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Saint Simeon Monastery Tour

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St Simeon Monastery

The Saint Simeon Monastery is now an abandoned site that is located on the west bank of the Aswan. It is a remarkable collection of ancient buildings that sit in the middle of nowhere. The stone and mud-brick of the surviving walls and buildings blend in with the surrounding dramatic landscape.

The Saint Simeon Monastery is known locally as Anba Hatre and the Arabic name for the saint is Deir Anba Sim’an. The best way (and the generally accepted mode) to get there is on the back of a camel, which takes about 25 minutes. Slogging it out on foot is unadvisable because of the heat and the effort of trudging through the sand.

The monastery is named after a fourth century ascetic who, the legend goes, on the day of his wedding witnessed a passing funeral procession. Inspired by this chance encounter, he decided not to lose his virginity. He thereupon undertook a frugal and abstinent lifestyle and removed himself to Anba Hatre. He was just eighteen and I wonder what his ditched bride thought of those decisions.  

Whether the monastery dates from his time is still unclear but by the sixth and seventh centuries there was an established settlement as evidenced by some remarkably well-preserved wall paintings on the rock caves from that time. More additions and building took place in the first part of the eleventh century.

It became one of the largest Coptic Monasteries in Egypt housing over a thousand inhabitants. However, by the end of the thirteenth century it was abandoned and the reasons have never been properly determined. Despite some depredations and raids by various marauders much of the structures still remain remarkably intact.

The archetypal domed Christian church and tower is the best architectural example of its type. There are a large number of tombstones and rock cells with stone beds for the monks.  There are numerous living and working quarters and walled lookout towers. The lower levels are marked by covered arched walkways acting as ventilation systems making for a cool environment.

In addition there are pottery and brick making kilns providing insights into Aswan techniques. A small number of wall paintings survive from the eleventh and twelfth centuries with evidence of even older paintings that behind them.

Your tour of the Saint Simeon Monastery (Anba Hatre) usually lasts for about two hours. It is time well spent yet too short to fully appreciate the long, colourful and still barely understood history of the place. The peace, quiet and lovely views of the river do give you some inkling why the monastery was a great place to meditate, study the scriptures and look for the meaning to life…
 

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Algarve Safari Tour

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Algarve Safari Tour

Taking a jeep or 4×4 buggy safari through the Algarve feels like you are bumping along some remote dusty North African desert region. That sensation is in the name too. Algarve is a translation from the Arabic meaning “the West.” The Algarve is at the southern tip of Portugal and you could be forgiven for thinking that you were not in Europe.

That exotic feeling is further accentuated by a sense of adventure as you jolt and jounce in your jeep across pebbly streams, through sandy, dusty and scrub dotted tracks. It doesn’t matter from where you start your Algarve Safari you have about 2,090 square miles of potential fun and excitement. It is also the best way to see this region and get you away from the beaches and the crowds.

There is one thing you learn very quickly as your open vehicle roars through the fabulous scenery – you shouldn’t have worn white! The dust thrown up your jeep and the others in the convoy will soon change it.

Going on an Algarve safari is an opportunity to see spectacular parts of the country you would not otherwise have seen or imagined. Adventure and thrills aside the safari will take you into the interior with its winding un-metalled roads; tiny white-washed villages that pop up out of nowhere; past orange and lemon orchards interspersed with stands of eucalyptus.

Another one of the attractive aspects of getting on an Algarve tour is the chance to have lunch in a traditional village or a local restaurant – a meal that includes the famous chicken piri-piri. If you are up to it you could try out a glass of medronho – the potent local “firewater.” You will see how the rural people of Portugal get along and glimpse their way of life.

There are several versions of an Algarve safari. Some will combine a boat trip along with the jeep ride. Others include a day surfing and swimming in the itinerary. There is a half day tour that starts in the evening. This one is best enjoyed if there it is a moonlit night.

There are plenty of photo opportunities along the way as the jeep drivers make regular stops when you can sip some refreshment and (possibly) give one’s bottom a break from all the bouncing. It is also a great time to bond with your fellow safari travellers.

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Downton Abbey Country Location Tour

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Highclere Castle

The movies and travel and tourism are becoming inextricably entwined. One would say the two industries are almost symbiotic. Where movie-makers go, it seems that tour and travel operators are quick to fill bus loads of folks and show them ‘the scene.’

From Braveheart to the Da Vince Code new tourist trails are being blazed in the UK. Now it is the turn of the global hit TV series, Downton Abbey to get in on the act. The series has inspired fans to go traipsing through picturesque Oxfordshire villages and down a pint at rural pubs. So great is the demand of Downton Abbey fans to follow in the footsteps of the aristocratic Crawley family and their staff that tours by one or two companies are sold out for the 2013 season!

The Downton Abbey Country Location tours are very comprehensive. They are generally of three days duration. They take visitors to Dower House, home of Cousin Violet aka Maggie Smith, Swan Inn, Downton Hospital, and the pub at Kirkbymoorside. The tour buses play excerpts and episodes of the series more or less relating to the location you will be visiting – just so that your memory is refreshed on the locations and characters.

You have to remember that though the setting for the fictional Downton Abbey is Yorkshire, many of the key film locations are not actually in that county. Highclere Castle is in Hamphire and used for all the exterior shots and most of the interior scenes. The exterior shots were taken in the picturesque village of Bampton in Oxfordshire, including St Mary’s Church. World War I battle scenes, in France, were filmed in the Suffolk countryside.

Haxby Park (featuring in the second season) is actually Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire and Greys Court, Oxfordshire was used as the family’s secondary property mentioned in the third series. Another historical mansion featuring in the series is Lincoln Castle, just south of York, where the prison scenes were filmed.

So if you are a Downton Abbey addict you could sip afternoon tea and stroll in the beautiful gardens of the elegant homes that feature so prominently in the movies.
 

Image credit: zen whisk

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Camel Riding in Marrakech

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Marrakech Camel RidingThe city of Marrakech is a study in contrasts. It has two identities. One is the historical portion – the Medina – unchanged for centuries with narrow alleyways and picturesque shops. The other is Gueliz (or Ville Nouvelle) modern, hip and packed with restaurants, brand stores and malls.

The landscape of the surrounding countryside is so dramatic that it has made Marrakech the foremost destination in Morocco. It also explains why the Berbers called it Marrakech, which translates to “Land of God.”

Marrakech is located very close to the foothills of the Atlas Mountains that dominate the horizon. It is also just a couple of hours away from the true Saharan Desert. This in turn is ideal for exploration on that most unique of creatures – the camel.

A camel ride away from the crowded and historic souks is a terrific change from the norm.  The scenery you encounter and the experience will be something to you will treasure for a long, long time. You don’t have to go far out of the way to enjoy a camel ride. Nor do you need previous experience.

Just a few minutes out of Marrakech you can hire a well-trained and docile camel to take you through the picture perfect peaceful palm groves of the Palmeraie. It is reputed to have a 100,000 palm trees.

If you are up to it and can cope with a longer time on the camel’s back then there are two, three and even week long excursions that take you far into the desert. The longer camel rides will give you the opportunity to meet up with the nomadic peoples of the Moroccan Sahara. Or tour the traditional villages and get an idea of what their daily lives are like.

You cannot help but feel the romance of riding along ancient trade routes through the Draa Valley, the sea-wave like sand dunes of the Erg Chebbi desert and Merzouga. The names will conjure up magical, starry nights and camp fires. You will recall spending a night under the open sky in your cosy Berber tent camped in an oasis long after you have gone home.

A word of advice here. When you undertake any of the camel rides or safaris it would be a good idea to book them through your hotel or an established travel agency. That way you will get a better deal with a good tour company and not have the bitter experience of being cheated by the touts who seem to be everywhere.
 

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Travelling in Prague by Bike

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Prague Bike Tour

Prague or Praha is one gorgeous city. It is one of Europe’s oldest and most attractive cities.  While many of its landmarks and architectural highlights have yet to become household names, their splendour and beauty are on par with some of their better known cousins.

One of the most interesting ways to see the “city of hundred spires” and its surroundings is by travelling around on a bike. With about 93 kilometres of bicycle trails, the whole city is yours to pedal around. Prague is a very bicycle friendly city, which makes it the ideal mode of sightseeing.

The variety and number of bike trails means that you will get great views, interesting and different perspectives and great accessibility to the marvellous sights of Prague. It is also a quick and convenient mode of getting around and gives you the freedom others don’t.

It is really easy to hire a bicycle and also relatively inexpensive. There are plenty of bike rental shops in Prague. They are generally found in and around the tourist hotspots and information centres. Hiring a bike can cost you between CZK 200 to CZK 500 a day. The price varies depending on the type and sophistication of the bike you want.

To make cycling more popular and encourage people to use this form of transportation bikes can be transported, free of charge, on the metro, ferries and (at specified times) on trams.  Cycles are also transported for free on PID trains. The Czech Railways also offer a bike rental option at select train stations.

You can travel in Prague and its immediate surroundings on a bike by yourself – armed with a map of course. You can pick up good maps from the Information Centres. These maps have colour-coded routes that take you to all the different tourist sites and landmarks in Prague.  They are an excellent reference resource and guide.

The other option is to join up with a guided tour – and there are many operators. The organised tours are not very much more expensive than just hiring a bike. The main advantages to the guided tours are you save a lot of time getting around; you get to see highlights via the easiest routes and avoid many strenuous uphill tracks.

Whichever choice you make or however many days you travel in Prague on a bicycle be sure to take in the famous and interesting sites of this lovely city. Here is a list for you to consider.

•    Municipal House & Powder Gate
•    Estate & National Theatre
•    The Dancing House & Panoramic River Views of Prague
•    Mala Strana or 'Lesser Town'
•    Wenceslas Square
•    John Lennon Wall
•    Kampa Park
•    Charles Bridge
•    Rudolfinum
•    Josefov
•    Astronomical Clock & Old Town
•    Prague Castle
•    Letna Park
•    Along the Vltava River
•    Royal Gardens
•    Petrin Park
•    Jewish Quarter
 

Image credit: Opu Pet

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What to know about Venice Gondola Rides

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Venice Gondola Ride

We’ve all seen the movies and pictures and are aware of the romantic power of a gondola ride on the canals of Venice. The enchantment of the experience changes the girl’s mind…‘and they live happily ever after.’ Beguiling, enchanting, romantic, magical etc, are standard adjectives to describe a tour of Venice in a gondola. It is a must-do thing.

True a Venice gondola ride is maybe that or maybe more but there are some practical things you need to know before you get on one of them. Some of these pointers may be a bit of an eye opener for you.

There was a time when about 10,000 gondolas plied the canals of Venice carrying goods and passengers across and around the city. Today there are roughly 400 of them and they are primarily used to ferry tourists. Though the number of gondolas is seemingly small the routes are limited. So you could find yourself in a prow to stern gaggle of gondolas – a veritable traffic jam!

The gondolas of today are all painted black as per the city’s regulations. However, many of them have colourful, individualistic and ornate decorations with comfortable seats, cushions and blankets.

The gondoliers have to wear a uniform of sorts, which are black pants, a striped (generally black and white) shirt and closed dark shoes. They also have a special hat but very often they don’t wear it. I suppose many a hat has been whipped off the gondolier’s head by the wind.

Not all gondoliers can sing nor are they required to. Some do but you may be disappointed by the results. Also it would be pretty hard to hear them over the chatting of your co-passengers and the calling and shouting among the other gondoliers. The night rides, though could be better for the singing. Some of them will give you information on the bridges and palaces of Venice as you pass them by.

Venice gondola rides are between 20 and 40 minutes duration. They also seat six people so if you are thinking ‘exclusive’ and romantic forget it as you will be sharing the boat with others.

The Grand Canal is perpetually crowded so take a ride along the quieter back canals, away from the more touristy places. It will give you a different view of Venice and a much better experience. Actually the smaller canals (you can touch the walls of the palazzos) will give you the feel of what makes Venice – Venice.

To hire a gondola to take you on the quieter routs look for one away from the main streets and the Grand Canal. If you have a particular route or places in mind then discuss it (and the price) clearly with the gondolier before you sit down.

Getting back to the singing gondoliers, several tour companies arrange a 40-minute Gondola Ride and Serenade. The glitch is that there is not one singer for each gondola. They travel in groups. Several gondolas will be listening to the same singer/musician as you glide along.  Another drawback is that you will be sharing the gondola with other people. So, maybe your Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn moment may not be the same.

The trickiest part is the fare. Gondola rides and fares are regulated. The standard day time 40 minute ride costs €80. The night ones are €100. However, you will be very lucky if you ever get one for those rates. Haven’t met or heard anyone who got a ride at the official rates.

This piece is not intended to turn you off a Venice gondola ride. You have to do it, no question. Just don’t go in starry-eyed.
 

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Entertainment at the Benidorm Palace

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Night show at Benidorm Palace

Benidorm is a town that sits on the coast of Spain’s western Mediterranean region. It was once a sleepy fishing village. But today it is a whole different kettle of fish. It is now a playground with a large hotel and tourist industry catering to visitors who come for the beaches and the entertainment. Make no mistake entertainment is the main attraction here. And no one provides more excitement, razzmatazz and fun than the Benidorm Palace.

Benidorm Palace is a nightclub, cabaret, restaurant and variety show venue all rolled into one. Spending the evening and night there is a great way to get best of all entertainment worlds. The various acts and performances at the Benidorm Palace change every year, which is terrific because you are in for a different treat on every holiday. It has also earned itself the reputation of having one of the top shows in all of Europe.

The Palace is large, spacious and stunningly decorated (a trifle too loud for me – but then it is a nightclub!) and fitted out. It would seem that no expense was spared.   

The dances are spectacular with the beautiful exotic dancers feathered, fabulously costumed and most times topless (joy for the boys!). Shows typically last for about two and a half hours and feature several different acts. There are laser light shows, juggling feats and choreographed dances with styles including Flamenco and influences ranging from Ireland to Egypt. There are comedians, acrobats and live bands.

It would be advisable to make an advance reservation for a good table. Otherwise you could have a long wait to get it and that takes away from the fun. At €5 a head it may seem steep but the measure is worth the price as the place can get rather crowded and good viewing places can make the difference in your enjoyment.

Besides the regular entertainment the Benidorm Palace regularly engages a variety of top artistes from around the world to perform concerts. Do check before you go or you might find that you are not going to get the famous regular nightclub reviews.

A few tips to take into consideration in order to enhance your enjoyment. You get one free drink on your ticket – after that you pay. You could have a meal at the Benidorm but the food can be a bit of a mixed experience. It is sometimes excellent and other times the quality slips. It also takes a long time between ordering to arriving at your table. If you are vegetarian you could have a very restricted choice and you have to request it. The focus is non-vegetarian.

The Benidrom Palace opens on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays all through the year. In the summer they also open on Wednesdays.

Doors Open at 8.30pm; dining commences at 9pm and its – Showtime at 10pm!
 

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Aguamar Water Park, Ibiza

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Aguamar Water Park

Ibiza is blessed with many beautiful sandy beaches and the glorious azure waters of the Western Mediterranean Sea lap its shores. So you have to ask yourself, what earthly reason could there be for spending a rather expensive day at a water park? The answer, for me at least, is that this Ibiza attraction is for the kids and young adults. And it has several conveniences that make for a pleasant (or exciting) day.

The park has a wide variety and levels of water slides and pools that will keep you occupied.  The Aguamar Waterpark has seven series of water slides for older children and adults.  Some are fairly regular in that they are straight and are a relatively gentle ride down. Then there are the water spewing, scream-inducing fast, twisty slides with unexpected corners that have you spinning around with your heart in your mouth.

They even have names for them, which are pretty indicative of what the slide has in store for you.  Judge for yourself – The Kamikazee, The Black Hole, The Spiral, Rio Ventura and Spiro Tubo – and ride. Then there are several gentler, smaller slides for the little ones. Just in case hurtling down a slide on your rear only to end up in a crazy frothy wet splash is not your idea of having fun, then you could just float or stroke around in the swimming pool.

The add-ons that give the Waterpark little edge over beach is the excellent bar and a cafeteria with a fairly interesting menu choice. A great thing (and a money-saver) is that they allow you to bring in your own lunch or snacks.

Another enticement that the park offers is that your ticket is valid for the whole day. That means you can wander off into Ibiza town or walk down to the beach and return later without having to pay admission again.

There is one hidden cost though that is not mentioned anywhere or told to you at the time you buy your ticket or enter the gates. After you have spent a couple of hours in the facility a member of the staff will approach you and charge you €2.50 for every sun bed you have taken! If you have gone with the family then it could seriously lighten the wallet. So be warned.

Taking all this into account, the Aguamar Waterpark is a great place to spend half a day and give the kids a good time.
 

Image credit: shelly-jo

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Touring Bangkok in a Tuk Tuk

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Bangkok Tuk-Tuk

Travelling in a tuk tuk through Bangkok at any time can be thrilling. Or it can turn out to be the nerve-wracking, white-knuckle experience of your life. Either way it won’t be dull. These three-wheeled motorised rickshaws, a World War II, throwback, is a fairly cheap way to get around the city. The drivers are somehow able to wriggle through Bangkok’s legendary stand-still traffic.

If you don’t have too much time to spend in Bangkok (a sacrilegious situation) then taking a half day (between 4 and 5 hours) tour of The Big Mango is the best way to get around and see the main sights and monuments. However, don’t try to randomly pick up one on the streets or at the tourist points or even worse let some friendly stranger (a tout in disguise) help you to hire one. The tuk tuk scams in Bangkok are legendary and can be quite distressing.

One of the best options is to walk into a large/brand name hotel and ask the concierge or the travel desk to hire one for you. The staff will get you a ‘reliable’ English speaking driver and the scam possibilities are reduced as they don’t want to get into trouble. The other option is to book the tour from your local travel agent before you leave home.

Anyway once you clamber aboard these iconic little Formula 1 wanna-be’s you will be in for an adventure. Weaving through traffic and the crowded lively back streets of Bangkok you will be taken to the Phra Sumeru Fortress, the Buddhist temple of Wat Po and the Golden Mount.  Along the way you have to spend a little time in colourful Little India, the Amulet Market and that of Woeng Nakom Kasem, the famous “thieves market.”

During any form of tour in Bangkok stopping at textile/cloth, gem and jewellery shops is like a rite of passage. There is no escaping this part of the sightseeing in the city – unless you walk around on your own. Even the itineraries of world-renowned tour companies will have an obligatory showroom/shop stop.

Sightseeing Bangkok in a tuk tuk is a different kettle of fish. There are innumerable scams that are aimed at getting you into gem stores, massage parlours or the like. If you are trapped by one of these sweet talking tuk tuk drivers you could wind up having a harrowing time at a store and bullied into buying some cheap stuff that you don’t really want.
 

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Exploring the Solomon Islands

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Solomon Islands

To paraphrase the poet, ‘if there is a heaven, this is it, this is it, this is it!

When you approach the Solomon Islands by air or even by ship all your senses are stunned by the sheer beauty of these gems sprinkled across 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) of the Southwest Pacific Ocean. They comprise of about 992 green isles that total up to 28,400 square kilometres.

One usually gets there by air. The airport in the capital city, Honiara is on the island of Guadalcanal. Thereafter to get around to the other islands you have to do it by boat, which can be quite exhilarating and an adventure itself.

The Solomons are home to just over half a million people. You are not going to see too many of them though as they are scattered all over the place with many of them quite isolated from other folks. They speak 74 local languages (according to Ethnologue, Languages of the World).  Don’t bother trying to count.

The beaches are simply superb and seem to be a product of your dreams. The surf is pretty good all year. Silvery soft sands fringed by green trees that contrast with the blue of the sea are enough to get you thinking about never going back home.

The beach-based activities are a-plenty – swimming, snorkelling, diving, kayaking, fishing, island-cruising and of course surfing. The great part about indulging in these activities is that there is hardly anybody around to cramp your style.

Another great option (my favourite) is to lie in a hammock on the beach and watch the sunsets. But then this is what you want right? None of that hectic, got-to-do-something-all-the-time stuff. These isles are meant to be enjoyed with the ‘lazy quotient’ in plenty.  

Away from the beaches the islands have lush green valleys and forested mountains that provide breathtaking views of the seas around and the tiny, picturesque villages. If you like trekking and sweating it out (the Solomon Islands are extremely humid all year round) then you should go bushwalking. There are movie perfect waterfalls, caves, sheer ridges with single tracks to enchant you en route.

The islands are home to several volcanoes. Most of them are dormant with two Tinakula and Kavachi sort-of active. Everyone will tell you that Tinakula is due for a blow. They are worth taking the walk to look at.

While accommodation and facilities can be terrifically erratic – flush toilets are a premium – you could enjoy the pleasures of a ‘village stay’ to experience the ancient lifestyle of the Solomon Island tribes.

Some Local Insights

The boat services are erratic and can involve waiting. There are not too many hotels, resorts or guest houses. The infrastructure is pretty much non-existent. The Solomon Islands suffer from accessibility difficulties. Many of them are uninhabited too.

Many of the beaches are privately owned and you need permission from owners or families to lie around or surf at them. The Solomon Islands are still largely owned by the various tribes who are governed by a whole set of local customs and traditions. It can be rather tiresome too as you very often need permissions from local chiefs, police and even the visitors bureau.

Things are improving all the time and are no reason not to visit the Solomon Islands. Who said that paradise had to be perfect?  At any rate the experiences and magic of the place will wipe away any memories of inconveniences. Your heart will see to that.
 

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