How do I find the words?….

WalrtweekI love the choice of words that Ron Mader, editor of Planeta.com, has used to guide us through this year’s Responsible Tourism Week, an online conference which was created by Ron himself. Every day he used a new theme, teaching us to be Attentive, Generous, Creative, Empathetic, Curious and Grateful  while immersing ourselves in the world of travel, whether we are hosts, guests, writers, photographers, publishers, tourist boards, activity providers etc.

I am always bowled over by the personalities I meet on my travel writing expeditions. They demonstrate the practice of these key words throughout every aspect of their businesses and so I am taking this opportunity to celebrate them. Please visit their websites, follow them on Twitter or Facebook, spread the word about them, and use them as case studies to inspire others to act the same way. Or, if they have businesses which are open to guests, just go visit them. They will all be glad to say hi, I am sure.

  1. Attentive – One of the most attentive people I know is Valere Tjolle, a UK based sustainable tourism consultant with Totem Tourism and Sustainable Travel editor at Travelmole. Anyone who has been lucky enough to meet and chat with Valere in detail about the issues of sustainable tourism will know that there are few more attentive people than him. He talks and writes about sustainable tourism in a way that steers clear of academic bluff, he has no hidden agendas, he has been working in tourism for long enough to see responsible tourism go from niche to norm, back to niche and then to a place which lies strangely in between the two. When hearing about worldwide tourism projects he is attentive to all the details, highlights them on Travelmole for all of us to read. He listens to everyone’s stories, asks all the right questions and pushes the envelope when questioning tourism leaders. His attentiveness means that many people, who wouldn’t normally be given one, have a voice. He has also decided to extend his already busy life into a tour operator business, just launched this week, bringing tourists to the wonderfully undiscovered region of Romagna in Italy . Still in its infancy, Watch this space , Best of Romagna,  for more details.

    Pembrokeshire coat path between St justinian's bay and Porth Clais
    Pembrokeshire coat path between St justinian’s bay and Porth Clais
  2. Generous –Having walked on The Wales Coast Path a lot, one of the most glorious long distance walking routes in UK, I was struck by the generosity of landowners who are happy to share their space with tourists. I stood on the Pembrokeshire coast after walking from headland to headland all day, looked out across the water and thought how amazing it would be to walk the whole coast of my native Ireland.  But sadly it isn’t possible, due to land access issues. This is the same in so many countries, but in Wales farmers and other land owners have opened up paths for walkers, albeit in exchange for a small remuneration, meaning that not only can you now walk the length of the coast of Wales, but around the whole country as the Coast Path now links up with the Offa’s Dyke Long Distance Trail which follows the inland border with England route for 285kms. All thanks to the generosity of strangers.

    Catherine's canoeing out to their beds at Echologia
    Catherine’s canoeing out to their beds at Echologia
  3. Creative – This is a tough one as creativity oozes from every project I visit, but I think Echologia in the Mayenne region of France wins my creative prize this year.Apart from their website, that is, which has a way to go, but I forgive them as they have put all their creative energy into their stupendous eco set up. The proper name is actually EcH20logia, because this extraordinary 70 hectare site revolves around water, ecology and lodgings, with three disused limestone quarries offering natural gems of a getaway now that their underground water sources have been allowed to seep back up to the brim again.  Poised in and around these teal coloured water holes are a collection of twenty different places to stay, from yurts spread across a wild meadow, tipis within diving distance of the natural reed filtered swimming pool, cabins poised among the trees which overhang the waters or two cabins which float serenely in the middle of one of the basins. And all the creative vision of a group of local men and women who wanted to bring this dead space back to life again. Their vision is Zen like, but not in a purist, whispering way. It’s just about chilling in nature really and their act of replacing a loud, industrial space with something so natural is worthy of praise.
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  4. Empathetic- This is a tough one, but when I get a room full of food producers and tourism providers who just thrive on local sourcing, I really start to feel the love. Connecting tourism with local producers is when responsible and ethical tourism starts to kick ass. There are so many tourism businesses which go the extra mile to ensure that they source their food locally, totally empathising with the farmer down the road and working hand in hand to create the most deliciously local experience. In Ireland,  John and Sally McKenna’s Guidebooks , Best Restaurants and Best Places to Stay not only capture all the flagships of local produce in Ireland, but are written with total empathy and love for everyone mentioned in the book. Organic Places to Stay website has a wonderful selection of places to stay all around the world, which use organic and local produce. I am totally in love with the small island site, Real Island Foods on the Isle of Wight just off the South coast of England, where you can order all your local produce before you arrive, so that it is waiting at your self-catering accommodation when you arrive. Surely a model to emulate in other small destinations? Other websites in the UK which promote the food of love include farmison.com which has a plethora of farm to fork food and bigbarn.co.uk which is a great short cut to finding local producers on your travels. Just enter a postcode to find your nearest market, farm shop, artisan producer etc. Please feel free to comment on this below if you have found similar food tourism networks around the world, so that I can spread the word, and provide the ultimate feast of tourist sites with local food at
    John and Sally McKenna's Guidebooks to Ireland
    John and Sally McKenna’s Guidebooks to Ireland

    their core

  5.    Curious – Well, I guess I have to come back to travel writers for this one.  The people who love to dig and delve, but who also put responsible tourism at the heart of their work. Twitter has been a wonderful way for all of us to communicate and share ideas, and so here is a shout out to some of my favourites. Gail Simmons  (@travelscribe)  writes about the Middle East with great wisdom and sensitivity and has been Highly Commended at the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards twice. She has introduced me to the wonders of Palestine and the exciting tourism developments happening at The Siraj Centre . Caroline Eden (@edentravels) works a lot in Asia and was also Highly Commended at the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards 2012. Matthew Teller is also rather brilliant on the Middle East, and is a wonderful commentator on Twitter too.  Kevin Rushby is The Explorer for The Guardian newspaper and he is, basically, just too cool for school and I am at my greenest when reading his work….with envy that is! Richard Hammond of the UK’s Green Traveller website wrote the green travel column in The Guardian for years and then went on to found his website, which features hundreds of green holiday ideas all of which are  accessible by train. He also has a writers’ blog on his site which he contributes to regularly as well as a team of other writers. Such as Paul Miles who lives on a houseboat and so no better man for writing about slow travel and slow living (@Travel_n_green), Rhiannon Batten – the author of Higher Ground: How to travel responsibly without roughing it, and also regular feature writer for The Guardian and The Independent in UK (@rhiannonbatten),  and Jeremy Smith who is former editor of The Ecologist magazine and starting to write a lot about wildlife conservation via his blog Fair Game and on Twitter @jmcsmith.
    The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane
    The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane

    Jini Reddy is one travel writer I would love to travel and work with one day. She just seems to sing from the same songsheet as me, as you can see just from her trip portfolio, which includes  a canoe trip along Botswana’s Selinda Spillway and taking tea with the women of Pakistan’s pagan Kalash tribe (@Jini_Reddy). And last, but not least, Leo Hickman, environment editor for The Guardian newspaper in the UK, who also wrote the wonderful book on responsible tourism – The Final Call. He is also very active on Twitter, so follow and fall in awe, like I do every time I read his fine pieces of journalism, such as this recent one on flying and climate change. And to conclude, the Saint of all travel scribes, Robert Macfarlane , whose books seem to glow on my bookshelves telling me to pick them up and read them again and again. If you haven’t treated yourself already, check out the ever curious compositions  of this extraordinary travel writer in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (2012), The Wild Places (2008) and Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003)

    Catherine, totally grateful to be walking in Jersey
    Catherine, totally grateful to be walking in Jersey
  6.   Grateful –Well, asI get to share Tweets,  cross paths and go on journeys with nearly all the above, who  else could be more grateful than me, of course?

 With thanks to Ron Mader and all the participants of #rtweek2013 and #rtyear2013, as well as all my fellow travellers.

 

The people I meet

Ben Rramat and Ben Longisa with Catherine in Masai Mara, Kenya

I remember pitching a column idea to some editors a few years ago, on one of those ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’ sort of days. It had the working title of ‘The People I Meet’.  My aim was to get human stories onto the travel pages and, in the process, create a consumer awareness of responsible tourism without labelling it such. So many people get uptight about terminology linked to the responsible tourism movement but my feeling is that, call it what you will, it always comes back to people. Predictably I received several polite ‘no thanks’ to the pitch, but the one which stood out was from a leading broadsheet which just said “We and our readers want to read about places, not people.  If you could get an interview with Richard Branson, however, we might run it”.

So, I put the idea to bed for a while, and in my own way, still try to incorporate the people I meet into my travel features. For example, Ben Llongisa, the Maasai elder whom I met a few years ago and who, against all odds, has created a lodge to host tourists in his village of Enkereri in Kenya ( see the video thanks to The Travel Foundation). I remember one of the editor’s arguments against ‘people stories’ was that they don’t sellholidays and, in an effort to keep their sponsors and advertisers happy, they need to talk about the place first and foremost. However, ever since leaving home at eighteen, it has so often been people who have lead me to a place, not effusive editorial or ‘on brand’ marketing campaigns. In fact, it was hearing a Maasai elder speak at WTM about how they just ‘needed a voice’ that made me want to go to Kenya in the first place.

Christine Kieffer, donkey conservationist and mountain guide shows us our route through The Alpes - to be led by one of her donkeys

Of course, I accept that not every traveller wants to holiday in order to ‘give people a voice’ or indeed, an ear. But I do believe that people’s stories do often influence our travel choices. The success of the much missed BBC Radio Four’s Excess Baggage or popular books such as A Year in Provence are simple examples of this.  Last year we had the honour of hosting Michel Awad in our home, the co-founder of the Siraj Center in Palestine, an interfaith, community based tourism initiative in Palestine, which runs walking and cycling holidays. Michel talked to us about his fascinating organisation, which works closely with the Palestinan Center for Rapprochement Between People, enabling them to partner with many grassroots organisations to discuss and act upon issues such as water distribution and, of course, changing tourists’ perceptions about Palestine. Palestine is now at the top of my list of places I hope to visit in the near future, not because of a PR pitch or an alluring article, but because I met a lovely person doing extraordinary work there.  I will certainly be needing  a people-phile editor to commission that one as the stories will, hopefully, be worthy of a weighty word count.

It was a great relief, therefore, that humans were being put back in the heart of tourism at the recent  Tourism Industry and Human Rights meeting in London, co-hosted by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and Tourism Concern . Speakers from the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, Water Aid, International Business Leaders Forum, Minority Rights Group, and the the International Labour Organisation (ILO) all agreed that human rights issues have been at the top of corporate agendas in other industry sectors for a long time now, and that tourism has a lot of catching up to do. Not for the want of trying, I am sure Tourism Concern wanted to shout out, the charity which has been putting people first for a long time now, and giving a voice to many people who wouldn’t have had a hope in hell of being heard in the past.

Zinaib, a Berber woman, teaches me the basics of weaving in Morocco

In other industries, speakers reminded us, the commercialisation of an industry needs to take into account all the costs involved and a true analysis of the social, or human cost should take place in tourism destinations as well. There was a lot of talk about UN Guiding Principles, endorsed in June 2011, which outline how States and businesses should implement the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework in order to better manage business and human rights challenges. So, do destinations which are marketing themselves for tourism protect their country from human rights abuses by travel companies, for example? Secondly, adhering to the corporate responsibility to respect human rights in all tourism activities, and then thirdly, providing greater access to victims to seek a remedy for any injuries resulting from human rights abuses.

The tourism industry was also being urged to get a system of due diligence in place quickly if they were to play ethical catch up. What are the country’s human rights risks, are you linked to them in any way, how transparent are you being about these risks, and do you have adequate remedies available when, as one human rights expert stated ‘ when bad things happen’ ?  Tourism businesses were being advised to ‘stop being the experts and go out and see what people think on the ground – not just once, but often, as human rights issues change all the time – and if you don’t engage you won’t know’. We are not just talking about the Burmas and Balis either here. This could involve child sex tourism in Eastern Europe, inhumane working conditions in the UK hospitality sector, or people displacement in Scotland in the name of a golf course.  And if, as a tourism organisation, you are super proactive in the area of remedying some of these issues, then these are stories you might want to shout about. And hopefully, if any editors out there don’t want to shy away from the human element in tourism, I can then share.

David Job, owner of Yarde Orchard eco bunkhouse and cafe on North Devon's Tarka Trail

By writing about people who are creating a force for change in tourism, we can not only assist them in seeking remedy, but we can also simply remind tourists that human beings and their homes are central to our holidays.  I stayed at a Cretan house a few years ago, and we invited our hosts in for a bottle of wine on the first night. A bottle of home made wine they had been kind enough to give us, by the way. In spite of our language barriers, we enjoyed the wine, more wine, songs, laughs and warmth. And then more wine. When we left, our host told us we were the first UK family in twenty years of hosting, to invite him and his family in. This is far from a human rights issue, but for that human, it was certainly a big issue. If it is this hard for us to even say ‘hi’ on holiday, then we have a long way to go before we hear the real stories behind the smiles. But, we have to start somewhere.

 

Do punters give a toss about responsible tourism?

Maasai villagers reading about their achievements in The Observer Photo: Tribal Voice Communications

‘Responsible tourism? Ha! Does that mean not dropping your litter as you walk through the rainforest?’ was the scathing reaction of a friend when I told her that I was taking on an Msc in Responsible Tourism Management six years ago. I tried somewhat pathetically to defend my tiny corner. Then, “I am so tired all of this f***king eco shit” one award winning travel writer said loudly in my direction a few years later at the ABTA convention, to a round of back patting and communal cackling from his peers. By then, I had learned to smile politely and walk on. But oh, how they laughed.

So, six years later, with one Masters degree, a modest pile of published work, three books, one app and an award, I am simply bemused to see they are still laughing.  Just this week  on Twitter, in an albeit humourous banter between fellow travel Tweeps, I posted something about Responsible Tourism Week, an online iniative happening 13-17 February 2012.  So why was I surprised to see the ensuant piss taking? “Apparently it’s Responsible Tourism Week soon. Personally I quite fancy an Irresponsible Tourism Week. Anyone else?!” one travel writer teased. “Isn’t every week an irresponsible tourism week?” another retorted. I retweeted and replied, “Speak for yourselves”  *still smiling*

However,  what surprises me most is that six years later, after a plethora of responsible tourism conferences, conventions and codes of practice, so many travel writers, not just travellers, still think it is amusing that our industry is ‘responsible’  for so much damage. As one Tweep put it, the term responsible “feels at odd with fun”. They still dismiss the responsible tourism movement as a bit of a whim, a green geeksville. A posse of party poopers even. They still don’t get the fact that the responsible tourism movement is about water inequity, human rights abuses, irrational use of natural resources, waste, pollution, commercialising culture, and so much more.  And why do they not know? Because so many of the responsible tourism issues and destination developments are debated in academic circles, at government or UN level or around the board tables of small, committed tour operators and agencies. And there is always one empty chair at these debates. That of the media. There will always be travel writers for whom a commission will come before a ‘cause’, of course, but there are so many who are still just simply in the dark where responsible tourism, ecotourism, green or sustainable tourism issues , call it what you will, are concerned.

Ireland Green Travel app by Catherine Mack

The reason ‘responsible tourism’ evolved as a term, is because, long before I started my studies,  many forward thinking individuals from around the globe recognised that we all have to take responsibility for the tourism industry. That is to say,  tour operators, tranport providers,  accommodation owners, tourists, governments, service providers, activity companies  and of course, the media. I completed my Masters degree with detailed research into  the UK travel media, and how responsible they were in their travel journalism. The research results were, not surprisingly, a bit grim. Some shone, however, and stood out as getting what sustainability in travel really meant. One editor commissioned me to write my first piece, as a result of my meeting with him to discuss the research, and so my writing career began. I remember thinking that if I could get all the editors around a table to debate the issues, with a view to spreading a social responsibility among travel writers, I would put myself out of a job, being a ‘specialist’ in this area. But that idea was never jumped upon, funnily enough, and then when I hear the jibes and jests emerge once again,  I realise that I still  have a few years’ work ahead of me

In the meantime, the challenge for me is to make a ‘responsible’  holiday sound fun, exciting or interesting enough to persuade a tourist to go on it, without making them feel they are sacrificing anything for the sake of being  more ‘responsible’. And then if both the readers and the editors can see that I am not the party pooper they presume me to be, I can start to throw in a few of the more urgent, if not life threatening issues which arise from irresponsible tourism in certain destinations.

 In response to the latest Tweet from a colleague on this subject this week, “Do punters give a toss?”, the business case for responsible tourism is already well documented. The rise of the ethical consumer is considerable, a growth trend which is surviving the global economic crisis. I guess what I give a toss about is getting the chance to write an article for a mainstream outlet about a small fishing village on County Mayo’s most remote coast, where a young group of fishermen are working to conserve their marine environment and community by creating an exemplary and exciting tourism business to keep them in their region.  A good article in a reputable media outlet could have them booked out for a season, allow them to get a loan for a new boat, and stop them emigrating from the area.

Spotting dolphins on the way home from a fishing trip in County Mayo Photo: www.dulra.ie

Or when I get to highlight the exploitation of the Maasai through reckless oversights on the parts of foreign-owned safari lodges, and promote their hard won sustainable enterprise which helps to provide schools and clean water. This beats any press junket, Facebook following or Klout rating. Or when I get even a handful of the 90% of visitors who travel by car around our National Parks to leave them at home, by showing them how to get their by train, and kayak, coasteer, walk or cycle when they get there, that is a good day’s work. And when one tiny Alpine business which has been fighting to stop the pollution caused by skiing in their region almost single handedly for the last ten years, gets put on the Sunday supplement map, then this is cooler than any award. One thing it isn’t is boring. And fun? Well, each to their own, but I am about to go ice skating across Sweden’s frozen lakes with exemplary responsible tourism company Nature Travels, which is fan  f***king eco-stastic in my book.  So, laugh away, and I will try to keep smiling. And then I will calmly keep on ‘worthying’.

 

 

Don’t let child abuse travel

Thai Police signing ECPAT's and The Body Shop's 'Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People' campaign petition Credit: ECPAT International

Most of us know that tourism is one of the biggest industries in the world.  However, travelling with the sole purpose of paying money for sex is also a form of tourism, and a multi-million dollar side of the industry it is too. And although these are not the type of economic benefits the world tourism industry boasts about as it develops across the globe, all sectors are set to benefit from it indirectly, including travel agents, hotels, airlines and taxis.

Less well known, however, is that over three million children are exploited for sex around the world. It was not surprising, therefore, that it was one of the topics being debated at last week’s United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s (UNWTO) International Congress on Ethics and Tourism in Madrid, which I attended along with 450 people working in tourism. One of the key speakers was Kathleen Speake, Executive Director of ECPAT International (ecpat.net), a global network of organisations and individuals working together for the elimination of child prostitution, child pornography and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes. Speake not only managed to astound us with her stats and strategies, but also enlisted many of Spain’s leading tourism companies to sign ECPAT’s Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism, an initiative funded by UNICEF and supported by the UNWTO.

The Code (www.thecode.org) is for companies which are willing to put ethics before profits and already has 1030 signatories in 42 countries. ECPAT is not just about Codes and empty words however. They run international campaigns, lobby local governments to increase policing and change policy and  lead training groups for hotel and other tourism related businesses around the world.

ECPAT’s influence has been significant. In Thailand, for example, there have been more and more prosecutions relating to child sex tourism offences. But it is still happening, and although many prostitutes will claim to be over eighteen, few sex tourists are going to ask for ID. The town of Pattaya, for example, is notorious for prostitution, and you only have to put ‘bachelor holidays Thailand’ into Google or Tripadvisor see that the industry is thriving. In Leo Hickman’s book The Final Call (Eden Project Books, 2008) a serious piece of investigative journalism into the dark sides of tourism, he describes a visit to Pattaya where he saw “men sitting around tables with boys who look as young as ten…it seems gut wrenchingly obvious what must be going on”. They are rarely caught in the act of paying for or having sex with a child, however, as they groom the children in these cafes, and then have them ‘delivered’ at a later stage to their room. As Hickman puts it, “this is child abuse made as easy as ordering a pizza’.

And yet Pattaya, is a town which marketing website gothailand.com promotes as “The ideal family holiday destination” in one paragraph, and a place where “Beer bars and g o-g o bars are dotted all along main roads and side ‘sois’ (streets), and have earned a dubious reputation for Pattaya, but also happens to be one of the main draw-cards” in the next. Thailand is not alone, of course, with ECPAT providing statistics on many countries around the world, such as Mexico’s 20,000 minors being estimated to be victims of prostitution, Kenya claiming to have as many as 30,000 girls aged from 12 to 14 being sexually exploited in hotels and private villas, and Moscow alone thought to have between 20,000 to 30,000 victimised children.

According to ECPAT, the majority of people exploiting children for sex purposes are not all defined as a ‘paedophile’ either, but more often as a ‘Situational Child Sex Tourist’, i.e. “someone who abuses children by way of experimentation or through the anonymity and impunity afforded by being a tourist. He or she does not have an exclusive sexual inclination for children”.

So, what can we do? Support ECPAT through donations, but also check www.thecode.org to see which companies have signed up and, more significantly perhaps, which ones haven’t. Accor Hotels (which includes Novotel, Mercure, Ibis and Sofitel) have worked with ECPAT for eleven years now, for example. If your hotel, airline, tour operator or travel agency has not signed up, then ask them why not. And most importantly, as confirmed by ECPAT’s website, report anything suspicious directly to them as well to a local authority if you can. This includes if you see a tourist sexually abusing a child, a person selling a child’s services (including a taxi driver, waiter, café owner etc), a tourist trying to buy a child for sexual exploitation and a hotel or travel company allowing it to take place. Child abuse has shocked us for many years at home, but now the time has come to ensure that we don’t let it travel.

An edited version of this article was published in The Irish Times, September 2011

 

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)