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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!

Marrakech, Morocco: (Hi)stories and Adventure!

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Known as the “Red City”, Marrakech, Morocco is often known simply for its expansive open-air markets, snake-charmers, and tiny, winding streets. But, situated at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, this French and Arabic speaking city also holds a rich cultural history, plenty of outdoor adventures, and gorgeous architecture and “red” desert scenery.

Marrakech Medina - Joao Maximo

Marrakech Medina - Joao Maximo

Marrakech is a wonderful example of unspoiled, untainted culture. A combination of traditional Arabic, Berber, and French has been woven together into the city’s distinctive dialogue. And though Islam is still quite strong, Marrakech is a less conservative city than many other Moroccan cities. Hazy, pink buildings are a dime a dozen. Shops are mostly tiny, locally-run operations. Coffee is thick and delicious (no instant stuff there!). And the sun, I hear, is always shining (see! It’s not just Californians who say this). continue reading

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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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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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Dating Advice from Birdman

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It’s springtime, and love is in the air…

My undergraduate biology professor was, I recall fondly, the most eager ornithologist alive; I’ve never, ever experienced a person with such passion for his field. His descriptions, slideshows and enactments of Bowerbird courtship nesting rituals were more animated than the dances of a Broadway ‘Simba’ on acid. I just wish I could remember his name….let’s call him Birdman.

“He’s a bird watcheeer…he’s a bird watcher…watchin’ birds go by: my, my, myyyy…”

I learned a thing or two from Birdman; first of all, that, if all men behaved like Bowerbirds, the world would truly be a better place—meaning that women would constantly be showered with attention, affection and personalized, heartfelt gifts (sigh!). The elaborate nest-constructing rituals of the Bowerbird are like none other on the planet.

Picture this scenario:

It’s a warm, bright spring afternoon on beautiful Fraser Island, Australia, and romance is in the air. Benny, the blue Satin continue reading

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A Lake I LOVE

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I’m an eternal beach girl. Give me a list of vacation choices, and I’ll always opt for sun, sand and turquoise blue over the mountain cabin or the big city jaunt.

And lakes? Who needs ‘em. They’re always murky, always still—lakes are perfect hiding places for sneaky snakes and nasty crocodiles, as far as I’m concerned. And the ones that are clean/clear are usually freezing 11.5 months a year.

What can you even do in a lake? Ok, watersports, fine. Again, there is the lurking creature issue. Sunbathe? Sometimes, if you find a nice muddy patch or a big, hard rock to sit on.

Soft, fine sand + warm sunshine + gentle, crashing waves = my idea of relaxation.This had always been my rationale until just over 3 years ago, when my friends convinced me to take a weekend trip to Lake Como on the northern border of Italy. I wasn’t really into it—I wanted to go to Amalfi. “But Carrie, George Clooney has a house by Lake Como!” Oh, well why didn’t you say something sooner? Sadly, I was sold.

I was in love upon arrival, and not just with George. The Lake Como region is, by far, one of the most beautiful patches of natural scenery in Italy. My experience there remains one of the most serene and invigorating that I have ever had.

Lake Como and flowers

I was traveling with 5 girls—that’s usually a recipe for disaster! But, I don’t know, maybe it was something in the mountain air; we had one amazing adventure.

Not only is the shimmering lake simply stunning, but it is surrounded by quaint, romantic, colorful little villages—we visited Varenna, Menaggio and Bellagio—which are set off by magnificent views of the Swiss Alps.We spent our time hiking:

Hiking in Lake Como

Exploring:

Hiking in Lake Como

Rock gathering (there were some amazing pieces of worn, smooth and colorful glass nestled in the pebbly beaches):

Managgio, Lake Como, Italy

Discovering the charming little towns (here is Varenna):

 

Varenna, Italy on coast of Lake Como

And we even went kayaking:

Kayaking at dusk on Lake Como

No lake monsters, but the water was, indeed, freezing.So we obviously had to warm ourselves up on a lakeside village bar crawl (I’ll withhold the photographic evidence…)

So maybe the entire trip wasn’t exactly “serene,” per se. But overall, it was an active, relaxing, and, importantly, affordable weekend. (If you do decide to travel with a group, I recommend the Ostello Menaggio. Great rates and cheap kayak rentals.)

In conclusion, Il Lago di Como é piú bello di George Clooney.

Ciao, grazie! :)

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