Financial Times - My discovery of 2010
December 11, 2010

From Llandudno to the Kalahari desert, FT travel contributors reveal their favourite finds of the past 12 months.

Kep, Cambodia

It is difficult today to find the sleepy southeast Asian vibe that was mythologised in battered 1970s guidebooks but a trace remains in Kep, where a strip of former fishermen’s shacks faces the Gulf of Thailand. There I sat with Jean-Michel Filippi, a Corsican linguist who notates vanishing dialects, speaks more than a dozen languages and is the best guide I have had in years. The breeze blew, the sea splashed our feet, we drank pastis and ate fresh crab cooked with the country’s most revered seasoning, Kampot pepper. He explained how poivre de Kampot used to grace the table of every self-respecting restaurant in Paris; he described pre-Angkor temples we would find hidden in limestone caves; and he alarmed me with his story of S’aoch, the endangered language he was documenting in Cambodia, now spoken by fewer than a dozen people. I wanted to cut short our lunch and let him get back to work.
Kep has an extraordinary stretch of 1950s and 1960s seafront villas.This is New Khmer architecture, with modernist lines, art deco curves and unadorned Bauhaus silhouettes – which was the vogue among Cambodian aristocrats and French expats at the time. Their decadent weekend homes became a prime target for the Khmer Rouge; the villas today stand pockmarked and abandoned.
Just along the coast Kampot is a lovely lazy backwater on the Tek Chou river with crumbling French colonial architecture. The town’s hub is the Epic Arts Café run by deaf-mute youngsters who also put on spectacular dance performances, bringing together able-bodied and disabled kids. On the river, Rikitikitavi is the town’s prettiest guesthouse with a view so lovely even the owner pauses to watch the sun set behind the Elephant Hills.
Change is coming. The road from Phnom Penh is being upgraded and colonial villas demolished to make way for new developments. A hotel, casino and entertainment complex is planned nearby at Bokor Hill station but also a smaller-scale sustainable resort, Song Saa Private Island, built on two islets known as “the sweethearts”.

Michelle Jana Chan

Herat, Afghanistan

Herat, in western Afghanistan, is one destination in that tragic country that is still safe, or relatively so. It is one of the most spectacular cities in the entire region and, for a brief period after the death of Timur in 1405, was the capital of the Timurid empire. Here Bihzad illuminated his miniatures; Babur wrote some of the most telling passages in his memoirs; and the Timurid princess Gohar Shad built one of the great colleges of the world. Today there are occasional reports of kidnappings and hold-ups between the airport and the town. But inside the city, there is no sense of tension or danger, and no one looks at you askance as you wander through the mosques, the ruins and the fabulous covered bazaars.
Instead, it feels welcoming, gently prosperous and, by Central Asian standards, surprisingly middle class. On the outskirts, on the hillside of Takht Safar, where the bright young things of Herat gather to watch the sun going down, to picnic, sip tea and listen to music under groves of cedars, mulberries and umbrella pines, you can grasp what Afghanistan would be like if peace were miraculously to break out: it feels not dissimilar, and no more threatening, than inland Turkey. In some ways, Herat feels as if it is high on the Anatolian plateau not far from Ankara; but here, you have the place, and the ruins, to yourself. There is not another traveller to be seen.
When Robert Byron was here in the 1930s he loved not just the grand ruins but also the eccentricity of Herat, and much of that still survives. When our plane touched down on the tarmac, the passengers were not taken into the old 1950s terminal, as the man who had the key had gone off for noon prayers. So, instead, our luggage was delivered by tractor, and dumped on the edge of the apron. It seemed an unsurprising fate for bags carried by an airline, Pamir Air, which at check-in had given me a boarding pass marked “Kabul-Riyadh” and when I pointed out that I was going to Herat, replied that it didn’t matter: “They’ll let you on the plane anyway.”
No less eccentric was the Museum of Jihad: a collection of objects left behind by the various foreigners who have tried to conquer Afghanistan, ranging from British cannons from the first Afghan war to Russian tanks, jets and helicopter gunships.
My favourite place was the Gazar Gah, a gorgeous Sufi shrine on the edge of the hills that surround the city. A tall arched gateway leads to a cool, peaceful courtyard full of calligraphed tombs and shrines, with housemartins swooping through the pine trees and ilexes. Old men lay asleep in the shade, using their turbans as pillows. Elsewhere in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the return of the Taliban has meant the banning of gentle, heterodox Sufi devotions: the shrines have been closed or blown up; yet here, the Sufis survived intact.
In one chamber a group of devotees had gathered, kneeling in a circle, and as a long-haired cantor sang a hymn to some long-dead saint, his followers clapped and chanted the zikr: “Haq! haq!” – Truth, truth, “Allah! Allah!” faster, deeper, pitch rising, hands waving, before reaching their mystical climax, then falling backwards on the carpets with an ecstatic sigh. Amid the gathering Taliban storm, the survival of the peaceful Gazar Gah Sufis seemed a small sign of hope.

William Dalrymple

Little Rock, Arkansas

If there’s one place I wasn’t eager to visit in a year that took me to Alice Springs, Shanghai, Banff, southern Ireland and Hiroshima, it was Little Rock, Arkansas.
The “flyover states” are famous as places to pass through, as quickly as possible. Yet there was blues playing all night in the centre of Little Rock when I arrived, and even a wild saxophonist in the lobby of the biggest hotel in town. There were fliers for Extreme Midget Wrestling in the local hippy coffee-house and an exhibition on “Bubbas and hillbillies” in the historical museum (the stately Old State House). There were pan-Asian restaurants near an illuminated bridge and funky houses that sold biographies, jewels and cappuccino.
If you’ve exhausted the gleaming Clinton Presidential Library, which juts over the Arkansas River at the centre of town, you can learn something about social justice at the huge Heifer International Center nearby. If you’re tired of Flying Fish and the other open-window shrimp joints in the River Market district, you can go to elegant Ashley’s in the Capital Hotel. Most things here are within walking distance downtown and, though the surfaces are often far from glossy, the sensibility within is unexpectedly wry and sharp.
I knew, on my travels this year, that Toronto would be electric with good conversation, that Oxford would be golden in midsummer and that Singapore would be as well-prepared and eager to please as a kid with her head in her books all night. But Little Rock – where I met Tibetan Buddhists, Southern charmers, Graham Greene fans and droll ironists who’d escaped LA and New York – lay far outside every stereotype and expectation. I’ve already set aside my dates for returning there next June.

Pico Iyer

Musée Nissim de Camondo, Paris

In Paris in November for an anniversary weekend of ballet (Paquita at the Garnier, unalloyed joy!) and a celebratory dinner at Eric Frechon’s superlative restaurant at Hôtel Le Bristol, we had an afternoon to fill, and opted for a museum I’d never visited: the Musée Nissim de Camondo.
Edmund de Waal mentions the Camondo family in his engrossing family history The Hare with Amber Eyes. Like de Waal’s antecedents, the Camondos were Jewish bankers, in their case from Constantinople, who settled in Paris in the 1870s on the rue de Monceau. By the turn of the century, however, the dynasty was headed by two cousins, Isaac and Moïse, who preferred art to commerce. Isaac’s passion was impressionism (his outstanding collection of works by Manet, Monet, Degas and Cézanne now hangs in the Musée d’Orsay). Moïse, in contrast, was a connoisseur of all things 18th-century. Hence his decision to build a splendid mansion modelled on the Petit Trianon, though with every mod con available in 1910: a lift, an ice box, an ozone steriliser to purify the water used to wash glasses, heated towel rails in the otherwise austere bathrooms.
He bequeathed the house to the state on his death in 1935, on condition it become a museum named after his son Nissim, who’d died in combat during the first world war. And the result is one of the most fascinating museums I’ve ever visited, not so much for its exhibits – furniture, Aubusson tapestries, paintings by Guardi and Vigée-Lebrun – fine though they are, but for the story it tells. Perfectly paced, the commentary raises questions. “Where was his wife?” I wondered in the small Porcelain Room, where Moïse preferred to dine alone, surrounded only by exquisite Sèvres china – and then answers them a room or two later. Though their legacy is to be celebrated, the Camondo story was a tragic one. By the end of the short film they show in Moïse’s dressing room, there were tears in my eyes.
It is not an especially large house, yet we were there three hours. It was the best €7 I‘ve spent all year.

Claire Wrathall

Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai

Twenty-five years ago I stumbled into the fabled Taj Mahal Palace for the first time while touring Mumbai as a backpacker, and I have seen the world differently ever since.
There was a faded grandeur about the place that seemed to fit perfectly, like a fragment of jigsaw set in the sprawling puzzle of what was then Bombay. I remember feeling ashamed at being so disheveled, but was welcomed nonetheless.
Over the years I have visited the hotel many times, and have watched as the Grande Dame’s facelifts have come and gone. And so, in November 2008, when Islamist terrorists stormed through the hotel’s corridors, slaughtering at will for sixty hours, I was distraught. The sight of flames searing through the iconic rotunda were too much to bear.
A few weeks ago, while visiting Mumbai once again, I made my own quiet pilgrimage to the hotel. It was early evening when I arrived, and there were tears in my eyes. Since the attack, visitors have to go through airport-style X-ray machines. I emptied my pockets, stood with arms outstretched while gloved-hands searched me. A moment later I was inside.
Breathing easy, standing stock still in the cavernous foyer, I couldn’t move. My mind was on the attack, on the terrible loss of life, and on the bravery of the staff.
After fifteen minutes of standing there, I walked slowly through to the corridor that leads to the rotunda. What I love is the gallery of celebrity guests there – Roger Moore and the Shah of Iran, John and Yoko, Bill Clinton, and the Rolling Stones.
If 2008 was the hotel’s annus horribilis, then 2010 has been its finest year. In August, the post-terror renovation was completed and, in November, President Obama stayed, exclaiming that the Taj has been ‘the symbol of strength and resilience of the Indian people’.
For me, the Taj is a beloved old lady who grows ever more radiant with age and all the more adored. The terror attacks of two years ago made me realize quite how much I cherish her. And, as with any true friend, the most poignant moments are when you are together in silence, thinking of the future and remembering the past.

Tahir Shah

Central Kalahari, Botswana

I like my Africa remote and wild and beautiful and they don’t come much more remote, wild and beautiful than the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. This is the land the San people made their own, where Sir Seretse Khama, Botswana’s first president, promised them they could live forever. Here are some 5m hectares of the world’s most pristine, untrammelled landscapes – and don’t be fooled by the word desert. The Kalahari is only a desert in the sense that it has no surface water. Underneath it flow cooling waters that make it a treasure-house of rare and life-enhancing plants. I had imagined a barren land of sand and thirst, of overwhelming heat and dust but what I saw was golden grass and broad acacia trees, a wide blue sky by day and a canopy of glittering stars by night.
Though independent overland travellers have been wandering through it for some 20 years or more, it is only now that Wilderness Safaris’ Kalahari Plains Camp and Kwando Safaris’ Tau Pan Camp have arrived that there is somewhere for the less intrepid to stay, be guided and fall irrevocably in love. The Kalahari Plains Camp, which has just 10 simple but comfortable canvas tents, overlooks one of the Kalahari’s famous pans and is close to Deception Valley, home to the famous brown hyenas that Mark and Delia Owens wrote so fascinatingly about in Cry of the Kalahari. For much of the year, the land may seem “rude, silent, incomprehensible at first” but stay, listen, watch, learn to love the silence and its subtle beauty will get to you. Watch the shadows on the sand, see the moon, study the ways of the black-backed jackal, the meerkat, the Cape fox or the honey badger.
Go in summer (late October-April), during the rains (usually short and sharp) and you’ll find another land entirely. Herds of game – zebra, wildebeest, steenbok, springbok, gemsbok, red hartebeest – arrive for the lush short grass. Stalking them down are the predators, the awesome black-maned lion and cheetah, brown hyena and leopard. Many of the camp staff come from the ancient San clans who made this land their home. Take a walk with them and they will illuminate a world that is quite unlike any other.

Lucia van der Post

Belgrade, Serbia

The boundary between Central Europe and the Balkans can be as solid as a wall or as chimeric as a mirage. Knez Mihajlova scythes through the centre of Belgrade, a street as grand and confident in its fin-de-siècle pomp as any in Budapest or Bratislava, the toasty smell of popcorn permeating the air. A few short blocks away, the city splits into quarters of distinctive charm – the castle in the Kalemagdan park, the tree-lined inter-war modernist quarter built by largely long-gone Jews, the twinkly-lit cobbled streets of Skadarlija, a ringer for a belle époque Montmartre. Only a little further out, things change again. The old piers of the waterfront, black at night and profoundly unpromising, hide an extraordinary, throbbing night scene of almost unparalleled energy. Then there is the chilling black urban scar in the tissue of the emptied Ministry of Defence building, riven by a Nato missile in 1999, a reminder that ethnic conflict still hangs in the air, that nothing is ever straightforward here.
I was there earlier this year for the annual Belgrade Design Festival, a sprawling, intriguing celebration of the intellectual end of design, which takes in the compelling, charming and occasionally infuriating otherness of the city. Nothing goes quite smoothly or on time but everything is distinctively of its place, a curious intertwining of west and east which evokes a mythical Central Europe of coffee and conversation. From the Serbian bakeries with their buttery blend of Viennese-style pastries to the street-corner cherry-sellers, everything seems of the city rather than universal; it is a place that has not yet been subsumed entirely by a corporatised west. Nowhere is this better illustrated than at Supermarket, a concept store that is a theatrical cocktail of socialist realism, high design and strong coffee, kitsch and taste, a useful metaphor for this liminal city.

Edwin Heathcote

Dakhla, Egypt

The Egyptian tourist office’s current publicity campaign – “Egypt, where it all begins” – fails to mention the country’s Western Desert, which is fine with me because that leaves the sands and their oases free from crowds. Until recently, the attractions of travelling in this part of the country were muted by the fact that only Siwa Oasis had a notable hotel. Now Dakhla, in the New Valley, has a good hotel. Al Tarfa Desert Sanctuary is the latest project from Wael Abed, a man who knows the Western Desert well, having run deep-desert expeditions for many years.
Built into single-storey pods that are surrounded by palms, the rooms are a curiously successful blend of the primitive and luxurious – palm-frond ceilings, rough stone or wood floors, but also bleached “Louis Farouk” style furniture. Two suites have plunge pools, and there is a larger pool nearby.
But Al Tarfa’s main attraction is the ease with which one can get into the sands. The nearby Dakhla Dune Park can be reached on horse or camel-back, or by car. Al Tarfa is also just a short drive from a Roman-era temple and from the fabulous medieval city of Al Qasr, whose surviving mudbrick houses, its school, mills and smithy are a testament to the ingenuity of humans, who have taken dust, sand and palm and fashioned it into columns, arches and domes. This, as much as anywhere else in Egypt, is “where it all begins” and the opening of Al Tarfa makes it possible to visit this remarkable place in comfort and in the company of experts.

Anthony Sattin

The Guadiana River, Spain

There’s a ruined mill at the head of the Ribeira Grande in Spain’s Huelva province and here the water is clear and shallow with islands of mud and cress and the swirling tresses of water weeds. With a swift pull on the oars I cleared the shallows and slid away down the little tributary.
The banks were lined with willows and canes, and pomegranates sprinkling the water with yellow leaves. Here and there was a home-made landing stage, a gap in the canes, revealing a path leading up to somebody’s particular patch of paradise.
One more bend and I pulled out into the main river, the Guadiana, which for a little over 60 miles forms the southern border between Spain and Portugal. The tide was ebbing fast, so I made my way across to the Portuguese side, where I could use the eddies and slack water to row up to the village. I shipped the oars and listened to the silence: the drip of water, the occasional plop of a fish, the bell of a Portuguese goat, a dog barking over in Spain. Bobbing past came quinces, pomegranates, oranges and lemons, lending a touch of exuberance to the slow brown river.
And then, as I rounded the next bend, the spell was broken. A cacophony of children yelling, of machinery and hammering and the thousand noises that make the Spanish feel at ease comes from Sanlúcar de Guadiana on the east bank. It seems beyond belief the noise that a village of 360 can make. Alcoutim, the Portuguese village on the other side of the river, seems steeped in silence by comparison, but that’s the way the Portuguese are.
The coffee is better in Spain, but the cakes are better in Portugal, so you can nip across on the ferry, buy the cake and nip back, by which time your coffee will have been plonked noisily down on your table. €2 will do for the return ferry trip, €1 for the pastel de nata, and one more for the coffee ... €4.
Not many people know about the Río Guadiana, and long may it stay that way. It’s clean and peaceful and beautiful, like Cornwall with orange trees.

Chris Stewart

The Canyons, Utah

At a ski industry drinks reception in London a couple of weeks ago, conversation turned to where each member of the group had enjoyed their best day’s skiing in 2010. I’d had some great experiences in places as diverse as Kashmir and Courchevel but I said that my favourite day had been at a resort in Utah – The Canyons. Blank faces all round – no one had ever heard of it.
Nothing too unusual about that, except that Canyons is now the fourth-largest ski area in the US – bigger than resorts like Jackson Hole, Breckenridge and Park City, which are known the world over.
Partly this anonymity is due to its relative newness – until 1997 it existed only as a small resort called Wolf Mountain. Since then, the ski area has nearly tripled in size as part of an ongoing $500m expansion plan, and it just opened for the season with two more brand new lifts and a huge new terrain park.
The skiing is fabulous, genuinely suitable for all abilities. As well as the wide groomed runs for beginners and intermediates, there are steep areas and trees for advanced skiers (don’t miss the routes off the Peak 5 and Ninety-Nine 90 Express lifts), plus “backcountry gates” through which experts can leave the ski area to access untouched powder fields. Better still is that, except at weekends, the slopes seem to be empty.
There is a catch. The other part of the reason for The Canyons’ anonymity is the resort itself. The base area is small, modern and unattractive. When I was there the bars and restaurants had all shut by 8.30pm, and the windswept central plaza was deserted, though piped music played eerily on. New developments are planned which could transform the place but, until they do, far better to stay at Park City, a pretty and historic former mining town 10 minutes’ drive up the road (a free shuttle runs between the two, and there’s ample free parking at The Canyons).
It can’t be long before The Canyons’ reputation begins to catch up with its ski area and the crowds may follow (it’s only 35 minutes from Salt Lake City airport after all). Until then it’s an unpretentious treat.

Tom Robbins

Round Island, Seychelles

It is tempting to obsess about the £5 fish curry and rice (a sell-out by 1pm) at Sundown Café near Port Glaud on Mahé. Or the local mud crab or green sea-snails in wine served at the café’s seven plastic outdoor tables overlooking the sea. Not that this Seychellois eatery is new; it is simply being rediscovered because of the opening nearby of the Constance Ephelia resort – currently one of the best-value Indian Ocean five-stars. But then the Seychelles has always hidden its bounty well, which is why L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and the Emir of Abu Dhabi favour the privacy of this distant archipelago. Somalian pirates might be loitering nearby but still the islands have seen something of a shopping spree in recent months.
Of the new private homes going up on Mahé, the most conspicuous is the multi-storey palace belonging to Sheikh Khalifa. Others are snapping up the Four Seasons’ sleek residences or the modish concrete and glass villas on Félicité. A Russian recently purchased North Island, but for those in the market for second homes or even a small resort, there is still much left to uncover. This includes Round Island, a private island off Praslin’s south-east coast, which recently crept on to the market for €25m.
From Mahé, Round Island is 20 minutes by helicopter. It is run as a very small hotel: three villas as well as the Robinson Crusoe-style owner’s house atop the island’s jungle-covered granite peak. First developed back in the 1990s when the current owner purchased it as a love token to his new wife, this is one of those finds that stops you in your tracks. It is the quirky main house that stands out: a bath cut into the rocks, orchids in birdcages, a romantic verandah with blinds that roll up to reveal the four-poster under a palm-thatched roof. The kookie mix of gold swan-headed taps with the rustic castaway aesthetic might need some ironing out under new ownership, but that must surely come.
There is permission already in place to build a further three houses, with indications the lease can be extended from the current 40 years. It is no £5 Creole curry but if the money currently washing around the Seychelles is anything to speak of, someone with an eye and very deep pockets may want to nurture the idea of a pad that one day might be fit for Dr No.

Sophy Roberts

Opera in Llandudno, Wales

A particular delight to me in 2010 was going to the opera on the Promenade at Llandudno. It may sound improbable to those who think of Llandudno in terms of knees-up and boarding house rules, but when the Welsh National Opera comes up from Cardiff to perform in the waterfront concert-hall, magic can happen.
Llandudno is, to my mind, one of the most beautiful seaside resorts of Europe, and reminds me of Opatija on the Adriatic, which used to be called Abbazia, and was frequented by high society in the later days of the Hapsburg empire. Llandudno, too, was created as a pleasure-place, in the mid-19th century, and was very fashionable for a time. The arrival of the railway eventually put paid to its poshness but architecturally it is still essentially unchanged – a harmonious crescent of stucco’d terraces beside the water, with the highlands of Wales behind and a perfectly rounded bay in front. It can be boisterous enough in high season, as a resort should be, with its fair share of obesity, caravans and baseball caps, but twice a year the arrival of the WNO complements the jollity with cosmopolitan high art.
Then, on a summer evening, when the first lights come up along the lovely boulevard, the pier is illuminated, the mountains are blue behind, the sun sinks in grand farewell into the sea and you come out in the interval with a glass of white wine in your hand, Mozart, Puccini or Strauss in your head and happy clusters of Welsh people all around you – then, on the Prom at Llandudno, Wales really seems to me a province of God’s own country.

Jan Morris

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with Audley Travel (
Photos : Visions of Indochina