Positively Portugal

Last month we went on a lovely long weekend break to Portugal, booked through TravelZoo – they have some great deals. We live in the bodacious shire of Bedford, so going from Ldn Luton Airport was a bonus.

DSC_0019Leaving early-ish on Saturday, we were at Faro Airport before we knew it. Picking up the hire car we made our way to Albufeira, to the Clube Praia da Oura. Great resort, not our normal choice but very well thought out, and for all ages – look at the fabulous swimming pool with a ramp :-)

DSC_0020The sky was very grey when we wandered along the pathway nearest to the sea. There really is something special about being by the seaside, your senses are heightened, your appreciation of the power of mother nature is ever present.  But so much had changed and expanded, the last time I came here was about twenty-eight years ago when it was wonderfully unfashionable.

DSC_0023This sculpture was about half way to the old town of Albufeira and is by the boats and the old way of life. There was a group of locals standing nearby, more mature men, chatting and laughing at what the day was bringing to them.

DSC_0025And then we came across this wonderful bicycle, it was outside the restaurant called flavours. Well, we just had to go in – and it didn’t disappoint. It was long and the front was out onto the beach. Lovely cups of coffee and an admirable apple pie too.

lynne and cowThe angels of the weather decided to be kind to us and the sun emerged from a blue sky. Time to walk further afield. We walked through the square and into the shopping part and there we felt right at home – look, anything Milton Keynes can do . . . . . .

DSC_0026We decided to walk along the main road gong back and so glad we did. The first roundabout we came to had this amazing structure on it. It was massive and breathtaking and based on Portugal’s wonderful seafaring history.

DSC_0030We had more surprises on our journey back – they had named a Chinese restaurant after Tim! His eating prowess was obviously gaining international fame.DSC_0037 Then we saw a restaurant advertising all manner of sumptuous ice cream desserts, so we found a table.  Imagine our disappointment when they told us they’d run out of ice cream! Boo. Walking further on we saw an orange tree and a lemon tree – real ones!

DSC_0031The sky was going grey again and, lo and behold, the Algarve showed us its quirky side.  Two huge watches in the centre of the next roundabout. How could you not know what the time was – just brilliant! DSC_0034

The sky was staring to show blue again and then, the best was yet to come, the next roundabout held wonderful, funky, funny worms and, even better, their tails came out of the central reservations on each side.

DSC_0035Can you see the tails?

Back to the hotel, we had half board so there was time to chill before dinner.  The food was good, as was the restaurant and all the team who worked there.

A very nice break, thank you.

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Ecuador and conscious tourism; sadly not.

Anna - slide-42-728Last year, Ecuador held a conference called ‘Conscious Tourism’, which was hailed as a wonderful success and a beacon to lead the way forward for tourism. Ecuador made a very bold statement then.

This new strategy was based on the principles of sustainability and ethics; and promoted the values ​​of peace, friendship, respect and love of life as the essence of tourist practice.

n american may the sun, blessingI chose the slide above from the presentation made by the keynote speaker and founder of Conscious Travel, Anna Pollock. It is a beautiful saying from Malaysia, that captures how the very wise indigenous people see our planet. The Native Americans knew/know how precious our wondrous planet is, they used only what they needed to live. They did not have laws, they did not need them. They looked out for each other and lived peacefully, and America was bountiful. Then the white man came and brought the evils of egos and empires, and America changed beyond recognition. It’s the same in most countries. I haven’t gone off on a tangent, it’s not too late to listen to what they say, it’s not too late to save this planet. But . . . . .

Reading what had been said at the conference by representatives of different countries and of the UNWTO; I, and many others, were filled with a new hope. No more of the old industrial model of mass tourism, but a new respect for what each country has, their unique cultures and characteristics.

And now there is a race to save Ecuador’s Yasuni national park from the oil lobby. Green groups are frantically campaigning for a petition to force a national referendum to block President Correa’s unilateral sanction for drilling. Yet again, it’s all about the money and not nature that gives us life.

Talk is easy, the annual conferences have ‘leaders’ of tourism, saying wonderfully scripted promises for the future – but it is action we need. Action and a shared aim to conserve and celebrate what we have and not just go on developing for its own sake. We do not need same old, same old . . . . We need determined change, we need commitments from governments to make the changes. 

Samoa and falling in love (number 2)

IMG_1295Samoa and Paradise in the same sentence is as natural as bread and butter! You really don’t need any rose tinted glasses – the beauty is there in all its glory.

Vailima - the home of Robert Louis Stevenson - now a museum.

Vailima – the home of Robert Louis Stevenson – now a museum.

It’s where Robert Louis Stevenson settled and made his home after saying, during an amazing long voyage of discovery; ”For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.”

It’s where Rupert Brooke said, “Sheer beauty, so pure that it is difficult to breathe it in”.

It’s where we went and found peace, tranquillity, beauty and smiles.

It’s where you can soothe your soul and saturate your senses.

It’s the sacred centre of the Polynesian Islands.

It’s the treasured islands of Samoa.

It’s Paradise.

DSC01760DSC01759IMG_1297And why do I wax so lyrical, why is it Paradise? Because it is virtually unspoilt – you can tell it is Samoa by how the buildings are crafted by hand from natural, local materials (apart from a couple of white, modern government buildings looking totally out of place).

The artistry and the purpose of traditional Samoan houses, resorts, fales are what makes Samoa unique. It really is like the sense of being enveloped in a great big hug, you feel safe and cherished. The wondrous thing is that it has stayed true to its heritage, so far it hasn’t let big business come in and spoilt its beauty. There are so many beautiful islands that the corporates have invaded and taken over – and always to the detriment of the environment and its true roots.  For those who want to get close to the country, its natural wonder and the people and their culture, it remains one of the best places in the world to do this.

It is Paradise because of the beauty of the flowers and plants, the beauty of its natural landscapes and the beauty of its people – but all that’s for another post!

Peace and love.

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 . . . .

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!