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We’re funny (usually), controversial (sometimes) and insightful (always!). Our travel experts share their experiences below in hopes of hearing back from YOU. So read, comment and enjoy!

Posts in ‘Sport & Adventure’

Globe trotters unite: a journey with a purpose.

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Our ‘Perfect Holiday’ Contest entries have been rolling in! A few of you got very creative with your responses, crafting globe trotting itineraries with inventive themes. Here are some of our favourites thus far:

1. ‘Southern Music Odyssey’, by Greg Davies

A road trip with a difference—i.e. not your usual ‘Route 66’ or ‘Coast to Coast’ American Dream. Due to my late grandfather’s musical obsession that he passed onto me, my dream holiday would be to drive the southern United States, visiting and enjoying some of the famous sights and sounds of Country music—the Grand Ol’ Opry, Memphis, Tupelo, Austin, Nashville—all in an old convertible…staying at old-style motels along the way and enjoying southern hospitality and good ol’ time music, the way it’s meant to be enjoyed!

2. ‘A Taste for Travel’, by Lydia Houghton

I’d have lobster in Cancun, cocktails in New York, A balti in Bombay, A Guinness in County Cork, coq au vin in Paris, a pizza in fair Rome, a chop suey in Beijing, and Swedish meatballs in Stockholm.

It would be such a treat to take a break from all the cooking, but the only problem is… my tummy might need tucking!

3. ‘Natural World Wonders’, by Chris Woodroofe

My Perfect Holiday would be a tour around all of the natural world wonders: Serengeti Migration, Galápagos Islands, Grand Canyon, Iguazu Falls, Amazon Rainforest, Ngorongoro Crater, Great Barrier Reef, Bora Bora Cappadocia and Victoria Falls. All I would need would be a backpack, a diary, and a camera…this would be my perfect holiday—very simple, but very rewarding, as the natural world wonders are being destroyed…

That’s all for now!

The official shortlist will be posted on the isango! website very soon. Be sure to vote!

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Activity holidays becoming more popular

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More than 10 million activity breaks were booked last yearActivity holidays are becoming increasingly popular as people want to do more than just lounge around the beach, the Association of Independent Tour Operators (Aito) has said.

The activity holiday market has grown 17.2 per cent between 2003 and 2007, according to recent research by Mintel.

By the end of 2008, activity holidays are expected to account for nearly one in eight holidays taken by Britons, growing from just over one in ten in 2003.

Commenting on the trend, Mr Bradley said: "People are feeling that they want to be more active on holiday rather than just purely relaxing on the beach or just doing a city break.

"They want to feel like they are maybe learning a new skill or they are working out where they are and seeing wonderful places around the world."

Mintel estimates that around 10.2 million activity breaks were taken in 2007.

Active and Adventure – Air Activities – Enjoy an exhilarating helicopter ride over New York or a serene hot air balloon ride over the Australian outback.
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Transform Your Dream Holiday into Reality…

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It’s FAMILY TIME!

We’ve gotten some fantastic Perfect Holiday contest entries so far—do keep ‘em coming!

And, after further perusing your travel whims and fantasies, I’ve discovered that many of you dream not simply about secluded, romantic getaways as discussed in a previous blog: you want to get your entire families on board. What a task…

I know it seems difficult to fathom actually leading your family on an Arctic fishing trip…or guiding them through a bustling north African market. So many things to worry about: the cost, transportation logistics, and accommodation… your daughter’s current vegetarian phase…your son’s incredibly fair skin…your mother’s bouts with vertigo…

But have you ever actually tried to translate one of your visions of paradise into a real-life family holiday? Why not give it a try? Just cast all of the logistical details aside for a moment, and focus on the actual on-the-ground experiences that you desire: you can do this by first compiling a concrete, feasible list of tours and activities.

To assist you in this process, I have pasted some descriptive and imaginative Perfect Holiday contest entries below, responding with some suggestions.

1. Debbie’s Arctic Adventure:

“I’d take the family to Iceland for the most exhilarating holiday ever. We’d go whale watching in Husavik where humpbacks, minke, orcas, sperm whales white-nosed dolphins and harbour porpoises leap in the waters of the North Atlantic. We could go snowmobiling on the Solheimajokull glacier. We’d visit spouting geysers, bubbling mud baths and bizarre rock formations and bubbling lava flows in the Golden Circle. I want to tee off at 3am in the Arctic Open where amateurs and professional golfers compete through the night under a spectacular orange night sky. My kids could swim in the sea at the geothermally heated beach at Nautholsvik Bay, and I could ease my bad back in the pure, mineral-rich geothermal waters of the blue lagoon, a bright blue pool in the middle of a lava field which is world renowned for it’s healing properties. On September 20th is the Summer Solstice, the apex of a month of 24 hour daylight when the country celebrates the magic of the midnight sun. (Of course they also experience an equivalent month of darkness so everyone makes the most of the spectacle and parties through the night.)”

Debbie, thanks so much for that insightful description of Iceland! There are plenty of structured, guided tours of these places that you could sign up for to keep your family happy and busy—most of them from Reykjavik. I suggest checking out the following:

1. The Golden Circle Tour

2. Excursion to Snæfellsjökull National Park (Snæfellsjökull Glacier).

3. Blue Lagoon Experience, Reykjavik.

Good luck, Debbie!

2. Karen’s Paradise:

“My perfect holiday is landing in a place where the views and the heat take your breath away from the moment you arrive. I stay in a place where the walls are white, the floors terracotta and the flowers, red. I throw cases on the bed, take out all I need and head out to the pool. I smooth sunscreen on my son and watch, smiling, while he plays and explores and squeals excitedly over the lizards he finds. I lie with my eyes closed behind my sunglasses, sipping a chilled cocktail while the sun makes my skin tingle. My little boy calls from the pool, so I get up, walk to the edge, take a breath and dive into ice cold, ice blue water that in that second makes me feel more exhilarated than I have ever felt before. Later, we visit hot, exotic, noisy markets and walk round, holding hands, buying fabulous things we’ve never seen before. We visit a restaurant and eat delicious, local seafood with velvety wines from a table that faces the ocean as the sun sets. Beautiful people in traditional dress play music and dance while night draws in on the first day of our holiday…”

Well, Karen, this could be a number of places! A few destinations come to mind…have you ever considered visiting the Strait of Gibraltar? You could stay on the Costa del Sol in southern Spain to get your dose of sun, sand and relaxation… and take an excursion to Tangier, Morocco for the ultimate, colourful and cultural experience.

Some organised tours that your son might enjoy:

Kayaking Excursion in Nerja (Costa del Sol, Spain)

5-Day Morocco Sightseeing Tour from Costa Del Sol (from Spain to Morocco)

Strait of Gibraltar and Tangier Sightseeing Tour (Daytrip from Spain to Morocco)

Thanks again, Debbie and Karen!

May your holiday wishes come true!

Happy planning!

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WIN YOUR ‘PERFECT HOLIDAY’ (Seriously!)

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Ok folks, it’s finally that time of year – the time when you wake up on a rainy, chilly ‘summer’ morning and realise that you were a fool for economising in ’08 and using your holidays to visit Auntie Maeve in Birmingham for her mid-August birthday…boring!

There’s still time to plan an adventure, and there’s a way to do it…and cheaply.

Here’s how:

1. Dream up your wildest, most intriguing/ creative/ exotic/ romantic/ adventurous/ whimsical holiday EVER.

2. Write it down (before you share the idea with any of your friends/family—they will just think you are crazy, thus stifling your creative genius/globe trotting aspirations. For example, my mum wasn’t so keen on my brilliant idea to become a Bollywood dancer in Bombay, so I had to settle for a 4 week course in Mayfair. If only this contest had existed then! ).

3. While we are certain that you would all make fantastic novelists—and would love to jumpstart your careers as travel journalists—we ask that you please reduce the text to 200 words or less and come up with a short, catchy title.

4. Go to the contest website, paste your text in the entry window, and enter to WIN £500 of isango! credit towards your dream holiday.

Click here to enter the Isango! ‘Perfect Holiday’ Contest.

We will be posting our favourite entries on the blog throughout July/August, with the shortlist posted here for public voting in early August.

The Grand Prize Winner of the £500 isango! voucher will be announced at the end of August!

Good luck!

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Following the footsteps of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – A Patagonian Adventure!

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After a very long stint in Buenos Aires (everyone I have ever known has gotten stuck there for weeks and weeks beyond their intended stay – might have something to do with the Argentinian Men, the electric atmosphere of the city, the incredible nightlife and….well, the Argentinian Men…) I decided it was high time that I head south and see what all the fuss was about.

The vast and hostile terrain that makes up Patagonia, the southernmost point in both Argentina and Chile is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful sights there is on this earth. Snow-capped peaks, vast mountain lakes, glaciers, fjords, not to mention the wildlife – penguins, whales, sea lions,…and did I mention the penguins!? They are so cute – like miniature black and white people with funny stumpy legs!!

In order to get a sense of the scale of the place – it takes 50 hours to get from Buenos Aires to the tip in Ushuaia by bus (luxury bus that is) – Immense!…I cheated, however and flew down to Punta Arenas on the Chilean side (in my defense… it was only just the end of winter, and many said it was the only way of getting there at all! Turns out wasn’t, but this made me feel slightly less guilty at the time).

Punta Arenas was a rather depressing little town – very grey, crumbling and weather beaten…perhaps what you’d expect from such a harsh climate. Puerto Natales (my actual destination) was the same. From a tourism perspective, it is simply a jump off point for Torres del Paine National Park and the ferry ride back up to Puerto Mont through the Chilean Fjords (a stunning trip, so I’m told). I was on my own at this point in my travels, and there was absolutely no one else around –well, apart from 3 incredibly brave German girls – only 13 years old – that were on the adventure trip of a lifetime in their school holiday exchange break. They adopted me as a ‘big sister’, and we decided to go off trekking in the Torres Del Paine national park for a couple of days. It was spectacular – despite our 8 hour trek yielding nothing but fog-ridden views and knee deep snow. Occasionally, I would drop back from the girls and take it all in – space, as far as the eye could see (which was a long way when the fog cleared intermittently!), beauty, nature at its most powerful, and there I was – practically at the end of the world!

I soon left Puerto Natales and made my way back into Argentina, anxious to see the Perito Moreno glacier. The nearest town, El Calafate was far more bustling and welcoming and the hostel (run by friends of friends back in Buenos Aires) was a home from home (the Argentine people are among the kindest I have met in my life – generous, hospitable and above all fun!).

I didn’t have much time to spare, so I organised an ice trekking trip for the very next day – a little expensive but something I had always wanted to do! It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life! There I was, trekking on a real life glacier, crampons and all! My little group followed the guide in single file as he took us on a walk up and around the glacier, explaining as we went about how they worked, the dangers, etc. I have never seen ice so blue, so pure, so white – and looking out from the top of the monstrous slab of ice that was moving, living, breathing: I felt like I was in another world.

Perito Merino Patagonia

I did a bit more trekking in El Chalten National Park and then, deciding to forgo Ushuaia (another 18 hours south-west), headed north to see the whales and the penguins in Peninsula Valdes, Puerto Madryn and the lakes and ski resorts of Bariloche.

I had never before been so close to such incredible animals – my little boat was entirely surrounded by whales as far as the eye could see – almost close enough to touch! When we got back to shore, I wanted to go out again and again! Instead, however, I headed over to a different part of the peninsula to see the penguins, sea lions and elephant seals – fascinating! I just sat and watched for hours until it was time to go home.

My final stop in Patagonia (for now, at least…) was Bariloche in the lake region. Probably the least ‘alternative’ stop of all – it reminded my of a Swiss alpine village with chocolate shops aplenty, beautiful mountain lakes and even a ski resort a short distance from the town. It was, in a word, idyllic; it was extremely hard to tear myself away from the ease and comfort of it all (I even indulged in a little spa activity while I was there!)

Patagonia is a nature lover’s paradise – its raw beauty is undeniable, and this, coupled with the simplicity of life within the boundaries of the region soothes the soul (without wanting to sound too cliché or cheesy). I felt refreshed, alive, and invigorated after my stint there and would recommend it to anyone travelling in the South America region. I myself have vowed to go back one day to the very tip of the world – Ushuaia – to experience the Ferry trip and perhaps even hop on a cruise to Antarctica.

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STA Travel: Insurance is a must for activity holidays

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One in ten Britons wrongly believe that all travel insurance policies cover adventurous activities Travel insurance is "undoubtedly the wisest purchase" travellers can make when going on an activity holiday, STA Travel has said.

A spokeswoman for the company said that insurance may seem like an unnecessary extra cost, but it is a must "in case case you lose your belongings or need medical attention".

She advised: "You should ensure the travel insurance you take out covers all the countries you plan to travel to and any activities you plan to participate in."

Recent research by esure shows that one in ten Britons wrongly believe that all travel insurance policies cover adventurous activities as standard.

Worryingly, 15 per cent admitted that they would go ahead and make a booking even if they knew the activity wasn’t covered under their travel insurance.

Mike Pickard, head of travel insurance at esure, said: "With a surge in the popularity of, and access to, more adventurous sports and activities at holiday resorts across the globe, it’s crucial for holidaymakers to take out travel insurance and check they’re covered before they try out the likes of white water rafting in Australia or shark-feeding in the Bahamas. Get injured and the medical bills could turn a paradise trip into a nightmare."

Active and Adventure – Air Activities – Enjoy an exhilarating helicopter ride over New York or a serene hot air balloon ride over the Australian outback.

ADNFCR-1652-ID-18674847-ADNFCR

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The Omnivore’s East African Dilemma

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A recent rabbinical revelation, which qualified giraffes as amongst those lucky, split-hoofed and cud-chewing animals deemed kosher, got me thinking about my personal meat consumption. From where I’m currently writing (in the American northeast), if I want to eat locally, I’m pretty much restricted to sheep, cows, pigs, goats, and various poultry (minus one if I’m eating kosher!). It thus seems my giraffe-eating opportunities, rabbi-sanctioned or not, are limited. (Full disclosure: I’ve been a vegetarian since the 8th grade…).

But while giraffe remains novel, I did eat zebra once. Well, not really, but I very seriously considered it. I had it on my fork, raised it to my mouth and everything. Alas, at the last second, I got cold feet and finished my meal with my vegetarianism in tact.

Where, you ask, did I have this unique opportunity to test the (narrow) limits of my gastronomical bravado? Certainly not in Philadelphia. No way. I’m afraid enterprising eaters must travel to Kenya to try such exotic and gamey culinary delights. There you must head to Nairobi to have a lunch or dinner at the world-famous restaurant The Carnivore.

While I can’t promise giraffe, you can certainly enjoy such carnal treats as crocodile and antelope. And for those of you with less adventurous palates, grilled and barbequed beef, pork, and chicken are also available.

My vegetarian experience of The Carnivore was limited to some pastry-like, lasagna-esque dish, which I shamefully ordered as my more courageous colleagues had wildebeest and ostrich shaved onto their already overflowing plates. I’m not kidding. Attentive, waistcoat-clad servers literally shaved the meat from spits using very large carving knives at the table!!! (And for the record, my veggie meal was delicious, if embarrassing to order).

After stuffing themselves with as much meat as they could handle, my co-diners surrendered to their protein-induced food comas by raising a white flag. These flags are conveniently left in the middle of the table and signal to the diligent servers/meat-carvers that their customers have had enough game and are ready to move on to dessert.

Okay, so perhaps you’re not down with eating giraffe. I don’t blame you. I prefer my blue-tongued, acacia-eating ungulates without barbeque sauce, thank you very much. If you’re like me then you might favor heading just outside Nairobi to the Ngong Hills. There you’ll find the former house (now turned museum) of Danish author Karen Blixen. Drawing a blank on this one? Think: Meryl Streep, and more importantly, Robert Redford <sigh>, in Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa, the movie based on Blixen’s life and work. In addition to re-living favorite moments from the academy award-winning film while touring the house and its bordering grounds, you get to visit the adjacent Giraffe Center. Here you will meet Daisy, the famous Rothschild giraffe, and also have the chance feed the center’s towering twiga, as the animals are called in Kiswahili.

Of course, there’s nothing like seeing animals in the wild. And for that, Kenya’s certainly the right place! After a few nights in Nairobi, head out of the city for a safari (Kiswahili for “journey” or “travel”) in any number of the country’s National Parks and Wildlife Reserves. In the lush landscape of the Masai Mara, you can see the majestic twiga in their natural habitat, not to mention simba (lion), ndovu (elephant), and kiboko (hippo).

The memories alone are enough to whet my appetite and start me dreaming about Landrovers and acacia-dotted landscapes. Sadly, from where I’m presently sitting in Philadelphia, these exciting meals and safaris are nearly half a world away. So despite the rabbis’ green-light on the ingestion of my favorite ruminant, until my next East African adventure I guess I’ll have to satisfy my giraffe-cravings at the local zoo.

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Get your golf on…

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Tee off in Fuerteventura

Golfderdash: (n) An artful pastime that combines elements of the classic (mildly elitist, impossible to master) board game of Balderdash with the classic (mildly elitist, impossible to master) sporting activity of Golf.

The game of Golfderdash was created 18 minutes before this blog was posted, on the premise that one’s successful participation in the game of Golf (+ Balderdash) is dependent upon one’s ability to feign knowledge of obscure terminology (basically, both games involve lots of BS’ing).Please participate in the trial run of Golfderdash by posting your best answer to the following golf-related questions at the end of this blog.

1: What is an ‘Elephant Burial Ground’?

Choose from:

a. An ancient site of ritual sacrifice, several of which have are embedded beneath the fairways of golf courses near Durban, South Africa.

b. A large, mysterious mound encountered by golfers—usually on the green of a course—where good scores tend to ‘die’.

c. A sacred place where dead elephants are buried.

d. A Las Vegas Casino, known for its extensive range of golf-themed machines, in which gamblers ‘bury’ large quantities of money.

Go ahead, take a guess! Post below—all winners get virtual ‘high fives’. How about it?

2: What is a ‘Yank’?

Choose from:

Nothing. I’m leaving this one open-ended. Hit me with your best shot, below.

3: Can you eat a ‘Texas Wedge’?

…obviously not.

Folks, there’s more where that came from…

So I’ll admit it—I’m not much of a golfer. However, as a young girl I did own a fluorescent pink golf bag and a putter; I used to tag along to the 9 hole practice course with my dad and brother, who, of course, always inverted the scoring system to cater to my 28 put sinks.

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking—I would like to take up this beloved pastime as a serious adult…mainly so I can meet some cute guys I mean become a well-rounded athlete/person.Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

How to become a golfer:

Step 1 – Learn lingo (check.)

Step 2 – Take a bunch of lessons (er…)

Step 3 – Exercise newfound skills on courses in exotic locales (yes, please!)

Step 4 – Become well-rounded athlete/person (on my way.)Let’s skip straight to the most crucial step, shall we?

Putting through paradise: Hot golfing destinations ’08…

1. Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria:

Sun, sand, turquoise blue…oh, and of course an enormous expanse of green for your golfing pleasure!The Fuerteventura Golf Club contains over 1,500,000 square meters of open playing space—including a state-of-the-art driving range, putting green and chipping green—making it the largest green area of the Canary Island of Fuerteventura.

Tee off in paradise as you watch the sunrise over the Atlantic; drive, chip, and put your way to the 18th green, as you admire the sparkling lakes, lush palm trees and glorious scenery; relax into the late afternoon on a peaceful catamaran cruise.Venture beyond the fairways to experience a huge range of sightseeing activities, including deep sea fishing trips, scenic bike safaris, volcano excursions, and family cruises.

2. Akaroa, New Zealand.

Mix a bit of culture—and breathtaking South Island scenery—into your golfing adventure by embarking on a trip to the historic French whaling village of Akaroa. The adjacent 18 hole Akaroa golf course (par: 67M, 70W), overlooking the Akaroa Harbor, is considered one of the most picturesque courses in Canterbury.

This sightseeing tour of Akaroa includes hotel pick up and drop off, lunch, a visit to a local cheese factory (?), and, of course, a round of golf!

End your trip with a splash by taking swim with rare dolphins in AkaroaHarbor.

3. Selborne Estate, South Africa

Live in luxury at the exclusive Selborne Hotel, Spa and Golf Estate, as you soak in the subtropical warmth of the Indian Ocean, just 30 miles south of Durban.Their 18-hole golf course has been described by some as one of the finest in South Africa, where “wild coastal forest frames a superbly manicured course…where the only disturbance may be one of nature’s creatures” (- an elephant ghost?)

Suitable for professionals and amateurs alike, Selborne even has its own resident PGA instructor and indoor golf academy.

Selborne Estate South Africa

Should you desire to venture beyond the comforts of the estate, you may opt for a bit of local culture at the Phezulu Village or in the city of Durban.

Get your golf on.

I hope that I’ve inspired you to plan en exotic golfing adventure.

In the mean time, let’s keep the Golfderdash tradition going strong. I await your answers.

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The Mountain, Borneo

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I will start my series of blog entries with one of the most memorable (and exhausting) trips I made whilst on my journey around the world – that was to Sabah, Borneo to climb the famous Mount Kinabalu.

I have long held a fascination with Borneo – the faraway island, where my mother was born and where most of my family spent their youth – so it was with both excitement and expectation that I first set foot in Kota Kinabalu. ‘The Mountain’, as it’s known by the locals, is legend in my family. It once defeated my stubborn, ‘happy grump’ of a grand-father who, despite building roads through jungles, and surviving the infamous Bridge of the River Kwai concentration camp, failed to reach the summit… “ Bugger this”, he said, but half way to the top – “I’m going back down for a corpse reviver”, (one of the many cocktails he has invented in his life time. Other favourites include the ‘grave robber’ and the ‘brain crippler’).

How could I, an asthma-ridden, stodge-eating, city girl ever hope to achieve it? Still, I was determined to succeed, and that was enough for me…

Mount Kinabalu towers over everything surrounding it and watches protectively over KK city. It is an impressive sight, and it is little wonder that the locals believe it to have supernatural powers. Visiting the mountain and the lush, tropical national park at its base is a simple task to organise, or so I thought…”tour operator? – pah! Who needs one?” Boy, did I regret that decision!

In a pathetic bid to save a few measly pennies (literally, in Malaysia),I opted to make my own way, via local bus, to the national park. I also snubbed the plush hotels inside the compound for a miserable little ‘pension’ with an ant infested kitchen and ‘colourful’ bed sheets that attempted to mask the years they had spent on the rickety bunks, unwashed, unchanged and crawling with God knows what! It was a miracle that I arrived unscathed…and even more of a miracle that I was alive the next morning to tell the tale…

Once inside the park, I had to arrange my pass, a guide, my accommodation and countless other things before I was able to set off…I was already exhausted, and I hadn’t even started walking yet!

Then, suddenly, I was off….off to conquer the mountain, to race to the top…

Well, that dream was short lived. For ‘race’ I did not: the first day of the trek consists of 4 hours of pure uphill climbing. Not long, some might say, but it is possibly the steepest 4 hour climb I have ever undertaken – harder than the entire Machu Picchu trail put together! That, coupled with the suppressive tropical heat and the increasing altitude makes it, at times, unbearable. However, the trail was beautifully kept, with regular scenic resting stops and plenty of people to chat with along the way. We all encouraged one another up the relentless mountainside to our resting place , close to the top.

Secretly, I enjoyed every minute of it.

In the end, I made surprisingly good time and spent the late afternoon settling into my room, attempting to shower in the icy cold before meeting up with some fellow trekkers. Before long, we were firm friends and watched the stunning sunset together over a couple of beers, a game of cards and a steaming bowl of noodle soup.

I had barely closed my eyes (I had a snorer in my room, who could be heard the length of the corridor…), when I was rudely awoken with a 1 am call to get out of bed and up the mountain in order to see the sunrise. It was exhilarating; there we were on a steep granite slope in the pitch black, able only to see by torch light (now who’s glad they had a head torch!), as we clutched onto ropes to keep us from slipping off the side. Surprisingly, I found the climb much easier in the dark: unable to see the gradient of the incline, I seemed much more willing to push on (unlike the day before!) and made it to the top with my new found friends in record time.

Climbing Mount Kinabalu, Borneo

The cold was biting – we used anything that we could find to keep warm: towels as hats, socks as gloves…a sight to behold! And then we sat…waiting, and waiting…and waiting, until, very slowly, bit by bit, the sun started to creep up above the horizon, illuminating our surroundings and setting the sky on fire! The sight was breathtaking, spectacular; absolutely spellbinding. Never had I seen such a unique setting…the jagged hostile nature of the granite rocks surrounding us contrasted with the lush tropical forest in the valley below – making it one of the most striking views I had ever seen. I felt alive to be there, standing as if on the top of the world.

Veiw from Mount Kinabalu

After we had had our fix of marvellous views, we tore ourselves away and began the descent: nothing could have prepared me for the pain that ensued. Walking purely downhill for 8 hours is the most excruciating task…so much so that my legs actually refused to work for the last hour, and I had to walk on my tip toes just to make it down. It was as if my limbs had become independent of my body and flapped around with a will of their own! Still, after a long and painful day, I arrived safely at the bottom with a feeling of satisfaction and elation.

There it stood: the mountain, as tall and majestic as ever…but this time I saw it differently. I had conquered it, I had stood upon its summit, and I would cherish the experience always.

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The Republic of Happiness.

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“We have the friendliest border police in the world,” the officer smiled as he handed me back my landing card, “you can start your story with that?”

I’m in love with Ireland. And I’m not just saying this because I still have traces of Guinness lurking in my synapses (folk ballads ringing in my ears, 40 shades of green flashing through my hazy subconscious…). I just met some of the warmest, most welcoming people on the planet. It was their personalities—their enthusiasm for life and for those around them—that defined my travel experience. My most vivid memories of the Emerald Isle will thus linger as a series of encounters with lively locals, namely the following…

1. Michael O’Leary

Not the famed, fiery chief executive of Ryanair—or his son, as insinuated by friends (unless Mike Sr. secretly spawned at age 10)—but nonetheless a most charismatic guru of Dublin nightlife.

Mr. O’Leary’s mantra—“those who have no fear are truly free” (repeated several times, over several pints)—will never be forgotten. Amen, brother. Amen…

“The way I see it, girls,” he grandly gestured toward the window of The Bailey, a trendy, laid back Dublin watering hole—a crossroads for pub-going lads and cocktail-sipping ladies (a good place for the former to take and (attempt to) impress the latter), “is that you have two choices—two potential paths, if you will.”

We sipped our glasses of chardonnay in anticipation.

“But you must first tell me,” he leaned forward: “What is it that you truly hope for?”

In life…or from the bartender? We just wanted to know which, uh, pub we should go to next?

“You see, you have choices.

choices?

“Yes, choices. You can either walk through that door, and turn left…”

He grabbed a pen from his pocket and quickly charted a hyper-detailed route to Café en Seine, a posh French café-turned-disco, on my damp napkin.

“Or, you can go…right.”

The difference being…?

“Well, if you choose left, you choose…suits.”

French cafes and suits? You’ve gotta be kidding. We want a banjo-picking, sham-rocking hoe down. This is Ireland for G’sake…

“But if you turn right…”

He carefully folded the napkin map into my friend’s palm.

“Well, that’s for you to discover.”

Two paths diverged in a green, drunken wood…

And we obviously chose right.

2. Mary O’Sullivan

Mary O’Sullivan was genuinely concerned with our well-being from the moment we stumbled into her Killarney Bicycle Shop—we appeared as two lost, giggling (hung over) tourists on an eager quest to “discover the Ring of Kerry” by bicycle…in four hours…right.

Mary saw how excited we were, though, and graciously offered us extra cycling time—she would come back to meet as after evening mass at 7.15pm on the dot (the shop closed at 6pm that night).

We had no idea where we were going, what to do with our bulky handbags or how to strap on our helmets. But Mary had us covered—she took care of everything. It took her 15 minutes to get us situated on our pink-trimmed town bikes, an amount of time in which, she informed us, “I can usually get 30 people out the door and on the road.” But she didn’t seem to mind mothering us—in fact, I think she really enjoyed it. She pointed out that she had good training for this type of thing, having raised 3 sons.

“Sorry, all married!” She responded…before I could even ask…while fastening my helmet (for the second time). Damn, she was good.

I should note that our cycling tour of Killarney National Park—a topic for another blog—was the unquestionable highlight of our trip to Ireland. Despite a *tiny* setback (we got lost and had to backtrack 15km to a vaguely familiar cow pasture, from which we miraculously navigated our ways back to the main road and into the city center), we had an amazing, scenic, and exhilarating journey through the enormous park and surrounds.

We even managed to make it back to Mary’s shop on time; actually, we were early. Mary informed us that our good fortune was a result of the prayer she said for us at mass.

Honestly, what would we have done without her? Mary O’Sullivan = our saviour.

3. Crazy Tom

Crazy Tom was the acoustic guitarist that stole our hearts with his country ballads and quirky cover selections at that little pub on College Street in downtown Killarney. I’ve spent the last 30 minutes doing crafty Google searches, trying to track down the name of the rustic little venue in which Tom’s musical magic transpired on the evening of May 25th, 2008. But I have failed miserably. Sorry kids—I just don’t remember where I was. But I remember the music…promise.

Fortunately, Killarney is the type of town where you could go door to door and say something like: “Do you know where I can find Tom, the crazy old, guitarist with the crazy hair? He’s incredibly talented and really nice to tourists? He sometimes plays Bob Marley…” And you would probably figure out a way to catch one of Tom’s gigs in less than an hour.

But if you can’t manage to track down Tom, fear not: the Killarney nightlife scene is live music. Just stroll through the city center on a weekend evening—you are bound to encounter tons of traditional/folk + country + rock cover bands in various little pubs and bars. I’ve never seen so many banjos in one weekend. Greatness.

We listened to Tom play for nearly three hours—he dedicated a song to us. We love Crazy Tom. And Irish music. And Killarney. And Ireland. And life…

Your turn

These are just a few of the many wonderful people that I met on a weekend trip to Ireland. I am still shrouded in a happy, boozy haze; I vow to return to the friendliest, leafiest little land in Europe as soon as I possibly can.

‘Tis the perfect season for an Irish jaunt. Get involved!

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