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Looking for the perfect beach? I give you 5!

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This is how paradise should look like…

Not sure what sort of paradise could wait us on the other side (if any!) but, if it looks anything like this, I truly hope to get a place with a good view!

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Saracen Bay, Koh Rong Samloem

Koh Rong Samloem is a small island, 45 minutes by speed ferry (or 1,5/2 hr with the slower ones) from the coast of Sihanoukville in Cambodia. When we visited Cambodia back in February 2014, we noted that the majority of people in the area were choosing to stay on its sister island Koh Rong, just 4 km away, bigger and with definitely more services, including a more active party scene (I suppose I was already getting old at that time by choosing a much more isolated beach….no regret!). At the beginning of 2014, accommodation on Koh Rong Samloem was pretty scarce to the point that we had been told that you could not board the ferry without a valid room reservation. In the last couple of years though, plenty of new accommodation options have opened making it more reachable to more people but, at the same time, inevitably spoiling it to some degree. Also Internet – which was nonexistent when we visited – seems to have landed too.

Most tourists choose to visit the tiny island as a day trip from the mainland, on the so called party boat: for $25 round trip the boat leaves Sihanoukville harbour around 9.30 AM, arrives at Saracen Bay on Koh Rong Samloem in the late morning, stay for a few hours and then gets everyone back to mainland by 5 PM. When I was staying on Koh Rong Samloem I was just waiting for the party boat to go to be fair since the beach peacefulness was finally restored and only a handful of people remained on the beach 🙂 Bear in mind that there are some other more secluded beaches on the island so if you truly want to get away you can opt for somewhere else, where not even the party boat will reach you 🙂 Lazy Beach or Sunset Beach for example (both offer accommodation and they are both connected through a jungle path to Saracen bay); they are worth a visit but – I have to be fair in this – I still prefer the sand and the water in Saracen Bay.

I still haven’t seen a better beach than this: white powdery sand, crystal shallow warm water, affordable accommodation right on the beach and above all: PEACEFULNESS. We had initially booked only 3 nights but as soon as we got off the ferry it took us less than 5 minutes to understand that we wanted to extend our stay. I am sure there are plenty of stunning beaches all over the world but if you want to sleep right on the beach and you are on a certain budget, unfortunately plenty of them are off limits.

We stayed at the BEACH ISLAND RESORT and for the price you pay it was great value. They have several sleeping options (dormitory, small bungalow, standard bungalow, deluxe bungalow, VIP bungalow) but they do sell out pretty quickly, particularly in peak season. Accommodation started at $12 for a double bed in a dormitory up to $40 for a VIP bungalow. We spent 3 nights in a deluxe bungalow (with private bathroom) at $35/night and 3 nights in a standard bungalow with shared bathroom at $25/night. In both cases you are just a few steps from the beach; on the plus sides, the deluxe bungalow has got a great view, an outside area and private sunbeds.

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Deluxe bungalow, interior
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Deluxe bungalow, bathroom
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This is how busy the beach was!
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Standard bungalow with shared bathroom

As far as the beach goes, I suppose pictures speak better than words in this case but imagine a pristine bay where you could walk for a long while without meeting a single soul except a couple of harmless stray dogs, a couple of water buffalo with their herder and hundreds of tiny crabs digging the sand and creating amazing natural shapes on the shore, which I could spend hours watching. I suppose now with more accommodation options there will also be more people but I am sure it’s still pretty quiet.

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A tiny crab working hard

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Making friends…
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Missing that beach!

The resort has a restaurant, a bar and plenty of outdoor seating and chill out areas that are perfect if you don’t fancy spending all day in the blazing sunshine, including a lovely chill out area with hammocks up in the trees with a good book and gorgeous views over the bay.

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Tough life!

Now, the “less positive” side of the accommodation option that I suppose justify some of the poor reviews that this place gets on TA and Booking.com: management was nonexistent so when guests had any issues or questions it was a struggle, the restaurant area was always quite a mess, never properly cleaned and unfortunately tables were always covered in flies that made the whole eating experience a bit frustrating. To top it all, staff were always busy in doing something else except working. In my opinion, the beauty of the place makes up for absolutely everything so if you are prepared to enjoy the experience for what it is (an unforgettable corner of paradise on earth and I personally don’t need much else to be happy), I would definitely recommend you to stay at the Beach Island Resort. If not, taking into account the new options that have opened in recent years, have a look at Trip Advisor suggestions to find some other good alternatives – the rule is always the same: book in advance. The whole beach is lovely but my favourite spot was the central and southern part, let’s say from Beach Island Resort looking out to the sea to the right (no rocks, just flat shallow sea and amazing white powdery sand) but that would be being very picky….you can’t really find many faults on a beach like this!

Just some advice before boarding the ferry…

  1. Book your accommodation well in advance in order to avoid disappointment.
  2. Bring  DEET with you, not so much for mosquitos but for the infamous sand-flies. We barely saw any (it depends from the season) so it wasn’t an issue but if you are bite-prone, better safe than sorry!
  3. On the island there are no ATMs so bring an adequate amount of cash to survive for a while.
  4. There are a couple of shops but they are of course a bit more expensive than usual since almost everything needs to come from Sihanoukville. If you are on a budget, you always have the option to bring some food and drinks from the mainland.
  5. A small and basic medical kit (which should be in any backpack, as one of my good travel friends taught me from day 1!) is always a good thing on a place like this. I cut my foot badly (and fainted too…always like a bit of drama! 🙂 ) on the bay during a morning walk and I was pleased to have everything available in my bungalow, it saved me (and my boyfriend) time and hassle 🙂

Other than this, bikini, shorts and sarong are all you need…Looks like this chair is waiting for you 🙂

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HAPPY TRAVELS!

 

 

 

The multi coloured dream country (part 2)

 CONTINUES FROM ITINERARY PART 1

DAY 8 – KANDY to ELLA

Our next stop on the itinerary was Ella where – unfortunately – we could only spend one night due to a series of unlucky coincidences (particularly the Navam Poya festival that made impossible to book any train on our selected date). I would strongly recommend at least a couple of nights in Ella, to explore a bit more the surrounding area and get into the backpack vibe.

The train journey from Kandy to Ella is undoubtedly one of the highlights of our trip in Sri Lanka. It’s a long journey (generally it takes almost 7 hours but delays are not uncommon) but you will soon forget you are on a train. Without going in too much detail of all the issues we encountered in booking 2 tickets due to the bank holiday, I will only say that at the end the only available tickets were on a 1st class train at 12.31 from Peradeniya to Ella – there were also 3rd class tickets on a morning train but since we needed a full morning in Kandy to see the Temple of Tooth it couldn’t work for us. The 1st option wasn’t my favourite simply because, as I read on plenty of travel blogs, in this carriage you couldn’t open the windows; so I was a bit restless (rather painful) thinking that I was about to do a once in a lifetime train journey with the windows fully shut. 😦

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Peradeniya Train Station

The train pulled in at Peradeniya train station (which is a few km from Kandy downtown) and we all got on. We found our seats and with extreme sadness and frustration we realized that the windows (that could not be opened) were so dirty that it would have been impossible to look outside and see anything, let alone take any pictures. On top of that, from the 1st class carriage you couldn’t reach the other carriages (where the windows could be opened!) so you felt sort of trapped. The train left the station and I was in such an “agony” inside that I went straight to have a (quiet) word with the young chap working in the carriage. I think he must have seen my distress since once I told him the problem he said “Wait a while and then once the train goes up the hills and slows down I can open the door and you can sit there”. My face brightened up, my eyes sparkled and my smile returned…and even wider when he said “Anyway, there is a surprise…we will open the windows soon but shhh.” I went back to my seat and I was the happiest person ever! Our windows DO open!!

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Not a bad view for a 7 hours journey!

Happiness quickly spread around the carriage (couldn’t keep quiet) and after a while the carriage staff opened all the windows, letting the hill country breeze flowing in and making the trip a whole different experience. Why I didn’t find any mention of it on any blog, I don’t know…but I promise, it was a big big relief! I spent half of the journey leaning outside the window and the other half sitting on the train steps, watching the green and lush Sri Lankan hills flying under my flip flops. What a great feeling!

Words can’t really describe the stunning scenery that the train goes through…I suppose in these cases pictures do it more justice. Make sure to keep your eyes open throughout the whole journey, too stunning to have a snooze!

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We arrived at Ella train station after over 7 hours journey, a bit of delay (which apparently is quite normal and it’s the first time ever I didn’t mind it on such an amazing journey) due to a fire on the rail track – being a single rail track you just have to patiently wait.

From the train station we walked to our accommodation (Ella Okreech Cottages), a steep walk up the main road in Ella, just a few minutes walk in the pitch black and with the sound of frogs. Massive clean room with a wide balcony overlooking the road (you can’t really see the road since the cottages are quite a way up shaded by the trees). We had a quick shower and we went out for a bite to eat, our 2nd official dinner out with a proper menu in Sri Lanka since up to that moment we had always eaten where we slept – except Colombo. We ate at the Chill Cafe’ which has a great backpack atmosphere, reminiscent of those wonderful 6 months in South East Asia. The place was packed, we had to wait a while for a table (while making friends with the local stray dogs) but in the end got a good table overlooking the road, perfect for people watching. Food was absolutely delicious, we chose the 10 curries dish which as you can see was quite an enormous portion and the banana leaf curry which was spicy and tasty. You will not leave hungry!

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Dinner at Chill Cafe’

Had a couple of mojitos too and then back to the room since the next day we had planned a relatively early start (no surprise) to climb Little Adam’s Peak first thing in the morning. We also had to arrange our onward travel to Kataragama, and that needed a bit of work.

DAY 9 – ELLA to KATARAGAMA

After a quick early breakfast in one of the few restaurants on the main road open at 7 AM, we tried to arrange a taxi ride to Kataragama, our next stop. All the drivers parked on the main road display a so called “Taxi price list” and the journey to Kataragama was listed at 8000 rps; it took a bit of persuasion, walk off and all the theatre that comes with barter but in the end we managed to arrange Rs 6000 for a private car (which was a sort of mini-van) leaving at 1.30 PM. We wanted to make sure we were able to get to Kataragama on time for visiting the temple and attend the evening puja (it took us around 2 hours). This cost can obviously be halved/saved either by sharing the car (we couldn’t find anyone interested in leaving in the early afternoon) or by taking public transport but, as I said, with only 1 night in Ella we had to factor in this extra cost if we wanted to spend more time in the area. Posting on a Trip Advisor forum can be a good option to find some fellow travelers willing to share the car. Be careful that some driver was asking us Rs 8.000 EACH. The listed price is, of course, for the whole car so the more people you find to share, the less you pay.

After arranging the taxi, we started our ascend to Little Adam’s Peak, which is easily reachable from the main junction in town, going uphill. Great sunny day and lovely walk amidst the tea plantation. Not a difficult hike that gets rewarded by great views!

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On the way back, we stopped to visit Newburgh Green Tea plantation; being Sri Lanka the land of tea, I felt it was a sort of must do and I have to say that, despite my initial skepticism, for someone that didn’t have an idea of how tea was produced, stored etc it was quite informative. Just over an hour, small tour of the plant in a small group and tasting of the green tea that they produce on site. What you obviously won’t see are the conditions of the tea harvesters (or tea pickers), mostly young Tamil women (paid just a couple of dollars a day), with no land rights and living on the tea plantations in crammed shacks without the minimum sanitation requirements. To learn more about this topic, have a look at thepriceoftea, an interesting document from srilankacampaign.org, a non profit organization which is also an excellent source of information on the situation in Sri Lanka.

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Newburgh Green Teas selection

On the way out, our path crossed with a Tamil Festival that was the true essence (at least in my mind) of Sri Lanka: vibrant colours, music, chants, flowers. Their beautiful and colourful saris shone amidst the green of the tea plantation were the great majority of them would work.

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Tamil festival

We walked back to Ella town in 40 minutes, had a quick shower and got picked up by our driver. Next stop: Kataragama.

The choice of Kataragama over Tissimaharama was due, once again, to the desire to get a bit off of the beaten track. Tissimaharama is the base that almost everyone we met (or read on travel blogs) uses for Yala National Park and I am sure it has got its positive sides but to me Kataragama seemed more interesting particularly for a couple of important temples that make it one of the biggest pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka. On the way to Kataragama we had the most amazing encounter…a massive elephant trying to cross the road right in front of us!

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At that point I was not sure we “needed” to go to Yala! We had booked a night at Heina Nature Resort, which I recommend, next to Goyagala Lake. Accommodation is in 2 massive cottages, with plenty of beds inside, far too big for only 2 people like us (perfect solution if you are travelling in a group). Next to your cottage you will find your private outdoor bathroom which is a great experience with tiny frogs hiding in the loo roll and a nice open air shower.

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Heina Resort Cottage, quite a big room for just 2 of us (2 extra bed on the right side!).
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Private bathroom with open air shower!

The grounds are particularly nice and you are located just a couple of minutes walk to a beautiful lake.

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Definitely worth going out and explore if you have a bit of time. With just a couple of hours stroll, we saw plenty of amazing birds (bee-eaters, king fishers, green parrots, peacocks, horn-bills), a crocodile and the views on the surrounding countryside were stunning and truly peaceful.

As far as staff, they score five stars. The manager is a young guy, really helpful and smiley that speaks good English and he is really keen to show you the area in which they live. With him work a young woman and a lad, in charge of the cooking, cleaning and garden maintenance. Though they don’t speak English, we had a good laugh together with the manager as a translator 🙂 Food was great (lots of fresh river prawns), freshly prepared and eaten outdoor.

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Plenty of fresh river prawns!

Before dinner the manager drove us to the Kataragama Temple and it was definitely one of our highlights of this stop. If you choose to visit, you will definitely be a minority there and it will be hard to not feel emotionally affected by the whole ceremony; the evening puja is quite striking and definitely worth experiencing. Take into account at least a couple of hours to explore the grounds and stay for the ceremony.

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Kiri Vehera Dagoba
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Offers during the evening Puja

DAY 10 – YALA NATIONAL PARK to REKAWA BEACH

Kataragama is – with Tissimaharama –  one of the preferred bases you can choose to visit Yala National Park, arranging a safari. Yala is worldwide renowned for having a good number of leopards that, if you are lucky enough, you could spot in the park. The problem is that plenty of drivers drive around like nutters just to try to get a glimpse of a leopard and sometimes missing out on other animals. After reading plenty of reviews and blogs and asking a few quotes to some operators, I gave up: there are so many tour operators, hotels and private jeep drivers that offer and arrange safari tours (morning, afternoon or all day) that it’s really hard to know what to choose, if not impossible! So in the end we chose to book a morning safari (5:30 AM to 11 AM) directly through our Resort in Kataragama, which offered more or less the same price of other tour operators (around $60 per person/half day) and an English speaking driver. Though it turned out that the driver’s English was as good as my boyfriend’s Italian (almost nonexistent) and although it rained for a good hour during the safari making it hard to see any animals at some point, it was a great experience: we managed to see plenty of wild water buffalos, deers, a couple of beautiful elephants just a few meters from our jeep, monkeys, wild boars and an amazing amount of birds, including horn-bill, peacock, black stork, black crested bulbul and Sri Lankan junglefowl (national bird). We didn’t see the leopard (I haven’t met anyone that has actually confirmed to have seen one!) but that’s the reason why this is a National Park and not a zoo. Overall happy with the experience but I would recommend to find a tour operator with an English speaking driver since you can surely get a lot more information during the drive. A way to save a bit of money is also to book your jeep directly in Tissimaharama the night before you want to do the safari; we were staying in Kataragama so we didn’t do it, but it could be an option. Have a look also at Yala National Park website for full information and advices on how to arrange your visit to the park.

After the safari, we went back at Heina Nature Resort, got our backpacks and the manager very kindly dropped us at Kataragama bus station where we boarded the local bus 32 that goes all the way up to Colombo on the beautiful coastal road.

After less than 2 hours of crazy local bus drive, we arrived at Ranna village on the A2 that was where we had to stop to get a tuk tuk (Rs 300) to our next place, Lanka Beach Bungalows: a bit over our budget but absolutely worth it, even though for just one night. The choice to stay here was due to the fact that we were hoping to be able to see the turtle hatching on the beach and the area is supposed to be one of the best spots to do it. Though it didn’t really go as planned, it was a lovely stay.

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Lanka Beach Bungalows swimming pool.

As far as accommodation goes, at the time of our visit Lanka Beach Bungalows had just opened, owned and run by a German couple (they still haven’t got a website but you can easily book through Booking.com). The rooms are very nice, with a massive half open bathroom with walk in shower and a big balcony with outdoor seating area. All their rooms overlook the ocean (ask for a top floor, to get the better view); our room was one of the furthest one and still we enjoyed a great view. I suspect that once its position is more consolidated in the market and they get more reviews (once we booked there weren’t any) their prices will rise, in line with the other hotels on this stretch of beach (some well over $100/night). Unfortunately when we arrived the weather was all but good: rainy and windy but, as it often happens anywhere near the Tropics, it completely turned in less than an hour and we went straight to the beach for a long walk enjoying a stunning sunset. We didn’t want to eat at our hotel ( I admit I like the comfort of good beds – who doesn’t!? – but I much more prefer the local atmosphere) and my boyfriend had found somewhere on a back road near the beach that sounded interesting and worth looking at. Leaving the hotel behind you, walk on the beach towards the right and you will see a board advertising “SUN SHINE CAFE'”. Don’t expect a restaurant as such: no website, just a reggae-loving dude and his wife cooking homely and freshly prepared Sri Lankan food. Can’t beat it! If you plan on eating here, go a few hours before in the afternoon, choose what you would like for dinner and agree an hour so they have got enough time to prepare everything from scratch. We had a delicious tuna fish curry with plenty of vegetable curries (massive portions) and as always tons of poppadoms. Their pineapple daiquiris are worth a try 😉 and you might end up the evening sharing a whiskey with the owner!

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Home made dinner at Sun Shine Cafe’

Just a side note: if you choose to reach this place and want to do the internal road path, make sure you have a good torch with you since it’s absolutely pitch black and there are no lights to be seen for a while. The beach – especially during full moon – is probably a better choice.

After dinner around 9.30 PM, we ventured out on the beach: we were truly hoping to see turtles hatching so we kept walking up and down keeping an eye open on the shore. Since just a couple of nights before it had been full moon the beach was basically naturally lit up so we almost didn’t need our torches. Despite not seeing any turtle, the walk itself was unforgettable: this stretch of beach is – luckily – very little developed (after 2004 Tsunami plenty of business closed and didn’t reopen) so you can walk a long time before seen any light or actually meeting anyone. I am sure the place is absolutely safe but I would probably not have walked so far during the night without my boyfriend.

DAY 11/12 – REKAWA BEACH to MARAKOLLIYA BEACH (TANGALLE)

After an early morning walk down the beach, being nosy with the local fishermen and a good breakfast in the sunshine, we decided to spend a few hours by the beach before heading off to our next place. If you are a swimmer, do take into account that swimming in this part of the Indian Ocean can be very dangerous due to unexpected rip currents and whatever guesthouse or hotel you will choose, they will advise you whether it is safe or not to swim in your area. For this reason, a swimming pool can be a good option if you want to have a relaxing swim. 🙂 Do not expect to find the calm and crystal water of some parts of South East Asia since this is the Indian Ocean and its beauty is also in the wilderness of its beaches and rough waters.

We hired a tuk tuk from Rekawa Beach to Marakolliya Beach (Rs 800), a quiet and beautiful stretch of beach at the east of Tangalle. We had chosen Mangrove Chalet and Cabanas and were not disappointed. The accommodation is very good (they offer both chalet/bungalows and cabanas but they sell out pretty quickly) and sits between a lagoon and the sea; big square concrete bungalows built a prudent few metres far away from the water, with outdoor comfy day beds and a very good restaurant offering plenty of food options. It reminded me a lot of Ko Lanta (Thailand): very chilled out atmosphere, good and simple food and beautiful views of the ocean.

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View of the beach next to Mangrove Chalet and Cabanas

We spend 2 nights here but you can easily spend a few days just by laying on the beach reading a book, walking up and down or venturing and exploring the lagoon with the free kayak provided by Mangrove Chalet and Cabanas. It depends what your own idea of relax is, mine is moving. 🙂

One thing that could have been the highlight of our stay here was to see a turtle and in my naive way of thinking I though I could see one – on my own – on Rekawa Beach. It’s not impossible but it is not an easy task. Since we didn’t see one on Rekawa Beach, I decided to give it a try with the Rekawa Turtle Conservation Project – Turtle Watch, a Rs 1300 tuk tuk ride from our accommodation and a Rs 1000 donation fee. No matter how eager you are to see a turtle, before thinking about going read my Trip Advisor review for a full account of the experience. It’s true, I saw a green turtle but I wish I hadn’t seen one! 😦 Not sure how it can be recommended by Lonely Planet, too.

DAY 13 – MARAKOLLIYA BEACH to MIRISSA BEACH

Up to now, my itinerary for Sri Lanka had been a success (let’s forget about the Turtle Conservation Project) and both my boyfriend and I were absolutely delighted with all we had experienced so far. After spending a few hours on Marakolliya Beach and a quick lunch, we got a tuk tuk to our next destination: Mirissa. We may have been a bit lazy by taking the tuk tuk but the truth is that we wanted to enjoy the beach and the seaside as much as we could, before going back to cold and rainy England! Can’t really blame me….but be aware that you can reach all coastal destination by local bus (a lot cheaper, of course but it takes its time).

We got dropped off at the Secret Guesthouse, a family run business a short walk from Mirissa beach. We had booked a fan room ($40/night including breakfast) with a good size bathroom and a nice outdoor veranda overlooking the well looked after garden. It was a peaceful and quite setting and I chose it because it was one the most affordable available in the area. Next to the guesthouse, there is a lovely outdoor spa too with plenty of treatments, in case you want to relax your muscles. Once settled in, we decided to have a look at Mirissa beach. Unfortunately I can only describe it as a Sri Lankan version of the bad part of Costa del Sol, one of the most touristy and spoiled coastline in Spain, packed with thousands of people getting burned, plenty of them getting drunk with cheap booze and almost no space to put your towel down. Not judging but it’s just not my cup of tea. Mirissa beach is small and absolutely packed with sunbeds, loud music and cheap drinks, miles away from the peacefulness of our 2 previous beaches. None of us could hide the disappointment but we decided to get over it, have a walk on the beach, confirm the whale watch tour for the following day (I had already pre-booked our tour via email for the following day, so I just went to check with the tour company if everything was OK) and go back to our place to get ready for an early dinner. Since we wanted to avoid the main beach, we headed to Papa Mango, on the stretch of beach east of the main one. We shared a nice red snapper and then head back for a good rest, ready for the 5 AM start!

DAY 14 – MIRISSA

As for the safari, the choice of the whale watching tour is quite crucial (possibly even more). I chose Raja and the Whales and I can’t recommend them enough: great communication before booking, excellent staff and amazing tour with them, always providing us information and updates on what we were doing. They are a bit more expensive than some other tours (Rs 6500 per person) but worth every single penny. Differently from all the other boats we have seen, they do go a lot further out into the Ocean (we were the last one to get back to the harbour, a lot later than any other boat) and when you get to see the whales you will probably be the only boat around (and they keep a very safe distance in order to not disturb the mammal). I haven’t tried any other tour company of course but we spoke with some western business owners (hotels, restaurants) living in Sri Lanka that had the opportunity to try different companies and they all agreed that Raja were the best. Be mindful and book well in advance since they fill up pretty quickly. Their tours start at 6 AM and go on for at least 5/6 hours but in our case we stayed out for over 7 hours; they do provide full breakfast and lunch and sea sickness tablets which are a MUST taking into account the constant movement of the Indian Ocean (and confirmed by the fact that 95% of our boat was sick and I was struggling to not be in that %!). You just have to bring plenty of sun cream and a good camera if you fancy some nice snaps.

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Blue whale diving

As I said, Mirissa is a must do if you want to experience a whale watching tour; if you want to avoid staying near the main beach chaos, you can choose an accommodation a bit further out or even stay in another town, but in that case factor in an even earlier start to be at the harbour at 6 AM.

Once back from the whale watch tour, we decided to follow the advice of one of the Raja crew members and head to the Secret Beach. This beach proves that you just need to go a bit off the beaten track to be able to find a lovely beach almost unspoiled a few minutes off the chaotic Mirissa town. Almost empty beach, clear water, reggae music, hammock and watermelon shake: HAPPINESS! To reach it, ask for directions from the harbour where you get dropped off by the boat. It’s a steep walk or ride up and then down again but it’s worth it. In case you plan to have a snack here, be aware that the only bar/restaurant on this beach is quite expensive. If you don’t fancy the walk back, they arrange a tuk tuk for you.

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That’s the Secret Beach, Mirissa

We spent a few hours on the beach and then got a tuk tuk back to our guesthouse. We packed our bags, relaxed a bit on the outdoor veranda and then head out for dinner at Zephyr Restaurant, on the main beach. This was going to be our last dinner in Sri Lanka so nothing better then eating some crab and prawn curry with our feet in the sand!

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Crab curry at Zephyr Restaurant

 

It looks like the restaurant is one of the busiest of all the beach and dinner was a particularly long (but extremely pleasant) one. Booking in advance is recommended.

We ended our day in Mirissa with a pleasant stroll on the beach before going to bed.

DAY 15 – MIRISSA – GALLE – COLOMBO AIRPORT

We got up with the feeling that we had missed doing something….and we soon realized that we had completely forgot to book our transport to Colombo Airport for that very same day!! Not a small thing since we had planned to: 1) have a full body massage in our guesthouse spa (me) before leaving Mirissa and 2) spend a few hours visiting Galle, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the west coast, have lunch there and then head to the airport. Our flight was scheduled at 21:25 so we would have had all the day to head back up. There are plenty of options and combinations to find your way up from the South Coast to the airport: train, local bus, fast bus, private car, shared van etc and if you are planning to hire a private car, the earlier the better since you may find other people interesting in doing your same route. Unfortunately, due to the fact that we left it until the very last minute, we were not able to arrange any shared transport and we ended up paying Rs 10.000 for a brand new minivan to drive to the airport with a 4 hours stop in Galle; not too bad but we might have been able to save a bit by booking in advance.

After an amazing full body massage in the open air spa The Secret Root spa (you get discounts if you are a guest of the Secret Guest House), the driver picked us up around 11.30 and we drove north, following the beautiful coastline and seaside villages (some more developed than others) until reaching Galle (1,5 hour). Depending on what time you are flying out, I personally think that a quick stop in Galle Fort is worth, to get a glimpse of what Sri Lanka is on this side (though extremely touristy). The town, which was seriously damaged during the 2004 Tsunami, is very well kept and pretty compact so you could visit the main sites in a few hours, including a nice stroll on the walls with stunning views of the seaside. In some ways, it reminded me a lot of Luang Prabang (Laos) and in places like this I always struggle a bit thinking that it is all built to cater mainly for tourists: charming cafes and western restaurants dot every corner, upmarket boutique colonial hotels (together with some more affordable guesthouses), expensive shops and foreigners are everywhere (both living and visiting). If you plan to spend a few days here, be prepared to have to pay more money for everything, particularly accommodation.

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Our driver dropped us at a guesthouse where we left our luggage and before heading back to Colombo Airport we were able to have a shower, which is always a nice thing before boarding on a long haul flight 🙂

And there we were, driving north to where we first started with a lot of amazing memories to bring back home with us!

 

Do you need a couple of good reasons to visit Sri Lanka? Have a look at my other post!

 

 

 

Escape to Sri Lanka, a paradise for the senses.

I had got to the end of January thinking that I had been missing Asia for far too long and I decided to book a trip to Sri Lanka with my travel buddy Roger. Mad decision taking into account the moment we were in (just about to relocate) but definitely one of the best decision EVER. Now that I have been back in Europe for a couple of weeks I can say it was one of the best short trips (only 15 days) that I have ever organized in such a short time (less than 2 weeks). We came back at the beginning of March, after 15 days of rice and curry, with memories full of bright colours, the head inebriated of freshly cut flowers and incense fragrances and with a bit of suntan too 😉

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I have not been to India yet (on my to do list!) but my travel buddy, that went there not too long ago partaking in a rickshaw challenge, said that Sri Lanka is not too different in smells, flavours and colours, with the big advantage that being such a small country makes it quite easy to move around – a lot easier than the vastness of India. Unfortunately, in 15 days I haven’t been able to reach some of the areas that have been recently developing tourism, recovering from the destruction of the civil war and that would have surely deserved a visit. Still, what I saw was beautiful and the 15 days in Sri Lanka were an absolute delight for all our senses (smell in particular).

A few things to take into account when it comes to planning your journey:

Transport

Sri Lanka is a pretty small country and some of the destinations that you will probably visit are reachable using their railway system. The best source of information for train journeys, how to book tickets, which seat to choose etc is, as always, The Man in Seat 61. Booking Sri Lankan trains can be a bit tricky and on some trains (Kandy-Badulla, for example) it needs to be done in advance if you want to get a good seat (that to me meant only a window seat with the option to open the window itself for the fabulous views). I have used Visit Sri Lanka Tours (English/Sri Lankan agency) on 2 train journeys and I was absolutely happy with them. I booked my tickets while in the UK (paying with Paypal) and I collected them as soon as I arrived at Colombo airport. Easy! You pay a small commission (of course) but it saves you the hassle of not knowing whether you will get a good seat and it allows you to plan your onward travels.

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Train from Colombo Fort to Anuradhapura

For all the other locations not covered by railway, you have a few options: 1) local buses without AC 2) local buses with AC  3) private or shared car 4) tuk tuk.

Do take into account that local bus drivers are nuts; though they don’t drive as bad as Laotian bus drivers (just as an example), they do drive extremely fast and it seems that the bigger the bus, the faster it goes, whizzing through villages packed with school kids, markets, traders etc making the whole experience a bit nerve-racking. Whatever transport you choose will depend on 2 main factors: price and distance. In our travels, we have always preferred local transport (less comfortable but much more fun!) but this time having only 15 days we realized that on some occasions it was vital to be able to cut short our travel time, having more time to visit whatever our next destination offered. For this reason, we opted for a private car on 2 occasions (Ella/Kataragama and Mirissa/Colombo Airport) and it was the best choice; more expensive than the local transport (and without that local feeling) but definitely worth it to save time. Also, take into account that having your own private transport allows you to stop and visit something else whilst en route, and that’s a big plus when it comes to discovering a country. Whatever means of transport you will choose…barter, barter, barter is the general rule for every transport (except local buses and trains). It’s not impossible to obtain a fair price that makes everyone happy.

Plenty of tourists choose to hire a car with driver for their whole time in Sri Lanka and that is not as expensive as some may think but you will need to shop around before choosing your driver (or use one agency that will dramatically inflate the price); though it can be a good option (particularly if you have got kids and if you are travelling in a group) and offer you more flexibility, although you will surely miss out on some fun experiences!

Accommodation

Sri Lanka has accommodation for all budgets. It’s not as cheap as South East Asia but in the end with a bit of research we were able to find decent accommodation at a decent price (pre-booked, to save time). We found that home-stays offered the best value accommodation with a true Sri Lankan experience (around $15-20/night with breakfast).

Most guest houses and home-stays offer meals, eating in is a good option for at least 2 reasons: 1) food is always fresh and made from scratch and 2) you get to know your hosts better.

Taking into account Sri Lanka’s lush nature and wildlife, it’s worth trying to go off-the-beaten track for a couple of days, sleeping in the jungle or remote settings being surrounded only by nature and its noises… and its residents :-). These experiences will need a bit more investment (both in time and money), nothing astronomical but absolutely worth every single penny.

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Back to the jungle at Polwaththa Eco-lodges, 1 hour outside Kandy.

We visited Sri Lanka in the second half of February and we had AC only in a couple of rooms. If you are on a budget it’s not a must but if you struggle with heat and humidity (especially coming from cold winter), maybe it’s something to factor in. All the rooms we stayed in except 2 (that my boyfriend chose) were generally pretty basic (standard bed, small table and chair), very clean and all came with mosquito net.

Food

I was a bit unsure whether I would enjoy the local cuisine as much as I did in SE Asia, but I turned out that I loved their curries so much that I had it for breakfast (including deep fried fish curry at 7 AM), lunch and dinner. They can be very spicy but (hopefully!) they will tell you if the dish you have ordered is mind-blowing and you’d better opt for a milder one.

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Breakfast rice and curry, Sacred City Resort in Anuradhapura.

In the most touristy locations (Kandy, Ella) you can easily find Western food but personally I stuck to Sri Lankan food during our entire trip and only had one cappuccino over 15 days and the effects where…let’s say…catastrophic, so I quickly went back to my Ceylon tea and fresh fruit juices. My body was no longer used to milk and diaries (apparently I had no problems at all in eating tons of curd…!!) at the point that, once back in the UK, it took me over a week to get back to normality, eating and drinking the usual huge quantities of cheese and milk. Panic over.

Sri Lankan food is reasonably priced and with $10/12 a day you will eat well (sometimes a lot less). It’s worth having breakfast in your home-stay for a couple of dollars since – in most cases – you will eat so much that you will skip lunch. Also take into account that sometimes a rice and curry portion could be enough for a couple of people if not more (portions are huge) so unless you are particularly ravenous you could easily share one.

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Good size breakfast to keep you going at Camellia home-stay in Sigiriya!

Fresh fruit is plentiful and absolutely delicious; the most common you will find will be papaya, mango, pineapple, guava and watermelon, usually squeezed in refreshing juices.

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Watermelon juice with a view, Tangalla.

Throughout our 2 weeks in Sri Lanka we didn’t have any problem with food and we tried as much as we could; one thing that we avoided was the buffet food (you don’t know how long food has been sitting there) and the so called short-eats, a sort of Sri Lankan snacks. Restaurants and bakeries arrange trays of these baked and deep fried goods and when you order they leave the tray on the table; you choose what you want and then the tray goes back half empty to be restocked. I am sure they are delicious but they go through several hands before going straight to your mouth so, unless your body is ready, if you want to try what short-eats are, just go to a proper bakery and choose a bit of everything. Safer and equally yummy.

To get to know more about Sri Lankan cuisine, have a look www.seriouseats.com, plenty of information on what to expect from Sri Lankan food and mouthwatering pictures.

Hospitality

Sri Lankan people are absolutely lovely. Particularly in the destinations off-the-beaten track, they will need your smile first to feel comfortable to approach you and talk – which it seems they can’t wait to do. Once they overcome their initial shyness, that’s done: their English might be broken but they love to practice, kids and elderly with no difference and they will try their best to communicate. Thinking what their country has gone through in the last decades, it is still quite striking that smile is what you see more often on their faces (both Sinhalese and Tamil). Smile, in the end, keeps the world moving.

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Schoolgirls in Sigiriya
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Tamil woman during a festival in Ella
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Preparing the flowers offer at the Temple of Tooth, Kandy.

Nature and wildlife

Apart from the amazing pagodas, cave temples, pilgrimage and spiritual sites, religious celebrations etc, Sri Lanka is possibly one of the most striking destinations I have been so far with such a stunning nature (including some amazing unspoilt beaches) and wildlife.

As soon as you leave the big cities (e.g. Colombo and Kandy) and just take a stroll or a bike ride on any side road, you will find yourself surrounded by amazingly colourful birds, beautiful bright butterflies, lushly green vegetation and any time is the right occasion for an unexpected encounter. We have been to Yala Natural Park but some of the most amazing animal encounters happened outside the park: an elephant crossing right in the middle of the road while en route from Ella to Kataragama, shining bee-eaters whizzing through our path, a crocodile chilling out in the lake just outside our nature resort, dozens of bright peacocks just a few meter from us, giant fruit bats in a city park, hungry monkeys on our way to the cave temples….everywhere you turn, there is something amazing to watch.

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And above all, her majesty….the blue whale, a few hours off Mirissa coast and undoubtedly the most shivering animal encounter I ever experienced.

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What else? Get a good guide, surf the travel forums and you are ready to go!

Get ready to be gobsmacked! 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Off to the island without traffic lights.

I am currently in Tuscany, where I thought that by this time of the year the weather would be definitely better than in the UK but – apparently – it’s not! I’ve been here for a week and the first 5 days it rained every day, with no exception. In the last couple of days (after a lot of swearing) weather got a bit better and we have finally be able to see some blue sky and sunshine. Still, while I patiently wait for the weather to settle and get reasonably warmer, I can’t help thinking about sunshine, crystal water and powdery white beaches….!

Can’t go anywhere at the moment (just been back from Sri Lanka and still desperately trying to make my tan last a few days more before going back to greenish) but – if I could – I would probably book now a reasonable flight to one of my favourite island in Europe: Formentera (actually, since the island hasn’t got an airport, you will have to fly to Ibiza first and then take a ferry to reach it).

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The smallest of the Balearic Islands, Formentera is only 20 km long and it’s just 6 km from Ibiza. It is – with no doubt – the best crystal shallow sea I’ve ever seen in Europe and since my first time in 2008 I went back a couple of times (always for maximum 4-5 nights), including one of them on my own. It didn’t use to be particularly expensive (except in July and August) but for a few years prices have unjustifiable sky-rocketed and sometimes you end up paying ridiculous money for a far too overcrowded place, which is a real shame but I suppose everyone wants to enjoy it and word spread pretty quickly. Just to give you an idea of how bad it gets: in summertime Formentera population goes from 11.000 to 35.000. That is: 35.000 people, roughly 12.000 cars and not a single traffic light. But, if you have not been yet, it’s absolutely worth a trip – with a bit of advance planning.

Let’s assume that you are (wisely) planning to visit before or after the peak season. As soon as you get off the ferry from Ibiza, you get the feeling that you’ve arrived in a magical place: the sea breeze, the emerald and blue water and the powdery sand scream just peace and relax. Leave back the real world for a few days.

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In the 1960s Formentera was a worldwide recognized hippie destination (with real hippies back then…) and still is considered more chilled and natural than its big sister Ibiza. Now, in peak season, Formentera is basically Italian’s land and a large number of restaurants and cafes are Italian owned and operated (which basically means that beaches get over populated with men in skimpy slips and speedos that should be forbidden anywhere and women wearing all the same bikini, same hair style and same selfie-ready pose). Nothing wrong with it but I think it has undoubtedly lost a bit of its original soul (and that has been confirmed by people living there for many years). Anyway, the good thing is that Italians generally go on holiday between the second half of June until the second half of September so, if you can avoid this period, you will almost be “safe” (though you will miss a bit of the Italian…charm! :-)) and enjoy the island a lot more. I am Italian, nothing wrong with my compatriots…I just can’t stand large loud groups of Italians on holiday 🙂

I would say that 4-5 nights is an excellent beach break; Formentera is small and in a few days you can visit some amazing beaches and calas (small bays) without getting bored. Here is a list of my favorite ones but there are plenty more to discover on your own:

  • Playa Ses Illetes. I have been an early bird all my life, even on holiday and I still remember driving like a lunatic with my little red Panda 4×4 to enter Ses Illetes Park before 8:30 AM (when the park guardians charge the entrance fee). Not so much for not paying the entrance but to enjoy the beach on my own. Stunning. If you get there early enough you can walk a long way before meeting anyone. From the north end of Ses Illetes, you will see Espalmador, a tiny paradisiac island just off the mainland. You can either walk there during low tide (with precaution) or get on a ferry from La Savina port. No services here, so get plenty of water and food if you plan to spend the day.
  • Cala Saona: breathtaking. In peak season, it gets very busy and, as you will see, it’s not particularly big so get here early and then move onto a wider beach in the afternoon.
  • Playa del Arenal: possibly my favourite beach. Beautiful sandy and flat beach with crystal water.
  • Es Migjorn: perfect for long walks. Some areas are still quite natural and wild and less spoiled than other beaches.

Remember to always check the wind before settling on a beach: since Formentera is such a small island, it literally takes minutes to drive over to a more sheltered side, in case it’s too windy.

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Formentera at its narrowest point.

Some tips if you are planning a trip here:

  • I may sound repetitive but visit out of the peak season (mainly avoid between mid-June and mid-September) to enjoy this island at its best, unless you are prepared to pay top prices for accommodation and car rental, having to fight for a space for your towel.
  • It does get very hot during the day and it can be quite cool and breezy in the evening, so be prepared.
  • Many beaches haven’t got any service (sunbeds, shower, toilets, food…) so pack sun cream, hats, water, food. It’s worth spending a few Euros on a cheap umbrella to protect you from the sun rather than getting burnt, unless of course you’re a Brit and prefer to get burned from day 1! 🙂
  • Book well in advance, particularly accommodation. The island is small and everyone wants to get a good spot at a good price.
  • Rent a small car or even a moped, if you are confident. Leave the big cars for the city; no need to show off with fancy big cars since parking can be an issue and some roads are quite narrow.
  • Ferry from Ibiza to Formentera. There are a few options: the fastest one takes 30 min (around EUR 27 one way), the slowest one (Aquabus) takes around 45 minutes but it is exactly half price plus is not such a bad thing to sail in these waters enjoying the sunshine.
  • Formentera is world renowned for being a top nudist destination. This doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to wander around with your bits and pieces in the air… but it does mean that there might be a few around you doing it, so… just be prepared! It’s not (always) a bad thing!! 😉
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House with a view near Cala Baster
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Discover the most secluded “calas”
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Sunset

Trendy, arty and sunny….that’s St. Pete.

If you are coming to Florida, St. Petersburg (or St. Pete, as they call it) should be on your list for many reasons. Trendy, arty, young and a few steps from some amazing beaches. I visited St. Pete during the summer of 2014 and I immediately loved it. Accomodation in St. Pete is not cheap and we had to look around to find something in a decent area not too expensive. Taking advantage of a very good last minute rate around $80, we stayed at the Hollander Hotel, not far from downtown. Their TAP bar was always very busy and with a great atmosphere (live pianist on one of the evening that we were there was truly impressive) and their Sunday brunch with a proper Bloody Mary station was excellent too.

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Hollander Hotel room

They are not far from downtown but for those that do not wish to walk, they do offer a buggy service but we walked most of the time. B&B in general seemed particularly expensive and quite old fashioned with the exception of the Watergarden Inn at the Bay: we wandered in to ask information and it looked absolutely lovely (and beyond our budget!). If you are in the mood of splashing out, I think that The Birchwood on Beach Drive could be a good choice. St. Pete is trendy and fashion and this place has absolutely got it all.

Once the accomodation is sorted, it’s time to concentrate on the big attraction of St. Pete: Salvador Dalí Museum. I am a Dalí fan, I loved Figueres and Cadaqués and this had been on my top list for a while. This impressive museum that includes some of Dalí’s masterpieces is the result of over 25 years of collecting by Reynolds and Eleanor Morse (patrons and friends of Dalí for decades).

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Dali Museum in St. Pete
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Dali Museum interior
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The Hallucinogenic Toreador, 1968-70

Get the audio guide and take your time; it’s a great museum, the collection is truly impressive and absolutely worth the entrance fee. St. Pete has got plenty of other museums, galleries and open art districts worth a visit. Have a look at Chihuly Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts, take a stroll around the 600 Block. For a more hippie vibe, head to Gulfport, a stylish and low key suburb a short drive from downtown. I didn’t find it particularly exciting (it was pretty quiet when I visited) but it’s true that it has retained a kind of 70s feeling with plenty of artists, craftsmen and performers still living there.

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Gulfport Casino
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Sunday morning stroll with the baby goat in Gulfport

In St. Pete, street art is pretty interesting too and worth a drive around to spot some nice murals.

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Once you have done your good bit of sightseeing and driving around, don’t forget that St. Pete is nicknamed the Sunshine city and with an average of 361 days of sun a year, it’s easy to understand why. You are a short drive from some amazing beaches, such as St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island and the paradisiac Fort de Soto Park and, once there, you completely forget you are next door to a big city. Or not?

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Treasure Island, early morning

The evening scene is very good too. Plenty of busy restaurants, lively bars and independent cafes for all budgets. The best scene that we found was on Beach Drive and Central Av./3rd St. N where plenty of options are lined up for everyone’s taste (and pockets). The Canopy rooftop on Beach Drive NE (that’s the bar of The Birchwood hotel) is a great choice for some nibbles and cocktails: buzzing atmosphere, live music and great views of St. Pete are the perfect match!

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Rooftop setting at The Canopy

Up to now it sounds like the perfect city to live. Unfortunately, safety is a big issue here and St. Pete ranks very high in violent crime in Florida. During our stay, we didn’t have any problem at all in walking around the city and driving to different neighbourhoods but you can’t help noticing that, as in many US cities, you just need to take the wrong turn to end up in a truly rough area. Some streets are very dark and poorly lit and I wouldn’t have felt safe in walking during the night outside the main spots where all the action is (Beach Drive). So, as always, the best advice is to keep your eyes open, stick in the busy areas, get a cab back to the hotel and enjoy the city safely!

Get a feel for Andalucía in 8 days/7 nights

As with anything: the more the better… Andalucía would probably need at least a good month touring around but if you have got just a week off and you are prepared to do a bit of driving, it’s still a great destination, especially in early Autumn or Spring when the weather is still warm and you can enjoy the main cities avoiding the massive summer crowds and the unbearable heat. Andalucía gets truly hot in the central summer months, making it almost impossible to walk around cities like Sevilla or Cordoba so I wouldn’t advise to visit in summer (unless you plan to stay on the coast for the majority of your trip). March, April and May in Spring and September and October in Autumn are – in my opinion – the best months to visit this region.

 

May deserves a separate note since 3 different celebrations are held in this month: May Crosses Festival, Patio Festival and Cordoba Fair and this obviously has an impact on the amount of tourists visiting the town. If you decide to visit in this month you will have great photo opportunities but, as always, prices will be higher than normal and you will need to book well in advance.

If you only have 8 days/7 nights and want to get a good glimpse of Andalucía, be prepared to having to drive a fair bit. The good thing is that, as all over Spain, Andalucía lives until late: shops and museums stay open until late, restaurants serve food until gone midnight so if you live like a Spaniard for a few days you can actually make your day last a lot longer.

Here is a tentative itinerary:

Day 1. Málaga-Granada (130 km). Land in Málaga and hire a car from the airport. Roads are pretty good and it’s very easy to get out from the airport and start your journey into Andalucia. If it’s only the two of you for a 1 week on-the-road-trip, pack light and rent a small size car (it will be cheaper and a lot more practical to move around in the narrow town streets). We used Sixth Car and we were happy with them, particularly because they didn’t charge the drop off fee for picking up in Málaga and returning in Barcelona (very useful if you plan to land/depart from different airports). In Granada, I stayed at Párraga Siete, a nice and very reasonable hotel downtown, a quick walk from the main sites. Just for being nosy, after eating in their restaurant, I had a look at the rooms of AC Palacio de Santa Paula and they were really nice and very well appointed; replacing an old convent, the setting is gorgeous with a beautiful courtyard where you can dine (during the warm season). Unfortunately when we visited it was raining so we couldn’t take advantage of the outdoor area but the meal and the service were spot on. Spend the afternoon walking Granada, visiting the historical centre with the majestic Cathedral, the Albaicín (declared World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 1994) and the Sacromonte neighbourhoods.

Day 2. Visit La Alhambra.

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View of the Alhambra and Sierra Nevada in the background.

I have been to this UNESCO heritage site 3 times in my life and every time it has been absolutely stunning, even when it was pouring with rain :-(. Don’t rush and take your time to visit the magnificent palaces and the gorgeous Generalife gardens. Book well ahead and remember: no matter what time of the year you book, La Alhambra will always be busy. Spring is probably the best time of the year to visit with the blossoming gardens. Even though Granada is only 1 hour drive to the coast, because of its proximity to the Sierra Nevada mountain and its height (738 metres above the sea level), it does get cool and breezy so come prepared.

Day 3. Granada-Cordoba (200 Km). A bit of a drive but Cordoba deserves of course a stopover. Spend the day visiting the stunning Mosque/Cathedral of Cordoba (access is free early in the morning)

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and its Patio de los Naranjos (Oranges Courtyard) and get lost in the beautiful white narrow streets of the historic town dotted with blossoming flower pots (Calleja de Las Flores).

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Walk over the Roman Bridge to get a good glimpse of the city. Cordoba is a mix of Arab, Christian and Jewish culture and it’s all reflected in its architecture, its people and its varied food. After a long day driving and visiting, treat yourself to a late Arab bath at Hammam Al Andalus. Your body will thank you! You can find this Arab bath in Granada as well, in case it can fit better with your journey plan (maybe after the visit to La Alhambra?). I tried the Granada one and it was excellent.

Day 4. Cordoba-Sevilla (140 km). Sevilla is a true gem so be prepared to be gobsmacked. Too hot in summer to be enjoyed (it’s the hottest major metropolitan area in Europe), it is a its best in Spring and Autumn.

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The Expo ’92 gave Sevilla a massive tourist push, making the city one of the most visited in Spain. Sevilla would probably need a full week to be appreciated and to enjoy its exciting night life  but if you’ve just got a day and half, concentrate yourself on the main sites. The Cathedral with the Giralda, the Alcazar and its gardens, Plaza de España, Metropol Parasol etc. You might be knackered by the afternoon, so get back to your hotel for an hour of proper siesta and go out to eat not early than 10 PM. It may sound far too late (especially for an English or an American) but if you want to get the atmosphere and the andaluz vibe, you have to make an effort and try to get used to their lifestyle.

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Late tapas
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Sevilla Cathedral

Day 5. On your 5th day, have a bit of a lay in and don’t hit the streets too early. Visit whatever you have left to do in Seville and then make sure you have a seat booked at La Casa de La Memoria for a flamenco show.

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Flamenco at Casa de la Memoria

The last time I visited Sevilla was in 2013 and I still remember how this show impressed me (I was literally in tears and goosebumps). Make sure to get there early, so you can get a good spot.

Day 6. Whatever you do next, it will depend on whether you are happy to do a bit more sightseeing or just want to relax for a couple of days on a beach before flying back. I choose the latter (since I had already visited Andalucía extensively and I needed to warm my bones a bit!) so I decided to head to a place called Caños de Meca. On our way down (it’s just over 2 hours from Sevilla), we stopped at El Puerto de Santa Maria, where we actually spent one night. Spain doesn’t get more Spanish then this…you will see.  Though I personally think it doesn’t require a 1 night stopover (especially if you have only 7 nights available), it’s particularly interesting for those Sherry lovers to visit the Osborne cellar and to get excellent fried fish (and more).

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Seafood at Romerijo

We had a quick lunch at Romerijo and unfortunately we couldn’t eat in one of the restaurant that I had bookmarked, El Faro del Puerto. It is supposed to be truly excellent so if you can book a table, do it! And then let me know how it was 😉

Caños de Meca is probably one of the strangest seaside locations that I have visited. Once land of big investments, it got stuck with the economic crisis that hit the world (and severely injured Spain… which has not recovered yet): plenty of buildings would need refurbishing, a lot of them looking abandoned, streets were not particularly clean when we visited…so, why going there?

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Because – out of season – it is an amazingly peaceful place with gorgeous long sandy beaches (don’t expect any sunbeds, as far as I remember), gorgeous views and a stunning coastline rich in vegetation (the Breña and Marismas del Barbate Park is the second largest coastal reserve in Andalucía). The water is amazingly clear, the beach was surprisingly empty (end of April) and the water was not too cold to allow us a couple of (brave!) good dips. When we got there, it truly felt like what Formentera used to be (see my full post on this amazing island): wild and peaceful. If you decide to visit Caños de Meca, be prepared to change your mindset (even though by now it should already be adjusted to the andaluz style!) 🙂 because you have just arrived in a very laid-back and easy-going town: here nobody will rush. Why rushing? Accommodation in town was generally quite basic; since it was a special occasion, we decided to stay at a place called La Breña, a few steps from the beach in a loft room with views of the Mediterranean sea. Their restaurant was very good as well (a kind of variation on the typical Spanish menus, still being very local) so I would recommend both the hotel and the restaurant. We were surprised by the lack of tourists (and very happy for that!) but the locals confirmed us that Caños de Meca does get jam-packed in summer and services that can’t cope with the amount of visitors. Therefore, I would strongly recommend to visit before/after peak season.

Day 7. Spend your full day on the beach. No need to give you any tips here, just chill out, enjoy the views, have a walk up to Trafalgar Lighthouse and then get back just on time for a drink watching the sunset.

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Sunset from La Brena hotel room

Day 8. If you are flying out from Málaga, allow plenty of time to get to the airport (at least 3 hours). Our sat nav didn’t work (or I didn’t put the destination properly… more likely) and we ended up racing like maniac down the country lanes (it felt wrong but we kept going until we realized it was very wrong). And we almost missed the flight…

Don’t fancy driving? You can do almost everything of the above (except Caños de Meca) using Spanish trains (Renfe) or buses. Spanish trains are reliable, relatively modern and save you the hassle (and the cost) of the car but of course you loose a bit in flexibility. From Málaga, you can reach by fast train Sevilla (2,30 h) and Córdoba (1 h) and Granada by bus in 1,30 h. Málaga is also 2,45 h from Madrid, therefore flying to Madrid and catching a train connecting to Málaga is an option too.


 

Of course you will have left Andalucía without seeing plenty of wonderful town and villages but you have got the excuse to come back. Málaga, Ronda, Antequera, Estepona, Cádiz, Baza caves…there is plenty more to come back and plenty more to write on!

 

 

 

Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach

Less than an hour from Jacksonville and very close to the border with Georgia, lies one of the top 10 U.S. island, at least according to Condé Nast Reader’s Choice Award. It’s a lovely small island with beautiful powdery sand dunes and a lovely Historic District (Fernandina Beach) busy with charming bed and breakfasts and yummy restaurants. It’s one of the few old towns in Florida that still retain its old charm (even though a bit touristy). Once arrived, it will not be difficult to find a nice Victorian Bed and Breakfast to spend a few days and feel like you are back in time. It gets very busy during weekends so if you are looking to stay in a particular B&B book well ahead to not be disappointed.

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For a while, we were even considering moving here and it’s not too difficult to imagine why: a short cycle from downtown Fernandina and you’ve reached a huge and vast beach, with soft white sand and beautiful properties facing the sea. Not a bad spot to live. There are plenty of accommodation options in the Historic District, most of them in a wonderfully kept Victorian style. If you are looking for something different (still Victorian but with a touch of modern) and wish to open your window to the ocean breeze, head to Elizabeth Point Lodge.

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Elizabeth Point Lodge, view from the beach

The place is absolutely gorgeous and has got some stunning views of the beach and the ocean. We didn’t stay here but we went in to see the rooms; in my view, the rooms facing the back of the property and the car park are nothing special but the ones with ocean view (for a premium, of course) could be well worth the investment.

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Fernandina Beach

Bear in mind that the great majority of restaurants are located in the Historic District so if you decide to stay on the beach you will have to drive or get a cab there. Food-wise, we decided to try España Restaurant and Tapas and were not disappointed: lovely outdoor garden, nice service and good food. If you have got a sweet tooth, have a look at Nana Teresa’s Bake Shop: their cakes and pies are absolutely D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S and I bet you will not leave empty-handed!  

Amelia Island is generally considered an upmarket destination (more than its neighbour St. Augustine) and that is reflected in the average night rate of the many B&Bs (and the 2 big resorts: Omni Plantation and Ritz-Carlton): you will struggle to find anything below 150/200$. For a cheaper accommodation, right in the heart of the “action” (bear in mind that Fernandina Beach is not a party town, though), try Florida House Inn: some of their rooms are quite small but definitely cheaper than many other B&Bs in town and they offer a very good and generous breakfast. It’s next door to The Green Turtle Tavern, which is a good spot for a few drinks and live music.

There is only one thing that may spoil this idyllic place: 2 big paper mills, and that’s exactly the reason why we decided against moving there. They will not have an impact on your stay though, since you will probably not even notice them. As for anything else in this world, plenty of people will say that there is no issue at all with them (plus, they give work to a lot of local people) but having to choose where to relocate, the last decision is mine, I suppose.

Having said this, Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach Historic town are a beautiful part of Florida, definitely worth a visit.