Visiting the Galapagos Islands

It was a Monday morning shortly after sunrise and I was balancing on some slippery rocks in shallow water trying to keep myself upright. Clutching Matty’s hand, I attempted to move my left foot forward onto the next rock but then something soft, solid and slippery hit me, sending me off balance, causing me to slip waist-deep into the water.

“I just got head-butted by a sea lion,” I squealed, watching the pups swim around me and through my legs, before making their way to Matty to try their tricks on him.

There were about five of them playing in the water together, swimming, jumping and diving like dolphins through the waves. The day before we had watched them surf together – we sat for what felt like hours, mesmerised by their playfulness, as they waited for a big wave to come from behind before swimming with it, letting it carry them to the shore before diving over the surf as it broke in the more shallow waters.

Over the last eight days we have watched the pups take some of their first confused steps, swum and played with them underwater, observed how they sleep and live in their colonies and giggled at their quite human-like behaviours.

It was basically torture not being able to stroke this sandy beast's neck.

It was basically torture not being able to stroke this sandy beast’s neck.

This little beauty was stumbling all over his mamma.

This little beauty was stumbling all over his mamma.

We sunbathed with them...

We sunbathed with them…

And drank beers with them.

And drank beers with them.

I might have tried to take one home.

I might have tried to take one home.

It's impossible to take a bad photo of a baby sea lion.

It’s impossible to take a bad photo of a baby sea lion.

Even if Matty jumps in the photo with one.

Even if Matty jumps in the photo with one.

But it is not just the sea lions and fur seals that allow you a wonderfully close and personal insight into their splendid lives on the Galapagos – in fact there is not one species that does not seem to welcome you with open arms, or at least lazily open one eye to you.

When the Galapagos islands were discovered by accident in 1535 by Tomas de Berlanga, who drifted off course when sailing from Panama to Peru, he reported that the islands’ birds were “so stupid that they didn’t know how to flee and many were caught by hand.”

And 500 years later it appears little has changed. They seem to regard humans as nothing more than a sometimes inconvenient shield from the sun as we peer down at them, blocking the sun’s rays as they sunbathe. Rest assured we did not ‘catch’ or touch the animals – we had a wonderful guide who ensured we were always two metres from the animals, as is the national park’s rules, but it was fascinating to be within an arm’s reach of some of the world’s most treasured and unique species.

It was only appropriate that the first animal we saw on the first day of our 8-day cruise in the islands was the giant Galapagos Tortoise, which gave the islands their name. Roaming the highlands of the islands, these huge tortoises dwarf everything around them. I stared at their huge, wrinkly legs and long, weathered necks as they slowly grazed their way across the land, and was struck by how pre-historic they appeared, as if lost creatures from a few Millennia ago. I giggled as one approached another causing it to hiss and tuck its head into its shell in a fairly defenceless manner.

Just hanging out, munching some grass.

Just hanging out, munching some grass.

Galapagos-24

Behind bars…

It was about half-way through the trip that I realised with some horror I was probably going to spend the rest of my years as a ‘twitcher’. Suddenly, I couldn’t believe I had thought it was acceptable to travel without a pair of binoculars and a bird book and made a mental note to add these to my travel kit at the earliest possible opportunity.

It started with the penguins. And they were marvellous. Sitting proudly on the rocks, our little dinghy floated right up to them and they barely gave us a sideways glance as they ruffled their feathers. But then came the boobies and the frigates; some of the most iconic creatures of the islands – I hadn’t dared hope that I might see them close up. But then we visited North Seymour Island, home to vast colonies of both birds, and my dreams were to be realised.

They didn’t even flinch as we approached them. The male frigates were blowing our their impressive red chests, which looked like gigantic balloons that could lift them into the air and carry them away. They made a fantastic sound as they drummed their beaks on the tops of their chests and sang loudly to attract the ladies. Meanwhile the boobies danced on their big, blue feet and nuzzled their white fluffy chicks, completely unfazed by our arrival.

For the next hour I had to remind myself to keep breathing as I snapped away, just a couple of metres away from the most beautiful birds I have ever seen. Not for the first time in the Galapagos, I felt like a fly on the wall – a fly on the wall of the most beautiful room in the world.

Look at the chest on that...

Just look at the chest on that…

"But I'm the Booby"

“But I’m the Booby”

The frigate mid-flight

The frigate mid-flight

Showing off his big red chest...

Showing off his big red chest…

Boob on boob

Boob on boob

And just a little too photogenic to ignore...

And just a little too photogenic to ignore…

But this one might just have the best name of all: The Galapagos Vermilion Fly-Catcher.

But this one might just have the best name of all: The Galapagos Vermilion Fly-Catcher.

In the Galapagos it is not just about seeing the creatures – but studying them – observing how they live, eat, sleep and mate. When we stumbled across the huge yellow land iguanas (that despite looking relatively menacing seemed as passive as a mouse) we watched in fascination as one rolled the fruit from the cactus in the ground with its feet to remove the spikes before swallowing it whole. Meanwhile, the marine iguanas, which cannot be found anywhere else in the world, were a delight to watch at sunset as they bobbed in the shallow water for food before sunbathing on the rocks to dry off.

Not half as menacing as he looks...

Not half as menacing as he looks…

Although if you are a cactus fruit you will not be spared.

Although if you are a cactus fruit you will not be spared.

Pretty in yellow

Pretty in yellow

Hanging out with the marine iguanas for a spot of sea lion spotting

Hanging out with the marine iguanas for a spot of sea lion spotting

The techni-coloured dream coat of the marine iguana

The techni-coloured dream coat of the marine iguana

With no underwater camera, I was unable to capture the wonders that we saw below sea level. The Galapagos is blessed with abundant shoals of tropical fish, which we followed for as long as possible with our masks and snorkels. We were lucky enough to swim with the sea lions and even followed white-tipped sharks a number of times. But best yet was following the sea turtles that seemed to fly through the water with the ease of the birds in the sky.

What we did try to capture with our camera, was the impressive and varied landscape of the islands. I think the perception is the islands are tropical castaway islands with gorgeous beaches but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The islands are volcanic – they were created by huge volcanoes that erupted from the Earth’s core millions of years ago. We crossed black, hardened lava rivers, gazed into huge craters, walked across desert-like landscapes scattered with cactuses and of course, also strolled the beautiful beaches that were postcard-perfect.

The dry, mystical lands of the Galapagos

The green, mystical lands of the Galapagos

Winding paths to the highlands.

Winding paths to the highlands.

Us modelling the white sandy beach.

Us modelling the white sandy beach.

After eight long days of observing the landscape, the mammals, the birds and marine world, I felt ready to join the real world once more. I had enjoyed being rocked to sleep on the boat each night but was looking forward to having a hot shower in a proper bathroom and finding out the results of the Scottish referendum. But after we said goodbye to our wonderful guide Leo and took a seat on the bright red plastic seats of the departure lounge at the Galapagos Airport it suddenly hit me what I was saying goodbye to. I watched “Darwin’s finches”, as the little birds are known as, scavenge for food in the brightly-lit food court of the airport and felt my eyes well up.

I would no longer be waking up and playing with sea lions, I would no longer feel like the greatest bird photographer (as the birds in the rest of the world fly off when they hear my clumsy foot break a twig a mile away), and I would no longer watch the birds feed at sunset or watch the sun rise over the equator every morning.

This is a world where sea lions hog benches like the drunk old men of the west and where it is easier to trip over a camouflaged marine iguana than it is to stumble on a rock. And I realised I would never really be ready to leave it.

As I grumpily stomped around the airport, which is decorated in “I love boobies’ t-shirts, I glanced up at another t-shirt with a Charles Darwin quote on it: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change”.

It was here, of course, that Darwin made his great theories about evolution after studying (and eating) the giant tortoises and other abundant wildlife. And as I stared at the slogan on the t-shirt I realised the message is also true for travelling. Every trip I have taken since I was 21 has changed the way I look at the world and adapted who I am – some countries more than others. But perhaps nowhere has had such a significant impact on me as the Galapagos. I’m not sure I can even explain what has shifted – but something inside me has been stirred and I have fallen in love with nature in a way I never knew possible. And I realise I am really very lucky to have uttered the words “I just got head-butted by a sea lion.”

Travel Tips

We went on an eight-day cruise in the Galapagos with King of the Seas, which is an ‘economy’ boat. There are four different classes of boats and this is one of the cheapest ones – but it did not find it cut corners on the stuff that mattered. Yes the cabins are tiny and the electricity cuts out regularly, but the food was absolutely delicious (and plenty of it), the crew and captain were wonderful, friendly and helpful and our guide Leo was top notch. It attracted like-minded people and we had a superb group of travellers on board with us.

 

Our lovely group... jumping off the boat.

Our lovely group… jumping off the boat.

Deciding how to travel the Galapagos is tricky. We were told by a number of people that those who travel it overland (eg taking day trips from an island base) don’t see as much as people on the cruises and I think that this is probably true.

We woke up in a new location every day so wasted no time travelling as this was always done as we slept – we snorkelled twice a day most days and visited at least two locations a day on foot. We got into the nooks and crannies of the island with an expert guide, which would be impossible to do alone.

How much does it cost to go to the Galapagos?

It is not cheap. We struggled to justify it and almost didn’t go at one point because of the cost. One week in the Galapagos cost us what we normally budget for one month travelling (£1,000) but it was worth every penny and we were rewarded with an experience that I have never had in a whole month of travelling elsewhere. It costs about $500 before you have even got to the Galapagos – return flights from Ecuador are about $400 and then you need to pay an island tax of $100 when you land. Then comes the cost of the cruise… We got a last minute deal for King of the Seas for $1,200. (Snorkelling gear and wet suits hire is often not included on the cheaper cruises and we paid another $50 each for this when we boarded the ship). We booked the trip about three weeks beforehand at a great agent in Quito (Ole Expeditions in the Old Town) – we met a couple that booked it the day before, directly with the cruise liner to avoid agent fees – they got it for $1,050 – so we didn’t do too badly. The final cost to add into the equation is tipping – and any drinks you want on board. We were told to tip 10% of the cruise cost or $10 per person per day. Drinks on the boats are naturally expensive ($30 for a rubbish bottle of wine so take lots of your own booze on board!) Those considering to do it ‘over land’ should bear in mind that day cruises can cost anything from $80-150 per day per person – and food and accommodation is expensive on the island.

How long should your cruise in the Galapagos be?

Cruises tend to be four, five or eight days long. We initially planned to do a four day cruise but decided to go on a cheaper boat for eight days in the end. While everyone will have different feelings about what is the ‘right amount of time’ I loved that we finally decided to do eight days because it meant that we saw every single species I had hoped to see. If we had left after four days I wouldn’t have seen fur seals or swum with turtles and sea lions and if I had just done the last four days of the cruise I wouldn’t have seen frigates, giant tortoises or land iguanas. Eight days almost guarantees you’ll see it all – or at least it did for us!

What is the best time of year to visit the Galapagos?

We were in the Galapagos in September which is winter for the islands. Of course we are talking about winter on the equator so it was a bit like a British summer – gloriously warm and sunny most days, but sometimes cloudy, and chilly in the evenings. It was dry but the water was quite cold and we definitely appreciated having wet suits for the snorkelling. The hottest months are January to March, but this is also the rainy season. We have been told April to June are nice months to visit, and July and August are apparently the ‘peak season’ where the islands are much busier and you are more likely to have tourists in the background of your photos.

10 Best things to do in Split, Croatia

“You’re going on holiday?” asked one of my friends, slightly incredulously. “Your entire life is a holiday”.

She had a point. The last year has been something of a wonderfully, long vacation. But we were travelling (aka throwing ourselves up mountains and taking cold showers at high altitude), then teaching English, setting up a business and finally, taking North American students on tours of Europe.

So to reward ourselves we decided it was time for a holiday. And so off we set with a Kindle full of books and a bag full of swimwear; vowing to do little but eat, sleep and sunbathe. We were on our jollies!

Our first stop was Split (before heading to the islands) and we instantly fell in love. With flights costing from £100 return, I thought it would be rude not to try and convince you to get involved with this gorgeous port city. So, once you’ve booked your flights, here’s my top 10 things to do in Split to get you started:

1) Gorge yourself on seafood. I’ll be honest, we found Croatian cuisine to be a mixed bag. Sometimes glorious, sometimes a tad bland – think, gnocchi with watery meat juices. However, the seafood on offer in Split and the nearby islands is absolutely wonderful. Many restaurants will offer a seafood platter for two and we ended up having some of the best fish of our lives at Konoba Marjan (Senjska 1, Split). For about £30 we were served sea bass, sea bream, squid, tuna steak, hake and large prawns served with marinaded roasted vegetables and homemade crusty bread. The white fish was superbly tender and melted in our mouth, while the tuna was perfectly seared and meaty. The waiter recommended the Bibich Riserva 5, a Croatian white wine that I was initially a little sceptic of as it blends five grapes – but it worked very well with the dish.

2) Find some locals singing under the naturally acoustic arches of the town. We were fortunate in that there was a big festival approaching in Split – whether that was why we chanced upon the teenage singers I don’t know – but it was quite a remarkable experience. Surrounded by Ozujsko beer bottles they were singing some traditional songs under some arches within the palace walls – and their voices carried powerfully – warbling and reverberating across the square.

3) Find a bargain lunch. I first visited Croatia 10 years ago and upon returning this time I was staggered by how much more expensive everything is. It’s hard to find a meal for less that about £7 these days (and that’s before you add the booze). But we found some great bargains. Firstly, head to one of the Billa supermarkets and buy the crustiest bread, local cheese, hams, salad and cold beers and enjoy an impromptu picnic on the waterfront. The ham here is like Iberico ham – delicious – and this is a much cheaper option than most restaurants. However, we also found a fabulous little restaurant near the waterfront called Dujkin Dvor on Obala A. Trumbica (also known as Pasta2Go), that had a really wonderful range of affordable dishes. We opted for the meatballs of the day (huge homemade meat balls in a delicious sauce and creamy mash) which cost just £4 and a lovely Mexican tuna salad that cost £2.70. Bargain! And tasty.

4) Take a Walking Tour. We had been in Split for a couple of days before we took the One Penny Walking Tour – and wow, I felt like I had been walking around with my eyes closed for two days! The tour costs 1 Euro per person and we were given a wonderful guide who expertly walked us around the Diocletian’s Palace for 90 minutes. The old town is set within the palace walls, which dates from 305BC and our lovely guide took us right back hundreds of years ago as she showed us where the ‘vomiting’ rooms would have been so that people could gorge themselves on 21-course meals without having to skip any courses. Man, I was born in the wrong century.

Split... where the pavements are made from foot-polished limestone

Split… where the pavements are made from foot-polished limestone

5) Get amongst the Croatian Wine. Croatia has a wine history that dates back to the Ancient Greek settlers and most of it is made on the islands off Split. We quickly deduced that only philistines would dare neglect wine on a trip like this. Our first supermarket bottle left us somewhat disappointed but then we decided to sign up to a walking tour (see point four) that finished with some wine tasting. Perfect. We ended up at the Diocletian’s Palace Hostel and Wine House, which did not disappoint. Set in one of the narrow cobbled alleyways of the old town, surrounded by stone buildings the atmospheric wine bar has cute wooden tables and makes for a pretty picture-perfect wine tasting setting. We liked the Cesarica white wine (made on Havr island) so much that we ordered a bottle of it (for about £12) alongside a platter of ham and cheese. We also heard great things about the Art of Wine, a shop which does tastings and trips out to the nearby wineries but with three taster glasses of wine and a nibble platter starting at 35 Euros a head we thought it was a little steep. The Diocletian’s Palace Hostel and Wine House is located at Ulica Julija Nepota 4.

6) If all the wine, cheese and fish consumption gets too much head to one of the fabulous galleries in town. We visited the Mestrovic Gallery, which was fabulous. Home to a huge selection of sculptures by Ivan Mestrovic (who is the artist behind the large-wizard like statue by the golden gates of the palace – which incidentally has a golden toe. The gallery is set in the most beautiful house overlooking the sea and nearby islands. He built the house himself as a home, gallery space and workshop before fleeing the country due to his anti-communism tendencies. The view and the building itself is just as impressive as the sculptures. We had a marvellous hour or so here.

The fabulous work of Ivan M

The fabulous work of Ivan Mestrovic

7) Stay in a funky apartment with a balcony overlooking the old town. We have used the apartment rental website of Airbnb throughout our trip in Croatia and have not been disappointed. We have not spent more than £17 – 30 on accommodation per night and have had lovely little apartments with balconies and light, airy rooms. We loved this little place in Split.

A small but perfectly formed balcony on our apartment on Split

A small but perfectly formed balcony on our apartment on Split

8) Climb up the steps of Marjan (west of the town) to be rewarded with the most fabulous views of the Split. And if you’re parched, fret not, there’s a bar at the top. Even better, hire a bike and cycle the peninsular around this area. It is gorgeous. We cycled up to a different viewpoint, enjoyed a fish soup near a gorgeous, rocky cove and just took in the gorgeous forested landscape around us. Bliss. There are a few places in Split hiring bikes, we hired ours from a place near the port – they tend to cost around 2 Euros per hour and we were impressed by the quality of the mountain bikes.

Matty working up a sweat...

Matty working up a sweat…

9) Visit the nearby islands. You cannot come this far and miss them. Vis, Hvar and Brac are the islands off Split, which are anything from an hour to 2.5 hours away by catamaran. We visited Hvar, which has the most beautiful town and apparently a happening night life in the peak season (be sure to have sundowners at the Hula Hula Beach Club on the ocean) and Brac which has the beautiful Zlatni Rat Beach near Bol.

The lovely island of Hvar

The lovely island of Hvar

Zlatni Rat beach near Bol, Brac

Zlatni Rat beach near Bol, Brac

10) Last but not least, pack your running kit. Early morning runs around a town as beautiful as Split is every runner’s dream. I can’t think of a nicer way to see the town.

Dear Delia: Phu Quoc is Paradise. Fact.

The best thing about having a blog that has not ‘made it’ is that I can tell you all about the finest undiscovered secrets of the planet without worrying that I am spilling the beans to the world and his dog. This is not a cry for sympathy – I am quite happy with this site largely being a diary for the future me who cannot even remember what she had for breakfast let alone some far flung trip in south-east Asia 40 years ago.

And so, here we go.

Dear 70+ year-old Delia,

I hope you’re still around and sporting some kind of hideous short blue-rinsed perm number (this is the time to do everything you were too vain to do before, remember?).  I always had the feeling you would get weirder and wackier as you got older – you know, smoking cigars while lying in a hammock that you’ve tied up at junction 12 on the A1 – that sort of thing.

Well anyway, I’m here to take you back to the past. That’s right, pour yourself a stiff gin and read on.

A long, long time ago in 2013 you discovered Paradise, It was an island off the south-east coast of Vietnam called Phu Quoc but I fear it would be a very different picture today.

You were with your wonderful friend Tanya (yes, the posh one who you now go to Tweed Anonymous suppers with). Back then Tanya’s silver mane was thick and glossy, in a rich brown shade. Those were the days.

There were the usual mishaps at the airport in Saigon – Tanya packed and unpacked her bag in the departure hall about three times before finally checking it in and you were accused by customs of smuggling fish sauce out of the country; but somehow you made it there  alright.

The flight to Phu Quoc from Saigon took just under an hour, the air hostesses wore cute little red t-shirts and tweed culottes that amused the pair of you – and you even managed to fit in a tub of steaming super noodles in the 10 minutes when seat belts were allowed off and the food trolley whizzed through the aisle.

During the 10-minute taxi journey from the airport to the beach you marvelled at how undeveloped the island felt, full of luscious jungle-like foliage and hardly a building in sight.

And then finally the car turned down a little un-made path that led you to the beach. And wow, what a beach. The wide strip of rich, yellow sand met the clearest, calm water that you had ever seen. The water was crystal clear, there was not a wave in sight and you wanted to throw a big stone in the water to just check it was all real. Meanwhile, slightly wild and ravaged palm trees lined the coast, adding to the Bounty-advert feeling.

 

Phu Quoc island

Phu Quoc

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It was beautiful. Cute bungalows and low-rise cottages lined the beach with makeshift restaurants (aka tables and chairs) out the front, where you would sit for hours munching on the freshest seafood and strongest gins with your bare feet in the sand. In the evenings lanterns softly illuminated the ‘restaurants’, making it all the more perfect.

Phu Quoc beach at night

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A short stroll north of the main beach (Long Beach) would take you to the middle of nowhere, the edge of the ocean, somebody’s back garden and you watched naked children play in Paradise so blissfully unaware that the rest of the world does not look like this.

But then one day you headed south and Tanya got to swim with mermaids and dolphins. It was the moment she had been waiting for. It was beautiful.

Phu Quoc mermaids phu quoc

So if you are sitting there now looking at your blotchy white, wrinkly old skin and have access to the internet (or whatever its called these days), get yourself a one-way ticked to Phu Quoc, perve at the young backpackers and stay at a little place called Phuong Binh.

Love Delia x

PS Buy a couple of tweed bikinis and take Tanya too. She’s missing the Mermaids.

 

World in Pictures: 2013 Through the Lens

2013 started with a bang. Surrounded by our loved ones in Nottingham at our friend’s cocktail bar, we enjoyed free-flowing spirits and a help-yourself beer fridge (which is where Matty’s head spent most the night). With a few hours kip I found myself at work covering the New Year’s Day news (also know as murders). My head was banging.

And now we intend to see the year out with a bang… quite literally, as we watch the fireworks over the river from a Ministry of Sound party in our new ‘home’ of Saigon, in Vietnam.

It’s certainly been one of the more exciting years in my young 30 years of life so far. In our mammoth overland journey from the UK to Vietnam we visited 17 countries, took dozens of trains, taxis and buses, and probably ate hundreds of pieces of unidentifiable meat.

So as a fitting tribute to one of the memorable years yet, I’ve selected a few of my favourite pictures from 2013.

Lots of goodbye hugs with my loved ones in April.

Lots of goodbye hugs with my loved ones in April.

And so our journey began... Like these fellas our beds were often on trains or at train stations.

And so our journey began… Like these fellas, our beds were often on trains or at train stations.

Our journey involved lots of fabulous (if often toothless) people including this lovely shepherd in Armenia.

Our journey involved lots of fabulous (if often toothless) people including this lovely shepherd in Armenia.

Somebody once told me you can tell a lot about a person by their hands.

Somebody once told me you can tell a lot about a person by their hands.

One of my fondest memories to this day was the walk we took through the Armenian countryside where we stumbled across this adorable little piglet.

One of my fondest memories was the walk we took through the Armenian countryside where we stumbled across this adorable little piglet.

.... And fabulous wild meadows of flowers.

…. And many fabulous wild meadows of flowers.

The churches of the Caucuses are like nowhere else in this world. A Monk enters a church in Armenia.

The churches of the Caucuses are like nowhere else in this world. A Monk enters a church in Armenia.

And of course these two jokers made it all a little bit more special (and liquid).

And of course these two jokers made it all a little bit more special (and liquid).

From the Caucuses it was over to Turkmenistan (by a three day boat that got 'stuck at sea'). Never have I ever been anywhere with quite so much gold, marble and weirdness in such close proximity.

From the Caucuses it was over to Turkmenistan (by a three day boat that got ‘stuck at sea’). Never have I ever been anywhere with quite so much gold, marble and weirdness in such close proximity.

Any country that has burning holes of fire in its desert wins the weird award. Darvaza Craters, Turkmenistan.

Any country that has burning holes of fire in its desert wins the weird award. Darvaza Craters, Turkmenistan.

Meanwhile Uzbekistan put me under a blue-tile spell, so impressive was its mosaics, mosques and mausoleums. (Oh, and its bread - I will never forget the amazing bread of Uzbekistan).

Meanwhile Uzbekistan put me under a blue-tile spell, so impressive was its mosaics, mosques and mausoleums. (Oh, and its bread – I will never forget the amazing bread of Uzbekistan).

Inside one of the magnificent  mosques of Uzbekistan.

Inside one of the magnificent mosques of Uzbekistan.

High altitude kisses in Tajikistan, home to one of the highest highways in the world.

High altitude kisses in Tajikistan, home to one of the highest highways in the world.

Kyrgyzstan took us to a land of wild horses, yaks milk and yurts. Oh, and the trekking. But this view made even being lost up a mountain in a hailstorm worthwhile...

Kyrgyzstan took us to a land of wild horses, yaks milk and yurts. Oh, and the trekking. But this view made even being lost up a mountain in a hailstorm worthwhile…

And in Kazakhstan we made pledges to our curiosity and stars.

And in Kazakhstan we made pledges to our curiosity and stars.

And in China we sang from the top of the Singing Sand Dunes.

In China we sang from the top of the Singing Sand Dunes.

Before finally reaching the end of the Silk Road: The Bell Tower in Xi'an, China.

Before finally reaching the end of the Silk Road: The Bell Tower in Xi’an, China.

But then Vietnam came along and a whole new adventure was underway.

But then Vietnam came along and a whole new adventure was underway. Ninh Binh was a personal highlight for me.

The diverse landscape of Vietnam is nothing short of spectacular... taking a boat through the Ninh Binh karts was one of many special moments.

The diverse landscape of Vietnam is nothing short of spectacular… taking a boat through the Ninh Binh karts was one of many special moments.

More lovely people.... And more lovely people.

More lovely people…. And more lovely people.

October saw me discover my new all-time favourite beach destination on the island of Phu Quoc off south-east Vietnam.

October saw me discover my new all-time favourite beach destination on the island of Phu Quoc off south-east Vietnam.

And we even fitted in a bonus trip to the mighty Angkor kingdom of Cambodia.

And we even fitted in a bonus trip to the mighty Angkor kingdom of Cambodia.

But none of it would have been quite so special if it wasn't for the friends I have shared it with. No matter where you are in the world that's what makes stuff special. Happy New Year xxx

But none of it would have been quite so magical if it wasn’t for the friends I have shared it with. No matter where you are in the world that’s what makes stuff special. Happy New Year xxx

Fusion Maia, Da Nang, Vietnam: A Spa-tacular Breakfast

“Excuse me would you like some ice cream,” I hear over the sounds of crashing waves, interrupting daydreams of taking a bath in melted chocolate. I absentmindedly lift my hand to wave him off before suddenly remembering where I am.

For I am not on the local beach in Hoi An, Central Vietnam where women stroll the shores selling their wares, I am on a private beach at a luxury resort. There are no hawkers here.

Like that moment in a film when the dreamy music screeches to a dramatic hault, I open my eyes to find a smiling man offering me a little pot of creamy goodness.

“Cookies and cream,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. I thumped Kate (my old Uni buddy, new colleague and current travel partner) awake.

“Free cookies and cream ice cream,” I hissed. Two seconds later she was upright, spoon in mouth as the man made his way to the next lucky couple further down the beach.

“Bloody fabulous, I could get used to this,” I managed between mouthfuls of the deliciously cool cream as it melted in my mouth.

Welcome to Fusion Maia, Da Nang. And it’s not just the ice cream that’s free… So are the spa treatments. Yes, you heard me correctly – I am staying at an all inclusive spa resort.

I have learnt three things about myself as a direct result of this indulgence:

1) I have ticklish calves. I mean seriously, it is acceptable for feet to be ticklish but legs – really?! It felt nothing short of inappropriate to giggle my way through the leg part of my all-over body massage.

2) Even more horrifying – apparently I have a ticklish forehead. There I am surrounded by incredible smells enjoying a luxurious facial and the poor man goes to touch my forehead and the giggling starts up again.

3) My feet aren’t ticklish – I was so pleased about this that I did not just have one foot massage but two, as if to prove just how hardy my stumps are. Yes, they did very well. I was proud of them.

But Fusion Maia is so much more than just having your body parts tickled (all day every day), as wonderful as that is.

As we walked down the long driveway covered in greenery and bamboo shrubbery, we instantly felt a little bit calmer. As we stepped inside the airy reception area, we instantly felt welcomed (by a very charming man who we kind of wanted to invite for dinner), and as we entered our private pool villa, we instantly knew we never wanted to leave.

Fusion Maia pool villa

 

Fusion Maia pool villa

 

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fusion maia bathroom

Every villa here has a private pool, perfect for late night plunges after a gin or three.

Fusion Maia private pool

Meanwhile the main pool offers the stunning backdrop of Da Nang beach.

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And it was all rather wonderful. Kate and I were still working (which means running around inspecting other handsome hotels) but somehow coming back to all of this made it feel a little less like work and well, a little more like paradise.

But then we had breakfast and suddenly I was not just in Paradise. I was floating in the clouds on a golden, pastry encrusted throne wearing a crown of tropical fruit. It was magical.

The gorgeous lantern-adorned dining room was transformed with a huge buffet area in centre stage where chefs performed their magic on eggs and waffles and what-not, and where guests shuffled around in trance-like food comas.

I walked over slowly, thinking carefully about what I might want to eat. But then as I made my approach my mind started blurring – I saw chocolate croissants on top of yoghurts, sitting in roasted ham boats floating in rivers of cucumber juice. Yes cucumber juice. My mind, my mouth, my eyes didn’t know what to do. My hands started reaching out for things, trying to grab at pretty little pieces of food. I realised I had been holding my breath and I felt a little light headed.

There was only one thing to do. I forced myself to step away, breath deeply and sternly reminded myself I had a full hour for breakfast. There was no rush. I could have 10 courses if I wanted.

And so I did. I started with a fruit jelly. The tiny triangle of jelly (a perfect mouthful) broke away to reveal little chunks of fresh fruit that oozed in their juices. It sort of exploded in your mouth like one of those Fruit Burst sweets, albeit a posh one.

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Then came the sweet, stewed muesli and passionfruit compote-topped yoghurt that tasted every bit as good as it looked. And dim sum. And passion fruit, which I will have you know made a surprisingly good combination.

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And then came the eggs benedict, a proud display of perfectly runny eggs on a thick chunk of smoked ham, alongside Kate’s spinach soufflé with salmon.

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We were only about 40 minutes in at this point. Despite the breakfast buffet only having 20 minutes of life left in it, the long tables were still full to the brim of fresh fruit, jugs of smoothies, mini glass jars of homemade baked beans and the smoothest, creamiest peanut butter I’ve ever sampled.

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Try as we might, and try we did, the tables just never emptied. It was like the scene from the Lost Boys’ imaginary feast in Peter Pan. But amazingly, the tables stayed immaculate. After accidentally sloshing juice all over the juice bar, I returned 20 seconds later to find the stainless steel surface sparkling and shimmering once more.

All too soon it was time for the last round of the great feast. It was a tough choice to call.

With a whole section of homemade cakes and pastries and an already bulging belly I opted for a deliciously moist chocolate croissant and a macchiato to wash it down with.

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But if you’re mentally racking up all the calories in my ‘best hotel breakfast ever’ (yes Fusion Maia wins the title), fret not. Because I was booked into the ‘super slimmer’ hip and stomach massage to ‘tone up’ before lunch. See, there’s really nothing they haven’t thought of. Apart from chocolate baths that is – I’m still on the look for one of those.

Travel Tips

Fusion Maia is on the beach in Da Nang and is just 30 minutes away from the centre of Hoi An (the resort runs shuttle buses to and from town throughout the day).

The resort has one, two and three bed villas, which radiate a chic minimalist, calming ambience. All villas have pools and prices start from about $390 per night in the off-season. To enquire about booking a trip to Fusion Maia or tailor-made holidays contact me at Fleewinter.

Disclaimer: I visited this resort as part of my research as a travel consultant. My views remain my own – and this blog remains my personal account of my travels – but every now and then I will tell you about some of my the very special places that I visit as part of my work.

World in Pictures: Halong Bay, Vietnam

The other day I stayed in a hotel that was plastered in photographs of Halong Bay. This was not particularly unusual in itself. The hotel was in Halong Bay after all. But the thing that confused me, and stopped me in my tracks, was the fact that every single photo was in black and white.

“But, what…?” I sort of spluttered to myself (this is what happens now I’m travelling solo – I have simply replaced my audience of Matty and The Mongoose with… myself).

“How can they turn these beautiful photos into black and white images, stripped of their colours,” I continued ranting to myself.

For the water in Halong Blay is not blue, or turquoise or any other standard water-colour. Oh no. It is green, emerald green. The water is coloured by the huge limestone karsts that tower out of it, which are also decorated in greenery as luscious shrubbery and trees sprout from the rock face.

It is a green beauty. And surely green beauties cannot be stripped of their colour I argued (to myself).

But then I couldn’t stop staring at the photos, each one captured another side of the bay – its alluring and mysterious side, the side that only looks more dramatic and impressive in thunder storms and fierce rain, and the side that intimidates me with its sheer size.

And suddenly it seemed so right that, that side of Halong Bay was being depicted that I walked straight back into my room and stripped all the colours from my pictures too.

“Why didn’t I think of this before,” I muttered to myself.

Halong Bay Vietnam

Halong Bay Vietnam

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Halong Bay Vietnam

Treasure Junk in Halong Bay Vietnam

 

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Halong Bay Vietnam

 

 

Floating village in Halong Bay Vietnam

Woman on bamboo boat in Halong Bay Vietnam

 

If you’re not convinced and are feeling a little colour-robbed then check out the originals on my Flickr stream here.

Learning to surf in Kuta, Bali

‘Don’t go there,’ almost every traveller warned us, in dark and fearful tones.
‘It’s a concrete jungle… Blackpool for Australians… the Magaluf of the Southern Hemisphere.’
The list went on.

We didn’t intend to visit Kuta, in fact we had positively decided not to. But things change.
Namely Matty (‘young, hip and urban Matty’) said he wanted to check it out… ‘Have one night on the town’, he said. So we agreed to stay for two days only, taking a day trip to the nearby Seminyak and Denpaser on the second day. And I’m glad we did it. Kind of.

Famous for its fabulous, wide 12km stretch of beach, Kuta is riddled with touts and hawkers. You cannot close your eyes for a minute without feeling someone tugging on your shoulder crying ‘massage, massage’, as everything from carved bow and arrows to pirate DVDs are thrust into your face.

The only way you can escape the madness is to get into the sea… There you are safe from it all. And I think this is why so many people surf. That and the amazing breaks. (Have I got the lingo right? I’m working on this).

So partly out of desperation to escape the touts and partly because well… when in Rome and all that, we threw ourselves into the sea for a surfing lesson. Not before a bit of haggling mind you.

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The beaches are lined with hunky Indonesian surfer bods who sit around small stands of surf boards that are propped up in the sand. These guys are pretty entrepreneurial, you have to give them that, not only do they rent surf boards, give surfing lessons and sell drinks in little cool boxes but come sunset they line their little plastic chairs up to face the sinking sun and serve ice chilled Bintang. Perfect.

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We played the regular ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine for haggling down the surfing lesson. This is a technique my lovely friend Carly and I perfected on our ‘gap year’ and basically involves one person doing totally unreasonable haggling while the other person looks on at said tradesman with sympathetic eyes and nods as if to say I-know-she’s-a-nightmare-but-I’m-a-good-person-and-we-all-know-you’re-asking-for-too-much.

Needless to say when Matty and I play the game I am the bad cop and he is not just the good cop but a bloody angel of a cop. He even says ‘I know she’s a nightmare’ to the said tradesmen. I’ve tried telling him that he’s meant to say it with his eyes but I don’t think he gets it. Anyhow, it worked and we were soon armed with surf boards and surfers ready to teach us the way of the waves.

I’d like to say I charged into the water with the surf board tucked under my arm Baywatch style, but I didn’t. I entered the water looking more like a criminal whose ankle tag had accidentally become attached to someone else’s surf board and I hadn’t realised. So Ketut (my surf instructor) strolled into the water holding the surf board and I ran behind him trying desperately not to trip over the cord that ran between the board and my ankle.

Many people choose to go to surf school in Kuta where, for a lot more cash, you spend the best part of a day learning to surf. Lessons often start in a swimming pool before you’re taken to the beach. And while, I cannot vouch for this method, I really recommend just having a go with the guys on the beach.

They were fantastic and gave us a 10 minute explanation on the sand (which saw us lying on the surf boards like beached whales) before we entered the ocean. It was a little tricky, I won’t lie.

Ketut held my board in the right direction and let go just as the right wave came my way, so really he did most of the work, the wave did the rest of the work. All I had to do was get up. But first few times I didn’t even try.

‘Why are you not trying?’ Asked Ketut, clearly confused by my apparent determination to just ride out the waves on my belly.

‘I wasn’t psychologically ready,’ I tried to explain. This is a phrase I over-use, as my good friend Nicki knows only too well after she accompanied for my first ever skiing trip. I said it a lot… Perched at the top of a terrifying green run, just as we were about to get on a ski lift, the time she tricked me into snow ploughing down a red run. I spent most of our trip crying ‘I’m not psychologically ready’.

So anyway after belly boarding about three waves I attempted to stand. It’s a strange old concept… My hands gripped the sides of the board, I pushed the top half of body up, right foot forward, left foot forward and voila… I was up! So it didn’t happen immediately, but it did happen, quite a few times.

And I liked it. It was cool. I was just standing on a board riding the waves… It was totally rad man. And then as I got closer to the shore I could see the water was running out and I wasn’t quite sure what to do, so I just sort of threw myself off – but I meant to you see.

And that was definitely the best bit about Kuta. The rest of it is everything we had been warned of. The streets are traffic-choked, heaving with tourists, rammed with touts and tack and, sadly starved of the beautiful culture we had grown accustomed to in Bali.

Come evening the main strip, Jalan Legian, turns into something else entirely… It’s like an ugly cross between Ko San Road in Bangkok and London’s Picadilly Circus, minus the lady boys. It is a intoxicating mix of neon lights, loud music and snail-crawling traffic. But yes, we did have a good night out.

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A memorial to remember the 202 people who died in the Bali bombing of 2002 in Jalan Legian. Built in the spot of the bar that was bombed, it has a strange aura of calmness in an otherwise chaotic street.

We felt compelled to see Kuta, and that we did. But you don’t need more than a day and one night. So if you’re going to go then go now, quickly, before they put the touts on surf boards. It is, surely, only a matter of time.

Travel Tips

Don’t pay more than 100,000 Rupiahs (£6) per hour for surfing on the beach with the locals. Someone tried to charge us 300,000 each but with one instructor. Instead we got an instructor each for 100,000 in the end. Play the cop game! The surf in Kuta, we’ve been told, is ideal for beginners and while we had nothing to compare to it was certainly manageable. If I can stand up anyone can!

The food in Kuta was terrible – full of crap restaurants catering to western tastes badly. We did not have one good meal. Do your research and maybe you’ll have more luck than us!

We stayed at Fat Yogi Cottages in Poppies Gang I and it was absolutely wonderful. It’s very central, you’re right in the heart of Kuta but bizarrely, it was lovely and quiet. Rooms start at about 200,000 Rupiahs, we upgraded and spent 340,000 for a room that was really worth the extra pennies… Large walk-in shower with hot water, big spacious room and very clean.

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The pool was lovely, there’s Matty on the right-hand side ordering our breakfast.

Nusa Lembongan: Dream Beach

There’s a beach on the little island of Nusa Lembongan, just off Bali, called Dream Beach. That is its actual name, it’s written on the map and everything. Dream Beach. There’s no beating around the bush with a name like that is there?

As we made our way across the island on our rickety scooter, which had me sucking in my stomach to help the bike up some of steep hills, I got very excited about Dream Beach. In my mind I could hear the theme tune for Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs and the dulcet tones of Kirsty Young. Whenever I listen to that programme I always imagine being stranded on a beautiful castaway island with white sands, clear water and coconut-heavy palm trees swaying in the background.

So that’s my dream beach. And I’d get to take a luxury item, which would be my camera since you’re asking. Matty was just focussing on getting us up the hills so I’m not sure he spent much time deliberating over his dream beach.

Nusa Lembongan is a really beautiful island, which ticks along at much slower pace than most parts of Bali. Randomly, it exports seaweed all over the world – they use an agent from it to help thicken ice cream. So even if you’ve not heard of Nusa Lembongan, you’ve probably eaten a little bit of it. Large parts of the shore are carved up by picket fences into ‘seaweed farms’ and you can see, and smell, the stuff drying out all over the island.

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It seems to come in all shades of colours.

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And a huge 85% of the population work in the industry.

But anyhow, I digress. I wanted to tell you about Dream Beach. So, Matty and I were hanging onto this scooter (well actually he was driving it and I was hanging on) and trying to navigate our way there. There are only about three roads on the island so even we couldn’t get too lost and eventually we turned off our dusty little path and found ourselves at the top of a cliff looking down onto an idyllic white sandy cove. We had reached Dream Beach.

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I think it lives up to its name. I lived the dream.

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But it gets better. Sitting on the cliff, overlooking this beach of dreams, there is a big infinity swimming pool surrounded by comfy loungers. It belongs to a (posh by our standards) resort but for a mere 50,000 Indonesian Rupiahs (about £3.50) they will let anyone in. Even us.

We were travelling Bali budget style. We had allocated cash for Bintang… Seafood even. But fancy £3.50 sunbeds? It felt totally extravagant. But we did it. And it was marvellous. And as we lay there sunning ourselves and looking down on the stunning beach below, I couldn’t help but think how much more enjoyable it was than a return tram ride in Nottingham. And that costs £3.70.

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So now I’m torn over my one luxury item… Camera or plush resort with infinity pool?

PS Mushroom Bay, with its slightly less ostentatious name, is also stunning and well worth checking out.

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Travel tips
You can stay at Dream Beach Huts for about 600,000 Rupiahs a night. There’s also plenty of lovely accommodation around Mushroom Bay. We stayed further along the coast in the Jungutbatu area, where the accommodation is much cheaper and still on the beach.

We stayed at Puri Nusa, paying only 200,000 a night – they had cheaper and more expensive rooms too. The room was fine but its real selling point was its lovely restaurant terrace that overlooks the west coast of the island – the perfect sunset spot.

You can also cross over into the neighbouring tiny island of Nusa Ceningan, which is connected by bridge. People throw themselves off a cliff here into the ocean (for fun we are told, not suicide). We opted for a diet coke instead.

Balangan Beach, Bali: Ice Cream You Scream

I’m trying to act just like a surfer… Just doing the tanned, nonchalant thing, looking cool. The only problem is I’m not yet tanned (day two in Bali and I have a red chest and white legs), I’m not really pulling off the cool thing (I keep getting over excited by bits in my book and squealing) and I don’t have a surf board – I have never surfed in my life.

I think I am the only person on Balangan Beach that can make such a claim. This beautiful, white sandy cove is scattered with tanned and toned beach bods who, when they are not out in the ocean riding the waves, are sitting in the sand hugging their surf boards, waiting for the right moment to get back in the water.

It means the sun beds are free for the likes of me. The beach has an ‘undiscovered’ feel to it, there are a handful of palm-thatched shacks that line the shore, providing some much needed shade, snacks and drinks, while also contributing to the rustic charm of the beach.

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That’s the look I’m working on…

There’s not too much hassle and hardly any hawkers, but there is a lovely little man who wonders down the beach with his ice cream box crying, ‘Ice cream, you scream!’ That’s quite hard to say no to. Another bonus to this little cove, which is on the western coast of the very southern tip of Bali, is its beautiful sunsets. It is the perfect place to watch the day turn into the evening while digging your feet into the sand, which is scattered with corals and shells, and drinking a Bintang or two. (Bintang is the local beer and I thoroughly recommend it.)

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We are staying at Flowerbud Bungalows, which sits on the cliff above the cove, just a few minutes walk away. The pretty little winding path down to the beach takes you past a few Balinese cows (I love cows!) that actually wear cow bells. This is brilliant, I thought they only wore these in Scandinavian films and songs.

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Our bungalow is beautiful. Thatched with a palm front, it is made from bamboo and has a lovely spacious porch area at the front with chairs and a chaise longue style day-bed for cheeky mid-day siestas. The room itself has a large four poster bed with a mosquito net draped over it but my favourite bit is the outdoor bathroom where the shower spout just chucks sun-heated water over you.

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But we shall bid farewell to it tomorrow for we are off to Ubud, the ‘spiritual heart’ of Bali according to the Lonely Planet. So by this time tomorrow I will probably be a Buddhist surfer.