For women with a sense of adventure

coasteering_optHaving an adventure on holiday is such a subjective notion. The skydivers who recently completed the first ever parachute jump over Mount Everest spent 15 years planning and $24000 each to get their adventure kicks. Personally, I am a bit less extreme. My first big travel adventure was in my early twenties, when I went backpacking alone to Australia, and had the time of my life. Just discovering the joys of solitude was an adventure in itself. And I didn’t even go near a bungy rope. Rainforests yes, shark cage diving, no thanks mate.  But that’s just me, for whom, now pushing middle age, just getting away from the children for a weekend is an adventure. Here are some of my favourites for all those non-skydiving adventurous women out there:

1.                  Coasteering is not some sort of pub game you play with beer mats on a girls’ night out. But it does involve wearing a lot of rubber, and it is about as daring as I get these days. Decked from head to toe in the thickest wetsuits possible, plus helmets and buoyancy aids, coasteering is, basically, all about chucking yourself into deep water from rocky heights. No ropes, just scrambling up rock faces, with the supervision of qualified adventure instructors, and then jump. And swim. Climb up somewhere else, jump in again, and swim. Or, as one instructor put it, “all those things your mother wouldn’t let you do in the sea when you were a child”. This has to be one of the best ways to get to know the UK’s only coastal National Park, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, in South Wales.  Warm up in an eco-lodge at the end of the day, lap up homemade food, plenty of local ale, and head out for a bit of cave swimming the next day. It all happens so close to Ireland, you could almost coasteer your way there, just 9kms from Fishguard ferry port, with daily sailings from Rosslare (see, Tel: + 44 (0) 1348 837709, Preseli Venture, Parcynole Fach,
Pembrokeshire, SA62 5HN, UK. 2 day coasteering weekends from £189 sterling, including two nights’ accommodation at the  Preseli Venture Eco Adventure Lodge, all meals, two half day coasteers and a half day hike, equipment and qualified instruction.

2.                  Back on much drier land, weaving rugs with women from the Berber tribes on the Plains of Marrakech is one of the most adventurous holidays I have ever taken. It is a women only holiday, due to the cultural morocco-062_optsensitivities of working closely with Muslim women. But there is nothing of the ‘knitting circle’ about this break, where you start off your trip shopping with a local guide in Marrakech. Then head up to the weavers in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains for weaving, eating fine local food, and chatting about different lifestyles and life experiences during the day, and out to the coastal fishing port of Essaouira at nighttime. Unlike other girly trips to, say New York, the only seabreezes you’ll get on this one are real ones off the Atlantic. But you are guaranteed to laugh just as much, learn so much more and take the adventure of a lifetime (and small rug) away with you. This company also offers cooking and painting holidays in Morocco.,
Tel: +44 (0)1830 540 047 / +44 (0)191 565 3627, Ingrid Wagner Real World Journeys, Studio 5, The Stone Barn, Kirkharle Courtyard, Kirkharle, Northumberland, NE19 2PE, UK, Eight day weaving holiday €1196 approx (£925) including flights from UK.

3.                  The multi-taskers among us will just love Delphi Mountain Resort in Connemara. They have so many activities on offer, you need a spreadsheet to prepare your trip. Get down and dirty during the day, as instructors guide you up mountains, teach you to take on the Atlantic surf, have you jumping off the pier to swim to your kayak (all wetsuits provided), or simply send you off on a quiet bike ride across the Delphi Valley. Perfect for a hen party, as you can chill out at their natural spa afterwards, with seaweed baths and hydrotherapy pool, and eat for Ireland in their excellent restaurant afterwards. Choose from luxury four-star accommodation, or budget bunk rooms. If you get out there and make the most of every activity they lay on for you, all you will want to do is fall into bed at the end of the day anyway.  Delphi is quite simply divine, rain or shine.Delphi Mountain Resort, Leenane, Connemara, County Galway.  Rooms from  €40-€300 per night including breakfast. Mid-week spa breaks from €99 per person per night for luxury room and breakfast, use of thermal suite and free seaweed bath. Activities from €25., Tel: +353 (0) 95 42223,

4.                  Jim Kennedy of Atlantic Sea Kayaking takes people kayaking off the Atlantic Coast off West Cork in summer, and then to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula in Winter. You still have time to sample West Cork, where Jim works closely with one of the Ireland’s leading Whale Watching companies, Whale Watch West Cork, well into winter. Swap Atlantic for Pacific for a January boost, where you not only learn all the kayaking skills you need, but also snorkel, hike, fish, visit local fishing villages, go whale-watching and discover mangroves by kayak. Oh, and just to add to the adventure, you camp on the Island of Espiritu Santo, an uninhabited volcanic Island about 5 miles from the mainland, the perfect base for paddling from one white sandy beach to another., Tel: +353 (0) 28 210 58,
Atlantic Sea Kayaking, The Abbey, Skibbereen, West Cork. Half-day kayaking trips in West Cork from €50 per person. 12-day Mexico kayaking trip (for beginners and more advanced) from  €1450 per person sharing, not including flights.

5.                  If you associate Crete with drunken hen nights and all night clubbing, think again. Crete is also famous among geologists and conservationists for its superb gorges, leading down to empty beaches and aquamarine waters. Especially if you travel out of hen season. In April and May, it is a pure flower fest, as botanists and nature lovers flock from all around the world to see the Crete burst to life with abundant wild and rare flowers. You can travel with Pure Crete, who has been bringing walkers and flower lovers here for over twenty years.  Staying in locally-owned villas, you will be guided across the high plains, to the snowcapped peaks of the White Mountains, down through the Imbros Gorge, past orchid meadows at Spili, to one of many sandy coves. Experts Dr. Stephen Waters and Clive Daws tell you all you need to know about the 150 endemic species of flowers and orchids, as you walk from one side of Crete to another, watching it come alive with colour., Tel: +44 (0) 845 070 1571 Pure Crete, Bolney Place, Cowfold Road, Haywards Heath, West Sussex, RH17 5QT, UK.  Crete in Bloom package €920 approx (£715) including accommodation, air fare from UK (including Belfast), expert guides and excursions.

6.                  I found that climbing to the top of a sixty foot oak tree was the best natural way to deal with an ever-growing fear of heights. Recreational tree climbing is big in US, but still pretty unheard of in this part of the world. catherine-climbingI loved it; the solace at the top of an ancient oak is like nothing else, not to mention the child-like glee at having got yourself up there. Safely harnessed and helmeted, you are carefully guided up by arborist Paul McCathie, using the usual climbing techniques of ropes and carabiner clips. He is on the Isle of Wight, one of the UK’s most underrated beauty spots. The Mighty Oak Tree Climbing Company in Cornwall take it one step further and lets you sleep up there, using tree boats, specially-designed four cornered hammocks safely suspended up in the branches. An early morning breakfast is sent up to you as you swing serenely to the sound of the Cornish dawn chorus,,  00-44 (0) 1983 563 573. 2.5 hour session €45 approx (£35.00) for adults, €32 approx. (£25.00) for children aged 8-16., Tel: +44 (0) 7890 698 651. Prices for tree camping from €180 approx(£140) per person for groups of 2-5 climbers, including instruction, climbing, equipment, dinner, and breakfast., Tel:  00-44-0797 0033 209

7.                  You won’t get much more adventurous than some of the women who head off to volunteer for a holiday. Most volunteering organisations find that the majority of their clients are women. It feels like a safe way to travel alone, for example, as you plan your trip in advance with an agency, which then guides you and offers support while you are abroad. You can travel the world cheaply by volunteering through WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). Wwoofers stay with farming families, offering a maximum of five hours a day of labour, while your hosts provide you with clean warm accommodation and all your food. If you want to make a more generous contribution to communities in need of help in the developing world, you could spend an extended trip volunteering abroad. One of the most highly-regarded ethical volunteering companies, People and Places, set up by, yes, two women, allocate you to one of their many life-changing projects, according to your skills and interests, in Africa, India or Indonesia. For further information on volunteering, see also www.comhlamh.orgTel +44 (0) 8700 460 479,

8.                  Riding out on the ranch is no longer the macho City Slickers holiday that it used to be. Celebrity ranchers like Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts have turned the traditional huntin’-fishin’-shootin’ ranching image into something not only a bit sexier but also more sustainable. Take a break on a ranch in the America’s ‘Wild West, and you can not only improve your  riding skills, drive herds out to the prairies or do sunset cattle roundups, or but also go hikin’- bikin’ and raftin’ as well as swimmin’ and hot tubbin’. You don’t have to ride a horse like Nicole either, as they welcome beginners too.UK airports, full board, accommodation and activities)., Tel:  +44 (0) 1509 618811.7 nights from £1395 (approx € 1640, including flights from many

9.                  If dancing in the church hall is the nearest you have got to learning Salsa, then how about taking on the real thing in Havana, Cuba, where Salsa is the national dance, and the cha-cha-cha still oozes from every brick of the city’s famous pastel coloured buildings. There is yoga in the morning, dancing in the afternoon, and excursions to see the real thing in the evenings, as well talks and outings to teach you more about this fascinating country’s culture and history. Ideal for women traveling alone, as you are allocated a local dance partner during your afternoon dance sessions., Tel: 44 (0)1273 600030 10 days from £895 (approx. €1051) excluding flights, but  including  shared accommodation, breakfast, Salsa dance classes with local dance partner, history talks and excursions

10.              Need a bit of cryotherapy? Who doesn’t from time to time? You need to the Aquacity Resort in Poprad, Slovakia, where cryotherapy is the completely mad act of entering a room at -120˚C, wearing nothing but woolen shorts, mittens, socks, a headband to protect your ears, and a paper mask (not really a romantic break, then), walking around for two minutes, and then going back into the warmth of a gym for a vigorous warm-up. The Slovakians call this “kick starting the body into self-healing and regeneration”. Or therapy to make you cry, more like it. If you survive this adventure, you can spend the rest of your stay enjoying the biggest geothermally heated waterpark you will ever see, heated by nature through all the seasons.  Or warm up in one of many scented steam rooms, followed by a quick cool down in cold fountains. This aqua-haven is powered by a natural geothermal spring, at the foot of the High Tatras Mountain Range, which provides the resort’s dramatic backdrop. Choose from 3 and 4 star onsite hotel accomodation, or self-catering apartments., + 421 52 7851 111, AquaCity Poprad, Sportova 1397/1, 058 01 Poprad, Slovak Republic, to choose hotel, or book a package with, with four nights’ accomodation at Aquacity’s 3-star hotel, breakfast and dinner, and full use of the water facilities, including one Cryotherapy session, from €420 pp, flights not included.

(This article was first published in The Irish Times, 08 August 2009)



This winter’s colours – Weaving holiday in Morocco

morocco1The dullness of British winter falls upon us, yet I am still fighting the urge to keep greys and blacks at the front of my wardrobe. I sometimes think I wear black as if in mourning for summer itself, and so a holiday which actually celebrates colour offered the perfect medicine to beat my SAD symptoms. It was a trip to work with Berber rug weavers on the Plains of Marrakech in Morocco. Gauguin once told his students “O, Painters who are looking for a colour technique look at rugs”. Personally, I was just hoping to weave my way out of winter misery.

This is a women-only holiday, as it is traditionally the women who weave in the Moroccan home. Not risqué enough to tackle Marrakech alone, it seemed ideal to travel with some fellow female adventurers, a small group never exceeding eight. Ingrid, the English textile designer who runs this trip, greeted us at Gatwick, with a smile as big as her enthusiasm for the journey we were all about to embark upon.

I had never done the ‘group’ thing before, and was relieved to find I had plenty in common with the others, particularly the two Americans who had travelled from Vermont to share this experience. One of them was Margot, an eighty year old wood-cut print artist, with long flowing white locks, and enough colourful stories from her worldwide travels to allay any concerns about group travel.

The first day was spent acclimatising inside the city walls of Marrakech’s Medina. It was pure theatre, where the actors seemed to enjoy the show as much as the spectators. I confess to having had preconceptions of seediness, and was relieved to discover a different world altogether than the one I had created in my head. Marrakech is a fun, warm place where everyone, orange vendors, artists and snake charmers alike, welcomed us with a smile, shared tea and stories, and giggled at, rather than mocked my ineffectual bartering techniques. Mohamed, our local guide was on hand at all times to help us shop, learn Arabic phrases, and get to grips with the local currency, Dirhams.

We started our weaving journey on day two, taking the 160 kilometres of dusty road across the Plains, known locally as Haouz, to the coastal town of Essaouira, our home for the rest of our stay. The landscape turned quickly from luscious olive and orange groves, to arid stony plains dotted with sheep. We stopped halfway at Sidi Mokhtar which, at first, resembled the rubble of a bombed-out village. This is Morocco’s weaving region, and home to thousands of people who survive on extremely basic means. It was also where we were going to learn to weave. The silence in the car signified a certain shock, as we took in the surrounding poverty. If Marrakech hadn’t taken us out of our comfort zone, here was the definitive wake-up call that this was going to be no ordinary holiday.

These villagers are settled nomads, from the Saharan tribe, Ait Bousbaa. There are signs everywhere of their rich weaving culture. Outside one building, a carpenter was building frames for hand looms, piles of wool sat in front of another, bright reds and oranges flashed through the doors of a small weaving factory. Finally, we went through some gates into an enclosed garden full of Bougainvillea, olive trees and herbs. We were welcomed by four smiling Moroccan women, our teachers, who offered open arms and copious kisses. This was the whitewashed, traditional Moroccan, and spacious home of Zinaib,morocco2 her daughter, Khadija, and fellow-weavers, Rabha and Hassna. The uproarious welcome echoed around the village, shattering any of our earlier discomfort. After copious amounts of mint tea, home-made bread, nuts and more hugs, we travelled on to our hotel on the coast, glad to have touched base with these wonderful women, before starting work proper.

The wind coming in off the Atlantic in Essaouira was a relief after the dusty drive. To my absolute joy, our new hotel was none other than the Hotel des Couleurs. It lived up to its name, each room themed from an eclectic palette of fuchsia, lime green, scarlet and lemon.

The next few days were spent back at Zinaib’s, learning every stage of the weaving process. First, the girls showed us how to spin wool on a hand-made wheel. I found it impossibly hard, and watched on, in awe, as they demonstrated what they described as banale, but which we found almost magical in its purety. Then we ‘warped up’ our weaving frames with cotton, and chose colours we wanted to work with from a sample selection, in preparation for the visit to the dyers the following day.

This nearby dyers was like the centre of a volcano, where sweating men poured red and purple dyes into bubbling stone vats. The blood-like piles of wool were then piled onto wheelbarrows and taken out to be spread on the rubble, to dry in the scorching sun. There is nothing natural or beautiful about this process. As I watched the stream of red chemicals flow out onto the streets, the men wiping their streaming eyes from the effects of this arduous chemical onslaught, my rose-tinted glasses were quickly tainted.

This was not a fast paced holiday, and I revelled in the time given to looking and learning before any loops or looms came our way. Evenings were spent back in Essaouira, which comes alive when the fishing boats come in. An array of blue wooden boats, all tightly moored together, cover the sea with a blanket of undulating indigo, with fishermen jumping from one to another to compare catches. It is a hub of excitement and commerce, and a joy to behold a fishing port doing real business. No surprise then, that I ordered fresh fish tagine on several of our nightly restaurant outings.

morocco32We spent the next three days in Zaineb’s garden, just weaving. And wittering. Then weaving again. Slowly pushing and pulling our brightly coloured wools through the cotton warp, and gradually trusting ourselves to let go of our gentle teachers’ hands.
The palette of colours we played with as we wove, was reflected in the colourful array of conversations which took place in the process. Travellers’ tales, political debate, cultural exploration and family stories. No hints of the ‘knitting circle’ trivia I had feared, when teased by friends back home when they heard what I was doing.

The Moroccan girls told us how much they enjoyed this cultural exchange, as well as the extra income. They are paid well above their normal weaving wages for training us, and the amount of laughter in the house confirmed their obvious willingness to participate in this tourist venture. Ingrid is a firm believer in sustaining the local economy through tourism. As well as providing income to the weavers, she uses locally-owned accommodation, family-owned restaurants, and of course, the services of Mohamed, our invaluable and charming local guide. One visitor was a little unhappy with the budget-style accommodation, and lack of ensuite facilities, considering the price of the package. However, when I priced the rooms, added flights, meals, and salaries, I concluded the cost to be reasonable. If you don’t mind eating out of the same giant family couscous bowl at lunchtime, then you won’t mind sharing a bathroom.

You can’t put a price on spending quality time with women from a completely different culture. We swapped skills, were dressed up in Saharan jellabahs, had our feet painted with henna, and our eyes with kohl. And we all, Moroccan, European, and American, laughed a lot. On my last day, I cut my work away from its warp strings and held the mere two feet square of reds, oranges and pinks close up to my face, as if to inhale all the goodness from this priceless experience. But you can’t bottle something like this. You just have to experience it.

Catherine travelled with Ingrid Wagner Real Life Journeys. See for details. Eight day weaving holiday £925 including flights. Other Real World Journeys include cookery, painting and culture tasters.
Catherine flew with Easyjet from Gatwick to Marrakech. Flights from £29.99 one way.

(This article was first published in The Observer 25 January 2009). For more photos of this trip, click here.