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.


Looking back at my top ten

Swimming in the Kornati National Park Croatia with Swimtrek Photo: Catherine Mack

As my four years of writing a regular column for The Irish Times comes to a close, I just wanted to share some of my favourites with you. In no particular order, these are some of my top trips and tips. Just click on the link to take you to the original article now republished here on the blog.

One of the most spectacular has to be the swimming holiday I did in Croatia, training for about four months so that I could swim from island to island every day, achieving 3-4 kms swims through Croatia’s magical aqua-maze. Outdoor swimming, and discovering travel in this slow, peaceful way has become a part of my life now, as I constantly crave another swimming holiday in the way others do about skiing.

The most challenging family holiday, and indeed the most memorable, was trekking across the Alpine Mercantour National Park in France with a donkey to carry our bags, and a few maps to guide us from auberge to gite. Feeling like the veritable Von Trapps by the time we had finished, this is pure, family time just walking and talking, cheering each other on when we faded, or dozing on mountain tops before a well earned descent.

Ireland is so full of green gems, it almost makes our emerald shine brighter. There were so many favourites to choose from that I had to put them all on a travel app, called Ireland Green Travel. Some which stand out in our memories  not only for being sustainable beacons, but also for giving that extra special something include Inis Meain Restaurant and Suites, a place so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes. Less chic but just as cool and copped on to  the responsible tourism movement are the yurt camps, Chleire Haven on Cape Clear and Teapot Lane on the Leitrim-Donegal borders. My kids took to horseriding in one of the most friendly and eco friendly riding centres, Slieve Aughty in East Galway, where the owner Esther encouraged us to look our horses in the eyes and talk gently to them, allowing the whole process of riding to be organic and natural.

On the water, there are two kayakers leading the way in greening our tourism industry in Ireland: Jim Kennedy of Atlantic Sea Kayaking, in West Cork, who took me on a stunning nature trip around the islands of West Cork, with some fab seaweed foraging and cooking to make this trip even more memorable. And Nathan Kingerlee of Outdoors Ireland in

Catherine's family trek across the Alps with a donkey Photo: Catherine Mack

Kerry who showed us Kerry from a kayak, miles away from any tourists into bits of Kerry we never knew existed. Not only does kayaking make me feel young again, these people are committed not only to conservation but also their communities. They also made me smile a lot. And for trips out on the water, one of the most innovative companies I have come across was Dulra Nature Tours in Belmullet, Mayo, who took us on a ‘Catch and Cook’ weekend, but with so many more surprises thrown in.
Two places in Galway will pull us back again and again, for the sheer friendliness and creativity. As well as their gobsmacking locations. Delphi Mountain Resort in Leenane is the place to bring your kids to be active. You can canoe, climb and surf with them, or you can just leave them to it and chill in the seaweed baths. You can stay in a budget dorm, or treat yourself to a luxury suite. Either way, Delphi is just too cool for school in my boys’ books.  And Ballynahinch Castle quite simply wins the crown of Connemara for so many reasons you just have to read the article to find out more. And then just book it.

Catherine and her sons on her travels in Connemara

I don’t fly very often, but sometimes it just has to be done. Grabbing a bit of sun once in a while is good for us all, but doing it in a green and gorgeous way, while reducing your carbon footprint while you are there, was made possible at the eco-chic Lanzarote Retreats, which we still pine for. And covering issues like the exploitation of the Maasai Mara in Kenya was a good reason for flying too. Spending time with the Maasai was eye opening to say the least. They are natural educators, open to different cultures, and innately generous. We had the honour of hosting one of the elders I met in our home a year after I met them, so that he could share his story with the tourism industry. I am sharing it here. Giving these honourable, dignified people a voice in tourism is what makes my job special, and so I would like to add this article to the list above, and hope it, like others, helps you change the way you travel in small ways.

In search of ‘The Other’

The view from a treehouse, at Perche dans Le Perche, France

Greeny holiday makers are grinning more than non-greenies, a recent holiday survey suggested. I am not sure what I’m meant to do with that information, except feel slightly smug about the fact that I might be contributing just a little to this holiday happiness factor.  It’s all a load of nonsense of course, because a person’s holiday experience is affected by so much more than their shower being heated by the sun, or their meals all being locally sourced. The simple fact is that the majority of people I have met who run green tourism businesses, are not only wholly committed to protecting the landscape they are trying to promote, and sustain their local community, but are also good people. Their passion is infectious, and they know how to live life.  They are also people who like to do things a little differently from the norm, and want to share some of that with visitors. And this is, for the most part, what lots of holiday makers are after. Something different from their everyday norm. What  philosophers call ‘The Other’.

So if you are after that ‘Other’, you are spoilt for choice out there. There are grinning greenies sleeping in treetops, tipis, boats, railway carriages and mud huts in some of the most fantastic locations around the world. There are converted containers at Cove Park in Scotland (, run by a charity offering residencies to artists. When they don’t have residencies, they hire  their self-catering turf rooved ‘Cubes’, overlooking Gare Lough,  to people passing through this stunning, remote hideaway on the West coast’s Rosneath peninsula.

Still in Scotland, you can join the Mountain Bothy Association (, a charity which looks after 100 remote stone shelters for hikers who want to lay their heads down for the night. They are totally basic, with no water, altough there is usually a fireplace, and a platform to lay out your sleeping bag. You don’t book, you don’t get a key, and just like the bears, you do it in the woods. Camping without the tent, really, and of course, you don’t pay.

On to warmer climes,  check out the wonderful treehouse I stayed in Normandy last year (www.perchedansleperche). This is all mod-cons, and showering in a tree is something you must try sometime. The best bit is getting a picnic breakfast delivered to your door, so you can enjoy flaskfuls of hot coffee, homemade bread, and other local delights, with infinite views over the surrounding hills. Staying in Normandy, you won’t get too chilly at the Earthship Perrine (, a glasshouse attached to a mound of earth, heated by solar thermal dynamics.  The pile of earth conceals hundreds of tyres, bottles, reclaimed wood, Sounds weird, but it is brilliant, and one of those places that

The shepherd's hut at Mandinam,

makes me think, ‘How come we all can’t live like this?’

If trains are your thing, check out the converted railway carriages from award-winning Welsh responsible tourism company, Under The Thatch. They did start putting people up ‘under the thatch’, and then developed the concept to a converted Edwardian railway carriage, a circus wagon, a romany caravan, and many more (

My two favourites for green quirkiness, however, take me back to the silence of the woods. In Sweden, you can stay in a forest hut based on the structure of a traditional charcoal maker’s hut. It looks like something children would construct in the woods, except they have fireplaces and a sleeping space, although the hardness of the ‘bed’ might not leave many greenies grinning in the morning ( On Vancouver Island, Canada, you will not be able to wipe the grin off yourself when you see the wooden spheres suspended in the canopy of Douglas firs in a private forest. This is arborial art at its finest and, even better, you can sleep in them. Aptly called Free Spirit Spheres, if you aren’t going to free it here, you aren’t going to do it anywhere (

Free Spirit Spheres

This article was first published in The Irish Times 22 August 2009. For more ideas on going in search of ‘The Other’, check out gorgeous book, Bed in a Tree, by Bettina Kowalewski,  published by DK Eyewitness Travel.

Disturbing the peace – Jet skis

If you are a keen sea swimmer on holiday, there is always a list of dangers to look out for: unpredictable currents, jellyfish, sea urchins and, at worst, sharks.  But few people point out one of the greatest dangers. Jet skis. On my recent swimming holiday in Croatia (click here to read the article) there was one particular piece of coastline where we were told by our instructors to hug the shore, as jet skiers often broke all codes of conduct at this location. They watched us, and the water, like hawks, but luckily it was early in the tourist season and still free of jet skis. This was much to the relief of one of my fellow swimmers, who had recently witnessed the tragic death of a friend when a jet skier collided with her when she was swimming.  Of course, the majority of jet skiers are just out for a bit of fun. But the fact is, they are very powerful machines. And bizarrely, most of them have no braking mechanism. With the exception of very recent models, they just cruise to a stop when you release the throttle. Not ideal in an emergency situation. There are also many rogue traders who overlook safety guidelines, renting them to inexperienced, and often young, people with only a few minutes’ training.

When riding a jet ski you are strongly advised to wear a wetsuit to prevent water impact on the body in the event of falling off at speed. Helmets are also recommended, and buoyancy aids are a must.  Most reputable companies recommend you go out with an instructor, using assigned lanes, and with the back up of a safety boat. You must also attach an engine stop lanyard to your wrist or buoyancy aid, a mechanism which shuts the engine off if you fall in.

If on holiday, you come across a jet ski hire company where such safety restrictions don’t exist, stay clear. Even an inflatable banana boat ride can be lethal, if riders don’t don helmets (to protect against head collisions when falling off at speed), or if the driver doesn’t have the emergency engine switch-off facility. I can just see my children rolling their eyes, as I say no to banana boats without a helmet, but the European Child Safety Alliance states that,  “Inflatable riders (banana boats, water tubes) should wear helmets and personal flotation devices at all times”.

The Irish Water Safety recommendations  reiterate most of this.  They also point out that “Wildlife may be vulnerable if disturbed”, advising jet skiers to stay clear of sensitive areas. But which marine areas aren’t sensitive? Nic Slocum, marine conservationist and founder of responsible whale watching company Whale Watch West Cork says,  “Given that sound travels faster and further in water, noise pollution represents an intrusive and, in some cases,  lethal addition to the range of challenges already faced by marine creatures, particularly those that use sound to communicate, find a mate and obtain food. Two of the most dangerous sources of noise pollution are high speed cruisers and jet skis.” He also points out that “slow moving marine mammals are unable to react quickly enough to a craft travelling, sometimes in excess of, 40mph”, which makes the risk of collision significant. Indeed, statistics show that the majority of jet ski fatalities are from collisions of one sort or another, not drowning. You can download the very useful  RNLI leaflet on jet ski safety here.

I am the first to protest against health and safety gone mad. But most of this is just common sense. So, when next on a beach holiday, I will obey those in the know and continue to swim close to the shoreline. n a recent day out on Mullaghmore, this is exactly what many of us swimmers were forced to do, as jet skiiers came far too close to comfort and ruined a lovely day out at the beach. So,  I don’t mind saying that when the first opportunity comes to support a total ban of jet skis, I’ll be right out there on the frontline, fighting for quieter, safer and cleaner waters.

This article was first published in The Irish Times 8 August 2009









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




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




Natural Retreats in Ireland

nrparknasillavilla1-2I love a man who does what I tell him. “You should open a Natural Retreats in Ireland”, I told Ewan Kearney, Director (and partner) of an  idyllic collection of sef-catering houses, situated in UK National Parks,  which look as if they were lifted off the set of Grand Designs. I stayed at their retreat hidden in the hills of the Yorkshire Dales last July. Their exquisitly eco-designed wooden houses,with sedum moss rooves, local food sourcing for client’s goody hampers, rainwater harvesting, are all just part of their exemplary, sustainable links with UK National Parks. Much to my surprise, less than a year later,Kearney has opened up five new Natural Retreats sites in Ireland ( This guy doesn’t let the green grass grow under his feet, that’s for sure.

Sadly I can take no credit. Natural Retreats had already been working with Irish tourism experts, to work out the best way to expand into Ireland and maintain their ethos of sustainability at the same time. They started looking at Irish National Park sites, with a view to replicating their already successful English product. And then the credit crunch hit. But this didn’t stop them, realising there was still room for Irish development. The answer was not to build from scratch, but team up with Irish businesses which already had high quality, environmentally sensitive, self-catering accomodation, and which were willing to find new uses and marketing outlets for them. The result is Natural Retreats luxury villas at Parknasilla (as photographed here), County Kerry, Adare Manor, County Limerick, Castlemartyr Resort in County Cork, The K Club in County Kildare and Kilronan Castle Estate in County Roscommon.

 I must admit, I was slightly disappointed when I heard that they hadn’t gone out on their own, and had teamed up with prestigious and pricey resorts. However, Kearney was quick to point out that it is a different world we are working in now, rightly saying “Sustainability is the single most important thing for us, and having access to beautiful areas like Parknasilla, for example, where there is already an excellent product, in a stunning location, which we could only dream of having access to, has been amazing!. There are endless activities here which allow visitors to interact with this stunning natural environment, as well as superb local produce to fill our hampers. This has meant we can all still do what we believe in, despite the challenges of this current economic climate”.


Natural Retreats’ empasis is always on local. At their new Irish sites, they have employed local site aerial-view-parknasilla-resortmanagers, for example, insisting they are people with excellent local knowledge, and a passion for the landscape, walking, riding, cycling etc. When they told their new partners that they wanted to provide food hampers, one of them voiced concern at not being able to get Yorkshire produce, not realising that when Natural Retreats say local, they really do mean local.

 So, if you want to retreat into the luxurious arms of this new ethical ‘blow-in’, check it out for yourself. Because sustainability is not just about renewables and recycling, it is also about saving what we already have, especially the good stuff, and just making it better. If more businesses combined forces like this to fight the crunch, and create more ethical, sustainable products, we would have a lot more to write home about when we get there. 

 (Article first published in The Irish Times, 25th July 2009)