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By Annabel | Published: May 16, 2013
Julie Darby visited India with Cox & Kings and fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition to see the Himalaya.
Two episodes in particular from my trip to north-east India in November 2012 rest clearly in my memory. Flying east from Delhi on a brilliantly clear day I suddenly saw to my left what I took to be a line of fluffy cumulus clouds; then I realised that they were snow peaks, among which a towering mass could only be Everest. Totally unexpected, and curiously moving. In my late 70s, and therefore not before time, I was fulfilling a lifetime ambition to see the Himalaya – much more was to come. My destination was Darjeeling, and I arrived at dusk after a mind-boggling drive of more than three hours up a winding and pot-holed narrow road through the forested Himalayan foothills.
The next morning was the first of many which saw me up before dawn, heading 11km out of town to Tiger Hill. The hilltop viewing cabin for the favoured few was at about 2,600 metres, above a terrace crammed with well-clad and happily chattering Indians. It was still dark, but after a while the sky began to lighten, and one could make out the bulk of Kanchenjunga slowly emerging in the grey pre-dawn light – the world’s third highest mountain, only about 15km from us. I will admit to a brief moment of disappointment, but suddenly a spot of pink / orange light touched the top of the peak – and the chattering momentarily ceased… Slowly the giant was transformed, and in the incredibly clear and unpolluted light we could even see the dawn-lit tops of Everest, Llotse and Makalu more than 50km away. After what was for me an unmeasured amount of time, true daylight appeared.
My next stop was Diphlu Lodge in the Kaziranga National Park, in Assam, and again the flight was to show me something on a scale I had not expected. As we banked on approaching Guahati I saw an immensely broad swathe of shingle and sand kilometres wide with river channels winding across it, splitting, re-joining… I knew the Brahmaputra carried vast quantities of water and silt when in flood, but even at low water the scale of the channel was deeply impressive. Houses at low levels within 5km or so of the river were all raised on stilts, including the cabins of Diphlu Lodge.
On each of my four days in the park, I was up before dawn – elephant-back rides starting each day. One could approach very close to the rare one-horned rhinos, which were used to the presence of wild elephants. One early morning was very misty and it was unnerving to suddenly come upon the massively powerful beasts. Later that day, in the sun, a 4×4 took me to the banks of the Brahmaputra – yet even from the top of an observation tower, I could see no trace of the far banks.
(It is very sad that – writing in March 2013 – six rhinos in the park are reported to have been killed recently by poachers, for their horns.)
By Julie Darby.
By Annabel | Published: May 15, 2013
South Korea may not the first place that comes to mind for those planning a trip to the Far East, but when Cox & Kings’ Jimmy McLean was given the opportunity to visit this sometimes overlooked country, he jumped at the chance.
I have always been interested in this fascinating destination, therefore to have a tour of South Korea and a glimpse over to the mysterious North from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was a dream of mine since childhood.
On the way to the DMZ, which is only about an hour by car from Seoul, we could see from the road the 12-metre-high razor wire fences that separated North Korea from South Korea and it was like looking at the difference between the developed and the developing worlds. On the South Korea side, the grass was green, there was neon advertising for Samsung products and life felt normal. From the road looking out to the North, the mountains were brown, the land was barren and the atmosphere was chilling. Our guide said to us, if you think this is chilling, wait until you are actually at the DMZ and looking over from the viewpoint. This sounded scary, but fascinating. We arrived at the DMZ shortly afterwards and pretty much raced to the telescopes, which were on top of the viewing platform.
And there it was in all its glory – the ‘real’ North Korea.
But it wasn’t real. Our guide told us that the buildings in this photograph are purely a facade. No one lives in them. No one walks the streets. This is the ‘Propaganda’ village, built by North Korea to try and show off to the South and entice defectors. North Korea claims that the village is host to a nursery, primary and secondary schools, a farm and a hospital. However, the South states that the town is completely uninhabited. And from our telescopes there was not a hint of any life. No children or animals. It was completely void. Though no visitors are allowed, it is the only village in North Korea which can be seen from South Korea but as our guide said, and from what we could see ourselves, it wasn’t real. The buildings were lifeless, there was no glass in the windows and lights come on by timer to give the impression that they were lived in. But they weren’t. And if a South Korean did decide to go over to the North back in the 1950s and 1960s… there was no returning home. As I looked over at the North from the DMZ, my hand brushed my red British passport which was in my jacket pocket and it was like touching a very dear friend.
I thought that after visiting the DMZ, a trip to see the South Korean capital of Seoul, would be a bit of a disappointment. To me Seoul did not have the exhilaration of Hong Kong, the chaos of Bangkok or the pomp of Beijing. But that’s what makes Seoul different. For me, Seoul is quite simply one of Asia’s most relaxing cities. The city is spotlessly clean and not a hint of graffiti can be seen anywhere. The old effortlessly mixes with the new and sitting outside the Gyeongbok Palace, you can check your emails using the free and super fast wireless connection, which is available throughout the city.
There is also an element of quirkiness to Seoul which I liked and to this day I am still trying to find out why there is an inflatable bus perched on top of the bridge below.
My favourite attraction in Seoul is the N Seoul Tower. For those who like panoramic views of a city, then you will definitely not be disappointed with the views from the top. Built in 1969, it was only opened to the public in 1980. It may not be one of the tallest towers in the world at 236 metres, but it does stand at 479 metres above sea level.
And as you can see, the views are spectacular.
Seoul might not be as famous as Tokyo or Shanghai, but I only scratched the surface of this megacity with its 10 million inhabitants and I am already itching to return.
View Cox & Kings’ tours to South Korea.
By Annabel | Published: May 15, 2013
Cox & Kings’ Annabel Ford recently spent three nights in Portugal’s famous port wine region, the Douro Valley, and was not disappointed.
One might think that northern Portugal and the Douro Valley are a little too far to travel for a weekend, but having done just that for three nights recently; I now know that it is a completely stress-free way to spend a long weekend.
Flying into Porto, one of the easiest ways to get to the Douro is by car, taking around an hour and a half. Another much more scenic mode of transport is the train – winding through stunning landscape and beautiful hills on the way. As the train starts to approach the Douro Valley, an area that has been dedicated to the production of port wine since the 18th century, you can’t help but notice the beautifully-manicured, terraced vineyards. The region is a designated Unesco World Heritage Site, stretching over 100km from Regua to the Spanish border, and has been associated with the production of port for more than 2,000 years.
Boat trips along the Douro river are another fantastic way to enjoy the beauty of the Douro Valley, passing numerous of the famous port lodges along the way – Graham’s, Warre’s and Dow’s (to name a few). The small village of Pinhao sits on the banks of the Douro river and is a great spot to watch the passing boats or have a light bite for lunch.
Not far from Pinhao, you can find the tiny village of Provesende, a very attractive village with a lovely church and some fine country houses. There is a small shop here, ‘A Loja Amarela’ (The Yellow Shop), selling charming traditional handmade pottery, baskets, rugs and linen from all parts of Portugal. You can find the shop on the Rua do Fundo, just below the church. It is the perfect place to pick up some presents to bring home and definitely worth a visit.
A trip to Portugal would not be complete without a port tasting and for this I would recommend Graham’s Port lodge in Porto. Constructed on a commanding site in Vila Nova de Gaia, a short distance from the Atlantic Ocean, Graham’s lodge enjoys splendid views of the ancient city of Porto, across the Douro river, and also of Vila Nova de Gaia. Built in 1890, the lodge has strong granite walls currently housing over 3,500 casks of port, as well as many large oak barrels, vats, and an impressive Vintage Port cellar. Whilst exploring the cellars, you get a true feeling of the strong history and passion associated with the production of port in the country over the years. The recently completed wine bar provided an excellent opportunity to taste some delicious ports by the glass, led by a trained oenologist who was more than happy to answer our questions.
All in all, a weekend in the Douro Valley and a trip to Porto is highly recommended for a long weekend. I only wish it had been longer.
View Cox & Kings’ short breaks to the Douro.
By Annabel | Published: May 13, 2013
Cox & Kings’ Katie Liddell shares with us her experience of Uruguay and why it is so commonly referred to as the ‘Switzerland of South America’.
Of all the places to be while Andy Murray was fighting for the Wimbledon Championship, a remote beach in Uruguay surrounded by miles of sand dunes was not ideal. I had waited so many years to see a fellow Brit in the final and now I would miss all the drama of the battle between Murray and Federer. However, Uruguay surprised me yet again as the faultless mobile phone coverage allowed continuous game-by-game updates via text message from friends and family on ‘Wimbledon duty’.
I had travelled widely in South America but never to Uruguay, and the small, modest country continued to overturn all the stereotypes I thought were true about the continent. Firstly, the infrastructure is a dream – none of the pot-holed roads of Bolivia or inefficiency of Peru – and I can vouch that the phone reception in even the most remote corner of the country is excellent. Uruguay is known as the Switzerland of South America and its calm efficiency sets it apart from its hot-blooded Latin neighbours.
So there I was, on an enormous expanse of white sandy beach, near the small fishing village of Cabo Polonio in south-east Uruguay, when I learnt that Murray sadly didn’t win Wimbledon. There was no time to dwell on the sorry state of British tennis though, as I was told that round the headland there might be some sea lions and that we have to leave time for a lunch of freshly-caught fish.
Despite being the most developed South American country, Uruguay is a well-kept secret among tourists. Fashionable Argentinians flock to the trendy beach resort of Punta del Este for New Year parties and Brazilians head south to escape the heat. It surprised me that in a country that seems more European than Latin, there were few Europeans – except in Nueva Helvecia, a Swiss colony where the descendants of immigrants still make cheese.
Uruguay does have some similarities to its neighbours, particularly Argentina. The wide grassy plains of the Pampas stretch north from the Plate river and are perfect for a few days’ relaxing on an estancia, riding with the gauchos and sampling locally-produced wines. Montevideo, the capital, is a cosmopolitan, modern city, where you can take in a tango show, enjoy the steak and red wine famous in that region, and of course visit the Estadio Centenario football stadium where Uruguay was crowned winner of the first World Cup tournament.
Colonia del Sacramento is the jewel of Uruguay. The oldest city in the country, it was founded by Portuguese colonialists and also spent time under Spanish rule. The picturesque cobbled streets with colonial houses now converted into luxury hotels overlook the Plate river and Buenos Aires is just a one-hour ferry ride away.
Uruguay might not catch the attention of many tourists, but it is the ideal way to combine South American experiences with European standards.
View Cox & Kings’ holidays to Uruguay.
By Annabel | Published: May 10, 2013
Stephen Walker was pleasantly surprised by an unplanned visit to a temple in northern Thailand.
It was the late afternoon of a long day. We had spent the morning in the hills north of Chiang Rai visiting temples and a tea factory (the tea was wonderful and we bought plenty to bring home). After stopping in the city for a quick lunch we headed south to a museum, another temple and Phayao Lake. Our guide was snoozing in the front seat and Helen and I were wondering where to go for dinner when the driver nudged the guide. They had a quick conversation then turned to us and asked if we would like to see another temple before returning to the hotel. I must admit that we were not overly-excited at the prospect but, as it was very close to our route, we agreed.
At the next junction we turned left and there in front of us was the White Temple. Unlike anything we had seen before, except perhaps in fantasy paintings, it shone and sparkled in the setting sun. We parked the CRV and joined the small crowds to wander round the site. The white and silver temple building with its bridge was reflected in the pool that leads up to it. Sculptures of skulls and reaching arms were like scenes from Bosch and Breughel. Images from movies dangled from trees along with what looked like Spanish moss.
Orange robed monks mingled with excited children but, even though it may have looked a little like Disneyland, the atmosphere was respectful and quiet.
In the shade near the gate a few people were gathered surrounding a man lounging on a bench. This was the artist and architect of the temple, Chalermchai Kositpipat. People were having their photographs taken with him and seemed in awe of the man and his achievements. He smiled continuously.
The White Temple is still a work in progress and won’t be finished for many years yet. Some new buildings still have scaffolding, but it certainly doesn’t feel or look like a construction site. It was not on our Cox &Kings itinerary, but was a wonderful surprise that I may well remember longer than other places that we have been on this and other trips. I would love to go back in a few years to see how it has changed.
View Cox & Kings’ Thailand holidays.