Adventure travel / Africa / Asia / Caribbean / Europe / Iran / luxury travel / Middle East / travel

TOP TRAVEL HIGHLIGHTS OF THE YEAR

2014 has been an incredible year; more than 50 flights, 23 countries, more air miles than I have the patience to count, more than half the year spent on foreign soil and perpetually crossing off yet adding to my travel wish-list.

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TRAVEL HIGHLIGHTS

The year has been one of sensational highlights: Coming face-to-face with Silverback gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, helicopter flight over Zambia’s Victoria Falls and another over South Africa’s wild Cape Peninsula at dusk, tracing my father’s childhood in Uganda, paragliding over one of the world’s smallest countries, Lichtenstein, visiting the only nation within a nation, Vatican State, snorkelling the world’s first undersea sculpture park off the coast of Grenada, staying in one of the most luxurious suites in the world at Jade Mountain St Lucia, hitting the ski slopes in Iran, sleeping on ‘Star Bed,’ a four-poster bed under the stars on a remote beach in Mozambique, somersaulting  on empty beaches with local children on an island in Lake Malawi and starting the new year at a rooftop party on the beach in India’s Pondicherry; just some of the most memorable highlights.

TRAVEL: IT AIN’T EASY BUT I AIN’T COMPLAINING!

Travel is not an easy task. The highlights are just that and I’ll go into these in just a moment. People assume travel is easy and glamorous. Behind the scenes, there are more unglamorous moments than I care to share <imagine needing to pee whilst on the road in Iran, wearing a hijab and facing constant roadblock checks, or in rural Ethiopia where semi-nomadic tribes live behind every bush.> Travel adds distance (both physically and metaphorically) from family and friends. I haven’t been able to be there for every birth, wedding or illness. Sometimes I tire of navigating airport security, living out of suitcases and eating out. And more often than I care to admit, I’m acutely fatigued. But… travel is an active choice and one for which I make no apologies. To travel is the ultimate privilege and the most humbling experience. Being allowed into someone else’s country, home and space is a blessing and responsibility. Being given a glimpse into another person’s way of life is the best education. The challenges exist. But any negative emotions are fleeting, because exhilaration soon calls. Often, it’s a contradictory intermingling of brief negative emotions with a perpetual innate desire for excitement, adventure and the unknown. And travel Always wins. We make sacrifices for the love of our lives. And we make them willingly. Travel is the soul in me. It, without doubt, makes my entirety. Within the travel sphere, exploring an emerging destination in particular gives me unhinged pleasure. It’s a sensation of overriding excitement of the unknown, insatiable hunger for knowledge and deep-rooted motivation to understand the pulse of a place through it’s people. Travel has added another life to my life. It’s another world. I may not see friends at ‘home’ so often, but I have gained friends of all backgrounds and beliefs in all corners of the world. I may not see my family as often as I’d like, but I have seen humanity in strangers and experienced compassion from the most unexpected. I may miss my dog (constantly), but I have been privileged to witness and interact with endangered animals across the globe, and to aid their conservation efforts in some way. I make the extra effort to spend quality time with those I love whenever I can. In the end, those who matter are a constant. So, if you’ve ever put yourself off that long-dreamed-about trip because of any of the above concerns, I hope this helps to inspire you and ease your woes. Don’t let the cloak of fear diminish that light. Let it be a catalyst to burn even brighter and become a beacon.

And what a year it has been, doing just that! There’ve been many highs this year, but these are my definitive travel highlights of 2014:

1. Meeting the Silverback mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park

After an intense 2-hour uphill hike scaling Bisoke volcano through dense bush, suddenly there’s a rumble in the jungle. My small group of 6 finds itself in a game of hide and seek, catching quick flashes of dark blazes of fur. As we tread unsteadily across voluptuous mossy bed, we spot a large wave of silvery fur lining the expansive back of a silverback. ‘Agashya’ the special one, glares directly at each one of us, lulling us into his world of inquisitiveness. He is a gentle giant. Surrounding him, juvenile males fight and wrestle. Unfolding scenes are surreal as giant fur-balls put each other in chokeholds and show incredibly human expressions of pain, fear and anger. Deeper in the forest, a group of females lolls lazily in the sunshine. Cocooned in nature’s lush embrace, I spot a female nestling a baby gorilla in her lap, hidden by shrubbery. The baby playfully approaches us on all 4 limbs; arms almost twice the length of the legs. An electrocuted blaze of hair frames the cutest face. Any time spent with them is too brief but the legacy of their magnificence is everlasting.

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2. Paragliding over one of the world’s smallest countries, Liechtenstein

Flying above one of the smallest countries in the world was pure exhilaration. Liechtenstein is also the richest (by measure of GDP per capita) country in the world. Not considering myself an adrenaline-junkie, this defied everything I’d known. I took two buses to the top of the mountains with the paragliding guru, got strapped in and was told to run faster than I’d ever run before off a steep cliff! Well, that goes against the status! But, I did. Gliding over the Rhone valley, the Crown Prince’s castle and the entire mountain-clad beautiful little nation of just 62 square miles was strangely peaceful. Nothing but the sound of the whistling wind past your ears. The tiny nation is the only one to lie entirely in the Alps.The bird’s eye view was so wonderful, I didn’t want the flight to stop. As it depends entirely on wind and currents, we had a good run of around 20 minutes in the air, after which I even managed to control the glider myself towards our landing point. Safe and sound.

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3. Snorkelling the world’s first undersea sculpture park, Grenada

The world’s first undersea sculpture park is undeniably unique. You can snorkel or dive at this one-off site, off the coast of Molinere Bay. I snorkelled. Jason deCaires Taylor produced a series of sculptures, the most famous of which is the Ring Of Children, representing the adaptability of children in any setting.He sank them off the coast of Grenada in a world first. It’s incredible to return to time and time again as the sculptures evolve underwater, collecting algal blooms and coral-heads. Photographs are regularly taken to document their evolution. Art in action! I took the thrilling Seafaris expedition by zippy speedboat, to include tour of the harbour, hidden coves and a snorkel of the reef and sculpture park. Around the protected reef, I lose sense of direction encircled entirely by a tunnel of thousands of fish. So in demand is the sculptor, he’s been commissioned to produce similar off the coast of Mexico.

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4. Exploring the world’s most ancient Persian empire & UNESCO world heritage, Persepolis in Iran

Iran lures visitors with it’s dusty incense-filled warren of bazaars, myriad mosques and minarets emblazoned in mosaics, fabled cities, well-preserved ruins of great Persian empires and wealth of world heritage sites. One of the greatest ever known is Persepolis or ‘Takht e-Jamshid’ as locals know it. It is the single most famous and important archaeological site of Iran, positioned 650 km south of Tehran. Once the richest city on Earth, Persepolis was the treasure trove capital of the Achaemenid Empire, founded by Darius 1 in 518BC. Surrounding the focal Apadana royal palace, once laden with gold, silver, ivory and gemstones, are the Treasury, royal tombs and Council Hall. From here, Xerxes planned war against Greece. Alexander the Great invaded Persepolis in 330 BCE. A resulting fire wreaked damage but today’s ruins remain breathtakingly impressive on a global scale, so much so that Unesco designated this a world heritage site in 1979.

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5. Tracing my father’s childhood home, school and youth in Uganda

My father grew up in Uganda in East Africa. The red earth, the lush greenery and freedom and beauty were his life. Until the Idi Amin regime performed ethnic cleansing. My father and his family left overnight with nothing on their person but little cash. Growing up, I’d beg him to tell me stories of his childhood and tales of the times, dreaming of what it must have been. Needless to say, just landing on Ugandan soil filled me with tears. The ensuing journey through Kampala and Lake Victoria saw me trace his old family home. I walked through the ground sod his old secondary school. And I immersed myself in his hometown and its history. Nairobi has seen rapid growth, from the city of 7 hills to 21 now. It’s crazily hectic and fairly polluted but has a real charm to it. On the contrary, Lake Victoria remains an oasis of peace. The Serena Hotels property there resembles a Tuscan villa on the lakeshore. The stunning property was the best spot to reflect and relax in Uganda.

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6. Sleeping on ‘Star Bed,’ a four-poster on a wild remote beach under the stars, on Lake Malawi

Set on a deserted, virgin beach surrounded by breathtaking baobabs, or on a private rock island close to the shore with Fish Eagles soaring overhead, ‘Star Bed’ was the most breathtaking experience in Africa and the perfect way to see the wonders of an African night-sky.

Nkwichi Lodge on the Mozambique shore of Lake Malawi is a resounding success. Six investors with a background in international aid (UN & UNICEF) set up the lodge, amongst numerous other initiatives, to support the local community through sustainable tourism and to enlighten the world that this secret spot actually exists. And their star attraction is Star Bed. I transfer late afternoon by boat along the lakeshore of Lake Malawi. It’s a glorious collection of bays, headlands and white sandy beaches. Life is peaceful in the 16 small villages that dot the shores. This is one of the last true wildernesses of Africa, and it’s almost entirely cut off from the rest of the world, separated from the rest of Mozambique by dense forest and vast wilderness. We come to a glorious sandy cove where we disembark to a roaring log fire, a simple private dinner on the beach, Malawi Gin (my new favourite gin!) and a beautiful hand-crafted wooden four-poster bed on the sand! As night falls, we sleep under the stars to the sounds of the utter wilderness. In the morning, we awaken to a dip in the fresh lake and breakfast on the beach before transferring back to the lodge. Amazing! Star Bed was the ultimate way to savour Lake Malawi.

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7. Dining at the world’s best Michelin restaurant, Noma, on Valentine’s Day. Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, the tiny Danish capital, is crammed full of gastronomic delights. Boasting 15 Michelin stars and 14 Bib Gourmands, Denmark claims bragging rights as the gastronomic capital of Scandinavia. Earlier this year, Noma in Copenhagen regained its crown, once again, as the best Michelin restaurant in the world. I had the pleasure of a 4-hour extravaganza over Valentine’s Day lunch, a surprise treat!

The gourmet 2-Michelin starred restaurant has been ranked the Best Restaurant in the World in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and again in 2014 by Fine Dining Lovers. Superchef Rene Redzepi syndicates his experience from some of the best restaurants in the world. Sourcing the finest produce from Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and, of course, Denmark, and with a 40-strong team of the world’s best Chefs, the restaurant is a full-blown operation. On a post-lunch tour, I pass the research and development team, where chefs are working purely on innovations (I spy ‘semen’ on the menu.) Located in a renovated harbor-front warehouse in Christianshavn, Noma’s setting is appealing. Exquisitely presented courses, including famous hand-foraged Scandinavian Moss, Faroese sea urchins, Icelandic seaweed, Greenlandic musk ox and sorrel, are paired with wines and fresh juices over a 4-hour feast. After this, it was amazing to tour the sprawling kitchens. The research and development section particularly amused (and amazed) me. I saw ‘sperm’ written on their test board!

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8. Watching a wild colony of penguins on a picture-perfect beach on the Cape Peninsula, South Africa

Boulder’s Beach is a postcard. Windswept, expansive and sun-drenched, it’s no wonder a colony of penguins has taken up permanent residence here. Lapped by turquoise waves, it’s their safe haven. A boardwalk has been developed for visitors to the Cape to walk along and observe the penguins in their element. Surfing the waves, wiggling their bottoms to dry off and waddling and jumping up on granite rocks to sun-dry, I literally spent hours watching the cutest creatures on earth with their quirky ways providing laugh-out-loud moments of joy. It’s a dream. The experience was capped off by the incredible views from a private helicopter flight over the entire Cape Peninsula at dusk and from the top of table mountain.

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9. Helicopter over Wonder Of The World, Victoria Falls, Zambia

Rising towards the eye of the falls, it appears from a distance as a tall shroud of dense mist jutting into the sky along a long narrow stretch. Actually flying over the falls was hair-raising. To look down on the powerful gush, after having swum right at the edge and enjoyed a private lunch by the edge a la ‘Out Of Africa,’ seeing them above commands great respect. Victoria Falls is majestic and regal. It’s sheer immensity is powerfully magnetic and a major draw for visitors from all over the world. My pilot swooped low past the falls, circling several times, enabling me awesome views and surreal close-ups. It’s certainly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Afterwards, buy the dvd! It may be a touristic trap but it’s something to cherish forever and is very well filmed.

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10. Seeing leopard cubs eat kill, playfight and interact with their mother, Sabi Sands, South Africa.

Leopard cubs are the most adorable of the wildlife on African safari. Like powerful little kittens, their markings are set alive by their piercing yellow eyes, which curiously gaze at visitors.

I’ve been fortunate to have seen two lots of cubs on two separate safaris this year in South Africa. the first was courtesy of  Savanna Private Game Reserve in the Sabi Sands, with the legendary photographer and guide Paddy Hagelthorn. It happened again on a second drive from Kirkman’s Camp of the exquisite andBeyond luxury collection.

This was followed by a surprise set-up in the bush with cocktails and canapés by the team at Kirkman’s. Eating and drinking next to Cape Buffalo, hippo and elephant is unforgettable. In fact, I also safari’d in Kenya’s Masai Mara this year where our jeep actually broke down as we were heading back after sunset.  Awaiting rescue, we naturally made ingenious use of the time, by drinking wine and gin in the bush at dusk, as the lights went out and the park emptied!

11.  Blissing out in the most luxurious suite in the Caribbean – Jade Mountain, St Lucia.

Imagine a gigantic home-sized suite, on the top floor of an award-winning designer property, with no walls and an oversized infinity pool plunging to dramatic panoramic views of the deep blue Caribbean Sea and the UNESCO world heritage pitons. JD1 at Jade Mountain in St Lucia is a plush sanctuary hovering in the hillside, in which to hide away; the brainchild of Nick Troubetzkoy. The serial award-winning luxury property, sweeping every accolade from World’s Ten Best Hotels to Best for Romance to Best Hotel in the Caribbean from institutions such as from Conde Nast Johanssens to Forbes to TripAdvisor, has the ultimate wow factor. JD1 is absolutely breathtaking in design and tranquility. All-butler service begins with a personal mobile phone given to guests for their island stay. Butlers arrange every meal wherever I desire, be it in-room or at any spot in St Lucia. With no set meal times, I can eat and play at leisure. Designed to be sympathetic to the surroundings, it’s a feat of harmony and bold architectural design. The property perches majestically above sister hotel Anse Chastanet, and I’m able to make full use of the restaurants and facilities. But all I want to do is stay in my suite, arguably the best in the entire Caribbean!

The spa at Jade Mountain is one of the best in St Lucia. I opt for treatments in-suite with one of the world’s most intuitive and experienced masseurs and yoga instructors, Shreejith. After a single session of reflexology, I’m addicted. He leads yoga sessions on the panoramic celestial terrace first thing in the morning. The setting alone is divine.

There’s a reason that Jade Mountain tops all the lists for world’s best and best in the Caribbean. My stay in JD1 was truly unforgettable.

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12. Picnicking for my birthday on the border of DR Congo and Rwanda, on Lake Kivu

I’m the first to admit I love a little luxury on my birthday. But this birthday proved entirely different, and it took me by surprise in a good way. Having trekked to see the Silverback mountain gorillas in Rwanda  just the day before, I was at the beautifully plush yet understated Nyungwe Forest Lodge in Rwanda’s rainforest on the day. My guide took me to the border of DR Congo, on the Rwandan side bordering Lake Kivu. There isn’t much in the way of hotels in this border town. It’s more guest houses, if that. The area is undeveloped and very African. What did stand out was the natural beauty on the vast lake, one of the largest in Africa. We found a peaceful spot on there shore where I had a very simple yet memorable picnic lunch, watching the queues of cars cross the border bridge, with views across to the border town of Congo. It was simple yet effective and willl always be memorable because it was an entirely unique moment.

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13. Front row seats at a castle concert in a castle in the home of Mozart, Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg is home to The Sound of Music and Mozart. The tiny city is world-renowned for it’s staggering natural beauty. Situated on the Salzach River, the city is clad in dramatic snow-capped mountains, making it the perfect portal to skiing and winter activities. Outside the city, in the mountains, are lots of beautiful lakes and they each have Christmas markets. I visited them all this month and ate and drank my way around, quite literally, filling up on Gluhwein and Bratwurst of all types. But the highlight was a classical Christmas concert at the dominant fortress towering above the city. Lit up by night, it was a pretty and intimate event, full of Christmas spirit and festive cheer. The perfect December experience!

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14. Private dining by candlelight in a former innkeeper’s lodge in the remote Cedarberg range, South Africa

Bushman’s Kloof is as isolated as it gets in South Africa’s Western Cape. The luxury spa and hotel is nestled in the rocky Cedarberg mountain range, a 3-4 hour drive from Cape Town, in the midst of nothingness. The scenery evolves from vineyards and flowing rivers to rocky ridges in this Petra-meets-Grand Canyon setting. The property is intimate yet ultra-luxurious, spanning acres and carved into the natural setting. It only becomes visible well into the 9-km entrance drive.

One evening, after my game drive to spot the ‘Little 5′ of South Africa and to marvel at this unique surrounding, I’  whisked in the dark 10km in the open Jeep. We approach a tiny stone lodge miles form anything in the wilderness. With zero light pollution, it burns brightly entirely covered in candles and a roaring log fire outside. It looks so inviting, romantic, secluded and seductive. I’ve never had such a rush as entering this spot. Inside, the private chef is waiting to serve a full meal in traditional clay pots, with a beautiful log fire inside too, hundreds of candles and flowing wine. Bushman’s Kloof takes private dining to spectacular heights! Needless to say, it is the most romantic setting I’ve ever known and absolutely a must if you’re considering a special one-off proposal!

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15. Waking the customs official at his home to get stamped on his porch in a village on Lake Malawi

After an international flight and local flight to reach Malawi’s mainland, I had a chartered light aircraft to Lake Malawi. The ‘airport’ is a hut with a man, mere steps from the lake itself. The transfer from plane to boat included a barefoot boatman who carried my suitcase on his head – sure;y the best transfer ever! From here, it was straight to the Mozambican side of Lake Malawi. On my back towards the Malawi shores, I had to disembark the boat, hike on sand into a very rural African village, holding the hands of little children en route, to awaken the customs official from his afternoon siesta at this home. He emerged in a football top and briefcase, stamped my passport on his porch and I was on my way! Such simplicity of life made me realise this is how it should really be. I wish!

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16. Staying in an open-sided treehouse on the Zambezi River in Zambia

Tongabezi is a hidden gem on the Zambezi River. Close to the gateway to Victoria Falls in Livingstone, it’s nestled along a secluded segment of the river and, let’s just say, it maximises on it’s position. It takes the whole childhood fantasy of treehouse living and makes it very very real. Open-walled expansive suites are lavishly furnished in an elegant colonial style. My suite is ‘The Treehouse.’ It features it’s now long walkway carved into the cliffside clinging onto the rocks and overhanging the river. Inside, it’s enormous and plush. My bathtub is open-air and on the riverfront. The ultimate luxury is open and free living. Here, you can do just that! There’s even an actual treehouse hangout with library, hammock and board games, in which private dining can take place too. Tongabezi is an absolute must.

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