The Maasai and Kenyan tourism

kenya07-058_optIt is not everyday I get the opportunity to sit under an Acacia tree in the middle of the Masai Mara, listening to Maasai men, women and children, discuss their future. The famous black dots of the Wildebeest are interspersed with the equally world renowned red robes of Kenya’s Maasai people, drifting across the Mara plains, to take part in today’s meeting under the tree.

 

I have been invited here by The Travel Foundation, a UK charity funded by leading tour operators. It runs sustainable tourism projects in popular tourism destinations such as Kenya. In January 2006, Dr Cheryl Mvula came to the Masai Mara on holiday, and decided to take a cultural tour of Enkereri, a Maasai village. She paid $20 and watched it being given to the village elders. After her tour, she was shown the women’s craft work, or ‘curios’ as they are sometimes called. But it was the curios that got Cheryl curious. The women appeared really desperate to sell, and she knew instinctively that there was something wrong with this picture. After all, her tour group had just given them $100, but there was not a lot to show for it.

 

A responsible tourism consultant who specialises in community development, it didn’t take long for Cheryl to investigate. One source inside a well known Kenyan tour operator told her, “When you are off looking at curios, your driver guide takes the money back from the elders. They leave them $4 out of the $100. That’s how it’s been working here for thirty years”.

 

But not anymore. Within weeks, Cheryl had received funding from The Travel Foundation to take on this exploitation and returned to Enkereri. She spent days and nights talking with the Maasai, who nominated two junior elders as representatives. Cheryl’s first question to Ben Rramet and Ben Longisa (now fondly referred to as Big Ben and Little Ben) was “Why did you put up with this exploitation for so long?” They told her that the driver guides, employed by tour operators, deserved the money because, as far as they were aware, the drivers had to ‘press gang’ visitors to come to the villages. “Tourists think we have typhoid and HIV, and are afraid to come here. But we need them to buy the curios”. Appalled by this lie, Cheryl showed them tourist brochures full of photos of their people telling them, “The Maasai are famous. People want to meet you, as long as you are happy for them to do so.” And this was the moment the Kenyan worm turned.

 

For the next year they worked together, learning about the workings of the tourist industry, business record keeping, banking, community development, health and hygiene, crafts development and marketing. The villagers’ hunger for knowledge and willingness to learn far outweighed any bitterness about the exploitation of the past. By May 2006, the work had stretched to four other villages, and the creation of the Mara Triangle Maasai Villages Association. Each village opened a bank account, nominated Finance, Tours and Marketing Managers and together they were ready to take on the big boys. They knocked on the doors of lodges and tour operators who, in the past, had turned a blind eye to the unethical practices.  The Maasai presented record books, showing visitor numbers being sent by each lodge, and proof of how much money was being given and taken back by their drivers. The lodges were no longer able to deny it. Big Ben told me, “We were not even allowed in through the gates before. Now we are sitting around the conference table doing business. It is wonderful”. 

 

Most of the lodges in the area are now using the Maasai’s new system. Tourists buy a $20 voucher from the lodge for a cultural visit to one of the villages (rotating visits to avoid favouring one village).  The drivers don’t have access to cash anymore, just their larger than average salaries for Kenya, and tips to boot.  At the end of the month, one hundred per cent of the tour money is lodged into the villages’ bank accounts.

 

Which is what brings me to be sitting under this tree in November 2007.  It is the Mara Triangle Maasai Villages Association’s first AGM. The two Bens and Cheryl present details of the Association’s progress in a year. This amounts to $43000 from tours alone, an 800 per cent increase in just a year. The applause and cheers must be heard all the way to the Serengeti. The men hold hands and smile proudly and the women translate to their excited children. Enkereri has extended its school and pays two teachers’ salaries. Each village has built a long drop toilet for visitors, with plans to build one for villagers. However, tradition dictates that this should be positioned in the privacy of the bush, at a distance from the village. Such hygiene improvements should help combat common illnesses such as diarrhoea.

 

Little Ben tells Cheryl that they are waiting for her to tell them what else to spend it on.  “This is your money. You decide”, she says and sends them off into their village groups to discuss it.  An hour later they return to the main tree and share their thoughts. There is a strong common thread of welfare and community. They want to build bore holes to gain access to clean water so the women don’t have to walk several kilometres to collect infected river water. Next on the wish list is more local schools, and college funds. They all agreed on a need to replace the current firewood  fuel system; “The women have to go further and further into the bush, risking attacks by elephants or lions”. I marveled at some of their business ideas like using cow dung as fuel, and possibly even supplying this to lodges. As their lives revolve around cattle, there is no shortage of resources. But I couldn’t help thinking that issues such as access to clean water is a basic human right, not something that they should be paying for out of tourism income.

 

The Maasai’s achievements in one year are awe inspiring, not to mention their strength, honesty and determination. But this is just the tip of the termite hill. There are still hundreds of Maasai being ripped off in Kenya. Cheryl plans to take this new system elsewhere, starting in the New Year with twenty villages in the Sekanani area of the Mara. This time she will be helped by two consultants contracted to lead workshops and set up systems. Enter the two Bens, now skilled facilitators in their own right.

 

Meanwhile, there are still thousands of tourists being lied to. As I returned to my lodge in the evening, I realise that many are not interested in the Maasai. Conversation starters are invariably, “Did you see anything exciting today?” “I saw a crocodile eat a wildebeest”, “How wonderful, I saw a cheetah maul a lion cub”. “I listened to the Maasai talk about having hearts full of pride and gratitude” was usually a conversation stopper. A retired insurance broker from the Shires proudly announced, “The Maasai get plenty from us, and still they are after our money. I don’t know how they live like that.  It is God’s gift to be born an Englishman”. I defended the Maasai’s intentions as being honourable, and explained that their traditional lifestyles were unique. He only became interested when I pointed out that ‘Englishmen’ were being lied to about the Maasai’s income. This made him put down his binoculars and listen.  

 

On my various visits to Maasai villages I heard the word “welcome” a thousand times. They take  visitors into their homes without judging, mistrusting or insulting them. Why can’t tourists do the same thing? Luckily, many visitors are more open minded than this. If you want to meet the Maasai, best to do so through one of the lodges in the Mara Triangle, or use a KATO tour operator, which signs up to the voucher system from January 2008. If you are travelling elsewhere in Kenya, don’t give cash to drivers for cultural tours and ask for proof of a transparent system. If none of this is possible, visit the villages anyway, but don’t give money to the elders until the end of your visit. That way the drivers can’t take it back from them again.  And when they thank you, just say “you’re welcome”. Because if anyone understands and practises the true meaning of this word, the Maasai do.

 
For more information on the work of The Travel Foundation see www.thetravelfoundation.org.uk

 

Catherine stayed at Olonana Camp, Masai Mara, one of Abercrombie and Kent’s Sanctuary Lodges, which is soon to subscribe to the Mara Triangle Maasai Villages Association’s visitor system. See www.abercrombiekent.com for details.

 

For information on Mara Triangle Maasai Villages Association, see www.katokenya.org or email: cdmvula@aol.com

This article was first published in The Observer, 11 May 2008

On the rails

catherine-and-louis-holyhead-london-train_optI used to hate travelling back home to Ireland at Christmas. A cold slow train from London, the Holyhead hall of hell and then, of course, the ferry.  Never a good start to the season of joy and goodwill. Then budget airlines were born onto us.  They cried “Oh come all ye faithful”, and we followed the star to far-off airports to guide us home, and all was well with the world.

 

Until I went and got me a conscience. My 2007 New Year’s resolution was to swap the plane for the train whenever possible. So far so good, until the impending Christmas trip home and the ghost of Christmas past reared its ugly head. It was hard enough when I was travelling alone, but now I have two young children. Just  as my finger hovered over the ‘check flights’ button, my eco-warrior son Louis reminded me, “No train no gain, Mum”. I had to have faith in the Virgin. Train that is. Not prepared to risk ruining Christmas, however, I did a test trip in September for my son’s birthday.

 

We got off to a bad start just booking the trip. It was a logistical nightmare until I discovered the wonderful SailRail agency. So I advise you to avoid all cyber conniptions and go straight to them, talk to helpful humans who tell you all you need to know and then actually book it for you.

 

We left London Euston at 9am and within minutes were lashing through luscious English countryside. We had reserved seats facing each other, and settled into our warm, comfortable nests for the four hour journey to Holyhead. A fellow Dub, travelling from Edinburgh, told me she no longer flies home. “It’s better for my head. I like to take time to think about where I am going, what I am going to do when I get there”. On this journey, we chatted, planned the birthday party, played cards and read. As he took in the sights, Louis asked “Why don’t grown ups look out the window Mum? Is it just a child thing?”  I looked at everyone wired to some device, determined to shut out the world around them, and switched off my mobile.

 

This was a direct train and soon after lunch (the sandwiches are almost gourmet compared to the processed cheese of yesteryear), the sea came into view. I kept a nervous eye on the waves which, despite the calm, were not enough to quell my memories, and I stuffed sea sickness remedies down all our throats. We arrived with plenty of time to board, and walked off the train into a clean and modern terminal. A Donegal man who makes the trip six times a year, told me, “It breaks my heart. We had all been begging for a new terminal for years. Now it’s here and it’s empty. It was a cattle market before, dirty and full of drunks”. Sounds like Stanstead on a bad day, I thought.

 

As we checked in our luggage, (no more hauling your bags around the boat), I didn’t have to remove shoes, belts, hand in bottles of water or expensive handcreams. And no queue.  We walked through a covered walkway to the boat and boarded the vast Irish Ferries’ Ulysses, with cinema, restaurant, shop and endless rows of comfy seats.  The waves were kind to us, and we all dozed off only to be woken by a cacophony of ringtones telling us were welcome to Ireland.

 

Up on deck, the site of the red and white chimneys as we coasted into Dublin, dead on time at 17.25, invited a round of the Irish rugby anthem from my boys, at gloriously full volume into the wind. It was one of those cosy ‘good to be home’ moments, which you definitely don’t get on the plane. Nor do you get home so easily. We had hired a car for the weekend, and Dan Dooley, the only rental company at Dublin port offers a ‘meet and greet’ service. We disembarked, had bags in hand five minutes later, hopped into the car (I tried to get a hybrid, but none available to date) and were home in time for the RTE news and cup of tea.  

 

After a successful weekend of partying, we sped off on the Catamaran at 9am Monday morning. My sons were the green ones this time, sick bags held tightly to their faces for the duration.  Luckily, the journey was quick and the minute we stopped they were right as rain, not hesitating to down a couple of Holyhead hot chocolates as we sat out the hour long wait for the train. This time the train had one change. At Crewe. An elderly Galway man announced, smiling, “Ah sure, I wouldn’t feel I’d been in Ireland if I didn’t have to change at Crewe”. It was a quick turnaround, and the waiting room was warmer and cleaner than I remembered. We got to London ahead of the rush hour, jumped on a tube, and were home in time, again, for tea.

 

One carbon calculator tells me that my rail/air family footprint would have been 1.31 tonnes, compared to 0.42 for rail/sail to Dublin. A significant difference. I do believe that our dependence on short haul flights has got out of hand. But my efforts to be a more responsible traveller have taught me one more thing. Time is of the essence. Taking more of it, that is. As we snuggled up on the last leg of the journey, told stories, played chess and, yes, just looked out the window, I vowed to book the Christmas trip as soon as we got home. The ghost had definitely, been put to rest.  

 

 

Catherine travelled with Virgin Trains, Arriva Trains and Irish Ferries. See www.arrivatrainswales.co.uk, www.virgintrains.co.uk and http://www.irishferries.com for details.

 

For Rail Sail Bookings from on any Irish route, see www.sailrail.co.uk, or phone UK number + 44 8450 755755.  Note, there is no Irish office, so you need to give ten days for postage of tickets.  Adult return sail/rail fares from £52 for adult and £13 for a child.

 

For ‘meet and greet’ car hire at Dublin port contact Dan Dooley, Tel: +353 62-53103 or see www.dan-dooley.ie

 

(This article appeared in Ireland’s Sunday Tribune, 28 October 2007)

 

 

Confessions of a tree lover

 catherine-climbing

People find solace in different places. For some the sea provides the necessary force to sweep away the pressures of everyday life.  Others escape to the remoteness and anonymity of islands, where comforts are close, but reality is kept a boat ride away.  I find tranquillity in trees. I spent my childhood climbing up to secret hideouts high in the Oaks and Cedars of an Irish boarding school. I have planted them to mark births and deaths of loved ones.  I covet my seventies copy of The Observer Book on Trees but still fail to recognise an ash from an elm in situ.  But let’s get one thing straight.  I have never, and will never, hug one. In fact, my relationship with trees is worryingly familiar. I love them but never quite understand them, I try to respect their space, not pull them down to my level, escape to their protective shelter at times of need and, and in the case of my kids, support them as they grow.  But I am just not huge on hugs.  Can you get tree counselling these days?  Maybe I just need a break.

Ten ways to branch out this summer:

  1. This is tree climbing, Jim, but not as we know it.  For those who like island getaways and trees, New Zealand arborist Paul McCathie has set up Goodleaf Tree Climbing Adventures on the Isle of Wight.  He sends a shiver of arborial amour down my spine when he says things like “Trees are amazing and I love being able to spend time in them. Everyone tends to get more interested in trees when they’re 20ft up in the foliage.”  Fitted with harnesses and hats, you are guided to the top of an ancient sixty foot oak tree.  Goodleaf gives a 5% reduction to climbers who leave the car at home, and use public transport, walk or cycle there. It also supports a local conservation charity as well as a forestry charity, Trees for Life. They will even lay on a picnic or birthday champagne treats if you fancy something special.  See www.goodleaf.co.uk.  Climbing costs £25 (children) and £35 (adults) for two and a half hours. Definitely worth a day trip to the island or see www.greenislandtourism.org for great information on green accommodation.
  2. Kadir’s Tree House Hotel in Olympus, Turkey, looks like a hurricane hit it. But that is its charm.  The wooden houses are perched up in the aromatic pines at the foot of the Taurus Mountains.  The rickety staircases have a ‘thrown together by Grandad’ feel about them, although this methodically constructed hang-out is run very much by the young.  It is one big tree party and with a veritable meze of activities from canoeing to rock-climbing, or a one mile forest walk to the sea, this is the perfect place to let out the tree lover within.   Prices from £8 pppn.  See www.kadirstreehouses.com for details
  3. A coppicing weekend sounds like and is a dirty weekend. Of sorts. Coppicing is more about separation aimed at survival.  Without getting heavy about it, coppice management is the cutting back of young trees, often hazel, in order to speed up their re-growth. The coppiced wood is then used to create woodland products such as charcoal or thatch.  It is a highly-skilled way of managing forests, and experienced coppicers are rare.  If you want to get down, dirty and coppice, you can book one of a variety of UK woodland management breaks with www.responsibletravel.com.  Prices start from £40 (2 days) to £250 (28 days) including food and accommodation.
  4. I warned you – first you are hugging it and next thing you know you are sleeping with it.   The Mighty Oak Tree Climbing Company in St. Columb Major, Cornwall not only guides you skilfully up the tree, you then have the option of staying up there for the night. Tree camping involves the use of tree boats, especially-designed four cornered hammocks suspended very safely up in the tree. There is no danger of a rockabye baby scenario as you are tied in at all times by rope and harness.  An early morning breakfast is sent up to you as you swing serenely to the sound of the Cornish dawn chorus. Tree camping and guided climbing session from £140.  For green travellers, nearest train station is Lostwithiel. See www.mighty-oak.co.uk
  5. How about a weekend bodging in Bath?  Leave the 21st century behind and escape to the peace and quiet of Cherry Wood, a sustainably managed woodland where its owner, experienced wood craftsman Tim Gatfield offers green woodcraft workshops. This refers to all of the traditional woodcrafts such as chair making, charcoal burning, and shelter building, which take us back hundreds of years. The main focus at Cherry Wood is bodging, or chair- making using ‘green’ or unseasoned wood, which has been cut only days before use.  From advanced green woodwork courses, to family woodland weekends, this is an opportunity to understand and enjoy wood and all its uses. You can camp on site, or there are a number of B&B’s nearby if the compost loo and earth oven is getting too close to tree hugging territory.  Family woodland weekends cost £145 for adults and £70 for children including lunch, plus £3 a night to pitch your tent. See www.cherrywoodproject.co.uk for details
  6. I watched a group of middle-aged business men going ape once in a forest in Norfolk.  All those helmets and harnesses, swinging and beating chests – Maybe this growing chain of tree adventure hangouts, cleverly named Go Ape! should be called Treestosterzone, with its maze of tree canopy walks, zip slides and boisterous boys toys.   Bravado soon gives in to concentration and fear as they take in the 40 ft drop to the forest floor. Luckily these activities do no damage to the trees, as Go Ape works hand in hand with arborists, and all structures are designed to allow trees to grow unrestricted and oh, no, just when I thought I was safe, they tell me “We even give them a cuddle from time to time”. Although all a little more ‘corporate’ and mass produced than Goodleaf or Mighty Oak,  This is a great day out for young and old (minimum age is 10 and maximum weight 130kg) and costs £20 (10-17 year olds) and £25 +18 years). The GoApe website provides a list of accommodation in or near the forests where they are located.  See www.goape.co.uk.
  7. You can support the important work of The Forestry Commission in the best way possible, by holidaying with them.  Hire a wooden cabin on the shores of Loch Lubnaig at the foot of Ben Ledi in Scotland’s Trossachs National Park and let yourself be engulfed by this dramatic landscape, so wonderfully preserved by your hosts. Forest rangers can guide you around or you can explore by foot, bike or horse. You can even listen to the night owls from your hot-tub. Cabins start from around £109 for a long weekend and £164 with hot-tub. You can also choose a cabin from other Forestry Commission sites in Cornwall or North Yorkshire.  See www.forestholidays.co.uk for more details
  8. If the only French you can remember is “Le Singe est dans l’arbre”, you might struggle here.  The Var region of the south of France, 70 per cent of which is forested with an immense range of species, is a tree lover’s heaven with enough guided walks to keep you there for weeks.   You can walk for miles with experts in charcoal making, bark stripping, chestnuts, mushrooms and other edible foraged delights, as well as moonlight walks to gain a greater understanding of French poets and their relationships with….trees.  Only in France. The brochure, Le Var, Balades Nature Accompagnées can be downloaded from www.tourismevar.com.
  9. Bewilderwood – A theme park with a difference in Norfolk. The theme is boggles and twiggles, characters from a book written by Tom Blofled, co-creator of this wonderful day out for children.  Set in ancient woodland on the family estate, this wooden play area takes children on a journey over suspended wooden bridges, through mazes constructed with reeds, and down giant slides accessed via rope ladders up to beautifully crafted tree houses.  Buy the book after your visit, and the memories of this magical day out stay with you all for ever. See www.bewilderwood.co.uk for details
  10. The National Trust still evokes images of being dragged out on a Sunday for a walk round a stately home and a ‘lovely bowl of soup, dear’.  But this year it celebrates forty years of working holidays, the first one being the restoration of the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal towpath in 1967.  The National Trust offers working weekends to all ages and depending on your interests you don’t even need to go near a stately home.  You might be glad of the soup though, after a day’s work clearing felled trees from the steep-sided wooded valleys of Hardcastle Crags in West Yorkshire.  This is one of the vast array of short (and long) energising breaks, and costs £40 including food and basecamp accommodation. See www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

(This article was first published in Metro, 13 August 2007, click here for details)

 

 

 

 

 

A greener shade of Wight

shack3Gone are the purple rinses, the Isle of Wight is the new black. Or should I say green. It surfs, it sculpts, it sings, and it’s shouts sustainability.  It was also the guts of a hundred quid to go there by car ferry on the weekend I wanted to travel, which certainly encouraged me to go green. It was cheaper to travel by train from London with a family railcard, and so began our pickings from a rich menu of green offerings on the Isle of Wight.    It even has a green tourism website with endless suggestions on how to enjoy this beautiful island without destroying what it has to offer.  A website which adds ‘chilling’ to its list of activities wins my green vote straight away and so we started as we meant to go on.

 

I booked a cute little beach shack a few miles from Cowes, booked bike hire through a company which delivers and collects wherever you want, in this case at the ferry terminal, studied cycle maps into the early hours and obsessed over five day weather forecasts.  One small backpack each, no packing the car with ‘stuff’, no stopping on the M25 to adjust our dodgy bike carrier, and no arguments over directions.  So far so chill.  Two and a half hours after leaving home, we were lashing across the Solent on the Red Funnel high speed jet. This is not the cheapest option, but it is only a twenty minute crossing and worth the look on my children’s faces as we took off. It was so fast, I was slightly concerned it wasn’t going to stop.  But we settled gently into the quay at West Cowes, where John, the bike guy, gave us our bikes and took our luggage, to be dropped to us later at the shack.  The Island is cyclist heaven. Just enough hills to push yourself, or your bike and tagged on four year old in my case, varied landscapes of coast, forests and estuarine marshes.  We took the coast road from Cowes, through Gurnard, up quite a few steep hills and, about forty five minutes later, down a dusty track to the sea, and our shack. dscf0169

 

The shack is a gloriously simple wooden summer house, painted in pastel blue and white, overlooking a buttercup filled meadow dipping down to a quiet sandy beach.  The children leapt onto the swingseat hanging from an oak tree in the garden and I had to blink twice to check I was not on the set of a Boden photo shoot.  Our dusty backpacks and sweaty trainers suddenly looked out of place among the collection of carefully chosen vintage bric a brac and funky fifties furniture. . But Helen, the owner with the enviable designer eye, is not precious about her vision – it is a place for having good old fashioned ‘Enid Blyton’ fun.  She leaves antique board games, binoculars and even a copy of the Famous Five itself, for sticky sandy hands to explore. With its solar powered lighting, no electricity, wood burning stove amply supplied with driftwood, composter, recycling, and environmentally friendly cleaning products provided, this ticks many of the green boxes. And the solar powered mobile charger is inspired.

 

A pre-ordered hamper of Island goodies awaited the hungry cyclists, enabling us to prepare a gastronomic evening picnic watching the sunset over the bay.  The menu included locally made organic pasta served with the Island Garlic Farm’s Confit de Tomates.  To drink, a chilled rosé from Rossiters Vineyard, and local apple juice.  The cheese course was a coup.  A blue cheese from the Isle of Wight cheese company which was recently awarded the Fortnum & Mason Best English cheese award 2007.  We finished off with cake and biscuits baked only a few miles away and the children used the, now nearly empty, canvas style bucket (ordered instead of traditional hamper, as it was easier for us to bring home) to collect driftwood. You can also order a splendid breakfast hamper, with local muesli, bacon, sausages and eggs. The strapline here should really be ‘fill before you chill’.

 

It would not be difficult to fill your days doing nothing at the shack.   Buckets, spades and fishing nets were provided, the boys cycled safely up and down the lane, chased butterflies across the meadow, and swam several times a day.  But I couldn’t resist some of the other Island activities on offer.  One day we took a two mile cycle to riding stables for the boys’ first horse riding experience. Hugo, my younger boy,  had been talking for weeks about riding on a white unicorn, so when Faye the farmer led the most perfect white pony towards a seldom silenced four year old, there was no explanation needed for why it didn’t have a horn sticking out of its head.  As far as he was concerned, his dream had come true.

 

There were many such highlights on this trip.  Putting coffee on to brew, and hopping down for an early morning swim watched only by onlooking oyster catchers and curlews.  Cycling in nearby Parkhurst Forest and spotting red squirrels.  Or shopping at the superb weekly Farmer’s Market in Newport, and picnicking along the offroad (and gloriously flat) Medina estuary cycle route nearby. But the big high was saved for last.  We took our final view of what had by now become our new favourite place in the world, from the top of a sixty foot ancient oak tree.  The Isle of Wight is one of a handful of places in the UK where you can go recreational tree climbing.  Guided by New Zealand arborist, Paul, who confesses he would rather preserve and climb trees than follow his original career path of cutting them down, we donned our harnesses and helmets, and I prayed for a head for heights. There was no reason to fear. In this remote field, located a few miles from East Cowes, Paul gave us detailed tuition in the art of tree climbing, mastering ropes and knots as well as a greater appreciation of the ancient gem which supported our weight throughout.  I watched Louis, my eight year old, climb gracefully from branch to branch, handling knots and carabeener clips like an expert.  louis-climbing It was like watching a dance performance as he climbed, then swayed, and finally swung gently upside down to a soundtrack of nothing but birdsong.  My climbing was more baboon than Bussell, but I finally caught up with my little elf lying high up in a tree hammock eating the chocolate eggs which awaited him.  We lay in the hammock together, swaying gently with the breeze and the world seemed to stop for a while.  Under Paul’s constant supervision, we absailed gently back to earth, where we landed on a picnic rug laid out for afternoon tea. Paul pointed out that the milk was from a farm only a mile away, and the homemade cakes from a local bakery.  I realised that people here don’t just promote Island produce because they have to, but because they are proud of it.  They have every right to be.

 

After three hours of climbing, absailing, chatting and eating, we headed back to the boat.  We locked our bikes by the jetty, and waited for our bags to be delivered back to us. They were running a bit late, stuck in traffic apparently, happily not something I had experienced in the last few days.  Nor was I worried about catching the boat as they run every half hour.  In fact, I realised that something had happened to the uptight London timekeeper in me.  I really didn’t care.  Or, as they say on the Isle of Wight, I had finally chilled.

 

Catherine and family travelled from London to Southampton with South West Trains, www.southwesttrains.co.uk, and to West Cowes with Red Funnel, see www.redfunnel.co.uk.

 

To stay at ‘The Shack’ see www.vintagevacations.co.uk.  Weekly stays from £375 and weekend stays from £175

 

Catherine hired bikes from Wight Cycle Hire.  Adult bikes £30 (children £20, Tags £15) for three days. Baggage collection free of charge. They deliver and collect from anywhere on the Island. See   www.wightcyclehire.co.uk

 

If you bring your own bikes, you can store or transport your luggage with www.bagtagiow.co.uk. £6 per bag

 

Micha the white ‘unicorn’ can be found at Romany Riding Stables, Porchfield, tel: 01983 525467. 

 

Order top hamper for treats on arrival from www.wighthamper.co.uk.

 

For the best ever trip to the treetops with Goodleaf, see www.goodleaf.co.uk – 2.5 hour climbing experience costs £25 for children and £35 for adults. 5% discount to anyone arriving by public transport, pushbike or by foot.

 

(This article was first published in The Observer, 10 June 2007)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pirate Queen’s Retreat

clareisland_gettyimagesjohnlawrence460 You couldn’t make it up.  An Irish sixteenth century chieftain and pirate who headed a fleet of 200 ships, fought against Queen Elizabeth 1, and, oh yes, was a woman.  Luckily, for the producers of Riverdance, it’s all true, with their swashbuckling rendition of The Pirate Queen about to open on Broadway.  The real Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley, took refuge from a frenzy of foes and eventually died on Clare Island, County Mayo in 1603. I chose to forgo the Broadway treatment of Irish history and embarked on a journey to find out why this Island offered her the perfect hideaway.

 

Although Clare Island is only three miles from the coast, it feels like a world away from the rest of booming Ireland. My fellow passengers on the O’Malley family-owned passenger ferry, The Island Princess, leaving from Roonagh, twenty miles outside Westport, are two burly fisherman, a priest and a sheepdog.  Community camaraderie hits you the minute you step on board but, quick to include the stranger, they enquired about my visit.  I was just about to launch into my Pirate Queen story, when urbanity kicked me in the stomach.  Literally.  Discovering the parrot rather than the pirate within, I was immediately sick as one, and managed to repeatedly spray the Princess’ deck. An O’Malley gent offered me tissues and water, saying “bit lumpy today isn’t it?” – I looked down to inspect the damage and realised he was describing the swell of the sea not my stomach.  

 

Twenty minutes later, I was relieved to be met at Clare Island quay by the B&B owner, Mrs. O’Malley’s daughter, who insisted on giving me a lift up the hill, although it is only a few minutes walk. We drove past the original O’Malley stronghold, now a derelict fort on a hill overlooking the harbour and sandy coves below.  We took one of the two Island roads, this one marked “To the lighthouse”, and the other “all other routes”, which should make for easy orienteering.  

 

If you haven’t left all notions of traditional tourist trimmings behind on deck, then now is the time.  Mrs. O’Malley was out, the key was in the door, so I was to help myself to tea, sit by the peat fire and make myself at home. This is when it hits you.  You really are sharing someone’s home.  To me, this Island is a hidden jewel of Ireland’s natural and cultural heritage.  To the O’Malleys, and the other families who open their homes to curious explorers, this is home. The kids’ toys lie around, and there is washing on the radiators, but there are always tea bags and soda bread for strangers. 

 

I struggled to leave the roaring fire and face the elements, continuing up the road to the lighthouse.  The three mile long road is tucked in at a safe enough distance from the rugged cliffs along the north coast of the Island, with views of the towering heights of Croagh Patrick on the mainland.  I passed only one car and a couple of cottages on this coastal walk and when it finally came into view I realised this is no ordinary lighthouse.  I had also heard it was vacant, and for sale, so I took a peak.  It houses two apartments, a main house and the original round tower. This architectural beauty has been used as a private home since it was decommissioned in 1965 and with its painted wooden floors, seven bedrooms and designer light fittings, I imagine it will make an amusing folly for one of Ireland’s many millionaires. Every islander I meet after this visit talks with sadness about losing the lighthouse.  They desperately want to keep it in the hands of the Islanders, and convert it into a hotel or tourist centre.  Not enough money in the heritage pot, they are told.  I can’t help wondering, where the plundering warrior is when they most need her.   

 

On my way back to the Quay I stop at Ballytoughey Loom, where Beth, the weaver, shows me her workshop and indeed, fruits of her loom. I want to buy everything.  The multicolour yarns donning the shelves of her cottage are spun so skilfully into scarves, bags, tablecloths, that I too am spun into some sort of Celtic craft overdrive.  This work would not be out of place in Liberty’s, but mass production is of no interest to Beth. How right she is, and how smug am I, besporting new designer scarf.

 

Next door, Ciara runs residential yoga and cookery courses. I was welcomed into the beautiful environmentally friendly wooden house with a cup of nettle tea, proudly presented (and picked) by the vegetarian cookery course visitors.  The date and apricot biscuits were enough to sell the course for my next visit.  Darkness comes muchoverlooking-clare-island-pier later in the west, and so I strolled back with a seven o’clock sunset and pondered the creative and entrepreneurial skills of these women.  The sixteenth century warrior has definitely left her feminist mark here.

 

Back at my O’Malley stronghold, Kathleen apologised for not having a hot dinner, but set out a salad big enough to feed an O’Malley fleet.  Washed down with tea, bread and butter, waves of nostalgia rushed over me.  It was only when the apple pie was presented that I realised I was reliving a weekend in my favourite auntie’s house. I even dared to ask her if I could wash and dry my one pair of jeans, as they were still recovering from the lumpy conditions.  “I’ll take care of that for you, no bother”, she said, and they were washed, ironed and placed on my pillow at bedtime, along with a packet of Sealegs.  This must be the Clare Island answer to the chocolate on the pillow, I thought – and smile at this act of quiet unassuming kindness.  

 

After Auntie Kathleen’s fuller than full Irish breakfast the next morning, I set out to explore “all other routes”.  The starting point was Grace’s fort down at the quay from where she commanded her private army and fleet of ships. It is hard to accept that this scene of feminist politics and battle tactics is now a neglected ruin. I walked for a few miles along the south coast’s rugged undulating landscape which rises to heights of 400 metres along the inland ridge. I stuck to the lowland and aimed for the O’Malley shop before rain hit.  And boy, does it hit.  I reached the shop just in time, only to be told by a local farmer, “the shop only opens for ten minutes after mass on a Saturday”.  I battled on to the medieval Abbey nearby, famous for Grace’s tomb.  But this was locked, and the only sign of O’Malleys was on the numerous headstones all around.

 

It was time to leave the dead O’Malleys behind and realise that Clare Island is a living monument.  If there are no tourist facilities, this is the choice of these private people. It is enough that they choose to share their precious island and lives with visitors.  I returned to the B&B after a few hours’ exhilarating walk through sunshine, wind, sleet, rain (and sun again) to find a note telling me to help myself to tea and a sandwich and that dinner would be about seven. There is no going hungry on this Island, that’s for sure. 

 

The ferry O’Malleys phoned with bad and good news. “Storms coming in tomorrow, so not looking good for the crossing.  The good news is that you are invited to ‘the party’ later.”  Kathleen handed me a torch, warning me to watch out for potholes if was taking to the roads after dark.   Strengthened by a roast dinner, and the party not starting until ten, I went in search of my own personal warrior within.  Back on the dark lighthouse road, it took a couple of miles for me to shed my city jumpiness, expecting hooded muggers to pop out from behind rocks any minute.   Finally I perched on a rock and switched off the torch.  The only noise was the wind, providing a cacophony of noise to underscore this scene of star studded perfection. Grace was right.  This is undoubtedly the perfect hideaway. 

 

Back at the quay, I was welcomed in to the warmth of ‘the party’, where almost a hundred people of all generations sang Happy Birthday to another O’Malley. Hot whisky in hand, I was told “Looks like the ferry might go after all”. I accepted another whisky, prayed for storms and one more day in this rainy paradise.   But these warrior O’Malleys don’t break their word, and we took on the rising swell at midday.  Any romantic notions about having found my own warrior within were shattered in minutes, as history repeated itself once more, all over the poor deck of the Island Princess. These white horses of Clew Bay might be wild, but they will never stop me from returning.

 

 Catherine flew to Knock airport with RyanAir and stayed at O’Malley’s B&B. Contact Kathleen O’Malley +353 9825945 or +353 86845 0022 .Rooms from €30 pppn, including full Irish breakfast.

For ferries to Clare Island and details on transfers to ferry see www.omalleyferries.com. Return crossing €15 for adults and €5 for children. 

For more details on Clare Island and other Irish islands, see www.clareisland.org and www.discoverireland.com

For details of Ballytoughey Loom and weaving workshops see www.clareisland.info/loom.  For yoga retreats and related courses see www.yogaretreats.ie

(This article was first published in The Observer, 8 April 2007)

 

 

 

 

 

All the magic of Paris without Mickey Mouse

copy-of-000_2145Don’t get mad, get even. That’s what I decided to do when my seven year old son came home from a friend’s house telling me that he had learned some French.  The Francophile in me beamed from ear to ear.  “Disneyland Pareeeees!” he announced proudly. This was not the time for a lecture on cultural globalisation.  It was time to show him one of the facts of life.  Paris is not made of glittering castles or run by big-eared mice. (I resist the urge to digress at this point).   But beating Disney isn’t easy – unless, like me, you have a child who loves his bike more than Bambi.  “How about coming to Paris with me for a couple of days, I asked?”  He beamed.  “But No Disney”, I added.  He frowned.  “How about we go on our bikes?” I proposed hesitantly.   He screamed.

 

You do have to pay an extra £20 per bike on Eurostar, but a promise is a promise.  (Borrow a Brompton and you take it for free, however).  Next is finding suitable accommodation for the would-be yellow shirts.  The school boys’ guidebook says that the only place to stay in Pareeeees this year is Davy Crockett’s ranch in, you guessed it, Disneyland. Huttopia, which sounds ironically like a Disney cartoon, is the perfect antidote.  We had already spent a summer holiday at their woodland haven in The Loire and now we were ready to sample their wooden chalets in a forest in Versailles. 

 

What a wonderful feeling to board a train in South London, cycle along the Thames from London Bridge to the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo and arrive at Gare du Nord in time for lunch. We resist the temptation to pop into Monsieur MacDonalds and keep going on the RER to Versailles.  This turns out to be the right decision, because when we get out at Porchfontaine, a small suburb of Versailles, there was the perfect Boulangerie and Charcuterie greeting us with open doors. The first French lesson of the day is to buy a baguette, jambon and bottle of rouge and little Louis braves his first “merci, Madame”  A few hours ago we were on a suburban London train, now we are cycling into a forest in Versailles, with baguette in pannier. Eat your heart out, Walt.

 

The wooden chalet is perfect, neatly nestled into the forest environment, and is better equipped inside than our own home.  I warm my out of condition cycling muscles by the wood burning stove and wait for the expresso maker to bubble on the gas one. Louis makes himself at home in his little mezzanine den with a cabanehuttopiaversaillessecret stock of those delicious French crisps while I set up our picnic on the decked terrace. This is a real campsite with ‘proper’ campers and tents, but I suffer no guilt here for taking the easy way out.  Cycling to Paris is one thing, but taking a tent and all the gear was out of the question.

Revived and rejoicing in this secret hideout, we jump back on our bikes in search of Louis’ namesake’s Chateau (and ice cream).  We didn’t get very far, though.  The campsite’s swimming pool was blue, shimmering and empty, with enough steam rising into the cooling September air to reassure me that it was heated.  I reminded myself that a swimming pool would always have taken precedence over a Chateau when I was seven and, after all, I had denied him Disneyland.  We dive in and amuse ourselves endlessly diving for the acorns which were starting to fall from the trees around the pool.

Dressed and back in the saddle, we are distracted by an intense game of boules between two ten year old French boys.  They ask Louis to join in, and shyly he agrees.  French lesson number two complete. Boules turns to table football, then to table tennis under the trees and as they run to the climbing frames I realise there is nothing to do but open that bottle of red.  I overhear, “Je m’appelle Louis” and raise a glass to the best French lesson in the world.

 

The Chateau is put on the long finger, but the day was not going to end singing songs around a campfire either. We sample the home-made delights of the campsite pizzeria, get back on the bikes determined to end the day in style. Dab hands at putting the bikes on and off the RER at this stage, we take a twenty minute journey following the Seine into the city centre.  Emerging from the station Champs de Mars at dusk, Louis is dumbstruck as we turn the corner and there it is, poised elegantly right over our heads.  The glorious Eiffel Tower must have held his silent smiling gaze for minutes. We lock the bikes, join the queue and decide to take the lift to the second floor.  Seeing any cityscape from a height, and at night, is always exciting.  But when the Eiffel Tower suddenly explodes into a cascade of white flashing lights, it is heart-stopping. Looking into the eyes of a loved one and seeing the reflections of this generous Parisian spectacle reminds me why this city seduces young and old. It was, I admit, a bit of a Disney moment.

 

And so to the confessional – we never made it to the Chateau de Versailles.  Cycling in the nearby forest, playing table tennis and boules became the dictating themes of this trip. On our last afternoon we took the bikes into Paris, and decided to explore by saddle. Bravo for a city that welcomes cyclists and closes several of its main arteries to traffic on Sundays.  This traffic-free initiative is aptly called “Paris respire” or “Paris breathes”.  We breathed in all the sites along the Seine, starting by the Louvre at the Quai de Tuileries, and continued down the Right Bank as far as, and imagine the excitement, Ile St. Louis for crepes.  The bells of Notre Dame invited us to Evensong, where we briefly did our Sunday bit, before hitting the Left Bank.  The art of free running or ‘parcours’ upstages the more traditional art in the Open Air Sculpture Park on Quai St. Bernard. We had our own private exhibition of athletic showmanship in this exquisite park before cycling the last few metres to Gare d’Austerlitz to take the RER back to the burbs of Versailles. Back at the cabin, wrapped up in blankets and drinking hot chocolate under the stars, Louis smiled and said, “Disneyland could never beat this, Mum”.  I knew I had got even.

 

As for the Chateau, it is, allegedly, round the corner.  Luckily, the Easter holidays are too and Cabane number three has our name on it.

 

 Catherine travelled with Eurostar Tel: 00 44 1 39 51 23 61 or www.eurostar.com.  Return journeys from £59 for an adult and £50 for a child, plus £20 for bikes.  To join the 500 cyclists who take over the streets of Paris for a night cycle on a regular basis, see www.parisrandovelo.com

 

 A wooden cabane at Huttopia Versailles costs from €99 to €159 per night. Huttopia re-opens 30 March after the winter break.  See www.huttopia.com for details.  Bike hire at Huttopia also available. For more information on cycle routes in Paris see www.rouelibre.fr

(This article was first published in The Observer, 4 March 2007)

 

 

See the world and help save it

(This article was first published in The Daily Telegraph, 30 December 2006)

bike-on-prvicThe clock strikes midnight, Champagne corks pop – Happy New Year! But then there are the dreaded resolutions, which usually mean giving something up or, worse still, taking something up… such as jogging. In 2007 I resolve to do something that will make me feel better about myself and which I can enjoy at the same time: travel. But this year I am going to be a responsible traveller. Here’s how:

Think before I click

I can spend hours making sure that most of my food purchases bear the Fair Trade label, but I buy a holiday at the touch of a “confirm purchase” button. The prospect of paradise on the cheap can tempt even the most well-meaning person.  This year I am going to give just a little more thought to how and where I am going. Taking time to research good practice versus bad practice, not just good beach versus bad beach, must surely make holiday hunting more inspiring.

One easy way is to use a travel company with a responsible tourism (RT) policy, such as Explore, Exodus, The Adventure Company, Responsibletravel.com and Tribes Travel. These and many other companies worth supporting can be found on the Responsible Travel Awards website at www.responsibletourismawards.info. Another good place to search is on the website of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (www.aito.com).

High-street travel outlets are also discovering the importance of RT. Many now support the work of the Travel Foundation, a pioneering British charity that initiates projects enabling people, particularly in rural areas, to contribute directly to tourism in their area. See www.thetravelfoundation.org.uk.

Ready to rail

If I own a railcard, then I have to use it. I love trains and they are still one of the least polluting forms of transport. For information on how to take a train to just about anywhere, see www.seat61.com.

Get offsetting

There is a lot of confusion about offsetting the carbon-dioxide emissions produced by aircraft, and this puts me off. I recently tried to offset a flight with Monarch, using its website link to ClimateCare, a well-known carbon offsetting company. The cost was about £5.50. Doing it directly through ClimateCare’s website cost me £1.40. ClimateCare’s explanation for this discrepancy was: “They [Monarch] assume a load factor, not 100 per cent occupancy. They also do not include non-CO2 ghgs, which is why the figures differ.”

ClimateCare recommends reducing carbon emissions rather than just offsetting them. I hope that this year the various bodies that represent the travel trade will come up with a framework on offsetting that we can all understand. Meanwhile, I will support Friends of the Earth, which funds research to provide the Government with accurate information on the subject. See www.foe.co.uk.

Down on the farm

Instead of just booking any old cottage for a romantic break, I will choose a farmstay. This gives a new meaning to the idea of a dirty weekend. More seriously, farmstays often support farmers in need of additional income and most offer the basics of cosy duvets and open fires. Some even have swimming pools and spas. For options in Britain and Ireland, see www.farmstayuk.co.uk, www.responsibletravel.com and www.greenbox.ie. For places abroad, do a search for ”agritourism”.

Hostels from heaven

Family weekends this year will involve lots of travelling by bike and staying in youth hostels. There are many good hostel options in Britain: you can stay in a mountain barn for a fiver or rent a whole hostel and have a party. One of my favourites is at Castle Hedingham in Essex, a creaky 16th-century house overlooking a Norman keep. The cycling charity www.sustrans.org and www.yha.org.uk are promoted to my favourites list and the invaluable International Youth Hostels Guide 2007 is a must.

Live like a local

I confess to hiding in a cosy comfort zone on holiday. I check in, find the nearest supermarket to get supplies, sit by the pool, find one restaurant I like and make it my holiday haunt. Keeping it local is the way to go, and not just “by the pool” local. Use local transport, language, shops, markets, bike hire, drink local wine, eat local food and use a local guide.

That sounds like a lot of work, but I caught the local bug last summer on a small family-owned campsite in France. They gave us a list of all the daily markets in the area, so we hired bikes and borrowed a map. I stepped out of my comfort zone into a world of camp cooking.

One night we cooked fresh mussels, ratatouille and a bit of French fish (delicious, but I still have no idea what it was). We bought meat at a local organic farm, and a nearby château had enough orchards and vineyards to supply all our drinking requirements. I love the endless hypermarket aisles of Merlots, mustards and Madeleines as much as most people, but these ventures into local life are top holiday memories. Camp with the locals at www.huttopia.com.

Home from home

Many travel companies offer the option of staying with a family in their home. This way, the money goes straight to where it ought to. You pay the family for a bed, they serve locally grown or sourced food and everyone is happy. However, I do feel a little uneasy about those travel itineraries offering a list of activities such as abseiling, safari, and one night with a local family. A family should not be seen as just another tourist attraction. I think I’ll have to do it properly and stay for a few nights – if they’ll have me, that is. Do a search on “homestay” and the destination you want to visit, or see www.responsibletravel.com for recommendations.

Mobile-free

I am not resolving to achieve world peace, but I do like to find inner peace on holiday. So this year I am leaving all gadgets at home, and switching off the phone. A recent two-day train journey to Spain was the perfect try-out. No iPod, no laptop and nothing to distract me from my journey through mountains and olive groves. It was the most relaxing two days in a long time. For those who want to go cold turkey, the Adventure Company has 37 mobile-phone-free holidays in its 2007/08 programme. That really has a top-notch New Year’s resolution ringtone to it. See www.adventureholiday.co.uk for further details.

Enjoy myself

I am not going to feel bad about travelling in 2007. I am just going to do it better and give more thought to the world I want to see more of. It’s a long way up to that moral high ground, but it still beats taking up jogging.

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