Some years ago when I was new to London I joined an evening course at a local adult education college. As the big jets screamed overhead on their final approach to Heathrow Airport, we huddled together in a chilly classroom, dutifully memorizing the words and grammar of a language that most of us would use only on holiday. One evening our teacher asked, in the language we were learning, where we ideally wished to live. As our desks began to vibrate violently with the passing of another jet, one of my classmates replied, “A place where it’s always summer.” We sighed, waited until the jet had finished shaking the building, and resumed our studies. Looking back on that episode, I realise how many of my travels have been an attempt to chase that endless summer. These travel blogs concern places I’ve visited recently. My aim is to impart the flavour of the place, rather than the hotel/restaurant details you can find on any number of excellent travel websites. If you like these, I’ll put up more.
Cruising the Nile (Sept 2009)
Taba, Egypt (Apr 2009)
Agios Nikolaos, Crete (Sept 2008)
Porto, Portugal (May 2008)
The Maldives (2007)
Essaouira, Morocco (2006)
Pangkor Laut, Malaysia (2005)
Cruising the Nile
I was eight years old when I saw my first Egyptian mummy under a glass display case at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. From that moment I was hooked on all aspects of an ancient civilisation I found enchanting, forbidding, exotic and remote. In my teens I spent hours exploring the Egyptian artefacts in the British Museum and then, in my late twenties, I took a Nile cruise from Aswan to Qena to view the great temples and monuments of the Pharaohs without the display cases, so to speak. It was one of the most incredible journeys of my life.
It was also one of the most exhausting. There comes a moment in every tour of the treasures of Upper Egypt when you become “templed out”. Brain reeling with too many historical facts and statistics, body on the point of melt-down from heat prostration and salt deficiency, your only desire is to crawl to a shady spot and go to sleep on some lump of ancient granite. Fear not – the moment will pass, and it will pass quicker if you are travelling in some comfort, as we discovered on a recent second trip down the Nile.
More than 300 cruise ships now ply the Nile between the towns of Luxor and Aswan. That number seems astonishing – you almost expect to see a rut worn down the middle of the river - but it is remarkable how well the Nile accommodates the crush, and how few cruise ships you actually pass during your time on the river. That time on the river is precious, for it allows you to become a passive, appreciative spectator of one of the world’s most timeless landscapes. The scenery unfolds dramatically, one moment wetlands and lush greenery, fields intensively planted with sugar cane, corn, rice and date palms, the next moment miles of barren sandstone cliff.
The tour itineraries of Nile cruises vary, but most cover the temples of Philae, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Luxor and Karnak, plus the Valley of the Kings on Luxor’s West Bank and other sights around Luxor and Aswan. If your cruise is under five days you will be on a tight touring schedule, which means some very early risings and the not-to-be-recommended practice of seeing the Valley of the Kings, Luxor and Karnak Temples all on the same day, but there will still be time for rest, recuperation and sun-bathing on your boat.
You should be aware of one very welcome development. The security arrangements imposed on tourists since 1997, which forced them to travel from one town to another in convoys of coaches with armed escort, have recently been abandoned. As a result, road travel is far more relaxed and flexible. On a 210-km drive from Luxor to Aswan to pick up our cruise boat, we had an air-conditioned minibus, with driver and English-speaking tour rep, all to ourselves. It was heaven. We also learned of the plan to move all cruise ship moorings out of the centre of Luxor within the next few years. This will make an enormous difference to those staying in Nile-side hotels, whose view across to the West Bank and the Valley of the Kings is presently blighted by cruisers moored five boats deep.
There are so many wonderful sights on a Nile cruise it’s hard to know where to begin. The highlight of any tour of Aswan is a visit to the temple of Philae. Dedicated to the goddess Isis, Philae is known to Egyptians as “one of the baby temples” because it was built in the Greek period, the reign of the Ptolemies, a mere 2,000 years ago. Philae was the last temple of true Egyptian worship in the country, used until 500 AD, but the true marvel of the temple lies in its rescue, following the creation of the Aswan High Dam and its total immersion in the waters of Lake Nasser. From 1977 to 1980 the temple complex was dredged, dismantled into 47,000 sections, moved and reassembled, stone by stone, on an adjacent island. The re-emergence of Philae from the waters of the Nile, along with the monumental temple of Abu Simbel further south, are triumphs of modern engineering.
Another sight not to be missed is Edfu Temple, half-way between Aswan and Luxor. Also erected in the Ptolemy era, Edfu is the best preserved temple in Egypt. It is colossal in size. Nothing prepares you for temple walls we estimated at the height of a 15 story building. Everything about Edfu is “mighty”. As you delve deeper into this magnificent place, past an enormous hall of pillars, roof still intact, into an inner sanctum containing an altar of polished granite and a ceremonial cedar barque, you realise why it took the pharaohs 180 years to complete the construction of this complex. It is truly phenomenal.
Everyone visits Luxor’s West Bank. It is the second most popular tourist attraction in the country after the great pyramids at Giza. You could spend a week here, visiting the memorial temples at Medinet Habu or Deir el-Bahri, photographing the Ramesseum and the Colossi of Memnon, delvng into the magnificent tombs of the pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings or the beautifully decorated tombs of artisans and nobles, and still just scratch the surface.
A toy train trundles you from the parking area to the admission gates of the Valley of the Kings, where you purchase a ticket which allows you to visit three tombs – or multiples of three, depending on your enthusiasm and level of endurance. There is an extra admission charge for visiting the popular tombs of King Tutankhamun and Ramesses VI. Your tour guide, who will offer suggestions on the best tombs to see and tell you which tombs are presently closed to the public, is no longer allowed to accompany you into the tombs - even more disappointingly, neither is your camera.
In recent years, work has been undertaken at many of Egypt’s archaeological sites to enhance the experience for visitors. Smooth plywood floors and subtle lighting effects have improved viewing in many of the temples, and an ugly resthouse that once defaced the Valley of the Kings has been removed. Karnak has a shiny air-conditioned visitor’s centre. Unfortunately what hasn’t altered is the number of unsolicited and unskilled “guides” who attach themselves limpet-like to visitors, making it virtually impossible to savour the splendours of ancient Egypt in peace. To have maps and postcards waved in your face in the Valley of the Kings is bad enough, a nasty intrusion, but even worse is to be trapped in a stifling and claustrophobic tomb by a man who bars your exit and demands baksheesh. Other countries with equal levels of poverty, equally populous, have worked hard to sweep aggressive touts and beggars out of their great tourist attractions. Egypt, please - it’s high time you did the same.
I don’t normally put recommendations on my travel blogs because I appreciate that everyone has different tastes and preferences, however I must say a word or two in praise of our cruise ship, the MS Oberoi Philae. I believe this is the only boat currently cruising the Nile that provides a terrace for each cabin. The pleasure of being able to sit on your own balcony watching that glorious Nile-side scenery is indescribable. The Philae also has her own moorings at each stop, which means she never ties up against other boats. Her tour parties are split into manageable groups of about a dozen, driven to each attraction in a small minibus, rather than a behemoth of a coach, and assigned a dedicated tour guide. Finally, the Philae is elegantly decorated in the manner of a country house hotel, has warm and friendly staff and very good food. After those long dusty days of sightseeing, you deserve a little comfort. This ship provides it with great style.
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It is an inescapable fact of modern life that every beach in the world, no matter how hostile the temperature or unpromising the terrain, will soon have a hotel plonked on it. In steamy climates, this hotel will be filled with travellers from cold countries who come to roast themselves before a glistening sea, distracted from their books and text messages only by the odd sand-fly, hair-braider, or, in the organised resorts, maniacally grinning girls who threaten guests with the unholy torture of aerobics or volleyball.
Along Egypt’s Red Sea coastline, which extends up the Gulf of Aqaba on the eastern side of the Sinai peninsula from Sharm el-Sheikh to Taba, well-scrubbed camels parade the sands, allowing tourists the chance to pose as Lawrence of Arabia for at least three minutes. The Sinai, a famously inhospitable and politically sensitive area, has in recent years been redefined as part of the “Red Sea Riviera”, a conscious effort on the part of the Egyptian government both to bring tourism to this area and to ease the congestion in Cairo (with its staggering population of 17 million) by encouraging Egyptians to live and work here. The waters here are, of course, renowned.
Taba, the last of the Israeli territories in the Sinai to be returned to Egypt in 1989 after a long arbitration process, is the newest of the Red Sea Riviera resorts. It is very much a work in progress, and smack up against the Israeli border. Security is therefore a major issue here – you will need your passport even to go out on a dive boat.
The existing hotels are generally vast, with lush, well-watered grounds that have become sanctuaries for African finches and pallid tourists, safely cocooned from Egypt’s heat and dust and innumerable military check-points. The bonus of staying here, besides guaranteed sunshine and the Red Sea’s wonderful snorkelling and diving, is the incredible view across the Gulf of Aqaba to three other countries, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which you will first encounter at night driving in from the airport - an unbroken chain of twinkling lights. You are in one of the largest rift valleys in the world, with the weird, wind-sculpted sandstone hills of the Sinai behind you, and the Jordanian Highlands facing you across the water. The scenery is bleak, but spectacular.
The undisputed highlight of any trip to Taba is Pharaoh’s Island. Just off the Egyptian coast, this rocky islet is surmounted by a striking sandstone fortress originally constructed by Crusaders and later captured and enlarged by Saladin around 1170. This picturesque spot is further enhanced by clear turquoise waters and good coral reefs, making it the best place in Taba to go snorkelling. All of the hotels arrange short cruises to the island, but try to go at sunset.
If you have the money, there are other excursions south of Taba to painted canyons, St Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai and the so-called “hippy town” of Dahab. Very long and expensive day trips can also be arranged to Cairo, Jerusalem or the stunning rose city of Petra in Jordan, but beware that delays at the border-crossings are legendary. You may be given very little time once you’ve finally reached your destination, and frankly each one of these fascinating places is worth more than a whistle-stop tour.
The Red Sea Riviera is pure package-holiday territory, and delivers exactly what it sets out to deliver - a week or two of sunshine and heat at very reasonable prices. At humble Taba Airport the world’s cheeriest customs officials will stamp a free 15-day visa into your passports, provided you don’t wish to cross any borders or journey on to Cairo. Most visitors to this area come on all-inclusive packages, and end up eating hideously bland hotel buffets night after night. If this isn’t your idea of tempting food (and it certainly isn’t mine), rest assured that the hotels are supplemented by à la carte restaurants, and that Egyptian cuisine, when authentically prepared, is excellent, ranging from hearty soups and mezzes to tagines and surprisingly affordable seafood.
The beaches in Taba can only be described as disappointing – sand mixed with shingle, very hard on the soles of the feet. If you don’t want to spend your time wincing and staggering from one sharp rock to the next, be sure to bring reef shoes or sandals you don’t mind getting wet.
In the summer the Sinai is a furnace (even at Easter the temperature in the shade was 36C). Unsurprisingly, the region gets the most visitors in spring and autumn. The sea is warmest in September.
A word to the wise: many of the hotels offer the type of lavish facilities that allow them to flaunt five-star ratings, but in terms of food, service and staff supervision and training, they’re no more five-star than my Aunt Fanny. To avoid disappointment, do some homework and research your hotel carefully before you arrive. Otherwise, think of a visit here as a cheap and cheerful holiday which will give you the chance to swim, tan and admire the tropical fish. This is a placid, friendly backwater where you will not be hassled by the manic tourist touts of Cairo or Luxor. You are guaranteed to return home with your batteries recharged.
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Agios Nikolaos, Crete
Travel destroys assumptions you make about places you've never visited. I had travelled widely in the northern Cyclades islands of Greece, but I’d never been to Crete. Somehow I’d pictured the island as a great dusty rock populated by goats and brawny men with huge frightening moustaches, all dancing about on table tops and calling each other 'Zorba'. (The men, that is - not the goats.)
I was therefore unprepared for fertile valleys and plateaux lined with neat rows of olive and fruit trees, or sweeping, sparkling bays backed by granite hills that glowed rose red at sunset. The island was permeated with the smell of honey.
An even greater culture shock was the pretty harbour town of Agios Nikolaos (St Nicholas), which we strolled into each night from our hotel.
I know the Greek economy has moved on in recent years, but I wasn't prepared for sea-facing esplanades lined with stone benches and a fountain, chilled-out cocktail bars where the well-heeled drinkers lounged on white sofas, restaurants with linen tablecloths, and taxi drivers driving air-conditioned Mercedes.
For several days we wandered around in a daze. Were we in Italy? The south of France? Even the local buses - the spine-busting, beaten-up old crates of island legend - had been replaced by luxury coaches with air-con and tinted windows...it was Greece, Jim, but not as we know it.
Crete is enormous - we hired a set of wheels our second week and drove over 450 kilometres, but only covered the eastern end of the island. It's the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean, with a population of 1.3 million and an annual tourist invasion of 1.5 million. It's a wonder the island doesn't sink under the weight, but the place is full of character and relatively free of the worst excesses of tourist tat. We’d been warned of touts outside the restaurants: they consisted of sweet smiling girls from Croatia who apologized for interrupting.
When you sit near the harbour at Agios Nikolaos, you see how rapidly Greece is changing. Contemporary bistros jostle with restaurants housed in nineteenth-century mansions. The nightlife is fast and cool. Local kids ride their Italian scooters from one café to the next, chatting with friends drinking iced coffees, anxiously scanning their mobile phones in the constant hope of bulletins from other friends. These technology-and status-conscious children hardly existed in Greece 10 years ago.
One day we drove along hairpin bends and through tiny bougainvillea-strewn villages until we reached a ridge dramatically lined with ruined stone windmills and were flung up, up and over into the fertile Lassithi Plateau. Here we visited the dank Dikteon Cave, the mythical birthplace of Zeus. People have lived and worshipped here from Neolithic times. It was a heart-stopping 10-minute climb up switchback trails, but upon reaching the mouth of the cave, the amazing panoramic view of the distant plain spread beneath made you understand, truly, the legend of Olympus.
We explored secret coves occupied by ourselves and a goat (yes, there were many goats, and they all wear collars with tinkling bells that sound like wind chimes), remote villages where we'd eat fresh fish at seaside tavernas and practice my terrible Greek, and a pretty village on a beach called Myrtos, which in 1943 was razed to the ground by the German Army as a warning to the local resistance movement. The village now has prosperous-looking shops and a beachfront promenade lined with cafés and restaurants. Every other chair is occupied by a sleeping cat.
Another day we visited the ruins of a large Minoan port, Gournia, which held 1,000 inhabitants around 1500 BC. It’s a large site, first excavated in 1901 by an American archaeologist named Harriet Boyd-Hawes, the first woman ever to direct a major excavation in Greece. Nowadays it is difficult amongst the straggling paths and broken walls of stone encircling tiny rectangles of earth to imagine a town large enough to contain a provincial governor’s palace. You don’t get a sense of living, breathing people.
We had better luck when we visited the small archaeological museum in Agios Nikolaos. There, amongst the patched-together plates and cups and jugs, were vast storage vessels as big as a man, tub-shaped caskets from Minoan cemeteries, and some truly arresting statues. An enchanting clay figurine of a dolphin had been found buried with a child – the mourning parents had placed toys beside their little boy. This suddenly made the Minoan people come alive.
Our trip to Crete served as a reminder (if a reminder was truly necessary) of the beauty of the Greek islands and the warmth of the Greeks themselves. I cannot count the number of days my limited halting Greek brought us free desserts and brandies in the tavernas. With its proximity to the North African coast, Crete remains warm when other areas of the Mediterranean are cooling off; it’s a fine place to come in late autumn and even better in early spring, when the hills and valleys are covered in wild flowers.
Come here for the sun, the sea, the legends and the hospitality – but don’t forget to say hello to the goats.
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The first thing you notice about Porto is the river Douro. The city sprawls along the sides of a gorge, its banks connected by a series of long-span bridges. Up river is the lush terraced terrain of the Douro Valley, where the port companies have their vineyards; down river is the rocky Atlantic coast. Sea mists and seagulls float in from the sea each day, San Francisco-style.
The next thing you notice is that Porto seems caught in a 1950s time warp: waiters still wear fusty black uniforms, ladies are always served first, bartenders have no idea how to make cocktails, and menus, even in the more contemporary restaurants, take you straight back to a previous era: French onion soup, Chateaubriand, tangerine sherbet.
Throughout the city there are indications of a proud history of commerce. There is a fine boulevard called Aliados which is lined with the headquarters of regional banks. The old Stock Exchange has a room modelled on the Alhambra. You walk down steep cobbled lanes of shops and apartments which have the most astonishing façades – painted tiles, wrought iron balconies, huge arched wooden doorways – but everything is crumbling to bits. Without a massive program of urban renewal, many of the most interesting buildings in the Ribeira district (closest to the river) will be all but gone in 50 years.
And yet the city has a shabby grandeur and charm that is instantly appealing. The people are the friendliest and most charming I have met in a long time. Cars wait patiently for pedestrians to pass, even in rush hour. The numerous cafés allow you to sit with a coffee or a beer for hours, watching the world go by. Everyone seems delighted if you attempt even a few words of Portuguese.
The quaysides of both Ribeira and Gaia (on the opposite bank of the Douro River) are devoted to wining and dining. The port wine lodges are all based in Gaia. It is truly astonishing to see the entire world’s port wine production squeezed into a district only a few kilometres square – a sea of red-tiled rooftops with the names Croft, Sandeman, Fonseca, Ferreira on giant signs illuminated at night.
We visited Taylor’s wine lodge, and had a guided tour followed by lunch in their beautiful restaurant which overlooked the river and the city. Taylor’s is small and discreet, with trellised vines growing over the old whitewashed stone buildings and a garden full of rose bushes and peacocks, but the gloomy stone vault where the port wines age for years is the real revelation. The corridors of barrels stretch on endlessly – and this is one of the smaller lodges. They’ve been making and exporting port here since 1692.
The sights of the city are best explored on foot, but certain streets are long and wheezingly up-hill – I’d recommend the brand new, sparkling clean Metro system which, compared to the London Underground, seems virtually deserted. (This may be caused by its fully automated ticketing system, which nobody appears to know how to use.)
There are many architectural gems, including several outstanding churches whose facades are covered in the blue and white azulejos tiles of Portugal. For the literary, not to be missed is the Lello Book Store, which was based on a Parisian gallery and opened its doors to the public in 1906. Its two floors of books are joined by a fabulous double staircase in oak, and the ceiling is stained glass.
Top of the list of Cool Places has to be The Majestic Café. At one time, the city was full of belle epoque coffee houses where the artists, writers and revolutionaries gathered to talk politics. The Majestic, which opened in 1921, is a remnant of those times. It has been lovingly restored. There are plaster cherubs on the ceilings, huge mirrors on the walls, marble-topped tables and chairs upholstered in green leather. You can have a full meal with wine, or simply sit with a coffee and an ice cream sundae and soak up the surroundings.
Don’t miss the opportunity to take a taxi from your hotel to the Atlantic coast several kilometres west of Porto, to an outlying district called Foz (pronounced Fosh). Here you will find lovely landscaped parks and boulevards of attractive apartments and shops facing the sea. There are rocky sand beaches lined with boardwalk cafés and glass-fronted restaurants. Find one, sit down and admire the sea views as you enjoy a drink or a meal – it represents all that is best about Porto, a laid-back place of tradition and beauty, underlined with charm.
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You may notice I have not titled this ‘Venice, Italy’, which the unfortunate actor Julian Glover was once forced to say in an Indiana Jones film, no doubt to enlighten the good but geographically bemused people of Dry Spigot, Arkansas. Yes, there are several other Venices in the US (and one in Canada), but there is only one La Serenissima, that improbable jewel of domes, bell towers and terracotta tiles lying up to her eaves in the muddy waters of a lagoon at the head of the Adriatic Sea.
What makes her so special? To begin with, the obvious: Venice is incredibly picturesque. Around every corner, across every bridge is another fabulous view worthy of a photograph. Few travel experiences are as memorable as strolling through Venice, peering into shop windows, admiring the canals, the churches, the surprisingly spacious squares, and savouring the extraordinary novelty of a city without automobiles. An Italian city where lap dogs and children can actually play in the streets without being knocked flying by a Vespa.
As you sit enjoying your (excellent) espresso at a café, you become aware of sounds you wouldn’t expect to hear at the heart of a busy city: the lap of water on stone, the purr of marine engines, the twitter of sparrows. Sounds unique to Venice.
Invest in a truly detailed city map, and you will find lanes running parallel to the signed thoroughfares that channel tourists from the road/rail terminus at Piazzale Roma through to the Rialto Bridge and on to St Mark’s Square. Once clear of the hordes of snack-munching day trippers, you have the city and its people to yourself. Walk straight through the bustling Rialto markets, for example, keeping the Grand Canal to your right, and you come to a completely empty fondamenta (canal-side walkway) with wonderful views across the Grand Canal to the Ca d’Oro, perhaps the city’s finest medieval mansion.
Venice is a city that stretches shoe leather and credit cards to their limit, a city where you will begin most evenings sitting on your hotel bed staring at your depleted wallet and asking yourself where the money went. If you’re on a budget, it’s best to trawl travel guides and the internet for reasonably-priced restaurants before you arrive. Particularly in the starchy San Marco district, where you may wish to rest your aching feet after a morning exploring the Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, the price of lunch can be laughable.
You may, however, be willing to forgive your waiter’s detached manner and the rip-off prices when you stop to consider that Venice is a city in retreat. A great deal of it seems covered in scaffolding, or shored up to prevent total collapse. Thanks to floods and extortionate rents, Venice’s population has almost halved since the 1960s. Gloomy forecasts about the city’s ultimate fate as a living museum, “an Italian Disneyland”, instil a sense of urgency to see this remarkable place while there is still time.
You might also consider – if you’re not in too pessimistic a mood - that Venice’s atmospheric decay is part of her charm, along with her unsettling carnival masks and her witchy echoing alleyways at night. Try to visit at least one of the outlying districts. A stroll through Cannareggio allows you to discover such thought-provoking finds as the world’s oldest Jewish ghetto. Away from the tourist haunts in Dorsodouro, you will be rewarded with beautiful, quiet, undisturbed canals lined with stylish houses and shops.
Enter as many buildings as you can, both the grand and the humble, because Venice’s treasures are everywhere and many are well-hidden. One gem worth tracking down is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, in the San Polo district. This glorious building has a monumental staircase and grand upper hall whose walls and ceilings are covered in paintings by Tintoretto – 54 works in total, executed over a 23-year period. Words cannot begin to describe this profusion of art. For one man to have achieved this in a lifetime seems hardly credible.
An afternoon spent gazing at these Tintorettos or the ceilings of the Doge’s Palace makes you understand why visitors like myself keep returning to this failing, over-priced city. For Venice is a triumph of human ingenuity, built on a series of low-lying marshy islands. From such inhospitable and unpromising terrain you would expect perhaps a straggling, humble village. Instead you have a unique and splendid city of culture and light, whose buildings, vast and romantic, are set on millions of wooden pylons sunk deep into the bed of the lagoon. Venice is a very human achievement we should all be proud of – and work to preserve.
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For those of us who live in a climate that glowers and drips more often than it sparkles and shines, the islands of the Maldives come as a shock. It’s not just the jetlag that gives you that sense of technicolour overload. What you see when you’ve managed to struggle through the truly awful shed that masquerades as Customs at Male International Airport is the stuff of every travel junkie’s dreams. Palm-studded atolls, fringed with blinding white coral sand, float in a translucent tropical sea. The photographs in the travel brochures have not lied. You really are confronting paradise.
The second shock comes when you realise that communication is going to be mighty hard work here. This struck me when I went to congratulate the guitarist of a band who’d been playing at our hotel resort. I told him how much I had enjoyed his set. He stared at me in blank incomprehension, and I realised he hadn’t understood a word I’d said. This was a man who had been singing in faultless American-accented English all night.
Peek beneath the surface of this tiny island nation and you are immediately confronted with intriguing enigmas.
The Republic of Maldives consists of nearly 2,000 islands strung across the Indian Ocean. It has the dubious distinction of being the lowest country in the world, with a population not much larger than Iceland’s. Only one-tenth of the islands are inhabited. Various past attempts by European nations to colonize the Maldives could best be described as half-hearted: with few crops to exploit or deep-water ports to park a navy, they didn’t stay for long. After nearly 80 years as a British protectorate, the Maldives became an independent country in 1965.
The Maldivian people continued to fish, trade and farm as they had always done until, in the 1970s, they discovered tourism. Even more interestingly, they discovered a novel way to deal with tourists: they bundled them away on uninhabited islands. In Europe, these islands were marketed as the ultimate in tropical seclusion, a “no news, no shoes” elysium with some of the best snorkelling and scuba-diving in the world. Tourists to the Maldives were only accepted on tour packages, taken straight to their resort islands, and encouraged to stay there. Segregation has never been more charmingly accomplished.
Don’t think for a moment you won’t meet Maldivians, because your resort will be staffed almost exclusively by them, but Maldivians speak their own Indo-Aryan language, known as dhivehi, and communication is quite limited. Talk to your waiter or bartender about more than the weather or what’s on the menu, and you will soon flounder in mutual bewilderment. It’s frustrating, particularly if your first impressions of a place are formed by talking extensively to the people who live there.
If you desire nothing more than crashing out in a serene and beautiful place with a benevolent climate and sea water as warm as a bath, then you could not have chosen better. You can select an island to suit any budget, from a modest bungalow in a no-frills resort to a stunning duplex with all the five-star amenities. Immerse yourself in the Maldives’ greatest treasure, a marine environment second to none. Swim, if you’re fortunate, with a ray or a sea turtle. Wade out from the beach to waist height and you will be immediately surrounded by tame tropical fish: little striped wrasses, lumpy triggerfish, butterfly fish who swim in companionable pairs, exquisite parrot fish shaded mauve and turquoise, even baby reef sharks who trudge across the living coral like small cheerful dogs. It is a truly remarkable experience.
If, however, you’re the more adventurous type who chafes at the thought of spending one or two weeks in the same place, you might consider the short-term lease of a sailboat or motor yacht. Boat charter is a relatively new phenomenon in the Maldives and one that needs to be encouraged, as it throws off the constraints of staying in the all-inclusive resorts.
Before you book your holiday, do some research to make sure that your resort island has a healthy, thriving house reef. Some are better than others and will reward you with a memorable experience, even if you’re not a strong swimmer. It’s also worth checking that your resort offers a range of excursions, from dolphin-watching tours to visiting other islands.
One final tip: find an island resort within speedboat distance of the international airport at Male. Flying by seaplane to your destination may sound impossibly romantic, but be aware that seaplanes only depart when weather conditions permit and when they are full (which may entail a lengthy wait at Male Airport), they may fly to several resorts before reaching yours, and they won’t carry your luggage – that comes after you by speedboat. If you’d prefer not to be reunited with your bags 10 hours after you reach your destination, stay in the Male Atoll. That way you can savour every moment of your time in the beautiful, tropical Maldives.
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From the air, northern Morocco is a patchwork quilt of olive green and brown. The royal cities are grand in a discreet, unfussy way and the walled compounds that dot the landscape give an impression of seclusion that doesn’t abate when you walk the narrow lanes of Marrakech, noting how archways and heavy wooden doors lead to tranquil courtyards that absorb all sound.
Take a bumpy taxi ride west to the Atlantic coast, however, and an entirely different Morocco comes to light. Here the air is scented with pine and the straggling, thorny argan trees that line the roads produce a versatile oil used in cooking, medicines and cosmetics. (Yes, those really are goats resting in the branches, gnawing at the hard fruit. Argan is the goat equivalent of catnip, and the goats can’t get enough.) The sky becomes paler, the soil sandier, and suddenly on the horizon against a backdrop of ocean you see a walled settlement, impressively fortified.
You’ve reached Essaouira, one of the most unusual and beautiful towns in the country.
A base for the Phoenicians in the 7th century BC, Essaouira was later claimed by the Portuguese and named Mogador. Strolling the labyrinth of its old medina is an odd experience, especially when you find yourself confronted with straight, handsome boulevards lined with palm trees that run to the town's main gates. Essaouira also boasts sea bastions and wide platforms facing the Atlantic that are still lined with Spanish cannons. This unexpected mix of European and Islamic architecture is deliberate; in the 18th century an Alouite sultan brought in the services of a French architect to design a naval base here. The blending of two cultures suits Essaouira, making it appear both atmospheric and smart.
The navy has long since departed, but the town still maintains strong ties with the sea. Walk to the western end of Essaouira, passing through an imposing gate flanked with turrets and towers, and you reach a working fishing port, once home to one of Morocco’s largest sardine fleets. The fleet has shrunk, but you can still watch flocks of gulls wheeling over the day’s catch as it is sorted and packed in ice. The photogenic port contains a number of ocean-going vessels and smaller skiffs painted powder blue, plus cosy restaurants where you can enjoy fish still tasting of the sea.
To make Essaouira even more attractive to the visitor, the town has long been an artists’ colony. As you walk past shops featuring oil paintings and sculpture, carvings and furniture, ceramics and glass, you begin to appreciate why Essaouira has been a haven for artists, musicians and actors over the years. Orson Welles filmed Othello here in 1949. A bronze plaque of his face rests outside the town walls, but it’s doubtful Welles would have been flattered by the likeness; his cheeks are like balloons and his nose has fallen off. Less dispiriting is a visit to the thuya wood workshops beneath Essaouira’s ramparts. Here craftsmen have been using this prized local hardwood to make wonderful objects since medieval times, and their skills in marquetry are renowned.
From Essaouira’s port you can see the broad curve of the town’s sandy beach stretching back to the ruins of an old castle and an estuary which is a sanctuary for migrating birds. Offshore islands, particularly the one which retains the name of Mogador and houses the remains of an old prison, are stark and dramatic. The beach, lit up at night and a haunt of boys playing football, is a popular windsurfing venue. Watch people ride both horses and camels along the tidemark.
Not surprisingly, the town is popular and receives large parties of day-trippers arriving in coach-loads from Agadir and Marrakech. However it is remarkable how well these visitors are absorbed and how quickly they depart in the afternoons, leaving you alone with Essaouira after dark. Stay for several days, there are a number of charismatic riads (traditional Moroccan residences) for guests as well as small hotels.
This stretch of unspoilt Atlantic coast is a treat to explore. Pounding surf meets mile after mile of empty sand all the way south to Agadir, and north through the pottery centre at Safi to Oualidia, home of Morocco’s oyster industry and now a chic summer resort in its own right. If you have the time, take a taxi to the vast beach at Sidi Kaouki, about a half-hour’s drive south of Essaouira. A tiny clutch of cafés and the odd camel give way to an expanse of sand that continues endlessly through the sea mists. On the horizon is only churning white water. It’s an exhilarating setting made memorable by the complete absence of crowds.
Come to Essaouira if you want a unique and colourful place where centuries-old souks and woodworking co-operatives rub shoulders with contemporary art galleries. It is a Moroccan detour well worth taking.
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You will never forget arriving at the island of Madeira by air on a day when low cloud cover blankets the Atlantic Ocean. One moment you are floating through cotton wool, the next moment towering rocks and boiling dark clouds loom out of the sea mist and your airplane banks sharply to the right before thumping down on a runway that has materialized, thankfully, out of the waves.
This adrenalin-charged start to your holiday makes you re-evaluate all you have read and heard about Madeira, the Portuguese island that bears, in Europe at least, a somewhat unfortunate reputation as a subtropical old folks’ home. Surely a landing as dramatic as the one you’ve just experienced would be enough to carry off the elderly before they reached the comfort of their resort hotels. Yet your arrival prepares you for the days or weeks of startled neck-craning to come: this is an island of very, very steep cliffs. A place where tiny hamlets cling to vertical rock faces, seemingly ready to slide into the sea before you can blink.
Madeira, you will discover, is a floating garden. A mild, spring-like climate and soils that support an astonishing range of plant life make this moderately-sized island (less than 60 kms long and just over 20 kms wide) lush and verdant. Savour the banks of globe-headed agapanthus that line country roads, smell the eucalyptus groves as you climb north of Funchal, the capital, into the island’s mountainous interior. The island is intensely cultivated. Every vertiginous hillside is terraced, every square inch of fertile ground, no matter how dizzying the altitude, is given over to Madeira’s famous grapes or other crops.
Needless to say, Madeira is not a great place for those who suffer from vertigo - cable cars trundle across bottomless ravines, island tours take you to the awesome Cabo Girao, at 1900 feet one of the tallest cliffs in the world - but the views are tremendous. If you’re feeling particularly brave, book a day at Faja dos Padres, where you will find a pleasant lido, sun loungers and a café at the foot of a bracing 1000-foot panoramic elevator descent. The elevator, it should be noted, crawls at a snail’s pace for what seems an eternity. If that doesn’t get your pulse racing, then walk alongside a levada, one of the island’s network of irrigation canals that carry water down from the mountains. You’ll need to treat these walks with caution, as the climbs can be rigorous and the drops downright scary. If you’re not an experienced hiker, take a guide with you.
Driving on Madeira is equally stimulating but well worth the adventure. The modern, brightly-lit tunnels that bore through mountains and monumental cliffs have transformed life on the island, ending centuries of isolation for far-flung communities. The main roads are excellent. How excellent you will discover when you take a detour on one of the older roads, willing your vehicle along cliff-hugging tracks through dank, dripping tunnels. Discover picture-book villages such as Ponta do Sol and Sao Vicente, or the beautifully wild, unpopulated peninsula of Sao Lourenco.
All roads lead to Funchal, the picturesque port and home to half the island’s population, where you will inevitably spend time touring the wine lodges and tasting Madeira’s most famous export, or admiring the yachts and trans-Atlantic cruise liners moored in the marina/harbour. Seek out the back streets, which are full of character. The city’s oldest quarter, the Zona Velha, was laid out in the 1430s after Madeira became Portugal’s first overseas colony. It has undergone a gentrification process and features some of those dispiriting eateries where fast food is displayed in photographs, in case you’ve forgotten what a hamburger looks like, but the cobbled lanes are attractive and there are many good restaurants if you look hard enough.
Too often holiday markets are the haunt of tourist touts who flog over-priced goods manufactured in China, but Funchal’s Art Deco market, the Mercado dos Lavradores, is a notable exception and the place to be on Friday mornings when farmers bring their produce in from the countryside. Stand against the upper-storey balustrade and gaze down at the bustle and the beautifully laid-out market stalls. The colour, the aroma, the sheer size of the fruit and vegetables – it’s reassuring to know that food like this still exists. There’s also a flower market, and a fish market in the basement.
Sooner or later you’ll ride the cable car from Funchal’s harbour front to the Victorian hill town of Monte. Madeira is stuffed full of public gardens, but the most bewitching of them all is to be found here. Following its transformation from a much older estate and a long restoration process, the Monte Palace Tropical Garden is a feast of eccentric loveliness, where you wander past banks of flowers and dripping ferns, orchid houses, contemporary sculptures, Victorian nymphs, Japanese pagodas and Portuguese tiles, with water, water everywhere. It is a singular and extraordinary place.
Spend at least one evening dining at a restaurant in Funchal which overlooks the harbour. With this stunning backdrop you could imagine yourself in the south of France – at half the price. For all its vertical cliffs, Madeira is a great place to relax, and eat, and soak up the scenery. There’s a long tradition of hospitality to visitors here, and it shows. This is a dramatic island, but a most welcoming one.
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Some things are so deeply familiar you can see and hear them in your dreams.
I grew up a short distance from Niagara Falls. It was the perfect summer day-trip, especially when my family were entertaining cousins from England or Australia. Whenever we arrived at “the Falls” (no-one in Ontario calls them anything else) we would always follow the same routine. We’d spend hours searching for a parking space, then wander over to the Horseshoe Falls, which we’d use as a spectacular backdrop for family photographs. Then we’d wander along to take a look at the American Falls, where we’d have ice creams and the cousins would buy souvenirs. Then we’d have lunch somewhere with a nice view of both waterfalls, after which I’d have a fight with my sister and we’d go home. This was as natural a routine as breathing.
Local people have a love/hate relationship with Niagara Falls. They wish it wasn’t so crowded, they wish the surrounding streets weren’t lined with wax museums and tacky souvenir shops, they wish a great many people (and animals) didn’t fall to their deaths in the freakish daredevil phase of the early 20th century when anything and everything was sent over the Falls in barrels and other flimsy craft. On the other hand, Niagara Falls is such a mesmerising sight that all of these annoyances quickly fade away: it is truly one of the world’s greatest natural attractions.
A few facts. The cities of Niagara Falls, Canada and Niagara Falls, New York, USA, straddle opposing banks of the Niagara River, a relatively short but vicious stream separating the two countries, whose rapids reach speeds of 30 mph. The river, which connects the upper Great Lakes to Lake Ontario, plunges 180 feet over the broadly curved Canadian Falls – hence its more popular name, Horseshoe. The American Falls, a straight plunge on the New York bank of the river, are actually higher, at 184 feet, but narrower. A third waterfall, so small that nobody ever mentions it, is called The Bridal Veil.
The combined flow of water over the three waterfalls is staggering. The Horseshoe Falls alone allows 6 million cubic feet of water over the crestline every minute, however the full flow is diverted at night and out of season to generate electricity. Niagara Falls is one of the largest producers of hydro-electric power in the world.
Visitors always marvel at how close they can get to the waterfalls. You can cling to railings at the head of the Horseshoe Falls and watch the water change from dark blue to icy green as it begins the long, long descent. If you’re feeling adventurous, don a plastic disposable raincoat and take an elevator from Table Rock Point to an observation platform at the base of the Horseshoe, 26 feet above the turbulent water. Or, better still, take a voyage on the Maid of the Mist, actually not one but a series of boats that chug endlessly in front of the American and Horseshoe Falls, battling the currents.
Your first approach to Niagara Falls is a memory you will never forget. The ground thunders beneath your feet and the sound of the water builds to a deafening roar. A permanent cloud of mist rising above the Horseshoe Falls acts as a very pleasant water spritz on a hot summer’s day. Most people visit during the summer, but frankly the Falls are equally amazing when snow lies on the ground. One thing is certain - whatever time of year you visit you will never be communing with nature on your own. 11 to 14 million people visit the Canadian side of the Falls each year. (One travel website put this figure at 20 million, but I think they were being a trifle optimistic.)
Despite the crowds, Niagara Falls is a vast site containing pleasant river-side walks and landscaped parks beautifully maintained by the Niagara Parks Commission. There are many attractions close by, from towers with dizzying views to floral clocks to bird and butterfly conservatories. One of my personal favourites is the Whirlpool Aero Car, a cable car suspended 250 feet above the Niagara Gorge, which provides a spellbinding view of the rapids.
You can also shop, dawdle around the inevitable cheesy museums or gamble the night away at Casino Niagara (which makes a staggering $10 million annual profit, so don’t expect to win too much). There are scores of hotels (this was once, after all, “The Honeymoon Capital of the World”), but if you’re staying overnight be sure to book a room with a fabulous riverside view, as coloured lights play memorably over the Falls after sunset.
If you have a car, follow the Niagara River Parkway north for a scenic drive past picnic areas, vineyards and rich people’s houses to the handsome town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, the first capital of Upper Canada from 1791 to 1796. Well-preserved 18th-century houses feature here along with forts, the popular Shaw Festival Theatre, numerous hotels and restaurants, and far too many gift shops selling potpourri and scented candles (but don’t let that put you off – this is one of the nicest towns in Ontario).
Niagara Falls is an easy day-trip from Toronto or Buffalo, New York, and features in countless tour itineraries. You may not get to know it as well as I do, but you can’t fail to be moved by it, a magnificent natural phenomenon that defies all the tourist clichés.
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Pangkor Laut, Malaysia
No-one ever said getting to paradise was easy. There comes a moment on the endless, bumpy long-haul flight from London to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, when window shades are raised to greet the dawn and you realise the ordeal has been worth it. You’ve entered the Tropics. The light is different, the air is different, the colours are the intense blue-green of the jungle. Islands dot the long elephant’s trunk coastline of Thailand and Malaysia like a necklace of jade as your airplane descends. Beneath you is a fragile beauty that, once experienced, is never forgotten.
Pangkor Laut is one of those dots you see from the sky, a 300-acre island lying a mile off Malaysia’s west coast in the Malacca Straits. It’s adjacent to the larger island of Pangkor, whose fishermen catch anchovies from rakish, top-heavy boats, and close to the naval town of Lumut. Pangkor Laut is a three-hour car journey from Kuala Lumpur, or a 40-minute hop by internal flight from KL’s Subang Airport. It is a private island, consisting of one discreet, low-rise resort set around the edges of a tropical rainforest.
Nowadays, hotels all over the world boast luxurious guest rooms built over water, but Pangkor Laut Resort was one of the pioneers. It is jaw-droppingly photogenic. Each of its sea villas has a private veranda with grand views of Pangkor Island or the coast, plus bathrooms the size of bowling alleys with signature stone bathtubs set on raised platforms overlooking the sea. (You can, in theory, guzzle champagne and bathe with the windows wide open, but I wouldn’t recommend it – the local fishermen know how to find you).
If you like understated elegance or sensitive architectural design that never detracts from the environment, then you will like Pangkor Laut. It has the luxury and service of a good five-star hotel, but it has far more than that. This is as good a chance as you will ever have to get up close and personal with a rainforest and its furry or feathered inhabitants. Above the towering canopy of its trees soar sea eagles, hornbills, kingfishers, swallows and, on one memorable occasion, a magnificent fish-owl. There have been rare sightings of pangolin on the island, but the omnipresent stars are its macaque monkeys, who come down to the island’s beaches and coves at twilight to fish for crabs from the rocks.
Emerald Bay is the other star attraction of Pangkor Laut. This perfect, horseshoe-shaped cove on the island’s undeveloped western side is regularly voted one of the world’s prettiest beaches. Its blue-grey sand imparts to the water a deep green colour most evident at sunrise and sunset. This is a tranquil place of great beauty, surrounded only by the rainforest, home to scuttling crabs and a few sunbathers discreetly parked on loungers hidden by the trees.
This is a very special place – a nature reserve without fences, a stunning beach unmarred by breeze block hotels. Come and enjoy it.
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