Friday, January 17, 2014

WEEKEND BREAKS, part 1, The Maldives

Just three nights in the Maldives and back home in wintry Stockholm, totally relaxed. Guest blogger Sonja Catani is an inveterate weekend traveller - a WeekendHopper. Here she reveals her test of a weekend in the Maldives, and shares her weekend-hopping secrets.


Weekend hopping test site in the Maldives - Huvafen Fushi

#WeekendHoppers - introducing a weekend in the Maldives!

It’s the perfect getaway plan: have important business lunch in Stockholm Thursday, spend 4 days in the Maldives at Huvafen Fushi and be back totally relaxed Tuesday morning in time for daughter's Christmas play where she's staring in the epic role as an angel. How does it work? Well, it's a secret formula, but after years of research I will now share it with you! 

First a bit of background:

For personal reasons, our couple's vacations outside Sweden cannot be more than 4-5 days at a time. Still we manage to travel every second or every fourth week - our friends call us the "speed dating travellers". We? We call ourselves the #weekendhoppers!

Time is a luxury commodity today. When we finally embark on faraway travels we usually end up spending too long in one resort watching each other and the family members climbing the walls (palm trees/bungalows/sailingboat-masts/skilifts) and jumping at each other after a minimum of around five to seven days: 

HIM: 10 more days to go honey, you can do it! The kids will soon relax. 

HER: yeah sure D A R L I N G, this is like day five, seven or nine (lost count) when I already have a standard day-long appointment at the spa and the kids are banned from most kid’s activities and you are still laying on the sun-bed covering your Blackberry with a panama-hat completely unaware of impending nervous break downs most other family members are suffering whilst your life is really quite the same as in Stockholm except for the sudden bursts of sunlight and warmth and the panama-hat! (breathe...)

Or the weekend breaks, with or without kids, leaving Friday and returning Sunday night: You leave town stressed on Friday night and return Sunday night even more stressed.

So if you recognise yourselves in descriptions above, panama-hat or not, here's our solution: cut a day off from everyday obligations both sides of the weekend = #WeekendHoppers

We know this works because we've done this to Sri Lanka, China, Pakistan etc. and now introducing the Maldives! 

Just a speedboat hop from the international airport
you find Huvafen Fushi, the scene of
our WeekendHopping test 


I probably don’t need to tell you what a paradise set of atolls and islands the Maldives are, but if you’re not convinced yet try any of these links:

As I mentioned we had lunch in Stockholm (it was already dark, wet and depressing by lunchtime) and then jumped on Qatar Airways flight via Doha to Male arriving the next morning after a great flight with excellent food, long conversations (whenever do we have time for that otherwise?), a movie and a good sleep in full flatbed seats on board Qatar Airways new Dreamliner.

Arriving at Male airport is hassle-free and quick (as long as you don’t try to bring in pets or alcohol…). After clearing customs you are met by hotel representatives and in true Venice-style step directly onto a private speedboat to take you to your own paradise island. In our case we arrived 35 minutes later at Huvafen Fushi, a 40-bungalow resort on a private atoll where you could barely see any land in any direction.

Huvafen time
Huvafen has adapted their own time-zone to go better with sunrise and sunset, so in theory we lost an hour, but you gain it back when you leave for your return flight. Once settled in a really well designed and cool bungalow over the water we enjoyed ... 



... our own veranda with our own pool and the fish
swimming under us


Read a book for a few hours and ...


...then headed to one of the restaurants. We chose RAW and after that we didn’t change a winning concept, but ate all of our lunches there. The food was magical. Everything is prepared while you wait and everything is as the name gives away; raw. Their signature dish reef fish Carpaccio with avocado is to die for, the fruit and vegetable drinks are like a one-month detox in a glass and the raw food pizza with sea weed is the best pizza I’ve had outside Naples.

Huvafen - Raw delights


Lazy days
After this great start the days just roll on in a lazy fashion. We swam, snorkelled and sat around in lovely secluded private lounge chairs and hammocks. We read books in the ├╝ber-designed European-style library. We had fabulous 5-course dinners and one night we enjoy a humongous shellfish and champagne dinner setup to the tones of a really good local band, whilst watching small sharks swim literally under our feet where we sit on a terrace by the restaurant SALT, extended on poles far outside the shores of Huvafen. You can have dinner in the wine cave 5 meters underground surrounded by some of the finest wines in the world or you can hang out in the lavish restaurant Celcius after pre-cocktails in the bar by the huge eternity pool.

Active stuff
To break up from reading books and articles, we used the gym quite a lot, it’s also built over water and it’s airy and extremely well equipped. I’m sure my best interval training ever was on the treadmill overlooking dolphins that swam past. And we’re not even that sporty otherwise, it was just the whole setting that made you feel like a better person, the kind of person who’d go to the gym every day at sunrise. 

"Feeling like a better person" at the gym

We also went sailing on a HobiCat you can borrow for free and if one wants there’re all kinds of water-fun gadgets like banana-boats, water-skiing, Water Jetskis, surfing, paragliding and so on. But we’re not that sporty… You can also book a seaplane for an excursion to see surrounding atolls or you can go on a traditional Male’ boat cruise and stay on a private sandbank with of course a five-star dinner served under the stars.

Finding Nemo at the spa
Then there is the spa! Once again built over water off the shore, but also including an underwater spa. It’s like having the world’s best massage in the movie-set of Finding Nemo. The underwater spa is spacious and even for a claustrophobic like myself, it feels just wonderful and floaty and harmonious and well just out of this world. 
Finding Nemo massage scenery

The spa treatments range wide and the therapists are really top-notch. I tried four different treatments and was equally happy with all of them, both in the underwater spa and in the overwater spa (where you can watch the Finding Nemo sea life through the glass floor).

Some of the local population

If this is not enough for you and you need even more to do, you can always go shopping – yes, there’s a small fine jeweller’s on the island. I think I will need to bore my husband to death next time so that he initiates a visit there - the jewellery was exquisite.

Why Huvafen Fushi?

Huvafen Fushi is among the top primary luxury resorts in the Maldives and the best reasons to choose it, except for all the ones already mentioned, are;
  •  the relatively short distance to the airport, you don’t lose precious time travelling, but you still have a sense of being absolutely in the middle of nowhere
  •  their own time zone following the sun, sunrise at 7 o’clock instead of 6 and a slightly longer day with sunset at 1900 so you actually feel that you save time when you leave the island
  •  the privacy that the layout of the resort gives. We were amazed to hear from the GM that the resort was fully booked; we thought we were almost alone on the island
  • the design and attention to detail in everything from interiors and arts to food and fine wines.
  • Wifi connection everywhere. It might sound weird, but that is actually relaxing as it gives you the chance to check mails when and where you want, instead of having that nagging feeling that you have to get to a wifi spot

After having spent the whole of Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday in Huvafen Fushi we boarded the speed boat around 19:00 Monday evening, arrived 18:30 at the airport (I told you the time zone thing was great). Had once again a great flight home on Qatar Airways and landed in Stockholm early Tuesday morning. At 8 o’clock we stood in the dark December weather and watched my daughter play angel in the Christmas play. People around us could’ve thought that we’ve just arrived from a weekend at the countryside, except we were all relaxed, spa-pampered and fit after an absolutely great weekend in the Maldives.

My greatest thanks to Select Collection for arranging our trip! We will try Burma next!

All the best and with kindest regards from the #WeekendHoppers

Sonja Catani


Factbox



What you need in order to become a successful #weekendhopper:

  • Good connecting flights and airlines that have flat beds. My favourite is Qatar Airways and their new Dreamliner – the air in the cabin is so much better than in any other plane. Qatar also has a great selection of food and wines and the transfer in the premium lounge in Doha gives you a chance to take a shower and a quick coffee. You need to see the flight as a part of the vacation – read books, watch movies and get the chance to have long private talks with your special someone.
  • A travel agency like Select Collection that can track and make sure you always have a back-up plan should something unforeseen happen (yes been there, done that, stood at Bandarayike Airport in Colombo when I’m informed that my flight was yesterday…)
  • An ability to pack lightly so you can travel only with hand luggage, saves precious time
  • A great husband/wife/partner who is as crazy as you are, or an ability to enjoy your own company immensely (I’m lucky to have both)
  • A job where you don’t have to stay in the office every day of the week.









Sunday, January 12, 2014

WE HAVE JUST BEEN TO SOUTH AFRICA & MOZAMBIQUE, part 3, White Pearl

SANDS & SEA.
A lovely welcome to White Pearl.
Wrapped in quiet luxury, White Pearl lies on a sublime beach nestled into gigantic sand dunes on the unspoilt coast of southern Mozambique, close to the South African border.

Eternal waves and a beach that goes on forever

At White Pearl you stay in serene comfort, with divine food, spa, your own pool, and wide views of the sea and sand, yet wrapped in the privacy of exuberant greenery.

Suite 6 at White Pearl, Ponta Mamoli

There is some 40 km of unbroken beach stretching all the way from south of Kosi Bay in South Africa to near the capital Maputo.  

The sands are golden with a blush … and you would have to walk 18 km along the beach to get to the next little town. Perfect for someone who wants to jog and get fit amidst exquisite beauty. Or for those who want to wander and pick up seashells on the shore, or just enjoy being here.


Through the tangled bush the beachfront suites give access
to your own beach chairs and your "own" endless  beach -
not a soul in sight

Hideaway on the beach

Ideal  for your honeymoon, your recovery, your treat – suite 6 was our favourite. Suite 5 next door is also fabulous, so are all the beachfront suites, and we also favour suite 11 a little up the slope.

The higher rooms have the furthest views, but then you see the other suite rooftops, so if you have a fantasy about returning to the Garden of Eden you will prefer the views that we had, showing nothing but nature beyond your comfy sofa, your bath with a view and your swimming pool on the deck.


Beach wilderness

Few places in the world have beaches like this. Stretching all the way from Rocktail Bay on the KZN coastline of South Africa to Sant Maria just south of the Mozambique capital, it is in itself pure wilderness most of the way - nearly 40 km. Gigantic sand dunes are draped with glistening green forests where monkeys, bush babies and tiny antelope live off the land. Trees twist and turn, lianes tangle together, and the feel is breathtakingly wild, with the sound of birds and pounding of waves.

Beach fringed by gigantic bush-clothed sand dunes
Lush and tangled greenery on the banks
Here you share the sands with loggerhead and leatherback turtles who have come in since ages past to lay their eggs, and whales mate offshore. The water is tropical as the Trade Winds drive currents down the coast from equatorial regions, so there are coral reefs offshore, colorful fish, rays. Dolphins and sharks on the reefs.
Dune flowers

This was turtle egg laying time. Turtle walking tours go in the evenings when the tide is right. People are encouraged not to do their own turtle tours as you have to be very careful not to disturb these creatures on these inherited sands …. The sands of multi-generations before them…

In the southern winter then the whales come, and play and spawn in these waters.

Rain washed out some of the included activities. Instead of  the usual short thunder storm in the afternoon, steady warm rain came and went on impulse from iron grey clouds. But nothing could spoil the beauty and the peace.



We watched a boat bobbing out over the waves.  Heading for a reef and dolphin waters...
But chose instead to go to the spa, high up with infinity views, for a divine hydromassage on a special hydromassage bed on a rainy day.

Divine hydromassage


What to do





Beach watching by the pool. Swimming, horse riding on the beach, snorkling, diving, beach walking, tours to the nearby elephant reserve. whate watching, turtle watching, dolphin watching. White Pearl has its own dive school and its own boat to take you out over the surf.

For those who absolutely need to swan around in the latest swimwear to be noticed, pop in to little boutiques and markets, or eye the lifeguards, this is not your beach. There are not even any lifeguards.

Nor is it your beach if you want a sea that is glass still like a swimming pool. This is an ocean for those who adore the sense of eternity from the sound of the sea and the tides. For those who like to try surfing, or bobbing  up and down on the waves.



The waves surged in evenly, and kids enjoyed floating in the water behind the first breakers, not far from the edge. The rest of us chose to dip in the infinity pool, the beach bar pool or our own pool. Or just sit on our powder blue sofa staring at the waves. This is the way to fill your soul.



Soul food


A lot of soul is involved in the food too.

The head chef is a treasure who comes from the Polano hotel that dates back as a legend to the days as a Portuguese colony. For us he produced imaginative personal menus headed with our names, and built up on our info given to AndBeyond. Along with interviews with us on site through an interpreter.

Starting with some roast vegetables in the salad







The dining room is all glass to give you the beauty of your surroundings. With candlelight silver and glassware the night has sparkling ambience along with great food. Lunch is served at the beach bar. 

Tapas at the beach bar
Beach bar

The walkways between suites...nature walks with you

Weather

The rainy months in southern Mozambique are Dec-Feb, but usually it is a warm rain that clears QUICKLY to sun giving some 7 hours of sun per day on average. October is the driest month and November is a good balance of less rain (half as much as Dec) and warm temperatures. To quote figures for Bazaruto a little further north: On average there are 7 hours of sun per day in the rainy season, and in December temperatures rise to 30 deg C and do not drop below 24 at night. At the coldest time of the year (July and August) temperatures range between 15 (at night) and 25 deg C (average at the height of the day), and the weather is dry. Even in the coldest months the average temperature of the sea is 23 deg C, rising to an average of 27 in Jan and Feb. By May you get 8 hours of sun per day, average daily minimum of 20 and maximum of 29, and an average sea temp of a pleasant 24.

Getting to White Pearl

Getting there was a delightful adventure. Our wonderful AndBeyond driver Sipo took us to the Kosi Bay border on a surfaced road. White Pearl was already waiting on the other side with the essential 4wd. Then we drove on a sand track - that criss crossed grasslands and then lush tangled dune forest.

Sand track through the rainforest

Friends Bar by the roadside
The atmosphere of southern Mozambique is relaxed, cheerful.  Clean picturesque villages with reed houses and paintings on walls (all by the same artist), offered little pubs and restaurants well frequented by young tourists who seemed to be camping within easy reach of beaches. 

This is the same road you follow if you fly from Maputo by light plane, as the air strip is near the Kosi Bay border with South Africa. However an airstrip closer to White Pearl is under construction.





Monday, January 6, 2014

WE HAVE JUST BEEN TO SOUTH AFRICA, part 2, Phinda

The wilds of Phinda..

And endless wilderness beaches.

Continuing our safari and beach holiday in Southern Africa: two wilderness beaches, two urban beaches, and fascinating biodiversity in AndBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve.

First the intimate game lodges. And then the wild joys of safari…


Our intimate homes in the bush


AndBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve has six Lodges, each very different, making the most of the variety in natural vegetation and topograpy. We stayed in three Lodges: high on a hill at Mountain Lodge in southern Phinda, Forest Lodge hidden under the canopy of Sand Forest, and the luxury of a cottage at six roomed Vlei Lodge, with its views of  herds of animals from our private pool.

Vlei Lodge

We loved all the lodges. But exclusive six room Vlei Lodge was our favourite, a place of gentle bliss. 



Watch game from your own sparkling pool or
share it with the occasional elephant

In the cooler hours nyala, impala, warthogs and more come right in to graze off the acacias or the grass on the open area. This is safari as you dream of…if you prefer serenity to activity, floating in your jewel of a pool, lying on your sunbed, and seeing these animals in their wild freedom.

Nyala on view from our deck at Vlei Lodge




Above: a walk through room 6 at Vlei Lodge with its romantic 1920s safari lodge ambience...


Heavenly bed, with the world open all around
You can even view animals from your net draped bed through the wide glass doors, or from the shower or the feng shui bath tub. Elephants come up for a drink a couple of times or so a week.
In the heat of day the animals move off into the shadows under the trees, but now is a time to catch up on your wifi or just catch up on your sleep after all the hectic game watching by 4WD.  We suggest you may cry your eyes out if you don’t book at least 3 nights here, or 2 here and 2 at another lodge. A problem is that people seldom leave enough time to enjoy their gorgeous accommodation at the game reserves.

The head chef at Vlei Lodge is aptly called Happiness and was very typically happy to get personal instructions from Master Chef Stuart at Forest Lodge, regarding how to create delicious fare even for vegetarians and vegans. We were so touched at this caring involvement by Stuart in a special visit to instruct Happiness. And we appreciated also the greeting at the entrance by British manager Sara...



The hands on feel at Phinda is wonderful  …

Mountain Lodge

Mountain Lodge lies in southern Phinda in an area of tall hills and thick acacia veld or savannah. We had room/suite/chalet number 12, definitely one of the top favourites at Phinda Mountain Lodge, as it faces the most stunning views.

Our plunge pool with a view from
our extensive deck
The chalet is very chic with thick clean golden thatch as roof and ceiling, a spacious lounge area, lovely bathroom with long double vanities, Feng shui bath in the centre with morning views over green hills, and two showers, one out there on the extensive deck. Stepping outside on our first sunny day in South Africa, we saw the joy of golden sun spread over the green early morning hills, and play on the surface of our plunge pool.

Feng shui bathtub - in the morning it enjoys the views

The chic chalet - gorgous views from the bed
when the curtains are drawn

Bar and lounge at Mountain Lodge

One of the decks in the common areas - everywhere views

There are 25 chalets at Mountain Lodge which means 50 guests. The public areas are placed way up for the views, and the pool is a perfect place to be if you didn’t have your own pool too. It also has a conference centre.

Forest Lodge

Here at this somehow simpler but very special camp, there are 16 glass walled chalets deep in the sand forest, way under the canopy. You meander down past the tall trunks and curving branches in the leaf filtered  light over a sand path, in meditational quietness to get to your room. Built on stilts over the sand, the chalets can be relocated easily to spare this precious rare coastal rainforest that remains thanks to conservation efforts.

Lie in bed and see forest animals


Glass all around

In the room you see all around you into the forest underworld. We saw red duiker through our glass walls  and heard the cry of bush  babies and red chested cuckoos the locals call Piet Mij  Vrouw. Like the European cuckoo it repeats itself, in this case saying piet mij vrouw or Whip Poor Will.


Our private veranda has a sofa and 3 large candles and
a complimentary minibar to go with the all inclusive
This is a magical place to recline and let the sounds of the night enchant you. The chance of a leopard slinking by is not non existent. One was seen in the camp the next night when we had moved on to Vlei Lodge. 

At night they draw the curtains, for a sense of privacy in your glass house, though each glass cabin stands hidden in the bush. Come morning, you cannot wait to see out into the secrets of the forest milieu. One way to enjoy the view is standing in the shower. The door open wide… and from the bath too you have forest views.

The public area areas at Forest Lodge are charming. Wooden platorms with sofas and dining tables, overlooking parkland.

A great place to hang or dine...game watching
The hands on of management was remarkable: we felt we were just 2 there, not 32. The head chef Stuart met us to discuss our special needs with happy enjoyment at the challenge and Phindas organic garden and juice machine came into good employ.

Stuart - enthusiastic engagement
and creativity in meeting your dietary needs

The boma, a typical feature of any self respecting game lodge, does need good weather. And we were so lucky that the rain had cleared that day, allowing us to dine there in the light of fires, with the caterwauling of bush babies, and the flicker of warm light.




At Forest Lodge there is an attractive common pool - quite deserted when we were there.
.


You are either on safari, eating or sleeping – very little time to swim - but this is a lovely place to do it, with some game watching thrown in from the poolside.

Note: no private pools or wifi in the rooms.at Forest Lodge.

Sole use lodges

Zuka Lodge is nestled into a parkland area, oh so colonially thatched and spreading with old style verandas under cover. With only 4 bedrooms, it is the most delightful place to stay if you have an extended family, taken along with your own safari vehicle, ranger, tracker, cook and butler.  If you occupy 3 bedrooms they do not wedge in another couple, but leave the bedroom empty. Six is a good number as you will all fit on the safari vehicle together.

Comfortable sitting areas for the whole family
at Zuka Lodge

Open kitchen for your private chef  at Zuka
to do whizz wonders

Where your 3G family can dine together after an exciting day
on safari with your own safari vehicle

Colonial shady verandas at Zuka where you can
watch game on the lawn


Earthy feel to your private bathroom and modern bath tub

One of the Zuka bedrooms - all in separate cottages

Kenny manager at Zuka Lodge

Phinda Homestead is a manor house also perfect for sole usethe one we missed seeing due to the elephant visitor.

We missed also seeing Rock Lodge, which is an exclusive camp with only 6 lodges on a cliffside.

Wild joys of safari

At Phinda there is an intimacy about your safari, and a passion. You are given your own game ranger and tracker, usually sharing him with 5 other people. But we had the good fortune to have our game ranger Nick and our tracker Tom all to ourselves. It is certainly worth the extra money to try to book your own vehicle and ranger. 

Our ranger Nick - passion for both Big and Small


Nick took upon himself the earnest duty of finding all the big five just for us. Guided by the camp’s radio, we would head towards a spot where game had been sighted, watching for tracks over the sand roads. The tracker Tom could tell you just by looking how many hours ago a buffalo or elephant passed.


They are very careful not to disturb the game, or the beautiful terrain. No more than two vehicles are allowed at a sighting. Because of incessant rain weakning the surface we were not allowed to drive offroad. But there are many intimate tracks that take you deep into the stirring romance of the bushveld.

Phinda has seven eco zones, so part of the adventure is the changing scenery. Rocky mountain tops, down to lush wetlands then into the sandforest with its tight canopy creating a hidden world, and out into open parklands with beautiful trees dotted over grassveld, finally deep into thorn thickets….

And of course the look of everything changes as darkness turns to dawn  then blazing sun or silver rain. Later, the afternoon light dims into a flaming sunset and finally night. Perhaps night is the most exciting of all...


The Big Five

The Big Five are not necessarily the biggest – they are the ones the first hunters considered the most dangerous.

Our first of the Big Five were buffalo.

If they stand up watch out! Buffalo may look bovine but are
...not called the Big Five for nothing

Number 2 was the lion king, 

Sprucing himself up before trying his luck with two ladies


Number 3 was a herd of 40 elephants, on the glistening marshland, in a frieze against the sunset. 


Gradually they dispersed.  Not before some of the elders approached us giving signal that we should move off. 

Note the adorable baby. 
That elephant are one of the Big Five was dramatized for us the next day when we heard a bull elephant in musk had run amok, and we were carefully kept out of his way.


The next night we came close to cheetah, not considered as Big Five. But splendid big cats and a threatened species, a thrill to see.

Then driving the sand roads we spotted two lionesses just by the roadside

They stared with their powerful yellow eyes

Number 4. Now  night was falling and we began the most exciting hunt of all -  for our fourth of the Big Five - leopard.

Tracks showed that the oldest and biggest leopard had crossed into a block of dense bush. Tom predicted where he would emerge, and sure enough he came out of the darkness walking towards us along the road and right by the jeep. His muscles rippled and his spotted coat seemed alive and glowing…


Then he headed off down the road, with us following, and I got this little proof…



Next morning early we were up at 5am to do our last hunting. Nick was devoted to this triumph, and so we got to see Number 5, a white rhino. They looked very peaceful, almost bovine. Hard to imagine that they are dangerous….



But of course it is men, not the Big Five, who are most dangerous. In 2013 a total of 964 rhinos were killed in South Africa  by unscrupulous moneymaking poachers. Most rhino horn goes to North Korea.


As DH Lawrence wrote

‘MAN THE ONLY  ANIMAL ON EARTH TO FEAR’

Nick told us it is possible they will lift the ban on rhino horn and devalue the absurdly high rhino horn price by flooding the market. They will farm rhino for the horns; as if you cut off the horn it grows again.

To a kinder subject...

Next blog will be about White Pearl in Mozambique, some 3 or 4 hours from Phinda. If you dont have the time for a separate beach holiday Phinda will organize trips to the warm Indian Ocean beaches, a couple of hours drive, for diving, snorkling or beach walking. We were even offered a turtle watching expedition as in December the leatherback and loggerhead turtles come up to lay eggs.

Note that we flew direct from Dubai with Emirates to Durban, where we stayed at the enchanting Oyster Box. Then we were transported to two beachside wildernesses and to Phinda in perfect safety and silken courtesy by AndBeyond.