juliamhammond

Posts tagged “Destination information

Been there, done that, now what?

I wouldn’t class myself as a jaded traveller.  I still get excited as I pack my wheelie and I even still love dragging myself out of bed in the pitch black to make an early flight.  But there are places that I’ve tired of, places where I find myself wondering why they’re so hyped.  If I never got to go to Paris or Amsterdam again, I wouldn’t be concerned.  (But let’s not include New York in there because I’d be gutted to think I could ever be done with that incredible city.)

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Tulips from Amsterdam

Increasingly, though, I’m keen to seek out places without crowds, not so much out of some kind of snobbish one upmanship but more out of a desire to be completely unsociable.  We introverts need our space, you know.  So which alternative destinations do I recommend if you’re looking for an off the beaten track experience?

Been there: Cusco and the Sacred Valley

Now what: Chachapoyas

The wealth of Inca sites in and around the Peruvian city of Cusco makes the area one of the country’s most visited.  From Sacsayhuaman to Machu Picchu, this splendid heritage makes for fascinating viewing, but year on year visitor numbers have soared and you’ll be hard pushed to find space for quiet reflection unless you seek out some of the lesser-known places like Poroy and Chinchero.

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Kuelap fortress

Trailblazers should ditch the crowds and fly north from the Peruvian capital Lima instead of south.  Basing yourself in the charming town of Chachapoyas, you’ll be well placed to visit the intriguing hilltop fortress of Kuelap as well as the sarcophagi at Karajia.  Find out everything you need to know about arranging your trip here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/northern-peru-the-chacha-circuit/

Been there: Dominican Republic

Now what: Haiti

Not for the faint hearted, a trip to Haiti’s going to require you to keep your wits about you.  Compared to its Hispaniolan neighbour, the Dominican Republic, package tourism is in its infancy and largely confined to Labadee in the north of the island.  Instead of all-inclusives and the hard sell at the end of a rum factory tour, head over the border and make for the sleepy beach at Port Salut.

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Fishing boat on Pointe Sable, Port Salut

You won’t find a bustling resort, rowdy beach bars or pestering hawkers who won’t leave you alone until they’ve made a sale.  At weekends, a steady stream of ex-pat aid workers from Port au Prince gives the place some life, but if all you want is pristine white sand, crystal clear turquoise waters and a cold beer, then come on a weekday and you’ll have the place to yourself.  See why I liked it here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/02/14/the-best-beach-in-haiti/

Been there: Andalusia

Now what: Extremadura

I’m a big fan of Andalusia, from the tranquil elegance of the Mezquita in Cordoba to the bustling alleyways of the Jewish quarter in Seville.  The delightfully atmospheric hamman in Jerez offered welcome respite from scorching afternoon sun and the towers of Cadiz offered a glimpse into that city’s fascinating maritime past.  This year, though, for the first time, I dragged myself away from Andalusia’s comforting familiarity and ventured north to Extremadura.

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Vivid colours and unspoilt views

This overlooked region still has its pueblos blancos, like Zafra.  It offers the gourmand such a choice in unmissable foodie experiences that stay too long and you’ll need to pay for an extra seat on the plane to accommodate a vastly enlarged belly.  And the scenery, both natural and built, is as transfixing as its more popular neighbour.  My favourites?  Monfragüe National Park’s showstopping scenery and Trujillo’s atmospheric back street bakeries selling yummy yemas.  Find out what else you shouldn’t miss here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/07/12/a-beginners-guide-to-extremadura/

Been there: Vienna, Budapest and Prague

Now what: Lviv

Given the political situation in parts of Ukraine, you could be forgiven for thinking I’ve lost my mind in recommending one of its cities instead of the other gems of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  But Lviv was annexed by Austria in 1772 and, known as Lemburg, had more in common with west than east.  Belle Epoque mansions and public buildings built in Viennese style still characterise today’s Lviv.  It’s a very rewarding place to explore on foot, safe and not at all what you’d expect from an ex-Soviet bloc city.  I’ll have my coffee and cake here, thanks.

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Elegant Lviv

 

 

Any other suggestions?

Of course, there’s a good reason why some parts of the planet attract so many of us. But if you venture off on your own, the rewards are limitless.  Where have you been that improves upon one of the world’s top rated destinations?


A beginner’s guide to Extremadura

Extremadura isn’t on most people’s radar when it comes to holidaying in Spain, overshadowed by its popular neighbour Andalusia. That doesn’t mean it’s got nothing to offer, however, and this region has proved to be one of the most diverse and interesting parts of Spain that I’ve visited.

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Bakery selection in Trujillo

Getting there from the UK

There aren’t any direct flights from the UK to Extremaduran towns so realistically, the choice is between Seville to the south of the region and Madrid to the north east. Ryanair fly to Seville from London’s Stansted airport, BA, Ryanair and easyJet from Gatwick. If you’re wondering why Iberia’s missing from the list, it codeshares with BA on their LGW flight. From regional airports, you’ll have to connect as there are no direct routes.

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Ryanair en route to Seville

Those same airlines will also carry you to Madrid, plus Norwegian, a low-cost carrier operating out of Gatwick, as well as Iberia Express and Air Europa also from Gatwick.

Getting to and from the airport

I flew into Seville and out of Madrid on this trip but there’s no reason why you can’t do a round trip route or reverse the itinerary. To get into Seville from the airport I caught the airport bus, buying a ticket while I queued up for a few euros. It stops at the train station Santa Justa, skirts the old town and ends up at the main bus station, making it a convenient option wherever you’re staying.

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One of the most atmospheric bars in Barrio Santa Cruz, Seville

In Madrid, my train’s final destination was Chamartin station to the north of the city centre but I bailed at Atocha. Getting to the airport was straightforward; the cercanias or stopping trains are quickest but go to Terminal 4. I’d opted to fly Ryanair which left from Terminal 1 and so I connected to the airport using metro line 8.

Getting around

Whether or not you’ll need to rent a car depends on whether you wish to explore the region’s attractive countryside and villages or stick to the main towns. There are a few train connections, such as between Badajoz to the west and the Spanish capital, but for me, on many of the routes I wanted to use, buses operated to a more convenient schedule. Operators include LEDA, ALSA and Avanza.

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Every town has a main square; this is Zafra’s

I caught the bus from Seville to Zafra; you can buy a ticket to Mérida for around 10 euros. Although it’s possible to alight at Zafra, as far as I could work out, I couldn’t buy a ticket to Zafra online (you can in person) so I needed a separate ticket from Zafra to Mérida. Book online at http://www.alsa.es. It was just a few euros – well worth it for the chance to see this charming little town.

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Pizarro’s mansion in Trujillo

From Mérida to Cáceres, an hour or so further north, I used LEDA; find them at http://www.leda.es where they also offer online booking. A single ticket costs just under 6 euros. From Cáceres, I made a sideways hop to atmospheric Trujillo for under 4 euros each way, leaving my bag in a locker at the bus station back at Cáceres. Tickets from the brand new and barely open bus station in Trujillo only go on sale fifteen minutes before the bus departs with Avanza but the buses weren’t full.

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The hammam at Cáceres

To explore Monfragüe National Park and the La Vera valley in a day, there was no alternative to hiring a car. I used Europcar as its office was an easy walk from my Plaza Mayor base and also a straightforward and mercifully short drive to the ring road, easing the pain of town traffic. I did get a tiny bit lost getting the car back but I was only a few blocks out.

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Birds take flight over the Ciudad Monumental

To get from Cáceres to the capital Madrid, I figured a train might be more reliable (it wasn’t – we were 40 minutes late getting in) and the train ticket on one of RENFE’s Media Distancia trains was also considerably more expensive than the buses I’d taken – around 32 euros.

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The Extremaduran countryside as seen from the train

Where to go

Where to start? There are so many incredible destinations that it’s hard to whittle them down. In order, here are the places I visited during my Extremaduran holiday.

Zafra

This small town felt more like an Andalusian town than an Extremaduran one, though as it was the first stop on my itinerary, I hadn’t at that point worked out what an Extremaduran town might feel like. It has a pretty double square with lots of pavement cafes and tapas bars. I was there just for the day but I am told the food scene is good there – something for next time. The town also has a castle, now converted into a parador, and plenty whitewashed alleyways adorned with window boxes stuffed full of geraniums.

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Street leading to the main squares

Mérida

This town is supposed to have the best preserved Roman remains in Spain. The sheer number of ruins was impressive, but some sights had more of the wow factor than others. There’s a partially reconstructed amphitheatre next to a fantastic open air theatre. Then there’s the breathtaking Temple of Diana which is literally plonked halfway along the main street with shops and cafes either side; OK technically it was there first but it does look so out of place it’s a bizarre sight. A restored Roman bridge, old fort with atmospheric cistern, Moorish remains and Forum are also easily accessible within the town centre.

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Merida’s Roman theatre

Trujillo

This charming town was my favourite, home to conquistador Pizarro whose statue dominates the main square. Actually, that statue was supposed to be of Cortes, but the Mexicans didn’t want it so it was re-purposed as a Pizarro statue instead. The historic centre of Trujillo is packed full of mansions, including Pizarro’s, as well as myriad churches, towers to climb, a museum about the conquest of Peru and a hilltop castle.

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View over Trujillo’s rooftops

Cáceres

The main attraction of this large town is its Ciudad Monumental, a walled old town which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just wandering amongst its alleyways late in the day was a delight; the addition of a very talented flamenco singer playing Spanish guitar was the icing on the cake. Outside the Ciudad Monumental, the Plaza Mayor was the centre of the action when it came to food and drink, though nearby San Juan had better food. The town also has a hammam with the usual hot, warm and cold baths – massage optional.

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Flamenco singer in Cáceres’ Ciudad Monumental

Monfragüe National Park

This, I read, was Spain’s 14th national park but it was the one place I visited that made me gasp. At the Salta del Gitano lookout in the centre of the park, the River Tajo meanders between a couple of rocky outcrops. I visited in the morning and the water was a vivid green – a spectacle in itself but even for someone who can’t see the point of birdwatching, the sight of a black vulture close up was pretty impressive. The winding drive through the park was very pleasant and, if you don’t visit in the height of summer when the temperatures soar, the area is great for hiking.

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Salta del Gitano

La Vera

This valley connects a series of pretty little villages, many of them worth a stop. Pasarón de la Vera was my first stop, its setting the main draw. From there, a short drive took me to Jaraíz de la Vera, known for its peppers, and then to Cuacos de Yuste, where the monastery housed the Spanish King Carlos V towards the end of his life. I drove on as far as Jarandilla de la Vera where there was an impressive Roman bridge and several natural swimming pools (a big thing in these parts) before backtracking to Garganta de Olla, a quaint little village with a plethora of half-timbered houses overhanging its narrow streets. Taking the mountain route via Piornal provided the adrenaline rush to end the day – though fortunately by that I mean returning to Cáceres and not going over the cliff edge.

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Natural pool on the edge of Jarandilla de la Vera

The ones that got away…

This was my first trip to this region and there were quite a few places I didn’t have time to visit – this time! I’ll be back, one day, to visit Alcántara and its bridge as well as to Montánchez, Monesterio and to Casar de Cáceres for the food.

Watch out for more blogs covering Extremadura in the near future for more on these fantastic places.


Just back from – a day trip to Bremen

Regular readers may recall previous posts about days out I’ve done by air:

This time, Ryanair are in the hot seat and it’s off to London Stansted for my flight to the north German city of Bremen.

Flight times, for once, are very convenient.  The outbound flight departs at 7.55am and is scheduled to arrive in Bremen at 10.20am.  It’s a short flight with a one hour time difference.  The only downside is that you hit Stansted at peak rush hour.  Don’t be tempted to rock up too late; the queues for security are long and just as tedious as anywhere.  Of course, with Ryanair your boarding passes are already printed and as it’s a day trip, there’s no luggage to worry about.  If you are tempted to shop before you take off, Stansted offers a buy and collect service and you can pick up your shopping on your way back in.  Coming back, the flight’s at 9.20pm, but the ten minute tram ride from the city centre and the diminutive size of Bremen Airport mean that you can get away with leaving as late as 8pm.  Touchdown at Stansted is scheduled for 9.45pm though we were a little late.

Arrival

After a take off delay of fifteen minutes or so due to earlier fog at Stansted, I passed swiftly through passport control at Bremen’s tiny airport.  Ryanair use a separate terminal.  It is as pared down as Ryanair users would expect, but the advantage of being apart are of course that there is no one else to share the passport queue with.  In less than ten minutes from the wheels hitting the tarmac, I was through the airport and off to find transport into the city.

Getting to the city

Bremen Airport is obscenely close to the city centre and by far the easiest method of getting there is by tram.  Exit the Ryanair terminal and turn right.  Walk past the main terminal and ahead of you is the tram stop.  You’ll need Tram 6 marked Universität which departs every ten minutes.  The fare costs 2,70 euros.  You can either buy your ticket at the machine at the stop or hop on board and buy one from the tram’s machine.  Small notes and euro coins are accepted – don’t go trying to use a 50 euro note as it won’t let you.  It’s only a few minutes to the Domsheide tram stop.  Alight there and you’re a minute from the cathedral, town hall and main square.  The tram then goes on to the main train station.

Getting around

A network of buses and trams can take you all over the city.  The Bremen tourist board have produced a series of very useful PDF guides which include a very clear street plan as well as a map of tram and bus routes.  I downloaded these onto my Kindle app before setting out, but you can of course pick up paper copies from the tourist information desk when you get to Bremen if you prefer a hard copy, or they’ll send them to you through the post on request.  Here’s the link: https://www.bremen-tourism.de/information-material

Much of the city centre is walkable as it is a compact place, but if laziness or inclement weather strike then it’s handy to know which tram to jump on and the guides also detail opening hours and which buses or trams to use.  As with the airport tram ride, fares are 2,70 euros for a single but you can also buy a day pass for 8,90 euros which also gives you discounts off some of those city’s must-see attractions.

How to spend the day

First stop for me was the obligatory pose with donkey, dog, cat and rooster.  The famous bronze sculpture resides beside the town hall.  You’ll see donkey’s front feet are well worn – it’s considered good luck to give them a rub.  The four creatures are Bremen’s mascots if you remember the Brothers Grimm’s fairytale.

Next, I walked through the main square.  The Rathaus (town hall) was under wraps which was a pity as it is a splendid building minus its scaffolding.  It’s UNESCO listed and it is possible to take tours of the inside.  The cafes in the main square are tempting and I can recommend coffee and cake of course.  Duck behind the Schütting (Guildhall), which sadly isn’t open to the public, and you’ll come across Böttcherstraße which is the marvellous Art Deco creation of a famous local coffee manufacturer.  If you can, time your visit to coincide with the chiming of the hour at the House of the Glockenspiel (look up and you’ll see it).

A short stroll from Böttcherstraße took me to the Schnoor quarter.  This is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Bremen and was once where the sailors hung out.  The name Schnoor comes from the low German “Snoor” meaning string, which could have been a reference to the way the old houses line up or perhaps to the making of ropes or nets for the ships that passed through here.  The area’s very touristy but worth a visit nevertheless.

Still in Schnoor, I had a schnitzel lunch in Beck’s; if you get there early enough you can bag the table with the window out onto quaint Wuste Statte.  Flipping the main meal to lunchtime makes sense; most restaurants offer reasonably priced lunch menus and the local cafe culture lends itself to an early evening coffee or an aperitif with a cake or snack before you leave.

Wandering the streets of the Schnoor to walk off lunch was a delight.  There, you’ll find many artists and artisans, but for me the delight was the intricate detailing and artwork that formed part of many of the buildings.  It’s very important not to rush and also to look up, or you’ll miss them.

From the Schnoor quarter, it would have been logical to move on to Viertel, but as the sun was shining I decided to take a boat trip up the Weser instead.  A 75-minute round trip cost 10,50 euros and was rather pleasant, passing the Docklands area of Uberseestadt.  Boats depart from Schlachte.  Look out for the Beck’s brewery and also some famous names on some of the factories and warehouses: Kellogg’s and Primark among them.  With little wind and a clear sky, there were some lovely reflections on the water.

Back on dry land, I walked up to the park that lines the northern edge of the city centre.  There’s an old windmill on a hill overlooking the park which was the perfect stop for a cherry juice: a cooling breeze to take the edge off a humid day.  Because of the weather, I opted to catch a number 10 tram to Viertel.  It’s one of Bremen’s more Bohemian neighbourhoods: think Notting Hill but not quite as affluent.  There’s some fantastic street art to be seen, a few shops selling vintage clothes and furniture as well as plenty of decent cafes.  I was glad of one of the latter when a thunderstorm brewed suddenly and equally glad when it was short lived.

Strolling back through the Schnoor, the thunderstorm had an unexpected silver lining.  Crowds of tourists typically frequent the narrow streets but even though the sun had reappeared, people were slow to venture out again, so I almost had the district to myself.  A meander to the main square for a coffee and it was time to head back to the airport after what had been a very pleasant day.  The hot weather had prompted me to take it easy, but there is a lot more to see in this Hanseatic city.  I could have taken a tour of Beck’s brewery, seen how Mercedes-Benz make cars or ponder whether modern works of art have as much value as their earlier counterparts.  Another time, I think.  This place is worth another visit.

For more on Bremen, check out my previous blog on the city here https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/10/03/beautiful-bremen/.


Intercourse is only three miles from Paradise

It might not always seem like it, but Paradise is within reach.  Film fans might recognise it as the setting for the 1994 Christmas crime caper, “Trapped in Paradise” starring Nicolas Cage.  It was filmed in Ontario, Canada and has terrible reviews, so don’t rush to see it if you haven’t already.  The real Paradise is a pleasant place, with an old mill and farming country surrounding it favoured by Amish settlers.

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Lancaster County Amish by Utente CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia

Paradise isn’t one of those places that’s packed full of sights, but you’ll find a few worthy visitor attractions in and around the place, including a bakery at nearby Dutch Haven which has been making Shoo-Fly Pie since 1946.  Similar to a treacle tart, it’s made with molasses and is thought to have got its name because the sweet smell attracted flies which needed to be shooed away.

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Shoo-Fly pie by Syounan Taji CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikipedia

Nearby Intercourse lies about three miles to the north, in the heart of Amish country.  It’s another filming location, this time the setting for the Harrison Ford movie “Witness” and unlike in the case of Paradise, the scenes were actually shot in town.  Its name dates from 1814, the time when villagers ditched the moniker “Cross Keys” in favour of Intercourse.

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Intercourse keystone marker by Doug Kerr CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia

The origin of the name and reasons for the change are a little unclear but could be after a nearby racecourse called Entercourse.  It might instead be a reference to the intersection between the Old King’s Highway and the road from Delaware. And of course, it could derive from the meaning fellowship or social interaction.  Whatever the case, it’s a good place to head to pick up some traditional arts and crafts, hand made furniture or even take a buggy ride.  And speaking from experience, those buggies get up some speed!
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Intercourse, PA by Jon Dawson via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0


Don’t believe the hype – the truth behind the travel industry’s predictions

Every travel magazine and major publisher is full of persuasive suggestions at this time of year about places you must not miss if you are to keep up with the in crowd. But which recommendations should you ignore? Here’s my pick of places and attractions that don’t live up to the buzz that surrounds them.

New York’s Freedom Tower

New York’s my favourite city, but even the best of us has a few flaws.  Don’t bother with the New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square; you won’t see much unless you watch it on TV and the weather’s often so cold everyone rushes indoors straight after midnight.  Its latest high rise has been open a while now, but is still being touted as a must visit attraction for 2016. The elevator ride to the top, speeding through centuries of the city’s development in under a minute, is impressive, but the reflections and fingerprints on the glass windows of the observation deck aren’t. Ascend the Top of the Rock instead for the best views of the city, putting the Empire State Building in pride of place in what’s arguably the world’s most iconic skyline. Read my comparison of the two towers and how they stack up to the Empire State here:
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/06/17/the-best-view-in-town-2/

View from the Freedom Tower

View from the Freedom Tower

Haiti

I don’t have anything against Haiti, per se, more the marketing surrounding this impoverished Caribbean nation. 2015’s lists were full of how this was the next up and coming destination, but when I visited in February, I quickly learned that infrastructure lags way behind potential. We’re not just talking about punctuality here: there were tyres being set alight in the capital’s streets in protest about rising fuel prices, a luxury bus set alight and a terrible tragedy caused by a live cable at carnival. Give it a few years more for the country to recover from the 2010 earthquake and preceding flood damage, but don’t put it out of your mind entirely – this is one to watch.

Overloaded tap taps are the only public transport to Port Salut

Overloaded tap taps are the only public transport to Port Salut

Cuba

Now this one’s a tricky one. I visited this fascinating country in 2003, a year in which the travel experts suggested you “go before it changes”. For perhaps every year since, that same advice has been trotted out, with thousands of tourists dutifully doing as asked. Go, by all means, but go because you want to, not because you are worried this charming country won’t wait for you.

Memories from a trip to Cuba in 2003

Memories from a trip to Cuba in 2003

Northern Lights in Iceland

Iceland is one of my most favourite destinations on the planet; I loved it so much when I first visited I went back to get married there. A multitude of incredible sights awaits, from the iceberg-strewn Jokulsarlon beach to the gushing geysers and impossibly scenic waterfalls of the Golden Circle. But the one thing you can guarantee with Iceland is that you can’t guarantee the weather and there’s nothing like a cloudy sky to ruin your chances of spotting the Aurora Borealis. If you want to see the Northern Lights, try Norway instead.

Northern Lights over the hills surrounding Tromso

Northern Lights over the hills surrounding Tromso

The new cable car to Kuelap, Peru

2016 looks like a good year for Peru, especially seeing as British Airways are introducing direct flights after what seems an interminable wait. Machu Picchu is getting more and more crowded, so in an effort to entice people away, the northern fortress of Kuelap is being pushed as an alternative. A cable car is set to open later in 2016, but some reports are incorrectly suggesting it will shave four hours off the hike to get there. It won’t. The current hike from the main visitor centre car park is an easy one; what the cable car cuts short is the drive there along some so-so roads. Be aware that Kuelap’s no match for Machu Picchu, but the area has many as yet unspoilt attractions for intrepid visitors. Don’t believe the hype and wait. Go now, before the cable car opens and the hordes arrive.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu


Changes to the US visa waiver program

A headline on the news section of the BBC’s website caught my eye this morning. It read: “Iranian dual citizens fight new US visa rules”. I’ve never been to Iran but reading on, this article could have directly affected me, but for a few months. The article explained that any British citizen that had been to Syria in the last five years would no longer qualify for the visa waiver program; in other words, they couldn’t travel on an ESTA and would now have to apply for a visa.

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Spices for sale, Damascus 2010

 

I’ve checked my travel diary, in which I keep a list of the places I’ve been and the dates I visited. One of those is Syria. Now, the country is a no-go zone, but just a few short years ago, it was a different place, largely undiscovered by tourists. I wandered the souks of Aleppo and Damascus, travelling between them across the beautiful countryside on a modern train. I enjoyed a wonderful walk through Hama to a soundtrack of creaking norias. You can find out more about them here:
http://www.juliahammond.co.uk/Travel/Hama_time.html

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Noria by the river in Hama 2010

 

I went to Syria and neighbouring Jordan in Spring 2010 and the new regulations stipulate a cut off date of March 2011. That means I’m still good to go to one of my most favourite cities, New York, next May. I was worried, though I don’t regret visiting Syria back then for a moment.  Nor do I condemn the US government for passing such legislation; countries have a right to determine their own security and their own rules.

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Citadel of Aleppo 2010

 

It’s not just Brits and it’s not just Syria. The Wall Street Journal wrote: “Coming up with a comprehensive plan has been challenging. Instead, a piece-by-piece approach appears to be emerging. The initial step was legislation to put some restrictions on the visa-waiver program, which allows travelers from the 38 mostly European and Asian nations to enter the U.S. without obtaining a visa. The measure would ban people from those nations who had traveled to places including Iraq or Syria since March 2011 without first getting a visa. The bill, which passed 407-19, is supported by the White House and is expected to be wrapped into a must-pass spending bill and become law by year’s end.”

You can read the exact wording of the bill here:
https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/158/text

A list of visa waiver countries can be found here:
http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/visit/visa-waiver-program.html

Currently, the restrictions affect those who have travelled since 1 March 2011 to Iraq, Syria and “any other country or area of concern designated by the Secretary of Homeland Security” (to be determined within 60 days). If, like me, you’re a fan of visiting unusual destinations, it looks like it’s going to be important to double check you still qualify to travel on an ESTA if you wish to visit the USA.


To stopover, or not to stopover?

One decision to be made when working out a long haul itinerary is whether or not to plan a stopover when booking flights.  Here are a few issues to consider which might help you decide.

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Boeing Dreamliner takes off

What’s it going to do to the flight cost?

Before making a decision to stopover, check out flight combinations and prices. A stopover including a few nights’ accommodation sometimes makes very little difference to the total flight cost compared to a direct flight. A stopover is classed as a stay of more than 24 hours whereas a layover might be just an hour or two. Layovers can also give you the chance to do a bit of sightseeing during your journey. See if you can extend your layover by taking a later flight to your final destination with that same airline. If the city is relatively close to the airport and if transportation is good, you can see a little of the layover city without it increasing the budget at all. Your luggage will usually be checked through to your final destination leaving you with just hand luggage. This has worked for me several times, most recently in Chicago and in Istanbul.

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Istanbul

How much of the world do you want to see?

On both occasions I’ve been to the Antipodes, the best flight deals hubbed through places I’d already visited, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.  Eschewing the stopover didn’t leave me feeling like I’d missed out , but I may have felt differently if I’d never been to the stopover city before.  A trip to Tanzania with Qatar Airways gave me the opportunity for a two-day stopover in the Qatari capital Doha, somewhere I’d not have chosen to visit in itself, but a pleasant stopover nevertheless.  Next year, I’m stopping off in Sri Lanka en route to the Seychelles, a little out of the way but a great opportunity to see more places without vastly inflating my budget.

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Doha

How will you cope with double jet lag?

If you are travelling east over any distance then you’re going to be hit by jet lag. There are things you can do to help alleviate symptoms, including trying to eat and sleep according to the new time zone before you arrive and keeping hydrated during the journey with plenty of water, but the fact remains, jet lag is a very real possibility. On my trips to Australia and New Zealand, I’ve opted for a quick change of flights rather than a few days’ stopover. Why? So I suffer the dreaded jet lag once rather than twice. Admittedly by 4pm on my first day in Sydney I was punch-drunk with fatigue but after a good sleep I was raring to go the next day. In Auckland a few years later, prepared for the same thing, I enjoyed a pleasant day exploring Ponsonby before hitting the hay at 7pm for a decent night’s rest. Again, the following morning, I was fully refreshed and ready to tackle the city instead of facing another long flight. Choose a layover airport with plenty of facilities, such as Singapore’s Changi or Kuala Lumpur International, both of which have airside hotels. You can book a bed or take a shower while you wait for the second flight, and get that horrible journey out of the way in one hit.

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Auckland’s Sky Tower

How much time do you have for your holiday?

If you’re heading long haul for a long stay holiday such as a gap year, then a few weeks exploring somewhere on the way doesn’t make a big dent in the time you’re going to get at your destination.  But if that holiday is restricted to the two or three weeks you’re going to be able to get off work, then you need to think about where you really want to spend it. Ask yourself whether your stopover days will prevent you seeing something amazing at your main destination, or give you the chance to see something equally amazing en route that you’d otherwise have missed.

Australia Sydney Opera House at night

Sydney’s iconic Opera House

Are you likely to get the opportunity to go back?

For some, a long haul trip will be the adventure of a lifetime, and likely to happen only once.  If that’s the case, then stopping on the way to your main destination might be the only chance you’ll have to explore that part of the world and as such, you might be foolish to pass up the chance.  If it’s somewhere that frequently shows up on flight deals websites or is a popular package holiday destination and thus relatively cheap, you might be tempted to ditch the place as a stopover for now and go there later on for a longer holiday.

Thailand Old temple in Ayutthaya

Ayuttahaya, Thailand

Are you unsure about whether you’d like the place or not?

Taking the opportunity to make a stopover in a city is a good way to find out if you like the place enough to book a longer holiday or not. Sometimes, this might be clear beforehand; it’s possible to stop in Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital, on the way to certain North American destinations, but in my opinion, this incredible country warrants more than a couple of days. But if you’re unsure, then staying just a night or two in a place gives you a taster, enough to help you decide whether to tick it off the list or to go back for a more leisurely visit.

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The Sun Voyager statue, Reykjavik


Five steps to becoming an expert haggler

Haggling can seem daunting at first, but it’s all part of the travel experience. Here’s a few tips to get you on your way.

Browse formal souvenir shops to get an idea of prices

Before starting to negotiate, you really need an idea of what’s a reasonable price. A good place to start is with fixed price shops. They’ll add on a mark up to cover overheads and running costs, of course, but you’ll get to see what kinds of prices are charged for goods of the quality you require.

Window display in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Window display in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Be good humoured

Haggling is theatre, and part of the travel experience, but it’s also how the vendor is making a living. Smile a lot, be nice and build a rapport with the sales person. Getting aggressive or angry isn’t going to get you a better deal, and nor is it going to make you feel good about the place you’re in.

Mamadou in Senegal, who taught me how to play his bean game before I bought it

Mamadou in Senegal, who taught me how to play his bean game before I bought it

Remember this is someone’s livelihood

A few dollars or dirhams off the price for won’t make much difference in the grand scheme of things, but in some countries, it could make a huge difference to a family’s income. Before you demand too low a price, think about what’s a fair discount and what might be a price that only a desperate seller would be forced to agree to. In general, the rule of thumb is to settle on a figure about half what was originally stated, but it’s not an exact science.

Jacques Eugene in Croix des Bouquets, Haiti, with his amazing metalwork pieces

Jacques Eugene in Croix des Bouquets, Haiti, with his amazing metalwork pieces

Don’t make promises you won’t keep

Once you offer a price, etiquette demands that you pay up if it’s agreed to, so don’t make an offer you’ve got no plans to honour. Think about what the item’s worth to you and don’t offer what you don’t intend to pay. If you find yourself in a situation that is getting awkward, look for an outcome where no one loses face. Be positive about the product and apologise for the fact that it’s beyond your budget.

It's tempting to show an interest in what might be impractical to take home

It’s tempting to show an interest in what might be impractical to take home

Getting rid of a persistent hawker

Sometimes, pester power is the local norm, and it can be hard to shake off sellers that just won’t take no for an answer. If a polite “No, thank you” or “I’m just looking today” doesn’t cut it, you might need to be more creative. Suggesting that you’re looking for a particular colour or design that you know the vendor doesn’t have in stock might just work.

How do you choose when it all looks great?

How do you choose when it all looks great?


Latest blogs for Go4Travel

Regular readers will know that I blog regularly for Go4Travel, usually about New Zealand. Every now and then, I persuade the editors to let me blog about other amazing destinations and they couldn’t resist when I pitched Chile. My overview guides to Easter Island, San Pedro de Atacama and Torres del Paine National Park are essential reading if you’re thinking of heading there yourself. Take a look here:
http://www.go4travelblog.com/author/juliahammond/

Sunset at Ahu Vai Uri, Tahai, Easter Island

Sunset at Ahu Vai Uri, Tahai, Easter Island


Torres del Paine National Park: the highlights

Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park has been on my wish list for many years. Now that I’ve been, I can report that it didn’t disappoint. You can see my blog about the area on Go4Travel’s website: http://www.go4travelblog.com/torres-del-paine-national-park-highlights/

Here are some of my favourite photos from the trip.

Sunrise over Lago Toro

Sunrise over Lago Toro

Cuernos del Paine as seen from Lago Nordernskjold

Cuernos del Paine as seen from Lago Nordernskjold

Salto Grande waterfall

Salto Grande waterfall

Lago Pehoe in the late afternoon sun

Lago Pehoe in the late afternoon sun

Guanacos in the north of the park

Guanacos in the north of the park

Young guanacos play-fighting

Young guanacos play-fighting

The Torres del Paine

The Torres del Paine

Glaciar Grey

Glaciar Grey

Close up of the ice, Glaciar Grey

Close up of the ice, Glaciar Grey


Easter Island in pictures

Easter Island, the second most isolated island on the planet, yet famous the world over for the moai which stand sentinel, their backs to its shores. Spending Easter here has been a blessing, the island’s beauty a revelation and the warmth of its people ensuring the memories go beyond mere statues.

Sunrise at Tongariki, site of the greatest number of moai

Sunrise at Tongariki, site of the greatest number of moai

Long shadows in the morning's first hour of daylight

Long shadows in the morning’s first hour of daylight, beginning in April at a civilised 8am

Sunrise in full colour

Sunrise in full colour

Heading north to the coast, but watch out for horses, wild or herded

Heading north to the coast, but watch out for horses, wild or herded

The moai quarry, Rano Raraku

The moai quarry, Rano Raraku

The kneeling moai at Rano Raraku

The kneeling moai at Rano Raraku

Moai quarried right out of the stone cliffs

Moai quarried right out of the stone cliffs

The beach at Anakena, one of only two sandy shores on an island characterised by rocky cliffs

The beach at Anakena, one of only two sandy shores on an island characterised by rocky cliffs

Sand piled up right behind the ahu (platform) on which stand seven moai

Ahu Nau Nau: Sand piled up right
behind the ahu (platform) on which stand seven moai

Close up shot of one of the moai at Anakena

Close up shot of one of the moai at Anakena

Puna Pau top knot quarry

Puna Pau top knot quarry

The seven moai at Ahu Akivi, unusual in that they face the sea

The seven moai at Ahu Akivi, unusual in that they face the sea

Visitors are requested to respect the island's heritage and keep off the ahu, but the horses don't always get the message

Visitors are requested to respect the island’s heritage and keep off the ahu, but the horses don’t always get the message

Rano Kau crater, near the main settlement of Hanga Roa

Rano Kau crater, near the main settlement of Hanga Roa

Vivid colours of the vegetation on the crater rim

Vivid colours of the vegetation on the crater rim

The unusual buildings at Orongo

The unusual buildings at Orongo

Hanga Roa's quirky cemetery

Hanga Roa’s quirky cemetery

Sunset at Ahu Vai Uri, Tahai

Sunset at Ahu Vai Uri, Tahai

Rapa Nui flag - at present the Chilean government aren't collecting (aren't able to collect?) the National Park fee; the Rapanui people have roadblocks and are recording visitor details

Rapa Nui flag – at present the Chilean government aren’t collecting (aren’t able to collect?) the National Park fee; the Rapanui people have roadblocks and are recording visitor details

Boeing Dreamliner takes off to begin its five hour journey back to Santiago on the mainland

Boeing Dreamliner takes off to begin its five hour journey back to Santiago on the mainland


Blog post live: Stewart Island

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/
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Why you should visit the Turks and Caicos this summer

I’ve been blogging for Creative Travel Ltd about the Turks and Caicos. This Caribbean archipelago receives fewer than 7,000 British visitors a year – its main source of international tourists is of course, North America. It’s time to remedy this: March 29 sees the launch of British Airways’ direct flights from Gatwick to Provo (with a brief touchdown in Antigua, making this direct but not non-stop). Find out what Provo’s like in my blog here:
http://www.creativetravelltd.com/travel-destinations/turks-and-caicos-beaches/

“Turtle Cove Providenciales Beach” by Tim Stackton Licensed under GFDL

“Turtle Cove Providenciales Beach” by Tim Stackton Licensed under GFDL


Looking back on my trip to Tanna, Vanuatu

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.

Tanna Lodge

Tanna Lodge

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.

The quad bike reaches Yakel

The quad bike reaches Yakel

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.

Yakel kids playing in the tree

Yakel kids playing in the tree

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.

Yakel villagers dance for their visitor

Yakel villagers dance for their visitor


Blog post live: Take to the water!

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/

Pride of Auckland Sailing on Waitemata Harbour: Photo LSI Auckland CC 2.0

Pride of Auckland Sailing on Waitemata Harbour: Photo LSI Auckland CC 2.0


Unanchor interview about Cusco

To celebrate my Unanchor guide to Cusco and the Sacred Valley, Unanchor have interviewed me about this, one of my favourite cities. You can see the interview here http://blog.unanchor.com/2015/02/23/itinerary-writer-spotlight-julia-hammond-cusco-peru/ and remember it’s available on Amazon if you’d like to buy a copy.

Inti Raymi celebrations take place each June

Inti Raymi celebrations take place each June


The best beach in Haiti

Nothing much happened in a hurry in Port Salut.

The village sprawled beside the soft white sands of Pointe Sable, on Haiti’s southern coast about a half hour from the noisy bustle of Les Cayes. It was no small relief to arrive. My coccyx was numb after a ride in the most cramped and overloaded tap tap I’d had the misfortune to flag down. Not for the first time this trip, I wondered whether my days of travelling like this, eschewing comfort for a more authentic experience, were numbered.

Overloaded tap taps are the only public transport to Port Salut

Overloaded tap taps are the only public transport to Port Salut

The half-hour ride had stretched to five times that, delayed by the need to fill the vehicle to three times a sensible capacity, then tie and retie a large assortment of sacks and packages to the roof. Finally, the driver turned over the engine but instead of leaving, we waited while he carried out urgent mechanical work with much tutting coming from under the rusty bonnet. All the while we sweated under a relentless sun, listening to the football on someone’s portable radio. There wasn’t a murmur of complaint; such delays were clearly the norm. These tap taps had once been shiny new pick up trucks, but were now zombified skeletons, shadows of their former selves. Bereft of various body panels they were held together with frayed bits of rope that disintegrated and wafted fibres into my eyes, . Eventually we had left the goats and stray dogs to scavenge in the filthy depot, only to stop a few kilometres down the road at the edge of a rice paddy while the driver acquired sufficient water to cool the already overheated engine and finish the journey.

Missing the unmarked turn off from the main road, I’d been dropped at the far end of the beach road. I told the conductor I needed to find my lodgings.

“Is it far?” I asked in schoolgirl French, unsure if I’d been understood.

A shrug.

“Combien de kilometres?” I tried again. The conductor glanced at his other passengers.

“Cinq, je pense,” came the collective reply.

Inwardly cursing that I’d relied on my own inadequate observation rather than asking the conductor a little earlier, I resigned myself to a long (albeit scenic) trudge laden with luggage. A young man pulled alongside me on a motorbike and offered me a ride. Asking how much, he’d shaken his head and told me he was offering out of kindness. Gratefully, I accepted. Such a willingness to help was common amongst Haitians, I’d found, one of the delights of visiting a place where tourism was at an embryonic stage.

In the end, it was less than a kilometre. Bathed in the soft peach of late afternoon, the Auberge du Rayon Vert – the Inn of the Green Ray – looked as if it had been transported straight from rural France. Dumping my bags, I watched the sun settle languidly into the horizon and headed to the terrace to eat. The menu, chalked carelessly on a board, gave no inkling that the food served was to be the most delicious I’d have anywhere in the country. I feasted on creamy goat’s cheese enclosed by an exquisitely pink fillet of beef.  The sky turned to blood orange before I sank into a deep slumber under crisp sheets.

L'Auberge du Rayon Vert

L’Auberge du Rayon Vert

The following morning, I awoke to the sound of the Caribbean lapping at the shore and set off to explore Port Salut. Popular with Haitians from Port au Prince as a weekend retreat, I wasn’t surprised to see half-built houses strung out along the main road which I presumed to be holiday homes in the making. Hot pink bougainvillea made a welcome change from the ubiquitous grey concrete of the building plots and beach shacks.

Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea

Changing some dollars at the hardware store, I doubled back to the beach. Crudely fashioned dugouts on the sand didn’t look seaworthy.  The flaking turquoise paint was photogenically shabby but didn’t appear to my untrained eye to be watertight.  Piles of netting heaped in their bows indicated otherwise. A group of fishermen dragged a gnarled wooden boat out of the sea, their scant catch inadequate recompense for their labour.

Old wooden boats in the beach

Old wooden boats in the beach

A little further on, a cluster of beach bars catered to a largely local population. At this hour their plastic chairs and tables were deserted save for a group of men idly chatting into mobile phones. They looked up briefly to say hello. An old man slept soundly on a concrete bench, his forehead deeply lined and his feet calloused. Children giggled and pointed, “Blan, blan!” I smiled back. One of the bars was painted with a colourful mural of tourists waterskiing, which struck me as just about as far removed from reality in this backwater as you could get. Opposite, a six-point guide to cholera prevention on a painted billboard seemed a whole lot more relevant.

Fishing boat on Pointe Sable

Fishing boat on Pointe Sable

Opposite the auberge, another catch was being landed. A group of villagers were hauling in their net, dragging its colourful floats into a horseshoe to corral the fish into an ever diminishing trap. But for all their toil, the results were meagre, a few fish the size of sprats tossed into a wicker basket guarded by a small child.

By far the best thing to do, or more accurately, not do, as it involved very little effort at all, was to relax on one of the hotel’s beach chairs and watch the world go by. This wasn’t an arduous task; there wasn’t much world to go by. The palms that edged the beach swayed almost imperceptibly in the breeze, fidgeting the shade. From my vantage point, I watched as delicate ghost crabs scuttled about their business before retreating from the heat into burrows drilled deep into the damp sand. A trio of avocets tapped away at the water’s edge while a lone pelican cruised overhead.

The perfect place for doing nothing

The perfect place to do nothing

The sun was now high in the sky. A single wisp of cloud hung like a vapid crescent moon. Traffic was limited to a few motos and the odd 4×4 – the auberge was a popular weekend hangout for the UN police and NGO personnel working in the area. Out towards the horizon, a small boat with tattered sails bobbed on a sea pricked with diamonds. The voice of an occasional hawker interrupted the sound of the waves’ ebb and flow, offering straw hats and fresh coconuts. They approached gently as they offered their wares; there was no need to be pushy. A young girl wandered up, carrying a large straw bag.

“Would you like mamba, ma’am?”

For a minute, I was alarmed, fearful she might produce a snake. It turned out mamba was a kind of peanut butter. The large jar being proffered would have been a tempting purchase had it not been made of heavy glass clearly unsuited to moto rides. Eventually, I dozed off under the shade of a tree, its dense bunches of fat leaves creating a natural sun umbrella. After all, nothing much happened in a hurry in Port Salut, so how else was I going to kill time before dinner?

Sunset at Pointe Sable

Sunset at Pointe Sable