Samoa and falling in love

What country has had this said of it?

“Sheer beauty, so pure that it is difficult to breathe it in”

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and of the people,

“The loveliest people in the world, moving and dancing like gods and goddesses, very quietly and mysteriously, and utterly content”

The country is the sacred centre of the Polynesian Islands. The country is Samoa.

The speaker of these words was the talented and tragic Rupert Brooke, who, during World War I, wrote ”The Soldier” (If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.) and Granchester (oh! yet stands the Church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea?)

I visited Samoa this year; it is everything and more that Rupert Brooke said. The islands are still mostly unspoilt, there are smiles and happiness everywhere. It is just like Paradise would be.

Samoa, saturates your senses and soothes your soul.

We travelled around and stayed at different types of places, all local of course.  I’m very much a responsible traveller and like to get close to the local cultures and people whenever possible. So the places we stayed at were all locally owned, the shops we bought from were all local and the places we ate were all local.  That way you know it is benefiting both you and your hosts; you because you learn and experience so much and your hosts because the money exchanged stays local.

IMG_1187I’m not sure whether it was at the airport or when we arrived at The Orator that I knew I’d fallen in love with Samoa. So much beauty, so much care and so many smiles. And . . . pineapples growing in the garden!  And the food, oh dear, all ideas of being good and counting calories went out of the window – delicious!

IMG_1213We marvelled at the beauty all around us and the flowers, so absolutely splendid. We took the bus into Apia town and went out for long walks. I ‘m not exaggerating when I quote Louis Armstrong;

Yes, I think to myself,
What a wonderful world.

Our next stop was at the ferry to the island of Savai’i.  We stayed at La Legoto, which was glorious. Our beach front fale was not made from wood and straw but it was definitely built by locals.  The views were to die for and the sky was blue ~ deep sigh of contentment.

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DSC01667IMG_1249I could sit and just look out to sea for hours, so serene, so good for the soul. As with elsewhere, the people were so friendly and so lovely and genuine; the place was, well you can see for yourself, soooooooo easy on the eyes, so stunning; and the food was delicious. The plants and flowers were a joy to behold.  There are tons more IMG_1247superlatives and adjectives I could use, but the word Paradise keeps popping back in my mind.

To be continued . . . .

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The most comfortable bed in Australia

IMG_0446Travelling around nine countries in eight weeks is just an incredible experience. The different cultures and people; the amazing food and the thrill of actually seeing landmarks and scenery you’ve only ever seen in books. After South East Asia, our next destination was Australia.

We stayed at Mint Rhapsody Melbourne Apartments in St. Kilda Road, which we had booked through City Base Apartments. Having stayed with City Base Apartments in London, it seemed the ideal solution for Melbourne – and it was soooooooo good for lots of different reasons.  The location was great, the trams ran along the St. Kilda Road, it had a restaurant adjacent to the block and there were other choices on the opposite side of the road, the team of people there was great, the apartment was really good and, best of all, it had the most comfortable bed in all of Australia, perhaps even the world!

IMG_0437When you’re travelling to different cities, even countries, every two or three days, your body gets incredibly tired after a while. Adrenalin keeps you going but when you stop to rest, it all catches up with you.

On our first night at the apartment, we slept right through until the late hours of the next morning. Felt so refreshed, it was wonderful. The next night was the same, and we were so relaxed, we actually didn’t want to get up the third day! The bed was so incredibly comfortable that I actually unmade it so I could look at the label on the mattress! Strange, I know.  The manufacturer was Australian, of course.

Luscious local travel in North Vietnam

One of the best meals we had in Hanoi was in a tiny place known as Number 49.

One of the best meals we had in Hanoi was in a tiny place known simply as Number 49.

I can cook Vietnamese spring rolls – and they taste delicious! I have learned t’ai chi; the absolute basics. And I can kayak, well, sort of!  And, and, and, and  …….

During our #BFGAdventure – Big Friendly Giant Adventure – we chose to travel as consciously, responsibly and locally as we could.  We stayed in local hotels, ate at local restaurants and/or with street sellers, bought what we needed at local shops and travelled by cyclo, tuktuk, car, bus, ferry, ship and train.  Oh yes, and our walking boots certainly saw a lot of use :-)

If you’ve never been to VietNam before, as we hadn’t, the skills and rules of driving over there are fairly non-existent! At least, that’s how it seems to a new visitor. The traffic drives on the right-hand side of the road, well, that’s the theory. To get to Ha Long Bay, where we were going on a 2 night and 3 day cruise, there is an eighty mile  journey from Hanoi – thoughts of the fairgrounds and dodgem cars sprang to mind!  The next morning, we were filled with excitement and a certain amount of trepidation when the mini-bus picked us up from our hotel. A long journey giving us a great opportunity to see all the areas in between the two locations, and that was punctuated by a stop off at a rather large statue & monument emporium, containing a restaurant. Comfort break time. What we did find was that when you’re with an experienced local driver, the roads hold no worry. Our travels were as smooth as the road works and potholes would allow. Talking of road works; this is the main road from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, and it is being improved and widened. They work on one side of the road and the traffic is allowed to use the other half of the road (alternatively, of course!) Phew, the precision with which these drivers go is amazing – there were at least two inches between the men digging and our vehicle.

IMG_0065The port we were going to was all new with a lot of  development happening around the location. It’s a beautiful place and was undergoing a rapid expansion with new hotels, apartments and complexes; sadly, though, the buildings could have been in any place, in any country, there was nothing that epitomised a Vietnamese style. Inside the port building it was more like a modern airport concourse! You did not get the impression that there would be serenity in just a short while. There were many ships in harbour, ranging from very small to rather grand ones. We joined the other guests of Bhaya Cruises and were taken out to the ship, the Au Co, by speedboat and welcomed on board as if we were the most important group of people in the world. And that level of customer care is what we all experienced throughout the whole adventure. The girls and guys, who made up the crew, were more like a team of good friends, always happy. They were generous with their time and gracious, oh so very gracious. The cruise manager was Alfred Yong, you can see him in the wedding picture below – he’s the one wearing the red polo shirt.

In those three days we experienced Vietnamese dancing, kayaking, t’ai chi, tea ceremony, cooking demonstration – where we learnt how to make the Vietnamese spring rolls, We visited the floating village of Cong Dam; Cat Ba Island and the village there; the Sung Sot cave on Bo Hon island and, all our meals were based on the five elements of fire, water, earth, wood and metal. We were also offered night-time squid fishing, but I don’t think anyone took that one up!

DSC00916The girls and ladies from the floating village of Cong Dam, rowed over and took us to see where they lived.  It’ s fascinating how they’ve put together the ‘houses’ with walkways between them and areas for different activities. We got out of the boats and had a look round, we even went into the school house to see what they were doing. Bhaya Cruises has built the school house for them and sponsors the teacher and his personal house.  The children weren’t in school as it was a holiday but we saw them playing on some of the houseboats, as we saw the men chatting in groups. There’s a fish farm there too, now that really is local!

Visiting the village of Viet Hai on Cat Ba island, the next day, was a real treat, in more ways than one. It is a long way to walk from the quay to there and you could choose to walk or go by bike. We chose to walk. So pleased we did, we lingered over the scenery and the beautiful butterflies we saw and we dallied where the wild goats and their kids were. The island was quite heavily wooded and we stopped time and time again to smell the local flowers and, if truth be known, have a tiny rest on the 45 to 60 minute walk.

There are no cars on the island, we just saw the occasional bike or moped.  And it did seem as if the women were doing all the work again, we saw them out fishing, working in the fields and going about household chores. All had big smiles though – such joy everywhere.

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The farm there is all organic and grows vegetables and fruit. All work is done by traditional methods, the women plough the fields, leading water buffalo pulling the harrow. I always feel the traditional methods give more substance to the term organic, but that’s just me.

The Bhaya Cruises’ Au Co Foundation, works with the local villagers, supports them and started the organic farming project there. The company provides funds, agricultural and practical training for the locals and, when the fruit and vegetables and crops are ready, buys the produce back at a fair market price.

The bride in the wedding picture is one of the team on our ship, how fantastic was that – and we were all invited to go along. The bride and groom, on the right, looked so very young, I actually has to ask, and they were 24 and 25. Must be their way of life! Many of each crew for Bhaya Cruises come from Viet Hai and all are so genuinely delightful. What a wonderful example of community involvement. And we could feel the joy – we became part of it.

bhaya langur_familyCat Ba is also the only home of the Golden-headed Langur. They are one of the most endangered species and, it is thought, there are only 53 of them alive today. You can find out more, and/or become involved/help, from the Cat Ba Langur Conservation site or on their facebook page.

On this cruise, I was a guest of Bhaya Cruises.  However, the content and comments are entirely mine; and I would have absolutely no hesitation in recommending them.

Lynne Gray – Thatspr

From the chaos of Hanoi to the calm of Ha Long Bay

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Sailing out in the bay

Never having been to Vietnam before, we were unaware of the traffic rules in the country. Actually, there really doesn’t seem to be any, other than you ‘should’ stay to your side of the road and at most junctions, no one has any precedent over another.  With mopeds, scooters and bikes outnumbering cars by at least ten to one, it makes for really interesting journeys and, as the SAS so succinctly puts it, who dares wins!

Four full-on hours of travelling tension in Vietnam’s chaotic traffic – and for what? For a 2 night & 3 day voyage –  a cruise around Ha Long Bay. Was it worth it? Oh yes, indubitably my dear Watson.

So why go on a cruise? Basically, I’d heard about Bhaya Cruises and how they were making a difference to the local community and environment, and they invited me for a 2 night/3 day cruise to see what it was all about. Also, it would be another first – I’ve never been on a cruise before. Big smile as I tick another one off the bucket list. Two actually, first time in Vietnam.

The ship's manager, Albert Long, at the Cat Ba village which Bhaya Cruises supports.

The ship’s manager, Albert Long, at the Cat Ba village which Bhaya Cruises supports.

Conscious travel/tourism is good, local is good, responsible is good & sustainable is pretty good too! Not something you would expect from a cruise company; but when they all come together, it’s time to let people know! The Au Co II, Gulf of Tonkin, the newest vessel in the portfolio of Bhaya Cruises, is just a few months old and has 32 cabins, all with their own balcony or terrace. We were picked up from our hotel in Hanoi at 08.00 hours and the minibus picked up another three couples, then off we went.  As I said, four hours of driving, with a comfort stop at a restaurant. Situated within an enormous warehouse, it morphed into an Aladdin’s cave, full of goodies for the tourists to choose from.  Ha Long Bay port was a complete surprise; I’m not sure what was expected but not a newly built resort, highly organised and looking a little like an airport concourse inside. Much building and development is ongoing. Perhaps this was going to be a very slick and commercial affair, but we need not have feared so.

We were warmly welcomed and taken out to the beautiful ship, where a second genuine greeting on board was waiting from the crew. Heading out into Ha Long Bay proved to be magical. Nearly two thousand sandstone islands rise majestically from the water, ranging from single very tiny ones to immense ranges. And it wasn’t just my imagination that saw dragons and lions and all manner of wondrous shapes there in the different rocks.

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Floating village

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The women from the floating village coming to get us

We were taken out to see the floating village and the girls rowed out to collect us in their bamboo boats. Bhaya Cruises has been instrumental in setting up a school for the children and continues to support it.  The village has been there since the people who first founded it, hid from wars and hardship,made their homes there.

Returning to the ship there was a Vietnamese Tea Ceremony by the bar, love the fresh green tea.

The next day I got up early to do Tai Chi – 6.15 in the morning on the top deck of the ship, surrounded by mist and magical islands, it was quite surreal. My instructor was a delightful young man and I say ‘my’ in a very possessive way as I was the only pupil! There were three stages, the warm up, the body and the breathing. It was over in just minutes, seemingly, and then it was time for breakfast.

View Bhaya kayak.jpg in slide showAfter breakfast we sailed to another part of Ha Long Bay and stopped so that we could go kayaking, swimming or just chill on board. Tim and I chose to go kayaking, another first! Fascinating rhythm when you finally get it right, the pic is of us before that point! Great fun and wonderful exercise, so they say! Seriously though, it was another first for me and it was a most excellent adventure.

Lunch on board, as with all the meals, followed the five elements of Fire, Water, Earth, Wood and Metal – and yes, that did mean that lunch and dinner were five course affairs! The chef and his team have to be mentioned here, we all fell in love with the cooking.

Bhaya girls fishingIn the afternoon, we were taken to the village of Cat Ba, which is the only village on the islands. Cat Ba is supported by Bhaya Cruises too. The village has been given the tools and the seeds to grow and harvest organic crops and then the cruise line buys them at market price. I shall write more about this later. Bhaya Water buffaloThe walk to the village was five kilometres from the jetty, great exercise and we saw the girls out fishing, the girls working in the fields, in fact it would appear the female of the species does most of the hard work.

We were privileged to see a local wedding there, between one of the crew and her beau. Quite a few of the crew come from the village; strengthening the ties between the two communities of island and cruise ship. The photo shows the bride & groom with Albert Long (in red top), the Cruise Manager. Bhaya weddingWe were commenting on how very young the couple looked, however, we found out they were 24 and 25.

We enjoyed a fabulous dinner with Steve and Bev Norgate, from the shire of Gloucester; Gil and Sally, also from old Blighty, and Kathy and Mike Gagnon from the United States of America. Much merriment was had.

When we had returned to the ship, we were given a cookery demonstration by the superb head chef. We learnt how to cook Vietnamese Spring Rolls (Nem Ran) and exceedingly good they were too :-)  Later there was also a visit to the bridge and the engine room. For some odd reason, I expected to see a ship’s wheel, not a gps system! To sleep amidst all these fabulous islands was magical.

Day 3, the final day, saw me up to do the Tai Chi again, makes you feel so good. I had company as well, the lovely Kathy was there.

View Bhaya cave me & tim.After a light breakfast, we departed for a visit to Sung Sot Cave, a magnificent place to which we had to climb many steps – some of us were huffing and puffing more than others! The stalactites and stalagmites were incredible – I always say stalagmites have the ‘m’ for mountains which go up from the ground, to remind myself which is which!

This post could become a short story, there was so much to take in, so much to see and do, but most of all there was harmony, happiness and hospitality.  A winning combination. And if you get a chance to visit Ha Long Bay, I would strongly recommend you take a trip with Bhaya Cruises – they’re the best!

World Travel Market 2012 #wtm2012

Me with two gorgeous girls I find inspiring, Anna Pollock and Zoe Dawes

World Travel Market has come and gone again. It’s not just a four-day event, it is so much more. I’m always like a child in a sweetie shop when I go – so much to see, so much to do and so many wonderful people there. There is no way I am going to be able to mention all those I met and reconnected with.

The intensity of the four days leaves you slightly bemused and not just a little tired on the Friday! The schedule of workshops and seminars is a joy, the only challenge you face is which ones you can get to! Always open and highly informative, always accommodating to the audience.

Me, Michela Fantinel, Valy Dumoulin, Sue Hillman & Zoe Dawes beneath a very green young man famous for incontinence in Belgium ;-)

On the delightful Hungary stand

I am told the length of the Excel is nearly half a mile. That’s a whole lot of walking we get through in four days!  Not that it makes that much difference to the figure when you can taste all the exotic foods of the world there – I have to walk around with purpose in my stride, no lingering where there are tasty titbits to be sampled. Well, not often anyway, although I did succumb to the offerings of Hungary; mainly because the young girl acting as an ambassador for her country was so absolutely lovely, professional and helpful, that I couldn’t resist!  In fact, she was one of the best ambassadors for a country, I’ve ever met at WTM.  So much so, that both Zoe Dawes and I cannot wait to visit Hungary now!

This is a perfect example of why the PR in ThatsPR signifies Personal Relationships and not the normal Public Relations.  You can spend thousands and thousands of pounds on marketing your brand but if you do not have ambassadors who proudly and enthusiastically represent you, if will not count for much.

It’s people who matter, people who make a difference, people who build relationships.

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View from South Quays DLR station, looking opposite way

I spent the week of WTM sharing an apartment with the endearing and zestful, Zoe Dawes (aka @quirkytraveller). The apartment was courtesy of City Base Apartments and Central London Apartments and it was a treat to come back to at the end of a long and tiring day.  Situated near the DLR, it was good for access to anywhere you wanted. It’s a great alternative to a hotel, as you have your own bedrooms but share the sitting room and kitchen & dining area. So each evening, after we’d eaten, we checked what we needed to on-line and then flopped onto the settees for a good old natter.

I’ll carry on with another post as soon as ……..

Why the jewels in our crown will become poisoned chalices

I recently published two posts about our wonderful coastal areas – they are magnificent, and magnets to visitors and tourists. As summer is here (well, in theory anyway!), and people are being encouraged not to go abroad for their holidays, our coasts are getting busier and busier.  Visit Britain, quite rightly, spent the not inconsiderable amount of £3 million pounds on a marketing campaign to encourage us all to holiday at home.  A successful campaign it was and is; well, if you ignore the fact that both our Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are taking holidays abroad. Shame on them, but then, our MPs do not always lead by example – don’t do as I do, do as I say!

What should be good news for the travel and tourism industry will turn into a disaster. It is only a matter of time. We are an island nation, we are a proud nation.  Unfortunately the government doesn’t seem to have the same values of respect, integrity and gratitude as do most of the population of the UK.

When the Transport Minister, Mike Penning, announced the closure of eight of the Coastguard Communication Stations protecting us, there had been no independent risk assessments carried out.  There were no in-depth consultations, to the extent that both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have called for risk assessments before implementation. No respect for the professional front-line guys and girls in the coastguard service.  Above all, no consideration for the trawlers, yachts, climbers, bathers, surfers, walkers, locals or tourists, who will be put in danger if these plans go through. It is not that there will be regional centres – the like of which, Mike Penning fought against for the fire service. There will be one national call centre in Fareham (Penning’s Folly) and all emergency calls to the Coastguard will be directed there ~ so where will the local knowledge be?  How will the visitor from abroad, walking along the cliffs of Scotland, be able to say where he is (should an incident occur) to someone the opposite end of the United Kingdom? It’s like the blind leading the blind – absolutely without common sense or reason.

I love my country, that will never be in question, but working in the travel and tourism industry and seeing such a crazy, ill thought-out plan makes me want to cry. And all for the sake of saving a small amount of money, which will probably be spent ten-fold in getting an empty shell of a building up to the standard it needs to be.

Norfolk is where I spent my holidays as a child, stunning countryside and seaside places.  But the Coastguard Station at Yarmouth is one of those being closed down, and the MP, Brandon Lewis (Conservative), has voted for the closure plan!  Why would he do that when there are so many miles of coastline in his constituency? I doubt his constituents realise he thinks it’s okay for Norfolk to lose its Coastguard Station!

There are far more MPs voting against the plans in a survey the CoastguardSOS team carried out; well, from those who deigned to reply anyway.  There are 189 MPs with responsibility for coastal areas and only 14 have voted for the plans, whereas 89 MPs are against the plans. Of the remaining coastal MPs, 13 have ignored the requests and 73 haven’t bothered to answer. Have a look and see what your MP said.

This government is not listening to the  people of the United Kingdom.This government is arrogant and without integrity on how it has handled these Coastguard Station closures.  The Transport Select Committee is now looking into the whole matter again and has invited written new evidence to be submitted on the changes to the Coastguard Service.  I hope to goodness this all-party group will be able to halt plans that will result in fatalities, of that there can be no doubt.

Our travel and tourism industry, both domestic and inbound, would suffer greatly should deaths occur. I am somewhat surprised that the commercial arm of the industry has not spoken out about this.  The tourist boards and town councils all report back (ultimately) to the government …….  I should imagine, if they are aware that the Coastguard personnel had gagging orders put on them, they would not want to rock any boats, so as to speak!

First they want to sell off our forests, our heritage; now they want to take away our safety at sea and by the coast.  What next?

Delicious Devon and the Gnome Reserve

Recently we went to Devon for a short break (courtesy of a gorgeous girl friend, Louise) and had a fabulous time. Driving along the A39 ‘Atlantic Highway’ through Fairy Cross, we suddenly saw signs saying Gnome Reserve.  Now, never having seen anything like this before, we felt we had to visit before we left, if only to satisfy ourselves they weren’t living under the same dreadful conditions that the Native Americans had suffered!  Rescue plans started being hatched!

The long and winding road that led to the gnomes was not always easy to follow.  At one point we stopped to ask this delightful old man if he knew where it was, as we had run out of brown rose signs to guide us.  “Never heard of them” he said. “Although if you carry on this road and then do a left, there’s a forest where the little people live.”  With huge smiles on our faces we drove on and then suddenly saw this sign (in the photo on the right) by the side of the road. Oh, if they were warning motorists to go slowly then perhaps the gnomes were being well looked after. With hope renewed, we carried on and turned into the car park.

At this moment I was thinking of a dear friend, Zoë Dawes, who is the Quirky Traveller, as this would have been just perfect for her travels!

A pleasant welcome and more of Devon’s beautiful scenery greeted us. The house set in the gardens was one of faded grandeur and something about it made it look ethereal, yet still full of homely charm. As we entered, a voice called out a greeting to us and we met a delightful lady, by the name of Ann Fawssett Atkin, who was sitting in one of the rooms painting pixies. Ann is an absolutely wonderful and mesmerising lady and is the founder of the Gnome Reserve. We chatted for a while and then Ann told us to go into the other room and choose our Gnome hats to wear ~ you better believe it ~ she also added that it was almost compulsory to wear one.  Oh, I am loving this adventure :-)

Look at the photo – how funky is my hat??!!  Out to wander in the woods and it was like entering another realm; lots of gnomes, hundreds of gnomes, young gnomes, old gnomes, athletic gnomes, lazy gnomes, naughty gnomes and, oh my, you will have to visit yourself to get the full splendour of it all.  I have never really gone past 6 years old so I was in my element.  You can follow the path or go your own way – you can even get help with your lottery choices by fishing for pebbles.with numbers on the bottoms.

And deep in the heart of the wood was a magical fairy circle with the remains of an ancient tree (looking like a chair) in the middle.  The photo to the right shows the sign by the path, isn’t it wonderful? I flew away through the trees with the fairies, which will come as no surprise to a few people! The quote from Lord Byron says:

The beings of the mind are not of clay; essentially immortal, they create and multiply in us a brighter ray and more beloved existence.

When we’d finished our walk, we returned to the house and gave our hats back and were given a clip board with a question sheet on it, to show how observant we could be when walking around the Fairy & Wild-flower Garden. Somehow this just seemed so normal! We got the correct number of fairies, but failed to see three of the cuckoos ~ all will become clear if you visit! And to top the day off, we then had a sandwich followed by a Devon cream tea; all freshly made and delicious.  What a happy experience.