Author

Neil Brook

Visions of skimming through the water sipping Champagne quickly disintegrate as we board the dingy with two outboard motors, life jackets and hold on as we thump, thump, thump over huge waves, spray showering the bow, guided by satellite navigation.

A friend has extended an invitation to visit her in the Maldives where she is working. We arrive at the airport and I’m guided to the business class check in area. An amazing surprise. We are flying with Sri Lankan Airlines from Singapore via Colombo to Male, the capital. We often discuss the merits of upgrading. Is it worth it for a short flight, three hours thirty minutes to Colombo then a little over an hour to Male, on a single aisle Airbus A320. The answer smacks us in the face at check in. Queues a mile long and no one in the business class line. Yes, L’Oreal, we are worth it. Nice roomy seats and a Champagne greeting. Many flights into and out of Male arrive and depart in the dead of night or at times in the morning usually reserved for lining up to get into clubs. Ours is no different.

Male airport is a runway on an island in the North Male atoll. Spectacular. At least we can see that from photos. In reality, we land in darkness, clear customs and make our way to our launch transfer. Two young guys at the helm, twenty years old if that. Is one of you the Captain? Maybe two mates taking turns leading the joy ride across the Indian Ocean. I am comfortable on boats having grown up in exploring the islands and the Great Barrier Reef adjacent to Australia’s Northeast coast. My partner however is not. We need to call the resort and order some double vodkas to greet us please.

We arrive, are greeted, check in and find the bar. Our first two nights are in a beach house after which we move to an overwater villa. Sleep.

We have seen the photos and read the reviews. Nothing and I mean nothing can prepare you for the visual masterpiece that greets the eyes as the sun rises and the Maldives reveals its glory. Blue, blue, blue. White sand, palm trees swaying and an ocean so clear you can see, well everything beneath the surface. No need for polarised glasses. However using them creates an even more vivid three dimensional sea world opening up a playground to dive into and explore.

Our previous night’s adventure slips away to the archives of the brain. Relax.

Staying at the Holiday Inn Kandooma like most in this archipelago, we are at the mercy of the resort. The island is the resort.

The ocean, a couple of metres from our room, opens its arms and beckons with a gentle lapping at the shore. We scuttle across the white sand, not yet hot to the touch and slip into the water in which was to become our daily morning ritual. This could be your home away from home. Have the resort provide catering and settle in, grilling lunches and dinners on your BBQ downstairs next to your beach level living room, oblivious to the rest of the world, which is out there somewhere. There are six types of accommodation scattered across the island all designed to allow privacy. The island is small, you can walk around it in 45 minutes. However there are bays and lagoons where you can disappear into your own private island retreat. Although we see people, the resort is the perfect size and affords guests the privacy usually reserved for Sir Richard Branson and friends on Necker Island.

A seamless move to our overwater villa drops us into heaven. For me, this is the Maldives. Built over a lagoon. A manmade reef break allows the tides to ebb and flow creating an oasis of crystal clear water teaming with fish. The sound of the waves crashing on the break is a constant reminder of where you are and a reminder of perhaps how fragile the world is. Without the intervention of man, our protected villas would be open to the seas and the uncertainty of the ocean and the weather. With global warming is it better to take steps to protect or change our lifestyles? An ongoing debate and the Maldives has been vocal in urging the world to act. Those most at risk seem at odds with land locked countries and those on higher ground, self interest in the foreground rather than seeing the world as a whole, populated by global citizens ensuing a future for all.

You can pick out individual grains of sand and follow the fish as they dart back and forth. Our villa sits on stilts allowing the ocean to rise and fall without lapping at the door. A ramp for easy access to the water, outside shower and bath, deck, uninterrupted ocean views… Waves glide towards you like the silhouette of the invisible man, distorting the shapes of objects as he walks by and you are not sure if you see anything or if your mind is playing tricks on you. With white sand made of desiccated coral the use of reef walking shoes is essential. Now an enjoyable experience rather than one treading carefully through the water balancing and negotiating as you go. Garfish huddle under our new home, parents sheltering their young. Mesmerising, all pointing towards the incoming current, motionless except for a slight flip of the tail to stay in formation. Our lagoon is a playground for the rich and famous, sorry, for fish and villa guests. I have befriended a parrot fish, blue, pink, green and yellow. He weaves in between my legs – aren’t most male animals the prettier of the species? I drag my finger along the water as he swims up to enquire, getting close but not too close. Not one for fishing, I get the allure of fly fishing now, jousting with no eventual winner. I am having childish fun. I hope my new friend is too, as his other friends join in and loop around me in a game of catch, which no one ever wins. He is here everyday.

Our friend organises a dinner on a private beach as a surprise. Another boat trip worth every minute. Leaving in the late afternoon we arrive at a table and chairs set up on sand jetting out into the ocean, candles ready to illuminate the evening as darkness descends. As night falls we rely on the dim of the night lights glowing on moored boats not too far away, the candles and the stars to guide our senses as we enjoy a meal of salads, meat, seafood, dessert and wine. All prepared somewhere in the trees, a catering set up just for us, waiter and chef. The boat ride back a sleigh ride over an ice rink of smooth water.

Joining other guests in the evening at the bar, sharing stories and adventures is a part of travel I love. They can enlighten you and inspire you to take journeys you may not have considered, to try something new and to expand your horizons. We share stories. Mine is the parrot fish and of a day wakeboarding among the reefs, others secret beach spots, reef shark encounters, dive trips and good books. Everyone has a story. Staff share their experiences, where they have worked, why they are here and where they hope to work next. Island life can get a little isolating if you are working here. Island fever can take hold and then it’s time to move on, however with no regrets. Our friend has since moved to Thailand.

Leaving a vacation is always difficult, like pulling teeth as a child, something that needs to be done and the quicker the better. Our flight leaves at 1am so we can slip away without noticing the sand, surf and sun we are leaving behind.

We are prepared for the journey this time and others join for the 45 minute cruise to the airport. With the lights of Male airport approaching there is a sudden silence as we are plunged into darkness, set adrift, our engines exhausted not wanting to complete the journey. Even my heart jumps, suddenly all senses set to overload as eyes adjust and reality hits. Horror doesn’t really capture the look on everyone’s faces. OK captain, kids, do something! Drifting back to our resort could be OK but swept out to sea washed up on a reef or captured by pirates is not. Engines up, open, screwdrivers out. Our boat driving cowboys are on to it. Problem fixed, thinking this may be a regular occurrence, we are off. Radio the plane, triple Vodkas please.

We will be back to enjoy the Maldives, it’s beauty and it’s hospitality. Arriving and leaving in day light next time to really appreciate such a spectacularly beautiful part of the world.

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Covid-19 has crushed the world and as we seem to be heading out the other side with countries opening borders and relaxing social distancing rules, the past few months have been an experience many would care to forget. As countries around the world moved to protect their own, I became a Corona refugee, as my friends have affectionately labelled me, unable to return home to Vietnam as I’ve quite literally been stranded in the UK. In these uncertain times when we were confined, almost by invisible chains that allowed exercise, essential shopping and travel for key workers, my one walk a day has turned into an adventure where exploring my local neighbourhood has revealed a hidden treasure trove of sights and sounds, architectural delights and newly discovered gems. I have been blessed to have found an amazing house just metres from the beach in Brighton on the English coast.

While here I have jumped at an opportunity to help out with a local Ambulance service and have used this opportunity to learn new skills and explore new horizons. A key takeaway from the turmoil is that you should manage the things you have control over and mitigate the damage from the things you don’t. As a key worker I am blessed to have been welcomed into the NHS family in the UK and now more than ever appreciate the dedication, commitment and loyalty the staff have in providing essential services to the community. The social interaction and new friendships have also provided a lifeline that has cushioned the effect of lock down.

I’ve taken to walking a different path each day. So often as we were once filling our days in between work and play we missed the beauty around us and failed to realise the wonders in our own backyards. Now, taking the time I’ve marvelled at the architecture a block away. Ornate doors of different styles and colours where homeowners take pride and care, grand mansions and Art Deco council blocks that blend to form historical patchworks and a kaleidoscope of colour and design. I’ve noticed the intricacies of each uniquely painted beach hut lined up along the shore, which open up to reveal the personality of their owners who will again flock to the seaside in the coming months. Whilst the timing of a pandemic is never the right time, spring has certainly made it more bearable as gardens are in bloom, daylight savings allows longer days and squirrels frolic in the trees. When the sun shines on the English coast its magical. In fact, when it rains and the seas are choppy, there’s still a quality that entices wanderers to brave the elements and walk along well constructed paths along the shore. 

 

On my one walk a day as we hear stories of company collapse and business uncertainty, small local entrepreneurs have endeavoured to keep the cash flowing, serving essential food items and some treats, sourced locally and have turned the economy cashless. If we take something else away, it’s that there are things we can do without and essentials are no longer essential. I’ve been living out of a suitcase that’s well packed with interchangeable clothes and easily maintained colour palettes and in all honesty I could probably live quite comfortably out of it forever. Neither my friends nor myself care that things have been worn more than a few times before. Priorities have changed and coming out of this on the other side, life for me will be simpler and less cluttered. Hopefully the world will wake up and see the clean seas and the blue skies and realise disposable is a thing of the past and conspicuous consumption is passé. New and old money could be spent wisely not frivolously. We’ll see…

There’s a new level of respect as walkers pass each other in the street and parents with small children say thank you as you walk out onto the street to allow social distancing. It’s become a habit where no one gives it a second thought. On steps heading down to the beach people wait while others pass before continuing their journeys. On the foreshore there’s plenty of room guided along paths hugging chalk cliffs and rock pools or you may prefer to crunch the pebbles that construct the beaches that are synonymous with the British seaside. I’d love to think society has rediscovered the art of courtesy and the importance of personal space. Again, we’ll see. As I turn the corner I come across a park, actually a manor house garden and a cathedral a block away, with another in the distance looming tall above the rooftops. Relics of history have allowed us to intertwine with the modern day capturing a history that dates back over hundreds of years.

Gradually the wheels are beginning to turn and wind up the economy and from an absolute standstill months ago shutters are coming off. On the corner a local bead shop has reopened. The line winds around the block people stand two metres apart patiently waiting for freshly baked croissants and pork and fennel sausage rolls. The new essentials or luxuries because we don’t have to cook them ourselves. In the park the squirrels gather at my feet as crumbs are snatched and nibbled. 

I love to travel. It’s a passion that both excites and delights however recent events have got me to thinking… What will the future of travel look like? While the joy of discovery will never fade, is it really necessary to travel hours to find the perfect restaurant or beach when the ones in your own town serve some of the best food and the beach at the end of the road is uncrowded. During this crisis, mostly out of necessity, people have become flexible, taking opportunities whenever they can and businesses have redesigned the working week. There are new ways of working and the nine to five, five days a week may be relegated to history. There is joy to be had swimming in the sea on a Tuesday and eating at a delicious seafood restaurant on a Wednesday while others clamour for reservations months in advance on a Saturday night. Fish and chips taste better on the English Coast, they really do. Soft serve ice cream with chocolate flakes sticking out of them are the ideal dessert. Just watch out for the seagulls the size of albatrosses. I still don’t know how one swooped down from behind me and snatched mine from my hands. I had only just started licking it, so I bought another and was more guarded this time. 

I have been to Brighton before, however now, initially driven out of a daily routine, I have peeled away the layers to reveal the intricacies of a local community where small boutiques, bakeries and craft brewers form the glue that binds the area together, and who by nature are tucked away behind small shop fronts or doorways, accessible to in the know locals or passers by who stumble upon them. Now more than ever it has become essential to support local enterprises in an effort to stem the erosion that may wash them away for ever as chains and supermarkets weather the storm with higher cash reserves and minimum wages. The coffee is always better in the cafe with two tables or with room only to stand at the counter and where the brownies are homemade and the sandwiches are freshly made. It’s a choice we need to make in order to protect diversity or risk turning every city into something akin to ‘Stepford Wives’. There is reward to be had by walking the streets and not recognising the names above doorways for both yourself and the community. 

As the memories fade and people begin to reappear in the streets, it would seem reaching for the bananas across your shoulder in the market is again acceptable. Or was it ever and did we just put up with it? I still find myself asking people to step back…

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I’ve been coming to Bali for over 30 years. On my first trip I remember a few hotels dotted along the beach mostly designed in a local, bungalow style circling a pool with intermittent air conditioning and more local food than western favourites. This trip was also my first and only encounter with Bali Belly.

Something happens when you step off the plane here. It’s hard to describe the sense of calm and comfort that welcomes you with open arms that gently guide you to a place of inner peace and enlightenment. The smells, the sights, the sounds… the Balinese are friendly. Their smiles are infectious. Their hospitality is legendary.

As the years have flown by I’ve been back more times that I can count and we now see Bali as akin to our second home. I’ve witnessed the gradual creep of massive hotels along the beach and the once deserted roads now stuffed with shops, bars and restaurants from Kuta to Legian and Seminyak and which now threaten the tranquility of surfers enjoying the waves in Canggu. I’ve been a fan of Seminyak with its endless choice of amazing restaurants, beach bars and boutiques preferring to hire a private villa nestled in the back streets within walking distance of my favourite haunts. I was there again last month and while I remember the traffic being bad and the restaurants being busy I didn’t appreciate the agony of relying on taxis to get from place to place if you decided to venture a little further for dinner or a long leisurely lunch. The traffic jams now make walking a viable alternative even in the heat. 

Something happened this time. A yearning for the old Bali away from the nightclubs and crowds. A desire for peace and quiet where others were looking for the same thing. 

My brother has been visiting Sanur and singing it’s virtue for years. I don’t know why but I’ve been hesitant. Perhaps lured by familiarity and the anticipation of my favourite meal at one of my favourite restaurants. Oh and those perfect sunsets as the sun sinks below the horizon throwing reds, crimsons and pinks into the sky. Sanur is on the east coast so sunlight creeps across the ocean as the sun turns night into day giving rise to magnificent sunrises. We decided to give Sanur a try.

We booked a villa with private pool and our host gives us a synopsis of the area. She describes a more local neighbourhood feel, quiet and something perhaps people of our age would appreciate! No offence taken and she was right. We are at the age where pumping music billowing out of bars and crowds of twenty somethings enjoying happy hour are, let’s say, not for us. Our days staggering out of a bar at sunrise looking for a recovery party hold wonderful memories that are just that. Memories that create a patchwork of life where we are now putting together the next part.

After checking in we take a stroll to the beach. Along quiet lanes and alleys past tucked away cafes and courtyard restaurants. Intimate massage parlours where those sitting outside engage in conversation rather than calling out across the street. A refreshing change as we book in for an hour and a half of pampering. As we continue to the beach we hit the main road that winds through Sanur. Here there are a scattering of boutiques, a few of the usual Balinese style souvenir shops with batik spilling out onto the footpath and cool cafes and eateries. The traffic is sparse and crossing the road is a simple process rather than putting your life on the line as you dodge and weave, hoping cars will slow and motorbikes will not surprise you by creeping up on both sides of the oncoming traffic. The road leading to the ocean is lined with beautiful homes protected by high walls where ornate doors open onto lush gardens. We find the villa for our next stay where the housekeeper and gardener have been tending to guests and manicuring lawns for over 50 years. Heaven surrounded by lily ponds and tranquility. 

At the end of the road a handful of shops greet you and are a perfect place to grab a sarong, hat and anything else you may have forgotten. We pack lightly when travelling here and purchase some essentials to sustain our trip, putting money into the local community in what can be a competitive business and after the usual negotiation and bargaining that make shopping here fun. 

Here the sea is calm and clear. A reef breaks off shore dulling the swell so there are no surfers here. The tide goes out quite far and when it does reveals reeds and rock pools. When it returns the reeds sway in the current and the water is perfect for snorkelling, where visibility seems endless or jet skiing as you zoom over the coral and zig zag over a patchwork of greens and blues, circling atolls and underwater forests.

The boardwalk is lined with bungalow style hotels their pools almost touching the sand. There are height restrictions here so towering hotel blocks on the beach are relegated to other places. Restaurants and beach bars invite you to linger. We discover a gem with tables on the sand sitting in a quiet spot on a small almost private part of the beach. It becomes our hangout for breakfast and lunch and dinner (some days). Nothing says vacation quite like having your toes in the sand eating freshly grilled seafood whilst washing it down with an icy cold beer or cocktail flavoured with local fruit. It’s a full moon so the temple on the beach is hosting a celebration, Balinese style. Offerings are taken to the shores and feasts prevail.

Life here is laid back. Start the day with a free yoga class down by the beach and take it from there. A path curves along the shore making exploration on foot or bike easy. Stumbling across rest and refreshment spots is more rewarding than Googling every possible place in order to make a decision. Isn’t that how people discover the next ‘new’ best place? Sanur isn’t new. It’s been here for ages however somehow it’s kept the Balinese charm that entices visitors to this Indonesian Island.

There’s something to be said for the nightlife and abundant choice on the West coast. Once you’re done with that, head East. You won’t be disappointed.

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When the French ruled Indochina, they found the perfect spot for a seaside retreat, stringing a handful of small villages together to form Nha Trang. On the south coast of Vietnam this city is now home to around 350,000 people and sits on one of the most beautiful bays in the world. 

Beach

However you won’t find Nha Tang on any airport departure boards as the city is served by the airport at Cam Ranh. From here it’s a 45 minute drive along a stunning, winding coastal road past beaches and fishing villages into the city. A new international terminal has just been completed and with direct flights from Bangkok, in less than 2 hours you can be sitting on the beach discovering why Nha Trang is a favourite destination for travellers the world over. 

Beach View

As you fly in, you’ll know you’ve made the right decision as you skim past the white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters of Cam Ranh. This stretch of beach as you leave the airport heading into the city is one of the rare places in the world that is beautiful and unspoilt. If you’re looking to get away from the hustle bustle of the real world this is the place as hotels have snapped up prime beachfront locations and are building resorts with lush lawns and pools on the water’s edge. Most are all inclusive and fairly soon I’m sure this will become the Vietnamese riviera. You could be anywhere in the world as it lacks any local flavour, however anywhere in the world doesn’t have this location. 

Taxi fares into the city are negotiable and around 300,000 Vietnamese Dong is more than reasonable. If you hop in and the meter is on you’ll pay double or more than that. I use a private car company, Dic Chung Taxi. You can WhatsApp them (+84 93 607 04 16) and they’ll meet you and get you into the city in air conditioned private cars from 250,000D.

As you arrive into Nha Trang, the bay will take your breath away. Here the waves lap seductively at the shore along 5 kilometres of white sand that curves gently around a wide bay. Cocooned by islands (there are 19 of them) close by to the East and mountains to the West, this touch of paradise is protected from the severe weather that torments other parts of SE Asia. It’s the perfect location for a beach vacation with restaurants, nightclubs and bars at your doorstep. All or nothing, the choice is yours. It’s a vibrant city that mixes Vietnamese charm with the modern luxuries that international travellers appreciate. 

Coffee for Sale

The rate of development in the city and Cam Ranh is staggering and each time I return there seems to be another hotel towering into the sky. There is an endless choice for all budgets with hotels lining the beachfront and smaller budget style places sitting further back from the sea. Beachfront properties have their own spots on the beach set up with umbrellas and loungers and of course refreshments on hand. However there are any number of places to choose from that offer shade and comfort to those staying elsewhere. Blue Sea Beach & Bar is a great. Hang around as the thatched roof bar becomes a cool spot to enjoy a sundowner. You’re spoilt for choice with the selection of restaurants across the road from the beach. As the afternoon progresses the sun dips behind the buildings lining the beach so shade is easy to find. And that’s free! The beach comes alive in the afternoon when locals descend, set up blankets and dive into the water fully clothed! Ladies in conical hats offer snacks and young boys sell kites. It’s the best time of the day.

Bikes Are The Way

The best place to stay in the city is the InterContinental Hotel. It’s the only five star property right on the beach where rooms command sweeping views of the city, mountains and bay. Their happy hour in the elegant lobby lounge is the perfect way to end the day after a day at their beach club. Everyone is welcome and for dinner, the seafood buffet is legendary. 

Beach and Boats

The sun rises early here. Start the day with a morning swim when the sea is usually flat and calm. Some afternoons it can get a little choppy, although it’s rarely too rough to enjoy. Afterwards, head down to the organic juice bar at the Sailing Club which offers innovative juices and smoothies to compliment their perfect Eggs Benedict. I enjoy keeping up with ‘The Kardashian’ – mint, celery and cucumber. You can easily settle in here for the day and one day you should.  As the sun sets on weekdays, bean bags are scattered on the sand and kerosene lamps give a bedouin feel. Saturdays, the Sailing Club’s beach party is the place to be and on Sunday afternoon resident DJs spin the discs accompanied by live saxophonist which is chilled out and very cool.

Food On The Grill

The best way to explore Nha Trang is on foot, by cycle or motorbikes which are inexpensive to rent. Bangkok locals will be familiar with motorbikes filling the streets. Here it seems everyone rides one. Cyclos (a seat on the front of a bike) allow someone else to do the legwork and are also a great way to get around. You’ll find the men hanging around on street corners. Set the price before you jump in and plan your own itinerary. It would be handy to have a map to show the driver and be generous if you stop for lunch and drinks along the way. This is by far the most fun. It’s also easy to grab taxis in the street to get from place to place.

You can hit the main attractions in the city easily in a day. The Po Nagar Towers, Long Son Pagoda and Nha Trang Cathedral are the main three.

Sailing Club

From the 3rd Century the region around modern Nha Trang was known as Kauthara, and was part of the Champa Kingdom. All that remains from the period are the stunning Po Nagar Towers. Believed to have been constructed sometime before 781AD, the complex gives you a glimpse of a rich historical heritage. They’re located on Mount Cu Lau, where the Cai River meets the sea, so you’ll get a 360 degree view of the beautiful landscape around Nha Trang.The Po Nagar Cham Towers are a defining feature of Nha Trang and there were originally 10 buildings dedicated to Hindu deities. The 4 remaining towers, built in honour of local Goddess Po Nagar, Cri Cambhu, Sanhaka, and Ganeca, are still used today as places of worship for the Cham people. They’re found within a 10 minute stroll from Tran Phu Beach.

Longs On Pagoda

Long Son Pagoda is the largest Buddhist pagoda in Nha Trang. Founded in the late 19th Century it was built to honour 6 monks and nuns who died in self-immolation protesting against the Diem government, and its entrance and roof are covered in mosaic dragons of glass and ceramic. Allow one of the resident monks to guide you to the tombs at the top of an almost hidden side stairway. At the top a stunning 24 metre tall white Buddha glows in the sun as it sits watching over the city. Clamber down the 152 stone steps on the other side, stopping to admire the reclining Buddha halfway down. Note that the main building and some other areas are closed between 11.30am and 1pm. Each local chef closely guards their recipe for Phô (pronounced ‘fur’) the quintessential Vietnamese noodle soup. The cafe at the Long Son Pagoda serves one of the best and cheapest in town. 

Graves at Church

From Long Son Pagoda you can walk back to the beach via Nha Trang Cathedral, where everyone is welcome at morning or afternoon mass (Vietnam is home to the second largest Catholic community in SE Asia). The Cathedral, set atop a hill that overlooks the train station, is widely known as the largest church in the city. It was constructed in provincial French Gothic style during the early 19th Century, featuring beautiful stained glass windows and a square clock tower surmounted by a large crucifix. Its 3 cathedral bells, which were cast in France in 1789, still ring out over the city. There are also 4,000 tombstones mounted on the sides of the Cathedral, which were placed here after the neighbouring cemetery was levelled in 1988 to extend the city train station. Mass is held at 5am and 18:30 on a daily basis. 

If you like the idea of climbing more stairs then head out to Suoi Do Pagoda a 50 year old temple that was built in honour of Quan Am, the Goddess of Mercy. It is believed that a young girl claimed to have seen the Goddess while playing with her friends at the nearby stream. It takes about 200 steps to reach the pagoda, where you’ll be greeted with panoramic views of paddy fields, banana plantations, and the neighbouring hills. The pagoda is a 30 minute drive from Nha Trang.

After a days exploring a visit to one of the local mud baths and hot springs will soothe tired muscles and re energise you for the night ahead. If you’ve ever submerged yourself in a mud bath you’ll no doubt be singing its virtues. Tháp Bà Spa offers private pools, worth the splurge to avoid uncomfortable moments with strangers. Locals believe that the mud has healing powers due to its composition of rocks and volcanic ash and that the natural hot mineral springs help detoxify and soothe fatigued muscles, remove dead skin cells, and supply minerals to the body. Make up your own mind however trust me, you will feel younger and your skin will feel soft afterwards.

Chicken Market

Nha Trang is Vietnam’s premier diving destination. Mun Island is a protected marine environment and a great place to learn to dive in the relatively shallow waters. If you prefer to snorkel you’ll be richly rewarded if you fork out the extra cash to join a diving boat trip, rather than a local snorkelling trip to the islands close by. Snorkelling and diving are probably the most popular things to do in Nha Trang thanks to its affordability and abundant marine life. If you prefer to stay landslide, The National Oceanographic Museum of Vietnam offers interesting exhibits of local marine life, including over 20,000 live and preserved marine specimens. Established in 1922, the institute sponsors ongoing research and community projects, such as captive breeding programmes, preservation and regeneration of local coral reefs. Did I mention the 18 metre long whale skeleton? The kids will love this place. 

Market Fish

There’s a surprising amount of history to discover here. The Alexandre Yersin Museum commemorates the late French bacteriologist with exhibits of his personal belongings and laboratory equipment, as well as original letters and photographs from his travels around Vietnam. Dr Yersin came to Vietnam in the late 19th Century and while he contributed to the country by founding Dalat, his discovery of a vital plague-causing bacteria changed the world. In addition to the displayed artefacts, visitors can also view a short film about Yersin’s life. The museum offers guided tours in French, English and Vietnamese.

Nha Trang is famous for fresh seafood and you can watch the fishing boats head out to sea, returning to stock tanks on display at restaurants lining the boardwalk. It’s particularly cool in squid season to see the bright lights bobbing around the bay at night. Grills are set up on the footpaths under the breeze of electric fans and burning embers. Sea snails may sound unappealing, however when steamed with lemongrass, chilli and ginger they are sensational. Offerings change daily so wander along checking out the tanks until you find what you’re after. 

Vietnamese cuisine is fragrant, sometimes spicy and always delicious. Phô should be tried with chicken or beef. Banh Mi (Vietnamese baguettes) can be bought on the street filled with meats and pickles. Fresh rice paper rolls stuffed with shrimp or steamed rice pancakes with minced pork … the list is endless. Many menus have pictures so you can point to things that look appetising! One of my first visions as I wandered the streets was of Boa and Crocodile spinning on the spit outside Veranda restaurant. Everyone should try snake and croc at least once in their life? 

Pineapple Market

Lanterns Vietnamese Restaurant offers cooking classes that are a fun way to learn about Vietnamese cuisine. You’ll drop by the market to select the ingredients first. The owner here does a great deal for the local community.

Vietnamese coffee is fragrant and delicious and the cafe culture in Nha Trang is as vibrant as it is all over Vietnam. There are coffee shops on every corner. You can easily try a different one each day for a month and still not see them all. Served in individual drip filters, hot water oozes through freshly ground coffee to form the perfect espresso. Forget non fat cappuccinos and lattes. Add sweetened condensed milk or leave it black before pouring over ice. In most cafes here it’s perfectly acceptable to bring some snacks and linger over coffee with friends. Many coffee shops sell their ground coffee. Weasel Coffee is the most expensive in the world. The beans are roasted after passing through the civet cat’s digestive system. If that hasn’t turned you off completely, you can buy the beans at supermarkets to see what all the fuss is about.

Mud Baths

While you could quite easily settle into the beach at Nha Trang for days, for a slightly more serene scene, head out of town. Doc Let Beach is easily accessible on local buses – they’ll get you there in air-conditioned comfort for a little over a dollar. Motorbikes are a great alternative. Then you can stop at the Hon Khoi Salt Fields along the way. Here female workers harvest mounds of natural salt from shallow fields between the months of January and June. Salt production is a thriving industry in Nha Trang, generating about 737,000 tonnes every year. Dai Lanh Beach is about as remote as you can get. Here the mountains kiss the sea and women in their nón lá (conical hats) prepare the freshest of seafood. It’ll be difficult to drag yourself away – so don’t! You can stay in basic cabins on the beach for a bargain. Bai Dai Beach (Long Beach) which stretches for 10 kilometres of gorgeous white sand is a relaxed option to escape the city with little cafes and restaurants to keep you refreshed and fed. 

Nhatrang

It’s also worth heading out to Ba Ho Waterfalls where three natural waterfalls end with a clear lake surrounded by a dense rainforest. The waterfalls have been left in their natural state, although some steps have been added to help in the more challenging areas. It’s a 40 minute drive from Nha Trang City along beautiful stretches of coastline. Shamrock Adventures will take you into the mountains to ride the white water rapids of the Cai River. Jeep It Up offers excursions to the countryside and beaches in vintage war-era jeeps. Sailing is a good opportunity to see the different islands off the mainland. Some trips are geared for the 18-30 party crowd so select one that suits your needs.

Nhatrang Cathedral

Vinpearl Amusement Park offers fun-filled activities for travelling families, with unique waterslides, a wave pool, amphitheatre, shopping mall, and a variety of rides. Situated on Hon Tre Island, the theme park is connected to the mainland of Nha Trang via the longest over water cablecar in the world, at 3,320 metres. Vinpearl Amusement Park’s Underwater World Aquarium houses over 300 species of marine life. You can’t miss the ‘Hollywood-esque’ sign stamped onto the hillside on the island. Golfers will delight at the stunning course with ocean views from every hole.

On The Grill

Nha Trang is ideal for golfing. There are two other courses. Diamond Bay Golf and Villas and KN golf links Cam Ranh which was designed by Greg Norman. Both courses hug the coast providing stunning backdrops.

After dinner head up to the open air nightclub on top of the Havana Hotel. With views of the beach, dancing under the stars beats being locked up inside when the weather is perfect most of the year. 

Pool Mud Bath

Shopping for souvenirs before you head home? Dam Market is the biggest in town and offers everything you’d expect in a bustling Asian market and is worth the visit for the abundance of local produce alongside everything including the kitchen sink! Cho Dem is the Nha Trang night market and is a great choice for souvenirs close to the Tram Huong Tower (Lotus Tower) opposite the beach. Amber and sandalwood made into chunky jewellery will add a touch of Vietnamese style to your collection. Ostrich and crocodile are farmed in Vietnam for their meat and leather, and provide a sustainable industry. The leather quality is excellent.

Reclining Buddha

Cam Ranh and Nha Trang has is all. There are still areas of serenity and beaches where you’ll feel like you’re the only people on earth or where the buzz of the city has the beach at its doorstep. Coupled with an amazing choice for food, fascinating hinterland and near perfect weather all year round, get here before the rest of the world beats you to it. 

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Cuba street art

La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is best explored on foot, so we are hiring bikes and heading to the other side of the city, out along the Malecon though central Havana returning via Revolution Plaza. Our guide speaks a little English and oozes with enthusiasm. Keeping an eye on the traffic and watching out for stray dogs we set off.

Havana is flat making riding around relatively easy. Four hours will allow enough time to chart an interesting course stopping at museums and squares whilst zig zagging through a city past spectacular facades exploring street art, Cathedrals and boulevards. Some streets are relatively smooth whilst others are not, to say the least.

It’s 10am which, given my late lunch appointment, is a perfect time to start. However this was also an excellent way to shed 10kgs in the 32C degree heat. In hindsight an earlier start may have been better although my appetite and thirst were certainly primed and ready afterwards.

Fidel and Che Guevara

The Capitolio Nacional or El Capitolio, who’s dome stands covered in scaffolding, evidence that Havana is undergoing a transformation, is the perfect starting point. It was built during the late 1920s and was the seat of government after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. It’s an easily recognisable landmark and a focus point of the city which is now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences.

It sits adjacent to the recently renovated Gran Teatro de La Habana. Both buildings are stunning and are helping to bring back life to the Havana of old. In less than five minutes we arrive at the Museo de la Revolution. Ensuring bikes are tied and locked we head in to meet Fidel and Che Guevara.

Cuban flag

Set in the former Presidential Palace it’s a fairly small place where history jumps off the walls and stories of betrayal, assassination and revolution unfold as you wander the halls. A huge Cuban flag billows in the breeze hanging over the courtyard. Allowing half an hour to take it all in is ample time unless a guide is available, with exhibits explained in Spanish and sometimes English. Unfortunately there is no guide available today. However it will be well worth a return visit. It’s relatively easy now to secure the services of an English speaking guide who will include the museum as part of a walking tour of the old town. I know friends who have been a couple of times with different guides and the stories whilst sticking to a narrative can vary with fascinating local insight.

We cut through streets passing blue umbrellas set up around tables and chairs adjacent to a church where three streets converge. We’ll return for lunch another day. Heading north along Paseo de Marti we hit the Malecon and take a left heading along the oceanfront. We stop to look back on the view of the old fort protecting Havana harbour. During the day fishermen are scattered along the ocean walls casting their lines and trying their luck. At night the Malecon transforms into a hive of activity. The perfect place to take in the sunset and people watch with a cold Cerveza in hand.

Central Havana is filled with wonderful neighbourhoods. Glorious mansions in varying states of repair grace city blocks and it’s easy to imagine how Havana was once the Caribbean host to movie stars and glitterati. Some of the city’s best restaurants are here. It may be off the beaten track for the day trippers being dumped onto the city by cruise liners thousands at a time and I’m thinking that may be a good thing. For many of the more well known restaurants you need to book before you arrive now although you may grab a lunch spot at short notice. Given the Americans change their minds with each Presidential upheaval or whim, American based cruises which started to pop by under the Obama era concessions, are to stop delivering cashed up sightseers. Well that was this week anyway… Europeans and the rest of the world have been visiting for years and will continue to do so.

Havana museum

Art galleries are littered throughout the city, holes in the walls where local artists display their talent with pride. While stock standard oils of old cars and ladies with cigars are abundant, taking the time to duck into doorways can be rewarded with displays of exquisite photographs, sculptures and paintings. As always there’s a story to tell.

Havana church

Churches seem to pop up everywhere. In back alleys, on boulevards and next to green parks. Away from Havana Cathedral (La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana) which is a must visit especially to climb the bell towers, small places of worship are littered throughout neighbourhoods and house stunning artefacts and glistening stained glass windows. We have to push our guide to stop so we can venture inside some of the quainter ones.

Round the corner and we’re rolling into a soccer (football) match on the street. The ball stops at my front wheel and for a moment everyone’s still. I manage to kick it back. There are six of us and six of them. It’s time for a break. We form a team and take on the local kids. It’s easy to tell who is on which side. We tower over them! A couple of goals each and were dripping in sweat. There’s a fruit market on the footpath offer refreshing orange drink at around CUC1 (USD1) for 2 huge bottles. Time to stop and refresh. The drinks are on us. We stumble across an area where every building seems to be covered in art and cafes spill out onto the streets. This was scripted by our guide however it’s one of the joys of exploring Havana. There are surprises around every corner.

Cuban art

We weave in and out of streets running parallel to Avenida 23 heading in the direction of Plaza de la Revolución. Havanas beautiful buildings are in a state of decay and whilst some are privileged to be under renovation and restoration others provide canvas for street art, adding colour and character. Heading onto Avenida Paseo towering 109 metres in the centre of the plaza the memorial to Jose Marti greets us. Pieced together by huge slabs of Cuban grey marble standing tall as a monument to one of Cuba’s heroes and in defiance to those who resisted Cuban independence. Che Guevara looks on from the facade of the Ministry of Interior.

Skirting Arroyo Street we head down towards the water’s edge encircling La Coubre Train Station to visit Almacenes San Jose Artisan’s Market along Avenue del Puerto. Here every conceivable souvenir can be purchased. Although as we navigate the city we have more fun negotiating with vendors set up in doorways and on staircases along the city’s streets. It’s a precept stop for those with little time. However we have the time so we linger here for a moment before moving on.
This has been the perfect way to explore another side of the city. Next time I’ll hire the bike and trust myself to be the guide.

www.rentbikehavana.com CUC15 for 24 hours hire/guided tour CUC25 per person

Havana
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Slovenia

Looking for the perfect Valentine’s Day weekend, I decide on dog sledding, somewhere that would enable a long weekend trip out of London. I am looking for something to surprise my partner, which is a challenge, given that he is a seasoned traveller and hotelier. I’m buying the clothes, booking the flights and packing the bags. While it seems most options are in Scandinavia, I soon discover Bled, 35 kilometres North West of Ljubljana. Difficult to spell, impossible to pronounce and challenging to place on a map.

Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, once part of Yugoslavia, which gained independence in 1991 following a referendum the year prior, joined the EU and NATO in 2004 and the Euro in 2007. Husky Adventures promises what I am looking for in the foothills of the Italian Alps, just over the border. We arrive at Stansted, an efficient airport providing low cost alternatives to destinations not served by their so called ‘full service rivals’ and even though a return train trip from the airport to London may cost more than the bargain fare you snagged earlier, these shuttling pioneers are providing a better service to centrally located airports these days.

It is however worth checking the airport code to be sure you are not fleeced with a $100 cab ride on your arrival and a border crossing to boot. Ljubljana flashing up a gate number on the departures board doesn’t stir any recognition and we’re off. After a ninety minute flight, shared with stags and hens throwing down Vodka and beer at six in the morning, we are greeted warmly by a young man who shows us to our car. His car. Exchanging nervous glances, we dismantle the child seat and toss it into the boot with our bags. It transpires that Damir is the meet and greet as well as the hotel sommelier.

Wolf

During the journey we discuss the joys of the local Slovenian wines and by the time we arrive, we are more knowledgeable and even more importantly, keen to partake in a private wine tasting during our stay. Passing the sign to Ljubljana we head to Bled, leaving the buses behind. Bled is a magical town nestled around the glacial Lake Bled, which in February still clings to the remnants of a freezing winter, sheet ice glimmering in the late winter sunlight. Summer brings the sleepy hollow to life having hosted the World Rowing Championships on more than one occasion, as well as numerous regattas, the first to pierce the waters over 100 years ago. Bled Castle surveys its kingdom below with majestic grandeur and poise. The first stones put in place in 1001, making it the older statesman of all of Slovenia’s castles. The town nestled at the far end struggles to provide coffee and wine which will, as spring melts the snow that leads into summer, replenish to nurture visitors, who venture to enjoy the sun and sports provided by the mountains and the lake. Hotel Triglav Bled, originally built in 1906, clings to the cliff allowing uninterrupted views.

Tastefully renovated, we are at once settled in and invited for dinner. Restaurant 1906 both excites and surprises. Food worthy of Michelin star status and the view… The church on the lake floats on a glistening ice platform, gradually giving way to the icy blue water below, as spring gently nudges the countryside to life. After breakfast we are met by our guide. Just the two of us today.  Wearing snow gear, packing snow shoes and passport we hop into the van. I’m still managing to keep this part a secret. We drive past the Julian Alps, soaring mountain ranges piercing clear blue sky. Host to Mount Triglav, the highest mountain in Slovenia.

snow

Rugged, imposing and awe inspiring. We cross the border into Italy. Clipping on snow shoes we head out, immersed in Italy’s winter glory. They make crossing the fresh snow easy and enjoyable. Shortly, we hear them. Around the corner the huskies. Surprise! A quick safety talk and one at a time we lead our team around the track. Well I say lead, however the dogs rocket around the groomed and well worn path, chasing the rewards awaiting their return. A little commercial perhaps. Instinct advises to lean in instead of out, as you skim freshly revealed ponds, and after a few close calls I am back. Camera ready. I hear the dogs and see the sled. Shortly a snowmobile carrying a slightly muddied recruit roars into base. Missed the last turn. Cursing. Laughter.

Bled Castle surveys its kingdom below with majestic grandeur and poise.

Would you like another go? It’s wine o’clock! The return drive allows photo opportunities to marvel at manmade ski jumps and thermal pools. Nestled in a cellar under the hotel, our wine tasting begins. Passionate and knowledgeable, Damir guides us through the history of Slovenian wines with maps, anecdotes and wine. We will be seeking out the Slovenian flag amongst the French, Australian, South African… grabbing pride and place at most wine shops, although, as the majority is consumed locally, this will prove a difficult task. Further enlightened we choose a bottle of Slovenian Merlot to enjoy by the fire. Dinner overlooking the church on the lake, shrouded in mist. Spectacular.
Happy Valentine’s Day.

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The-Countryside-Village

Looking for the perfect Valentine’s Day weekend, I decide on dog sledding, somewhere that would enable a long weekend trip out of London. I am looking for something to surprise my partner, which is a challenge, given that he is a seasoned traveler and hotelier. I’m buying the clothes, booking the flights and packing the bags. While it seems most options are in Scandinavia, I soon discover Bled, 35 kilometers North West of Ljubljana. Difficult to spell, impossible to pronounce and challenging to place on a map. Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, once part of Yugoslavia, which gained independence in 1991 following a referendum the year prior, joined the EU and NATO in 2004 and the Euro in 2007.

Husky Adventures promises what I am looking for in the foothills of the Italian Alps, just over the border.

The man-Skiing
The Park

We arrive at Stansted, an efficient airport providing low cost alternatives to destinations not served by their so called ‘full service rivals’ and even though a return train trip from the airport to London may cost more than the bargain fare you snagged earlier, these shuttling pioneers are providing a better service to centrally located airports these days. It is however worth checking the airport code to be sure you are not fleeced with a $100 cab ride on your arrival and a border crossing to boot.

Ljubljana flashing up a gate number on the departures board doesn’t stir any recognition and we’re off. After a ninety minute flight, shared with stags and hens throwing down Vodka and beer at six in the morning, we are greeted warmly by a young man who shows us to our car. His car. Exchanging nervous glances, we dismantle the child seat and toss it into the boot with our bags. It transpires that Damir is the meet and greet as well as the hotel sommelier

During the journey we discuss the joys of the local Slovenian wines and by the time we arrive, we are more knowledgeable and even more importantly, keen to partake in a private wine tasting during our stay. Passing the sign to Ljubljana we head to Bled, leaving the buses behind.

The Lake in-Slovenia

Bled is a magical town nestled around the glacial Lake Bled, which in February still clings to the remnants of a freezing winter, sheet ice glimmering in the late winter sunlight. Summer brings the sleepy hollow to life having hosted the World Rowing Championships on more than one occasion, as well as numerous regattas, the first to pierce the waters over 100 years ago. Bled Castle surveys its kingdom below with majestic grandeur and poise. The first stones put in place in 1001, making it the older statesman of all of Slovenia’s castles. The town nestled at the far end struggles to provide coffee and wine which will, as spring melts the snow that leads into summer, replenish to nurture visitors, who venture to enjoy the sun and sports provided by the mountains and the lake.

Hotel Triglav Bled, originally built in 1906, clings to the cliff allowing uninterrupted views. Tastefully renovated, we are at once settled in and invited for dinner.

Restaurant 1906 both excites and surprises. Food worthy of Michelin star status and the view… The church on the lake floats on a glistening ice platform, gradually giving way to the icy blue water below, as spring gently nudges the countryside to life.

After breakfast we are met by our guide. Just the two of us today. Wearing snow gear, packing snow shoes and passport we hop into the van. I’m still managing to keep this part a secret. We drive past the Julian Alps, soaring mountain ranges piercing clear blue sky. Host to Mount Triglav, the highest mountain in Slovenia. Rugged, imposing and awe inspiring. We cross the border into Italy.

Building of hotel
The Mountain-view
Ski-area

Clipping on snow shoes we head out, immersed in Italy’s winter glory. They make crossing the fresh snow easy and enjoyable. Shortly, we hear them. Around the corner the huskies. Surprise! A quick safety talk and one at a time we lead our team around the track. Well I say lead, however the dogs rocket around the groomed and well worn path, chasing the rewards awaiting their return. A little commercial perhaps. Instinct advises to lean in instead of out, as you skim freshly revealed ponds, and after a few close calls I am back. Camera ready. I hear the dogs and see the sled. Shortly a snowmobile carrying a slightly muddied recruit roars into base. Missed the last turn. Cursing. Laughter.

Bled Castle surveys its kingdom below with majestic grandeur and poise.

Would you like another go? It’s wine o’clock! The return drive allows photo opportunities to marvel at man made ski jumps and thermal pools. Nestled in a cellar under the hotel, our wine tasting begins. Passionate and knowledgeable, Damir guides us through the history of Slovenian wines with maps, anecdotes and wine. We will be seeking out the Slovenian flag amongst the French, Australian, South African… grabbing pride and place at most wine shops, although, as the majority is consumed locally, this will prove a difficult task. Further enlightened we choose a bottle of Slovenian Merlot to enjoy by the fire. Dinner overlooking the church on the lake, shrouded in mist. Spectacular.

Church-near the-lake

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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Visiting for the first time in seven years, I am eager to see what has changed and how Havana is developing into a world class city and tourist destination. Well for most of the world Cuba has been easily accessible with direct flights hitting the shores from virtually every corner of the globe. Intrepid travellers from the US however have been sneaking in via Mexico or Canada, stampless passports and paper visas allowing access to one of the most fascinating places on the planet. This is about to change, although US Presidents seem to change the minds of their countryfolk at a whim.

Stuck in a time warp when the Americans up and left when intervention through CIA assassinations and coups failed, Havana has endured, baroque architecture struggling to stand amongst crumbling neighbours, facades propped up hiding interiors virtually falling apart. The buildings are stunning, European style boulevards, ornate exteriors shielding marble staircases, balconies overlooking streets and squares, gothic cathedrals blending into neighbourhoods. Things are changing and fast. Now cranes are popping up, construction is evident. Prices are rising. Get out of your hotel, leave the wifi behind and hit the streets.

Although now an internet card will work at any hotel throughout the city people cluster nearby logging into drifting signals. This trip I had planned a structured walk around old Havana. Starting at the Gran Teatro de la Habana, next to the domed Capitolio National heading down Brazil Street and circumnavigating back along the water returning along Paseo de Marti (Prado). The theatre has been tastefully restored and once again plays host to Cuban ballet, opera and concerts. It glistens like a jewel adjacent to Parque Central. I manage to obtain tickets to Lago de Los Cisnes (Swan Lake). Spectacular, ballerinas on pointe, audience well dressed and passionate with applause and standing ovations. Stall seats well worth the CUC30 (USD30) for tickets delivered to the hotel.

Immediately I am surrounded by life. Starting off something catches my eye down a side street I wander down following drums and Belles on stilts. As they turn the corner I keep walking grabbing an espresso in one of the many bars spilling out onto the street serving espresso that more than satisfies my Aussie bred taste for coffee. I’m lost. Well not really, I have my map and throw caution to the wind and with fate as my guide, explore. So far, things are changing for the better. Rules have been relaxed and entrepreneurs can now operate businesses. Cafes with a dozen or so seats, espresso bars Italian style with standing room or under umbrellas in the squares. Restaurants open up behind huge wooden doors into courtyards, or shutters fling open as the music draws you in.

Narrow buildings make use of every level as narrow staircases guide you to rooftop bars and terraces. To find them you have to wander around taking time to stop and look, grabbing lunch and a Mojito as you go. With little high rise and no towering blocks, apart from a few 50s throwbacks, most streets look quite similar and it’s easy to become disorientated. With the aid of a map it’s easy to get back on track as you check the cross streets for reassurance you are heading in the right direction. I wasn’t, but there are umbrellas inviting on another corner.

Vintage cars, yellow taxi lights picked up from eBay? Stuck on top or on dashboards and TAXI stickers clinging to windscreens homemade or otherwise, comb the streets or congregate strategically providing photo opportunities and promising private tours. I didn’t notice the Mercedes last time. Carry some change as ‘life’ in Havana can be captured for a small fee. I thought I’d go in search of the perfect Mojito however there is no need as they are everywhere, outside of the hotels. As in most places throughout the world the unassuming places are usually the best. Sugar, lime juice, mint, stems and all… muddle… Havana Club rum, free poured of course, a splash of soda.

They slip down easily any time of the day as I enjoy an espresso whist others enjoy them at ten in a local cafe. ‘Where are you from?’ And so starts the conversation in a smattering of English as my Spanish is basic to say the least and I order my first Mojito of the day. ‘Happy holiday!’ Others enjoy Cuba Libre, which sounds more exotic than Rum and Coke, with a squeeze of lime. I find the Cubans friendly, inviting and interesting to talk to with fascinating tales of history and insights about what the future holds. Sure, ‘taxi signor’… invitations to view souvenirs… will greet you as you walk the streets, however a polite refusal and a smile will suffice if you are not interested.

“The city provides a stunning backdrop. I will return again soon as I have fallen in love with the city and it’s people however as I fly out the first cruise ship arrives from Miami.”

Maybe the next person will want a ride or a memento. As the music draws you in you will be offered a CD, buy it if you want to, politely refuse if you don’t. A tip goes a long way and is appreciated. People are making a living and entertaining as they do so. Havana is a history lesson worthy of consideration. Cubans celebrate a religion blended between native African and Roman Catholic, Afro-Cuban. Superstition mingled with Catholicism as crosses and lobster tails are nailed to lucky trees.

Museums pay homage as do churches and squares. Having taken the time to research before arriving, things will fall into place. Draw your own conclusions, allowing for home ground bias. Name one memorial or museum without a tinge of home grown favouritism. At the Museo de la Revolution I head in to meet Fidel and Che Guevara. Set in the former Presidential Palace it’s a fairly small place where history jumps off the walls and stories of betrayal, assassination and revolution unfold as you wander the halls. A huge Cuban flag billows in the breeze hanging over the courtyard. Allowing half an hour to take it all in is ample time unless a guide is available, with exhibits explained in Spanish and sometimes English.

Unfortunately there is no guide available today. There are fabulous tapas bars and restaurants opening up and against my better judgement, I agree to join friends for lunch at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, or is that Mundane? Ernest Hemingway used to write here and his room holds pride of place ‘as it was’ on the second floor. A tourist trap, serving tasteless food as a soulless three piece band drags out a guitar and maracas, dressed in white who, was it not for their strumming and clicking, you would believe them to be statues who come to life for a dollar.

I am expecting the collection bowl at any moment. Following Hemingway’s trail I pop into Floridita to a sea of selfie sticks swinging around in a bar full… a revolving door would be a perfect addition. You would learn more about the man by reading The Old Man and the Sea whilst sipping a Mojito sitting in the square allowing the city’s music to drift around you. If you must, pop in for a photo of a bronze Hemingway resting at the end of the bar and exit post-haste for somewhere with more atmosphere and authenticity. Horse and carriage, three wheeled bubble taxis and vintage cars await to transport you around the city, drivers offering a city introduction. Hire a bike, grab your map and explore, if you intend to stop and visit museums, sip coffee or cold Cervesa, have lock and chain to hinder thieves lingering in the shadows.

I revisit an old favourite, La Guarida for lunch and remember why I loved it so much the first time. The set for the Oscar nominated film Strawberry and Chocolate, eclectic rooms welcome at the top of a marble staircase not out of place in Gone With the Wind, walking up past Fidel and the Cuban flag. Artwork dripping from the walls, chandeliers swaying in the cool breeze. Afterwards I climb the spiral staircase to the roof, a recent addition, the view literally framed, endless over city and ocean.

Cool roof terraces are lighting up Havana’s skyline as inventive and stylish proprietors utilise space and capitalise on stunning weather. No Golden Arches or Starbucks here! The Malecon is a stunning boulevard along the seafront where you can look back on a perfect view of the old fort protecting Havana harbour. During the day fishermen are scattered along the ocean walls casting their lines and trying their luck. At night the Malecon transforms into a hive of activity. The perfect place to take in the sunset and people watch with a cold Cerveza in hand.

Havana is opening up to the world. Karl Lagerfeld and entourage have presented the Chanel fashion show where the Paseo de Marti was partially blocked off as runway hosting the who’s who of the fashion world. Residents were warned not to congregate on balconies overlooking the street through fear of collapse. Helicopters have zig zagged above the Malecon as one in the series of The Fast and the Furious franchise was filmed. “The city provides a stunning backdrop. I will return again soon as I have fallen in love with the city and it’s people however as I fly out the first cruise ship arrives from Miami.” Watch out, the Americans are coming…

 

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It’s 6am and freezing cold as the sun peaks over the horizon and begins to light up the bush. The sky is clear as zebra wander past my lodging and I head out to join our guide who’ll take us on this mornings game drive, seeking out the big five – lions, elephants, rhino, buffalo and leopards. Climbing onto our vehicle, of course, painted in the obligatory fatigue green we place blankets over our knees which will eventually work their way up to cocoon our heads and shield our ears from the wind chill as our eyes poke out, scanning the surrounding landscape for any movement. The sun creeps over the trees and shrubs and warmth gradually brings the wild to life, although we’ll be back enjoying breakfast long before any benefit allows us to fully warm up.

It’s close to zero degrees and 17 degrees will be the pinnacle today. Heading out of the safe zone, an area fenced off to keep the dangerous animals out, the gates click shut behind us as we bump over the cattle grid and head out along the dirt tracks. Now and then we stop and check out the animal tracks, looking for fresh evidence, noting their direction as we drive on eyes peeled. Springbok dart across in front of us and I recall the name from a menu recently, some of the most delicious carpaccio I’ve ever tasted. Is that wrong? Anyway that’s the only thing off any menu we’ll see today. More zebra stare us down as we pass. Most animals we see look directly at us initially, checking us out or daring us to approach. They will scatter if you get too close.

It’s quiet on the plains today. There are three drivers out this morning each keeping the other posted on sightings and whereabouts via walkie talkies. Our guide points out lion tracks on the road highlighting the difference between male and female. They’re fresh so we stay quiet and scan the shrub. This tease is energising in the cold however the lions are either well hidden or have moved on. Fresh dung by the roadside is a calling sign of rhinoceros.

There’s a difference between that of white and black rhino, because they eat different things. She likens the heap to their Facebook page where others will come and dump on top of the remains if they like them and beside it if they don’t! I don’t know how many likes I have today as we’re completely off the grid and I love it. Black rhinos are rare and recently one was released into this reserve says our guide with a tear in her eye. If not for people like her then our planet would be losing most species as poachers kill to satisfy the vain needs of consumers. The world loses one rhino every 8 hours! Rhino horns are like our fingernails she explains.

Do you really need them ground up in your morning juice to improve whatever you think this does? In the human world this is a form of torture. Try pulling out your own and grind them down instead… just saying. Keen eyes spot giraffe feeding on the leaves high in the trees in groups a little too far away but within eyesight nonetheless. Warthogs in bigger numbers feed close to the roadside and without fail hold our gaze. We’re always respectful and keep our distance. We skim the fringes of the lake where menacing eyes drift above the water concealing the bodies that lurk beneath as crocodiles seem to float effortlessly and a hippo and her baby clamber out onto the small island metres from shore.

It’s hard to believe they are responsible for more human deaths than any other animal. Don’t be fooled by their size or apparently sluggish nature. They are fast on land and in the water they are deadly. Flimsy canoes are no match as they are easily flipped leaving the inhabitants precariously unprotected in the water. We stop for coffee and hot chocolate beside the water reassured that we are far enough away to avoid harm. We’re relaxed but never complacent. We are the visitors. We’re driving through thousands of hectares of bushland so it’s a lottery looking for needles in haystacks.

Calls from other trackers give us some direction but maybe today the lions, rhino and elephants are too far from the well worn tracks we are travelling. More fresh tracks taper off into the brush and most of the dung we come across is yesterday’s news, likes or not. Suddenly we stop and keep quiet, listening. Lions somewhere. The sound is enough to reassure us of their presence. On a drive last week elephants were so close that their trunks prodded jubilant onlookers. We’ve been warned not to touch any animals if they approach. Even those that are close enough to, well touch. We drive on in the hope that elephants will want to come up to us as we resist the urge the stroke their enquiring trunks. Not today.

Part of the realness is understanding that we are immersed into another world. An animal’s world. While we may take the same route to work each day or prefer to do things in a certain way, animals in the wild are both predictable and unpredictable. We’ve learnt about their habits and monitored behaviour patterns however they are driven by much the same as us. They will go where there is shelter, food and safety. Unlike most of us, they are nomadic or maybe like some of us, they have holiday homes in different places for different seasons. The vicinity is often the same but the dwelling may be different. They rarely dust of the furnishings when they return for the summer season.

Most animals on this reserve are monitored for protection with tracking devices. However few have access to the passwords in order to tackle abuse and limit rogue rangers. Recently a lioness was seen to be in the same place for longer than usual. She was discovered in a trap. The rangers are forever on guard. It’s now legal to shoot poachers to kill on sight. Apart from the obvious slaughter poaching leaves orphans and babies are often cared for by dedicated staff. Our guide has looked after a meerkat since he was orphaned when just a few days old.

The trust this little animal has for Therese is astounding. She truly is his mother now. However as a male he is threatened by males of any species. To put this to the test she puts him down. There are three of us men here today and he immediately goes in to attack the one of us with shorts on, legs uncovered. He picks up the scent of testosterone.

“Part of the realness is understanding that we are immersed into another world. An animal’s world… I’ll return in warmer weather and probably to a different place to experience the joys that Africa has to offer.”

“Get up on the table” she screams to him as he is a little surprised that this cute little thing has gone from cuddling his mummy to attacking the male intruder in a blink of an eye. He is staking his territory and it’s a reminder of where we are and who is in charge. We’re not here to roll up and snap photos and go. We’re here to enjoy the search and the experience the thrill of the hunt so to speak, without guns. I can now completely understand the skill required and the resulting excitement of tracking animals in the wild, the anticipation that goes with it, and the indescribable pleasure of discovering them. I cannot understand the egotistical, senseless need for killing them.

The zebra, hippos, wildebeest we see are a bonus and although it’s a little disappointing to miss some it’s reassuring to know that this is not a theme park ride where caged up and distressed animals beg for release while they are prodded or withheld food in order to appear or perform. “You’ll have to come back” our chef states emphatically as he scrambles our eggs and pours hot coffee to thaw us out. He’s right. I’ll return in warmer weather however and probably to a different place to experience the joys that Africa has to offer.

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Halong bay

“Halong Bay takes its name from legend where dragons descended by order of the Gods to help protect the Vietnamese from invasion. The rock formations were formed as they spat out jade and jewels which sprung up to prevent invading ships from passing.”

Yes there are millions of people and yes there are hundreds of boats however it is one of those places that takes your breath away. A friend recently quipped a view over the pyramids turned him into a morning person, Halong Bay has turned me into one. Halong Bay takes its name from legend where dragons descended by order of the Gods to help protect the Vietnamese from invasion. The rock formations were formed as they spat out jade and jewels which sprung up to prevent invading ships from passing.

Boat

Afterwards the dragons decided to stay and Halong Bay is where the mother resided with her children scattered in the bays around the area. It truth, the majestic formations are the result of tectonic movement over millions of years. Either way the results are spectacular and are now a UNESCO heritage site. There are two airports allowing access and we choose to fly into Hai Phong about two hours from Halong. Hanoi is three to four however a new highway under construction promises to cut the journey to an hour and a half and will be finished very soon.

I’ve put our itinerary together adding flights, transfers and boat separately and it falls into place seamlessly. We’re met at the airport and head off. From here the roads wind through villages, now and then opening up onto open stretches although it quickly becomes apparent that the countryside is more like a collection of towns linked together, each indistinguishable from the other. Our two hour journey threatens to turn into a marathon as our young driver is more intent on checking Facebook as we weave in and out precariously into the oncoming traffic at a snail’s pace.

Island in islands

A few polite words even though he speaks no English and the phone is relegated to the dash and we pick up speed, zooming off towards the bay. Nothing has quite prepared us for the sight that greets us although the constant procession of buses heading in the same direction should have suggested something. Hundreds of boats are lined up along the marina and anchored just off shore with shuttles ferrying people back and forth much like a D Day rescue effort without the shelling.

I’m a little apprehensive as warnings from friends flood back about overcrowding. Perhaps Halong Bay has lost its magic? The boats are on tight turnarounds as we discover on our way back two days later. We’re asked to check out of our rooms although we’re still at sea while the crew service the rooms. It’s a literally a tag team as we leave the deck and others clamber aboard. Tighter than an easyJet turnaround and that’s saying something.

Window

Our crew helps with the bags as we climb the steps down to the small boat that takes us to our home for the next two nights, tied up side by side with others. Our boat has seven cabins and others join from Hanoi as we unshackle and head out to sea. They’re accompanied by a young tour guide who will prove invaluable and for us, a welcome and unexpected addition.

I’ve chosen a room with a private deck at the back of the boat which affords the perfect vantage point as we wave goodbye to the mainland. I have so been looking forward to this. A major bucket list ticked off.

A procession of craft file out of the harbour each splintering off on its own course as the anticipated cliffs approach and any trepidation disappears. Sheers cliffs vertical to the sea rising out, trees and vines anchoring into every crevice, while others are so flat that nothing can cling to the rock face. The limestone formations are beautiful in their simplicity.

Halong bay

This is incredible. Pictures of towering limestone rocks seemingly drifting like icebergs make all the brochures and for good reason. They are stunning and surround us, each with its own personality offering their reflection on the water. Snapping panorama shots as we cruise around is to become a favourite pastime. Searching for the perfect angle is easy. They are all perfect as the light casts shadows on the green water and boats now and then, here and there, add depth of field. The seven cabins provide intimacy and privacy if required and a sun deck on the roof allows for uninterrupted views.

From the tiny kitchen below, the captain becomes the cook and produces some of the most delicious food I’ve had in Vietnam. Fresh oysters steamed with salsa are up there with the best. Stuffed crab heads with minced flesh and herbs. Green vegetables with garlic, of course. Cooked to perfection and delicious. Squid, whole fish and stir fries. Every meal different and nothing is served more this once. The food is extraordinary.

With every intention of sitting on the deck idling the hours away, jumping into kayaks and exploring adds more value to our trip than I have imagined. The islands offer more than the eye can see. In no time we are paddling through holes in the cliffs into grottos where monkeys dangle on the vines curious enough to come close as we approach but not brave enough to jump too close or put out their hands. Timing is everything as the entrance is vulnerable to the tides.

As we’re leaving the water has started to rush in. It’s a hard slog. I’d rather be on deck with a cold beer than joining the monkeys for dinner waiting for the tide to turn. I buckle down remembering my rowing training, keeping the blades at right angles allowing maximum thrust as I power though as if I’m sprinting over the final metres of a marathon where my remaining energy is mustered for the final dash. Beer one, two, three … monkeys nil.

Cave

Later we’re beaching our kayaks and climbing up into huge caves that have been chiselled out over time where stalactites drip and stalagmites climb eventually joining hands over hundreds of years. Huge cathedrals tower up with lighting and pathways making it easier to explore. Small holes allow the curious to travel a different path and climb through to meet the less adventurous on the other side. Large openings in the roof and on the sides, windows to outside, allow the sun to illuminate and birds to enter and nest.

Oyster farms produce delicious fleshy meat and others turn out pearls which take years to grow and add another dimension and education to the bay. I’m not really a fan however I now appreciative the time and effort it takes to create these jewels of the sea.

Island

“Although moored close by it’s surprisingly quiet, as generators hum in the distance, the sea a kaleidoscope of reflections with lights sparkling all around us”

During the days we are able to find little coves where we are the only boat there and at night there are gathering places where everyone drops anchor in a form of solidarity, gathering like moths to a flame in groups scattered in secluded bays. Although moored close by it’s surprisingly quiet, as generators hum in the distance, the sea a kaleidoscope of reflections with lights sparkling all around us. Every now and then when the generator is not required the silence is tempered by the wind whistling in the ears, ever so slightly. For me this is one place that I could settle into for days.

Occasionally a party boat drops anchor with music blaring and pitch imperfect singing catching the breeze. Fortunately only one on our first night and they soon tire allowing the night to once again surround us with peaceful calm and tranquility. Given all this, there is one disturbing fact. The water is calm and clear but for the debris and rubbish that floats by with monotonous regularity and disturbing quantity.

Vietnam it would seem is failing to learn the lessons of others, where once beautiful places are struggling to regain their composure as tourists come, stay and move on leaving the locals to pick up the pieces. Driving from the airport the driver tosses a bottle out of the window with little regard. Here it’s not a scattered piece here and there it’s trash floating en masse. The water is enticingly green and calm.

Beach

The thought of dropping in a wakeboard and carving up the surface is appealing until the thought of running into a floating plank or coming to grief in a pile of floating trash keeps my legs firmly planted in the deck. Although I have to admit seeing a friends recent post on Instagram carving up the water here, I kind of wish I had. Then again, the board shorts I wore for kayaking did not want to dry.

Even with the heat of a hairdryer they remained kind of slimy until rewashed twice. I’ll can that wakeboarding thought. Halong Bay is everything I had expected and more. Over 500 boats have licenses to plough the waters here, with 200 or so allowed to moor overnight and around 300 day tripping boats trucking in the tourists for a come and see, snap a photo a leave experience, before they head back to port to continue their journey back to Hanoi to end their 12 hour day. There has been a huge focus on plastic clogging up the oceans and this has really been my first experience of the enormity of the problem.

Much of the developed world may be tackling this problem however it’s a challenge for developing economies struggling to balance the benefit of growth and tourism with environment protection. It costs to protect and recycle. However education is one thing, pride and respect for the environment and for future generations is another. Too often the immediate rewards outweigh the intangible future benefits especially when they fall to someone else.

 

I can’t help but wonder that unless Halong Bay and all of Vietnam stand up and take note they may well be another victim of mass exploitation. Our tour guide tells us that they do have boats cleaning the waters and implies that because of the number of boats it’s impossible to keep the area clean. Our boat takes all its rubbish back to shore as do all of them, supposedly. He blames the local fishermen who are gradually being resettled on the mainland.

Although I struggle with this argument. People who have been fishing the seas for generations get it. Look after the environment or perish. It’s really that simple. Continuing at this rate Halong Bay will become more of a rubbish trap than it already is, which is a shame as it truly is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I really hope Vietnam will wake up before it’s too late …

Ship and island

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