Posts Tagged ‘Islands’

The most curious travel combo, Philippines & Ethiopia – Nov & Dec 2017

Child-friendly Philippines is an unbeatable destination for beach-loving young families

The ultra child-friendly Philippines is an unbeatable destination for beach-loving young families

Sixteen years after it first came onto my radar screen, I finally got the opportunity to visit and explore the Philippines with my family. They say good things are worth waiting for… And the Philippines is just that. With three weeks at our disposal, we could only select a handful of the most alluring islands and exotic attractions. Nonetheless, the Philippines dramatically exceeded our collective expectations and proved itself to be a country we certainly hope to return to in the years ahead to continue our island hopping adventures.

Thresher sharks at Monad Shoal

Thresher sharks at Monad Shoal

Our first stop was little Malapascua Island, eight kilometres off the northern tip of Cebu. Situated at the quieter end of Bounty Beach, Evolution (http://evolution.com.ph) was our home-away-from-home for the first week. Owner, Matt Reed was our friendly host, sharing his local knowledge of the island, surrounding dive sites and other must-see attractions in the Visayan Sea. Aside from the great accommodation, vibe and dive set up at Evolution, the three highlights of our time on Malapascua were diving spectacular Monad Shoal at dawn to see the iconic thresher sharks that visit the cleaning station at sunrise. In fact it was such a unique and enjoyable experience that I dived it three times during our stay! Highlight number two was the day boat trip to idyllic Calanggaman Island – a narrow strip of alluring sand surrounded by turquoise water and some decent wall diving. A final culinary high point was Angelina’s pizza and their real Italian gelato – a decadent dessert that left you wanting more!

Chocolate Hills

The iconic Chocolate Hills on Bohol Island

From Malapascua, we retraced our steps south to Cebu City and onto a ferry to Tagbilaran city on low-key Bohol Island. We opted to stay at the Oasis Beach Resort (http://seaquestdivecenter.com/oasis/) on neighbouring Panglao island. Located on beautiful Alona beach, Oasis is just that: a. peaceful refuge at this popular beach destination. Apart from wiling away the days building sandcastles and swimming in the enchanting ocean, we took a day trip to explore Bohol. We spent the morning admiring the world-renowned Chocolate Hills – 1268 conical hills that are believed to be the product of coral and limestone deposits sculpted by erosion – before moving on to track down the endangered cousin of the lemur. The diminutive primates look uncannily similar to bush babies with their sloth like behaviour thankfully ensuring we got some great sighting of the little critters.

Exclussive Sangat Island

Picture-perfect Sangat Island was a highlight

A spectacularly scenic flight then took us west to Busuanga Island: gateway to Coron and the Calamianes Island group. Wanting a Robinson Crusoe-like experience away from the crowds, we splurged on a week at the private Sangat Island. Craggy and imposing Sangat Island (http://sangat.com.ph) – with its beachfront cottages built on stilts –  is the quintessential tropical island retreat. A 300 metre long white-sand beach, lapped by azure waters and hemmed in on three sides by towering cliffs and jungle-clad peaks, creates a simply sublime setting and mesmerising scenery.

Sangat Island Dive Resort markets itself as a premier destination for eco-conscious paradise seekers and scuba divers: an apt description for this enchanting island retreat. The scuba diving focuses on eight nearby World War II Japanese shipwrecks sunk by American aircraft during the Battle of Coron Bay in 1944. The most interesting and notable of the four I explored was the wreck of the Akitsushima (a sea plane tender with some impressive guns) lying at thirty metres close to Manglet Island. Above-water, circumnavigating Sangat in sea kayaks and a boat trip to the white-sand beach of Pass Island for a day of swimming and sandcastles with a picnic lunch were perfect excursions for the whole family.

Boat Excursion Seven Commando Beach

El Nido boat excursion to Seven Commando Beach

The grand finale of our Philippine adventure was four days at friendly Mansion Buena Vista (https://mansionbuenavistaelnido.com/) in El Nido in northwest Palawan with daily boat cruises to admire the wonders of the Bancuit archipelago. The boat cruises are affordable, popular and consequently the best natural attractions, such as the (not so) secret beach and small lagoon (two personal favourites) can get busy, especially in the prime season of December. But there is good reason for their popularity: the ubiquitous towering limestone islands, their beaches and azure surrounding waters are jaw-dropping to say the least. To the north, Nacpan beach – rated the best beach in the Philippines – is wild, beautiful and the perfect complement to the tourist-trafficked island tours that run from El Nido.

Hidden Beach

Family photo at Hidden Beach

But perhaps the greatest accolade that I can pay the Philippines – and specifically the country’s friendly people – is that of the 75 countries I’ve been fortunate enough to visit to date, the Philippines undoubtedly rates as the most family-friendly place of them all. The Filipino people simply adore children and go out of their way to greet and assist the kids all the time.

An unexpected bonus for a young family that loves to travel like ours… And this in itself is reason enough to go back to this fantastic country.

Undiscovered Nacpan Beach is a massive expanse of sand with few tourists

Undiscovered Nacpan Beach in northern Palwan boasts a huge expanse of sand with few tourists

 

Kicking back on La Digue and Mahé, Seychelles – March & April 2016

The warm Indian Ocean surrounding the Seychelles beaches

The warm Indian Ocean produces decent waves at Grand Anse on La Digue’s southern coast

You know life is treating you well when you get to spend an entire month with your family, enjoying the postcard-perfect beaches and azure seas of the idyllic Seychelles.

Villa Verte

The aptly named Villa Verte

As our Kenya Airways flight touched down at the quaint Mahé International Airport, I realised – with some surprise – that it had been 23 years since my last visit to these captivating islands!

The island nation of the Seychelles is spread of an enormous oceanic expanse. There are three main islands – Mahé, Praslin and La Digue – with the latter being the least developed and most alluring of the trio. The large and populous island of Mahé is the commercial and political capital of the Seychelles, but we had our hearts set on escaping to something smaller and quieter, so we boarded a ferry and set sail for La Digue.

Until recently there weren’t even any cars on La Digue and all transport was done courtesy of bicycles and ox carts. Sadly, this has all started to change and – in the name of development – the government has authorised 55 vehicles to operate on the island.

The ultimate way to see the island

Bicycles provide an easy way to explore the island

These buses, taxis, canter trucks and private vehicles have inevitably begun to change laid back La Digue from a sleepy island backwater into a more developed and mainstream tourist destination. And there is no mistaking that the number of small hotels, guesthouses and self-catering cottages has exploded on the island.

Despite these changes and the increased development, the island of La Digue remains an unbelievable family holiday destination. The island is small enough that it can be explored by bicycle with ‘pedal power’ enduring as the primary means of island transport. Every morning we would load our beach bags, along with our two little boys, onto the back of our bikes and head for the beach. Whether you are looking for a picture-perfect beach, such as Source d’Argent, or a quiet little cove of powdery white-sand, such as Anse Caiman, there is a beach to suit all tastes.

Source d'Argent beach

Picture-perfect Source d’Argent beach on La Digue

Can there be a better place for a one-year-old and a three-year-old to spend a month hanging out with mom and dad; I doubt it. The fact that some of our extended family joined us for the first and last weeks meant the boys had grandparents, aunties and cousins to add to their idyllic beach holiday mix. Charlie and Ollie thought they had died and gone to heaven.

Spending the first half of our vacation at the self-catering Villa Verte on the much more tranquil eastern side of the island was an amazing experience. Bimal and his lovely wife ensured that the house was always clean and that we had everything we needed. The ocean view from the front veranda was nothing short of sensational.

The view over Praslin from the Eagle's Nest

The view looking over Praslin from the Eagle’s Nest

When our extended family departed, it was with some reluctance that we relocated to Ylang Ylang (www.selfcateringylangylang.sc) on the western edge of La Passe. This move gave us easy access to a host of new beaches, such as Source d’Argent and the postcard bay of Garand Anse in the south. Although this part of the island was busier, we enjoyed the change of scenery, close proximity to restaurants and shops, and time together with just our family. I have many treasured memories and photos from this special time.

It wouldn’t be right to blog about La Digue without making mention of Chez Jules: a restaurant beyond compare. Tucked away towards the end of the road at Anse Banine on the far eastern side of the island, gregarious Jules serves fresh line-fish, a ‘to-die-for’ calamari salad and ice-cold Eku beers.

A family stroll along an empty stretch of beach on Isle Conception

Taking a family stroll along an empty stretch of sand on Isle Conception off the coast of Mahé

Seychelles beaches are perfect

All Seychelles’ beaches are stunningly beautiful

Mahé is not for everyone. It is the biggest and busiest Seychelles island by far, especially around the commercial hub of Victoria, but it does have some exquisite stretches of sand. My dad and stepmom, along with two of my sisters, flew out to join us for the final week at world-renowned Beau Vallon Bay on Mahé. We were accommodated in fine style, staying at the luxurious apartments of Sables d’Or (www.sables-dor.sc). Not only were the spacious apartments fully kitted out and tastefully decorated, but they also enjoyed an enviable location right on the beach.

Beau Vallon Bay is a busy beach, but it is one of the most idyllic beaches for young children: no rocks, no corral, just sand and a warm Indian ocean. Perfect for swimming, lounging about on a lilo, or paddling a sea kayak at sunset. A nearby marine park – easily reachable by boat – provides an opportunity to snorkel with an abundance of marine life hidden just below the surface.

Seychelles, rest assured, we will be back again soon!

Extended family enjoying playing in the warm water

Hanging out and catching up with the extended family in the warm shallow waters off Mahé

Robben Island Swim and the Kalahari, RSA & Namibia – May 2013

With Table Mountain looking on, the team prepares for the Robben Island-Blouberg swim crossing

The month kicked off with our long-awaited and much-anticipated Robben Island swim on Worker’s Day.  We had actually planned to do the 7.8km Robben Island-Blouberg crossing much later in the month, but work-travel commitments and a spell of good weather prompted a last minute rescheduling.

Arriving at Big Bay in Blouberg

On May 1st, the water temperate measured a balmy 14 degrees (much more pleasant than the South Easter-induced 9°C that we’d experienced on a couple of our training swims!) and the sea was flat.  Conditions were ideal except for a huge fog bank that rolled in overnight, reducing visibility to twenty metres at most.  Next morning our chief Safety Officer, Clem Gutsche, looked a little apprehensive, as did the six swimmers!  Derek Frazer of Big Bay Events was overseeing our official swim as a representative of the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association (www.capeswim.com) and he repeatedly delayed the start time in the hope that the fog would lift.

At 1pm, still buried in fog, we decided we couldn’t wait any longer and, hopping aboard our three rubber ducks, bounced across to the island.  About a mile offshore we broke out of the fog and encountered glorious, sunny conditions for the remainder of the journey to Robben Island.  The combination of blazing sunshine and flat sea made for an incredible swim… Well at least for the first 80% of the crossing!  Towards the end, while swimming through a total white-out, I was exceptionally grateful for GPS technology and the experience of our boat drivers and safety officer.

For two hours and twenty minutes I swam the crossing stroke-for-stroke with my brother Matt and it was a privilege to complete my first wetsuit-less Robben Island swim in the company of this experienced human polar bear!

The VW California Beach in action in the red Kalahari sands of southeast Namibia

After recovering from a sinus cold that I picked up during the swim, I set off on a ten-day magazine assignment to Namibia for SA 4×4. Inviting my sister Nicki – who was out visiting from New York – to accompany me as co-pilot, we took a four-wheel-drive camper van to explore one of the biggest blank spots left on the Southern African map. Although considered a ‘soft-roader’ by many, the VW California Beach did us proud as it dominated the loose gravel and rolling red dunes of southeast Namibia.

The strange-looking Quiver Tree

There were so many trip highlights that I actually found myself struggling to do justice to our adventure despite having an 18-page, 4000-word SA 4×4 cover feature to work with. Of all the great things we did, I would nominate quad-biking through the dunes with my sister in search of wildlife as the top experience on our Namibian sojourn. But even more entertaining than watching my quad-bikingly-challenged sister master her four-wheeler, I really enjoyed the people we encountered along the way.  Almost without exception, the folks we came across in Namibia’s remote southeast were amongst the friendliest, most welcoming, humorous and downright decent characters I’ve ever met anywhere.

Aside from the awesome people, we also discovered some absolute gems well-worth visiting next time you find yourself travelling through neighbouring Namibia.  Do yourself a favour and make sure you check out Mesosaurus Bush Camp along with Giel Steenkamp’s outstanding Mesosaurus Fossil Tour (www.mesosaurus.com); take a time out and spend at least two nights at Marianne Nell’s idyllic DuneSong Breathers chalets (www.dunesong.net); enjoy a braai-to-remember while camping at remote Red Dune Camp (www.reddunecamp.com) on Tranendal Farm or pop in to visit the Kalahari’s friendliest couple, Pieter and Hanlie Möller of Terra Rouge Guest Farm (terrarouge@iway.na), which lies a short springbok pronk from the Mata-Mata entrance gate to the Kgalagadi TFCA. All of these spots come highly recommended and I can vouch that they’re well-worth a visit…

The fully furnished and luxurious DuneSong chalets lie on a low red dune below star-strewn skies

Subansiri, Varanasi and the Andamans, India – December 2010

Without doubt this has been my best month in India to date!

December kicked off with an epic 10-day descent of the Subansiri River.  Snaking its way through the rugged wilderness of Arunachal in the remote northeast, the Subansiri is arguably Asia’s ultimate river journey.  With idyllic weather, exhilarating white-water and picture-perfect beach campsites nestled under star-studded skies, it was a rafting adventure to savour.  The Aquaterra (www.aquaterra.in) trip afforded an incredible opportunity to paddle through wild jungle-clad valleys devoid of people: a rare privilege in India.  I feel incredibly lucky to have been one of the fortunate few to experience this rare and unique Indian wilderness.  In April 2014, this amazing river trip, along with 38 000 square kilometres of pristine jungle, will be lost forever when the new Hydel hydroelectric dam on the Lower Subansiri is flooded.

With the arrival of our first Christmas visitors, we headed off to Varanasi to share an authentic Indian cultural experience with Katherine’s family ahead of two weeks in the Andaman Islands.  Varanasi was a pleasant surprise to me and, although I feel its claim of being ‘the Venice of India’ is dubious at best, we did spend a thoroughly enjoyable long weekend in the holy city.  We boated along the Ganga at dawn spellbound by the scenes unfolding all around us.  From the wood pyres of the busy crematoriums with gangs of stray dogs chewing bones to the swimming Ghats and evening religious ceremonies, exploring Varanasi proved a lively, invigorating and eye-opening experience.

Between Varanasi and the Andamans, I squeezed in a work assignment to Hyderabad to document a CRS-sponsored project rescuing and reintegrating woman who had been trafficked into sexual slavery.  These brave ladies shared their harrowing tales with me recounting the unthinkable abuses they’d suffered after being enslaved as sex workers before eventually escaping or being rescued.  It was a sobering experience that stood in stark contrast to our family excursion to Agra and the Taj Mahal the following day.

The month culminated with an epic two-week trip to the Andaman Islands over Christmas and New Year.  The Andamans were nothing short of superb.  The laidback island lifestyle couldn’t have been further removed from the frenetic pace of mainland India.  We alternated our days between scuba diving and chilling on ‘the best beach in Asia’ (according to Time magazine) with body surfing, biking and beach bats to keep us suitably entertained.  Every evening we feasted on platters of delicious fresh seafood and cold beer.  However, the unanimous highlight of our time in the Andamans was chartering our own boat for a four-day excursion to explore little-visited Long Island and its surrounding waters. Lalaji Beach and diving on Campbell Shoals were the ultimate highlights of this great island adventure.

Returning to work in cold, foggy Delhi on January, 7th was a real shock to the system.

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