I’ve been reminiscing about a trip I made to Vanuatu as the BBC Travel website commissioned an article about Bislama, the language spoken there. Some people might question the amount of money spent on travelling, but in my opinion it’s money well spent as you treasure those memories forever. So, beneath the link to the article, you’ll find some of my favourite photos from that unforgettable trip.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So there you have it, my favourites. What are yours?
This week, in preparation for my upcoming trip to Sri Lanka, I’ve been booking train tickets to explore the country’s beautiful hill country. The Man in Seat 61 has, of course, been an invaluable tool as ever, and I’ve been very impressed with the service provided by Visit Sri Lanka Tours, a recommendation gleaned from Seat 61. It’s got me thinking about previous rail journeys I’ve taken. These are my favourites, but are they yours?
Peru: Cusco to Machu Picchu
Before tourist numbers reached epic proportions, to reach Machu Picchu by train you used to have to crawl out of bed in the dark to catch the early morning local train from central Cusco’s gloomy station, travel for five hours as the wooden bench seating slowly petrified your buttocks and emerge blinking into the middle of the market at Aguas Calientes to find your diesel-belching ride to the famous mountaintop Inca ruins. Periodically, the train halted in the dark to facilitate trade. Hands used to appear through the tiny windows to offer roasted corn and alpaca wool hats. It was one of those iconic travel journeys that is better relived from the comfort of your armchair several months later. Taking the journey again years later, this time in a glass-roofed backpacker train (boy, hadn’t backpacker expectations grown?!) I was delighted to see that snow-capped peaks lined the route and that the PeruRail authorities had built a fancy new station. The increase in comfort was worth the hike in the fare and best of all, the switchbacks to enable the train to haul the train out of Cusco’s bowl-shaped valley were still the most fascinating stretch of the journey. Then, in 2010, flooding and landslides caused severe damage to the track and when repairs were completed, the train began from Poroy, just outside the city, rather than from Cusco’s Wanchaq station. Despite the changes, it remains one of the best railway journeys in the world.
Switzerland: the Bernina Express
It’s hard to pick a favourite amongst so many standout lines, but if forced to choose, then the Bernina Express gets my vote. Run by the Rhaetian Railway, the Bernina Express covers two lines which together comprise a UNESCO World Heritage site – Albula and Bernina. During its 122km run from Chur to the Italian town of Tirano, the train passes through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges and viaducts including the spectacular Landwasser Viaduct pictured here. To fully appreciate this engineering marvel, take a local train (the panoramic picture windows don’t open), head to the back and lean out of a right hand side window. The train loops and glides over the Bernina Pass, with the Morteratsch and Palü glaciers and alpine Lago Bianco darker Lej Nair lakes providing the glamour in terms of scenery. With no cogwheels aiding its descent, this impressive adhesion railway has one final wow up its sleeve: the 360° spiral that encompasses the nine arches of the century-old Brusio Viaduct.
Kenya: the Lunatic Express
I first read about this railway in Bill Bryson’s African Diary. His descriptions of being flung around as if being tumbled in a washing machine were as compelling as you’d expect from the undisputed king of humourous travel writing and I decided there and then I’d make the same journey. This narrow gauge railway runs from Nairobi to the coast at Mombasa, cutting through Tsavo National Park on its way. It gained its unusual nickname as several workers involved in its construction ended up as dinner for the hungry lions, dragged from their tents as they slept exhausted from the day’s hard labour. I didn’t see any lions, just a beautiful sunset over the savannah plains, though I was plagued by hungry mosquitoes and arrived in Mombasa covered in bites.
The best of the rest!
The longest rail trip I’ve done, with a trip that took me from Moscow to the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator by train. I saw a lot of trees, but I also learned first hand what a warm and welcoming bunch of people the Russians are: a special mention here for Aleksander the army officer who fed me smoked omul and showed me his family photos.
New Zealand: Tranz-Alpine
Not the Alps in Europe, but instead, New Zealand’s South Island. Crossing from Christchurch to Greymouth, this scenic ride crossed Arthur’s Pass and chugged alongside pretty Lake Brunner. Wrap up warm if you’re going to ride the open air viewing car in winter as I did – it’s freezing!
Update: I’ve just booked a ride on the Northern Explorer to see more of North Island out of a Kiwi Rail train window. Watch out in 2018 to see how I got on.
If it’s geysers you’re after, then here’s where you need to be heading.
The original, in name at least, can be found a short distance from the country’s capital Reykjavik. The original geyser, Geysir, has decided it’s had enough, but Strokkur puts on a show every few minutes delighting those who visit. It’s easily accessible as part of the Golden Circle tour, or if you prefer to go it alone, then download my Unanchor Kindle guide from the UK Amazon site here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Iceland-Unanchor-Travel-Guide-self-drive-ebook/dp/B017SDBNE8/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1452095658&sr=1-8.
It’s also available on the US site here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B017SDBNE8/ref=s9_simh_gw_p351_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=desktop-1&pf_rd_r=152KPS2974X3G9P0D5RQ&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=2079475242&pf_rd_i=desktop
For a small country, New Zealand packs in a lot of geothermal sights, from other-worldly Craters of the Moon to photogenic Orakei Korako. But for sheer wow factor, then join the crowds watching Pohutu, located in the Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley on the outskirts of Rotorua to see the jet of boiling water shoot high into the sky.
El Tatio geyser field might not have the dramatic gushers of Iceland or New Zealand, but it has atmosphere in spades. It’s essential to crawl out of bed in the middle of the night (don’t overdo it on the pisco the night before like I did) but watching the sunrise illuminate the steaming geysers is well worth the effort.
I couldn’t blog about geysers and leave out Old Faithful. It’s been drawing the crowds at Yellowstone National Park for as long as the park’s been in existence and has had its name since 1870. It erupts on average 50 metres into the air about every 90 minutes or so; check the ranger’s board on arrival to see when the next show is expected.
And finally, one on the wish list…
Kamchatka’s Valley of Geysers has the second largest concentration of geysers in the world after Yellowstone, packing over ninety of them into a 6km long valley. It’s difficult to reach, and therefore expensive, but it’s a trip that’s on my ever-growing bucket list. You too?
I’ve been blogging for Go4Travel about the Kapiti coast this week. You can read my suggestions on what to do in the area here:
So often, it’s the people that make a place memorable more than the sights themselves. To really engage with a place, there needs to be a connection, and it’s the human interactions that facilitate that. I’ve been thinking about which places have the warmest and most welcoming locals, and I have to say New Zealand comes high up the list. I spent a week in South Island using the reliable bus system to see the main sights, but didn’t realise just how much I’d enjoy the journeys between those places. Here’s a piece I wrote for myWanderlust not long after I returned.
Inside the man there was a scruffy boy itching to get out.
The commentary as we edged down South Island’s west coast may have been aimed at adults, but tales of Australians landing planes upside down in the swamp came right out of Boys Own. With his untamed mop of greasy ginger hair, Dave was one of those people where you could still vividly imagine what he’d have looked like as a lad, scraped knees and all. Heading south from Greymouth into country country, everyone got a cheery wave, but then Dave knew most people. When it came to the drop off, he flicked the rolled up newspaper expertly through the window hatch as he once had from his push bike, slowing only slightly before checking his wing mirror to smugly inform us it had landed accurately.
“Yup, that’ll do ya. That paper’s printed at midday. If I didn’t run it through, they wouldn’t get it until tomorrow. No point in old news, is there?”
Dave told us he had the best job in the country but salt and pepper haired George disagreed. Picking up the baton from Franz Josef, he made sure everyone had visited the glaciers, threatening to leave us behind if we couldn’t tell him enough about what he insisted we should have seen.
He wound us expertly round impossibly tight turns to deposit us at viewpoints framed with the ubiquitous but elegant tree fern, fronds shimmying like a Twenties flapper. Jovial when on the move, he was quick to chastise anyone who dared hold up the coach. At breakfast, out of serendipitous necessity swapping a motorway service station for a salmon farm deep in the forest, he joined me at my table. The conversation flitted back and forth as George downed his second cup of tea. Gruff George, it turned out, was a gentle man underneath; having lost his wife to cancer, he confided that meeting people on his bus had helped him through the tough times.
Wheezy Pete, with a capacious belly nurtured over many years supping good beer, shook our hands as we returned from a roadside hike to a waterfall. George introduced his replacement and pointed to the bus parked on the opposite side of the road.
“You lot are hard work,” he chuckled, “there are only four on that other bus, I’m off back to Franz for a quiet life.”
And so the thirteen of us headed for Queenstown, encroaching steadily on snow-capped mountains as we edged alongside Lake Wanaka. Pete pointed out the world’s oldest bungee jump, offering a free ride to anyone who took up the challenge.
A few days passed before I met Dione. Dione was different, the first driver under forty, with a baseball cap and an exceptionally good knowledge of sheep. When not talking farming, he spoke incessantly of the weather.
“We have two hundred days of rain down here, bringing seven metres of water every year. For you folks that measure in millimetres, that’s a lot of rain!”
But he had the most spectacular drive, through the mountains down to Milford Sound. Skirt folds of Rimu trees parted to reveal the tiniest slivers of silvery petticoat cascading into puddles that blurred onto the water below. Our day was sunny, the deep azure of the sky framing the sheer cliffs of the fjord and diamonds pricking the water.
“Jeez, you guys are lucky. Even the keas are behaving today – yesterday those bloody parrots flew into the bus and shat all over the dash.”
Wiry Tom knew he had the rough end of the deal, for it was he who would remove us from the crisp air of the mountains and carry us across the Canterbury Plain in all its sheep-strewn monotony. He tried his best with Mount Cook, but our wonder at the beauty of New Zealand’s highest peak was tainted by the knowledge of what was to come. I passed the time trying to figure out which Hollywood movie actor he reminded me of; a cop, no, the President? It was a twelve hour ride and I reached Christchurch none the wiser.
Yes, Dione was indeed different. He was the only one who wasn’t a scheduled bus driver, our driver-guide on a coach tour to one of the country’s best known attractions. In New Zealand, buses aren’t just there to take their passengers from point to point. To be a bus driver on South Island you needed a sense of humour and a good head for facts. I’d say a good aim and experience as a paper boy got you a long way too.
My latest blog for Go4Travel focuses on Stewart Island. Off the southern tip of South Island, many people don’t make the journey, but if you like hiking and bird watching, this is worth the effort. Find out more here: http://www.go4travelblog.com/things-to-do-in-stewart-island-nz/
The news that Cyclone Pam had ripped through the island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific broke last week and, some days later, relief and rescue teams reached the outlying island of Tanna where I spend a week in 2013. While loss of life hasn’t been as great as first feared, given that this was a Category 5 storm the islands have been hit hard. Knowing that Tanna Lodge, where I stayed, had its own generator, I sent an email, not knowing whether they’d receive it. Internet and phone connections are down across the outlying islands. Via a satellite phone, I heard on Sunday morning that the staff and buildings had miraculously survived unscathed, though the lush gardens have been devastated.
Tropical vegetation grows back quickly, and I would urge you to consider visiting to give the islanders the much needed income to help them get back on their feet. In the meantime, I wanted to share a story I wrote shortly after returning from Tanna. The island has many kastom villages, where residents live a traditional lifestyle and some even worship our very own Prince Philip…
The Road to Yakel
Ozzy Osbourne would have loved this, but I was not Ozzy.
Heading for Yakel and expecting Tanna’s regular mode of transport, the dusty but trusty pick-up, I was caught unawares by the invitation to jump on the back of a canary yellow quad bike. Ned, my driver and guide, instructed me to hold on tight. Mild panic set in. I’d happily travelled in all manner of rustic transport from tuk tuks to donkey carts but I’d always steered clear of quads out of a not so irrational fear that they’d be certain to topple over. What was I doing? I didn’t even have a helmet.
Ned set off at speed up the steep mountain track with the confidence of youth, a wide grin across his face and palm trees reflecting in his sunglasses. Behind him, my mouth clamped tightly into a nervous grimace. Try as I might my mind kept wandering to a story I’d read about Ozzy and his love of quad bikes despite almost dying after crashing one in the grounds of his home. Was he crazy? I wasn’t sure. He didn’t have to contend with a rutted dirt track liberally dusted with volcanic ash and loose gravel. Keep calm, I muttered, reminding myself there was a hospital on the other side of the island.
The ruts deepened into terrifyingly deep chasms and muddy crevasses. Ned, ever cheerful, pointed out the school to our right, funded by Australia. With all their mineral wealth couldn’t they have added to the budget and filled the holes in the road, I wondered? I gripped the handles more tightly than before. One false move and we’d overturn. Tense, I silently willed Ned onwards, wordlessly reminding him to keep left, no right, mind the tree roots, watch that squealing piglet! Up and up we climbed, pausing momentarily here and there to change into a lower gear when the gradient steepened even more.
Higher into the rainforest, the view below became more dramatic where Mt Yasur’s ancient lava flows had once oozed out to sea, but all I could think about was survival. Every approaching village inspired hope. Would this be Yakel? As Ned sped up, the quad bike emitting a throaty roar, we passed clusters of straw and thatch shacks. All looked promising. None, alas, were Yakel. As we bumped and thumped up the interminable track, I implored whatever local God might be listening to make Yakel the next settlement or at the very least, let me get off and walk.
My plea fell on deaf ears. Instead of our destination, the Gods presented us with a bridge made from crudely tied logs, gaps surely big enough to lodge a wheel and pitch us into the river below. I peered over. Weathered lava bombs ejected from the volcano sat where water should have been. We picked our way over a second and then a third bridge of the same quality. Concrete? Why had no one thought of concrete? I could feel the logs give slightly as young Ned inched across. Even he’d paused before tackling this hurdle, I noted. Would it be better or worse if I shut my eyes?
My thighs burned from the Herculean task of keeping my body wedged up against the back of the slippery seat. Knuckles rose milky white against my sunbrowned hands which had petrified round the handles I had been told to grip. Ned would have to prise me off this thing if we ever reached Yakel. It became a battle of mind over body, but it didn’t help that my mind was still flitting between various scenes of doom which all ended back at Lenakel hospital. Just as I was thinking I couldn’t take much more of this torture, the track widened into a nakamal, a large clearing under the shade of several banyan trees. A smiling man clad only in a namba emerged from the rainforest. The namba, or penis sheath, identified Yakel as a kastom village, where people lived by the simple ways of their ancestors and, in this particular case, had a special fondness for Prince Philip.
Welcome to Yakel, he said, uttering words that were as magical as the forest itself. The emotion I felt was relief rather than euphoria. I still had to go back; downhill was going to be even more terrifying than uphill. But as the other villagers slowly filtered in and began to dance to the sound of their own rhythmic chanting, it was all worth it.
If you’re planning on heading to New Zealand’s North Island and might be at a loose end in Auckland, I’ve been blogging about making the best of the City of Sails and getting out on the water. Find out more at http://www.go4travelblog.com/auckland-harbour-cruises/
This week I’ve been blogging about Napier – New Zealand’s undisputed Art Deco capital. Following a devastating earthquake in 1931, Napier’s centre was almost completely rebuilt in the architectural styles of the day. Find out what it’s like here: http://www.go4travelblog.com/napier-new-zealand-art-deco/
Photo credit: Alan Liefting Public Domain
My regular blog for Go4Travelblog.com this week features New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. Find out what five things you cannot miss on a visit to the city:
Sometimes when you travel, you do so in the company of remarkable people. They may only enter your life for a short while, but they stick in your mind for much longer. I’ve met many such people, but this one is different. She’d already been dead for over eighty years when I met her.
Read the full story at:
My latest blog post for Go4Travel is now live; find out what I have to say about visiting Mount Cook and the surrounding countryside here:
My latest blog post for Go4Travel is now live. Check out what I have to say about visiting Tauranga, on New Zealand’s North Island. Here’s the link:
My latest blog for Go4Travel is now live. Find out what happened when I climbed to the crater of Mount Yasur on Vanuatu’s Tanna Island, one of the scariest but most memorable places I’ve ever visited.
My latest blog for Go4Travel has just been published. Find out about my visit to Vanuatu in the South Pacific when I took a trip by quad bike to Yakel on Tanna Island, where villagers think Prince Philip is a god.