Ultratravel - The best (and worst) of 2011
Winter 2011-2012

Eight Ultratravel writers recall the highs and lows of their travelling year.

There’s an amusing paragraph in PJ O’Rourke’s book CEO of the Sofa, written after the American satirist had been leafing through the Saturday papers and found himself wanting to yell in exasperation at the journalists. Take those who, unbelievably, week after week claim to have found somewhere new, he fumed. “Travel writers. They’re amazing. More than a century after Stanley and Livingstone they’re still discovering unexplored parts of the globe!”

At Ultratravel we aim to avoid such hyperbole, however hard that may prove. Our planet is infinitely amazing, and we have more opportunities now than at any other time in history to see it, recession notwithstanding. On their travels this year, our writers discovered nowhere new – though some delightedly rediscovered countries they had until recently necessarily avoided, such as Burma and Sri Lanka. Others found themselves unexpectedly enthralled by places close to home. And almost all were reminded that life’s clichés all turn out to be true. The best experiences are often the simplest: tea in bed while on safari, the novelty of an excellent inexpensive meal, a serene morning swim, the jolt of joy at finding oneself in a spot previously known only from a map.

The boat to Mandalay
After months of trying to get a visa into Myanmar, I finally found myself walking through the airport in Rangoon. It was raining outside but I was euphoric. I had long tried to visit Myanmar -- but even when applying for a tourist visa this is tough for a journalist. For still longer I had dreamt about exploring this country with its place names that quickened my pulse. From Rangoon I caught an overnight sleeper, and I remember the waves of raw happiness passing through my body as the train shuddered its way north through the dusty scrubland. Arriving in Bagan, I explored by rickety bicycle stupas and shrines dotted along the banks of the Irrawaddy, a river which I had until now only ever followed with my finger on the flat page of an atlas. Upon these pearly waters I boarded a boat to Mandalay and whispered to myself how lucky I was to be seeing Myanmar now.

Closer to home my most magical snatched moment was a morning swim off the rocks at the nostalgic Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes. I can still recall the soft slanted autumnal light, the crisp Mediterranean, the buoyed lightness of laughter. I felt as if I were writing myself into Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.

My worst moment? Shortly after landing on Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand, the airport closed. For days afterwards, wind and rain thrashed the island. I was supposed to be reviewing a swathe of recently opened luxury hotels, but ended up reporting on devastating landslides and interviewing passengers stranded at the airport.

Michelle Jana Chan

Thailand health check
In 2011, I finally came round to visiting places Ultratravel readers have known about and enjoyed for years. First, I have just returned from Chiva-Som in Thailand, our readers’ favourite international spa in the Ultratravel 100 poll of 2008. It is not so much a spa as a platform for reinventing oneself, at least where physical and mental fitness are concerned. I shall be describing the Chiva-Som experience in some detail in our March issue, but suffice it to say this combination of health counselling, outstanding low-calorie food, a punishing exercise regime, yoga and meditation makes the long journey to Thailand entirely worthwhile.
Second, I finally stayed at Babington House in Somerset, another readers’ favourite, a decade after everyone else. All I can say is that standards must have been maintained because it is the perfect country-house weekend retreat.
The downside of travel in 2011 was more political than experiential. Throughout the year, flights I have taken and hotels I have stayed at have been full of British travellers. This suggests that, despite the constant drip-feed of bad news in the media and this dreadful recession, we still feel the need to travel. However, the Coalition government continues the trend set by the previous government of severely punishing us for venturing abroad. Air Passenger Duty is an abomination and we are now more heavily taxed on travel than any other nation on earth.

Graham Boynton

Tea time in Sri Lanka
No place anywhere else on earth offers such a sensational combination of the beautiful and the beneficial as Bogawantalawa. Otherwise known as Sri Lanka’s “Golden Valley of Tea”, it is 4,000ft up in the hill country near Hatton, a vast counterpane of slopes neatly braided with bright green tea bushes. The leaves are plucked daily, creating an atmosphere of eternal spring, and this lucrative landscape is still embellished with enchanting woods, exotic gardens, misty lakes and Victorian churches. You can learn all about tea on a tour of the Norwood Estate, and visit its working factory – a fascinating world of precision harvesting, heritage machinery and devotion to quality. Nearby, Tea Trails is a quartet of grand bungalows from the 1920s, turned into well-appointed lodges. Guests can follow dreamy walks through the plantations, enjoy a detoxifying green-tea bath, then dine on Earl Grey-encrusted roast lamb. Every day starts with a cup of “bed tea” brought to your room, then ends with the pleasant discovery of a hot-water bottle slipped between the sheets.
My worst moment was in Malé, the conservative, please-dress-modestly capital of the Islamic Republic of Maldives. “Your dress is inside out,” I told my wife as we headed to dinner, stepping into the lift on the 10th floor of the Traders Hotel. By the seventh, Alice was in her underwear, at the third we were scrabbling for shoes. As we hit the lobby, the door opened to a long-bearded elder who had narrowly missed the shock of his life.

Nigel Tisdall

Back to basics in Africa
This year I have appreciated nothing more than being away from buzzing cities, servile hotel staff and complicated restaurant food that dazzles the eye but not the taste buds. Instead, I have been revelling in simple, old-fashioned hospitality done really well. At Chem Chem safari camp in Tanzania, enjoying tea in a silver pot brought to my bed at dawn, sipping it under a down duvet while watching giraffe being slowly bathed in soft apricot light. At Faru Faru Lodge in the Serengeti, taking a hot, hard rainshower on a moonlit wooden deck outside my room, admiring the Milky Way. On a dhow trip in Zanzibar, surrounding a bay on a remote island to find a cook barbecuing lobsters for our lunch, to be eaten on a shell-strewn sandy beach that was all our own. Then, treat of treats, our captain spotting dolphins in the distance and hoisting his hand-sewn sails to follow them, so we could experience the thrill of snorkelling among them as they squeaked and cavorted around us.
The worst experience? Driving around the idyllic island of Zanzibar and seeing mountains of rubbish everywhere; and walking along a white, palm-lined beach at sunset, only to discover this part of the island was used by locals – with no sanitation in their own village – as a lavatory.

Lisa Grainger

In an English heaven
In April, the rolling South Downs were declared England’s newest National Park. This and a midlife need for exercise prompted me to tackle the South Downs Way, a 100-mile footpath along the high ground from Winchester to Eastbourne. Expecting familiar English countryside, I was amazed to find exotic uplands dotted with pagan burial mounds, chalk giants and flint-rimmed dew ponds. The white path led me to the mystic monument of Chanctonbury Ring and through forgotten meadows blessed by skylarks and brimstone butterflies. I was discovering magic in my own country and it became harder to leave the ridge and descend into the relative normality of the Weald. The highlight came as I approached the roller-coaster pathway along the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters. Perhaps it was the endorphins produced by eight hours of walking each day, but the sea, spitfire sky and neatly nibbled grass at the edge of our temperate isle made me feel as though I was marching through heaven.
And the worst? Verona airport, where I had my passport confiscated by a bored bully of a border guard for literally stepping out of line. In the age of smartphones and swipe cards, there must be a better way to welcome travellers (and our disposable income) than grumpy guards in comic operetta outfits scowling at our photographs and treating us like criminals.

Johnny Morris

A glass off Madeira
My second-best experience of 2011 was diving the wreck of the Madeirense, sunk in 110ft of indigo water off Porto Santo, a golden fleck of an island 27 miles north-east of Madeira. You can fly back to Funchal in 10 minutes, but the decompression risk meant I took the ferry. This led inadvertently to my best experience – dinner on the Lobo Marinho (portosantoline.pt), the vessel that plies these waters daily in two-and-a-half hours. Its Algas e Corais restaurant is utilitarian in décor, but starched table linen, gleaming glassware and the instant arrival of champagne transformed it into the Connaught. At a sunny table by the window, I was served an appetiser of Azorean soft cheese with garlicky marinade and piquant black olives, carpaccio of beef with shaved Parmesan (about £9), then scabbard fish (£12) – a Madeira staple – cooked to buttery perfection and accompanied by a Cortes de Cima Chaminé viognier (£8) from the Alentejo. As the sunset blazed over the craggy Ilhéu de Baixo ou da Cal, just south of Porto Santo, dolphins played in the bow wave beneath my window and I spotted a pilot whale. Still flushed with the adrenalin of diving, I could not imagine a more sublime passage.
The antithesis was flying Air Egypt’s new direct route to Sharm El Sheikh (again for the diving). Despite checking in early, we could not get seats together – so, on a night flight, my eight-year-old slept on his own. We had to beg for blankets, the service was unhelpful to the point of surliness…and we arrived 90 minutes early, in the small hours. Yes, the Egyptians have had a revolution to deal with – but a revolution in service is now due.

Andrew Purvis

Amazed by the Amazon
The year has provided much to remember. There was the rare and sorry experience of seeing the Old Town of Massawa in Eritrea. Still recovering from a war that ended 20 years ago, it remains a place of unmistakable style, although its buildings – walls blown in, windows blown out – are architectural gruyere. There was the joyous experience of Prague, glinting in sunshine, at the start of the annual spring music festival, and there was the wondrous experience, in a South Korean monastery, of seeing the 850-year-old Tripitaka, a vast collection of Buddhist texts engraved on more than 81,000 blocks of wood. These were experiences for which I was partly prepared. What I had not anticipated was the impact of seeing the Amazon for the first time. In Peru, 2,000 miles from the sea, it was already half a mile wide. Its power was almost mystical. I knew the statistics – 4,000 miles long, water flow 10 times that of the Mississippi, drainage area almost as big as Australia – but only when you see that unending mass of water relentlessly cleaving the jungle do you feel its might.
The worst trend? The creeping tendency of even multi-starred hotels to replace individual soaps, shampoos and shower gels with unpleasant, wall-mounted dispensers containing slithery, all-purpose unguents. That’s fine for communal changing rooms, but not personal bathrooms. The last thing you want to be reminded of in a hotel room is that someone has stayed there before you.

Peter Hughes

Solace in Somerset
The satnav fell silent and the empty lanes looked spookily black. Exmoor, North Somerset, is not the easiest place to find your way around late on a chilly autumn Friday when you have forgotten the instructions sent by the cottage rental company. Eventually, Westcott Cross Cottage emerged from the dark. Breathing in that old-England smell of cold, damp earth when we opened the car doors, we walked in to discover a warm beamed kitchen, heated by an Aga and leading to an open-plan sitting room with squashy sofas, wood-burning fire, satellite television, and satisfyingly stuffed bookshelves. Upstairs we found three plain bedrooms – just a low bed, bedside lamp and wardrobe in each – and showers with those white heaters that give you just enough hot water on demand. Comfortable, not luxurious, but a great bargain out of season. My brother and sister-in-law and their two small children and suave black Labrador, Monty, arrived soon after us. We fell asleep to the companionable sound of sheep coughing and woke on Saturday morning to clear blue skies and frost-covered hills all around. We warmed up croissants, made porridge on the Aga, and enjoyed the novelty of no mobile-phone reception. Classic Cottages had sent a list of local Christmas fairs – the kind of event advertised only in local newsagents – so we wrapped up and set off for the cobble-stoned village of Dunster, a few miles away. It was a perfect weekend.
And the least pefect thing? Why did almost every bedside lamp I used in Calcutta, Vienna, Lisbon, Madrid, Grasse and Jamaica not only take up too much space on the too-small bedside table (cue gnashing teeth) but also have such a weak bulb that I had to pull the lamp on to the bed and balance it on the pillow to read? Why did the bank of switches in my villa at the otherwise soothing One&Only The Palm in Dubai have no indication of which switch operated which light (voice rises to a screech)? Why?

Adriaane Pielou