On safari in Kent: review of Port Lympne
The thrill of seeing animals in the wild in Africa’s national parks is one of life’s great travel adventures. But sometimes you can’t wait for Africa to get your travel fix. A visit to Port Lympne Reserve in Kent, owned and managed by the Aspinall Foundation, provides an opportunity to go on safari without leaving the UK, but how does it compare to the real thing?
The organisation’s credentials are good: known for its work breeding rare and endangered species, the park is home to 25 painted dogs, 17 Western lowland gorillas, 15 Eastern black rhinoceros and 5 Rothschild giraffes. The park’s animals are housed in a variety of ways, with some roaming freely across acres of rolling fields and others in purpose built enclosures.
It’s possible to visit for the day but for a special occasion, Port Lympne has a range of overnight accommodation. We chose to rent a cottage, but could equally have spent the night in a glamping tent, hotel or even a treehouse suite. Further accommodation is planned, as is a spa, expected in around 18 months time.
Our cottage slept eight and was very comfortable for our party of six. Each of the four bedrooms was a generous size, in particular the master suite, which had a huge bathroom attached. Attention to detail was evident throughout, such as finding cute little elephant hooks for the bathroom robes. We enjoyed the services of a personal chef who cooked us a three course dinner and came back to serve up a full English the following morning. It was an impressive set up which pleased everyone.
From the windows, we looked down over fields grazed by some of the park’s animals, though admittedly from a distance. If you’re serious about wildlife spotting from your bedroom, you’re going to need to bring binoculars. There was something almost surreal about hearing the shout of “Quick! I can see a rhino from the bathroom window!” when your brain is protesting you are so close to home. Less fun was finding the nieces had hidden the resident oversized gorilla plushy with the spooky eyes in our bath as a joke, though they found my screams hilarious.
But it was the safari experience that set the trip apart. Our guide, Rebecca, was knowledgable without being preachy and supplied enough anecdotes to prevent the whole thing turning into a Biology field trip. She explained about conservation and environmental pressures on creatures in the wild in the context of the animals’ own personal histories. We didn’t see the new born giraffe that was resolutely hiding inside, but we did meet the extended family from our Land Rover vantage point.
Larger safari trucks ferry passengers around Port Lympne’s extensive site, but the advantage of being in a smaller vehicle was that we could go off road from time to time to get a closer look at some of the grazing herds.
The Bactrian camels looked somewhat scruffy as they were blowing their fur coats, and somehow wildebeest always do, but the small herd of Chapman zebra looked to be in fine condition. Save for the distant view of the English Channel, we could have been on that African safari.The morning safari was shorter, but took us to different parts of the park to see ostrich, eland, baboons and more.
Afterwards, we spent a few more hours wandering the pedestrian paths that looped the animal enclosures, timing our visit to the gorillas to coincide with feeding time and watching a Siberian tiger hunt out meat that had been hidden in her patch.
It felt slightly odd to be seeing primates in cages after our safari, but obviously it wasn’t going to be safe, practical or possible for a silverback to be mingling with the crowd.
How did I feel about the trip? Well I came home and booked a flight to Uganda. I’m going to be taking my third African safari in early 2019.
On the trail of the mob in Havana
The classic American automobiles that cruise the Malecón ooze the glamour of bygone days, but 1950s Havana had a seedy alter ego. Mob-run casinos drew a decadent crowd. Vices of all kinds took centre stage. Traces of this era of such excess can still be seen today – if you know where to look. Curious, I contacted Havana Super Tour and asked guide and founder Michael Rodriguez to let me in on a few of Havana’s dark secrets. Waiting to take us back in time was an immaculate silver grey Pontiac driven by owner Ricardo. Michael joked that Cuban men value their cars more highly than anything else in their lives – even their women. I’m not convinced that’s true of only Cuba.
We began where the charmingly decrepit mansions of Habana Vieja give way to the boulevards of Centro. Gambling is banned in today’s Cuba, but the old casinos have been repurposed as conference rooms and elegant salons in many of the capital’s most renowned and once notorious hotels. One of them is the historic Hotel Sevilla. I’d stayed there during my first visit to Cuba fifteen years ago and around the corner from the exquisite Moorish-style lobby where I’d once checked in is a rogue’s gallery of past guests – good and bad. This time my focus was on the latter. Michael steered me towards a photograph of Al Capone, perhaps Chicago’s most notorious gangster, who used to book out the entire sixth floor when he was in town. Privacy comes at a price when you need to make sure no one eavesdrops.
Michael led me across the street to a tiny store selling antiquarian books and other memorabilia from times past. Leafing through a folder of old black and white photos, he showed me how some of the Cuban capital’s hotels would have looked in Batista’s day and in the years immediately following the overthrow of his government. The city was the place to see and be seen. Hollywood’s biggest names came in their droves with Frank Sinatra leading the pack. Scandal was never far away. Michael reckoned that despite rumours that Sinatra’s singing career had initially been financed by the mob, he was clean – in Havana anyway. Some of his associates, however, were not.
The biggest player of all on the Havana mob scene was an East European Jew who’d come to the USA to reinvent himself. Smart as they came, Meyer Lansky grew up in New York with Lucky Luciano. Lansky was the brains to Luciano’s brawn and together, they made a formidable pair. You messed with them at your peril. Having operated out of the Nacional for years, Lansky had his hands in a number of other businesses, including the successful Montmartre Club which was eventually torched by a revolutionary supporter in the early 1960s.
Over a Mafia mojito at the Nacional. Michael told me that it was common for a Hollywood name to provide a respectable front for the money laundering, shady deals and violent altercations that were going on behind the scenes. Actor George Raft got his big break in the 1932 gangster movie Scarface. When New York mobster Santa Trafficante Jnr. opened the Capri, he needed someone to be its respectable public face. But though it was commonly held that Raft owned a sizeable stake in the hotel, Nicholas Di Costanzo, Charlie “The Blade” Tourine and Santino “Sonny the Butcher” Masselli operated it. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that many of the regular clientele were anything but legit themselves.
Lansky himself opened the Riviera Hotel in 1956 as a front for his deals. It was one of many businesses through which he could launder his ill-gotten gains. Though he claimed Cuba ruined him when Castro rolled into Havana, under Batista’s regime he’d lived like a king. Despite decades of ruling the organised crime roost, the only crime the authorities ever managed to pin on him was a charge of illegal gambling.
The Riviera, our last stop, could have been a set from the hit US TV show Mad Men, had US-imposed sanctions not restricted where the studio’s dollars be spent. Mid-century modern might be back in vogue, but you’ll be hard pressed to find somewhere where the fixtures and fittings are as original as the furnishings. Walking through the doors of the Riviera Hotel was like stepping back in time, its 21st century patrons sticking out like a sore thumb in their modern apparel. Its casino was now a meeting room, the showy chandeliers the only clue to its dazzling past.
Out back the pool had a turquoise diving board that just needed a girl with an hourglass figure and a red halter neck bathing suit to complete the picture postcard shot. Instead, an elderly lady with a white swimming cap and cellulite for thighs glided at a leisurely pace through the sunlit water. Michael suggested I took a closer look at the shape of the pool which had been constructed, aptly macabre, to take the form of an open coffin.
This is a chapter of Cuba’s history that is overshadowed by Che Guevara and Castro’s revolution, but it’s no less compelling. After Batista was kicked out, Havana under Fidel’s leadership cleaned up its act. But there’s still plenty of tangible evidence to make this a fascinating tour and if you want to see a side to Havana many travellers miss, then this is most certainly it. It’s one thing reading the story, but nothing compares to standing in the same spot of some of the 20th century’s shadiest characters.
Havana Super Tour is a rarity in Havana, a privately run enterprise which specialises in subjects as diverse as Art Deco, architecture, African religion, art or Hemingway. Alternatively, work with Michael and the HST team to design a bespoke tour to suit your own interests. Your classic car leaves from Casa 1932 at Campanario 63, a couple of blocks from the Malecón in Centro. The highly recommended Mob tour costs 35 CUCs per person, minimum two people, with transportation in a vintage automobile of course. Contact HST by email at email@example.com or visit their website at:
The views expressed in this piece are my own, though I’m grateful to HST for offering me a private tour for the price of a group outing.
Six special places to stay
In my travelling life, I’ve been fortunate to stay in some pretty amazing places. They’re not always budget-friendly as these picks illustrate, but then sometimes it’s worth pushing the boat out and splurging on somewhere that’s likely to stick in the memory long after you return. Here are six of my all-time favourites that are worth blowing the budget for.
A treat for our first wedding anniversary, this small group of Mongolian-style gers clusters on a hillside overlooking Lago del Toro at the entrance to the Torres del Paine National Park. The views from the tents are fabulous, whether of the stars in the night sky through the glass window in the roof or the sunrise casting a pink sheen to the lake first thing in the morning. The oversized double bed and en-suite bathroom made this the most luxurious camp I’d ever stayed at. Mealtimes showcased the best in local produce, with tender Chilean lamb the stand out winner.
Daniel Craig stayed there before me when filming Quantum of Solace, but I’m more than happy to have copied him. This tiny place, a converted mansion in the Casco Viejo, only had three rooms but each one exuded style, as did the communal areas. These days it’s only available for long stay rentals but its sister property Las Clementinas looks promising.
Riad Dar Karma
It’s not hard to find a decent riad in Marrakesh, if what you mean by find is stumble upon one on the internet and book a room. Finding that same riad in the labyrinthine alleyways of the medina is altogether more difficult as I know to my cost. That’s why Dar Karma makes this list: not only is it wonderfully restored with all the finishing touches you’d expect – Moorish architectural details, hamman, courtyard pool and roof terrace – it’s also a few minutes’ walk away from the action. A stone’s throw from the Djemaa el Fna in the heart of the Kasbah district, your taxi can pull up right outside so you’ll never get lost.
Heritance Tea Factory
The Heritance Tea Factory in the hills above Nuwara Eliya is so much more than just a hotel. My window looked out over verdant slopes that came and went as the mist rolled in and out. My back ached as, sari-clad, I picked tender tea shoots from those same bushes and threw them over my shoulder into the wicker basket that I carried with a strap across my forehead. With samples ready for inspection, we headed indoors to learn about tea. Accidentally I became the class dunce as I swallowed rather than spat at the tasting session, but it tasted too good to waste.
Auckland’s Ponsonby district was the setting for the place which made me feel most at home. Run by the delightful Beth, this three room bed and breakfast was a real treat. Her warm welcome, the loan of her boxer Finn for company on the veranda and a great night’s sleep made for a super start to my New Zealand trip. Beth’s closed the place now to focus on other projects, which is a shame as she made the best Greek yoghurt I’ve ever tasted.
If I had one piece of advice for visitors new to Kyoto’s Hiiragiya Bekkan it would be this: embrace what you don’t know. This traditional ryokan was an experience from start to finish, particularly the many course Kaiseki-style dinner that contained not one single recognisable dish. We were immersed in Japanese culture from the yukatas they gave us to wear to the ritual of bathing in a Japanese hot tub. We slept surprisingly soundly on the futons provided and emerged the following morning fully-prepared to tackle the bustle of Kyoto once more.
If you’ve stayed somewhere memorable (for the right or the wrong reasons!) then I’d love to hear from you.
An open letter to hotel room designers everywhere
Dear Hotel Room Designer,
I’ve spent a lot of nights in a lot of different hotel rooms, and sometimes that leaves me pondering whether you’ve actually tried to stay in the rooms you’ve designed. I have to say, they look great, but there are a few other considerations I’d ask you to, well, reconsider.
Let’s start with plug sockets. I’m travelling, these days, with a phone that needs charging, camera batteries that won’t last the duration of my trip and a Kindle that needs enough juice to let me finish my holiday read poolside. So, I need plug sockets. I don’t mean plug sockets that are behind the bed, under a desk or tucked into a corner so tight that I have to be an expert yogi to reach them. I don’t want to have to decide whether to unplug the TV or the minibar or the bedside light just to free up a socket. And I definitely don’t want to use that socket you tuck down by the side of the bed where odds are that in the morning when I unplug my phone, mine will join the ever-growing number of chargers that I have donated to hotels across the globe.
Now, about those hair driers: first, thank you for providing one. It’s not cool to sleep with wet hair and even less attractive to wash it in the morning and slowly drip water into my breakfast eggs. But next time you choose a hair drier for me, can you please find me one that has a bit of power behind it. I defy you to dry anything longer than a pixie crop with one of those gutless wall mounted things where you have to hold the button down for so long your finger goes numb. I’ve only got shoulder length hair. It takes me half an hour with one of those things. Over a fortnight’s stay, that’s almost a full day’s sightseeing time stood in front of the mirror wondering whether I really should just pack my own next time and be done with it.
While we’re on the subject of luggage, remember that sometimes I’m not staying long enough to unpack. Spare a thought for me when I’m just staying overnight before catching a flight. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve stubbed my toe as I’ve stumbled to the bathroom in the dark because the only place you’ve left me for the suitcase is at the foot of the bed. And don’t even get me started about those folding contraptions you hide in the wardrobe – last time I used one of those, my poorly balanced case tipped up and I ended up with a whole load of dirty washing all over the floor. Oh how I long for the sight of a decent, wide, solid shelf when I throw open the door.
Is it really so much to ask for? I know I’m getting ever-more demanding with my whines about free Wi-Fi, free parking and bottles of water that are labelled so I know I’m getting those for nothing as well. You’ve sorted out my petulant demands to get my pillows just right. You even leave me a note on the headboard to tell me the sheets have been cleaned for my arrival (that’s a weight off my mind!)
So, if you can just deal with the rest, then I’ll be back as often as you’ll have me.
Your fussiest customer