Tickets on sale today for Britain’s first Travel Lottery

Any of us working in sustainable tourism have heard of the fine work of The Travel Foundation (TF) over the last decade. However, the TF still isn’t known by most travellers. Their Travel Lottery is a genius initiative to get tourists who are passionate to protect the destinations they love waking up to the work of the TF. WhatTF? – you’re brilliant.

Tickets are now on sale for this first ever Travel Lottery in the UK, whereby holiday makers have a chance to win prizes while raising vital funds for carefully monitored, community led sustainable tourism projects.  Tickets cost £2 and the first draw is at the end of March. Each ticket is a chance to win back the cost of their holiday in the form of a cash prize of up to £5,000.  Prize draws are monthly, with a guaranteed cash prize of at least £1,000 given away in each draw.travel lottery

The lottery is the first of its kind for the travel industry, creating a unified way of fundraising that protects and invests in communities and natural environments in popular holiday destinations; from Cyprus to St Lucia and from Turkey to Thailand.  Customers will be able to buy tickets from travel agents and other companies when they book holidays and buy related products and services. Launch partners Midcounties Cooperative Travel and Holiday Extras will sell tickets for the first draw, and many more travel companies are expected to join them in the coming months. The aim is to sell at least 100,000 tickets and raise more than £50,000 for good causes in the first year.

Customers can also buy tickets directly from www.thetravellottery.co.uk, either for a single draw or by signing up to play regularly.  At least 50 pence from each ticket goes to projects run by The Travel Foundation, with a focus on work that will sustain the local environment, wildlife, history and culture. These projects also help to tackle poverty by creating opportunities for local people to benefit from tourism. These projects include: helping beach operators in Kenya earn a better living from tourism and provide hassle-free tours for holidaymakers to enjoy; finding new ways to help local businesses grow and thrive alongside all-inclusive hotels in Cyprus; supporting local communities in Jamaica and Turkey to create great tourism experiences whilst protecting the marine environment; Continuing to develop the business skills of Mayan women in Mexico so they can supply locally-produced honey products to hotels.

I can stand by the projects of The Travel Foundation, as I wrote one of my first travel articles about their superb work to stop the exploitation of the Maasai in Kenya a few years ago. You can read more about that trip here, but watch the progress made by the villages, with the help of The Travel Foundation , since then in the video below. Watching these Massai elders, teacher and children, with whom I spent precious time, now growing their own sustainable tourism products is what gives me faith in this mad maelstrom of mass tourism.

Well done The Travel Foundation for making a new mark on the consumer side of the tourism industry, creating a social media-friendly way to share sustainable tourism stories and carrying the responsible tourism movement forward another good few steps.

Sustaining the wonderful island of Sark

Sark - Catherine overlooking Dixcart Bay
Catherine overlooking Dixcart Bay on Sark

If there is one place I could go back to this mid summer, it would have to be Sark. One of the Channel Islands, it takes a good while to get there but it is so worth it. Sark lies 11 km east of Guernsey and about 40 km west of the Cherbourg Peninsula of France. I discovered it on a trip to (also gorgeous, but not quite so special) Jersey a few years ago, which I was heading to by ferry from the south of England. I got chatting to a crowd of cool young ones, who told me they were en route to Sark. They come every year around midsummer to gaze at the stars, because Sark is not only car free, but it is totally free of street lights and so an astronomical Arcadia.

Trying desperately to emulate these youthful adventures, I returned to Sark with my family at Easter for four days, and saw straight away what brings people back year after year. Young and old. Everyone is on a bike here, and not just in that day tripping tourist way. It is the way of life, with everyone from farmers, priest, shopkeepers and kids all just bombing around on the island’s sandy or gravel tracks. The only vehicles are tractors and we only saw two of those during our stay and we covered most of the island during that time, which isn’t hard. Sark is only 5.5 kms square, and yet has over 60 kms of coastline. There is something about that statistic that evokes a world of hidden treasures and surprises. Secrets and whisperings. And we were not disappointed.

Stocks Hotel,Sark
Stocks Hotel,Sark

It took me all of about five minutes to release my uptight urban leash on the kids here, who wanted to take off immediately on their hired bikes.  This transition from mainland to island traveller was facilitated with reassuring ease and charm by the manager of our stunning Stocks hotel, Paul Armorgie, whose family has owned the hotel since 1979, and who encouraged our now feral fellas to take off and explore. Because Paul celebrates independence – something that has sadly become an issue on Sark over the last couple of years. Stocks is now just one of two independent hotels left on the island, the rest all part of the Barclay brothers’,  British property and media magnates, growing involvement on the island. Already owners of neighbouring Brecqhou island, they  have, in the last five years,  according to an article in The (UK’s) Guardian newspaper, “snapped up almost a quarter of land on the three-mile-long island, along with many of Sark’s key businesses”, and the upset caused by this among locals has hit headline news on several occasions.

Don’t let these politics put you off visiting this island, however. And don’t for a second think that this is a billionaire’s playground, with yacht filled marinas and casinos on the main drag. You are met off the ferry by one of the island’s tractors which takes your luggage (and you in the passenger trailer behind if you so wish) to your chosen accommodation. And as for casinos, well, the only gamble you will take here is whether the boat will sail or not. Because if the winds pick up, you can risk being stuck here for an extra night or two. Which is what did happen to us, and boy did we thank our lucky stars. All ten million of them glittering down at us in the skies which are indeed so clear, which is why Sark was declared the world’s first Dark Sky Island in 2011 by the International Dark Sky Association.

Rush hour on Sark
Rush hour on Sark

The team at Stocks know that sustainability is the only way to go on Sark. They watch patiently as the blow ins plant vineyards instead of allowing the land to be used for traditional farming. And instead of fighting them, they quietly plough their own furrow and create a model permaculture garden. They invite the chefs of River Cottage to come and do a foraging and feasting cookery course with their guests, and their extraordinary chefs, Byron and Kendra Hayter creating gourmet gems out of Sark’s natural hamper of home grown produce.  In particular, of course, the locally landed fish. During our stay we managed to sample Kieran Perrée’s scallops, which he is licensed to hand dive for in Sark waters, Dave Scott’s Sark lamb and wild sea bass landed by Jonathan Shuker from Sark waters.

Stocks Hotel has been designed not only with class and chic in mind, but also with home from home comfort. And as well as the solar heated swimming pool, horses and carriages on site for guest rides, homemade wines and wild flower liqueurs, every corner at Stocks Hotel is infused with fun. After a day of walking or cycling, we were welcomed back into the fold like a member of the family, as we shared stories from our various discoveries that day. For example, Little Sark, a tiny peninsula joined to the ‘mainland’ by a narrow isthmus called La Coupée, where there is now a reinforced road with sturdy railings, so you  feel totally safe when crossing it. We took the coastal route there, following a steep bluebell and fern-filled Dixcart valley just two minutes from the hotel, to the sea at Dixcart Bay. The stream that we followed down there culminated in a waterfall on the beach, where there is a sea arch which leads you through to another hidden bay just beyond that and calm, clean, safe bathing waters. From here we headed back up to the cliff path which segues from sunlit yellow gorse to hedgerows full of nesting birds, the sea coming in and out of view all the time between them.

Sark scallops
Sark scallops

The walk to La Coupee is only about half an hour, and after crossing the dramatic bridge, and taking in the clifftop views , we headed La Sablonnerie on Little Sark for afternoon tea. Cream tea at La Sablonnerie is a must, given that they use their own cream, and their scones are now well ensconced in my fine food memory bank. And like Stocks, it is also well and truly Sarkee, having been in the same family since 1642.

At the end of our second day, we cycled up to the North coast and dropped the bikes at the top of the path marked La Eperquerie, an old landing point for boats. From here we walked out to more dramatic cliff hanging walkways, picnicked at a rocky headland, got lost in a wild maze of heather and gorse, and then headed back inland to more manicured one inside the magnificent gardens at the Seigneurie, the home of the island’s ‘seigneur’, or traditional feudal leader of Sark.

Sark is a landscape for lazing musings or romantic hideaways. Independent thinkers and those who find solace in nature. Don’t put it on your bucket list, just go and savour its beauty now.  Not only because those who strive to protect and conserve this special place deserve all the support we can offer, but because no matter how hard they try, the blow ins will never be able to blow out the stars. And the main star here is Sark itself.

La Coupee isthmus , Sark
La Coupee isthmus , Sark

Catherine and her family stayed at Stocks Hotel (stockshotel.com). A family room has a separate interconnecting room with bunk beds and costs from £225 sterling per night bed and breakfast, or from £265 sterling bed, breakfast and dinner. If you stay for four nights or longer, Stocks Hotel will refund the ferry crossing with Sark Shipping Company.

Getting to Sark:  If you want to travel the slow and green way,  take a train to Poole or Portsmouth with South West Trains and then the ferry to Guernsey with Condor Ferries (condorferries.co.uk). There are also excellent Sail Rail deals available, which are not very well publicised. Look up the excellent seat61.com/ChannelIslands for details. Be careful with your timings as there are only a couple of sailings a day from Guernsey to Sark, which you can book through Sark Shipping Company. Return tickets £27.80 adults, £12.90 children. For more information on Sark, see sark.co.uk and for more information on getting to Guernsey see Visit Guernsey.

An edited version of this article, by Catherine Mack,  was first published in The Southern Star newspaper, Ireland

 

 

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 who created the beautiful Bivouac, Yorkshire

A Bivouac shack Photo: The Bivouac

I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about the people I meet in this field of ‘responsible tourism’, and how sometimes, it is the they who make us want to visit a place. Their stories, their commitment, their love of a region. So, let me introduce you to Sam and Beth Hardwick, the owners of Bivouac, one of the most stunning campsites in the UK , located in Yorkshire. I don’t want to put it in the ‘glamping’ box because it is something more than this somehow. As a result of my chatting with the Hardwicks, I invited Beth to write a guest blog for me, to share her story of how The Bivouac was born. Because I do firmly believe that it is the people who make the place. Over to Beth….with thanks.

“Sam and I worked long hours during our dating period. I had my own business and he worked in the city. We decided that when we got married we’d quit our jobs and go traveling together for some proper revaluation time. We backpacked around the world talking the whole time about what we believed in; what made us who we are; what inspired us; how we wanted to live; what we were good at and no so good at. Some key themes came from this such as community, faith, family, sustainability, simplicity and nature. There was a lot more talking … and then Bivouac fell out.

So we came home, rented out our house and converted a garden shed to live in whilst we began building the dream.  It was a very long up and down journey through finding land, gaining planning permission, getting a government grant and raising a family all at once. The initial plan was that this Bivouac adventure would add massive value to our family, but at times we felt we had lost that ability as our family life got more disjointed as we got further in. But now, even though we have to work really hard, this was the best thing for family life.

Bivouac Interior Photo: Bivouac

Family life means a great deal to us. Bivouac is a place where we want family life and spending quality time together to be inspired again and time and space is given to just being together, in the outdoors, in our activities or cozy by the fire.

We have had our own family torn in bits with the death of our third daughter Florie Briah. She caught a nasty virus and was not old enough to fight it and she died from the damage to her heart that it caused. This happened just as the thirty or forty guys arrived on site to build the project with us. It was like living in a nightmare which couldn’t stop or slow down. We had folk living with us, needing us each day, when all you want to do is hide and catch breath. But, the flip side of this is that everything we believed we were building, community, and ethos of family and friendship, transparency, creativity – it all came into play in that season and I knew then, no matter how hard things were – Bivouac had been birthed. In Florence’s memory we are raising money to build a natural play park here on site. Free to use and designed for families to play, laugh, relax and reconnect.

We have Martha Willow 4, Elsie Myla coming up 3, full of life, creative and amazing company. We are a long way off where we hope to be, but this place is something special and I am so very privileged to have time here with my family, building something for other folk and us to all enjoy and take a part in. Bringing back something about life which might get missed far too often”.

Photo copyright: Bivouac

For more details on Bivouac, see www.thebivouac.co.uk

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’.

 

 

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.

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!

Go with the flow, Swimtrek, Croatia

Swimming in the Kornati National Park, Croatia with www.swimtrek.com

I look down at my hands pushing through the turquoise water and have a weird realisation.  They are exactly the same shape as my father’s.  I guess we rarely watch our hands in action, but here I am, twenty kilometres off Croatia’s coast, striding through the waves, and I have this bizarre hand moment. I have been swimming for an hour now, and have entered that solitary, pensive zone which only swimming helps me reach. Each stroke takes me back to early swimming days in the Irish Sea, when my Dad held on tightly to my hands, teaching me not to fear the water, but to let it carry me gently. “Go with the flow, and you will love it”, he would say, and how right he was.

I discovered Swimtrek, a holiday company which takes you on open water swimming trips in various parts of the world, about a year ago. Dreadfully unfit since having children, and with a bad case of middle aged malaise, I decided things had to change. While other friends tackled marathons, I headed for the pool, and started training in January for my first week-long holiday alone, no kids, lots of sunshine and, most importantly, the sea. I chose Croatia for various reasons. I hadn’t been there before, had heard great things, the swims were not as tough as some of their trips (average 3k) and jellyfish are few and far between in the Adriatic.

So here, at last, is the real thing. After five months of swallowing chlorine, being pushed aside in the fast lane, dry skin, verrucas and endless bad hair days, I find myself on the tiny car-free island of Prvic, a thirty minute ferry ride from the medieval city of Sibenik. This is just one of 1185 Croatian islands (of which only 47 are inhabited), along its nearly 6000 kms coastline. Prvic is base camp for the week, where a group of fifteen of us take over a local hotel, overlooking the shore. We are a mixed bunch and, despite all my anxieties, not the swimming club types who do endless arm stretches, slurp funny coloured drinks, and besport tight swimsuits which might as well say “I have absolutely no cellulite, and absolutely no life”. These were all real people, with wobbly bits, warts ‘n’ all. The only coloured drinks on show are beer or wine, and stretching is not recommended for open-water swimming, so I am safe. We range in age from late twenties to fifties, equally diverse in swimming experience, and are a good mixture of Swiss, Irish, American, English, Scottish, with swim guides from Finland, South Africa and Canada.

On the first morning we are instructed to meet on the beach, some proudly buck naked, bar Speedos, and others, like me, slowly peeling off sarongs before daring to dive. The guides assess our levels over a 200 metre swim, and then split us into three groups, giving us pink, orange or yellow swimming hats according to our level.  I delight at the fact that I am put in the bottom yellow hat group. No pressure, just go with the flow, remember. My Dad’s words are, however, long forgotten as I get off to a bad start on this first mini strike-out into the Adriatic, my chest tightening horribly, as I struggle to breathe smoothly.  “That always happens on your first open-water swim, it’s just anxiety, don’t worry about

Swimming along the Krka River, Croatia

it”, one of the pink-hatted “Speedophiles” (his term not mine) tells me, as he sunbathes just a little smugly back on the beach, not even out of breath.

But there is no turning back now. We jump on board our boat for the week, and Jadran, the Croatian captain, leads us out to nearby Tijat island, where the calm water is about 24 degrees, and the air about 32. We yellows are to take off first, getting a head start from the oranges and pinks. “Before you get in, I have to lube you up”, says Kate, our superfit Canadian swim guide, donning latex gloves and Vaseline.   We stretch out to have our sensitive bits smothered, so we don’t chafe. Salt water does strange things, apparently and this is, for sure, the most bizarre holiday ritual I have ever had to undertake.

Within minutes there are fifteen fluorescent hats bobbing along the coast of this stunning little island, its pine trees and white rocky shores disappearing past us as we swim. Within minutes, the oranges and then pinks disappear past me too, but rather than trying to compete, I stop and watch the impressive athleticism of my fellow swimmers. Each group has a boat following alongside, in case we need anything.  We have been taught some hand signals, including a ‘W’ sign, to let them know when we are stopping to wee. There’s no sign for chest tightness, unfortunately, which is still hovering, but I try to ignore it. By the time I reach the target lighthouse, just under an hour later, I realise I am ahead of my fellow yellows and, miraculously, still breathing.  Back in the boat, the guides hand me an orange hat, and I get cheers all round. As if by magic, the chest tightness disappears, and I am ready to take whatever the waves throw at me.

Later that day we are filmed swimming in the open water, which we watch back over beer that evening at the hotel, and given some tips. The next day I concentrate on putting all the tips into practice, and sail through a beautiful swim between the islands of Zmajan and Kaprije. This is our first ‘crossing’ as opposed to following the coastline. No more clear, shallow waters, this is the deep blue sea, with nothing but a pink cottage in the distance to aim for. But the sun’s rays which cut through the depths provide a guiding light of inspiration as we all eventually find a steady rhythmical pace over 2kms.

The feeling at the end of a swim is pure elation. I fall back into my meditative state on this crossing, only to be jolted out of it by the appearance of white sand, rocks and fish below me. This is when you realise that land is near, and lunch is waiting. No holding back on the food on this trip either, with divine spreads laid out on board of pasta, couscous or rice salads, cold meats, cheese and fruit. Jadran also spoils us on a regular basis, emerging from the sea with a load of Whitebait or mussels, which he throws in a pan with butter and garlic, and hands out like sweets. The crème de la crème is when he produces oysters. Just like that. He must be making some Croatian woman happy somewhere, I think to myself.

We take on two swims a day, totalling about 5kms, although the distance is irrelevant if the water is choppy. One day we head inland, up the Krka River towards the Krka National Park. We moor at the yacht metropolis of Skradin, and hike 4kms alongside a wooded gorge to the breathtaking Krka Waterfalls, seven of which gush down moss-covered steps, to merge into one magnificent mother of a fall, which finally hurtles into Visovac Lake. Here we join hundreds of other bathers, and bask in our first freshwater swim. The afternoon’s challenge is to swim 4kms back down the river, with the current carrying us most of the way. At least, that’s what they tell us, but I struggle here, fighting off a stitch, drinking most of the river in an attempt to find finding breathing space between the waves,  and slowly drifting from my group. Kate checks in with me; “Please tell me we are over halfway”, I beg, but I know by her face that she doesn’t  have the

Lunch

answer I was hoping for.  I give in and slump back into the dinghy feeling sorry for myself. After a few words of encouragement, she drops me back up with the group, and I’m off again for the last two kilometres, still a battle, but I get there in the end.

Nights back on Prvic are never a dull moment. The guides book us a group table at a different restaurant most nights, where the food is always excellent, and the company superb.  Sea bass, tuna, sardines, mackerel and squid are regulars, eaten at restaurants so close to the water, you can almost fish for seconds. Some of the swimmers are able for copious amounts of Croatian wine, but I show my age and retire early most nights with a book. Having been carried by the hands of Neptune every day, I want nothing more than to sink ecstatically into the arms of Morpheus every night,

After the hiccup of my river swim, I decide to not let it set me back, and enjoy every swim from now on. I feel myself get stronger every day and, although I’m never head of the pack, I battle on at my own pace, encouraged by the determination of those just ahead of me. One of the most exciting swims starts just outside Sibenik harbour, where we head one morning for coffee, shops and “to clear a few heads”, says Mia, our other gorgeous swim guide. Back on board, Jadran drops us at the entrance to a sea tunnel carved into the cliffs by WW2 German occupying forces, which they used to conceal their boats and then surprise incoming enemy ships. We swim through the tunnel, sticking together tightly in this eerie hideaway, called “Hitler’s Eyes” by locals, and let the water carry us through like some sort of water theme park ghost ride. The light at the end of the tunnel reflects off the Adriatic, which then sucks us back along its glorious coastline for a few kilometres as far as another ancient sea construction, the 16h Century St. Nikolas fortress. Now derelict, we are able to wander around every corner of this imposing structure, with views across the channel we have just conquered.

Sadly, every good trip has to end, and our final two hour boat ride takes us out into the far reaches of Croatia’s sea

Island of Prvic Luka, where we stayed at lovely Hotel Maestral

territory, the Kornati National Park. Here, cones of white rock, covered in sunbleached shrubs emerge from the water in their hundreds, creating endless reefs for us to swim around. There is no water on these islands, rendering them uninhabitable, but totally swimmable. We jump in and swim straight to the shoreline of one of them, which we cling to for nearly 3kms, following the underwater contours which conceal endless caverns and schools of fish. I enjoy every stroke on this last day, as  favourable currents help us along our last two swims of the week. As Jadran’s tanned, strong, hand reaches out to pull me back onboard for the last time, I hold it tight, and thank him for all his support during the week. And later that night, as we all toast each other’s achievements, I quietly raise a glass in thanks to, and in memory of, the strong hand which first led me to the water all those years ago.

 

Catherine was a guest of Swimtrek (www.swimtrek.com) and The Croatian Tourist Board

(This article was originally published in The Irish Times)




Natural Retreats, Ireland

Dawn at Parknasilla

The recession has forced many of our golden gates of tourism to open to new ideas and new visitors, indirectly creating a more responsible and accessible form of tourism. I recently visited the five star hotels of Parknasilla in Kerry and Castlemartyr in Cork which have opened their doors to us mere mortals. This is not the work of Nama either, but a company called Natural Retreats (www.naturalretreats.com) which already owns sustainable (and sumptuous) houses in the UK and has, for the last year, been moving into self-catering lodges in the grounds of Ireland’s most exclusive hotels, making them just a little more inclusive.

 

I wrote about this company when it first entered the Irish market ,  impressed by their ethos of developing sustainable tourism in areas of important cultural and natural heritage. Recently, I checked out how they were doing. First stop, Parknasilla, where we thought we might have to go through a separate interlopers’ entrance so that ‘battered old Volvo’ alarms didn’t go off.   But the integration of posh and pleb was done seamlessly and without judgement. We checked in at the same desk as golfers with their Golfs, and Foxrockers with their furs, as they headed to their suites, and we to our self-catering.

The pool at Parknasilla is almost precocious in its beauty

However, it was the outdoors which beckoned at Parknasilla, and is the reason why people have been coming since 1895. There are five hundred acres of woodland and coastal walks here, with tiny islands linked to the hotel by wooden bridges. On an early morning stroll to catch the mist coming up over the many inlets, there was an eerie silence with only the oyster catchers on dawn duty. The beauty here is truly mesmeric.

Guests staying at Natural Retreats’ lodges are given full access to hotel facilities, sharing hot tubs, croquet lawns and extraordinarily beautiful swimming pools with the great washed. The Victorian ‘children should be seen and not heard’ still hovers a little at Parknasilla, being asked to leave the pool at 5pm, only served dinner at certain times,  and a general air of hushed tones around the lounges. The games room is in a separate building and equipment was on last legs. But when the pool shut we just ran down to the Victorian bathing huts on the shore and dived into the Atlantic, letting our screams  echo around the bay, hushed tones long forgotten. The hotel restaurant was beyond our budget anyway, so we ate in from the nearby butchers or out at O’Shea’s pub, with its fab fish pie. Both in nearby Sneem.

At Castlemartyr, the ambience was very different. Although equally luxurious, it had a younger feel to it, with bikes for everyone’s use, the kids were allowed to walk the hotel’s dogs and blind eyes were turned when ‘adult time’  kicked in at the pool when it was quiet. The games room is ‘soooo cool’ with leather sofas, a Wii, snooker table with all the balls and board games with all the bits. We cycled into the village for supplies, picnicked on the lawns and noone blinked an eye.

One disappointment, however, was the welcome hampers which had impressed me so much at Natural Retreats in
Yorkshire, brimming with local produce. Here they were more white sliced loaf and instant coffee. Natural Retreats’ Director, Ewan Kearney reassured me, “We’re working through an ongoing list of improvements at each site, including implementing local produce in the welcome hampers, improving the guest information manuals with things to do and see in the local area, eco-friendly cleaning products and see this as a gradual process that is more likely to succeed if the business is financially stable”.

These are not cheap breaks by any means, but as George Bernard Shaw said of Parknasilla, “This place does not belong to any world that you or I have ever worked in or lived in. It is part of our dream world”. Natural Retreats has brought the dream a bit closer to reality for many and, with sustainability at its core, aims to make the same possible for future generations to come.

 

This article, by Catherine Mack,  was first published in The Irish Times 28 August 2010

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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