu of a bra, is worn bandage tight and there are increasing reports of ‘sari cancer’- a cancer that occurs when cellular mistakes are made healing the daily abrasion of the cinched-tight petticoat. With practice, draping it becomes second nature- yet how a woman is able to confidently tie a sari in a train toilet remains one of life’s true mysteries. Even the washing, the drying, the ironing and the storing of six metres of fabric are equally an art.

Enter, then, the nightie. All soft cotton and comforting bagginess. No cinched waists, pinched arms, and stifling layers of fabric. Feminine flowers, stark and minimalist, gods and goddesses, traditional patterns and fresh-of-the-runway prints- whatever your style, there is a nightie for you. Despite the rising hemlines and backless cholis of Bollywood, the nightie has remained a modest garb- its acceptability even in the most conservative of communities adding to its appeal. For the breastfeeding mother, cunningly hidden zips enable breastfeeding to be both easy and discreet. Lounging during lazy weekends in front of the television or slaving over a hot stove are done in an effortless blend of comfort and style.

Adding to their ubiquity is their acceptability outside of the home. With a dupatta for modesty, they are happily worn to pop to the shop, or for when friends come for tea. Honestly, there’s very few among us who haven’t been tempted to pull a coat over our pajamas and dash out for milk- and the nightie is just the garment! Small children dart around in them, happily covering them with the muck that miraculously appears on children’s clothes the world over. Mothers don’t mind, the cotton washes easily and soon dries, even in the steamy damp of the monsoon.

With its little additions of feminine ruffles, puffed sleeves and bows it is, to the Western eye, very much a nanna nightie. For that reason alone, it’s wonderful. There is no pressure to dress up, hold in your stomach an extra inch to tighten the petticoat, squeeze your arms down sleeves- the nightie soothes and frees the wearer. She can relax, work,  study, or play in absolute comfort.


One of travel’s many joys is the opportunity to peer into the lives of everyday people, often far more interesting than the tourist attraction on the front of the guidebook. While it may not have the glamour or the exotic appeal of India’s more noticeable garbs, the nightie is an intrinsic part of the culture. It connects the grandmother at the doorstep, the girl buying sweets from a corner side vender, the newborn nursing. And as anyone who owns one will tell you, it quickly becomes a very vital part of the wardrobe indeed.

Bell Makers and Giant Mushrooms: Exploring the Unexpected

There’s something intrinsically satisfying about riding the train to the end of the line. Some thirteen hours out of Bangkok, Ubon Ratchathani  province is nearly at the Thai-Laos boarder. The city of same name to a working town with none of the picturesque colonial stylings, enduring cultural practices, sunny beaches or ancient wats that define Thailand’s tourist scene.  It’s interesting precisely because of that. Ubon Ratchathani offers the opportunity to see a living culture unchanged by tourism.  Gongs and drums awaken the city at five, by mid-afternoon, the town apparently closes its doors. From the fruit customized ukuleles in ukulele shop to the neon plastic flowers at the religious paraphernalia shops, there’s no shortage of unconventional gifts for friends back home.  The park comes to life at dusk, with the town’s inhabitants playing games of football or the traditional sepak takraw, joining aerobics classes to pounding techno, cycling, running, skateboarding, using the outdoor gyms. If you’ve brought your trainers, join in! Or if the sun and a day’s walking have you tired out, sugar cane and coconut venders are happy to satisfy a thirsty wanderer.   Both the morning and the night market are bustling affairs. Come with an empty belly and a willingness to try something new!

Outside of Ubon Ratchathani are some real treasures. Be warned it’s a challenge to rent a motorbike so leave plenty of time to source one.  The airport is generally recommended as a reliable source, but be aware there’s a hefty deposit required.  Ban Pao Ao has been mercifully ignored by Lonely Planet and Google. As a result, the craftsmen at this ancient bell makers’ town are pleasantly amused by the sight of travellers.  The craftsmen here have been making the brass bells using the lost wax technique for centuries. It’s a community affair, with the men working the forge and the casting the larger bells and the women working on the tiny bells and carvings. If you are lucky, you may be offered the opportunity to try a hand at bell making or see the bells coming out of their clay casts. Much of the work goes to temples, but some of the work is on sale at the site. It’s the perfect opportunity to ensure the money you spend goes directly to the community! In the village, there’s also a women’ weaving co-operative that creates breath-taking works of silks beside the gentle rustling of the silkworms.

Further afield is the Pha Taem National Park. There’s well maintained camping and accommodation in the national park. The large ‘mushroom rocks’ are the park’s most recognizable feature. Worn by erosion, the mushroom-shaped rocks are awkwardly endearing. All around, previous travellers have built small cairns. Carefully gathering rocks and balancing your own makes you feel like a child again. The park also features a dramatic landscape of stark vistas, sheer cliffs, and volcanic rocks. There’s walk to a series of ancient cave paintings, as well as several to the numerous waterfalls that dot the park. Having your own transport in the park is crucial: it’s upwards of 15km between the various sites.  As the waterfalls are often dry during the winter, it’s worth checking at the visitor centre before embarking on any walks to them.

Exploring Ubon Ratchathani district is a  delightfully curious escapade.  The refreshing lack of tourist infrastructure is all part of the charm, albeit a time-consuming one. In a previous article, I observed it’s impossible to ‘do’ a place and Ubon Ratchathani proves that observation correct. Whether you come in the wet season for the waterfalls, lunchtime for a ghost town, or the outskirts for some Thai tunes and dancing girls, it’s ever changing and surprising. Ubon Ratchathani is an adventure worth every second of those thirteen hours from Bangkok.

The Australian Outback Experience

Stark red earth, the dry gray-green of stunted plants, kangaroos and unending flat, disorienting planes; I doubt I am alone in these images of the Outback, culled from postcards, films and friends’ Facebook albums. But after a year of record rains, this is a land transformed. Blanked in thorny shrubs, frosty salt brush, and leafy trees, it is the greenest the land has been in recorded memory.

Seeing the Outback now is quite literally a once in a lifetime experience.

Looking over the Outback

We stop for coffee at an endearingly kitch café which entreats us to ‘comonananavacoffee.’ The shop next door is for sale, its for-sale advertisement praising the town’s active bowls club, several churches, easy access to kangaroo culls and country fairs. I imagine writing a similar advertisement for Marree’s general store, promising prospective buyers cold pints in a pub for hard drinking shearers, an old bush mosque made of wattle and daub, a large wooden camel, a yacht club 200 km from the nearest lake, a large sign warning drivers of dangerous and impassable roads, and apparently more small aircraft than inhabitants. With no possibility of an evening boat ride, we take to the skies for a two-hour flight over breathtaking landscapes.

Aerial View of the Outback

The old cliché of the earth looking like a patchwork quilt has no place here. The land is broad strips of dusty red, cut through with old roads, mottled swatches of green, the 5614km dog-proof fence built to keep out the dingos. The lake, an hour’s flight from Marree’s yacht club, is startling. A sudden deep blue in the red earth, surrounded by billabongs and the bleached ghosts of dead trees. In the late afternoon light, hundreds of birds come into nest. Even in the wettest year on record, the earth is visible beneath the water.

We fly on over Eyre, a salt lake roughly times the size of London. The unusual weather has brought out a bloom of cyanobacteria. The lake, all 9,500km2 of it, is a dusky rose. Even from above it is impossible to take in the whole lake at once; the white salt gradually rising from the pink, the peninsula where the land speed record was broken in 1964, the sheer scope of it. With an ever-changing landscape, it is an experience that can never be repeated, nor missed.

Pink Salt Lake in the Outback

We detour through the Flinders Ranges. The landscape changes without pause or warning. Suddenly we are surrounded by tall trees and delicate alpine flowers, we cross deep streams and descend steep mountain bends. Without the red earth to camouflage it, our first kangaroo forages in the meadows, soon another darts across the road.

More of the now ubiquitous emus scatter as we approached, all feathers, legs and confusion. But in the town of Blinman, at 614 meters above sea-level the highest in South Australia, we spy our most incoungious find. Shaggy haired camels, legacy of the Afghan cameleers, graze on the mountainsides.

A flock of startled Emus

In total, we travel over 3000km in four days often on unsealed roads. This is not the well-worn tourist trail: we see more emus than people.  At times, it’s 200kms to the nearest hotel but we chose to sleep in the ruins of settlers cottages.

Abandoned Cottages at Sunset

Starting in the late 1800’s, it took twenty years to survey each twenty kilometers. The distances between the cottages must have been insurmountable in the height of summer.

Even today it remains an adventure, a green Outback that most likely won’t be seen again in my lifetime.

When I return, it will be to an entirely different world.

Visit Nidri – Greece’s Hidden Gem

To get a real feel of a place it is always best to travel outside of the high season and avoid the hordes of tourists. Granted not a lot of the typical postcard and expensive coffee shops will be open but what will be open are the usual shops the locals use like the butchers, bakers and honey pot makers.

NidriOne such place is a little island called Nidri. The island is around forty minutes away from Lefkada town in Greece. I must warn you though to get to the beautiful island of Nidri outside of the season requires a fair amount of travelling due to the local airport that usually services the island being closed. The way around this is to fly into Corfu, take a ferry journey and then get strapped in for a three hour car journey. The joy of driving is soon reignited though when cruising up and over the mountains with the view of the glistening Ionian Sea. Nidri is a small island that is surrounded by wispy white clouded mountain peaks. The surrounding islands include Sparti, Madouri, Skorpidi and Skorpios.  All easily accessible by boat these offer lush green lands and secluded beaches hidden by weather worn cliffs.

Nidri has been a popular location for sailors for many years partly due to the exclusion of docking fees. Many a sailor has left their boat there only to return years later to find it untouched. The locals are wonderful people who all have a story to tell. You will find many a rugged sailor perched on the end of a bar ready to tell you some of their captivating sailing adventures. Getting an adopted grandmother is pretty easy as well.  Walking into any restaurant and being kissed and hugged is pretty much the norm here whilst filling up on some of the food specialities. Some of the best dishes include the seafood platters which are so fresh you can watch the fish being caught from outside the window!

One of the best ways to get around Nidri for those that are brave enough is to hire a little moped, however even the most skilled of drivers may find it hard to navigate round some of the smaller roads running up and through the mountains. There are a few hidden gems tucked away in the cliff tops. These range from stalls selling honey made right there from the honey farms. Nidri honey is considered some of the best in the world so the locals tell me. Little churches nestle amongst the lemon and orange trees whilst lose chickens run amok through the olive groves. Crossing the paths of goat herders is a daily occurrence whilst waving to one man and his donkey. The next town is never too far away and you will soon find yourself amongst white washed villages with brightly coloured doors and windows.

Past the blue tinted strawberries and climbing up through the rugged landscape into the lush green woods reveals little streams that trickle back down the mountain. Ascending the mountain the sunlight shatters through the clouds and splits into shafts of golden rays. The very top reveals the rushing sounds of a beautiful waterfall as it cascades down the rocks and lands into a pod of clear ice blue rainwater. It is inviting as it is freezing but has to be jumped into, even if just for that perfect picture moment.

Thailand – In Search of Paradise on a Budget

Located in the centre of south East Asia and bordered by Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Malaysia, Thailand has become a massive hot spot for tourists. It seems to cater for all, from the humble backpacker to the extravagant jet setter. With the contrast of ancient towns and temples in the north to the beautiful coastline dotted with islands in the south its popularity is not surprising.

Recently my girlfriend and I had a three-week holiday and joined the throng, but we wanted to find a piece of solitary bliss, a tropical island that selfishly would be ours. Was it possible in 2011 to find this secluded paradise when thousands of people visit Thailand each year?

Like most we landed in Bangkok, where we were instantly hit with the humidity, strange smells and the general congestion of this unfamiliar city. With no accommodation booked we wandered the busy streets in search of a cheap hotel or hostel. This somewhat haphazard task ended very quickly as there seemed to be places to stay on every corner. Prices for accommodation in Bangkok start from around twenty pounds, but don’t expect luxury at these low prices. I would recommend visiting this city to anyone but it is easy to find it daunting. Bangkok in rush hour is a nightmare and crossing the street can be hazardous. Thai’s drive on the left-hand side of the road (most of the time) and it seems anything goes, with bigger vehicles taking priority.

The best thing about Bangkok is the food, it is everywhere; street vendors cook some of the tastiest dishes I have eaten and at a small cost. China town is a must visit, the friendly but crowded streets blended with the aroma of Oriental cuisine will get any visitor wanting to return. Just leave your travel guide back at the hotel and follow your nose.

We decided two nights was enough in Bangkok, even though you could easily spend a week or two there. Unfortunately we did not have enough time. So we booked a flight to Phuket and headed down towards the coast.

Phuket is the largest island in Thailand and is greeted by the Andaman Sea in the southwest; it is the main gateway to the other small islands in the area, where cheap ferry rides can be taken. On arrival we were advised to take a bus to Patong, as we were promised beautiful sandy bays and budget accommodation. The bus ride allowed me time to take in the scenery. I envy the first westerner who discovered Phuket the landscape is stunning. It has fantastic beaches with warm waters, lined with coconut trees but care must be taken as downing’s are common.

These beautiful beaches are not a secret; thousands upon thousands of people come here each year to soak up the sun. My secluded paradise seemed completely impossible to find, as I looked at the hundreds of sun loungers in perfect rows along the whole length of the beach. Help came when I over heard a conversation by two Australian’s when sitting down for an evening meal in one of the many restaurants on the beachfront. They had come back from Ko Phi Phi earlier that day and were chatting excitedly about their adventure. We found out that this small island was fifty kilometres away from Phuket, the ferry was inexpensive and the beaches were surprisingly empty, if true this was the destination we had hoped for. No time wasted the ferry was booked that evening through the hostel manager.

Ko Phi Phi was completely destroyed by the 2004 Tsunami, but as the ferry pulled into the pier the next morning it was obvious that the main town was crammed full of accommodation and thriving businesses. It is impossible to believe that the destruction that hit this little island actually happened. We soon realised that in peak season booking accommodation in the main part of the town is essential. I dreaded waiting for the next ferry back to Phuket just because we had not booked a place to sleep. My guidebook surfaced and saved the day. The first place we saw on the map was Hat Yao or Long beach and cost two pounds to get there by taxi boat. A traditional wooden boat with a massive diesel engine took us noisily around the coast to one of the most beautiful places I have been. We were welcomed by dazzling turquoise water, a white sandy beach and not a sun lounger in sight.

Even though you can never completely avoid tourists in Thailand, Phi Phi was deserted in comparison to Bangkok and Phuket. We had found paradise at last.

Honduras: The Most Dangerous Place in the World?

“Since the June 2009 coup d’état that led to the exile of then president Manuel Zelaya, visitors have been deterred from Honduras by reports of high crime and general insecurity” – so reported the Telegraph recently. Although San Pedro Sula is often dubbed “murder capital of the world”, we were undeterred despite flying into the capital a few days after reading that a man from Southend had been fatally shot after resisting having his camera stolen.

We headed straight out to the Caribbean side and The Lodge at Pico Bonito, nestling at the foot of the National Park. We arrived late, tired and a little apprehensive only to be welcomed with cold flannels and a tray bearing fruit punches and a bottle of rum. The Lodge was full of serious American twitchers with a huge array of very expensive tripods, binoculars and cameras: the gangs of San Pedro would have had a field day. We kept out of their way, mainly because they were usually returning from their early morning excursions and having lunch, when we were getting up for breakfast. We hiked the Mermaid Loop, climbed down to Las Pilas waterfalls to swim in the cool water and climbed up Toucan Tower for bird watching.

Pico Bonito Waterfalls

Twenty minutes away on the Eastern coast were the Bay Islands with warm Caribbean waters. We snorkelled around the closest island, Cayos Cochinos, known locally but less attractively as Hog Island and virtually had the waters to ourselves.

Setting off for snorkelling

Having pre-dinner drinks in the bar, we were asked if we liked our gin and tonic stiff. Bearing in mind my headache the following morning, our reply should have been ‘no’. A relaxing morning around the pool soon put me in the mood for trying the local beers.

Beer Tasting

On our way to the country’s Maya ruins, a 5 to 6 hour drive, we visited Lancetilla, the second largest botanical garden in the world. Here imported bamboo trees made a huge cooling arch on a hot day and our guide explained the labeling system for the plants: poisonous (black), medicinal (red) or green (where the wood could be used). Once again, we didn’t encounter a single tourist. but there were lots of mosquitoes.


We drove through palm and pineapple plantations and eventually passed back through San Pedro Sula’s outskirts. where our taxi driver advised us we wouldn’t be stopping.  On the approach to Copan Ruinas, we were warned there were 300 curves and bends, so a nap seemed appropriate, but only to keep the car sickness at bay.  Copan Ruinas, near the Guatemalan border, is a small town with lots of narrow cobbled streets, bars and restaurants. Twisted Tanya was great for happy hour cocktails whilst at another nameless bar, we sat on the only tiny pavement table for a pre-dinner glass of wine. At Pizza Copan, an American expat called Jim, cooked brilliant pizza whilst Carnitas Nia Lola provided $10 bottles of vino and a local dish of cheese and bean fondue served in an anafre, a clay pot. The two waitresses made a feature of carting everything from single beer bottles to plates and anafre on their heads to a large noisy group upstairs. In contrast, San Rapheal was a gentle spot where we shared three cheeses, home-made bread, crackers and olives. The Honduran equivalent of the Women’s Institute were meeting at the back and we must have said “buenos tardes” at least thirty times as they passed by. Copan’s ruins are one of Central America’s major sites and mark the southeastern limit of Maya dominance.

Copan’s Ruins

Our guide Neddy, regaled us with tales of Eighteen Rabbit (the 13th Maya Ruler) and let us wander the excellent museum, with its full-size reproduction of a temple, on our own.


Nearby Las Sepulturas was less developed: peaceful and quiet.
Neddy also escorted us on a ‘neddy ride’ up to Hacienda San Lucas, a small out of the way guest house.

Riding up to San Lucas

Not being a natural horse woman, the ninety-minute ride took its toll on my rear, especially the final up-hill climb. But we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Copan river valley and a glass of home-made lemonade.

The view from San Lucas

It was in Copan Ruinas that we had our most frightening encounter. We stopped in a small supermarket to buy water before heading back to our hotel after dinner. A group of loud teenage boys entered and on looking down, we saw one of them had a magnum in a holster. The leader looked at us menacingly but simply mentioned how much we’d caught the sun.

India’s Unique Holiday Destinations

Do you fancy an idyllic but different break in India? Did you know that there are a host of unique holiday destinations in India that are just a few hours away by flight or road from the tourist traps in major cities?

Here is our take on five unique holiday destinations in India where you will find ample opportunities for everything from quiet getaways to rejuvenation to hectic activity. What’s more these destinations score high on accessibility and exclusivity too!

Dalhousie – Himachal Pradesh

Fly to Jammu or Amritsar or take a train to Pathankot and then drive to Dalhousie, a picturesque locale on NH 33-35 which can be reached from many cities by bus or private tour vehicles. Built in the 1850s on five hills of the western Dauladhar Range, Dalhousie is a hill station established by the British Empire in India as a summer retreat for its troops and bureaucrats. It is a green destination in more ways than one. Blessed with the refreshing climate and warm sunshine its length and breadth are covered with cedar, oak, rhododendron, pine and a variety of shrubs.

Walk and trek to explore Dalhousie which is dotted with English-style cottages, bungalows and churches that emanate the charm of a bygone era. Start exploring the place from Tehra Hill, the centre of the town surrounded by a level walk called The Mall on day one and trek up to the Thandi Sarak and Pangi Hills where panoramic views of the undulating landscape await you on day two.

If trekking is something you enjoy then there are many trek routes on the Dalhousie – Khajjiar – Chamba triangle. If you enjoy leisurely walks then the nearby towns of Khajjiar and Chamba are replete with pine fringed paths, snow fed streams, lakes and temples.

Panchpula is a great picnic spot where small streams flow under five bridges and Jandri Ghat is excellent for a day trip and was once home to the palace of the former rulers of Chamba. You could also choose to stay at the forest lodge at Kalatope Wildlife Sanctuary, 8 kms from Dalhousie, which is home to the Himalayan black bear, barking deer and many species of birds.

It is best to visit Dalhousie from October to May as this avoids monsoon season when the roads can be difficult to traverse.

Rann of Kutch – Gujarat

A short flight from Mumbai to Bhuj and a two and a half hour drive later you arrive in the Rann of Kutch. A safari in the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary is the best place to begin your journey into the Rann. Spread over nearly 5,000 square kilometres, it is the largest wildlife sanctuary in India and is home to a variety of animals like the desert fox, desert cat, jackal, wolf, nilgai, and the Indian Wild Ass which is only one of the three surviving species of Wild Ass in the world and figures high on the list of endangered species.

For bird lovers the sanctuary offers the opportunity to see over 350 bird species. The flamingo, pelican and Common Crane vie for the bird watcher’s eye together with foreign avian visitors during the winter such as the Siberian Crane, the Egyptian Ceraneous Vulture, the European Blue-tailed Bee-eater and Houbara Bustard from neighboring Iran and Iraq. More winged delights await you at the Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary, 64 kms from Ahmedabad.

The Rann is inhabited by a number of local tribes like the Kolis, Rabaris, Bajanias, Bharvads, Kutchis and the Gujjars and a visit here is incomplete without a closer look at their vibrant lifestyles.

There is a lot more to explore in the vicinity like Modhera which is famous for its beautiful temples that have been carved out of stone. Zinjuwada, an 11th century fort structure, located on the periphery of the Rann houses one of the area’s largest salt works. A stop in the historic city of Rajkot (famous for its association with Mahatma Gandhi) or at Patan (known for its Patola sarees and fabrics) is a good way to wrap up your trip to the Rann.

Ladakh – Jammu & Kashmir

If trekking and exploration are high on your travel agenda then Ladakh is one of the best places to visit. Fly to Leh (Ladkah’s largest town) to begin your journey into the challenging and exciting destination of Ladakh. Making Leh your base camp to acclimatize to the high altitudes is ideal.

The trek from Spituk to Stok takes 4-5 days during which you can explore remote villages, enchanting monasteries and wildlife at the Hemis National Park. If you are looking for an authentic stay in Ladakh then the Himalayan Homestays programme gives you the opportunity to stay with a Ladakhi family and explore the park with experienced guides.

Other treks like the Lamayuru to Alchi trek through the Kongske La Pass at 4,900 metres and Stakspi La at 4,950 metres give visitors a glimpse of the stark, undulating landscapes and some ancient monasteries like the Alchi Chos-khor known for 11th century murals.

Andaman and Nicobar Islands – Bay of Bengal

For those of you who are water babies the colour blue will take on many hues at the Andaman and Nicobar islands. The islands are a great place to unwind and spend some time away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

You can enjoy scuba diving and snorkeling in the blue-green visage and swim alongside colourful marine creatures during night dives. Take a glass bottom boat ride to get a glimpse of the diverse marine life and corals along the Havelock Islands coast in the Andamans and the Lakshadweep.

The best way to get around the islands is on a bike so you can drive around and discover the place and sample local cuisine along the way.

The Backwaters of Alappuzha and Kochi – Kerala

The tranquil backwaters of Alappuzha and Kochi are accessible by flights (the Cochin International Airport is the nearest one), by train from major cities like Kochi, Mumbai, Bangalore, New Delhi and Chennai or bus from Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode, Chennai, Bangalore, Mysore, Coimbatore to Alappuzha.

A house boat with a butler, oarsmen and cook to wait on your every need of course while you enjoy the tranquility of the sylvan settings and navigate 900 kilometers of the water kingdom is the best way to enjoy some quiet time. You can also relax, rewind and rejuvenate as you surrender to the goodness of Ayurveda at the Keraleeyam Ayurvedic Resort, 70 kms south of Kochi or the Coconut Lagoon and Kumarakom Lake Resort. Medicated oils and herbal concoctions work their magic on you as experienced masseurs get on the job.

If you want to grab a slice of hectic activity in Alappuzha, then the Snake Boat Festival in August is the best time to go. You could also visit during the temple festivals of which the Ambalapuzha temple festival is particularly impressive. Five elephants carry the Krishna idol from the temple amidst great pomp and splendor to the accompaniment of music. The temple is famous for its rose palpayasam, a traditional very sweet milk-based dish as an offering.

All in all, depending on what you’re looking for India has a lot to offer in terms of quiet retreats and destinations that are replete with frenzied activity. Here’s to a wonderful Indian rendezvous.

Images reproduced from

Paris – Just a Eurostar Away!

Paris – a name associated with culture, art, the opera, the bourgeoisie and foremost a world-class cuisine. The French capital invites not only with an incredible charm, but also with an interesting mixture of old and modern architecture. Many artists flock to Paris in the summer to paint the beautiful scenery.

Various churches and cathedrals offer musical highlights throughout the year and thousands of little bars and restaurants offer some of the best culinary delights of the world. Many of us have always dreamt about a weekend away in the French capital but never really managed to do it. But it could not be easier! It is only a hop on the Eurostar away! Trains run frequently from London St. Pancras and can be booked easily on the Eurostar website.

Getting from Cambridge to St. Pancras is very convenient and takes only an hour. Trains go directly from Cambridge to London Kings Cross, which is right next to St. Pancras station in the heart of London. The train journey to Paris is only about 2.5 hours from London and trains arrive at Gare du Nord right in the centre of the French metropolis!

Staying in Paris can be very affordable and great deals can be found on

Whether you go for a cultural trip, for a romantic weekend away with your loved one or a culinary experience, Paris has something to offer for everyone. In fact, eating out in the French capital is generally cheaper than in London and the atmosphere in many restaurants and bars is outstanding. Make your dreams come true and go to Paris for a weekend. It is a fantastic travel experience and very convenient from the South of England.

Here some highlights not to be missed:

The Eiffel tower: A must when you are in Paris! If you go the weekend make sure you get there early in the morning, otherwise the queues are horrendous.

Sacre Coeur de Paris: A beautiful church in the world famous district of Montmartre. Many artists exhibit their paintings and drawings on the streets.

Boat tour on the Seine: A highlight. Tours are in various languages and you get to see the main sites of Paris. Tours take roughly an hour and a half.

Le Louvre: One of the biggest museums in the world housing the world famous “Mona Lisa”.

Musée d’Orsay: Full of beautiful impressionist art. One of my favourites!

La Durée: A world-class pâtisserie famous for macaroons and outstanding cakes!

Notre-Dame de Paris: The world famous cathedral, which we all know from of the stories of Nostradamus.

Go to Paris. Book a ticket today and do something special for a weekend. You won’t regret it.

Pictures courtesy of Tina Phillips /

Travelling to Great Zimbabwe

The bus slows gently as the driver changes down through the gears; annoyingly the moment before it stops he breaks sharply and sends every passenger lurching forward from their seats. After settling back into my original position I look out the window and notice another person waiting to board. This can only happen in Africa; surely not another soul can fit on the bus.

An old man holding a rudely constructed cage made from sticks and wire, full of unhappy chickens steps on, he speaks to the driver in Shona the local language and hands him a coin. I laugh to myself when I see the old man is wearing a woolen hat and large coat, the temperature is around 38 degrees and I’m finding it unbearable in shorts and T shirt. My heart went out to the poor chickens inside their prison, their heads hanging out constantly gagging for air.

How many chickens would survive their journey? Also how many of us passengers would survive ours? The cramped hot conditions on this bus were intolerable. I felt like I was in a cage. I felt like a Chicken.

This was my first experience of public transport in Zimbabwe. My plan was to spend three months traveling throughout the country, mainly riding these small Mitsubishi buses. Unbelievably I’d soon start to look forward to boarding them; I would find pleasure in other passengers company and happily daydream whilst looking out of the window. My love for this cramped, basic transport materialised whilst on a journey to the ancient ruins of Great Zimbabwe. I knew little of these Great ruins, only that it was a place I had to visit.

Leaving Bulawayo the second largest city in the country my destination was Masvingo, which was the nearest town to the ruins in the south east of Zimbabwe. Before 1980 Masvingo was called Fort Victoria but after independence the name was changed. The driver revealed the journey was three hundred and eighty kilometers, cost eight American dollars (the currency which is now used to stabilise the economy) and took five hours. I could not complain about the price but generally drivers underestimate arrival time by a couple of hours.

The route would take me via the A6 through the small settlements of Esigodine, Mulujawane, Mbalabala, onto the A9 which crossed the beautiful Insiza river, a life line to everything in the area, through Pambuka, Zvishavane, over the Runde river and then finally through Mashava before arriving at Masvingo. These very British sounding road names need to be respected. In Zimbabwe motor vehicles have to swerve constantly for unconcerned livestock, avoid hitting potholes a grown man could get lost in and pull over what seems every 30 kilometers for tollgates. The tolls are only around one American dollar but are enforced by police armed with AK47’s, they are usually a friendly bunch but give every vehicle a close look for anything illegal, bribes are meant to be fairly common which is not surprising as the police wage is so small.

Every town and village I passed through was bustling with activity, there was always people waiting, usually women trying to sell food and drinks to the passengers. Pushing, shouting and banging on the window feebly trying to get noticed, trying to earn a living. It was very hard to look these desperate people in the eyes knowing you cannot help them all. Zimbabwe is generally a country you hear about in the news for the troubled times it has gone through. Disease and starvation has killed thousands in the last few years, with an unsupportive government it amazes me how people live with smiles on their faces, the African sense of humor never seems to evaporate. The country is changing rapidly, life is defiantly improving, people are happier but the stories of bad times are still on peoples lips. I hid these depressing thoughts in the back of my mind when finally the bus pulled into Masvingo. I knew these mental images would reappear at a later date, but for now excitement took hold as I would be visiting the Great ruins first thing in the morning.

On first sight of the ruins you cannot appreciate their magnitude. To start with all you notice is a rocky hill, but this Royal Palace takes your breath away the more you explore them. They were built in the 11th Century and shout the old Kings status and political power. The most prominent feature is the eleven-meter high walls, which extends two hundred and fifty metres, this is known as the Great Enclosure. The only other ancient structure in Africa to beat its size is the pyramids of Egypt. Every stone was laid upon one another without the use of mortar, which is very impressive as they are still as strong as the ground they were built on.

There is a theory that says the word ‘Great Zimbabwe’ comes from an old dialect of Shona, and simply means ‘large house made of stone’ which is very relevant, because the hill I first noticed is exactly that. This hill has a warren of passages throughout and Royal Quarters dug into the rock face, as well as hundreds of other little rooms that would have been used for servants, cooking and even burial. One King who ruled here was suppose to be married to over four hundred Queens, but they were given there own area to live down in a nearby Valley. It is more of an ancient city as these ruins span about two thousand acres and in its peak would have been home to eighteen thousand loyal subjects, who would have gazed at the ‘large house made of stone’ with the upmost respect, just as I did.

We have all been recently reminded of famine, how countries in the Horn of Africa have suffered one of the worst droughts in years. I just hope Zimbabwe does not repeat the heartbreaking circumstances of the last ten years and it has a positive future. I believe tourism can make a huge difference to the poor rural communities such as the ones in nearby Masvingo. Zimbabwe is a country that has so much to offer, the people are so friendly, it has amazingly diverse landscapes, shockingly beautiful wildlife and ancient fortified ruins that will keep you thinking for hours about the kings who used to rule from them.

I want to thank the people of Zimbabwe and to the people who looked after me. Hopefully one day you will be able to thank them too.

Images courtesy of William Addison-Atkinson

Thailand: An Ongoing Adventure

You meet them in droves when traveling, people who’ve ‘done’ Fiji, the Amazon and China. Three weeks on a tourist bus and they have miraculously acquired supreme knowledge of the food (delicious but avoid the water), the people (so friendly!) and sites (amazing, but not nearly as good as Angkor Way which they did in 2003).  When the OED defines ‘to do’ as ‘to complete/achieve’, the question that begs to be answered is, ‘How? How on earth have you ‘done’ anywhere?’ One of travel’s greatest joys is that it can never be fully completed. Every time you visit a place it will have changed, your perspective will be different, your experiences new. Whether you’ve lived somewhere for years, or visited for the first time, there is always something new to explore.

To that end, I’m returning to Thailand. Bangkok, off the tourist trail of gilded palaces and Kao San Road, is a tangle of back alleys that are a photographer’s dream. Bridges cross over murky rivers, birdcages and orchids hang from eaves, small temples nestle street stalls and a fluro shellsuit clad life -size doll, eerily resembling Michael Jackson, holds up his hands in prayer. We drink coffee outside one of the many police stations, and contemplate purchasing some shiny cop shoes. We take the subway to see where it goes, coming out in a building made of blinding white lino and huge sheets of glass, the size of an airport departure lounge. Imagine coming into St. Pancreas and finding it deserted. We speak in whispers and ride nearly silent trains.

The train to Suratthani, however, takes twelve hours over night. First and second class seats are sold out and the VIP bus beyond the budget, so we resign ourselves to third. There are parts of the world where voluntarily traveling third class takes a serious degree of masochism, but on this train it’s positively luxurious. The lights are on all night and the temperature somewhere below freezing makes the journey something of an endurance test. But given it costs little less than £10, its worth the loss of sleep and blood circulation! Having said that, the seats recline and, unheard of luxury!, the bathroom has toilet paper. If you are inclined to feel cold, bring a jacket, particularly in the air-con first and second-class.  Hawkers wander the rows with beer, coffee, or fried chicken, in case you haven’t packed your own. Waking up to a sunrise over the jungle is one of life’s greatest pleasures, especially with chilled-solid chocolate for breakfast.

View over Khao Sok

The hourly local bus to Khao Sok costs a fraction of the price of the tourist mini-buses, and the interior decorating is a treat.  Khao Suk borders Khao Sok national park and caters exclusively for tourists. Enjoy the novelty of sleeping in a tree house or beside the river. If you are after good food, stick to where the locals go, rather than the resorts. It’s a stunning national park, famed for the giant rhaphiolepis and huge limestone cliffs. Tour companies have a monopoly on the activities here, and, as always, its advisable to take a guide if going into the caves. Riding an elephant in Thailand has become the ultimate tourist cliché, but it’s not for nothing that it’s become so popular. Elephants (or Elephanys as the sign says) are beautiful animals and its impossible not be enchanted with them. Chose your tour operator wisely, if it seems the animals are abused or unhappy in anyway, ask to be taken back to your hotel.

The lake trip is the de-rigueur tour and involves a boat trip across the reservoir, swimming, a walk through the jungle and a cave trip. The cave trip alone makes it worth it, with stunning rock formations, bats and spiders whose eyes shine incandescent in the torchlight. Bring a head torch and be prepared to get wet. Reef shoes or heavy-duty sandals are ideal, and swimsuits are a great way to save your clothes. If you’re on the shorter side, you’ll be swimming sections of the cage and coming up to your thighs in the rivers! Your guide will tell you if it’s safe to enter, but never enter a cave when it’s raining or surrounding rivers turn brown. We exit the cave to the first raindrops of tropical rain shower and soon it’s a beautifully muddy dash back to the lakeside camp. The boat journey back is exquisitely beautiful with jungle-covered limestone mountains rising out of the water. It’s a sobering thought that this is a man-made environment; the land was flooded in 1986 to make the reservoir. Already, the environment is showing signs of stain and change.

On the outskirts of Khao Sok is a monkey temple. After you’ve had your fill of monkey antics, explore the rest of the complex. Bring a head torch for the cave behind the  Buddha statues, or if you have had enough of subterranean adventures, climb the rusting staircase to an enclave half way up a cliff face. If you can ride a motorbike, it’s a great way to go exploring for yourself. The village markets are always worth a look, and it’s amazing what a package tour will miss. There’s a whole range of hot springs, jungle walks and waterfalls to discover.

Khao Sok’s beauty comes from its unique geographical and environmental conditions. However, they do affect the weather. Be prepared for hot, sunny mornings and tropical downpours in the afternoon and evening. It’s the perfect excuse to retreat to your tree house with a beer, a few bats and the odd chameleon and watch the heavens open.

Travel Series Germany – Dresden

Recently, I reported on the city of Leipzig as a travel destination. This week, City Connect is proud to present the world-famous Baroque city of Dresden, one of the culturally richest cities in the Western world. Dresden is about 800 years old and is the capital of the German federal state of Saxony situated at the river Elbe. It has a population of about 530,000 and a historic Baroque city centre with many world renowned buildings. Dresden was heavily destroyed during the war but during the past two decades a lot of effort and money has been put into the old city centre to restore the city to its former glory. Dresden was once termed the Florence of the river Elbe and now attracts millions of visitors every year. Dresden is situated in a valley and has beautiful nature reserves just outside the city, amongst them a UNESCO world heritage site. Dresden has fabulous public transport including tramways and good bus services.

Semper Opera

The opera of Dresden is one of the finest in the country and in Europe. If you want to book tickets, make sure you do it well in advance. It attracts some of the best performances in the world. The Saxon Symphony Orchestra (Sächsische Staatskapelle) performs in the Opera and every year it attracts some of the best singers in the world.

Zwinger Art Gallery

The Dresden Art Gallery has paintings of artists such as  Rubens, Sandro Botticelli, Albrecht Dürer and many more. It is situated in an old Saxon palace right next to the Semper opera. The building was constructed in the 16th century, inspired by French Baroque buildings. You can also go for beautiful walks on the huge balconies spanning the top of the entire building.

Grünes Gewölbe

This art exhibition shows pieces of many Saxon dynasties, amongst them a cherry stone carved with 80 small faces. One can only see them under a magnifying glass and wonders how the artist managed to produce this masterpiece of human craftsmanship. Be enchanted by great Baroque art work.


The Cathedral of Dresden is the biggest Lutheran cathedral in the world and was built between 1726 and 1743. It was destroyed during the war and kept as a war memorial. It was rebuilt after German reunification and the reconstruction was finished in 2005. Now, it is once more a magnificent building with an even more magnificent interior including a beautiful organ and altar. There are still long queues to go inside, so bring some spare time. There are also regular concerts performed in the church.

Sächsische Schweiz

There is a very famous natural park situated just South of the City. It encompasses huge forests, a large part of the riverbanks along the river Elbe and various man-made viewing platforms. The region has some 1,000 climbing peaks, as well as several hollows, making it an ideal place for climbers.

The city has many hotels and offers a great variety of accommodation. If you are looking for a romantic weekend away, you should be looking into accommodation in the old city centre. However, hotels can be very pricey there and you might be more successful finding cheap accommodation in the Neustadt. You may also enjoy going on a boat trip along the river Elbe. You can choose simple options, or even go on a boat that offers lunch or dinner buffets. Some boats also go South to the national park and to various small castles along the river. Dresden has its own international airport and is also easily reachable from the international airports of Berlin.

Images reproduced from,,,, and

Holiday in Haridwar

Located 32 km from the more famous Rishikesh, Haridwar is often merely a side trip on many Western traveller’s agendas. Bustling with temples, markets and rich historical past, it is a town more than worthy of its own distinction.

For many, Haridwar’s primary attraction is its profoundly religious significance. Known as Mayapuri Kshetra, it was one of the seven cities one must visit to gain entrance to heaven and one of the four sites where devas and asuras fought over a pot of elixir as the cosmos churned the ocean. The pride of the city is the Ganges. Rushing down from the Himalayas, the Ganges is regarded as India’s holiest river. Every year, millions of devotees flock to the river to take part of the Kumbh Mela or walk hundreds of miles baring gaudy bamboo structures called kavadis to collect the holy water during Shravan.

Bathing in the water of the Ganges is believed to wash away any sin, no matter how grievous. Tragically, even this close to the source, the water is filled with debris. Dead bodies, human excrement and trash, not to mention bone-chilling cold and strong currents, all make bathing in the river extremely dangerous. Despite that, millions will come to Haridwar ever year to keep their soul, if not their skin, sparkling.

Haridwar is filled with temples, from the ancient to concrete. Whether you come for tourism or soul-cleansing, the temples are certainly impressive. The most famous of Haridwar’s temples are located a short rickshaw ride down the river in Har ki Pauri. Mansa Devi and its sister temple, Chandi Devi, sit perch on the mountain tops. Saffon-clad devotees will gladly suffer the scorching walk to the summit. But most happily pay the hefty ‘entertainment’ tax to take the gondoliers to the top. Be prepared to wait for hours on weekends and longer on holy days. Offering stunning views over the Himalayan foothills and Haridwar, the gondoliers are more than worth the wait.

While the temples are dotted with bright red bindis and hazy with incense and ghee, the temple complexes sparkle with bedazzled kumkum jars and are alight with blazing saffron cloth favoured by the religious. Enjoy the view with a less-than-sacred ice-cream or thali before descending. As with everywhere in Haridwar, the rupee is king. Expect to pay for every blessing and sadhus’ word of wisdom and keep a stash of small change handy.

Har ki Pauri is worth a day’s visit. Its crowded marketplace is nothing short of amazing: richly brocaded sarees for the bride, peda lassis and kadak chai for the teetotaller, samosas and falooda for the gastronome, rudraska and spatika beads for the religious and the horticulturalist. The crowds are just as engaging: dreadlocked sadhus squat by the roadside, honeymooning newlyweds awkwardly navigate the road (and their lives) together, children scream as they play in the Ganges, their mothers laugh dripping in wet sarees.

India is obsessed with the camera, and people will happily pose for pictures. Of course, you’re expected to return the favour- often with a small child thrown in for good measure! It seems impossible, but Har ki Pauri becomes even more vibrant at night. The light from the shops sends the sequins on bangles and sarees into hyperdrive, the venders work overtime on tempting sweets, and the crowd doubles in anticipation.

Har ki Pauri is the venue for one of India’s most famous aartis, a fire prayer. Thousands will gather every night to pray and float candle-lit flower ladened offerings down the Ganges. Times vary throughout the year, but arrive early for a good spot. Have small change handy for the priests and, if sitting on the riverbank, be prepared to get wet. It’s ethereally beautiful and, given the crushing pandemonium all round, mysteriously peaceful.

Hardiwar has its share of hotels ranging from the luxurious to the hovel. For the true Haridwar experience, however, stay in one of the many ashrams. Worthy of their own article (coming soon!), these ashrams are a haven of peace, tranquillity and requisite 4am mediation! The ashrams offer their own range of activities and events, from mediation to yoga to education. Involvement isn’t always optional but is always an experience!

Gondoliers, Ganges and Ghats not enough for you? Haridwar is surrounded by beautiful scenery, filled with markets and lined with enough Ghats that there’s no excuse not to take a dip in the Ganges. At night, look out for wild elephants using the green corridor on the outskirts of Haridwar. Dev Sanskirti University is renowned for its study of alternative medicines and many stay for weeks to undergo a rich variety of traditional and revolutionary treatments. Elephants, sadhus and chai, oh my!

Images courtesy of the author

Addicted to Colombia… But Not on Drugs

I love the Caribbean’s warm blue seas and powder-white beaches but hate huge, impersonal all-inclusive hotels where, having no will power, I invariably put on half a stone in two weeks. So, after a hectic three-month trip around South America, we chose to spend our final days on Providencia, a little known Colombian island surrounded by the Caribbean Sea. We flew from the capital Bogota on an18-seater Cessna, firstly to San Andreas and then on to Providencia, a small, primitive island with a 20km coral barrier reef.

Sunset at Providencia

Sunset at Providencia

In 2011 Colombia was one of the world’s largest cocaine producers and we were therefore not surprised to be comprehensively patted down by rubber gloved policeman before boarding. Our flight was shared by a large family of small hobbit like people and a dog. On arrival, assuming we’d have to wait for our 11kg bags to be unloaded, we gallantly let everyone off first. This was a bad move as Immigration involved one girl reading out passport details to another who laboriously typed them in using one finger. Only the dog seemed to have no trouble. It took 30 minutes for us to be processed and the police, who were waiting to physically search us and our bags, were getting impatient. They decided to give one bag a cursory glance leaving the one with the  the duty-free gin intact.

On arrival at the hotel Sol Caribe, in Freshwater Bay, we disappointingly discovered it had a stony beach. The only positive thing about it was a large fridge instead of a mini bar and a small supermarket next door stocked with Sauvignon Blanc (SB): which after months of red Malbec and Merlot was a real treat. We quickly decided to change to the small, laid-back Hotel Sirius in South West Bay, but not before raiding the supermarket of all its SB, all 11 bottles. The Sirius was small, pretty basic and without TV, internet and mobile phone access but our room fortunately had a fridge big enough to hold the 11 bottles of SB. Its selling point was that it was literally on the beach, and this time it had beautiful sand. As the majority of guests went out diving each day, we had the four sun-beds and entire beach to ourselves. Our days involved reading, watching the fishing and scuba diving boats go in and out, having frequent sea dips and drinking our SB as the sun set. Saturday was the highlight of the week with local horse racing along the beach and we stood in the ‘sea stand’, knee deep in warm water, as the horses galloped past and watched the frantic betting. The only restaurant within walking distance served cheap fresh lobster, seafood and beer. It was utter bliss.

However, Colombia has much more to offer. Cartagena de Indias felt very like my native York (but lots warmer), with its city walls, narrow cobbled streets and laid back atmosphere.  We learned the difference between a privateer and pirate in an underground museum at Catalina corner where for 7,000 peso (£2) we discovered the history of the walls in both Spanish and English. We read that Sir Francis Drake was actually a privateer, not a pirate, as his trip had been endorsed by Queen Elizabeth I. It was a cooling experience in the heat of the day and surprisingly empty.



Nearby we investigated 23 dungeons built between 1792 and 1796 in the city walls, which were more than 15m thick. The vaults were used by the Spaniards as storerooms for munitions and provisions before being transformed into a jail. They’ve now been converted into shops and one is a bar full of bull fighting memorabilia. In the evenings, we feasted on cerviche in shaded courtyards once cruise ship crowds disappeared and took romantic horse and carriage rides as the sun set. This cultural city is also noted for the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts which next year runs from 30 January to 2 February 2014.

Botero's Gordita

Botero’s Gordita

We were also introduced to Fernando Botero’s naked reclining woman, Gordita, in the Plaza Santa Domingo and liked it so much, that when we moved on to Colombia’s capital Bogota, we visited the Museo Botero to look at lots more ‘fat friends’ as well as works by Picasso, Dali and Freud. In the Museo del Oro we were locked in a huge, circular vault and pitched into total darkness before 8,000 gold pieces were dazzlingly illuminated. If visiting Colombia is out of the question, I’d recommend visiting El Dorado at the British Museum from 17 October to 23 March 2014.

Museo del Oro

We also visited Casa de la Moneda, an original mint, tracing the history of currency and Museo de Trajes Regionales displaying traditional costumes.

One of Bogota’s highlights was the Sunday steam train to Zipaquirá. We got to the station early, but a throng of noisy Colombians were already excitedly milling around. A guard shouted a long list of instructions in fast Spanish about what to expect. He caught us looking bemused, so when he’d finished, he sidled up to us and said in perfect English, ‘just follow me’. The carriages, as old as the puffing engine, had grand leather seats. Announcements flowed thick and fast but a young girl sitting behind us interpreted. The two hour, 20 km journey passed in a flash. We were entertained by lively, loud jazz and soul bands who strolled through the carriages and vendors offered plantain-wrapped tamales, Colombian tinto (coffee), the ubiquitous empanada and huge, creamy-white merengons (meringues). On reaching Zipaquirá we headed for the Catedral de Sal or Salt Cathedral, an underground Roman Catholic Church built within the tunnels of a salt mine, 200 meters underground in a Halite mountain.

Steam Train

Whilst Colombia may be one of South America’s least well known countries, I’d recommend you go now, as it may still have a reputation for violence and drugs but we found it intoxicating enough without the need for narcotics.

Talad Rot Fai: Bangkok’s Hippest Market

For the hip young things, Bangkok’s Chatacak market is old news. Overpriced, crawling with sweaty tourists and baby bunnies in tutus, swelteringly hot, row on row of the same stuff all held in a purpose built market. And, let’s be honest, a purpose built market? Who does that these days? If you’re all about the oversized geek-chic glasses, rockabilly beats and painted-on black skinny jeans, then Talad Rot Fai is the place to be seen.

Talad Rot Fai in Bangkok (Photo credit: Peter Newbigin)

It’s also the place to pick up everything from Bakelite to Bert and Ernie dolls, all in the dim half-light of dozens of abandoned train carriages, converted VW camper-vans, and market stalls scattered on the pavement. Started just a few years ago, disused train carriages have been converted into retro-chic bars and hold-alls for the treasures of yesteryear. Talad Rot Fai is known in English as ‘The Train Market” and it is an unmissable photo opportunity. The train carriages, the bright young things, the clothes, the jumble of antiques that changes throughout the night, the lighting… Charge your camera and get ready for some fantastic photos. Antiques dealers will be in paradise in the antiques sections, where hundreds of temptations crowd for space. Old mannequins lean against fancy pin-ball machines, ancient telephones tumble off smooth leather recliners, peeling advertisements and retrofitted vintage bikes tempt the passerby. Don’t expect any logic in layout or a set price. Half the fun is exploring and bargaining. For the serious collector, there are some definite finds here. It’s a long walk to the nearest ATM, so come financially prepared.

For those settled in Thailand, the nursery sections is a great, if slightly random, place to pick up new plants. Suit up for your next fancy-dress party, burlesque performance or simply next weekend with some amazing vintage clothes. But if you don’t fancy a powder-blue suit or a polyester prom dress, head round to the clothes section. Here, venders display their custom made t-shirts, hats, dresses, toys and skirts. Everything’s new, hip, and unique. And the dek neaw (hipsters) love it. At a fraction of the price of Khao San Road or Chatarak, its the perfect place to replace your travel-worn wardrobe with something different. Perhaps a complete penguin or turtle costume? Or an ironically ‘80s tee for the less zoologically-inclined? Some sequined hot-pants for your friends back home?

Drinks and food at Bangkok’s Train Market (Photo credit: Peter Newbigin)

Tired of all the shopping? Pick a train carriage and settle down for a cold beer or iced coffee. Or if you have fond memories of Woodstock (or simply wish you’d been there), have dinner out the back of a converted VW camper van. From live music to the best of the 50’s, there’s also some classic quality audio entertainment to be found. Come with an empty stomach and a full wallet. From bargain-priced noodles to fruit shakes to retro-inspired cocktails, its the chance to dine with the in-crowd. And speaking of the in-crowd, Talad Rot Fai offers some excellent people watching. This is a crowd that knows how to dress- and doesn’t let scorching hot nights or monsoon rains stand between them and some seriously impressive fashion. So grab a cold drink, sit back, and, from a stationary train carriage, watch the world go by.

Vintage fun at Talad Rot Fai (Photo credit: Peter Newbigin)

At present, the market runs Saturday and Sunday only. While Talad Rot Fai officially opens at 2pm, venders and crowds don’t start arriving till 8pm. The market runs until midnight. Public transport closes around 11:30, so if you want to see the market through to its final glorious moments, you’ll be catching a taxi home. Getting to Talad Rot Fai is easy on Bangkok’s metro/BTS systems. Simply catch the subway to Kamphaeng Phet station and walk away from Chatacak Market. There are sometimes signs pointing to Talad Rot Fai, but if in doubt, follow the dek neaw! Walk pass a bizarre collection of bonsai nurseries and glitzy nightclubs and the market will be on your right. The gate to the market is clearly signposted, but the sudden crowds, smell of food and 50‘s rock are the best indicator you’ve made it to the right spot. If you’d prefer, take the skytrain to Saphan Khwai and then take a taxi or tuk-tuk to market. Talad Rot Fai is relatively new so ask for the name of the market to be written in Thai as many taxi drivers are still unfamiliar with it.

Got your skinny jeans, camera and an empty stomach? All aboard!

Koh Tao: Peace, Quiet & Lots of Fish

Traveling from Koh Sok to Koh Tao is an easy and affordable trip on the tourist bus and boat. If you are after a little more freedom and adventure or are feeling the need for a lie-in (the tourist bus leaves at 6am), a couple of local buses and an overnight boat will get you there in a more leisurely style. Be prepared to fight for your bunk on the boat and a long wait at the pier. Waiting at the pier, however, is all part of the fun. There’s a range of street stalls selling everything you could possibly want to eat or drink, from fruit juices to candied sweet potato to a sophisticated G&T. Explore the tent market, with its tailors, gambling and stationary supplies.  It’s wonderful opportunity to people watch, be it locals or your fellow travelers!

Koh Tao

Landing in Koh Tao and it’s the usual barrage of tourist touts. If you know where you are going, be firm. If you don’t, get on island time from the moment you land, grab a fruit juice and then go about finding accommodation. After the tourist hoards have cleared, it’s a far more laid-back process. Taxi boats are a wonderful way to get about. While expensive, it’s a taxi and a sightseeing trip rolled into one and presents the opportunity to stay somewhere a little more out the way.  Enjoy it while you can,  by day two, the constant call of ‘taxi boat’ will start to grate! If its wild nights you’re after, its better to stay near the main beaches; negotiating the dirt roads after dark or a few drinks is a sure-fire way to make paying for that travel insurance worth every penny.  But if its tranquility you want, take a boat and go away from it all.  While you pay for the privilege, and there’s not much in the way of nightlife, there’s something to be said for a few days in a beach hut, falling asleep to the sea and cicadas instead of psy-trance and drunken teens.

Butterfly in Koh Tao

It’s the ultimate opportunity to pack light: swimsuit, sarong, sandals and sunnies. And mosquito repellent… Lots of mosquito repellant, several packs of mosquito coils, and copious amounts of whatever anti-itch method you subscribe to.  But any place where mosquitoes are the only drawback has to be pretty special. Of course, the sea is the ultimate retreat from the mozzies and the stress of everyday life. The beaches are stunning, archetypal clear blue water and white sands. There’s an abundance of tropical marine life, from literally rainbow fish to turtles. Koh Tao is a diver’s paradise and nearly every resort, tourist operator, restaurant, club or pub is affiliated with a dive school. Companies keep prices fair by all staying at roughly the same cost per dive, but may sweeten the deal with free accommodation or free dives, so its worth looking around for the best package.  Even if you aren’t interested in diving, the snorkeling is accessible and fun, and it’s easy to spend hours gazing at all manner of marine life without branching far from shore.

Puppies in Koh Tao

Motorbikes, scooters, dirt bikes and ATVs are all available to rent. They are a great way to see the island, particularly when it’s hot and the hills make walking hard work. All your mother’s warnings about being safe and sensible should be heeded, the dirt or sand roads can be rough going, and tourists and locals alike abandon any pretense at road courtesy or safety.  While travel guides seem to place the blame on the ‘three-to-a-bike with an underage driver’ locals, its much more likely to be the 18 year old gap-yearer with a hangover, trail bike and no concept of a speed limit that will be your undoing. Convince yourself its all part of the fun and enjoy the freedom. After all, when you get back to London, chances are you won’t be swerving to avoid the lizards!

Unfortunately, there aren’t many isolated beaches left, and half the restaurants offer more Western food than Thai. If you want a chance to experience Thai culture,  Koh Tao certainly shouldn’t be your only Thailand destination.

But whether you spend your days diving or relaxing, your nights falling asleep to the sea or drinking spirits by the bucket, Koh Tao offers something for everyone.