Ultratravel - Travel writers' trips of a lifetime
Winter 2014

To celebrate 10 years of Ultratravel, the Telegraph's luxury-travel magazine, contributors recall their most extraordinary travel experiences.

The Peking to Paris classic-car rally
Michelle Jana Chan
Driving a 1940 Ford Coupe, my co-driver Mike Reeves and I crossed the start line at the Great Wall of China. Ahead were 33 days across the Gobi Desert, the Mongolian grasslands, the Russian Steppes and the Alps – to Paris. This was a simple, uncluttered life dominated by the measurements of time and distance, and finding the strength and stamina to fix a broken car every night. Driving down the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, placed third, I remember already missing the rally and the rhythm of life on the road.
Read Michelle Jana Chan's complete report on the challenges and triumphs she encountered during the Peking to Paris classic-car rally.

Hearing a songbird sing in the Arctic
Sara Wheeler
It was one of those perfect Arctic days when ocean and sky compete to achieve the most vulgar blue. My Russian ice-breaker had anchored off the western extremity of Franz Josef Land, a chain of uninhabited islands crouched along the rim of the Barents Sea. A Zodiac ferried me to land and, as my boot crunched on to the tundra, I heard a snow bunting sing. I had spent many years writing about the Antarctic, and thought it was a love affair that its northern counterpart could never break. But the trill of a small black-and-white bird changed everything. The Antarctic is too cold for a single songbird to breed. The Arctic, I realised, is about life – and I was a faithless lover.

Taking the train to Ulan Batur
John Simpson
After a lifetime’s travel, one journey stands out with particular prominence: taking a luxuriously fitted-out Russian train from Yekaterinburg to Ulan Batur. Merely setting down the names brings back the memories: the calm, determined movement of the train through the Siberian night, the brilliant food, the amusing fellow travellers, the trips to extraordinary places, the blue ice of the world’s most beautiful lake, Baikal. My wife and little boy and I still reminisce about it endlessly. One day we’ll do the full journey, from St Petersburg to Vladivostok. That’s a lot of zakuski, quite a lot of Russian novel-reading, some excellent conversation, and a certain amount of vodka. I can’t wait.

Flying above Namibia
Sophie Campbell
I wouldn’t call myself a private plane sort of gal, but I won’t forget buzzing along in the blue above Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, nose pressed to the window, and far below a deadly frill of surf and the rib cages of wrecked ships rammed nose-first into the beach. Every so often, through big fat headphones, crackled the German accent of the one of the Schoeman brothers piloting the plane, pointing out fat seals and dashing ostriches, a 19th-century diamond concession, an oxcart, a line of wheelbarrows. It was romantic and exciting and our Centurion II was a proper bush plane. We skittered down to see things and slept in camps with bucket showers, outdoor loos and skies full of stars. There’s luxury for you.

Revisiting the pagodas in Bagan
Chris Caldicott
Standing alone at dawn in 2010 on the highest platform of one of the mighty ancient pagodas in Bagan, watching the tropical sun do battle with the morning mists to reveal another hundred pagodas scattered over the Irrawaddy floodplain, I was moved to tears. The last time I had seen this unforgettable sight had been 30 years previously and it had lost none of its magic. In fact, this time it was even better, as Burma itself was experiencing an optimistic new dawn: the monks had defied the generals and Aung San Suu Kyi had just been released. It was a moment of pure joy.

Living like Gatsby in Nantucket
Douglas Rogers
In the summer of 2012, as Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby was about to be released, I visited New York, Newport and Nantucket in search of the playgrounds of 21st-century Gatsbys. On Nantucket on my last evening I found myself in the crowded bar of The Summer House, a rose-splashed, Twenties-style, cedar-shingle hotel in the quaint village of Siasconset. Regulars sipped gin gimlets at the bar, a musician played Cole Porter tunes on a white piano, and at midnight a group of preppy girls in sequined dresses, with feathers in their hair, arrived from a party, sipping champagne from the bottle. I walked outside to the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. A vintage car hooted as it drove past me, the couple inside laughing and waving, lit by moonlight. It was a dreamlike experience, a scene straight out of Fitzgerald. I had found the playground.

Visiting Captain Scott’s hut
Peter Hughes
Two thick, blue-bound volumes dominated my childhood bookshelves. Scott’s Last Expedition embodied the values of my parents’ generation. So to travel by Russian ice-breaker to Antarctica from those rough-cut pages was for me a pilgrimage. At Cape Evans, half buried in snow, squatted the wooden hut from which in 1911 Captain Scott set out for the South Pole, never to return. Inside were the long mess table and wooden bunks – tenements” Scott called them – that illustrate his journals. Fry’s Cocoa, and Colmans Mustard stocked the shelves. There was a faint smell of habitation, leather and soot. In his final diary entry Scott wrote: “Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.” It stirred mine.

Back to nature in Versailles
Alain Ducasse
Although the Chateau de Versailles is a mainstream tourist destination, just off the beaten path is the Hameau de la Reine, built for Marie Antoinette: a hamlet of about a dozen country-style cottages, built at the request of Louis XVI’s spouse. Each is surrounded by a small, delightful garden. I never thought this place would be interested in growing local organic vegetables.
But I was wrong. When I opened my restaurant at the Plaza Athénée, I asked Versailles’ chief gardener, Alain Baraton, whether he would consider turning these ornamental gardens back into working vegetable gardens to supply my kitchen and, to my surprise, he said yes. So today, when you visit these charming kitchen gardens, they are again carefully cultivated with tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, peas, turnips… the nicest and most delicious vegetables. Seeing them, to me, is equally as pleasurable as the château itself.

A heli-picnic in New Zealand
Lisa Grainger
I had already been won over by the generosity of the South Island’s people by the time I got to Queenstown. Stopping for petrol on the winding road from Christchurch, I’d been offered still-warm cake by the garage-owner. At lunch, picnickers had offered me a mug of steaming clam chowder when I stopped for a roadside break by a beach, which I happily sipped while watching dolphins out at sea. When that afternoon I met my partner beside Lake Wanaka, and the cheerful Louisa “Choppy” Patterson offered us a ride in her helicopter, dropping us off on a mountain-top with a blanket, picnic basket, iced bottle of wine and gramophone player, with a stack of jazz records, my day had been made. She left us there, alone, for 40 minutes, with only eagles swirling above us, crackling music echoing in the air and an occasional cloud passing by as we grinned, then giggled, then raised our glasses to the kindness of strangers.

Dog-sledding in Norway
John O'Ceallaigh
That winter morning, sailing in the Arctic Sea, we had seen humpback and killer whales, but by midday darkness was falling. It was time to return to Tromso, Norway’s northernmost city. But first a detour. The adventurer Tore Albrigtsen leads dog-sledding treks through the valleys surrounding his cabin and we would be his last customers of the day. We glided through unblemished mountain paths, transported from our daily lives – no noise, no traffic and, then, no light. Albrigtsen quenched our head lamps so the full moon and blaze of stars could illuminate our path. And then another unsettlement: a milky hue swirled into life behind a snow-capped peak. The Northern Lights had switched on to guide us home.

Hiking in North Devon
Fiona Bruce
As we set off up the very steep hill leading skywards from the centre of Lynmouth on the Devon coast, I began to regret that I’d agreed to come on a detox with nine girlfriends. Four days of no carbs, no dairy, no meat, no sugar and no caffeine plus lots of exercise was taking its toll. With much grumbling I trudged up and up and up, and at the top emerged on to the South West Coastal Path with a view all the way to Wales. The sun blazed on to a sea so blue it could have been the south of France. For the next four hours we trekked through the Valley of the Rocks, past wild goats grazing on gem-green pasture, through waist-high ferns, brushing past heather studding the hillside with bursts of colour. It was breathtakingly beautiful. As I perched on Castle Rock, 1,200ft above sea level, and tucked into my meagre detox snack of three dried apricots and five walnuts, I decided the self denial had been worth it, just to experience this moment.

Touring the Deep South
Graham Boynton
Anyone who has grown up with the sounds of the Everly Brothers, Muddy Waters, Elvis and Otis Redding ringing in their ears will understand why a driving trip through the America’s beautiful South was my perfect road trip of the past decade. This drive took in Alabama’s Muscle Shoals and Tupelo (where Elvis was born), Clarksdale where Robert Johnson did a deal with the devil and thus created the blues, and Memphis and Nashville, those hothouses of 20th-century popular music. The music is still there today in concert halls, honky tonks and gospel churches, and these great centres are connected by wonderful rolling countryside and populated by the friendliest people on earth.

A road trip along Ruta 40, Argentina
Chris Moss
I’d always longed to drive the Ruta 40. When I lived in Buenos Aires in the Nineties this long, lonely highway – which skirts the Andes mountains and runs the length of Argentina – was the source of many fables: there were no petrol stations, a breakdown was fatal, the road just disappeared in places. In 2012, I flew to Bariloche and drove the southern section. My 1,000-mile road trip took in the Welsh settlement, the town where Butch and Sundance ranched, the Perito Moreno glacier, the Strait of Magellan, and a string of lakes and towering mountains – including the pinnacles of the beautiful Fitz Roy Mass if. It was my greatest Patagonian experience to date; now all that remains is to go back and drive the northern bit – 1,900 miles all the way to Bolivia.

Hiking to Machu Picchu
Anthony Horowitz
Nothing has quite beaten the excitement, the magnificence and the sheer exhaustion of my journey to Machu Picchu with my (then) teenage son, Nicholas. The spectacular scenery of the Andes, the sheer impossibility of the city itself, reached on foot after three days’ walking – these were the climax of a wonderful trip to Peru. The journey was part bonding experience, part research for a novel, but every part of it was an adventure. Some of the highlights? A tree in our camp in the jungle coming alive at night with giant tarantulas; the Inca city of Huinay Huayna with its narrow staircase at the end of which prisoners were forced to throw themselves to their deaths; flying over the Nazca Lines : one of the greatest mysteries in the world.

Canoeing the Mississippi
Max Davidson
Very few canoeists venture on the southern Mississippi, one of the last great wildernesses in America. But in 2007 I was lucky enough to be one of them, paddling south from Clarksdale, home of the blues, with John Ruskey , founder of the Quapaw Canoe Company , and his brother. Like Huckleberry Finn before us, we spent an idyllic few days meandering through the Mississippi Delta , camping on sandbanks, cooking over open fires, skinny-dipping and admiring the pristine landscape. Eagles, beavers, white-tailed deer, exotically-coloured butterflies – all were drawn to the vast, mysterious river, gliding past in ghostly silence. I have never felt farther from home or closer to nature.

Exploring Papua New Guinea
Nigel Tisdall
“Does England have the sea?” ask the Huli Wigmen. Adorned with feathers, shells, bones and tin-can lids, the tribes of Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands guarantee an entertaining, if anarchic, encounter. Until the Thirties, when an Australian gold prospector ventured into this mountainous interior, no one knew it was home to a million people with a near-Stone Age lifestyle. Now the digital age has arrived, but this wild, hot, damp and exuberant country still feels exceedingly raw and untamed. Search for birds of paradise in the Tari Valley , trek the Kokoda Track, with its gruesome memories of the Second World War, disappear into the remote backwaters of the Sepik River , climb the active volcanoes of New Britain – wherever you go, it will undoubtedly be an adventure.

Learning to be a cowboy in Wyoming
Charles Starmer-Smith
Brochures often paint a romantic picture of the Wild West, of days spent in the saddle as you drive cattle over mountain, pasture and plain, and spend evenings huddled around camp fires. But few can deliver anything more than a sugar-coated pastiche of the real thing. The Hideout in Wyoming was one of the rare exceptions. The ranch may offer salubrious surroundings, but here under the big skies of the Big Horn mountains, wranglers are still born into the saddle-and-spurs life of the Old West. Cattle are branded and castrated, and the herding work every guest takes part in is very real and very necessary. It is also very likely the most magical experience of my travelling life.

Camping in the Andamans
Francisca Kellett
It was like that scene in The Beach, where Leonardo DiCaprio first sets eyes on the white sand and turquoise water and realises he’s found paradise. The only things missing were the granite cliffs and the hippies. We were on Long Island in the Andamans , and we were alone. Just us, the perfect beach, the odd thump of a coconut, and little scuttling hermit crabs. We strung up hammocks, slung our food in the branches (to keep it away from the crabs) and settled in. Days were spent snorkelling in a kaleidoscope of tropical fish and hacking open coconuts. And staring at the hypnotic wash of the waves, the shimmering sand, the waxy leaves overhead. It was the most magical week.

Camping at Lake Baringo in Kenya
Alice Temperley
For me, the ultimate luxury is to be remote and unconnected: at one with nature. My favourite memory is waking up as a child in an open hut with a thatched roof, in a huge bed on a little island on Lake Baringo, Kenya. It was the middle of the night and hippopotamuses were grazing on the grass a few metres from our bed. My father whispered that we were not to move. In the morning we woke to tiny hummingbirds eating from a sugar bowl and later that day swam in the lake with freshwater crocodiles that we were (wrongly) told were friendly. Memories and magical experiences like this I will treasure for ever and always try to create for my son, Fox.

Viewing Etna by helicopter
Johnny Morris
Fire and water, the rough with the smooth – it is the contrasts that make the best trips. In western Sicily I left the comforts of the Don Arcangelo all’Olmo villa for a helicopter ride over the craters of Mount Etna. Flying above the molasses-black lava I could stare under the skin of our planet and, through the swirling fury of gases, enjoy a peek into hell. The volcanic day continued as I sailed over warm water fumaroles in the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Aeolian Islands. On Stromboli I joined an evening climb to the m outh of the fire mountain. At the top, Stromboli boomed and hurled huge fireballs into the inky sky. Later, safely back on the boat with fellow summiteers, we watched Europe’s best fireworks display and toasted the volcano with sweet Malvasia wine as ash fell like snow into the sea. Visions of heaven and hell all in one day.

Watching penguins in South Georgia
Mark Carwardine
The highlight of any visit to the remote and staggeringly beautiful island of South Georgia – a mere cartographic speck in the immensity of the Southern Ocean – is St Andrews Bay. Against a phenomenal mountainous backdrop, 150,000 breeding pairs of king penguins crowd the beach in a spectacle that takes your breath away. The first time I set eyes on this avian Glastonbury I knew immediately that South Georgia was going to become one of my favourite places on earth. With 50 million seabirds and more than five million seals crammed on to an island the size of Essex, it bombards you with sens ory overload at every turn.

Sailing in Greece
Amanda Wakeley
Recently we fell under the spell of the island of Delos – the mythical birthplace of Apollo and Artemis and an island of incredible magnetism to ocean voyagers for five millennia. Over the summer we sailed there on our 98ft Savannah, but stayed too long, and when we decided to leave, had the full force of a 60-knot Meltemi gale to contend with. Boy, did we sail! At times we were going 15 knots and were occasionally airborne, in spite of our boat weighing 60 tons. As we drew closer to Sounion, 42 miles from Delos, the wind dropped and we coasted into the beautiful and deserted bay in time to climb up to the 400BC Temple of Poseidon to admire a perfect sunset. Although our boat is kept in St-Tropez, it’s to Greece we keep returning. It’s always incredible.

Climbing a volcano in Venezuela
Richard Madden
Reality rarely lives up to the imagination. But in the case of the Venezuelan tepuis , those magnificent flat-topped table mountains towering 2,000ft above the rolling pampas below, it most certainly does. The Lost World , Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale of a pterodactyl-infested wilderness where evolution came to a full stop in the Jurassic age, was a noir flight of fancy based on the reports of the first European explorers. Canaima National Park, as it’s now known, still feels like a parallel universe, but you no longer have to fear being eaten alive. The walking is easy, but the six-day trek to the summit of Mount Roraima and back is a more authentic wilderness experience than many crowded Himalayan trails.