juliamhammond

Africa

Fogo: trouble in paradise

Is an increase in tourism a good thing?  Fogo follows hot on the heels of the likes of Barcelona and Venice to question whether an increase in tourism is to be encouraged.  It is one of the islands that makes up the archipelago nation of Cape Verde, a country that receives around 20% of its GDP from tourism.  Approximately 22% of employment in Cape Verde is in the tourism sector.  Fogo’s stats are considerably lower and when I visited back in November, I found that trouble was brewing in paradise.

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Currently, it’s estimated that Fogo receives about 8000 visitors a year.  While Sal and Boavista welcome international visitors with open arms and embrace resorts which wouldn’t look out of place in the Canary Islands, Fogo has so far resisted mass tourism.  That’s not to say it’s unattractive.  The cobbled streets of its main town São Filipe have caught the eye of UNESCO while a volcanic caldera criss-crossed by hiking trails and littered with fledgling grape vines dominates what’s left of this tiny scrap of land.  Fogo is the kind of place you go when you want to escape the hustle and bustle of your life back home, the kind of place where hours pass before you smile to yourself and acknowledge you’ve done absolutely nothing.

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But plans are afoot to increase the visitor count to 200000 people per year.  The timescale is unclear, but is unlikely to be gradual if those pushing for change have their way.  Those 200000 visitors would of course require lodging and meals, as well as services like electricity, water, internet connectivity and rubbish disposal.  These services are already stretched on Fogo and it is unclear who will provide for such expansion nor who will foot the bill.  I was told that the mayor of Fogo had gone to Italy on a fact-finding mission to explore the possibility of opening a similar waste disposal facility yet the project would operate on a scale the municipality could ill afford.

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Even building new hotels brings its own challenges.  Most hotels on Fogo are small, offering just a handful of rooms.  Sand in quantity is vital if construction of new properties is to begin and it’s a commodity in short supply on the island.  The few black sand beaches that exist have already been plundered and seasonal rains that might have washed new sand down off the volcano’s slopes failed to materialise.  I was told that any new building work taking place currently has to import sand by sea from the Sahara via countries like Mauritania.  This comes at a significant cost.  One builder I spoke to quoted a price of €28 a tonne just for shipping; once the cost of the sand itself was factored in, that figure rose to €70 a tonne.

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Even if development was financially viable, such development would drastically alter the character of this island.  Sleepy Fogo’s signature attraction is its languid lifestyle.  Its cobbled streets so far have escaped the ugly blanket of tarmac that blights such roads in other parts of the country.  Wood and plaster age gently in the sun, while islanders perch on stone steps as they chat about the day’s business.  But colonial-era sobrado mansions stand empty awaiting repair, hoping to attract an investor before irreversible dereliction sets in.

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To run efficient mass tourist hotels on Fogo would be to change the way things are done.  The introduction of tens of thousands more impatient incomers rushing to tick off the sights before their plane departs couldn’t fail to upset the balance of a place which beats to is own, proudly African, rhythm.  Of course, economically, development makes sense.  The financial gain to the island via increased spending and job creation would benefit many, but would the cost to society and the environment be worth it?


Trinidad: sugar and slaves

Trinidad’s fortunes were made in sugar and slaves. A few kilometres from the city, the Valle de los Ingenios is littered with the ruins of long abandoned sugar mills. While Cuba still harvests fields of sugar cane, production has long since moved away from this region.

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Standing in the grounds of the San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill, little imagination is required to picture how the scene would have been a century or two ago. The main house is still intact, a little weatherbeaten perhaps but not yet derelict. Its cedar windows and doors have been bleached by decades of sun. These days they’d pass for shabby chic and be considered worthy of a magazine spread. Back then, they were functional, the heavy shutters designed to keep the house cool despite its tropical setting.

Across the clearing my guide pointed out a bell tower, used as a lookout and built to call time for those toiling in the fields or factory buildings. Beyond the tower is what remains of the factory’s foundations and beyond that, the slave quarters, hidden away in the forest and once shielded from view by the factory itself. The prevailing wind had also been taken into account when siting the main house, so that sensitive noses wouldn’t have to contend with the sickly sweet smell of molasses.

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The first mill on this site opened in 1776. Initially its assets were limited to just three horses, ten slaves and a single small sugar press. The Spaniard who owned it sold up to one Pedro Malamoros Borrell, who grew the farm and gave it the name we use today. He owned many slaves and life was tough for them. From November to April, they’d work ten days on and one off, working long hours in the hot sun and humid conditions cutting the cane.

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Others grafted in the factory pushing the sugar presses known as trapiches which squeezed juice from the raw cane. It was dangerous work and not uncommon for workers to lose an arm if it caught in the press. Though much of the mill lies in ruins, you can still see where the sugar would have been boiled to create molasses. My guide explained how heat passed along the row of nine pans, gradually getting cooler the further the distance it travelled from the centre. The cane juice was cleaned and transferred from pan to pan as well, constantly stirred until crystals formed to turn it into muscovado sugar.

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On the ground I spotted what looked like a rotten coconut. In fact it was the fruit of a güira tree. Used to make bowls from which the drink canchánchara could be served, they were also used to present offerings to the gods. My guide told me of an altogether more down to earth use: the insides are considered an effective flea treatment for dogs, and probably better for them than the chemical treatment I use back home, albeit gross to apply.

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Between May and October the slaves would have been rented out for other work. Slaves were entitled to keep a quarter of their pay, the rest lining their owner’s pockets. Savings could buy freedom. Slaves were more likely to purchase freedom for their children than themselves, or to use the money to pay for their own small house just outside the communal barracks.

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Though their lives were strictly controlled and conversion to Catholicism encouraged, the practice of African religions such as Santeria continued. A ceiba tree is considered sacred to followers of Santeria, representing Changó, the God of Thunder as its soft bark renders it lightning-proof. One stands to this day near where the barracks once were, a face visible in its trunk.

Borrell sold up in the mid 19th century to Carlos Malibrán and made a killing. But within a few short years, a crisis would hit the sugar industry. Malibrán would offload the property just four years later. Across the valley, crop rotation had been overlooked by mill owners greedy for profit and the soil had lost its fertility year in year. Yields fell and as competition from Europe’s sugar beet farmers felled prices, the rug was pulled from under Cuban sugar’s feet. The new owner of San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill lost pretty much everything and ended up mortgaged to the hilt. What had been fields of sugar cane were turned over to pasture.

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As the Cuban war for independence gathered momentum in 1868, slaves saw their opportunity to gain their freedom by joining the army. The flight of labour was another nail in the industry’s coffin. By 1898, the owners of the San Isidro de los Destiladeros mill had closed up and moved to Sancti Spiritus and the factory was demolished. Ownership passed to the Fonseca family in 1905 and they lived here until 2012. Burdened by the cost of restoration, they donated the house and ruins to the state.

Getting there
I arranged a morning visit to Valle de los Ingenios with Paradiso – a place on a shared tour cost 22 CUCs. You’ll find their tour agency at General Lino Pérez 30 about a minute’s walk from the Etecsa office in Trinidad. Alternatively haggle with a driver of a classic car, making sure you negotiate for the taxi to wait.


A beginner’s guide to Marrakesh

Its nicknames include the Red City and Daughter of the Desert, but the origin of the name Marrakesh is thought to come from the pairing of two Berber words, mur and akush, which mean Land of God.  You’ll see it written as Marrakech, also, as this is the French spelling.  This beguiling city is an easy weekend destination from the UK and captivates the visitor with its exotic easygoing charm.  Here’s what you need to know if Morocco’s famously intriguing destination is calling.

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Getting there

Many UK travellers head to Marrakesh on a direct flight with easyJet or Ryanair.  Fares can easily be found for as little as £50.  Don’t be concerned about travelling in the British winter as temperatures in the city are relatively mild – perfect sightseeing weather – though the nearby Atlas Mountains will have snow.  Scheduled operators include British Airways and the Moroccan flag carrier Royal Air Maroc.  Flight time from London is about three and a half hours.

Arriving overland can be an adventure in itself – in a good way.  The first time I visited (back in 1997) I caught a ferry from Algeciras in Spain and took the train to Marrakesh. I had a stop in  Fès on the way down and in Rabat to break the journey in the opposite direction.  You can catch a train from Tangier Ville station now and in 9 to 10 hours, arrive in Marrakesh with a change in Sidi Kacem.  Alternatively, there’s a sleeper train overnight which takes about 10 hours.  It’s usually OK to book a day or two ahead once you get to Morocco.

Morocco Djemaa food vendors

Getting around

From the airport, most people jump in a taxi or arranging to be met by your hotel.  If you opt for the former, check the rates on the board outside arrivals as a general guide and then agree a price with the driver through the front window.  Only get in when you are happy with how much he’s charging.  If you haven’t much luggage, bus #19 travels between the airport and the Djemaa el Fna via the Sofitel and loops back through the Ville Nouvelle (including a stop at the train station).  It costs 30 dirhams per person single and 50 dirhams return.

For the purpose of sightseeing, the city can be split into two: the old city or Medina and the Ville Nouvelle, also called Guéliz or the French Quarter.  Pretty much the only way to get around the Medina’s souks is on foot, where you’ll need to watch out for men racing donkeys laden with hides, straw and other goods through the narrow passageways.  Within the rest of the old town, mostly it’s compact enough to walk.  To get to the Ville Nouvelle, the easiest way is to flag down a taxi, but there are buses which depart from the Djemaa el Fna and the Koutoubia minaret – easy to spot.  Another useful bus route to know is the #12 which you can use to get to the Jardin Majorelle (Ben Tbib stop).  Tickets cost 3 dirhams.  Check out the bus website for more routes:

http://www.alsa.ma/en/marrakech/itineraire-urbain

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Calèche rides (horse-drawn carriages) are a common sight in the city but you’ll need to bargain with the drivers to take a tour.  Check that the horse looks fit and healthy and then begin negotiations.  Aim for about 150 dirhams per hour.  Make sure you’re clear on whether that price is for everyone or per person as it’s common for there to be some “confusion” when it comes to the time to pay.  It’s a lovely way to see the city, particularly the ramparts and Ville Nouvelle.

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Where to stay

The first time I visited Marrakesh, I stayed at the railway station hotel, now an Ibis.  It was convenient, but lacked soul.  The second time, I decided I wanted to stay in one of the courtyard mansions known as riads and opted for one deep in the souk.  It had character in spades, but trying to find it without a ball of string in the labyrinthine alleyways was a nightmare.  More than once I had to call the hotel for them to talk me in which was funny at first and then enormously embarrassing.

The third time, I got it right.  I found a characterful riad which was a twenty minute stroll from the Djemaa el Fna yet on an easy to find road near the El Badi Palace and Saadian tombs.  Riad Dar Karma was delightful, cosy, chic and quiet – a cocoon from the hustle and bustle of central Marrakesh.  It also has its own hamman.  When I got sick (do not eat salad in Marrakesh no matter how well travelled you are), they brought me chicken soup.  I cannot recommend them highly enough:

http://www.dar-karma.com/en/

What to see

The souks

Plunge in and explore the souks  right away.  Getting lost in the smells, sounds and sights of narrow winding alleys lined with tiny shops piled high with anything from spices to scarves is the quintessential Marrakesh experience.  Don’t try to follow a map.  You’ll get lost regardless, so embrace this lack of control and immerse yourself.  When you’re ready to leave, if you’ve lost your bearings, as is likely, just ask someone to point you in the right direction.  Try not to miss the dyers souk with vibrant skeins of wool hanging from the walls and of course the tanneries on Rue de Bab Debbagh, which you’ll smell long before you see.

Haggling is a must if you wish to purchase anything.  It’s best to make a return visit to the souk when you’re ready to buy; shopping later in the trip, you’ll have a better idea of what things should cost and know what your target should be.  The general principles are that if you make an offer, it’s the honourable thing to pay up if it is accepted, and a final price of 30-40% is usually good going.  Remember, the vendor will need those extra few dirhams more than you so don’t haggle too fiercely.  Read  my tips on how to haggle successfully:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/08/09/five-steps-to-becoming-an-expert-haggler/

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Djemaa el Fna

Though its name loosely translates as the Assembly of the Dead, there is nowhere in Marrakesh that comes alive like its main square, the Djemaa el Fna.  It’s busy by day but really comes into its own at night when it transforms into a night market with row upon row of delicious street food.  You’ll see water sellers posing for photos, snake charmers, acrobats from the Sahara – even street dentists who’ll pull out a molar there and then for a fee.  If it’s your first time out of Europe it’s a veritable assault on the senses but one that you won’t forget.

Koutoubia Mosque

The minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque looms large behind the Djemaa el Fna and is worthy of closer inspection.  So the story goes, when it was constructed, the alignment was wrong and it was knocked down so the builders could start again.  What you see dates from the 12th century and got its name from the booksellers who once congregated around its base.

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El Badi Palace

This ruined palace is a good one to explore and lies within walking distance of the Djemaa el Fna.  Its name means Palace of the Incomparable and there’s certainly nothing like it in the city.  It was built in the 16th century by Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur Dhahbi to celebrate a victory over the Portuguese.  It’s possible to walk within its walls and courtyard.  You’ll frequently see storks nesting there.

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Jardin Majorelle

Yves St Laurent gifted this garden to the city of Marrakesh after lovingly restoring it to its original beauty.  It was designed and created by the French painter Jacques Majorelle; begun in 1924, it was a labour of love and a lifetime’s passion.  The vibrant blues and bold yellows of its walls and pots set off the mature planting to form a breathtaking space that will delight, whether you’re a keen gardener or not.  Be prepared though: it’s a busy place with around 700000 visitors a year so you’re unlikely to have it to yourself.

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Out of town

Captivating though Marrakesh assuredly is, it’s well worth heading out of town if you can.  On the edge of the city you’ll find the Palmeraie, a good place to ride a camel while shaded by around 150000 palm trees.  The Menara Gardens are located close to the airport.  They were laid out in the 12th century and from them you have a tantalising glimpse of the mountains beyond.  A bit further away from Marrakesh and you can visit waterfalls and visit Berber villages and markets.  The surf at Essaouira is a two-hour bus ride away and a visit to the Atlas Mountains is another favourite.  Your hotel or riad can fix you up with an organised tour or a driver/guide.

I took an excursion to Ouarzazate, stopping off along the way at Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO-listed, ruined fortified village which has been the setting for many a film, including The Mummy and Gladiator.  At the Atlas Film Studios, just outside Ouarzazate, you can have a lot of fun re-enacting scenes from those movies and more amidst the sets and props which remain. Check out their website but note, when they say “Famous Shootings” they don’t mean with a gun:

http://www.studiosatlas.com

A final word of advice

Scamming of unsuspecting tourists is a sport in Morocco and although the level of hassle is considerably less than in other cities, it’s wise to be on your guard.  A few key pointers:

Never use a taxi or ride in a calèche without agreeing the price first, the same holds for any services you use e.g. henna tattoos, photos of water sellers and so on

Carry small change to avoid prices being rounded up

Make sure you ask to see your guide’s licence as it is illegal to work without one

Nothing is ever free, even if your new friend says it is

And a scam I’ve never experienced, but is reputedly common: you visit a restuarant and are given a menu with temptingly cheap prices.  When the bill comes, the prices are higher; if queried, a new menu is presented with the more expensive prices clearly shown.  It’s an easy one to prevent: take a photo on your phone of the original menu prices and call their bluff if necessary.

Do you have any tips for Marrakesh or any advice for travellers planning their first trip there?  If so, please leave a comment.


A beginner’s guide to Cape Verde

As the northern hemisphere winter starts to bite, our thoughts turn to warmer climes. But travelling to the Caribbean can be expensive unless you can snag an error fare and the Med’s still a little too chilly.  If you’re looking for winter sun on a post-Christmas budget, why not consider Cape Verde?  Known locally as Cabo Verde, it’s a ten island archipelago, nine of them inhabited.  With a long history and dramatic volcanic landscapes to complement its many glorious beaches, there’s an island to suit everyone.

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The salt pans which gave Sal its name

Getting there

Most Brits jet off to Sal, a largely barren island blessed with a bumper crop of  beaches and enough resorts to leave you spoilt for choice.  The two main operators that win on price are Thomas Cook Airlines and Tui, both of which offer direct flights from the UK.  Depending on which extras you consider essential, you can pick up a flight for between £200 and £400. I recently blogged about my experience with Thomas Cook Airlines. Find my review here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/11/25/review-of-thomas-cook-airlines/

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Thomas Cook plane at Sal airport

No scheduled carriers offering direct flights serve the UK, but you can fly with TAP via the Portuguese capital.  If you’ve never been to Lisbon, it’s possible to add a stopover to your holiday.  Find out what you can do in and around Lisbon here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-lisbon/

View from Mirador Portas do Sol

Lisbon’s Alfama district seen from the Mirador at Portas do Sol

Getting around

There’s recently been an increase in domestic flights between many of the islands, with Binter extending their reach from their Canary Islands base and Icelandair taking over the national airline TACV which could see it become more reliable. These changes have opened up island hopping for those constrained by relatively short holidays, providing a real alternative to the inter-island ferries that are available.  I had a week on Cape Verde, splitting my time between the islands of Sal, Santiago and Fogo.  Ideally you want to spend at least a few days on each.  If I’d have been there for a second week, I’d have flown to São Vicente, home to the island’s cultural hub Mindelo and hopped over to Santo Antão for some hiking.

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Binter, one of the inter-island airlines

What to see

Sal

Sal’s a package tourist hub, but with a little effort, you can venture beyond the horizons of the all-inclusives.  I based myself in Santa Maria, the main resort.  As time was limited – I’d really only added a night here to make sure I didn’t miss my flight – I booked an island tour through my bed and breakfast, the centrally located but basic Pensão Les Alizés.  Costing just 25 euros for the day’s excursion plus a couple of entrance fees, it was a good way of covering some of the main sights on Sal without resorting to expensive taxis.  You’ll notice the currency stated is euros; on Sal, most places will take euros alongside the local Cape Verdean escudos.  It’s also worth visiting Project Bioversity’s turtle project, located on the beach behind the Riu Palace Hotel.  Read about it here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/an-interesting-turtle-project-on-sal-cape-verde/

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Fisherman on Sal Island

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Murdeira, looking over towards Monte Leão

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Shoe rental, Shark Bay

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Salt pans at Pedra de Lume

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Mirage, not water

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The Blue Eye

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Buracona lava pools

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Local fisherman, Palmeira

Fogo

Fogo’s about as far removed from Sal as you can get.  This tiny island is dominated by an active volcano which looms menacingly against the skyline as you approach.  The island’s main town is São Filipe, whose colourful colonial sobrado mansions straggle down the rocky coastline towards the shore.  The pace of life is slow, and tourists are relatively few in number.  I’d recommend a stay at the Colonial Guest House, a restored 19th century sobrado house with a pool and restaurant within walking distance of the Bila Baxo’s historic attractions.  It’s possible to climb the volcano, whose last eruption ended in February 2015, though I settled for an easier guided walk inside the walls of the caldera, along the Chã das Caldeiras.  Book well ahead through your guest house to secure an English-speaking guide, as they are few and far between.

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Bila Baxo

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Sobrado mansion awaiting renovations

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Bringing in the firewood, São Filipe

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Parque Natural do Fogo

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Homes and businesses buried in the 2014-15 lave flows, Portela

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Road to nowhere, Chã das Caldeiras

Santiago

Home to the nation’s capital Praia, Santiago is an interesting destination for visitors.  I based myself in Praia and, like most of its residents, headed out to nearby Cidade Velha on a warm November Sunday.  Once known as Ribeira Grande, it was the country’s capital and focus for 15th century settlers.  There’s a pillory post, left as a reminder to the island’s slave trading history, and a short stroll away you’ll encounter the oldest colonial church in the Tropics, Nossa Senhora do Rosário church.  It’s also worth venturing into the island’s mountainous  interior as the scenery is spectacular.  The local minibuses, known as alaguers, are cheap.  Try to get a front seat spot for the best views.

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Rua de Banana, Cidade Velha

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Nossa Senhora do Rosário church

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Pillory post, Cidade Velha

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Football on the beach

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Sunrise over Praia

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The road to Assomada

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Dramatic peaks of Santiago’s mountainous interior

Tips for travellers

The diverse landscapes and captivating history make Cape Verde a rewarding destination.  The variety of activities on offer make island-hopping a very attractive proposition, and with online booking, simple to arrange without the need for a package.  That said, it is Africa, and travellers need to be prepared for things to occasionally run less smoothly than they’d like.

Transport can be a bit hit and miss, but the friendly Cape Verdeans will help if you find yourself stranded. Alaguers, or minibuses, run on set routes but if you flag down an empty one you’ll be asked if you want it “colectivo” or not – it’s cheaper to share but you’ll spend time waiting for passengers if they’re not full.

Weatherwise, it’s significantly warmer than the more northerly Canary Islands.  During my mid-November trip, temperatures were pushing 30ºC.  However, be prepared for the wind to pick up – if you’re looking for a fly and flop holiday, make sure your accommodation has a decent pool as you’ll often find the sea’s off limits due to dangerously strong tides.


An interesting turtle project on Sal, Cape Verde

While in Sal last month I was fortunate to be able to meet with a couple of volunteers working for Project Biodiversity.  Established two years ago, it’s a non-profit organisation which works tirelessly to protect the turtle population on Sal, one of the Cape Verdean islands most afflicted with the negative impacts of mass tourism.

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Sal has a significant number of loggerhead turtles yet the species is globally endangered.  The rapid development of tourist infrastructure and large scale hotels on Sal is threatening this species alongside historic threats like poaching and pollution.  A team of local rangers, field biologists and volunteers donate their time and expertise to ensuring that these creatures have the best chance of survival.  They also run an education programme in local schools to ensure that children get the message about how important turtle conservation is, not just to Sal but also to the global community.

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I visited the project, located at the top of the beach near the Rui Palace hotel, to find out more about the organisation’s work.  During the nesting season, roughly from June to November, volunteers patrol some of the beaches on Sal Island.  They’re looking for hatchlings and if these tiny creatures aren’t heading in the right direction – that’s straight for the sea – then they rescue them and take them back to their base for some TLC prior to release.

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Something like 7500 nests have been monitored this year, and at the time of my visit, 984 nests had been rescued and brought to the main hatchery, with several hundred more rescued to other locations.  Female turtles typically lay between fifty and a hundred eggs at a time, up to seven times a season.  Incubation is between 50 to 60 days.  But then, explained volunteers Cristina and Marisol, comes the heartbreaking statistic: they don’t all hatch and on average only one in a thousand hatchlings makes it to adulthood.  It’s a tough life being a baby turtle!

The work that Project Biodiversity is carrying out aims to help conserve this species.  Each of the hatchlings is counted, the time of birth recorded and also that of their release.  The number of eggs per nest is recorded too in an attempt to monitor the health of the species.  But despite the non-profit’s efforts, they estimate that  many turtles were still killed this year.  Volunteers go out with locals knowledgeable about the island’s beaches and also with military assistance, not because of any particular perceived threat but because their presence helps to ramp up the deterrent factor.

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Yet even with the best efforts of Project Biodiversity to educate, there’s also an issue with misplaced kindness. One Riu Palace tourist I spoke to explained that he’d seen hatchlings being taken from their holding pen while the Project Biodiversity centre was unmanned and released directly into the sea.  But this interferes with their ability to imprint to their natal beach.  The hatchlings need to make their own way down to the sea across the sand – that way they’ll be able to find their way back to nest as adults.  In addition, hands that are contaminated with sunscreen or other oily substances like handcream can also interfere with the imprinting process.  Sal has one other threat to hatchlings taken right to the shore.  The waves are huge!

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To find out more about the project, visit their website:

https://www.projectbiodiversity.org/sal-turtle-conservation

During nesting season, it’s possible to visit the project in the afternoons around 5pm.  Note that if you aren’t staying at the Riu Palace, you won’t be allowed in the hotel grounds; take the path around the side of the hotel instead.  You’ll be able to witness the newest hatchlings make their way to the sea and learn first-hand about Project Biodiversity’s work.  If you wish, there’s also the chance to adopt a nest or make a donation to the project, but there’s no hard sell.

With thanks to Project Biodiversity for their time and also for permission to use of the images in this post.


Vitamin Sea

It’s not long now until my trip to Cape Verde and as an autumn chill lingers on the Essex marshes long after sun up, I’m looking forward to some warmth and sea air.  To keep me going, I’ve been thinking about five of my favourite beaches and where I’ve most enjoyed getting my Vitamin Sea fix.

Anse Source d’Argent, Seychelles

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Anse Source d’Argent

I had high expectations for this glossy magazine favourite but didn’t leave disappointed.  It’s one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen and a pre-dawn walk from my guesthouse meant that I had it to myself at sun up.  There’s something about the size of the granite blocks that makes it feel almost prehistoric.

Pointe Sable, Haiti

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Sunset at Pointe Sable

Solitude is hard to find in the Caribbean, but Haiti’s still off the beaten track and this beach at Port Salut was the prettiest I found during my travels there. It’s popular with aid workers at weekends, so time your visit for midweek to have it to yourself.

Little Hunter’s Beach, USA

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Little Hunter’s Beach

I really enjoyed a few days in the coastal town of Bar Harbor, Maine, the jumping off point for Acadia National Park.  Parking up on the loop road, I found serenity and beauty in this tiny cobbled beach.  Most people drive right by as the beach isn’t signed.

Jökulsárlón Beach, Iceland

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Jökulsárlón beach

Nicknamed the diamond beach, this spot near the outflow of the retreating Oraefajokull glacier is pockmarked with glistening icebergs that have calved and been washed out to sea.  Out of season, when the crowds are thin, it’s one of the country’s most incredible sights.

Elmina Beach, Ghana

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The beach at Elmina, Ghana

No matter which way you walk from the castle at Elmina, you quickly reach unspoilt, almost deserted beaches.  Save for a few hawkers the fine sands and superb views are yours alone.  São Jorge da Mina castle has stood on the spot for over 500 years, built by the Portuguese to use as a trade hub and later part of the Gold Coast slave trade.

I’m looking forward to finding some world class beaches in Cape Verde.  If you’ve been, I’d love to hear your recommendations.


An island for every month of the year

For many of us, an island holiday is the ultimate in escapism.  There’s something about it which engenders a kind of “pull up the drawbridge” mindset perfect for recharging the batteries.  What follows puts together those islands that for one reason or another have made a lasting impression on me, with a suggestion for a good time to visit weather-wise.

Gorée – January

Senegal’s Île de Gorée is at once a melancholy and vibrant place.  The focus for the country’s remembrance of those lost to the slave trade even though few were ever shipped from its shores, it’s also colourful and charismatic, a favourite of artists and craftsmen.  It’s an easy day trip from the Senegalese capital Dakar.  In January the weather is sunny and mild, making this the perfect winter escape.

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Roatan – February

Honduras might have a hellish reputation in terms of safety and security – its largest city San Pedro Sula is considered to be the murder capital of the world – but the languid island of Roatan off its northern coast is about as far from trouble as you can get.  It has all the characteristics you’d expect from a Caribbean island: a laid back welcome, turquoise warm waters and fresh fish dinners.  In February, it’s busy enough to feel buzzing, yet you’ll have no problem finding space on the beach to soak up those tropical rays.

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La Digue – March

The Seychelles has a reputation for luxury – and all the costs that come with achieving it.  The good news is that La Digue manages to offer accommodation for all budgets.  Better still, it’s one of the prettiest islands on the planet and compact enough that you can explore it by bike in a few days.  In March, the weather’s on the turn, but unless you’re really unlucky, visiting La Digue in the shoulder season means you’ll dodge the worst of the crowds as well as the rain.

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St Lucia – April

One of the lushest islands in the Caribbean, St Lucia is also one of the prettiest.  But that verdant setting has only been achieved with rainfall totals higher than many in the region.  April is statistically the driest month, so time your visit to the island’s cocoa plantations, hot springs, iconic peaks and of course fabulous beaches to hit the best of the weather.

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Gozo – May

Malta’s firmly on the beaten track when it comes to Mediterranean escapes, but visit Gozo before the main tourist season kicks into gear and you’ll be impressed.  This rural and characterful island combines fascinating historic attractions with impressive coastal scenery.

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Lanzarote – June

If you’ve ruled out Lanzarote on account of its nickname, Lanzagrotty, then you need to have a rethink: this place is seriously cool.  Avoid the crowds of tourists tied to school holidays and get in ahead of the crowds to explore Cesar Manrique’s fabulous architectural legacy and some of the hottest volcanic scenery on the planet.

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Zanzibar – July

There are few islands with names that conjure up as exotic an image as that of Zanzibar.  The reality is as satisfying: the narrow alleyways of the capital Stone Town are lined with mansions made from coral stones held together with lime mortar, built by merchants who traded spices, silks and slaves.  To the north of the island, you’ll find plenty of excellent beaches where you can enjoy the dry, hot July weather.

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Tanna – August

Faraway in the South Pacific lies the archipelago of Vanuatu.  Its most fascinating island is without a doubt Tanna.  Dominated by one of the most accessible active volcanoes on the planet, visitor interest is piqued by the John Frum cargo cult, and in particular the offshoot Prince Philip movement that think our Queen’s husband is a god.  Toast him with kava, the local firewater which numbs your mouth and sedates your brain.

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Bali – September

Well on the beaten tourist track, Bali offers a winning combination of culture and relaxation in one neat and tiny package.  Its resorts make the best of the sandy beaches and September sees the crowds thin ahead of the October to March wet season.  Watch the sunset over the ocean at Uluwatu temple or head inland to the green rice terraces that encircle the pretty town of Ubud.

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Kyushu – October

The most southerly of Japan’s big four, Kyushu packs a punch.  It’s a good choice for those wishing to get up close to the country’s tectonic action, with mud pools, hells and hot sand baths at Beppu and the active volcano Sakurajima an easy ferry ride from the city of Kagoshima.  By October, the humidity that plagues the summer months is long gone, but temperatures are still high enough to make sightseeing a pleasure.

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Easter – November

Despite its isolation, remote Rapa Nui is recognisable the world over for its moai, the oversized stone heads that gaze out over the Pacific from all parts of this mountainous island.  The five hour flight from the Chilean capital just to get there is arduous, but when you do, you’ll agree it’s well worth the effort.  Its history is fascinating, but it’s the location that  blows your mind.

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Cuba – December

Go there before it changes, they said.  So I did.  But that was well over a decade ago and the tour companies are still saying it.  Nevertheless, I haven’t yet met a visitor who was disappointed.  Cuba’s one of those places that gets under your skin, from the old ladies in Havana who’ll puff on their cigars for a dollar to the horses that you’ll still see trotting down the cobbles of backstreet Trinidad.  Forget generic Caribbean, this place is unique and special because of it.

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So there you have it, my favourites.  What are yours?