The island paradise of Zanzibar, famous for its beautiful palm-shaded white sanded beaches and tranquility, has a much darker past. History has lost when it was originally colonised by African tribes, but the first foreigners, the Portuguese, arrived in the 1400s creating little more than a trading post for the island’s numerous spices. In the 1600s, the arabs arrived with the ousting of the Portuguese by the Sultans of Oman, who quickly established the island as a centre of distribution for the slave trade. (The name Zanzibar is a bastardisation of the Arab ‘Zanguesebar’ meaning black lands.)
In Africa, stretching thousands of miles inland, slaves would be sold to the arab traders by their chiefs, or having been captured by other tribes chiefs, or stolen en-route from other traders.
Men, women, and children were made to walk under the most appalling conditions to the eastern coast where they were shipped to Zanzibar. Many of the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands transported every year in this way died on this journey. If they were very ill onboard the ship they would never reach the town, instead they were thrown overboard to drown and be eaten by the dogs on the beaches in order to save the $1 duty.
On arrival at Stonetown, slaves were paraded and auctioned attracting different sums depending on their health, strength, attitude and youth. Mostly the slaves were destined for Arabic countries, with India and China starting to buy slaves through 1700s.
This photo (courtesy of the Slave Museum) Stonehouse, Zanzibar is heart rending.
Towards the end of the 1700s and on into the next century, a lot of interest was shown by the growing American market – not only for slaves but also for ivory. The traders would buy the slaves in Africa and use them to carry the ivory tusks to the coast. Ivory was a massive import into the US – through Connecticut – and was used amongst other things for piano keys and billiard balls.
In 1807 The British – who started the trade of slaves from West Coast Africa to the American colonies in the 1600s – abolished slavery and took it upon themselves to persuade everyone else to stop the dreadful practice of trading people. This led them to persuade the Sultans of Oman in Zanzibar to stop slaving, but it would take another hundred years (1909) before the last slave was sold in Zanzibar.
It was at this time that the British decided to make Zanzibar a Protectorate, mainly to prevent German ambitions along the east coast of Africa extending to the island. The granting of independence in 1963 depended on the Omanis deciding which of their sultans was going to be in charge, but this was made swiftly irrelevant when an uprising created the Republic of Zanzibar. The neighbouring mainland country of Tangynika, famous for the Kilimanjaro mountain, became a republic around the same time and the two countries decided to merge into a new country – Tanzania.
Tanzania – Pronounced tan-zan-nee-ah.
Sadly, the politics since independence have revolved around marxist/socialism with the inevitable state-controlled incompetence and corruption resulting in a very poor country. Blessed with fertile lands they are not starving, but there is almost no new infrastructure, broken foul drains, dilapidation, disease. The two bright stars are tourism and a universal adoption of the smartphone for banking. That is to say banking without the banks, people transfer money to and from phone accounts.
The authorities have been very good at preserving the look of the beautiful white sand beaches, preventing anything other than natural fronts to the hotels. Most of the island is encircled by reef, giving tranquil lagoons protected from the strength of the Indian ocean, but allowing the steady and strong trade winds to flow unhindered. This is probably why the most popular beach sport is kite surfing.
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The Masai teenagers travel from Kilimanjaro on mainland to earn some money. Really friendly good natured people.
The island is blessed with exotic wildlife. I managed to photograph a few…
Our trip included 3 nights on Safari in the Masai Mara, Kenya.
11/9 Fly to Nairobi LHR 10:25 to NBO 21:00 (Term 1B)
Kenya Airways 23:50 NBO to ZNZ 01:15
Get visa on arrival $50 ea in Nairobi and Zanzibar
Transfer to hotel booked with hotel – $80. It’s over an hour drive from the west-coast airport to the beaches on the east coast
Hotel 11/9 to 22/9 – Zanzibar 11 nights White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa
Review: White Sands Hotel – Perfect for honeymooners
Our hotel consisted of a group of 9 or so houses set in beautiful gardens where ever-busy African Weaver birds make their nests while chattering incessantly. Four have ocean views, we didn’t. But you could glimpse it from our large 1st floor veranda (2nd if you’re American), no more than 50m away. Each house has two self-contained suites, ground and first floor, sharing a plunge pool and lounge in private gardens. With an easy walk to the beach and restaurant bar overlooking the large lagoon spattered with kite surfers. The staff were really helpful, happy and efficient. The rooms were in very good condition and, as you’d expect at this price, high quality large beds and luxury en-suites. A perfect spot for honeymooners looking for tranquility, an iconic palm-edged white sand beach.
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22/9 Fly to Masai Mara
Flight from Zanzibar to Wilson airport Nairobi, Kenya
ZnZ 10:45 to NBO 12:00 Kenya Airways (Term 1A) Transfer to Wilson. 45mins arranged by safari lodge.
Light aircraft flight to Masai Mara and return to Wilson.
Masai Mara blog coming soon.
25/9 Transfer Wilson to NBO
NBO 23:30 to LHR 06:20 +1 Term 1B
We visited Tasmania in March 2018 as part of a larger trip to Australia.
I’d always thought of Tasmania as the essence of antipodean. Poles apart, strangely foreign, and mysterious. In fact it is quite the opposite. The state capital Hobart and the surrounding area is a wonderful mix of ocean and land wrapping and folding around themselves in a divine way that is like South Devon, England with knobs-on. Everybody is friendly. Everything is clean and fresh. Even the air. What an amazing place. Tassies regard themselves as very environmentally aware, I believe they’ve farmed organically for many years.
The countryside is like North Wales in appearance; old, smooth, rugged. Visiting anywhere other than Hobart means you’ll need to hire a car but this is great fun and you can easily spend 5 or more days exploring. You’ll need to lower your expectations on accommodation as the standard quickly drops as you go rural.
As in all of Australia, the people are friendly, helpful, positive and fun.
Day 05 – 2/3 Melbourne then fly to Tasmania 18:55 MEL to Hobart 20:10 MACq 01 Hotel, Hobart booked 3 nights
Hire car Thrifty via Rentalcars
The flight from Melbourne down to Hobart is short, cheap and popular. It’s an easy 25 minuted drive from the airport to the quayside in Hobart, the state’s capital city. Think relaxed, chilled, free-flowing traffic with wide roads and few cars.
I imagine many yachts-people might travel down for a weekend’s sailing escaping the hustle and bustle of Melbourne and relaxing in the beautiful bays of Australia’s island state.
We had a late meal at our trendy brand-new hotel right on the waterfront of Hobart’s estuary to the River Derwent, followed by a couple of cheeky cocktails and off to bed.
Day 06 – 3/3 Tasmania
Bruny Island – Captain Cook’s landing place
The classic Aussie breakfast of smashed avos and poached eggs on sourdough gave us a good start to the day. The plan was to nip over to the nearby and highly recommended Salamanca street market to buy a few trinkets and then drive down to Bruny Island later in the morning. As we walked out on the quayside by the hotel we saw this massive cruise ship moored next to us and completely dwarfing the small city.
The problem with cruise ships is they have thousands of people on them; all of whom disembarked and clogged up the market. I suppose the market wouldn’t be there were it not for the cruises, but Hobart is a popular destination and they visit on a daily basis.
Gratuitous photo of nice machine
The first experience of Tasmania’s countryside was a trip down to Bruny Island to see the light house and the bay where Captain Cook first landed at Tasmania. Take the road south out of Hobart and you are very quickly in the countryside for an easy half hour drive to Kettering to catch the tiny ferry over to Bruny Island.
Once on the island we drove down to the narrow ismuth separating Isthmus Bay with Adventure Bay where Captain Cook first landed. Pull over at The Neck Lookout and climb up to the view point. We missed looking at the Penguin Rookery but it was the middle of the day and they were probably out fishing.
It’s an hour drive down to Cape Bruny lighthouse but it wasn’t very impressive.
Mt. Mangana Forest
View from Lighthouse
Driving back we decided to drive over to Adventure Bay to see Cook’s landing place and take the direct route up into the mountains of Mt Mangana Forest reserve which I thoroughly enjoyed because the dirt track road made the driving great fun. I’m not sure the family liked the tail-slipping as much as me though.
Adventure Bay is a very low-end tourist spot with many camping and trailer home parks, much loved by Australians I’m told. The actual landing place for Cook is not very well signed so look for Resolution Creek – named after the ship he voyaged in. but we did spot a fascinating globe sculpture.
A couple of hours or so got us back into Hobart where we had booked the Mures Upper Deck restaurant. It got good ratings in TripAdvisor but we thought it was a bit naff. Serving overcooked deep-fried sea food at a full price and in a run-down restaurant. Avoid.
Day 07 – 4/3 Tasmania
Today the plan was to drive south-east to Port Arthur to see the former prison colony and then back for a late lunch at MONA and experience the museum.
Although the distances might seem long driving the roads of Tasmania (and for that matter Australia) are easy and relaxed the speed limit is low so you just sit back and enjoy the views.
The Port Arthur penal station was established in 1830 as a logging operation using convict labour to produce sawn logs for the government. It was used as a punishment station for repeat offenders from all the Australian colonies.
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With the brutal logic of Victorian times the rogue was ground from the man using discipline, punishment, religious and moral instruction and isolation. In the barracks, absolute silence was demanded and the men were prevented from seeing each other even at prayer.
It’s a fascinating and very well-delivered insight into the life those men had, the guards and their families and the local indigenous peoples. Well worth a visit.
MONA or Museum of Old And New Art is probably the most bizarre, diverse and questioning museum we’ve ever visited. Funded and founded by a self-made billionaire – who used his Asperger’s Syndrome to his advantage making his money gambling. It is also an amazing insight into a really special mind. The wall of vaginas – probably 25 plaster moulds of different genitalia is an easy example – driven home by the shop offering them for sale under the banner ‘treat yourself. Or your mum. She’d love that’. But, in fact, there were many far more interesting exhibits. If you like modern art you will find this a mentally exhausting roller coaster of experience.
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You must visit. If you don’t fancy the drive, they operate a camouflaged (well why not) super catamaran regularly out of Hobart.
We had probably our best lunch in Australia at their restaurant The Source.
Day 08 – 5/3 Tasmania
We left Hobart early for the long drive to Launceston taking a detour to Freycinet National Park to see Wineglass Bay. This took us along part of the Eastern Coastal Drive to Coles Bay going through a few small and slightly rundown towns like Swansea. No change there then! Coles Bay is a very small town whose biggest boast is a rather smart slipway for sailing dinghies and small motor boats plus a general store and a couple of eateries. Great views through the gum trees out to the ocean. Drive on for 3 miles to the park entrance, buy your entrance tickets, then drive up another mile or so to the furthest car park. There are numerous trails you can take but be careful to have plenty of water! Wineglass Bay is on the other side of the isthmus and to reach it you must climb up over the granite mountain pass. There are no roads to it. We stopped at the top’s Observation Area which takes about an hour and, given the substantial climb, we didn’t fancy walking down to the bay and having to climb back up again. We got a great view, but I’m not sure it was worth the time and effort.
This was the first time we saw a live kangaroo, all the rest were unfortunately roadkill. Tasmania has an enormous amount of roadkill and sadly was how we were introduced to the wallaby and wombat as well.
Review: Country Club Tasmania. The plan was to stay for 2 nights at this golf resort near Launceston. I won’t mince my words, it was shit. I thought it would be nice if we played a game of golf while we were there with our son who had joined us from his Melbourne home for the Tasmania trip. Cleverly, or so I thought, I booked a chalet with two rooms and a living room but on arrival our faces dropped. It was a Butlins style shabby cheap soulless affair that the family immediately rejected. I went back to the reception and asked if we cold stay in the main resort hotel instead which she reluctantly arranged and then as we drove over prayed it would be suitable. It wasn’t. It was like a throwback to the early 80’s with aztec patterns of odd greens and pinks, tired carpets a smell of stale cooking, and a general feel of being well beyond it’s sell by date. We hummed and hawed and decided to bail and try another hotel.
We stayed downtown in the Sebel Hotel which wasn’t much better.
Day 09 – 6/3 Launceston Tasmania
Our overnight stay was a reminder that once you’re out of the major conurbations Australia is not a wealthy country. We decided to forget the golf and, after a rummage around town, drive back to Hobart for another night’s stay at the lovely Macq 01 hotel.
Launceston named presumably after the Cornish original is pronounced ‘Lonston’ in Tasmania or ‘Lonny’ for short. It’s Tasmania’s second town and is very provincial. It seemed to be a market town for the surrounding areas specialising mostly in err… sheep.
We found a gluten-free restaurant called Samuel Pepys where we had a delicious breakfast followed by a walk in Launceston Park about a block in size and laid out as a formal garden. Small but nice. They had a small incongruoussanctuary for Macaque monkeys in the middle and who looked depressed.
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Lonny has a lovely gorge formed by the flow of the South Esk river and you can take a walk along its side for a mile or so to ornamental gardens made in Victorian times for the gentry to stroll in. It’s very nice and even has a chairlift that spans the river. Bizarrely we found a Scots piper half way along the walk. Well worth the visit.
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Our drive back to Hobart was punctuated by a brief stop off in the small township of Ross. The crossroads area is humorously referred to as the “Four Corners of Ross” with each corner having a label:
More importantly the local tea shop specialised in pies (savoury not sweet) and is a favourite snack for Aussies. But the Tasmanians have taken this one step further with their scallop and mushroom pie. Loving packed into a piping hot white sauce wrapped in pastry – my mouth is watering as I write this! Delicious
Day 10 – 7/3 Hobart then Fly to Melbourne
Our last day in Tasmania started with a visit to the Bonorong wildlife sanctuary where we finally saw live versions of Tasmania’s wildlife. The photos speak for themselves.
We then drove up to the peak of Mount Wellington to look down onto Hobart. Because of the steep climb it takes longer than you think. Allow 2 hours minimum.
And so farewell to lovely tranquil Tasmania. Australia’s beautiful island state. Would I recommend it? Definitely yes.
Easter Island: or as the indigenous population call it – Rapa Nui. Picture an island about the size of Jersey. Roughly triangular with an extinct volcano at each point. 3500km from Chile, 4500 km from Tahiti…. in the middle of nowhere….. One of the most remote islands on our planet.
Day 01 – 25/10 – Arrive Easter Island – 21-22c Partly Cloudy 09:20 SCL – IPC 13:15 LAN 841 – 6hr flight Transfer from airport to (and arranged by) hotel Check-in Hotel Altiplanico
There is a strange tranquility about this island that I have not experienced before. Everyone seems at peace with themselves but also respectful of others. I’m not sure I’ve really got the words for it.
The plane lands on a runway that occupies the only 2km bit of flat land available and coasts up to to a terminal that is smaller than itself. In fact the $300m dollar plane is probably worth more than the whole island.
Polynesian motifs abound along with recently deliver horse poo in the carpark. For some reason there are many horses on the island. Beautiful horses. The islanders don’t seem to eat them nor do they ride them. Maybe they just like the look of them.
The 10-seater van picked us up and drove the mile and a half to the hotel, quirky but nice. Having checked in we walked to the shore to a Maoi, had a late lunch at a local ‘restaurant’. A few cocktails before dinner then early to bed.
Day 02 – 26/10 – Explore – Sunny
Full day excursion taking in the Ahus of Maoi, their quarry nursery and the only beach, Anakena. Dinner at the hotel restaurant – ok.
If you‘ve ever been to Dartmoor (in England) imagine a nice summer day up on the moor, fairly high humidity, and the cornish coast lapping up next to you. Add some bizarre sculptures and you’re there – Easter Island. It is the most eastern part of the Polynesian triangle with New Zealand and Hawaii at the other apexes.
The islanders are mostly Rapa Nui (Easter Island Polynesian) and a smattering of vaguely unwelcome Chileans. It’s a very tolerant relaxed society – to my eye at least – and thank God no poverty. The island is obviously remote; so some resources are scarce and a ‘make-do’ approach akin to the British II World war experience prevails even to the hotels. They get a monthly ship for their logistics: everything else arrives by plane.
Day 03 – 27/10 – Explore – Drizzle turning sunny
Power failure on Island. Visited Rapa Nui museum then walked through town past airport intending to walk around volcano. In fact after 5km found very nice restaurant just out of town next to what stands for a port. Had a lazy lunch of fantastic local fish then walked back to hotel. Later in evening had disappointing meal in restaurant recommended by guide. Worth checking Tripadvisor but don’t expect gourmet cooking.
So to the nub. The volcanic island appeared from the pacific 3 million years ago and was eventually populated by Polynesian explorers sometime around 1000 A.D. Unusually for the Polynesians they didn’t just rape the island and move on … they stayed. And it was their demise. All the tribes’ universal ancestral worship began to be reflected in sculptural images that became the focus of their competitiveness. 800+ Moaori (pronounced Maw-eye) were completed from a nursery on the edge of a volcano. 250 or so were moved, somehow, to the religious sites called Ahu where, one presumes, they boasted there authority. Ahu are like churches, With a Tapu (taboo) forbidding all sorts of things like universal congregation To keep it for the Toffs. Because the Polynesians had no sense of preservation or land management they eventually ran out of wood which is when anarchy descended. The Rapa Nui started to starve and lost their revere of their ancestors. The Maoi were – carefully – toppled over to remove the supernatural power they provided but without disrespecting the ancestors.
The arrival of westerners in this instance the Portuguese gave the islanders, the obvious benefits of venereal disease, influenza and christianity that, when coupled with the raids by Peruvian pirates and enslavement of 1000 people, brought the community to its smallest with little more than a hundred remaining Rapa Nuis.
Their predominantly oral history (like our gaelics) meant that most if not all of their history was lost. Resulting with the enigma we are presented with today… Why did they bother making all those megaliths?
Day 04 – 28/10 – Pottered about in morning – Sunny day
Fly Depart Easter Island Arrive Santiago 14:55 IPC – SCL 21:35 4.5hr flight
Our 3 night 2 full-day tour was, in my opinion, ample for all but the most keen anthropologists. Nevertheless; a lifetime of memories.
A special thanks to the captain of our departing flight (787 Dreamliner – nice) the cabin crew ‘missed’ the oxygen mask demonstration before takeoff so the captain was obliged to fly below 14000 feet until it was completed. Bearing in mind the island is a ‘one horse town’ with only one flight per day one has to ask oneself why he needed to rush the take off. Nevertheless it was a bloody good excuse to circle the island at 2500 feet until the due diligence was completed. Fantastic.
October 2015: What an amazing country! We spent 18 days here and only just covered the southern half of this fantastic diverse huge country. Visit Chile for the scenery, wildlife and geology. The people are lovely kind and helpful. We can’t wait to go back and visit the ski resort just north of Santiago and, of course, the Atacama plain in the extreme north. One slight downer; don’t go for the gastronomic experience. While dining out is in-expensive and plentiful the food is surprisingly bland and vegetables are few and far between.
There is no direct flight from the UK so we flew BA to Rio de Janeiro, spent a few days there, and then on to Santiago. As the distances are so great air travel is essential, other than a quick trip to the coastal town Valparaiso. We flew nearly 23,000 miles on this trip. The national airline is LAN and their hub is at Santiago (SCL), hence the number of overnight stays. The airport is fresh and modern with a nice lounge if you are flying club. We flew club from Rio and to Easter Island. Most internal flights are economy only. LAN is a quality airline with a modern fleet. Chileans don’t associate travel with eating so consequently food at airports is very poor and limited.
1 night Santiago
3 nights Easter Island
1 night Santiago
2 nights Valparaiso
3 nights Pucon
1 night Huilo Huilo
1 night Puerto Varas
1 night Punta Arenas
3 nights cruise Magellan Straights & Tierra Del Fuego
2 nights Santiago
The Holiday Inn at the airport is literally 30m from Departures. It’s a very good, well insulated hotel and a useful hub if you are arriving late or departing early. Don’t feel you are missing out by not having a hotel in downtown Santiago.
If you are hiring a car, all the main companies have their vehicle drop-off and collections right behind the hotel.
We don’t speak Spanish which mostly is not a problem with tourist related venues and big towns and cities but if you’re lost in the boonies – beware.
Day 06 – 24/10 – Fly
Depart Rio Arrive Santiago
21-28c Mostly sunny, little rain.
15:20 GIG – SCL 19:20 LAN 787
Hotel Holiday Inn at Airport
Day 07 – 25/10 – Fly
Depart Santiago Arrive Easter Island
09:20 SCL – IPC 13:15 LAN 841
Day 10 – 28/10 – Fly
Depart Easter Island Arrive Santiago
14:55 IPC – SCL 21:35
Hotel Holiday Inn Airport
Day 11 – 29/10 – Drive
Santiago to Valparaiso via Casablanca valley wine region
Blog : Valparaiso and the Casablanca valley wine region – Two extremes
Day 13 – 31/10 – Drive Fly Drive
Drive from Valparaiso to Santiago airport
Depart Santiago arrive Temuco Maquehue airport
14:35 SCL – ZCO 15:55 LA 237 £185
Try and get a left-side window as you fly. You will see the spine of the Andes with it’s jagged and brutal landscape for the whole flight down. Interestingly and unlike the more familiar Alps, when at cruising altitude you can see right over the Andes and into the Argentinian Mendoza plains.
When you are about to land at Temuco this is what you can see. It could be Devon or Gloucestershire.
Temuco is a working town and so of no real value to the traveller other than access to the north of the Lake district. The airport is a typical 2-gate modern building with the hire care companies right outside. Book your hire car in advance. I recommend a 4×4.
Blog : Chilean Lake District – Truly beautiful countryside.
Day 18 – 05/11 – Drive Fly
Drive from Puerto Varas 1 hr 20k to Puerto Montt El Tepual Airport Depart Puerto Montt El Tepual Airport arrive Punta Arenas 16:20 PMC to PUQ 18:30 LA285 £243 15c cloudy feels colder due to windchill.
The drive from Puerto Varas to Puerto Montt El Tepual Airport is a bit confusing so make sure you have good directions or sat nav. My alter ego Gerald nearly missed the flight by not bothering to check the route. You can read his light-hearted short story here.
On arrival at Punta Arenas airport take a taxi into town. It takes about 1/2 an hour and costs about £20.
Blog : Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego – Utterly desolate, the most amazing place.
Day 22 – 09/11 – Fly
Fly Depart Punto Arenas arrive Santiago
17:30 PUQ to SCL 20:50 LA286 £ 295 Transfer to hotel downtown.
We checked in to the Hotel Lastarria £180/n – £240/n. We had a ‘Superior Junior Suite’. Its a 2014 TripAdvisor winner and part of the Splendia group but we didn’t like it. The room was very small (our normal minimum is 25m2 and this was larger but due to the poor layout seemed much smaller). The intention was to spend our last day exploring Santiago, stay another night at Lastarria, then get an early cab to the airport.
23 – 10/11 – Explore Santiago
Transfer to Holiday Inn at airport.
The following morning we decided we would leave the hotel a day early with a late check out, explore the attractions of Santiago and take late afternoon cab to the airport Holiday Inn! It is counter-intuitive but it had good food, nice rooms, comfortable beds and allowed us a decent breakfast before our 9.40 flight to Sao Paulo.
Santiago is a hugely disappointing city, which I wouldn’t bother visiting and certainly wouldn’t recommend. There is a hill with an old funicular taking you to a modern open-air church at the top and some decent views of downtown. There is a nice square called Plaza de Armas but there is no cafe culture and it’s difficult to get an alcoholic drink.
My advice would be to give yourself another day in one of the country’s beautiful regions.
24 – 11/11 – Fly
Depart Santiago arrive Sao Paulo
09:40 SCL to GRU 14:45. LA760
Depart Sao Paulo arrive London Heathrow
17:25 GRU to LHR 06:55 BA0246
We visited Singapore in August 2016. Part of a longer trip to Hong Kong, Borneo and Singapore
5 Nights – Hong Kong
7 Nights – Borneo
2 Nights – Singapore
Day 14 – 1/8 Arrive Singapore from Borneo Depart BKI 14:45 to SIN 17:10 AK1791
Transfer to Hotel – Mandarin Oriental
We had pretty much two full days in Singapore and I would say for an adults-only trip that is long enough. Maybe a third day but no more. Friends with younger families have said Sentosa Island with it’s busy beaches and attractions is worth a few days but this didn’t appeal to us.
To say you can ‘do’ Singapore in two days is not to belittle it’s delights – it’s a lovely clean beautiful city with fantastic architecture and interesting friendly people – but it is small.
We landed at the International Changi airport which is on the island and no more than 30 minute cab ride from anywhere else. Decorated in tans and browns it could be from a scene in a New York 70’s cop movie although the large signs saying ‘Mandatory Death Sentence for trafficking drugs’ is a bit daunting. It makes you double-check yourself even though the hardest thing you’ve had in the last three years is a packet of Sharp’s Extra Strong Mints.
Day 15 – 2/8 Explore
We did the Hop-on Hop-off tourist bus thing as it’s a quick way of ‘getting the grip’ of a city without wasting time on stuff you don’t want to do. We also use the Berlitz pocket guides, they can be very good and they’re cheap.
The leg around Marina Bay is most interesting and takes you to the awesome Garden By The Bay of which, more later. We ended up picking the leg into China Town and is well worth doing for the shopping. Touristy but interesting. Keep an eye out for a very Chinese department store for an other world experience. We misjudged our timing and missed the last hop-on-hop-off and for some reason started to walk back to the hotel in the sweltering heat. Finally, and with tempers frayed, we caught a cab thinking why on earth didn’t we do this before! The cabbie was a mad Japanese guy who insisted on showing us a ‘proper’ Japanese video on his phone idolising the destruction of the Yamato battleship while laughing at us for being in the sun shouting ‘you look like prawns!’ Bizarre.
In the evening we had a really nice steak – best steaks we’ve ever had – but not cheap. The Wagyu is incredibly expensive but the Aussie marbled offering are so tasty. There are a number of restaurants to choose from but be prepared for a big bill! Some of these places are booked weeks in advance so get googling.
Day 16 – 3/8 Explore then late evening flight to London
Depart SIN 22:40 – 05:10 LHR BA016
We had an early-ish start planned for a day sight seeing with an evening flight back to London. Following breakfast we left our luggage with reception and hopped on the bus to the Marina Bay Sands complex. The three skyscrapers are topped with what looks like a boat but is in fact a restaurant and swimming pool. At the bottom is a huge atrium which you walk through in order to get to the Garden By The Bay. You feel like you’ve walked 200 years into a utopian future with two beautiful ‘domes’ housing a desert environment and a tropical one. Outside are the huge supertrees, vertical gardens that seem so strange. Apparently they are just as interesting at night time.
We decided to have a light lunch pool side at the top of the hotel and while the food was mediocre the experience was unforgettable.
Afterwards we took the good old hop-on hop-off to the nearest stop to the famous Raffles Hotel for some afternoon tea.
There are no direct flights from London to Burma. You can fly from hubs like Dubai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong to Yangon and Mandalay.
Trip Summary (Feb 2017)
2 nights Hong Kong
2 nights Yangon (Rangoon)
3 nights river cruise Bagan to Mandalay
2 nights Mandalay (too long, 1 day is enough)
2 nights Lake Inle
6 nights Ngapoli
01 – 2/2 Fly to Hong Kong 18:25 LHR to HKG 14:20 BA0031 (A380 Biz)
02 – 3/2 Arrive HKG 14:20 Hotel Shangri-La. Kowloon (See previous review – LINK)
03 – 4/2 Hotel Shangri-La. Kowloon
04 – 5/2 Fly to Yangon Hotel Shangri-La. Kowloon Check-out
Transfer to airport 3 hours before departure
14:50 HKG to RGN 16:20 Myanmar Air UB-8028 T2
Transfer to hotel (booked with hotel)
Check-in : The Strand Hotel
Don’t try and cut the time fine. Leaving 2 hours before flying is probably too late. It can take an hour to get to the airport from the island and it can take at least an hour from the moment you walk in the terminal door to getting to your gate. The airport is ok but I’d go for the Japanese food rather than the Chinese as the former provide more normal food and the latter don’t. E.g. pigs stomachs (greasy).
Always pre-arrange transfers from and to the airport with your hotel.
Tourist visas: you can get these online for $50 each. Don’t forget!
The most important word to describe Myanmar is : Buddhism. It is completely intertwined with their lives and defines the environment and the people and culture you will be enjoying.They are not a people keen on possessions which is good because mostly they don’t have any. Very little has been done to the country since the British left in 1947 and so has a similar feel to Sri Lanka albeit not quite as poor.
There are tens of thousands of pagodas in Myanmar so, if pagodas with their temples and stupas are not your thing you may not want to be considering Myanmar as a destination.
Don’t even think about hiring a car, I’m not even sure you can. There is no liability insurance, mopeds rule and if you are involved in an accident with one it will always be your fault.
The local currency is the Kyat which varies between 1000 and 1500 to the USD. There are plenty of ATM’s to get these from. You will need them for taxi rides, attraction entrance fees etc but expect to pay hotel, dining and bar bills in USD. American Express seems unpopular so take something else too.
Yangon is by and large a very run down city. When it gained independence from the British in the 40’s it was left with a functioning democracy that faltered after a few years due to regional dissatisfaction and political infighting that led to a military junta takeover in the early 50s that lasted until roughly 2010. Sadly the nationalisation that then occurred meant that nothing was cared for or improved for 60 years. Poor roads, dangerous pavements, decrepit buildings with trees growing out of the walls; there are even bombed out buildings left over from WWII. Nevertheless it’s a busy city full of lots of friendly people who snack a lot. Their most favourite snack is boiled quail egg which they can shell in a blink of an eye. Hygienic I suppose. The street sellers either carry their wares on their heads or set up little stalls or packing crates to attract the punters.
The most amazing place to go to is the Buddhist Shwedagon Pagoda which has the eponymous stupa standing 100m (300ft) tall covered in gold leaf in the centre. To give you an idea of scale the little round disk at the top is 12ft dia. You can buy a postage-stamp piece of gold leaf and apply it with a wish to this Buddha, men-only. Each evening a thin layer of adhesive is applied for the next day’s gold leaf to stick to. Some reach a foot thick before they are ‘harvested’ for the benefit of the pagoda.
It’s very popular with the locals, who revere it, and tourists alike. At 2600 years old I’m amazed it isn’t a world heritage site but, apparently it fails because they continually renovate it (every century or so!).
Buddhism is the most popular religion in Myanmar (pronounced ‘me’ ‘an’ ‘mar) with a following of 87%. Of course, as it’s really a philosophy and not a religion, many buddhists are also christian or muslim.
The Kyaukhtatgyi Pagoda (reclining Buddha) is also very interesting and popular shrine but where Shwedagon is beautiful and sophisticated, Kyaukhtatgyi is gaudy and tacky. Still worth a visit.
Other places you may want to visit include the Botataung Pagoda, Sule Pagoda, the National Museum and Scott Market. We wanted to go to the museum and market but they are closed on Sunday and Monday.
I would recommend having a guide. The hotel should be able to provide one on short notice. Ours cost about $50. You can then walk about through the hustle and bustle without concern. It’s not dangerous it’s just impenetrable. Our guide encouraged us to take the small ferry across the Irrawaddy river and back to get a good view of the city. For me it was more fascinating watching the people making there way to work or wherever, buying egg snacks or freshly cut pineapple or pickled plums. They decorate their cheeks with a liberally applied yellowish powder made from ground tree bark called Thanaka. It’s supposed to have skin cleansing properties and also a UV block. I’m not so sure.
A word of caution : hygiene. This is not a hygienic country and so you should definitely not buy any street food unless it’s something you can peel. If you are in a hotel or western restaurant bar check whether the water is filtered otherwise: no ice, no salads, check the bottled water is unopened, no ice cream, clean your teeth with bottled water. You have been warned! Personally I’d avoid meat as they don’t seem to know how to cook it and they don’t waste anything. E.g all the gristly bits and skin of chicken will be in your curry.
Burmese food leans towards it’s Indian neighbour but is mildly spiced and may have some Thai hints too. They’re not good or imaginative cooks I’m afraid.
We only had one full day in Yangon which I consider to be enough. Stay for no more than two days.
05 – 6/2 Hotel : The Strand
Review : The Strand Hotel Yangon. A super swish hotel where service and attention to detail is second to none. Situated near the port, the hotel is a 3 floor colonial style building built in 1902 and recently renovated to a very high standard. High ceilinged colonial luxury updated by extremely tasteful contemporary interiors, the hotel has been host to many famous visitors like Rudyard Kipling, Earl Mountbatten and in recent years Mick Jagger and George Soros. You can imagine the story swapping in the lovely bar sipping on a cocktail or two. The operations manager Mark will personally greet you and introduce you to your butler who will look after your every need. He clearly runs a very well oiled machine despite the constraints imposed by a newly emerging economy. Minor criticisms were a cumbersome internet login, and a slow to deliver breakfast. Our bathroom (room 211) suffered from slow water flow and was in need of an update. Otherwise I can’t fault the room or the hotel. It has earned its place on the LHW list.
Interestingly, the betel nut – a mild stimulant – is sold everywhere. Wrapped in a banana leaf with the white powder of slaked lime added to reduce acidity I suppose, it is often enhanced with cigarette tobacco and saltpetre added to the chewing mix. Yuck.
06 – 7/2 Fly to Bagan Transfer to airport (45 mins) 10:00 RGN to NYU 11:20 AirKBZ240 (Nyaung-U)
Transfer to cruise ship
Check-in on board Sanctuary Ananda on the Irrawady (Ayerarwady) River
We used air KBZ for all our internal flights, allow about $120 for each ticket. They use new twin-engined ATR turboprops, encouraging. Flying is by far the safest and easiest way to travel turning a 14 hour drive into a 1 hour flight.
We had booked a 3 night cruise on a smart river boat called the Sanctuary Ananda, they collected us from the airport (you will pay extra) for the 5km transfer to the river. Don’t expect smart quays or pontoon walks out to the boat. We arrived at a beach where a small tender took us into the middle of the river to board the boat.
The river is home to literally millions upon millions of moths, whatever you do, don’t leave your window or door open. Your room will be covered in minutes.
Cruise : The Sanctuary Ananda is a very smart river boat of about 25 cabins.Tim the operations manager greeted us with a South African accent and a welcome drink while we checked in. We had a suite of about 40 m2 with a nice ensuite and private balcony but I think all were of a high standard and that was reflected in the price. The head chef had spent many a year with the Mandarin Oriental group and was an accomplished chef delivering dish after dish of exquisite asian and international food throughout our trip. The suite was excellent with proper air-conditioning and a decent shower. There was even wifi but the internet connection was understandably hit and miss as on a boat in the middle of the Irrawaddy! Everyone was more than helpful with our needs, a free linen service, and the tours were carefully planned and executed. Well done, we look forward to enjoying some of your other venues.
The afternoon saw us take a coach journey stopping firstly at the Ananda Temple. The classic layout is a square sometimes with one large Buddha or, as in this instance, four smaller ones on each side of the square.
We then arrived at the Kayminga Pagoda to watch the sunset from the top of the stupa. This is shortly to be stopped and an observation platform to be erected to prevent tourist footfall wearing out the relic. Monks are universal in Myanmar and this one seems to have straddled the gap between old and new as he checks WhatsApp on his phone!
07 – 8/2 River Cruise to Mandalay
Balloon flight over Bagan !
Buddhists are fatalists believing that the day they die was decided before they were born. Consequently the only professional balloon pilots are North American, British, Ozzie or Kiwi who have that sense of self-preservation that is so reassuring to us passengers!
We’d never flown in a hot air ballon before so we were really looking forward to the experience. We were not disappointed. We arrived at the (air) field in the dark and were ushered into ringed off areas, one for each of the 16 balloons flying that day, for safety instruction. Pretty straightforward really: sit down and hold on. Although you can stand up while flying. They use giant fans to start filling the balloons with the baskets lying on their sides. Once nearly full they use carefully the burners to lift the balloon upright whereupon all the passengers jump in. The burners are awesomely powerful and quickly lift the balloon off the ground into the pre-dawn sky. The tranquility is palpable and you quickly learn to ignore the burner blasts. We slowly drifted over the ground towards the pagodas of Bagan as the sun breached the horizon, (there are more than 2400) some just brickwork others gloriously clad in gold leaf, some tall some small: fantastic. After dawn we continued over the empty fields towards an isolated village of a hundred huts or so. It occurred to us that there was a huge sound system coming from the village playing the local radio station. The pilot said that the balloon Co. had just paid to have electricity installed at the village and they were celebrating by playing music from dawn to dusk. We could hear it from 2km away. Felt like a benign version of a scene from Apocalypse Now. Quite bizarre. As we floated 20 foot over the village we had kids waving up at us, Oxen bellowing and music blaring.
Our flight was 80 minutes in duration due to the wind direction and available landing fields, most are 40 minutes apparently. I was quite surprised at how the pilots can navigate using their knowledge of winds moving in different directions at different heights. Of course the pilots are a bit cocky but there is only about 300 world-wide so I suppose they are entitled.
It is a must-do on your bucket list, it costs about $200 each and it’s money well spent. We felt perfectly safe at all times. Don’t forget to book well in advance as these flights are always full.
We were too late to join the morning visit to Shwezigon Pagoda and local market so decided we’d rest up following the early start. After lunch the boat slipped it’s mooring and headed upstream.
08 – 9/2 River Cruise to Mandalay
In the afternoon we arrived in Mandalay and went to nearby Saigan Hill to see the Monastery and Aung Myae Oo School for disadvantaged children and on to the Soon U Shin Pagoda. You can see a pattern being established here with the Myanmar immensely proud of all of the pagodas but to be honest, we were a bit ‘templed-out’ by this point!
The best bit of the day was dusk at the U Bein Bridge which spans the Taungthaman Lake (southern) between the old capital of Mandalay and the even older capital Amararapura. U Bein means ‘thin man’ and was named after the clerk who managed the build 1.2 km bridge made of teak in the 1840’s. You should arrange this with a guide and arrive an hour before sunset where you will board a small rowing boat with a rower and room for two. There are many dozens of these on the lake and they make a beautiful sight as they row out to the middle ready to enjoy the beautiful sunset silhouetting the bridge. If you’re lucky your guide will have arranged for a glass of champagne to be in your hands at sunset.
09 – 10/2 River Cruise to Mandalay Disembark then transfer to hotel (booked with cruise company)
Checkin – Eastern Palace Hotel Mandalay
Morning tour of Mandalay Mahamuni (called the Image of Buddha)and Kuthodaw Pagodas UNESCO (worlds biggest book 1400 pages on 700 slabs of marble) and the Schwenandon Monastery (made of teak). We came across this fantastical procession en route to the temple to celebrate children initiating as novice monks. Amazing.
An afternoon of rest.
10 – 11/2 Mandalay – explore
Review : Eastern Palace Hotel
Originally a Best Western Hotel, it’s clean and functional but also spartan and bleak. Seems to lack any soul. Service level is not very good because they are inefficient and their foreign language skills are poor. To be fair they are keen to help, like all Burmese. The restaurant was very basic with basic food too. The Sky rooftop bar is literally a pop-up bar on the roof, it is not really a floor. I admire the entrepreneur who created the bar (not part of the hotel) but it was very basic. This would be a good place for a stopover between flights but not more than 1 night. We went to a local Indian curry house for dinner and it was very good.
Went shopping in morning, with a guide who charged about $35 and a private taxi who charged the same. We visited a gold leaf making factory shop. the gold leaf is incredibly thin. A 5g piece of gold, smaller than a pea, can be beaten out to a sheet 200ft x 200ft! I’m sure their are modern techniques but in Myanmar it’s manual once they’ve cut the piece of gold.
Mandalay is very dusty and poor though. One night is enough.
11 – 12/2 Fly to Heho (Lake Inle) Eastern Palace Hotel – checkout
Transfer to airport (booked with hotel)
10:15 MDL to HEH 10:50
Collect from airport by guide for tour on way to hotel
Check in Hotel Villa Inle Resort & Spa
12 – 13/2 Explore Lake Inle- explore en route
Check in Hotel Villa Inle Resort & Spa.
Collected from airport by guide for tour on the way to Lake Inle. We visited Taunggyi (The capital city of the Shan state 40 km and 90mins drive from the airport) to look at a local food market. It confirmed my decision to not eat meat as they don’t refrigerate or cover it resulting in a rotting smell and fly covered meat. ‘Very fresh’ said the guide, I don’t think so.
We then drove to Aye Thar Yar Winery. Don’t bother, the wine tasting flight started with a cloudy, off bottle of red followed by only two of the three promised wines. The food was pretty poor too. Shame as it was a nice location. Next was Shwe Yan Pyae Monastery, another teak monastery. Forgettable. Our last stop before the hotel was the Red Mountain Winery. There is a great view over the vineyards and a perfect place to watch the sunset. It does get busy. The wine is surprisingly nice but more like a Greek wine than French.
Review Hotel Villa Inle Resort & Spa
This is a beautiful hotel in verdant grounds overlooking the lake. Most rooms are separate wooden buildings on stilts. They are really nice with dark wood interiors, vaulted ceilings, air conditioning and large amounts of glass looking out over the lake. The beds are very romantic taking pride of place in the room with a high mosquito net covering it. Make sure you use the net and keep it closed! Bug spray is essential too. Sadly the restaurant, while trying hard, was simply not good enough. My guess is the chef had no international exposure and really didn’t know what good food tasted like. That said, the service level was exemplary from the cleaners all the way up to the general manager.
Which leads me on to hygiene. Several people had told us you will catch a tummy bug at Lake Inle as it’s too polluted and the Burmese appear to not understand hygiene. Despite our best efforts we caught it and it was the kind of bug that kept on giving throughout the rest of the holiday. 😦 Visiting the lake was a fantastic experience but I would think twice about revisiting.
We booked a private boat tour with the hotel ($35) to tour the lake and visit the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery, Floating Gardens, Inn Pawkhon. It was one of the most amazing experiences we have ever had and will be a life long memory. The floating beds of hyacinth held in place with sticks in the lake bed retaining fresh water tomato plants, the crazy engined dart-like boats pushing through the plants or jetting across the lake throwing huge spumes of water behind them, the aquatic bird life, the beautiful millpond surface of the lake itself reflecting the cloudless sky. Just beautiful. We also visited a local tribe who lived on the lake in stilted building to be met with weird brass-ringed long necked ladies. Apparently for beauty. I couldn’t see it myself. Don’t feel the need to stop anywhere else other than maybe the market. Stay on the boat and soak up the views.
13 – 14/2 Fly to Thandwe Transfer to airport leave 2.5 hours before flight. 12:30 HEH to SNW 13:30 AirKBZ K7241
Transfer to hotel 10 min drive (hotel shuttle)
Check in : Amazing Ngapali Resort
He Ho airport is the worst maintained airport we have ever visited; disgusting.
Thankfully Thandwe (serving Ngapali beach) is the complete opposite.
14 – 15/2
Hotel: Amazing Ngapali Resort
Review : As the name implies, this is an amazing hotel. We had a separate beach front detached villa with private veranda and steps right on to the beach. Day room on ground floor and bedroom dressing room and bathroom on first floor. The bedroom’s large balcony had enough room to sit comfortably and gaze at the beach and sea. Waking up to the surf and being able to sit up and see the sea was remarkable. Similarly the sunsets. Unfortunately we shared our room with another individual, a little mouse whose daring and skill was quite impressive. The mouse ignored the poison the hotel laid and kept us awake for two hours a night running under the bed, nicking biscuits off the bedside table and making a racket. After the third night he visited, and our last at the hotel, we felt we had to complain. The manager and team were very apologetic and understanding offering one night free for our trouble. Reasonable. They also gave genuine help in sorting out a cancelled flight problem for us. Well done.
15 – 16/2
Hotel: Amazing Ngapali Resort
16 – 17/2
Hotel: Amazing Ngapali Resort
17 – 18/2
Hotel: Amazing Ngapali Resort
18 – 19/2
Hotel: Amazing Ngapali Resort
19 – 20/2 Fly
Transfer to airport – courtesy of hotel (10mins)
13:45 SNW to RGN 14:35 AirKBZ 241
(2hr 10 min layover…)
16:45 RGN to HKG 21:20 UO1728 Hong Kong Express
(Check all way through to LHR via JetAirways)
(2hr 25 min layover…)
23:45 HKG to LHR 04:55 BA0028 (777 Biz)
A long, long day back to London.
20 – 21/2
Arrive LHR 04:55
A day less time in Mandalay. A longer layover between the return flights as delays are common.
March 2016: Our experience of South Africa has been really positive. The people are full of hope and enthusiasm for the future and their children’s part in it. It’s been 22 years since Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected President and a lot has changed since then. Sadly, as a friend said, it would appear that the government is rife with corruption and that the biggest thing to come from Mandela’s reign is the creation of a black ‘elite’ to go alongside the white’s. Leaving millions of very poor people still struggling. There is still a lot to be done.
There is undeniable poverty in South Africa. Thankfully, there is no starvation as the country is so fertile but for the people living in townships life is hard. I’m sure crime is a big issue, sanitation is a stand-pipe and portaloos on the roadside but things are changing. Living in these shanty towns is rent-free, everyone has access to free primary schools, and health care is available but limited. Some choose to stay in the townships avoiding paying rent, they pay for electricity and as you can see some have satellite dishes. The government has a program for residents to move from the corrugated iron structures to nice newly built houses. The waiting list is long – 3/5 years.
Our experience of driving in South Africa was good. They drive on the left hand side. The roads are wide and well cared for, in fact better than some of the roads in the UK. Most people drive sensibly and within the speed limits which go right down to 60km/h near the townships. There are no zebra crossings (ironically) or bridges so to cross the road you must walk. This is probably the reason why the country has 40 times more vehicle related deaths than the UK. While most people speak English and would happily give directions, for security reasons, I would definitely recommend you have a sat-nav. We took a TomTom from home and downloaded the map for southern Africa that cost about 80 pounds or the same price the hire company wanted. Might come in handy in the future! The Western Cape area seems generally safe as long as you don’t decide to drive through the townships at night. I can’t speak for the rest of the country but many people say Johannesburg is very different.
We had a very interesting conversation with a chap called Thulani Ntsukwana of the Xhosa tribe. A well spoken guy fluent in English, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu. He introduced us to a young lady doing work-experience called nDomber whom he described as one of the ‘Born Free’. She was born in 1997 and of course has benefited hugely from the Mandela legacy of forgiveness, acceptance, tolerance, and hope that almost everyone in SA holds as a candle in the wind. “We don’t want her to grow up looking backwards. We want her to look forwards.” He earns about 2000 rand a month (that’s about 90 pounds) and yes prices are much cheaper here but….. He is a member of an NGO that supports the poor people – he has a good job and proudly does not consider himself poor – and pays 20% of his salary to help local kids get a uniform to go to school. “Our future is all about education” he says. You’ve got to admire this nation. A rainbow nation.
We booked a return flight to Johannesburg rather than Cape Town because Jo’burg is SAA’s hub and most flights go via it. This allowed us to save some connections at the beginning of the trip.
Situated north-east of Johannesburg the Kruger National Park is about the size of Wales. We took the SAA direct flight from Jo’Berg Oliver Tambo airport Terminal 2 to Hoedspruit a small airport in the middle of the bush. It’s a turboprop flight so flies low enough for you to see the lie of the land. If you are flying in from the UK, BA offer an overnight flight landing about 7am, perfect for the connecting flight.
Day 01 – 4/3 Fly
Arrive Johannesburg 06:55 Terminal A
Collect luggage then transit to Terminal B
10:15 JNB – HDS 11:20 SAA 1225
Transfer to hotel (arranged with hotel)
Day 05 – 8/3 – Fly
Transfer to airport (arranged with hotel) 12:00 HDS – JNB 13:00 Terminal B – SAA 1226
Transfer to Pretoria Sheraton (Booked via hotel)
Safety! Always get the hotel to arrange transfers to and from attractions. It’s not safe enough for tourists to book a cab and don’t even think about walking! Having said that, as long as you use your common sense, you will be fine.
Day 06 – 9/3 – Train
06:45 Transfer to Pretoria Station from hotel (booked via hotel)
Day 22 – 25/3 – Fly
Depart Plettenberg Bay
Check-out The Plettenberg, drive to George Airport, fly to Cape Town
13:00 GRJ – CPT 13:50 SAA 8362
transfer to hotel (booked with hotel)
An easy drive of an hour to the local airport in George leaves you with a 50 minute flight to Cape Town. We had a final night there and it was a nice ‘full-stop’ to our holiday. Alternatively you could fly directly from George to Johannesburg but it costs 3 times the price of the trip to Cape and the last flight gets you into Jo’burg at 3pm leaving you with a 6 hour layover before flying home.
The drive from Plettenberg to George airport 1hr 30mins. Returning the hire car was straightforward and well signed. It’s a tiny airport and you only need to check 1 hour before the flight.
A final night in Cape Town buying gifts …. and a stay at the Radisson Blue Waterfront then fly back to Johannesburg and our connecting flight to London.
Day 23 – 26/3 – Fly
Transfer to airport (arranged with hotel) 16:45 CPT – JNB 18:50 Terminal B – SA 2024
Collect luggage transfer to Terminal A
21:30 JNB – LHR 07:45 (next day) BA0054 T5
At this time of year it is South Africa’s autumn with the coastal temperature in the mid 20’s. It is also quite windy so don’t be deceived and get burnt. The Kruger was much hotter and humid; around 35C.
I don’t know how I missed it but BA operate several flights a day between Cape Town and Johannesburg. This meant I could have checked in all the way and got a few more air-miles!
We arrived at Plettenberg Bay late afternoon and were struck by its beauty and lack of tourist development. There are some hotels but they are obscured from view in this photo. The bay is fairly windswept but is fine for sun bathing. A bar/restaurant nestles at the base of the promontory at the base of the sand bar. Simple but nice food was enjoyed over a lazy lunch which also gave us one of the best experiences of our life. While we were eating a school of maybe 6 dolphins swam into the bay and spent about 45 minutes surfing the waves up to nearly the beach. Of course they are inside the waves but they obviously liked the exhilarating ride. Maybe they also enjoyed the view! We had an incredible view of them surfing in and swimming back out and were only 200m away from us. Sadly, I only had my iPhone and it’s not good enough to see much. Our waiter seemed to think we’d enjoyed a rare treat to see so many. Special. The walk out along the sand bar is well worth it.
Day 18 – 21/3 – Rest
We had a couple of rainy days during our stay but we consoled ourselves by staying in our room overlooking the bay and chilling. It wasn’t cold though.
Review : Plettenberg Bay Hotel. We stayed here for 5 nights in March 2016. It’s a luxury hotel for couples and we were fortunate enough to have booked one of the best rooms with a corner aspect overlooking the pool bay and ocean. The hotel felt more like staying at a rich friends’ beach-side villa with lovely public rooms and a nice restaurant. Breakfast was delightful and a lot of locals seemed to dine there in the evening. Our experience of the dinner was ok but perhaps we were a bit jaded. The staff were excellent, friendly and enthusiastic. Overall the hotel manages that rare thing only the best can do – make you feel at home.
Day 19 – 22/3 – Explore
Having the hire car at our disposal made exploring the area a lot easier. There are quite a few different activities to do around here including nature/game reserves, hiking, zip wires, boat rides etc. We just wanted to potter about and having just been to the Kruger were definitely safari’d out.
Knysna is a nice town to visit. Originally a port for wood logging – before they were all cut down, presumably for the ships visiting Cape Town. It has a fresh clapperboard feel to it that, coupled with the marina, is very relaxing. There are plenty of nice touristy shops in the Waterfront area and a range of good restaurants too.
Day 20 – 23/3 – Explore
Lunch at the East Head Cafe, overlooking the inlet to Knysna Bay, was highly recommended and we weren’t disappointed. Hour-long queues showed us how popular it is, so we booked a table and spent an enjoyable hour walking along a cliff-side nature trail
Their signature cocktail the Pink Hibiscus Gin & Tonic is a must for any man comfortable with his sexuality.
Day 21 – 24/3 – Explore
Noetzie Beach is part of a game reserve and is reached from the main road by a several mile long track leading to the adjacent game reserve. There is a small car park from where you can walk down the fairly long set of steps to the beach. There are a handful of very upmarket villas for rent – well a couple actually look like castles – and the beach is beautiful.
Officially, the Garden Route starts at Mossel Bay and ends just past Plettenberg Bay en-route to Port Elizabeth. However most people will consider the journey as starting from Cape Town. It’s a fantastic driving route. Travel is on good roads with plenty of towns and service stations to stop for rest and replenishment.
Day 13 – Depart Cape Town for Drive to Franschhoek
First stop from Cape Town is Franschhoek.
We randomly chose to visit the Simonsig Wine Farm near Stellanbosch on our journey toward Franschhoek. We didn’t bother with the wine tasting but we did taste the wine over lunch. Very nice wine and a fantastic lunch. One of the best fillet steaks we have had world-wide and we have travelled a lot. Nothing fancy just a really really good tender beef full of flavour and perfectly cooked.
Following lunch we had a leisurely drive of under an hour to Franschhoek and the eponymous hotel. We decided we would have quiet night in spoilt a bit by naff room-service food.
Review : Le Franschhoek Originally we were going to spend three nights in Paarl at the Grand Roche. We decided to change and stay in Franschhoek. Because of the late change we could not get our first choice hotel for all three nights. So for the first night we stayed at the Le Franschhoek. We were disappointed. This is a tired hotel much in need of updating. The staff were sort of friendly but not really helpful and I was put off by the parking porter asking for a tip. Charging for wi-fi in-room is also a no-no in my opinion especially when your are paying a good price. It probably had a major remodel in the 80’s with a further refresh about 2010. A lick of paint, new carpets and changing the bathroom taps is not enough. We stayed in room 11 from memory. The bed was one of the most uncomfortable hotel beds I have slept on with a wooden frame and wooden slats for the mattress to lay on. The slats didn’t reach the bottom of the bed so when you sat on the end it collapsed. The bathroom was clean but tatty with a too narrow bath. I said to my wife ‘it’s not too bad apart from the uncomfortable bed and tatty bathroom is it?’ and her reply was ‘well… what’s more important in an hotel than the bed and the bathroom?’ Buffet breakfast nothing cooked to order.To top it off the checkout time was 10am and they wanted to charge 10 quid for every hour after! For the price: avoid.
Day 14 – 17/3 Explore
Following breakfast we drove the short distance into town and spent an interesting half an hour visiting Le Huguenot Memorial which is dedicated to the life and works of the Hugenots escaping persecution for 16th century France. Happily, they brought the first vines seen in South Africa’s Western Cape with them.
Our discovery of the Franschhoek Motor Museum was a very pleasant surprise. The museum is well worth a visit and takes about an hour. Notably: Nelson Mandela’s bullet proof 7-Series BMW post leaving Robben Island but pre-presidency.
Had lunch in the high street at The French Connection. Quite good food with a nice vibe.
We checked in at the Last Word, billed as the best place to stay in Franschhoek (By Trip Advisor at least) and we were not disappointed.
Review : The Last Word – A luxurious bed & breakfast tucked away in the high street sporting no more than 8 delightful rooms. We were made very welcome and they could not have been more helpful. Despite an 1pm check-in they made sure we were ok recommended somewhere for a lazy lunch and by the time we got back about 3pm our room (5) was available. And very nice it was too. Large elegantly decorated with a small walled terrace, great bathroom, plenty of storage and a comfy bed! Breakfast was excellent with the best pork sausages I’ve had in a long time but let down by over cooked eggs and a complete inability to make hollandaise sauce. To be fair, it was at least homemade. Thoroughly recommended.
Dinner at the Dutch East Restaurant. We sat outside but the wind was up and so a bit chilly. Food was ok, as was the service.
Day 15 – 18/3 – Explore
Had a look round the shops in Franschhoek and a couple of nice art galleries. We then drove back to Stellanbosch, a university town, for a look round. It’s got a large village green with a few artisanal temporary shops around it but little else worth mentioning.
Lunch at Tokara wine farm. In England this would be at least a 2 Michelin star restaurant with a really innovative and delicious local produce menu at incredible prices. I had Carpaccio rainbow trout baked Alaska with trout ice-creamfollowed by Springbok fillet, turmeric croquette and banana ice-cream. Amazing.
Dinner at the Reubens restaurant in Franschhoek was quite good but if you want really good food have lunch at the vineyards.
To be honest, I think we stayed a day too long, but the vineyards and their lunches did just about compensate for the lack of things to do.
Day 16 – 19/3 Drive to Swellendam
We hummed and hawed about what next to do. Should we drive to Hermanus and climb in to a metal cage and look at the Great White Sharks? Or should we drive down to L’Agulhas the southern-most tip of the African continent? A bit of research showed we needed to stay the night before in order to get the early departing boat out to the shark area. There weren’t any nice hotels available and I was feeling a bit iffy about the whole shark thing anyway. The decision was made when we looked at a YouTube video of some guests climbing in and out of the cage: they all looked so miserable. So L’Agulhas here we come!
Franschhoek is settled in the hills and to east you have to drive up to the mountain pass – 750m Alt. – followed by a steep twisting drive down to the plains below. It’s beautiful.
L’Agulhas is a windswept frontier town with two or three half-decent pubs (we had an ok lunch at the Seagulls) but the main event is the rocky headland of the southern most point of the African continent. Approached by a sandy lane through tall grasses the point is a really beautiful spot. We spotted a tortoise walking slowly across the track minding it’s own business too.
There is a nice raised board-walk taking you to the point while protecting the dunes underneath.
Below is the monument that defines the point between the two oceans : The Atlantic and the Indian. So pleased we took the time to visit here. Really special.
If you have a half hour to spare after leaving L’Agulhas take a small detour and drive through the small coastal village of Arniston with it’s quaint dutch-style cottages.
We then retraced our drive and headed on to Swellendam which is a clean and crisp farming town with little to boast about but still strangely nice.
Review : Rothmans Manor. We checked in at the Rothmans Manor B&B tucked away on the main road into town. Owned by a delightful German couple who’s love of gardening and careful attention to detail has produced a calm oasis of rooms overlooking grounds that seem to attract songbirds. I was told that a bit of sugar in the water helped too! They even keep a few Zebra and Kudu. Nice, interesting and clean rooms with comfy beds followed by an excellent breakfast the next day. It’s a great place to break your journey on the Garden Route. You might be reluctant to leave.
Day 17 – 20/3 Depart Swellendam – Drive
Our journey to Plettenberg Bay continued with the rolling plains that turned to wooded hills as we reached the coast. We stopped for lunch at an average beachside bar at Mossel Bay. Mossel is a budget holidaymakers resort but had its attractions.
As we drove from Mossel Bay (the official start of the Garden Route) we noticed the townships straddling the dual carriageway at some junctions. The inhabitants run across the road without much thought for their personal safety so drive carefully.
Day 05 – 8/3 Arrive JNB. Transfer to Pretoria Sheraton and check-in
We took The Blue Train (http://www.bluetrain.co.za/) from Pretoria to Cape Town. It’s an early start with departure at 8am. Helpfully The Blue Train will book you the previous night at the nearby Pretoria Sheraton at no extra charge. They also include a free transfer from the hotel to the station.
The Pretoria Sheraton is the obvious hotel to stay in the night before boarding The Blue Train as the train ticket includes a complementary over-night stay there.
Review : The Sheraton was everything you would expect it to be. On the plus side comfortable bed, clean fresh bathroom, reasonable food, good prices. On the minus side the slightly impersonal feel of a business hotel. On the whole; good.
I ventured out to an ATM but felt a bit intimidated so was given an escort by the concierge – the smallest guy in the world – down to the local supermarket. Don’t go to a normal ATM we’ve been told it’s not safe. Other than that we did not go out and we would not have done so without being part of an organised tour.
Day 06 – 9/3 – Train
06:45 Transfer to Pretoria Station from hotel (booked via hotel)
An early start with coach or taxi taking you to a nice private check-in room at Pretoria Station where you will be served beverages. In fact, we had in-room breakfast at the hotel delivered at 06:15.
When you climb aboard the train it’s like stepping back 70 years into a world resplendent with beautiful warm woods, elegant brass fittings and stone surfaces. Every carriage is air-conditioned and there is only really one word to describe it: luxury.
We boarded the train about 08:30 and rendezvoused in the cocktail bar 15 minutes late for our first glass of champagne!
We were informed by the train manager that there had been a derailment so train’s route was changed and unfortunately we would not be able to stop at the Kimberly mines later that afternoon, which was a bit of a disappointment but we didn’t mind that much as there was a very friendly international crowd on the train and it promised to be good fun.
While the train slowly meandered through the outskirts of Pretoria and the Johannesburg we got ready for lunch. All the food we had on the train was excellent as good as the best meals we experienced of South Africa.
An excellent wine list too. After lunch we had a well-earned snooze which took us through to the late afternoon. The train manager, as mentioned earlier, was very chatty and happy to tell us the story of when he met Nelson Mandela.
Backed up with a photo mind as I’m sure many more said they met Mandela than actually did but then I can be cynical sometimes. Back in 1997 when the train had just had a complete overhaul bringing it to it’s current splendour, Mandela and his entourage had taken the inaugural journey from Pretoria to Cape Town. The manager was back then a mere butler but he was very proud of buttling for Mandela.
Note: I really want a Mandela style shirt but could I find one?
Dress for dinner was strictly smart and gentlemen were expected to wear a jacket and tie. Well, I had the jacket but as I don’t have a proper job anymore and the only time I wear a tie is at weddings and funerals, I didn’t have one. Don’t worry the on-board shop would sell a gaudy blue Blue Train tie for £20 or if that’s not for you they are happy to lend you one.
It’s worth noting that the Blue Train website is pretty uninformative and should be improved.
Dinner was a grand affair. There is something fascinatingly luxurious about fine dining while watching the world glide silently by. Our suite, having been turned from a drawing room into a bedroom, was too inviting for a late night at the bar. Sleeping on a train on a comfy bed is an interesting experience. The gentle rocking is very soporific but this only works on the flat. As soon as the train met an incline or an angled turn I found myself tensing. After experimenting, it seemed lying face down with legs spread widely apart was the best way to combat it.
The morning brought us a delicious english breakfast, glorious sunshine and a seemingly never ending view of scrub desert. Meet the Karoo.
Thousands of square miles of virtual nothingness split in two by the Swartberg mountain range and, until recent times, a virtually impenetrable barrier to Cape Town.
A quick stop off to refuel 100 miles from Cape Town gave us the chance to stretch our legs.
On our approach to Cape Town we were introduced to our first township: a humbling experience.
Our final arrival in Cape Town was very straight forward and were safely met by our transfer. The wonderful crew left you feeling like you were saying goodbye to good friends.
The experience is very much about the train, not the country it is travelling through. It’s a fantastic experience but I wouldn’t want to do it again. Maybe in another country….
Day 07 – 10/3 Arrive Cape Town – 12 noon
Transfer from Railway Station to hotel (book with hotel in advance)
Check-in Queen Victoria Hotel – Victoria & Albert Waterfront