Once upon a time on the Wight

Glistening red apples... Copyright: Catherine Mack

Glistening red apples have always been symbolically tempting. Snow White was lured, they got Adam and Eve into big trouble, and in ancient Norse mythology they were seen as providing eternal youth. Whatever their powers, there are thousands of them here, lining the path to our gleaming white yurt, tucked away in a corner of this burgeoning  orchard, like a red carpet to a palace. Camping? Not as we know it, Jim.

We are met on arrival by Anthony, who co-owns The Really Green Holiday Company with his partner Alison, creating this glamping gem on land they lease from Afton Park Orchard.  He leads us down the red carpet to our yurt, and opens the wooden door into our ongoing storybook world. Because a yurt resembles a theatrical space, with its raised wooden floor, perfectly lit by natural light seeping in through the (covered), transparent hole in the ceiling, its canvas backdrop stretched over a circular frame, almost resembling a model of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre itself.

These yurts have been beautifully furnished with recycled antiques and bric a brac. But most important for glampers, there are beds. Proper beds. An old mahogany frame for us, and a double futon for our two boys. After endless ‘normal’ camping breaks, our two boys, aged seven and ten, can’t resist a bit of bouncing. “They’re real mattresses, Mum!”  Not air, not army, not yoga, and just to add to the five star-ness of it all, there are crisp (and ironed, I notice) white sheets and eiderdowns to make our cocoons exquisitely cosy.

Copyright: Catherine Mack

Although I am a lover of real camping, wild camping even, I must admit that this bit of luxury is like a naughty, but more than nice, treat. Indeed, it feels almost opulent putting a match to the yurt’s preset stove, creating a homely atmosphere which is nigh on impossible in our tent. After leaving us to bask in the gorgeous glow of it all for a while, Anthony then shows us the inner workings of the campsite. Unlike most campsites, there is lots of room between us and our neighbours (although we are close enough for me to spot that they have a four poster bed in their palace). There is a proper solid table and chairs outside the yurt, and a cleverly designed brazier cum barbecue for cooking, or just keeping us warm. There is an ample supply of wood, all from sustainable island sources, and constantly stocked up by Anthony and Alison.

However, glam is quickly upstaged by green, as we continue to explore. There may be sheets and stoves, but if you are looking for shower blocks and sockets, that is where the luxury ends. Like so many places I have already visited on the island, and one of the main reasons I keep coming back for more and more, The Really Green Holiday Company does exactly what it says on the tin. First of all, this is a precious working orchard, with 150 trees to be nurtured, and also, this stunning coastal area of the western end of the island is protected, officially known as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Consequently, the orchard is totally off-grid.  No electricity, gas, sewers, or mains water (although there is a little onsite water, just in limited supplies).

The loos are compost, and function with a brilliant barrel system, which is turned regularly to speed up the composting action. Using the loo is far from glam and takes a bit of getting used to, but the kids are totally enthralled as Anthony explains how they work. With steps up to their wooden huts, they remind me of the Granddad in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, who gets carried up into the air while going through the motions in his wooden hut; “Maybe that’s why they called it ‘Chitty’ Mum,“ my younger son announces loudly to the amusement of all the nearby happy campers.

The shower is also pure and simple, powered by solar and, when the sun lets you down, there is a wood burner underneath to get the water sizzling again. The grey water from the shower goes into barrels, then used for watering the trees around us. There are buckets of water to wash hands, using rainwater from butts, and eco-friendly products everywhere to protect the immediate environs.

Copyright: Catherine Mack

The campsite revolves around a communal dome tent, used for cooking and eating when it gets wet. There are some Calor Gas cookers, and flasks full of hot water for a quick coffee to get the sand out of the eyes in the morning. Just as Anthony is showing us the workings of the dome, the clouds over Freshwater open like they haven’t all summer. We all look up as the dome roof lifts into one big arc, a gale force kicking in with wild abandon. Anthony looks at the water seeping in under foot, totally unperturbed. A little more concerned, wondering if our storybook adventure is about to segue into an Oz-like tornado, we excuse ourselves and rush back to the safety of our yurt. With the comfort of the wood burning stove, cuddled up under duvets, we stare up through the now black hole at the clouds swooping in like the wicked witch herself, spookily backlit by the moon.  The canvas is shaking, and the apple tree branches cast shadows everywhere. However, after a few marshmallows toasted over the fire, and hot chocolate heated on the stove, all is good in the land of yurt, soon transformed to a sumptuous land of nod.

Morning comes and, as if following a script, the sun is shining, skies are blue, and the dome tent is still there. Anthony is up a ladder mending a couple of tears, the kettle is on, and people gather round the dome to compare storm survival notes. I couldn’t help thinking of some of the clifftop campers nearby, some of whom must have had to pack up in the middle of the night, and take refuge in cars. Glamping is stormproof, that’s for sure.

After a typically slow start to the day, one of the best things about camping in my view, we stroll down toFreshwaterBay, just a ten minute walk through woodland. The waves are still too high for swimming with the boys, despite clearer skies, and gentle paddling leads to general drenching. We head back to the yurt to dry off and for lunch, and shopping is made easy with the onsite Afton Park Farm Shop. Within a few minutes we  stock up with chicken fillets, mushrooms, crème fraiche and onions, all from local farms. I realise that we are now becoming galloping, glamping gourmets. None of your baked beans here.

Paul and Michaela Heathcote, who own this fab farm shop and orchard, are also rare breed specialists and have de-camped a few favourites from their nearby farm to graze in the field beside the orchard. Even the animals are posh here, I think, such as Mayzie, an Irish moiled calf, one of only 400 females left worldwide, and Matt, a Wensleydale sheep, of which there are only a thousand left worldwide. Don’t get too attached though, as some of their relatives are available in the shop, and you won’t taste a better sausage on the barbeque than theirs. Combined with their new co-venture, whereby their café is transformed into a superb evening restaurant, run by a budding local chef, AftonPark has to be one of the most impressive examples of rural diversification I have come across on my travels.

Superb lunch at Briddlesford Farm Bluebells cafe, isle of Wightmy travels.

We finish our stay at the yurts with just one more bit of magic, taking place, rather aptly, up a tree. But this time, an ancient oak tree. Anthony recommends an outing with Goodleaf, a local recreational treeclimbing company. Over a period of two and a half hours, trained arborist Paul McCathie, teaches us how to use harnesses, carabiners, ropes and knots, as well as climbing and abseiling techniques, and then leads us gently up into the branches of a sixty foot oak. My sons dance like nymphs from branch to branch, while I slowly heave my way feeling more like the giant trying to get back up the beanstalk. When I reach my first big branch I dare to look down at Paul smiling below, breathe in the smell of the branches, and realise that I haven’t contemplated a fear of heights for a second. There is something about the slow pace of climbing this magnificent natural structure, which helps conquer your fears, and its canopy. And in terms of thrills, my kids say it beats any roller coaster ride.

This exhilarating treeclimbing experience is undoubtedly the perfect closing chapter to our storybook weekend, which draws to a close much quicker than we want it to. However, as we close the door for our last night under the stars, and lie down to take in the ever-changing night sky drifting over our heads, we vow to come again, and raise our hot chocolates in a mutual toast to glamping happily ever after.

For more details of the yurts at Freshwater Bay, see www.thereallygreenholidaycompany.com, weekend hire from £220. For details of the orchard, farm shop and restaurant, see www.aftonpark.co.uk.

 Five things for glampers to gloat over on the Isle of Wight:

  • Isle of Wight Sea KayakingShimmy in off the beach at Freshwater Bay, straight into the waves and around the coast, depending
    Catherine and children sea Kayaking in Freshwater Bay Photo: Catherine Mack

    on your ability, confidence, and the weather. With a bit of experience you can take trips to caves, sea stacks, off-shore Napoleonic forts and otherwise inaccessible beaches. Fantastic family half day offers from £45.

  • Walk the Coastal Path – With just over 100kms of brilliantly maintained coastal walking paths, this has to be the best way to discover the island. For details of all walking routes, as well as the annual Isle of Wight Walking Festival in May, www.islandbreaks.co.uk have great maps of each route, and, very cool indeed, details of companies which offer a bargain bag collection service to move your bags from one accommodation to another as you head there by foot.
  • From field to fork – You will have the perfect glamping experience if you stock up your barbeque with some of the superb range of the island’s local produce by seeking out some of the local farm shops. My favourites include Bluebells at Briddlesford Farm, Wooton, which also has a superb restaurant, Kings Manor Farm, and of course, The Garlic Farm, near Newchurch. Or even more impressive, order in advance to be delivered to your yurt, with inspired local food delivery company, The Real Island Food Company.
  • Robin Hill Countryside Adventure Park, which successfully combines a fun park and rides to suit all ages, with 35 hectares of
    Catherine's husband and son treeclimbing with Goodleaf Copyright: Catherine Mack

    countryside, including nature trails, sculpture parks and falconry displays.

  • Goodleaf Tree Climbing – For the best ever trip to the treetops with expert recreational treeclimber Paul McCathie. A two and a half hour climbing experience costs £25 for children and £35 for adults, including equipment, tuition and tea and cakes.  This very green company also offers 5% discount to anyone arriving by public transport, pushbike or foot
  • For up to date information on all things cool and green on the Isle of Wight check out my favourite blogs, My Isle of Wight, and Ventnor Blog.This article was first published in Island Visitor Magazine, Summer 2011


Coastal walk Steephill Cove into Ventnor, approaching Ventnor Copyright: Catherine Mack

Canopy and (five) stars

The Gypsy Camp, Essex Photo: Canopy and Stars

You know that feeling when you first open a box of Green and Black’s chocolates? Butterscotch is better than…Ok, let’s not go there. Well, when I first went on Canopy and Stars website, it had the same impact really. Each web page unwrapped a delicious, quirky place to stay,and  the choice almost overwhelming. Which is why I have invited them to write a guest blog, featuring places which are all accessible by public transport of one sort or another. I am all for leaving the car at home, so hopefully these places will inspire you to do the same. And after all those chocolates, it is best for me to get walking, cycling, canoeing there anyway. Over to the gang who created it…

Canopy and Stars.


“Holidays are great. Getting there… less so. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to stop at the M&S at the service station. You might even have a really good mix CD…

But it doesn’t have to be like that! Canopy & Stars, the leading new glamping company, is encouraging you to leave the car at home, and make your journey part of the fun! To get you started, here is a selection of unusual places that can be reached by unusual means…

The Gypsy Camp , Essex – where two Romany bowtop caravans lie between the apple trees in a private orchard – is connected to central London by the National Cycle Network, so you can cycle all the way there from ‘town. Or, if you don’t fancy propelling yourself, you can catch the train and arrange for Ann, the owner and creator of this rural gem, to pick you up in her pony and trap from Wickham Bishops, a short bus ride from Witham Station.

Millstream Camp, Shropshire – To reach this hideaway under the stars, you can take the single track line to Bucknell, a rural station so tiny the train will only stop if you ask the driver.  Let Carolyn know and she can arrange to have two bicycles waiting for you on the platform. Then it’s just a three miles down quiet Shropshire country lanes to the Millstream Camp, where a homely shepherd hut just for two awaits you. You can even cool off after your journey with a dip in the dammed Millstream.

A stable by the shore at Lochhouses Photo: Canopy and Stars

If you have access to a noble steed, you can gallop along the beach right up to the Lochhouses Safari Tents near Edinburgh, and stable your horse there, too! If you don’t have your own horse, don’t worry! Trains from Edinburgh Waverley to North Berwick take about half an hour, and there’s a trekking centre next door, so you can still go riding on the beach.

A ‘post bus’ sets off daily at 3pm from Llandovery, Dyfed (where the railway station is) and goes right to the bottom of the drive of The Cabin – a cosy octagonal space in the lush Cambrian mountains. If you can’t be bothered with all the stopping and starting as they pick up the post, you can always hire a mountain bike from the station (a very reasonable £3.50 a day) and cycle there.

The Mollycroft, a retired showman’s wagon, is less than a mile from the Coast to Coast walk, so an excellent place to stop off for a couple of days, and rest your weary legs.

You can reach On The Water, a luxurious boat in Regent’s Park, by bike (courtesy of Boris), horse (from Hyde Park stables) or canoe (hire from Pirate Castle). A stylish aquatic haven in the centre of London, On The Water is the perfect place to hide yourself away, or dip a toe in the city as you please.

Inshriach Yurt in The Cairngorms Photo: Canopy and Stars

The Cairngorms are cool, especially when you discover them by canoe. You don’t even have to bother with much portage, with Inshriach Yurt, right on the water’s edge at. Take the train to Kingussie, and paddle all the way there in around three hours (with a guide from Spey Descents, if you don’t have your own canoe). Go down the Spey, through the Insh marshes and across Loch Insh. Enter Inshriach waters half a mile from Loch Insh and 2 miles later keep your eyes peeled for a yurt on your right hand side. Disembark for divine canopy, and of course, stars.

And if you really want to make an entrance, why not charter the Yacht Infanta to take you to By The Beach – a luxury yurt with a private beach on the Isle of Wight. Canopy & Stars has a wonderful collection of glamping places including a treehouse, luxury yurts, Gypsy caravans… even a boat in Regent’s Park!

From ferry to Fforest

Geodesic domes at Fforest campsite, Wales
Geodesic domes at Fforest campsite, Wales

A campsite where there are just a few tents in a luscious meadow, no cars, a breakfast buffet, and a shebeen onsite is a rare thing. Even rarer, it does not involve an overnight ferry crossing, just a two hour crossing from Rosslare to Fishguard (stenaline.ie). From here, a thirty kilometres drive, taxi or indeed cycle, will take you through the gates of Fforest, one of the UK’s coolest campsites. It is just outside the village of Cilgerran, in the heart of Wales’ beach and beauty-filled Pembrokeshire.

And it keeps getting better, as all tents and equipment are provided at Fforest. These are no ordinary tents either, with a choice of very funky, cream canvas geodesic dome tents,  tipis, bell tents and a more basic tunnel tent, known as the Nomad. All have wood-burning stoves except the Nomad which has, however,  like all Fforest’s accommodation, the inspired touch of reindeer hides to keep you toasty, or gorgeous Welsh woollen blankets if skins don’ t do it for you. You need to bring sleeping bags and towels, however, although a double duvet is provided in the dome tent. All tents are positioned on raised wooden bases to keep damp at bay, and adjoining kitchens are covered and fully equipped.  Even the shower blocks and loos are beautifully designed using green oak, larch and cedar, and effluent is channelled to a reed bed filtration system.

We opted for Fforest’s latest development, the Crogloft, which was originally a stone barn, and now home to those who love the outdoors but can’t do canvas. I love canvas but it was April, so we chickened out, and opted for solid walls and doors. The four croglofts are equally stylish, with cabin beds for the children and mezzanine bed for us, all draped with Fforest blankets, and a sofa bedecked with another reindeer. And the luxurious wetrooms are heaven for those who just hate to wade through nature when nature calls. You still get the camping vibe in the crogloft, however,

Canoeing on the River Teifi at Fforest campsite
Canoeing on the River Teifi at Fforest campsite

because the kitchen areas are outside, albeit covered from the elements, but in full view of the meadows, moon and stars.

Despite the cosiness of the croglofts, I must admit I still pined for canvas, wood burning stoves and fresh air. I got my daily fix of wood-burning in the woodland sauna, which is in a cedar barrel, heated by a wood stove, with a shower round the back for cooling down moments. The kids were delighted as they got to come in too, usually a health and safety no-no in conventional spas. But then most conventional spas don’t have a field full of buttercups to run through afterwards either.

The space at Fforest is impressive. There are only a handful of tents in each field, each one strategically positioned for privacy. There are just enough people in each field to be sociable, but you never feel crowded out. Just head to the main wooden lodge for the real social scene, where a delicious breakfast buffet is served every day, with endless pots of good coffee on the go, home made breads, eggs and fresh local produce such as  jams and honey. I loved the communal breakfast as it gave everyone a focus for the day, whereas we never seem to get going before about midday on normal campsites.

Activities abound at Fforest, although you could easily come here and just do nothing. However, I highly recommend taking the canoe trip down the river as well as the woodland creations sessions, when the boys made pencils out of green hazel wood, freshly cut in the forest, and necklaces out of elder. All those bushcraft things they love and which I get overly neurotic about like lighting fires, sawing wood and playing with penknives.

Chillin' as the sun goes down over Fforest
Chillin' as the sun goes down over Fforest

Fforest owners James Lynch and Sian Tucker have pulled off something special here. Although stylish and sustainable, they have avoided the current trend for designed-to-death campsites which kill the very thing we all want from the outdoors. Spontaneity, fun and nature. And plenty of dirt under the fingernails. As a result, the clientele is more green wellies than pink,  choosing local cider over chardonnay. What they need now to add to the fun is just a few more Paddies.

For more details on Fforest see coldatnight.co.uk, 00-44 (0) 1239 623633

An edited version of this article was first published in The Irish Times, 17 July 2010

Glad to be green

Whitepod, Switzerland

Copenhagen has, despite everything, planted seeds of change. As world leaders debate degrees and dollars, those of us who are trying to embrace sustainability into our everyday lives  can do so without feeling like we are ‘do-gooders’ anymore. Green is going mainstream, and ethical holidays are no longer seen as simply ‘the right thing to do’, but as fantastic experiences in their own right. So, at last, we can come out of the closet.


Green travel is no longer a fad. It is moving rapidly from niche to norm, with many Tourism Boards and leading tour operators realising that people who offer superb tourist experiences, without compromising their commitment to local environment, economy and culture, are onto a good thing.  This is great news for everyone, as these businesses are now being given the support they need by destinations that are on the ball about such things, helping to create even better holidays for all of us.


For example, in New Zealand, a tiny Maori community now runs one of the country’s most prolific tourism businesses, a whale watching company (whalewatch.co.nz), which is totally community-run. This revival of people-led tourism rather than cold corporate ‘products’ is, thankfully, on the up. In Thailand, The Community Based Tourism Initiative has key players signed up as partners, listening to the needs, interests and passions of local people (cbt-i.org)  In Italy, they have not only kept tourism firmly in the hands of rural residents through their agritourism movement (en.agriturismo.it), but also as pioneers of the world-famous Slowfood ethos which aims to “counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat and where it comes from”. In Ireland too,  Slowfood is rapidly becoming part of the food culture (slowfood ireland.com) and, consequently, part of tourism.


Cycling is no longer just for yellow shirt travellers either and, along with the recent addition of Dublin, many European cities have free or cheap bike hire schemes. Join the citizens on a saddle in  Paris, Barcelona, Seville, Frankfurt, Berlin, Cologne, Oslo, Lyon, Rennes, Seville, Cordoba, Giron, Brussels, Vienna , Oslo and of course, wonderful , wonderful Copenhagen. A decent green accommodation often has bikes available, or organises bike hire for them, as well as providing information on local cycling trails.


Travelling between these cities without stepping on a plane is a breeze now too, with European train travel on the up. Unfortunately that breeze turned to a Christmas snowstorm, when Eurostar came to a halt. Assuming it will get itself back on track eventually, and sort out what exactly went wrong, this link between London and Paris, Lille or Brussels is, usually, the most civilised way to cross the Channel. if you haven’t experienced the 2 hour 15 minutes trip from London to Paris yet, then it’s a must for 2010 (from €44 one way). Even better for Brussels at one hour 51 minutes door to door (eurostar.com). And with the opening of high speed lines between Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne in December 2009, London to Amsterdam is do-able in four hours and 16 minutes.


However, as this feelgood wave is gathering speed, it also drags a load of rubbish along with it. Businesses which change their practices from dodgy to do-good overnight are often to be avoided. Some of the green policies which are being copied and pasted onto websites are laughable. ‘Ecoresorts’ with four swimming pools, a golf course and a spa equate ‘eco’ with planting a few trees, or giving books to a local school.   Look out for well certified businesses, with a proven track record in responsible tourism practices. Companies which say they are green, responsible, ethical or eco, (they all more or less amount to the same thing) are those which have had detailed visits from experts in the field, been certified accordingly or awarded accolades for their work. Similarly, if a place shouts about being green, but has no evidence of low carbon transport options, then you can often question its validity.


There are, however, many organisations, big and small, leading the way in ethical travel. Picking a few from the rich crop of the latest for 2010 was hard, but here are a few just to get those travel juices going.


  • You don’t need to be heading off to an ecolodge in the rainforest to be ethical.  You could be camping on
    Really Green Holiday Company, Isle of Wight. Photo: Catherine Mack
    Really Green Holiday Company, Isle of Wight. Photo: Catherine Mack

    a farm, buying food at their farmshop, drinking at the local, cycling from beach to beach, and coming home by train and/or ferry. Glamorous camping, or ‘glamping’ as it has become known, allows you to leave your two man tent  in the shed, and discover the wonders of yurts, tipis, geodesic domes, circus tents and even nomadic bivouacs. The glampest site around is goglamping.net, also worth following on Twitter to keep up with regular updates of canvas creations around the globe (twitter.com/Glamping). Not listed on their site, but just reopened for this skiing season, is one that is so green it is pure white. Check out the jaw dropping beauty of Whitepod, hidden away in the Swiss Alps.  (www.whitepod.com).


  • Travelling ethically on a landmass as vast as the Indian subcontinent has been made so much easier with the recent creation of The Green Circuit (thegreencircuit.net). It is the baby of five local tour operators spread throughout India and Nepal, all specialising in deep rooted community-based responsible tourism initiatives. Unlike many tour operators, which compete fiercely against each other, the companies on this
    Yak Safari in Himalayas, Photo: The Green Circuit
    Yak Safari in Himalayas, Photo: The Green Circuit

    eco-circuit, such as The Blue Yonder in Kerala (theblueyonder.com), or SocialTours in

    Nepal (socialtours.com) have collaborated to provide a wide range of natural and cultural heritage trips. Experiences vary greatly, including a yak safari into the trans-Himalayan deserts, monitoring elephant migration corridors in East Himalaya, and learning traditional drumming with villagers living along Kerala’s River Nila. Watch the roots of this exemplary circuit grow and grow into the next decade.

  • In Ireland, one of many dynamic green hostel devotees, The Wicklow Hostel, re-opens its doors just in time for the Tinahely Walking Festival 17th April, after a long process of sustainable building renovations to get this converted schoolhouse up to top notch green spec. From traditional hemp and lime plastering to a new cedar clad timber- framed extension with geothermal heating, this will soon take pride of place on Ireland’s green map. Located on the Wicklow Way, the
    The Wicklow Hostel, Ireland
    The Wicklow Hostel, Ireland

    opening will coincide with three new looped walks making the hostel, and the town itself, a hikers’ hub. It’s not just about boots and backpacks here though, with planned courses in cookery, literature, creative writing, fly fishing, stone sculpture and wood turning. It is already taking bookings, so get in quick. With such impressive eco-credentials the Hostel will get huge international attention, and much deserved too (wicklowhostel.ie). For details of other innovative Irish hostels, check out my book, Ecoescape

    Ireland (ecoescape.org).

  • Moving from Ireland to Wales will be much easier in 2010, with the return of the Cork to Swansea ferry on 1 March, operated by Fastnet Line (www.fastnetline.com). It will carry foot passengers, so you can leave the car at home, and discover the wonders of walking in Wales, for example. One of the most quirky, ethical accommodation providers, awarded many accolades for its commitment to restoration and heritage, is Under the Thatch. Browse through some of its heavenly hideaways at underthethatch.co.uk.  One other exciting development is the spring launch of a 50 minute high-speed ferry link across the Bristol Channel from Swansea to Ilfracombe, North Devon (at least four hours by car). This opens up a whole world of cream teas and uncrammed beaches, superb coastline and moorland cycling, and cyclists are welcome on board (severnlink.com). For green places to stay in this area see greentraveller.co.uk.

  • Many African countries are dependent on tourism for vital income, and  Rainbow Tours is one of the most respected and well established ethical tour operators to take you there (rainbowtours.co.uk). One of its most exciting trips for 2010 is to Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, recently rescued from the
    Yellow billed storks, Gorongosa. Photo: Rainbow Tours
    Yellow billed storks, Gorongosa. Photo: Rainbow Tours

    ravages of civil war, and now safe in the hands of conservationists. The dying populations of lions, oribi, reedbuck and waterbuck, to name but a few, are being re-stocked – in 1992, when the war ended, only 50 of 14 000 buffalo remained, and nine of its 3500 zebra. Rainbow Tours have access to a bushcamp on the banks of the

    Musicudzi River, run by the first safari operator licensed to work inside the Park. After two decades of war, the flora and fauna are returning, and so too can the tourists. 

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

 2 January 2010