Monthly Archives: August 2017

5 Best Beaches : one for every month of the year

There’s a beach for everyone: from the stunning sands of Latin America, to the beautiful British coast, onwards to the Mediterranean’s best beach, and then down to a Pacific island paradise.

1JANUARY – San Juan del Sur Bay, Nicaragua

Suan Juan des Sur bay
Nicaragua may be a little unknown as a holiday destination but at this time of year is bathing in sunshine and you could be too on their beaches. The San Juan del Sur Bay beach has a dazzling horseshoe shape of muted beige soft sand that is overlooked by a giant statue of Jesus perched north of the bay. The waters around here are calm and very rarely get large enough to surf, making this an ideal beach for young families. For surfers, there’s the Playa Maderas a little further along.

There are plenty of fine eateries from which you can enjoy a most delightful sunset. And after sun down, there’s a fun vibe of a busy nightlife to enjoy.

2FEBRUARY – Isla Espiritu Santo, Sea of Cortez, Baja California Sur, Mexico

Isla Espiritu Santo, Mexico (c) Sam Beebe/Ecotrust
Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau called Mexico’s Sea of Cortez “the world’s greatest aquarium” because of its unique and rich ecosystem. To get up close and personal with nature, base yourself in La Paz. All the islands are UNESCO protected as World Heritage Biospheres.

Uninhabited Espiritu Santo, absurdly beautiful, is the jewel in the crown: the sea is so turquoise it’s like swimming in a bottle of Curaçao. Once ashore you’ll find wedding-cake white sands, nail-varnish pink volcanic rocks, clouds of yellow butterflies and strange 300-year old boojum trees.

At Los Islotes, you can snorkel with friendly sea-lions. There are many migratory species such as humpback whales, manta rays and leatherback turtles.

3MARCH – Kovalam Beach, Kerala, India

Kovalam Beach, Kerala (c) Ramnath Bhat
Known as the Paradise of the South, Kovalam is arguably the best beach in India. This coconut-forested, crescent-shaped beach is full of character, with the Vizhinjam mosque at the northerly end, brightly-painted boats in the middle, and Ayurvedic massage centres where you can indulge in a rejuvenating herbal, body-toning massage or other holistic therapy. The equivalent of 30p buys you a scrummy curry served on a leaf.

4APRIL – White Island, Camiguin, The Philippines

White Island, Camiguin (c) chiba
Small, pear-shaped and known as the Island Born of Fire, Camiguin is home to the spectacular White Island beach, a Tippex-white sandbar with views of two volcanoes, Mt Hibok-Hibok and Mt Vulcan. Close by, the turquoise Bohol Sea hides an unusual treasure – the Sunken Cemetery lying 20 feet underwater following a volcanic eruption in 1871. The island has old ancestral homes and historic churches.

5MAY – Praia de Lopes Mendes, Ilha Grande, Brazil

Praia de Lopes Mendes, Ilha Grande (c) Tarcísio de Paula Salgado
Just three hours south of Rio de Janiero, Ilha Grande is a small island home to the jaw-achingly beautiful Praia de Lopes Mendes. To get to the beach is quite an undertaking, but well worth the effort – you have to hike through Atlantic forests thick with hummingbirds, butterflies, tropical flowers and waterfalls with Pygmy and Holy monkeys running everywhere. With sand as white and as soft as flour, the beach of Lopes Mendes is irresistible. The island was discovered in 1502 but today preservation is the word with roads only existing in the island’s main village.

India by Rail

The journey below can be taken as part of Great Rail Journeys India’s Golden Triangle – a 5* rail 13-day tour which includes the Shatabdi Express and the Toy Train plus excursions to Delhi and Agra with its white marble icon the Taj Mahal. Prices start from £1,995pp, departing Oct 2017 – Dec 2018.

Great Rail Journeys India’s Golden Triangle
Great Rail Journeys India’s Golden Triangle
CLICK HERE for full India’s Golden Triangle itinerary

Delhi to Kalka on Shatabdi Express
I’m at Delhi station, early in the morning, where it seems that a large proportion of the 23 million people who daily use Indian Rail have all decided to take the train. I’m taking the Shatabdi Express for Kalka, where I’m then going to catch the narrow gauge “Toy Train” up to Shimla. It’s a four hour journey and the air conditioned Executive Class is comfortable and includes a rather delicious spicy breakfast, complete with a few warming cups of Indian Chai.

Trains Crossing
Trains Crossing (c) Rupert Parker
We pull into Kalka, almost on time, and I cross the platform to board the Himalayan Queen, patiently waiting for passengers. It’s dwarfed by the mighty Express, and I completely understand why it’s known as the “toy train”. After the comfort of Executive Class, the six rows of seats in the narrow gauge carriages are rather uncomfortable. Fortunately I’ve been advised to bring my own cushion.

Toy Train (c) Rupert Parker
⇒ Also read: Top 10 street foods of Northern India

Kalka to Shimla on Himalayan Queen
This is one of the great railway journeys of the world and the line was built to ferry mem-sahibs of the British Raj up to Shimla from Kalka, a cool alternative to the steamy plains below. When the town became the summer capital in 1864, the 1200 mile journey from Calcutta, any combination of horse, camel, elephant, bullock cart or sedan chair took five bone-rattling days. Although the idea for a rail connection was first mooted in 1847, the line was only opened in November 1903.

Himalayan Queen
Himalayan Queen (c) Rupert Parker
My carriage is packed with other tourists and the train starts climbing immediately, flanked by hills on both sides. I sit by the open window, enjoying the cool breeze and breathing in the smell of the pines as the engine chugs uphill. The average speed is around 11mph but on this stretch it’s much slower. In 20 miles we pass four stations and make our first stop at Dharampur, at 1500m. Everyone gets off to buy chai and samosas from the stalls on the platform. Just ahead I see a cow on the line, just one of the many hazards of train travel in India.

Building the railway was an extraordinary feat of engineering, with 103 tunnels, more than 864 bridges and around 919 curves. The line climbs 1500m from Kalka to Shimla, over a distance of 60 miles, and the train takes around five hours, passing 18 stations. In 2008 UNESCO added it to its World Heritage list along with the Nilgiri and Darjeeling railways.

Entering Tunnel
Entering Tunnel (c) Rupert Parker
Crossing Viaduct
Crossing Viaduct (c) Rupert Parker
The railway now starts cutting through the landscape in a series of tunnels. The longest is almost three quarters of a mile, just before Barog station. It’s named after the original engineer who decided to save time by digging from both sides of the hill. Unfortunately the two ends didn’t meet so he was fined one rupee and dismissed. Colonel Barog shot himself in disgrace, when walking his dog, and the tunnel was abandoned. For the new one they decided to play safe and employed the spiritual guidance of local guru, Baba Bhalku.

Mergui Archipelago, Myanmar (Burma)

Sitting on a teakwood chair on the upper deck of the converted cargo boat, photographic location scout David van Driessche knew the ropes. “We are about to sail out of mobile reception range,” the Belgian told his partner back in Bangkok. It was now dawning on me as fast as the sun was setting on the horizon that the one-bar of signal on my phone was about to drop completely. We were off the grid, and almost off the map.

Off the grid and no WiFi
This trip exploring the Mergui Archipelago was into unknown territory for me. Would there be mobile coverage, electricity, wifi, or even air-con? I’d figured not. Yet, as the sunset below a layer of grey rain-leaden clouds and the world turned deep purple, I found some answers.

Below, on the main deck, our sleeping quarters were gazebos with rattan paneling and mahogany trim. After the diesel generator was turned off, nifty LED reading lights and cooling fans powered by the solar panels could be turned on.

We anchored for the evening, and even though we sat less than 10° north of the equator, sea breezes wafted through the partitioned quarters and I was lulled by the gentle rocking of the Andaman Sea. Around the dinner table that night there’d been talk from Bjorn Burchard, head of Moby Dick Tours, that in a few days’ time we might get some of the holy grail of 21st travellers: WiFi.

Mergui Archipelago – the least visited place on earth
Mergui Archipelago
(c) Google
Before the first rays of sun had illuminated the tops of the jungled Barwell Island and its neighbouring islets, the cheery crew helped me launch a sit-in kayak for a paddle on the calm waters around the 100 foot vessel, newly repainted in cream, green and red. I capped off the dawn jaunt by taking a quick dip in the deep waters, pleasantly-warm.

The Mergui Archipelago is one of the least-visited places on earth, and it is only recently that the region with its 800 or so islands has slowly opened up to visitors, who come searching for some of the best dive spots in Asia with rays and sharks, as well as the diversity of coral reefs which sit off many of the white powdery sand beaches.

Not only is it difficult to access, the area has been prohibitively expensive. A few of the islands’ bays are slated for luxury resort development, though only at the outer Boulder Island is there anything which could be regarded as appropriate eco-tourism.

Island Safaris, which runs relatively inexpensive 5 day/4 night island-hopping excursions, promote the “small is better” philosophy, undertaking slow travel which allows more time for beach time, swimming, snorkelling, kayaking, hiking and even night fishing.

Exploring mangrove forests by kayak, or visiting villages where the indigenous Moken ‘sea gypsies’ reside or trade provide rare glimpses into places and peoples who have been left behind in the rush to modernity.

Portugal and Spain on the Braemar

Lisbon will be the first port of call but it will take two days sailing to get there. I wait patiently in the embarkation lounge until my number is called and then swiftly make my way to the cabin on deck 6. They’ve upgraded me and I’m right at the front with a large window overlooking the bows. There’s one double bed, enough hanging space, and dressing table right by the window, as well as two armchairs.

Braemar has three restaurants, Thistle, Grampian and The Palms and I’m heading to dinner in the Thistle. This is the largest and I’m shown to a large table with other singles who I’ll get to know very well over the next few days. There’s a choice of two starters, three soups, two salads and four main courses, plus fish of the day and a British speciality. The food is good, waiters are friendly and they keep the wine topped up.

Fred Olsen Cruises, Breamar: pool deck
pool deck (c) Rupert Parker
This is my first cruise on a large boat, although the Braemar is smaller than most, at a little over 24,000 tonnes and holding only 930 passengers. There are eight decks with the top one containing two pools and a couple of Jacuzzis and rows of sun beds. I take a look but am not expecting to make much use of them as the sea has suddenly turned rough as we go through the Channel. Indeed, lying in bed later, it seems that my cabin is bearing the brunt of it, being high up and right at the front. It doesn’t disturb me too much but other passengers don’t get much sleep.

Historic town of Obidos and Lisbon
After a couple of days of rough seas, the sun begins to break through and the ship settles into a pleasant rhythm. Lisbon is sunny and warm and I explore the historic Alfama district before taking a trip to the historic town of Obidos, around an hour to the North.

In the summer, this is so packed with tourists that it’s almost impossible to walk in the main street but this time of year it’s pleasantly quiet. I do a tour of the ramparts, not for the faint-hearted as there’s no guide rail and the path is quite narrow.

Obidos (c) Rupert Parker
Lisbon tram
Lisbon tram (c) Rupert Parker
Leaving Lisbon at sunset
Leaving Lisbon at sunset (c) Rupert Parker
If you have limited time in Lisbon, make sure you read our Top 10 things to see and do in Lisbon or 24 Hours in Lisbon guides.