Voicing Irish concern

Photo: Tourism Concern
Photo: Tourism Concern

The Irish are famous worldwide for their sense of justice and human rights. During my travels, this is something that many people comment on and admire. One active conservationist company providing hiking holidays asked me to write about them recently, and requested specifically that I choose an Irish target audience, “We love Irish visitors” they told me, “as we don’t need to explain to them about leaving no trace as they go, or respecting farmers’ privacy. They don’t just barge into the countryside like gatecrashers at a party. They are always sensitive to local needs.” 

That is why I am urgently appealing to Irish tourists to support another organisation which has been striving to put a stop to exploitation through tourism for over twenty years now. This sense of justice and democracy, which the Irish tourist so often demonstrates abroad, is something the charity Tourism Concern has been actively campaigning for, for twenty years now. Like so many charities at the moment, it is struggling to survive and it recently announced that it won’t make it beyond the end of the year, unless it gets an urgent injection of funding. I have often referred to Tourism Concern in Ethical Traveller, because its work is unique. I have seen its Director, Tricia Barnett, in action at international conferences, taking on tourism ministers, multinational hotel chains and tour operators to put a stop to unethical practice. Consequently, they persuaded leading tour operators to adopt policies on labour conditions for hotels represented in their brochures with their Sun, Sand, Sea and Sweatshops campaign, and their Trekking Wrongs: Porter’s Rights campaign forced many international trekking companies to improve the lives of hundreds of porters and their families. It has also created huge international awareness of breaches of human rights in the name of tourism in Burma, put a hold on bulldozers which are wiping out local communities to build mega-resorts, and keeps up a constant awareness campaign on the horrors of the child sex tourism industry.


Tourism Concern has just put an urgent appeal out to the UK travel industry, where the charity is based. The appeal is called Tourism Concern 100, because it hopes that 100 travel companies will donate £1000 each in order to sustain the charity into the next decade. However, the Irish travel to many of the same destinations which Tourism Concern strives to protect, and also benefit from the ethical framework which it has put in place for us, so I wanted to share the appeal with you too.


I love writing about the ethical companies I come across on my travels, and giving them a voice. I am hoping that some of these will now offer a little bit back to the organisation which paved the way for exemplary ethical practice in tourism. Or perhaps some of those large businesses which have contacted me for advice on how to incorporate travel into their impressive Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies can offer support. Inform your employees of Tourism Concern’s campaigns, make a donation, or why not consider getting individual annual membership (only £24 or equivalent in Euros) for each employee who travels regularly for work? To become a member, see tourismconcern.org.uk or for a one-off donation, please go to www.justgiving.com/tourismconcern/donate.


 And if you are planning any international travel over the next year or so, I would always advise checking out Tourism Concern’s website or buying their superbly informative travel guidebook, Ethical Travel, which lists audited eco-accommodations in many destinations, as well as ethical tour operators to guide you when you are there. You can buy this on their website and, if you can also afford annual membership, then you will be doing your bit and flying the Irish flag of support for good ethical work in the way that we are so often proud to do.


An edited version of this article was first published in The Irish Times, 31/10/09







Launch of Clean Breaks, new green travel guide from Rough Guides

Clean_Breaks_FINAL_cover.inddSnow-shoeing in the Pyrenees, learning to dance in Rio, chilling in a Provençal treehouse, clubbing in Rotterdam or London… these are just a few of the  ‘Clean Breaks’ featured in this stunning new book from Rough Guides, which was launched 1st August 2009 – It is a comprehensive guide to unusual, alternative and incredible experiences that make a real difference to the local people and to the planet.

Travel and environment writers Richard Hammond and Jeremy Smith have hand-picked the world’s best hotels, tours, and activities run by people who are passionate about what they do, in an environmentally and socially responsible manner.
Whether you fancy diving, trekking, mountain-biking, staying in a gorgeous cottage or watching wildlife from a jungle lodge, taking a Clean Break doesn’t mean sacrificing style, adventure or quality.
As Richard and Jeremy explain, “In the same way that many of the world’s best chefs are those that use local, seasonal ingredients, it stands to reason that the most rewarding holidays are provided by those who really care for their local environment, its people, how their food is grown and the wildlife that surrounds them. These people make the best hosts and guides. Which is why Clean Breaks make the most fantastic holidays”.
Clean Breaks is organised by geographical region and includes suggestions for all pockets, from budget to luxury. Although you won’t fit it in your pocket, as it is pretty hefty, and more for the side of the bed, as you fall asleep dreaming of Scottish bothies, whale watching off the coast of West Cork, swimming in a Finnish lake, or crossing the Namibian desert. There is more than one for every night of the year, as they have given us a generous 500 places to see and things to do. Fab book, brilliantly researched, and makes me very green….with envy, that I didn’t write it, of course.


 For more information on Richard Hammond’s work, see his website www.greentraveller.co.uk




Clean Breaks: 500 New Ways To See The World
By Richard Hammond and Jeremy Smith
 ISBN 978-184836-0471, £18.99




The Mission, Vintage Vacations, The Isle of Wight

the-mission-iow-042_optThe founders of the Blackgang Mission on the Isle of Wight would not have approved of me. Within seconds of being in this recently converted hall, I had broken one of the Ten Commandments. Thou shall not covet. I was green with jealousy, wanting it not just for the weekend, but for my own home.


Vintage Vacations have pulled it off again.  On the island, they have already restored ten airstream caravans, a beach shack, and now this 1890’s corrugated iron Mission Hall, on the south coast near Chale. It was built to provide spiritual ‘care in the community’ and did so right up to the 1990’s. When it closed, the beneficiaries made the right decision, allowing Helen Carey and Frazer Cunningham of Vintage Vacations to take it over. With its new open plan design, revealing all the original wood-panelled walls, pitched ceiling and stained glass windows, you can feel the open, warm tradition of this building as soon as you enter.


Helen and Frazer have added their own ‘religious’ touches. As worshippers of all things kitsch and post-modern, this project must have been heaven. A huge white floor-to- ceiling cube is set into the centre of the hall, with narrow stairs leading up to two suspended double bedrooms. Each has a glass balcony, allowing you to take in the beauty of the hall, as well as all its natural light.  For anyone worried about privacy, this might not be the place for them, but I loved the sense of openness and transparency. the-mission-iow-008_optThere are two private rooms, however. One children’s room with bunks, quilted blankets, soft stripy sheets, and 50’s storybooks on the pillows. Another double room beside it, like all the bedrooms, is decorated with a collection of lovingly sought out vintage blankets, cushions and twee ornaments.


Fun is always at the heart of Vintage Vacation’s projects, and this is no exception, yet they still maintain the integrity of the building.  The original owners would have loved the giant wood-burning stove, a perfect focal point under the chandelier and stained glass window, as we lounged around on art deco red velour swivel chairs and black leather sofas. An old shop counter has drawers full of games, maps, CD’s (The Mission soundtrack of course) and DVD’s. Fluffiness is also a core theme here, with a vast white furry rug, feather boa wreathes, and a propensity for poodle paintings.


The spacious kitchen still has a church hall feel to it, with old wooden table and chairs, cream metal 30’s units full of china tea sets, pink glassware and funky coffee pots. Modern luxuries of a dishwasher and washing machine have thankfully been snuck in. They have also gone to town on the bathrooms, which are state-of-the-art five star gorgeousness. The sunken bath in place of the original baptismal font might not have made the preachers smile, but it worked for me.  


The Mission has a great pub and some of the country’s best coastal walks on the doorstep. I took an early morning walk up to the nearby St. Catherine’s oratory, to take in magnificent seascapes. An ancient place of prayer for those in danger at sea, it is still an extraordinarily peaceful place.  


Back at the hall, my hero husband had made Sunday breakfast. He too had found his spiritual home, with a breakfast hamper full of local sausages, bacon, eggs, home-made bread and jams, pre-ordered from The Real Island Food Company. Just as we sat down, snow started to fall. “Do you think we might be snowed in, Mum?” my son asked. I suggested we could try praying, but sadly my prayers weren’t answered and the ferry was bang on time. That’s what you get for breaking Commandments.  


(This article was first published in The Observer, 1st March 2009)

Vintage Vacations, Isle of Wight, www. vintagevacations.co.uk

Weekend stays from £395 and weekly stays between £700 and £1600 – for more photos click here

Getting there: SouthWest Trains to
Southampton (southwesttrains.co.uk), and Red Funnel ferry to Cowes (redfunnel.co.uk). Taxi or bus to The Mission.

To order great quality local food to be in the fridge on arrival, see realislandfood.co.uk


Huttopia campsites, France

huttopia07-0341They say that the three most stressful events in your life are moving house, getting divorced and loss of a loved one. But they forgot one thing. Going camping. Sometimes it feels like it’s up there with the big three.  I might as well be moving house with all the stuff I need to take. This alone is enough to put our marriage in the balance, never mind the potential to throttle one of my loved ones in the process. It takes me about two days to recover after finally getting the tent up.


But last year, we did it, loved it, and survived to tell the tale. All thanks to the genius behind Huttopia, an innovative eco-friendly campsite in Rambouillet, in the Yvelines region of northern France. We had already stayed in a wooden lodge at their Versailles site on a visit to Paris, where our neighbouring cream canvas tents made camping look almost romantic again.


Huttopia has worked out how to do camping sans stress, providing everything from bedding to bottle openers. Packing, what packing? Clothes, books, games and a few sandwiches for the journey. That was it. We even had room for kids’ bikes in the boot. So no bike carrier nonsense to up the stress levels at 6am on the morning of departure either. The ferry crossing was smooth, and the autoroutes traditionally traffic-free as we were staying north, rather than joining the rabble heading south on the Route du Soleil. 


But this was just the calm before the storm. The rain started about five kilometres outside Paris, and didn’t stop for five days. We arrived at a mud-filled campsite, our craved cream canvas still looking remarkably cream, however, in that way that probably only the French can do. It had been raining for days apparently, to the point where some people had packed up and gone home. Or joined the Route du Soleil.


Impossible though it may seem, the tent’s interior put smiles back on our faces very quickly. Because this is camping, Jean, but not as you know it. Despite the noise of humungous droplets of rain falling off the pine trees onto our canvas, providing a symphonia of drumming noises, everything was dry as a bone. Rain and camping were not a novelty to us, but dryness was.  huttopia07-011


These tents are huge, and joy of joys for my six feet plus husband, he could stand up. This sounds trite, but for those who have spent two weeks crouching under canvas, this changes everything. There are two bed sections, side by side, each concealed behind a thick dark green canvas curtain. You can remove the divide between sections if you are comfier having one big family sleeping area, but our boys were ecstatic to have their own room.. And mattresses. Proper mattresses, made of firm foam. Not air, not army, not yoga. The real thing, squidgy, warm and lifted off the ground on a raised wooden platform. Just to add to the five star-ness of it all, there are crisp laundered white sheets, pillowcases (on pillows, not a bundle of clothes under my neck), and beautiful big thick fleecy blankets to make our cocoons exquisitely cosy.


There are many little coups of brilliance in these exquisitely designed tents, which are called ‘Canadiennes’, because they are modelled on a Canadian design. The ‘bedrooms’ have solar powered lights which, despite the weather, provided plenty of light for reading and a nightlight for little ones. An expresso maker, the ones you twist and burn your hands on, as opposed to a machine (this is camping after all), a proper wooden dining table (one inside and out, so you don’t need to keep moving it), a fridge, a metal trunk to store all your clothes in, and  sweeping brushes for the dried mud.  Everything but the kitchen sink, of course. Unlike many campsites, washing your dishes, or yourselves,  is an extremely enjoyable ritual at Huttopia, with stylish wooden wash lodges,  ceramic (not grotty stainless steel) sinks, and proper showers, all decorated in  tasteful forest green shades, straight out of a Farrow and Ball catalogue.  


The rain did stop of course, just in time for us to have read all our books, and finish a few mammoth sessions of Monopoly. All tucked up on sofas in the cosy games room of the site’s wooden chalet, with wood-burning pizza oven constantly on the go, and kids bonding around the ‘babyfoot’, parents around the beer.


The Huttopia sites are carefully thought out. This one sits on the banks of a lake, which we cycled around daily, as it is only a few kilometres so fine for little legs (and the kids found it easy too). It is surrounded by the RambouilletForest, a vast expanse of oak and pine, with an excellent layout of cycling and hiking trails. Within huttopia07-061minutes’ walk of our tent, we had access to 200 000 hectares of forest with its richly biodiverse flora and fauna. Of the latter, deer and wild boar are most common, although they stayed well clear of all the happy little campers. A twenty minute easy cycle through woodland takes you to the town of Rambouillet. It is idyllically French, with plenty of boucheries and boulangeries to stock up on daily supplies. Spend a morning strolling round the chateau, lunch at the creperie, and then sip a glass of wine at the town square bar, watching the kids go round on the antique carousel, and you have to blink to remind yourself you aren’t in an arthouse movie.


Huttopia is the beautiful baby of one couple, Philippe and Celine Bossanne, whose ever-growing family has spread to five different sites in different corners of France.  They make every effort to respect their natural heritage, and have excellent eco-friendly practices in place. One of the most impressive is the natural swimming pool, which is filtered by sand and reedbeds. Not a hint of chemicals, and no stingy eyes at the end of the day.huttopia07-139 Getting past French bureaucracy to build this was a battle for the Bossannes, but they fought for what they believed in, and have now managed to change the law, making it easier for others to build eco-pools in future. Consequently, only this site and their new one in Senonches, have these pools to date. Another refreshing feature is that their sites are car-free, so the children were never off their bikes.


They invite their guests to follow the green path too, but not though lecturing and endless notices to recycle this or switch off that. The shop is full of local produce, and there are daily activities which take you out into the landscape. We signed up for the twilight nature trek through the forest. This was led by the manager of the nearby Espace Rambouillet, an enclosed section of the forest set up to educate and conserver this precious resource. He put us into two teams and, hoping that we had enough French between us, we headed off on a treasure hunt, finding clues concealed under leaves or in tree trunk hollows and filling in nature quiz questions as we went. We ended up walking for hours, making new friends en route and the kids racing the whole way round to see if they could be the winning team back to base. I couldn’t imagine that much enthusiasm if I had suggested a three hour walk in the woods to study nature, somehow.  


Funnily enough, our teammates on this nature trek have since become close friends and we are all going back to Huttopia again together this summer. Just to add to the Enid Blyton-ness of it all, we are not even taking the car this time.  Ferry, then train to Paris, a forty minute train ride to Rambouillet, and a stroll through the woods to our favourite pitch by the lake. We will hire bikes when we are there, and chill out for two whole weeks. Rain or shine, we are hooked on Huttopia, and camping converts for life.


Staying at Huttopia

Stay at Huttopia’s Rambouillet site in the Yvelines region, or at one of their other sites at Senonches, Font-Romeu, Rille or Versailles. At Rambouillet, you can take your own tent ( from €17.40 per night), rent a ready-to go ‘Canadienne’ tent (from €55 per night) or go for the more solid options of a wooden ‘Cabane’ (from €120 per night), or a wooden ‘Roulotte’ or caravan (from €85 per night). To book, see www.huttopia.com, and for the Rambouillet site tel: 00 33 1 30 41 07 34. For other sites, see website for details.

Go there

Overnight ferry from Rosslare to Le Havre, see www.ldlines.ie, from €79 one way for car and two passengers. Drive 200kms from Le Havre to Rambouillet or if you want to leave the car at home, catch a train from Le Havre to Paris (2.5 hours), change stations and then another 30 minutes to Rambouillet. Book this through Irish Rail’s European Reservations Tel:  01 703 1885 or email europeanrail@irishrail.ie. Or fly to Paris and take a train.

Where to eat and go if you’re in Rambouillet

Le Pradaud bar has a terrace overlooking Rambouillet’s town square and chateau. Unglamorous, so perfect for muddy camper, and right beside the town carousel.

Le Savoyard, 46, rue d’Angiviller, Tél. 01 34 83 35 77 brings a little bit of the Alpine tradition to the Yvelines region, with excellent fondue, raclette and superb regional wines to accompany the ideal outdoorsy meal, after a day of hiking and biking.

Visit L’Espace Rambouillet, a great family day out in this vast expanse of Rambouillet’s forest park, where you can see wild deer and boar, and dramatic falconry displays (From experience, hide your sandwiches during this).  See the forest at its finest from its ‘Odyssee Verte’ suspended walkway through the trees. See www.onf.fr/espaceramb. Just a ten minute cycle from the campsite.

(This article was first published in The Irish Times, 18 April 2009)