Based in Buckinghamshire

Caroline Joyner

It's Nice To Meet You

I’m Caroline Joyner, an Independent Travel Expert specialising in tailor-made holidays worldwide. Whether it’s a tour of Vietnam, a luxury honeymoon to the Maldives or a bucket list Australian adventure, I will do all the hard work for you leaving you to relax and enjoy the holiday.

I am based in Bourne End, Buckinghamshire where I live with my husband and 2 young children.

Ever since graduating University, I have been a travel junkie, spending my 20’s living, working and travelling abroad and my 30s working as a Product Manager for an educational expedition company. The latter involved travelling to all corners of the world to set up expeditions and volunteer projects and it was during that time I developed a deep appreciation for how travel of all types can help us grow personally. I also saw first-hand how grass-roots community tourism can have a huge positive impact and I am passionate about responsible travel. In 2017 I decided to use my destination knowledge and organisational skills to launch my own business. Having worked in travel throughout all the major obstacles we have faced over the last 15 years such as ash clouds, avian flu, airline strikes, earthquakes etc, I am well equipped to deal with the ongoing Covid crisis and all the challenges that it brings.

I have experience of organising every type of holiday; ski trips, choir tours, beach holidays, adventure holidays, school trips, round the world experiences, cruises and corporate travel. Having children means I appreciate all that makes a great family holiday and I also specialise in family travel. Whether it’s a package holiday to Europe or a family adventure to Costa Rica, I can offer you help and advice.

As both a Travel Agent and a Tour Operator connected to an award-winning global network, I have a huge number of suppliers at my fingertips, as well as long-standing direct relationships with hotels and airlines. I work with all the major tour operators and many small independent, specialist operators whom you will not find on the high street.

I am much more than just a Travel Consultant, I am your personal travel concierge here to help you from your very first enquiry right through to arriving back from your holiday. I am here not only to put together your perfect holiday from the many thousands of options on offer but also to take care of all the pre-travel admin and make sure any special requests or circumstances you have are taken care of once you arrive. Everyone is different and my service is tailored completely to what your needs are.

So, if you like the idea of your own personal travel concierge then get in touch for a consultation.

I am dedicated to creating unforgettable memories for you and your family.

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My Blog

I absolutely live and breathe travel and I love to write about my experiences! Please take a look through my posts - you might find your own holiday inspiration.

New York: The 9/11 memorial museum - remembering 20 years on

10 September 2021

September 11th 2001 is a day the world will never forget. The 9/11 Memorial Museum is a tasteful tribute to those who lost their lives, to heroism and the to resilience of a city that has somehow picked itself up and recovered. Above ground it's all very serene and relaxing. Water gently cascades into “reflecting pools”, essentially underground waterfalls whose enormous perimeter marks the footprints of the old Twin Towers. The hum of falling water creates a calm, silencing atmosphere. The sides of the pools are inscribed with the names of every victim and roses stand next to some of the names to commemorate birthdays. However, there is little to tell of what actually happened that day and certainly no clues as to the emotional cavern that lies directly below. The last time I was here in 2008 this was a building side with a temporary memorial alongside it, you could still see the crater left by the destroyed twin towers. Nowadays you would never know the debris-filled hole existed. In its place there are the pristine new skyscrapers of towers 1, 3,4 and 7, 400 perfectly manicured oak trees, slivers of grass, benches and walkways. The “Survivor Tree”, a tree which was recovered from the rubble and then replanted stands by itself as a poignant reminder of what little survived that day. The only part of the memorial museum which is visible above ground is the Pavillion, a hauntingly angled glass and steel atrium which symbolises the partially collapsed tower. Inside the horizontal pinstriped glass, two rusty columns soar up 80ft from the underground museum below to fill the atrium - the remnants of the first few floors of the original North Tower. Taking the escalator down from the glorious light of the atrium you are transported into the events of that fateful day with surprising intensity. The dimmed light of the underground museum is punctuated by mangled parts of the wreckage of the towers which are displayed. A part of a transmission mast, twisted pieces of steel with the chilling hallmark of the impact of flight 11. The original “slurry wall” which once protected the Twin Towers from the Hudson River is also exposed to create a powerful feeling of being inside the foundations of the towers. The route through the museum takes in many artefacts recovered from the site; from the wreckage of a fire engine, dust-covered clothing, a wallet blown onto a nearby building, some blood-stained shoes worn by a survivor as she escaped, to a fireman’s helmet to a mascot doll from one of the offices. There are several separate areas dedicated to other aspects and TV screens showing the footage of the news being broadcast that day. A room filled with the faces of those who died I found particularly moving. Alongside the photos there is a touch screen detailing the lives of each victim, but as with the whole museum it has been designed with the utmost respect to their families. I did find the route through the museum quite disorientating, somehow without realising it I had wended my way a few floors below street level. It seemed as every metre I descended the contents of the museum became more wrenching. However, for me it was only really when I entered a separate exhibit entitled “A memorial” that the events of that day really started to become etched into my mind. On entering staff politely ask you not to take any photos, which should have been a kind of macabre clue to the contents. The exhibit lays out the timeline of events, minute by minute. It explains how every detail unfolded and how little the authorities understood about what was going on and how gradually, they realised with horror that this was no tragic accident. When the first plane hit, President Bush was visiting a primary school. He assumed it was a fateful tragedy and continued his visit. By the end of that day the entire government had been taken to a secret underground bunker. With each piece of video footage and each picture there comes a story which you didn’t want to know: audio of phone calls made from the doomed planes, stories from government staff, FBI staff air traffic controllers and then of course stories from the ground. The firefighters who ran into the burning towers before they collapsed, the phone calls made by those in the floors above where the planes hit, survivors who walked down 50 flights of stairs to get out, the confused messages on the ground. The exhibit then moves onto the collapse of the towers, with accounts from the few survivors who were buried alive: “I coughed and I thought dead people don’t cough so I must be alive”, recalls one survivor. A few people who had been near the bottom of the towers were trapped in an intact stairwell 6 floors up. They dug themselves out and described how emerging from the debris they became disorientated since the area looked unrecognisable to 2 hours earlier. The scene at ground zero after the towers collapsed is graphically described through audio from survivors: how the inhalation of dust made people think each breath would be their last. In several corners of the exhibit, there are alcoves which are labelled: “The video playing has disturbing content”. That is no understatement. One of the most chilling accounts I came across was from a group of 4 people who were very close to the South Tower when it collapsed. They tell of running through the dust cloud until they reached the makeshift hospital, patiently waiting with rows of empty stretchers and ambulances on standby for the many casualties which were expected. “There won't be anyone else,” they told the paramedics whilst being treated, and they were right. At one point you discover that the FBI intercepted a call from Afghanistan from an associate of Bin Laden saying “things are looking good”. There is also a description of the process the suicide bombers went through to actually get on those planes. As I wended my way back up to street level and daylight I realised this had been an important experience. Pretty much anyone over 30 can tell you where they were as they watched the Twin Towers fall on TV; the world changed forever that day. This museum holds back nothing and leaves the visitor with a simple message: never forget and after all, this is a piece of history that many of us lived through. For all the harrowing, un-flinching contents though it certainly does New York proud, a solemn reminder of our vulnerability and a beautiful tribute.

The South America diaries: the Post Office Debacle

18 June 2021

Many years ago I spent a year travelling around South America. This is a tongue-in-cheek article I wrote towards the end of that year about South American bureaucracy, an integral part of the Latino culture! In the early days, as a South America Postal System Virgin I would collect my things together, trot off to the nearest post office and presume sending a parcel would be a task no more difficult than lacing up my hiking boots. The first time my innocent illusions were shattered was in a suburb of Buenos Aires one sunny March morning. On my way to visit Evita’s tomb, I bounce into the nearest El Correo (Post Office) ready to send two parcels home full of souvenirs from my time here. I fall abruptly at the first hurdle however, as one parcel is a full ten grams over the weight limit of two kilograms. There follows an elaborate cutting up of the boxes to take the weight down, then a re-packaging and extra secure taping up. My travel companion turns up to help and finally we queue up. The assistant weighs the first parcel and then it´s a big fat “No”. “What?” We wail in unison. “It’s the tape”, she says without moving her face at all, “You can’t use tape on the parcels.” We look at each other in disbelief. The only boxes we could beg are half falling apart and she wants us to send them across two continents with no tape? I remind myself that patience is the essence of the satisfying travel experience, but this was the second hour and the second day I had tried to send the parcels. I felt my imperturbable cool head float out of the post office door, but Mrs Cement face wasn’t able to inform us either how we could send an un-taped box, or indeed what had possessed the Argentine postal system to ban tape in the first place. Cue entry by calming post office security guard. I eventually unscramble his Spanish babble and realise he is telling me to go and buy brown paper and tape from a stationery shop, after which he will provide the solution. Off I scurry whilst companion de-wraps and de-tapes the parcels. I return laden with more brown paper than a war-time post-man and Mr security guard gets to work wrapping and stringing. Finally, they are ready again. I arrive at the front desk beaming. “No” she says. For now the extra weight of the paper has made one parcel two kilograms and five grams. Even the security man is losing it with her now but her face doesn’t give inch. “It is simply not possible,” she says, in her thick Argentine drawl. Cue entry of third “parcel-sending saviour”, a woman in the now enormous queue. She explains to us that for parcels over two kilograms there is a special “international” Post Office. So we have been in the wrong place all along and no one told us. I need a drink. Precisely three and a half hours later the two parcels have been sent, and I am soon to realise that this experience is far from anomalous in South America, a continent virtually drowning in its own bureaucracy. Months on and I am now a veteran of the intricacies of South America’s El Correo, or so I believe. The Inca’s conquered an empire of thousands of kilometres, but for me, the insurmountable task of clearing Bolivian customs was about to prove too almost too much. On a wind-whipped afternoon in La Paz, Bolivia. I enter the labyrinth-like El Correo building and am eventually given the correct directions for sending my parcel. “You just need to pass customs”, I am told as if it will take only a second. “Customs” appears to involve several different stops, the first one being a mysterious curtained, locked room. A long queue of people outside peer curiously towards the door. Every few minutes we hear the clicking of the key and out skips a person grinning triumphantly, with their neatly wrapped parcel. I inch nearer the forbidden room and a scrawled sign catches my eye. “This is the Office of Narcotics”, it tells me, politely omitting any more critical details. Forty-five minutes later and I am in the secret world of El Correo’s narcotics office. I empty the contents of my parcel onto a desk, and after a question and answer session that would have made Magnus Magnusson proud, its lack of anything more dangerous than an Alpaca jumper is ascertained. However, I still have 3 more desks to visit before I am finally rewarded with the stamp of approval. My last stop is a long desk behind which waits a short, stout Bolivian woman whose leathery skin tells of years of highland living. I am slightly bemused when she wraps my parcel in a white sheet, and even more so when begins a hurried sewing up of the sheet. “Why exactly are you doing that?” I ask. She looks perplexed. “Well otherwise you could put drugs in before you send it of course”, she says. Only in South America.

Searching for Santa in Lapland

17 March 2021

The dogs are barking furiously and there is a flurry of activity, we get into the sledges and the chorus reaches a crescendo. The sledge in front moves and we are off. Instant silence fills the crisp air, only broken by the smooth crunching of the snow as we whizz through the forest of pine trees, each branch holding a thick layer of snow. Two Hundred and fifty miles north of the arctic circle the dusk-like glow in the sky is as light as it gets in deep December. The winter wonderland stretches as far as the eye can see, creating a sense of peace and beauty which is intensely relaxing. The magic of the moment is reinforced by the excited giggles of the children as they watch the dogs in front, Daddy is driving the dogs which only serves to heighten the hilarity. They run easily and nimbly, the snowy tracks presenting them no challenge at all, yet it’s – minus fifteen degrees and the icy air shocks our faces. Husky sledging is just one of the many activities we experience for the first time today in Finnish Lapland. Skiddoo’ing, ice hockey, reindeer sleigh rides, sledging, ice fishing have also been attempted. The list reads like something out of a children’s fantasy book. What we are here for though is the big one, “searching for Santa”, which is coming next. The children have been waiting patiently for this moment ever since we gave them the news that we were going to Lapland. Finally, it’s time to get onto the “magical sleigh” and take off once more into the icy wilderness. After a few minutes, we can just about make out a faint fiery glow in the distance. As we draw nearer we see fairy lights twinkling outside a perfect log cabin. Then the excitement peaks as we spot a couple of giggling elves who greet us in their native “elf language”. After a brief game of “gift throw and catch”, we knock on the door and enter the tiny wooden cabin. A warm fire flickers in corner of the room and the walls are stacked high with presents. There, in a rocking chair, sits the hefty figure if Santa Claus. His perfect white beard tumbles almost to the floor and he speaks in a low accented voice. “Welcome Cassie and Skye, how have you been”? It’s there where the similarities end to a normal “Santa visit”. Santa chats to the children about “the 3 most important things”. He embodies the Santa we have always imagined, the one we have seen in endless books and films and the one we believed so loyally in for our entire childhoods. The children’s faces change from coy smiles to utter disbelief as he pulls out of his pocket the letters they sent him 2 weeks previously. “It’s my sister’s letter!” Exclaims older daughter in total astonishment. They giggle in nervous wonder as he reads out each letter in turn. After lots of questions and answers about elves, workshops and general Santa-ness it’s time to say goodbye and we watch the elves waving as we swish through the snow back through the forest. Soon the cabin is a mere twinkle on the horizon. Back at base camp, the children talk non-stop as we sip hot berry juice and eat pancakes in the “Kota” (warm hut) before we watch an elf show in a beautifully lit igloo. That night the children are still buzzing and on our flight home we realise that Santa and his elves may be long gone, but the memory of this magical experience will be etched into all our minds forever. If you are planning to take your kids on this once in a lifetime trip please get in touch and I will guide you through the many different options to find the perfect Lapland experience for your family.

Vancouver: Whats the big deal?

18 March 2021

Vancouver rates as one the world’s top cities on just about every count. A vibrant, cosmopolitan metropolis with diverse and distinct neighbourhoods, it is framed by spectacular scenery. Mountains, forests and blue sparkling waters characterise a stay in Vancouver not to mention the incredible wildlife opportunities. Here are a few reasons to put Vancouver on your bucket list! STANLEY PARK A quintessential city sanctuary, Stanley Park offers a window to some of Vancouver’s best scenery where the mountains meet the Ocean against a perfect cityscape. A mere 5 minutes cycle into the park and you can also be deep in the temperate rainforest which fills its interior, lush evergreen forest 150,00 trees a lake and lots of wildlife. There are 27km of trails around the park as well as an open-air swimming pool, beaches, restaurants, outdoor theatre, gardens, lakes, horse and the Totem Poles which give a great introduction to First Nations history. Cycling around the sea wall with a guide brought the city and its history to life for me. FLYOVER CANADA Right next to the cruise ship terminal, this flight simulator 4D experience is impressive. After strapping yourself into airline-style seats, you are suspended before a 20-metre spherical screen. You fly, feet dangling, over Canada’s most awe-inspiring scenery and experiences. Watch the Rocky mountaineer snake through the mountains, fly over snow-capped peaks, the prairies, rainforests, dazzling cityscapes, and coastlines. A collective “gasp” can be heard from the passengers as we fly over the edge of a cliff, all instinctively pulling our legs in and then we even feel the sea spray on our faces. T GASTOWN FOODIE TOUR I freely admit to being no foodie, but the food in Vancouver is something to behold. Named by Conde Nast as one of the world’s top food cities, beyond the vast array of cafes and restaurants on offer there is a sort of food appreciation vibe to the streets. Vancouver is a huge fusion of cultures and thus it seems like almost every type of food on the planet is here in some form – from food trucks to high-end fine dining and everything in between. Gastown is Vancouver’s most historic neighbourhood as well as housing its most trendy dining spots. A foodie tour of Gastown involves a wander around with a local guide who brings the area’s history to life. After dark, the lamp-lit streets take on a slightly edgier but vibrant feel. You then get to sample several restaurants, having a course in each. Don’t miss the typical Canadian foods such as Poutine (chips, cheese and gravy type mix) and Vancouver specialities such as the Japanese hot dogs, sushi rolls and dim sum. GROUSE MOUNTAIN Just 20 minutes drive from the city lies the leafy suburb of North Vancouver, where tall trees tower over every house and lakes & mountains are in every vista. Grouse Mountain, the tallest peak in the area, is home to a veritable mountaintop playground in both summer and winter months. We ascend on the Skyride Gondola to 1250m and survey the incredible views. A low mist hangs over the miles of forest stretching as far as the eye can see and the city skyline and harbour sparkles in the distance. However there is a lot more than views at the top of this peak, hike the Grouse Grind trail or take a casual walk around the top, visit the wildlife refuge and meet the rescued bears, watch the lumberjack show, ogle the views from Observatory restaurant, take the chair lift to the peak, fly above the trees on the mountain zip lines or take in a show at the Theatre in the Sky. In winter you can ski, snowshoe snowboard, ice skate and sledge and there is also a winter lights trail. Grouse Mountain’s resident bears Grinder and Coola are 2 orphaned grizzly bears, rescued as cubs and now living life to the full in their 5.5-acre habitat. Breakfast with the bears involves having your breakfast in a Yurt with a viewing platform looking right over the bears stomping ground and hearing all about their history, life and different personalities whilst you watch their morning feed. Top Tip: Get up to the top before the crowds with the Breakfast with the Bears experience. Take the free shuttle from Canada Place. HARBOUR SEAPLANE What better way to see Vancouver’s picturesque harbour than from the air. Bob along the water then soar above the skyline before heading over to Vancouver Island. The tops of the skyscrapers are soon replaced by miles of glistening waters, islands, inlets, forests and deliciously wild beaches. From above you can appreciate Vancouver and Vancouver Island for its raw beauty. GRANVILLE ISLAND Back in the 1900s Granville island was home to factories and sawmills but after regeneration its now a food lovers paradise, with a famous covered market packed with fresh local produce, baked goods, local artisan crafts and a food court. Vancouver’s foodie locals shop here and its also now one of the important cultural districts with theatres, art galleries, workshops. You can reach Granville via bus, car/bike or via the cute little tug ferries (Aqua bus) which run from Yaletown every few minutes. Top Tip: The False Creek ferry has lots of interesting stops up and down the inlet and is worth a trip in itself for the great views of downtown and the harbour. GOURMET COOKING CLASS Granville is home to some of Vancouver’s top dining spots such as Edible Canada and the Blue Hat Bistro where you can do a gourmet cooking class run by the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts (PICA). As I said, I am not a fan of seafood at all so it was a somewhat difficult moment for me when we arrived at PICA and discovered that we would be making Moules Mariniere! I am proud to report I did succeed in my cookery endeavour. The bonus is that you get to eat what you have made in the beautiful setting of the Red Hat Bistro next door. CAPILANO BRIDGE Not far from Grouse Mountain is perhaps Vancouver’s most infamous attraction. The original 1880s bridge was made of hemp rope and cedar planks, today's 450ft bridge is suspended using steel cables strong enough to hand a 747 on, and its dramatic canyon views are not for the faint-hearted. Walk the Cliffwalk, a 300ft walkway attached to the cliffs of the canyon and suspended above the river, or take the Treetops trail for a birds-eye view of the rainforest. Top Tip: Being one of Vancouver’s most popular attractions the bridge gets crowded, head there for the opening time to get the most out of your visit.

Disneyland Paris Top Tips Part 2: Dining, Characters & fireworks

22 May 2021

How can I meet the characters? The magic of Disney is undoubtedly created by the characters, but unfortunately wait times to have that special moment and photo with your most dreamed about character can be long. To beat the queues here are 3 tips: • Download the Lineberty App. The App texts you when they’re ready for you • Bear in mind that its relatively easy to meet Mickey and friends in the park, whilst the queue for Princess Meet and Greet is usually a minimum an hour. • Alternatively you can book breakfast/lunch/dinner with characters which means you will meet them whilst eating, though this could be a brief meeting and its expensive. Cafe Mickey is the best value for money for the time spent with the characters and the interaction gained. Plaza Gardens involves quite a quick photo and cuddle. For Princess fans you can’t beat breakfast, lunch or dinner with the Princesses at Auberge de Cendrillon restaurant by the castle. The 3-course dinner is great, although the children’s menu perhaps leaves something to be desired. The princesses are good about spending some time with each child for photos, autographs and questions, creating a really magical experience, albeit an overpriced one! • Another way to try and meet the characters without queuing at all, is to wait at the spot where the characters walk past to enter/leave the stage shows and Auberge restaurant. You may not get an autograph or a staged photo, but they will generally interact with you briefly. To find this spot walk through the castle into Fantasyland, turn immediately right and go through a metal gate passing Cinderella’s carriage. Wait by the next metal gate and fence for a chance meeting ideally around 20 minutes before any stage show begins (see the show guide on the day you visit). What’s the food like? Food inside the parks is super expensive so planning is of the essence. Picnics are the way forward, as even drinks are around €3.70 per soft drink and €2.50 for water. Take water bottles and use the fountains around the park. If you have half-board dining or want to eat in the park pre-booking is best, you can do this on the app, at desks around the park or by calling in advance. Bear in mind that at peak times queues at food outlets can be horrendous so picnics not only save money but also precious time! What times are the Parade & fireworks? Another magical part of the Disney experience which is definitely not to be missed. The parade and fireworks times change throughout the year but usually around 5-5.30pm for the parade and 10-11pm for the fireworks. For the parade people begin sitting down to save spaces around 1-1.5 hours before it begins, the Parade begins from It’s a Small World and we found this area a great place to watch it, in particular in front of Bella Notte restaurant and across the street from it which gets busy less fast than other spots. Tip! Take some little camping stools with you for when you are waiting for rides and the long wait for the parade

Disneyland Paris Top Tips Part 1

21 May 2021

So you’ve got your tickets, booked your hotel and worked out how you are getting there, but holidays to Disneyland Paris need some prior think time. Planning and strategy are key if you want to make the most of your time (and all the money you have spent on tickets!) Firstly, have a think about what you want to get out of this visit, are you more interested in the Disney Characters and the parade, or are you all about the thrills of the rides? Depending on how long you have you probably won’t be able to do everything, so setting priorities is important. How much time should I spend in the parks? There are 2 parks at Disney Paris – the Disneyland Park and the Walt Disney Studios Park. Disneyland is split into four themed lands – Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland and Discoveryland. Each land has a mix of larger rides, smaller “family” rides, themed attractions you can walk around, and show venues. In general, if you have smaller children you will want to spend more time in Fantasyland. Walt Disney Studios is a smaller park with less smaller rides and attractions for little ones and more “Big Thrills”, as well as obviously film studios themed attractions. Generally, 2 days in Disneyland and 1 day in Walt Disney studios should be enough, but if you choose to spend 4 or 5 days at the parks you will then be able to do shorter days and have more time to spend relaxing back at your accommodation, this is ideal if you have young children for whom a long day at Disney can be very tiring! The most important thing is to download the app which keeps you up to date on current queues in both parks so you can plan your day. It also has all the daily show times and an interactive map. What are the best rides? Disneyland Park Which rides to prioritise depends on the ages of your children, but firstly take note of the list below which is where the queues generally are: Phantom Manor Frontierland Any Height Big Thunder Mountain Frontierland 1.02m Indiana Jones Adventureland 1.40m Pirates of the Caribbean Adventureland Any Height Peter Pan’s Flight Fantasyland Any Height It’s a small World Fantasyland Any Height Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast Discoveryland Any Height Star Tours: The Adventures Continue Discoveryland 1.02m Star Wars Hyperspace Mountain Discoveryland 1.20m Get to the rides with the biggest queues as early as you can, as queues build up throughout the day, peaking between 11-3pm. If you are not watching the parade one day that’s also a good time to get on the most popular ride. Things to Explore Le Passage Enchanté d'Aladdin (10 minutes) La Cabane des Robinson (20 minutes) Adventure Isle (20 minutes) Sleeping Beauty Castle (20-30 minutes) Alice's Curious Labyrinth (20 minutes) Les Mystères du Nautilus (10 minutes) Liberty Arcade and Discovery Arcade (15 minutes) Walt Disney Studios Park Ratatouille and Crush Coaster and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (1.02m) are arguably the best and most popular rides in the Studios but Slinky Dog, RC Racer (1.20m) and Toy Soldiers Parachute drop (81cm) can also attract queues at peak times. Rock n Roller coaster (1.20m), the fastest rollercoaster at Disney Paris currently, usually has very short queues and available fastpasses. The Studios also have several great shows and film themed attractions, the most popular being Mickey’s Magic show. How does the Fastpass system work? Here’s how it works. You go to the ride you want and head to the area signed “Fastpass tickets” put your Disneyland ticket into the Fastpass machine and it will shoot out a Fastpass at the time shown on the sign above. We found in August that these times were normally 2-4 hours ahead of the point you were requesting the Fastpass, so at 11pm you would get a pass for 1 or 2pm. Once you have a Fastpass for a ride, you cannot get another one until 30 mins before your next Fastpass ride is due, so if you get a Fastpass for a ride scheduled at 1pm, you can’t request another one until 12.30pm. The Fastpass system works best in the morning, so the key is to prioritise the rides which you think you want most and use your first fastpass there. By 2pm many of the Fastpass machines are closed so use the morning to get on those big ones (see below) Some rides also operate a parent swap system...one adult queue with the child and then the next adult (or adult and child) enter through fast track entrance which is super useful. TIP! If you wear the outfit that matches the movie ride you can sometimes get fast-tracked and skip the main queue.

The South America Diaries: The Salkantay trek to Macchu Picchu (Part 1)

01 July 2021

Day One. “Can I borrow that Llama’s coat please?” Our minibus zig-zagged the dirt roads, clinging perilously several times to the edges of the cliff edge. Whilst trying to get around a hairpin bend the bus driver bumped into a tree and chipped the corner of the minibus. Good start. We had set off from Cusco, already 3400m above sea level before even the roosters were up. Cusco, once the centre of the Incan empire is a beautiful colonial town set high in the Andes at 3400m and from where we had set off before the roosters were even up. We were fast approaching the start point of the Salkantay trail, a 5 days trek which ends at Macchu Picchu. The Salkantay trek is a great alternative to the classic Inca trail for many reasons, infact I have a whole other post on this topic! After finally making the start point at Mollepata we set off for a few hours of pleasant hiking towards Camp 1. As we turned the final corner we were rewarded with our first views of the dramatic Salkantay peak glistening in the distance and on arrival we found the tents already up and tea and snacks on the table waiting for us. This was no ordinary camping experience. We had an army of cooks, porters, mule handlers and 2 guides with us and we even had a toilet tent. First rule of trekking in Peru – don’t assume you won’t have a 5-star camping experience! Lunch and dinner were 3 courses of gourmet food every day; fresh soup, various roulades, every kind of potato imaginable (Peru has about 200 types of potato), tender meat with all sorts of sauces, all beautifully presented in the middle of the Peruvian Andes. Camp 1 was positioned at the bottom of Salkantay’s glaciated mountain face and as the sun quickly went down the ice shone in the moonlight. At 3800m above sea level things got very cold quickly, we hastily put on the entire contents of our backpacks. It seemed so strange to be so close to the glacier rather than glimpsing the white peaks in the distance. During the icy cold night (it got down to minus 10) the silence was only broken by the grumbling mini avalanches above. Day Two. The wonder of coca leaves We woke to incredible views and a cup of coca tea brought to our tent. Today’s hike including climbing the Salkantay pass at 4700m, which with the altitude affecting our every breath was not going to be easy. According to our local guides chewing Coca leaves was going to somehow help us transport ourselves effortlessly to the top of the pass. The Coca plant is found in the Andean highlands of South America and is the base ingredient for cocaine, however, the raw plant is totally safe and something the local population swears by. The idea is to place a wad of dried leaves in-between the mouth and cheek and gently suck it; the juice helps you to breathe, is nutritious and gives you energy. The guide stuffed 20 leaves in his mouth and waltzed up the mountain playing an Indian flute, I managed about 10 as the taste was not pleasant, but it did help me to trudge very slowly up to the top, gasping and puffing the whole way. From the top, the moonlike mountainous landscape stretched for miles and the Salkantay glacier loomed so close it seemed like we could touch it. Another a few hours of downhill stumbling and the barren mountainous landscape had disappeared, being replaced with lush Andean cloud forest. As we walked along a ridge through a steep valley suddenly the temperature dropped. After lunch the guides assured it was only another 2 hours to camp, however in Peruvian time this was 3-4, and after 6 hours already that day the last 3 were tough. Camp 2 was a tiny local village consisting of 2 wooden huts. A peek through the door revealed all sorts of animals running around in the ´house´ – guinea pigs chickens, puppies, cats, hens, pigs… and no apparent room for the family to sleep. We amused ourselves playing with the children who clearly loved the steady but small stream of hiking groups coming through. Day Three. Only 5 hours – what a doddle! We continued through the valley along a narrow ridge which dropped steeply away down to a river. We had now descended into lush rainforest amongst orchids, tropical fruit, hummingbirds and butterflies, and the contrast to the first 2 days was surreal. After a very tame 5 hours we arrived at a larger village situated by a river. Here the residents had clearly given up their failing agriculture in favour of selling things to trekkers camping in the huge campsite there. The filthy kids played in the dirt on the street and asked us for sweets as we walked past, later they even came to our tent to ask for sweets. This was so different to back in Huaraz where they saw few tourists and seemed almost scared of us, here around the Cusco trekking zone the local way of life has very much been impacted by tourism, however far less so than at the classic Inca trail camps. Read part 2 to find out what its like to arrive at Macchu Picchu...

The South America Diaries: The Salkantay trek to Macchu Picchu (Part 2)

01 July 2021

(Continued) Day Four. Peruvian transport at it´s best We jumped on a bus to get down to a cable we would need to take over the river. Well, it had been a bus once upon a time but now it was a battered heap with no glass in the windows and a piece of plastic for a door. As we arrived near to a river the bus stopped and 30 local men ambushed it, pushing and shoving to get the luggage as it was brought down from the roof. Apparently, they were desperate to carry our backpacks to the river (about half an hour walk) for 5 soles each (about 1 GBP). Crossing the river involved sitting in a metal crate 2 at a time (or 3 plus your sacks if you are Peruvian) and being pulled across on a wire. After a 3 hour walk along a dusty road on the other side, we arrived at a hydroelectric plant where a train would take us the last leg to the town of Aquas Calientes, below Macchu Picchu. Tourist-ville began here with loads of stalls selling drinks and a few restaurants. In the Peruvian Andean region, the only way the trains can get up the steep valleys is to switchback, so you go along for about 1km and then go back along the same track for 1km but higher up the hill in a zig-zig format…. this continues for hours and you kind of get the impression you aren’t really going anywhere, but somehow you arrive. We spent the night in the pleasant town Aquas Calientes (‘Hot waters’, names after the hot springs it is home to) ready to walk up to Macchu Picchu for sunrise (there was also an option to go by bus). Day Five. That Machu Picchu Moment Machu Picchu really is one of those magical places everyone should see before they die. We had seen the famous postcard view so many times, and it was truly a much talked about place that did not disappoint. At 6am when we arrived the sun was just rising above the surrounding mountains creating a spectacle of colours and there were only a handful of other visitors. The only sounds were the birds and the air just seemed to be filled with mystery as we stared at the vast ruins. The isolation of its location is hard to take in – a ruined city perched on top of such a steep mountain surrounded completely by steep drops on all sides, mountains and white peaks in the distance. Machu Picchu was only discovered accidentally in 1911 by an American archaeologist. What a sight that must have been for him even if the ruins were covered in vegetation which it took his team years to clear. The Inca’s had managed to hide it from the pilfering Spaniards completely, but no one really knows what its purpose was. Our guide provided long explanations about each building, the Inca beliefs of sun worship, the impressive astronomy tools and the incredible jigsaw-puzzle masonry of massive stones. His English, in general, was good but somehow his long-winded explanations of things didn’t make any sense whatsoever and most of the group nodded off at some point, overcome by tiredness after the excitement of reaching Machu Picchu finally. We then summoned up enough energy to climb the very steep mountain behind the ruined city – Huayna Picchu. The Incas had incredibly built hundreds of steps leading to more terraces and a house right on the top. The views of Macchu Picchu were worth the climb and again you just wondered how on earth they could have built something so vast in such a precarious location. We just managed to squeeze in a much-needed trip to Aquas Calientes hot springs before catching the tourist train back to Cusco. If you are considering hiking some of the world’s most spectacular trails in Peru please get in touch and I can guide you through all the choices to find your perfect holiday.

New York, One World Observatory

25 March 2021

Spectacular views are not the only draw card to New York's 541m high One World Observatory. Nearly 20 years since the day the world can never forget, the new One World Trade Centre pierces the clouds in its brand new glass and steel glory. Built on the northwest corner of the World Trade Centre site, it stands where 6WTC once stood before the entire area was decimated by the September 11th attacks. The tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, its 102nd floor opened to the public in May 2015 as the One World Observatory and it promises the best views in existence of the New York skyline. From entering the attraction to the point of arriving at the viewing platform the experience is basically a show, but impressive nevertheless. Though of course, I am as horrified and sympathetic as the next person about the atrocity which occurred right here 16 years ago, I am unprepared for the overtly patriotic atmosphere. We enter through airport-style security and are ushered through a tunnel where a heartfelt video montage entitled “voices” describes the building of the tower through the eyes of those who worked on it. “This tower is the new symbol of America,” says one of the chief engineers. The symbolic cornerstone of the 1WTC was laid back in 2004, however, work on the foundations did not begin until 2006. The bomb-resistant 20-story base is set on 70-ton shafts of steel with pilings which had to be dug more than 60 meters underground. It took 10,000 workers another 8 years to finish the 102 story building. Building inspector Mark Becker compares the building of the tower to raising a child: “It takes a lot of strength and patience. But in the end, you couldn’t be more proud.” Further on through the tunnel, we walk through the actual bedrock foundations of the building which lends an interesting touch. Entering the lift I am expecting to be whizzed at breakneck speed to the 102nd floor, but not expecting what comes next. The lift ascends 381 meters in 47 seconds – that’s the equivalent of 23 mph an hour. On the 4 walls of the lift time lapse projections give you a bird’s eye view over New York through the ages. As you soar upwards you literally see 500 years of New York history unfolding before you; the city being built bit by bit from the original bushland to the first settlers until you finally arrive at the skyscrapers views of today. “Welcome to One World Observatory” a deep voice booms as we exit the lift. We are all ready to see the views, but not yet it seems; there is more to come. It’s showtime again, and we are treated to another impressive 3D depiction of the sights and sounds of NYC projected onto a huge floor to ceiling screen. More views of Manhattan and images of New York’s hallmarks are combined with more uplifting music. After a spectacular finale we are left with a projected view of the Manhattan skyline and then surprised when the actual screen rises to reveal the real thing, accompanied by cheers and applause from the crowd. Despite not being a massive fan of this type of “Americanisation”, this was a totally heart-in-mouth moment! So now for the views? No. Almost, but not yet. The screen goes down again and we are ushered into another section with frosted glass, the staff tries very hard to persuade us to rent “One World Explorer ipads” to use from the viewing deck. These did look to be a very useful addition and had I been here longer I may have partaken. (You can point the device in any given direction, and it will show you the landmarks and other sights in that view, at a cost of $15). Then the show is over, finally, we step out on the 102nd floor into the Observatory and are standing in the sky above Manhattan. 360 degrees views are all around. Manhattan skyscrapers sandwiched between rivers twisting their way as far as the eye can see. The Empire State Building, the crisscrossed grid of the city streets, the New Jersey suburbs. From up here the Statue of Liberty looks like a miniature model with tiny ferries and helicopters quietly snaking around her. All the most famous points of New York are laid out neatly beneath you; the tiny Brooklyn Bridge looks close enough to touch. Miniscule yellow cabs look like toy cars below as New York life hums along below. Nothing I can write here will do this view justice so I will point you to youtube for plenty of videos. There is an interesting "sky portal" in the middle of the observation platform, where you can see live shots of the street scenes from below, only recommended for those who like heights! I like the way they have added more to the viewing deck experience here: in the center, there is another diversion called "The City Pulse". Local New York guides offer a comedy insight to the city using a ring of touchscreen monitors. These are not just any old monitors though, they can respond to the arm gestures of the guide to offer real-time snapshots of information about dining, areas, local life and landmarks. It's seriously high-tech stuff in here! The viewing also deck feels very roomy and despite filling up with people does not at any point seem too crowded. Standing here taking in the skyline it does feel like people do not come here strictly for the views. Breath-taking as they are it’s about more than that. You are standing spiritually in the same place where 3000 people died on one day within our lifetime. The One World Observatory does a brilliant job of commemorating this without dwelling on it and celebrating this iconic building in a unique attraction. Brimming with American drama though it is, it’s unmissable. One World Observatory has done more than filling a void in the city; it has reclaimed the skies of New York.

The South America diaries: the passion of Buenos Aires

21 June 2021

Argentina’s capital city, Buenos Aires, pulsates with a glamorous and seductive energy. A combination of rich architecture, cultural heritage, world-class cuisine, electric nightlife, and a vibrant arts scene makes it one of the world’s most intriguing cities. Here are some of the reasons I fell in love with it on my first visit. Getting to know Gardel. It was on the second night that my love affair began. It started with the quaint cobbled streets and ageing mansions of San Telmo, the oldest neighbourhood in Buenos Aires. It was there I had my first encounter with Tango. I was swept off my feet by the evocative rhythms, the sensuous moves and the sultry looks. Born in the poorest parts of Buenos Aires in the mid 19th century and invented principally by the European immigrants, some may say that it’s had its day. I disagree. The Tango is still alive and well in many of the bars and clubs of Buenos Aires and still has the ability to transport you to a bygone era. Carlos Gardel, known as the “Father of Tango” can be seen on posters all over town and also has a museum dedicated to his memory. That night we had accidentally ended up in Bar Sul, a tiny, intimate bar in San Telmo. The bar was filled with small round tables, black and white tiles and old pictures. A couple danced in and amongst the tables whilst old men sang and played their hearts out on the piano, double bass, guitar and the accordion. I was enchanted by the dancers; their faces touching lightly as they spun around the floor, their romantic grace, and absolute intensity. On Sundays San Telmo square transforms itself into a Tango dancing hall as young and old Argentines practise their technique to music blaring out from speakers, tango isn’t only for tourists. We met an old man with a black pointy moustache, an unlikely named tango teacher called Bryan, and so found ourselves in a small apartment the next day ready to begin a lesson. Bryan, who had written a large bound volume on the tango, talked alot about the “language” of the tango dance and its history rather than just teaching us a set of steps. This man just lived for his tango and that made it a very special experience. Europe or South America? So what else of Buenos Aires? Well, the “Aires” are certainly not very “Buenos”; it’s big, noisy, polluted and full of suicidal drivers. However, known as the “Paris of the South”, its tree-lined boulevards with grand 19th-century buildings are reminiscent of what any great European city has to offer. Every neighbourhood has a distinct character and that`s something I love about this city. From the glitzy northern suburbs with chic bars, restaurants and Plazas al la Soho, to the faded mansions and cobbled streets of San Telmo which comes alive on Sundays with street entertainment, tango dancers, funky cafes and bars. La Boca is the suburb where tango was reportedly born and its beating heart is the La Boca juniors football club. Originally a working-class Italian immigrant neighbourhood now as you wander through the cobbled streets amongst the original wooden and zinc sheeted houses painted in bright colours, street tango stars dance and artists sell their wares. The faded grandeur, the graffiti backdrop, the history and the dancing all create a unique atmosphere. Shopping in Buenos Aires rivals shopping in London, with markets, pop up designer sales and high street shops all to discover. Don`t cry for me Argentina. Perhaps Buenos Aires most famous resident was Eva Peron. Known as Evita and originally an actress, she became First Lady and also a champion of worker’s rights. It seems she was loved and hated equally, but no one can deny the impact she had on the country’s society. As a huge Evita fan, I loved finding out more about her life, including the bizarre fact that after her death in 1952 her body was stolen by the military and hidden for 16 years in Milan! The famous Casa Rosada, from whose balcony she gave her impassioned speeches, the decadent Evita museum in Palmero and the elaborate Recoletta cemetery all have a part of her story to tell. Buenos Noches. Buenos Aire’s truly doesn’t sleep. People go out late here, restaurants are full at 11pm and nightclubs don’t even start until 2am. We spent an evening in Buenos Aires’s opulent theatre, Teatro Colon, built in 1908 to rival the best European opera houses where the acoustics are supposedly the best in the world. Another evening was spent at a swanky waterside restaurant in Puerto Madero followed by dancing at the famous Opera Bay Club and other evenings hopping between the cool bars of Palmero. Buenos Aires is a culinary mecca. You can gorge on succulent Argentine steaks at one of the many Parillas (steakhouses) which are everywhere, sample some tapas or find yourself at a high-end French bistro, the city really does have it all. If you really want to immerse yourself in Argentinian culture then there is one thing you can do in Buenos Aires which will be sure to tick that box and that’s go to a football match at the River Plate stadium. In the “stand with atmosphere” for which we had tickets, locals balanced themselves precariously on the railings only holding a piece of string for balance and there was much jumping up and down, singing and flag flying. Argentinians are intensely passionate about football and the electric atmosphere was something I will always remember. If you want to visit South America’s most vibrant city get in touch and I will create your perfect South American itinerary.

Khao Lak: more than just a beach

18 March 2021

Vast unbroken stretches of golden sand, a wide range of beach accommodation, family-friendly atmosphere and many of Thailand’s true gems within exploring distance. In 1999 Khao Lak had just 3 hotels, now it has 10,000 beds. Completely destroyed by the 2005 Tsunami, 13 years on its access to some of Southern Thailand’s best rainforest, dramatic coastal scenery and world-class dive spots have helped Khao Lak make its mark as an alternative to its island neighbours. Hop between paradises Hat Khao Lak refers to some 8km of pristine beaches which include 3 smaller beaches: Sunset Beach (the southern part), Nang Thong Beach (the middle part) and Bang Niang Beach (the northern end). If you want to really get away from it all, a short taxi ride north will take you to the sleepy white sands of Hat Pakarang, Pakweep and Hat Bang Sak which are around 3km off the main highway between the 64 and 74km markers. Backed by thick mangroves and rubber plantations these turquoise waters are worth lazing next to for a day at least and are home to several authentic seafood restaurants at the widest point. Discover what lies beneath The Similan Islands and Surin Marine Park offer world-class diving and snorkelling spots. Take to the mineral-water clear seas amongst manta rays, reef sharks, dolphins, turtles, puffer fish, sea horses and frogfish to name but a few. The parks are protected and famous for shallow water corals. With 200 coral species and 800 fish species this is a snorkellers paradise, and with beautiful coves, blindingly white beaches and jungle clad islands. You can book diving and snorkelling trips from one of the many operators which line the main street of Khao Lak, but be aware that quality varies a lot. Having checked out many of them my recommendation is Wow Andaman who you will find just off the main street. Hang out where Bond did The Ao Phang-Nga marine park is another must-see on the day-trippers list from Khao Lak. The Classic Andaman scenery here involves huge vertical limestone cliffs, rainforest, 42 islands and a plethora of caves to explore. The stunning natural skyline here led to the 1970s James Bond “Man with a Golden Gun” being filmed here. Get up close and personal with the elephants Elephants have been a feature of Thai life for centuries, however, they have often been cruelly exploited in both the tourism and logging industries. Fortunately, the world is a wiser place right now and many of the camps where elephants suffered have now been closed down. In their wake comes a new breed of ethical elephant attractions, but beware these are still few and far between. In general, any “sanctuary” where you are encouraged to ride an elephant in a chair (known as a Howdah) should be avoided in favour of those where elephants are respected and can be observed in their own environment. The reason for this is that for an elephant to be ridden, take part in circuses or tricks they would have to have undergone what is known as “crush training” to get to that point. Phang Nga Elephant Park (phangngaelephantpark.com) is one of only 6 ethical sanctuaries in Thailand today and takes in elephants who have been living in other far less safe and healthy environments. Phang Nga’s reason for being is to give the elephants the best quality of life possible, and small groups of tourists are hosted on a daily basis to help them fullfill that commitment. Phang Nga is heavily focussed on education and your elephant experience involves spending a few hours with an elephant, her keeper (or Mahoot) and a guide. You will learn about her history, how she is kept. After a traditional Thai lunch in the jungle there is a chance to take part in elephant bathing. This is an intimate elephant experience which is fantastic for families and couples alike. Turtle Encounter Turtles have long been protected in Thailand. Near to Khao Lak, the Naval base at Tab Lamu has a Turtle Sanctuary which focuses on conservation and education. Baby turtles from the Similan islands are hatched and reared before being re-released into the wild giving them an 80% better chance of survival. Whilst it’s not very developed, this sanctuary is great for seeing all the different breeds of turtle close up and learning about them. A guaranteed child-pleaser, the Navy base is only 15 minutes from Khao Lak by taxi (around 600 Baht) and only charges around 50 baht entry. Swing through the jungle and chase waterfalls The immaculate coastline is not the only star here, just a few minutes from civilisation you can be whisked into a world of jungle calls, towering palms, giant bamboo, twisting vines and fluttering butterflies. Three national parks border Khao Lak’s coastline and are made up of mangroves, waterfalls, jungle and 1000 metre-high mountains. Lucky adventurers may encounter sun bears, macaques, gibbons, tapirs, wild pigs and possibly (but extremely rarely) a tiger as well as 180 species of birds. Reptiles and butterflies. Float down one of the meandering rivers on a hand-made bamboo raft taking in the life on the banks, hike one of the riverside trails and cool off in a waterfall. Chase Waterfalls Escape the heat and join the waterfall trail. The mountains of Khao Sok and the monsoon climate make this great waterfall territory. Lampi is a 3 tiered waterfall about 30 minutes south of Khao Lak and is only a short walk from the car park. Sai Rung waterfall is the most easily accessible from Khao Lak just 10km north of Bang Biang. For the more adventurous spirits Ton Chong Fa is a 5 tiered waterfall around 7km from the main road. It’s a steep and uneven track to reach the 5 tiers but a dip in the pool makes it all worthwhile. Go shopping, the Thai way Night markets are as much a part of Thai life as Pad Thai and elephant and Exist in both in tourist resorts and untouched Thai villages At the larger night markets, you can find just about anything: street food, clothes, souvenirs, fruit & vegetables, fish, art, jewellery, sarongs, traditional handicrafts, bags. For those with adventurous tastes you can chew on a fresh scorpion or a cricket and for the rest of us, there is delicious sugarcane juice, fresh coconut drinks and Thai desserts. Bang Niang night market is located opposite the Tsunami museum, and a newer market known as “the Build” operates most days. For a truly local experience get a taxi to Khu Khak market which is a daytime food market next to the Khao Lak bus station.

Bolivia: The real South America

22 March 2021

For many years I was fortunate enough to have a job that involved travelling to some of the world's most incredible places. My role was to set up educational experiences for young people in the developing world. I would travel around on public transport and set up volunteer projects, treks and activities checking their safety and suitability. The people I met, the sights I saw and the hospitality I experienced will never leave me and Bolivia was one of my most loved countries. If you are searching for the real South America, it doesn’t get better than Bolivia. As the continent’s most indigenous country, Bolivian street-life explodes with South American flavour; an indigenous culture which is alive and well, well preserved colonial cities, ancient relics and modern Latino vibes . A country of pure superlatives, its contrasting scenery provides a feast for the adventurous traveller. Snow-covered Andean peaks, crazy coloured salt lakes, lush cloud-forests and the steamy Amazon can all be a base for wildlife spotting, culture vultures or adrenaline junkies. Here are some of the highlights. Salar de Uyuni – perhaps Bolivia’s most unmissable highlight. Take a 3-day 4WD tour through this breathtaking, other-worldy landscape from Uyuni. The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s highest and largest salt flat, but as well as miles of flats and various buildings made out of salt, you’ll also see volcanic lakes dotted with pink flamingos, geysers, hot springs, a train cemetery, and an island full of Cacti – this is no normal trip! A 2-3 day trip is a must do for your Bolivian itinerary. Food and accommodation are usually included, but be warned that accommodation on a standard tour is in basic stone lodges and temperatures can get below zero at night during the winter months (June-September), warm clothes are a must! La Paz –With a location as jaw-dropping as Rio and a culture arguably richer than most Latino cities, Bolivia's de facto capital is the beating heart of the Andean nations. The sprawling city of La Paz climbs the sides of a giant natural bowl and the snow-capped peak of Mount Illimani loom on the horizon. Spend time wandering through the cobbled alleys, up and down the hilly streets wondering at the beautiful colonial buildings and churches, watching the local life unfold. Take a ride on the world's highest and longest urban cable car, "Mi Teleferico". The views from the cable car platform in El Alto are nothing short of spectacular. Death Road cycle –career down Bolivia’s infamous “Camino del la Muerte” on a mountain bike taking in the stunning views along the way (just don’t look down!). The trip starts in La Paz where riders are driven an hour to the La Cumbre high pass at 4800m. From there its a 4-5 hour cycle down to Yolosa at 1100m. From Yolosa you can either head back to La Paz or hop on a bus to Coroico. Lake Titicaca – the jewel in Bolvia’s crown and another must-see on Bolivia’s list. Backed by snowcapped peaks and home to ancient Incan islands, the highest navigable body of water in the world simply glitters. Take a boat from Copacabana (which later gave its name to Rio’s more famous version) to ancient Isla del Sol, and take a hike around it’s Mediterranean landscape and Incan ruins. If you have the time, do as the crowds don’t do and spend a night here. The birthplace of the sun does not disappoint. Corioco – Bolivia’s centre of ‘chillaxing’ is a mere 2 hours from La Paz by minibus (micro). Soak up the heat, swim in your hostel pool and take in the beautiful views. If you’re feeling a little more active you can hike to waterfalls and natural pools or fly over the tree tops of the tropical forest (www.ziplinebolivia.com). For animal lovers, La Senda Verde animal sanctuary is a must (www.sendaverde.com). Rurrenabaque – known as “Rurre”, and located in northern Bolivia’s steamy Amazon basin, this is Bolivia’s slice of the jungle for travellers. The bus ride from La Paz is long, bumpy and hair-raising (18-20 hours) making flying in the attractive option for most (45 minutes from La Paz on a small plane). This tiny town is crammed with hostels, tour agencies and western cafes. Jump on a boat to a multi-day jungle adventure, or simply sway in your hammock soaking up the atmosphere. Sucre – the constitutional capital is without a doubt Bolivia’s most beautiful city. A UNESCO world heritage site, whitewashed buildings and colonial squares abound. An overnight 12-14 hour bus journey on a near decent road makes Sucre a popular stop for backpackers as does its pleasant year-round climate and easy-to-breathe air. Potosi – one of the world’s highest cities at 4090m above sea level, Potosi was once the wealthiest city in the Americas and the seat of the Spanish mint. It’s Cerro Rico or “Rich Hill” was the site of the infamous silver mines, the horrendous conditions of which can still be experienced today. On a more cheery note, the city has fabulous churches and colonial architecture which are worth the short flight from La Paz. When to go Bolivia has just about every climatic zone – high altitude destinations can get down to arctic temperatures, whilst the Amazon basin can be stiflingly hot. November to April are the rainier months leaving winter time (May to September) as the most desirable time to travel. During this time you generally find blue skies and sunshine at high altitude, with cold nights, and hot weather at lower levels. Getting Around Air Bolivia is a massive country and road journeys between some of the sights are long. Domestic flights can save you long, bumpy journeys. Regular flights operate between Bolivia’s major cities. Car A private car and driver for shorter journeys is recommended and can be arranged by your travel agent. Bus If you are an independent traveller Bolivian buses will provide you with an adventure and a huge insight into Bolivian life. Overnight journeys can be done on the more luxurious “full cama” buses and shorter journeys either by coach-style buses or minibuses. Bus companies vary greatly between routes and companies and even within companies sometimes, so its best to talk to other travellers at the time. For longer journeys always buy your tickets at the bus station where you can check out all the companies running the route you want and compare. A good general rule is to go for the most luxurious option available since this will be cheap in Bolivia and likely to get you the most comfortable ride!

Why take your kids to Greece?

17 March 2021

Almost 90 years ago it Inspired Gerald Durrell’s “My family and other animals”, and in many areas, Corfu's natural beauty and charm has remained intact despite the invasion of tourism. You can still happen across the unspoiled corners which inspired Durrell. With its wooded mountainous interior, irresistible bays and olive groves, Corfu provides a great balance of culture, fun, and relaxation even with little’uns in tow. Culture. The warm, slow paced Mediterranean culture both embraces children and provides a tiny taste of something different for them. Taverna owners welcome children and shower them with attention. One day Baby decided to waddle off by herself whilst we were ordering ice creams in a café at Agni Bay. I found her at the back of next door Nicolas Taverna surrounded by family members playing with her as she lapped up their attention. Although this region has earned its money from tourism for many years, somehow the traditional culture is not quite lost and in fact, the Greeks here seem to have perfected the art of marrying tourism with cultural heritage. Greek Night at Nikolas Taverna was something of a highlight for our children. They astonished us by trying some of the Greek mezze starters and then became transfixed by Greek dancers. When the plate throwing began they could hardly believe it and asked: "can we do this at our villa?" Audience participation was of course welcomed and we all got the chance to hone our Greek folk dancing skills to the tune if the bouzouki. The highlight for Older Daughter though came as one of the dancers asked her to get up and dance with him. Off she trotted into the middle of the Taverna to dance with the costumed threesome cheered on by the crowd. As we later congo'd out of the tavern (not strictly a Greek folk move I suspect) and onto the beach, the children marveled with delight at the star-studded sky and the surprise fireworks. Beach hopping by boat. Hiring a boat in Corfu is, in fact, easier than hiring a car and more akin to driving a moped than sailing. The kids loved chugging from one bay to another with the proud Dads as captains! Boat hire companies are on most beaches and the beautiful northeastern coastline is littered with unspoiled bays to hop around. Many of the bays reachable by boat are almost deserted which adds to the Durrell feeling of exploration. Each of the coves has at least one Taverna and a jetty. The Taverna owner will help you moor the boat and before handing you a menu. Traditional Greek food looking out over an exquisite bay whilst the kids swim and play with pebbles is one of Corfu’s greatest pleasures. Short sails were interspersed by swimming in the lake-like waters, watching people jumping off rocky platforms and exploring sea caves, not to mention millionaire boat spotting. Underwater visibility here is easily as good as the Caribbean and the Maldives. Pretty shoals of fish surrounded us whilst we dipped under the ocean to snorkel in the turquoise waters and gave the kids their first experience of sea-swimming. Castles and Forts. Corfu’s strategic position means it has been captured and fortified several times over its long history. Founded by the Byzantines and added to by the Venetians in the early 15th century, the Old Fortress is set on a rocky peninsula and was originally separated from the island by a moat and 2 giant enclosure walls. Its chequered past includes seeing off 3 Ottoman sieges and being used by the Nazis to imprison Corian Jews before they were transported to death camps. Although much of what you see now is not original, it’s peak towers above the harbour area creating a focal point the town. Imaginations ran wild as we crossed over the bridge to reach the fort, clambered up the battlements and walked around the labyrinth of caves and tunnels. Great views of the Albanian and Greek mainland for the adults and a brilliant natural playground for the kids, complete with a café on the top. Corfu town, a UNESCO world heritage site, is something of an untalked about Dubrovnik: brimming with ornate Venetian facades, cobbled alleyways, Italianate squares, elegant palaces and Baroque churches. Despite being mobbed on a daily basis by cruise ship passengers, it manages to retain a real local charm: washing is strung from balconies and locals sit with their Greek coffees watching games of cricket unfold In Spianada square, the largest square in the Balkans. Almost all pedestrianized, kids will love running the maze of streets in the old town with an option of horse and cart rides. Day trips. Corfu has some great child-friendly day trips on offer. Uninhabited Vidos Island is only 10 minutes away by ferry and houses free roaming rabbits and peacocks as well as more great beaches. If on the other hand, you are after an exciting passport stamp, a short ferry ride away is the town of Saranda in Albania from where you can get to the Roman ruins at Butrint. For a different view, you can take a glass-bottom boat called Kalypso Star from Corfu town and admire the Ionian marine life without even getting wet. If boats aren’t your thing then meandering around the coastline or exploring the traditional mountainous villages inland is bound to appeal to the adventurous side of your kids. Many of the seaside Tavernas have pools which are free to use. A great place to spend a day is Barbati beach, a km long horse shoe shaped beach backed by forested hills and granite cliffs. One of the best beaches in Corfu, this is truly a kids paradise with a gently sloping entry to the sea, a heated pool and toddler pool, playground and leafy café/bar all right on the beach. There is even enough sand at the shoreline to squeeze in a sandcastle or two. Villas with views. We spent our week in the glorious 'Villa Amalthea' located in the olive covered hills above Agni Bay. One Bay down the coast from Kalami, where the Durrells once lived, 'Agni' means unspoiled in Greek and this unassuming village lives up to its name. A pebble beach lapped by flat, crystal clear waters, Agni Bay was adored by the kids. With a trio of seafront Tavernas, a bar, a few simple studios, and views of the Albanian coastline, the adults were pretty happy too. Look back at the coast from any of the beaches and you will see pastel colored villas dotted among the hills. Unsurprisingly a large proportion of our stay was spent gazing out to sea, one of the many pastimes which embody the laid-back spirit of Corfu.

Land based cruising in the Galapagos

18 March 2021

The Galàpagos Islands, an archipelago of 14 islands 1000km off the coast of Ecuador, is described by UNESCO as “a living museum and showcase of evolution”, being home to more than 100 species found nowhere else on earth. For most, the mere mention of the Galápagos conjures up images of giant tortoises lumbering across the volcanic landscape and various other species cavorting lovingly with tourists on deserted beaches. It’s sometimes a surprise to learn that five of these islands are also inhabited by a soaring human population; government workers, fisherman, tour operators, teachers, refugees from the mainland, dreamers and scientists all call the Galápagos home. Around 30,000 of them. A few years ago I was a volunteer on San Cristóbal island for a few months, living with a family, and more recently I have been lucky enough that my work took me back there twice. The Galàpagos archipelago is also synonymous with cruises, but over the last ten years, a new way to explore the islands has been steadily growing land-based cruising. What happens on a land-based cruise? Flying in from Quito or Guayaquil (mainland Ecuador), you will spend a few days on each of the main islands, travelling between them and to smaller islands by speed boat. Whilst on each island you will discover its highlights – you could be climbing the Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela, penguin spotting on Tintoreras, searching the highlands for Galàpagos Giant tortoises on Santa Cruz or taking a boat around San Cristóbal’s wildlife-rich coastline. You'll be able to observe the famous Galàpagos marine life along the way, and have the opportunity to go snorkelling or diving with sea turtles, eagle rays and the harmless Galàpagos shark, just to name a few. Each night you will stay in a hotel or guesthouse on one of the islands and eat in local restaurants. Hotels in the Galàpagos are generally small family run affairs, simple but entirely comfortable. Some of them have small pools, but you won’t (thankfully) find any large resort style hotels here. Why are land-based tours a good alternative to cruises? 1. Freedom. The 70 odd cruise boats which sail the Galàpagos are required to stick closely to tight schedules as part of what is an operation of a military organisation (I know this because I once went to the HQ of operations and it was mind-boggling!). Because of national park regulations and size constraints passengers usually spend a set amount of time roaming each island, often under the parental gaze of a guide. Land-based tours use small hotels based on the main islands and offer you much more freedom. Choose where you eat each evening and decide what you do when. Wander along San Cristóbal’s ‘Malecon’ covered with sleeping sea lions, or the sand streets of Isabela, hang out at the beach bar or take an early morning stroll to watch Santa Cruz’s amazing fish market coming to life. If you are travelling with kids they will have more space and freedom to run around, not to mention not having to constantly worry about them being on deck on a boat. Sleeping in a real bed with a proper bathroom which will not be prone to swaying at night could also be conceived as a bonus! 2. Live with the locals. Participate in the daily rituals of the Galapagueños. In the Galàpagos there are 50,000 sea lions and 20,000 people. How do they co-exist? Staying in a small guesthouse you will be one of the very few people who get a unique insight into the life of a Galapagueño. What is life like for these families who live 1000km away from the mainland in a place where gas, cheese, newspapers and beer can only arrive by boat? 3. Don’t just view the wildlife, live alongside it. Cruise boats may visit more small islands but at each stop, you will be guided off the boat, shown the wildlife and guided back on the boat. On a land-based tour, you experience living alongside the magnificent creatures for which the islands are famous and get a fuller understanding of the islands’ natural habitats. Wander by yourself through the lava-strewn trails to Tijeretas Look Out on San Cristóbal, where the frigate birds circle above, long after the cruise boats have packed up and gone. Take a quick dip at the beach and marvel at your new companions as sea lions and turtles play around you. Sit, alone on the beach and watch the world’s only sea-going lizard motionless on the rocks, and then trip over a sea lion on the way back from the pub. Its these totally unique moments which you will remember when you get home. 3. FOMO is not needed. Although you will be land-based, you will still be able to take day trips to the uninhabited islands such as North Seymour and Bartolome where you can kayak with sea lions and snorkel with turtles. Only a serious wildlife photographer or a biologist would really need to see some of the more remote islands and subspecies. 4. Contribute to an economy in need. By staying in locally owned hotels, eating in locally-owned restaurants and buying from family-run shops, your money will be going directly into the pockets of those who should benefit the most. Ecuador is a developing world country fraught with corruption. Many of the cruise boats are foreign-owned, and you may find that the vast majority of your tourist dollars are barely touching the local economy. Every tourist who visits the Galàpagos pays $100 park entry fee which is split between the national park, local government, and marine protection department. When you support the local business you are doing much more than this, your money may, for example, contribute to educating the next generation of these precious islands on how best to preserve them. 5. Sea Sickness and the Galàpagos. If you are one of those unfortunates (like me) who cannot experience the open seas without getting way too close to the toilet, then land-based tours are definitely for you. The Galàpagos islands are situated in the middle of the Pacific where seas can be rough. On a land-based cruise you will still travel by boat between islands, however, you will spend much less time at the mercy of the waves. The waters are at their calmest between December and March which coincides with the time that sea temperatures are also at their highest. Is the Galàpagos on your bucket list? Get in touch to find out how you can experience one of the world’s greatest destinations for yourself.

The South America diaries: The Zebras of La Paz

20 May 2021

This article appeared in the Daily Telegraph as winner of their "Just Back" competition. Why Bolivia is using animal onesies to tackle the problem of road deaths Squinting in the high altitude sunshine of downtown La Paz my lungs struggle and all my senses are assaulted at once. Businessmen whizz past homeless people begging, colourfully dressed Cholitas sell their wares from stands, shoeshine boys wait hopefully on every corner, and the noise of omnipresent beeping is almost deafening. Just for a moment, I think I spot a zebra amidst the chaos. Not a real zebra you understand, but someone dressed up in the full furry zebra suit. Sure enough, there are a group of people dressed as zebras in the middle of the manic El Prado thoroughfare. Some are dancing to music blaring from a speaker, some are talking to pedestrians and one seemingly suicidal zebra is in the middle of a road with a lollipop guiding people across the street. These are no ordinary zebras and this is no ordinary initiative. In a city which hosted over 9000 traffic accidents in 2015, crossing the road here really is a case of taking your life in your hands. La Paz has seen its population boom and the number of vehicles in the city has doubled in only 6 years. The roads are choked with vehicles vying for every inch of space. Traffic signs are considered a guide, accident statistics deadly, and crossing the road an art form. It is the city's faded zebra crossings which inspired one of Latin America's most forward-thinking urban groups. The Cebras De La Paz were formed in 2001 and initially aimed at educating both pedestrians and drivers, encouraging them both to obey traffic signs. Starting with just 24 zebras giving out leaflets, the "Educadores Urbanos Cebras" (Zebra Urban Educators), have now grown to a group of 400 in La Paz and 3 other Bolivian cities. As a non-aggressive form of traffic intervention, the zebras can often be seen ticking off disobedient drivers, but it is their absolute positivity which makes them such a loved part of the city's commuting force. Waving, stopping to hug children, high-fiving pedestrians: their jollity is endless. "The role we have is to change and improve how everyone is thinking", enthuses Christian, a zebra who bounces around La Paz's busiest intersections from 7am-11am every day. "You need to see the positive side of everything and it's up to us to put our best foot forward". Underneath the stripey suits though, this is about more than road safety. Each zebra is selected from organisations who work with at-risk youths. Young people are given the chance to form friendships, learn, and take on responsibility. Many of them were previously on their way down less positive paths such as drug addiction or youth offending. After 2 months of training in road safety, citizenship and "the spirit of being a zebra", they are let loose on the streets spreading their unmitigated positivity and desire to help. Each zebra is paid a small stipend, but perhaps worth more is the access to training courses and classes they earn aimed at improving their opportunities. Zebras can now be found leading education programmes in schools on topics such as bullying and conservation. La Paz’s traffic problems are going to need a lot more than the positivity of the zebras, but the many murals in the city depicting their work make it clear that they are now a much loved part of city life. A scheme of such success, several other Latin American countries have adopted it and European cities such as Madrid are considering it. Las Zebras de La Paz conveniently translates as "The Zebras of peace", and in the midst of one of Latin America’s least peaceful cities, they are a welcome addition.

Eswatini, King of the conservationists

25 March 2021

Tiny Eswatini (previously Swaziland) lives in the shadow of its big-5 neighbour, South Africa, but a long conservation heritage has left a legacy of impressive yet intimate game reserves. I have had the good fortune of visiting Swaziland a few times to set up volunteer projects (Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV in the world) and game viewing activities during my time as a Product Manager. Its a fantastic alternative to South Africa for safari and has so much unique culture to soak up along the way. Here I talk about the incredible conservation efforts of this tiny country. Bumping along through the dense bush on dirt tracks, the open-sided truck gives the feeling that the black rhino and her baby are almost in touching distance. Getting this close to a wild black rhino so quickly after entering the Mkaya Game Reserve was unexpected. Critically endangered, there are only just over 5000 of them left in the wild. Driving through Mkhaya’s densely populated bush provides somewhat intimate encounters with the most infamous of African wildlife. Giraffes munch happily on leaves and Kudu’s bounce from tree to tree. In movie terms, it's Bambi meets Madagascar, but it hasn’t always been like this for Eswatini. Mkhaya Game Reserve, one of Eswatini's 3 reserves, forms an important part of this tiny country’s rich conservation heritage. Way back at the end of colonial rule, Swaziland’s diverse natural habitats, once home to abundant free-roaming beasts had been left with virtually nothing. The antelope were no-where to be seen, let alone the ‘Big 5’. One young man had watched his country’s demise and after experiencing the true ‘wild Africa’ in Zambia, he decided to do something about it. At 20 years old, world-renowned conservationist, Ted Riley began a campaign to establish what are now some of southern Africa’s most successful conservation reserves, gaining support from King Sobuza II, Swaziland’s reigning monarch at the time. Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary opened in 1964 introducing its first white rhino population in 1965. What followed was 50 years of conservation efforts in partnership with the Swazi Royal House, resulting in the founding of Hlane Royal National Park and Mkhaya Game Reserve along the way. 10,000 square kilometres of a reserve is quite small by African standards, but the lack of self-drive and paved roads here really does give you a sense of the wild. We stop for lunch at a camp, eating under a sausage tree. “How many rhinos do you have here?”, I ask our guide. “I can’t give you a figure”, he says, “but it’s a healthy population. Therein lies my first lesson in the current reality of the poaching crisis: guides will not reveal figures for any animal in case this information ends in the wrong hands. Like much of Africa, Eswatini finds itself amid a war with poachers, but this tiny Absolute Monarchy is giving it's larger, more famous, neighbours a run for their money. Whilst South Africa has lost over 3000 Rhino since 2011, Swaziland lost only 3. Swaziland has arguably Africa’s most effective anti-poaching force and it was Ted Riley who began the process. Back in the 90s when ivory poaching was at its height, Mr Riley deposited a poached rhino outside the King Mswati III’s Royal Palace. His very public protests precipitated fairly revolutionary changes in legislation around penalties for poaching; anyone caught poaching or attempting to poach receives a minimum of 5 years in jail and must pay back the value of the poached animal. If there is a mis sentence the judge is liable and can be sentenced to the same as the poacher which effectively quashes the blight of African justice: corruption. In neighbouring South Africa, current legislation does not require poachers to go to jail, giving an option of paying a fine to walk free. Poaching numbers peaked there in 2014 with 1215 rhinos killed by poachers that year, but in Eswatini only 3 rhinos have been killed by poachers in the last 26 years. My lodging for the night is in one of Stone Camp’s 10 very special open-sided stone-built rooms. Each room occupies its own personal piece of the reserve. As I wander down the rough path through the bush to my lodge, I encounter a family of warthogs playing happily and eland dancing. Apart from quite a pathetic looking “gate”, my little house is open to all – the stone sides only reach waist height. As darkness falls I am increasingly aware of my untamed surroundings. I go to open the safe to find a huge spider sprawled across the door, it’s not just the animals who have freedom of movement here. At dinner, I ask one of the waiters whether any guests have actually woken to find any larger animals around their lodges. “Not really”, he says. “Although there was a spate where elephants were intent on destroying the trees in-between the rooms”, he muses. “Oh, and there was that Italian lady who woke up to find a hyena in her room”. Wishing I had never asked, I settle down to sleep in my camping-esq bedroom. In the darkness, every sound is amplified: like someone had just turned the volume right up. The air is full with a chorus of frogs, crickets and bush babies, a symphony in stereo. Each sound becomes distinct from the others in a rhythmic hum; the frog calls seems to be on the beat after every 5 cricket calls. My mind is forcing me to listen for footsteps, breaking trees, branches..... Waking early to the splintered sunlight the sounds have changed. Bird call dominates the landscape of tangled trees outside; a whistling call, an alarm clock call, a quacking call. Taking a shower is like showering inside a game hide: I watch as the antelope and the warthogs roam metres from me. “Swaziland’s refuge for endangered species” has come along way from its origins as a small farm breeding indigenous Nguni cattle. The Riley family’s decision to sell the cattle and replace them with endangered game has paid off; as well as being Eswatini's best boutique safari experience, this reserve now leads the way in rhino conservation. The rhinos themselves continue to lie contently in the mud, their noses buried deep, oblivious to the fact that they are part of one of Southern Africa’s most successful conservation stories.

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