Ruaha National Park, Tanzania
In September, I travelled to Tanzania and discovered a stowaway in my bag: a slim volume by the Japanese novelist, Junichiro Tanizaki. Called In Praise of Shadows, it is a porcelain-fine treatise on Japanese aesthetics, much of it describing the Japanese home. “Such is our way of thinking —,” writes Tanizaki, “we find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.” It couldn’t have been more inappropriate for the African bush, yet the core of Tanizaki’s writing resonated in a peculiar way, in the way ideas can vibrate when you put the wrong things together.
I was staying in one of the riverside tents at a thatch and canvas camp called Kigelia Ruaha in Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park — a region west of the Selous and south of the Serengeti. My room felt like the perfect pitch for times like these: grounded in the landscape, ungreedy in its design, with a simple porch opening to what I can only describe as a sense of the infinite.
Ruaha is Tanzania’s largest national park. It is a primal landscape, which throws off your sense of scale. The absence of visitors made the skies seem even bigger. It was as if the whole panorama was being stretched, the rocky outcrops looming on the horizon like island cities.
It was a long, sensational day of wildlife sightings, with an evening spent listening to the beat of hornbill wings as the birds headed off to roost. With the moon high in the sky, I lay awake reading Tanizaki in bed, looking out through a mesh screen towards the riverine creek. As I turned the book’s pages, I heard the moans of either an animal dying, or eating the dying — I couldn’t be certain. A line of elephants passed like ghosts in front.
In Tanizaki’s essay, he describes how Japanese homes appear simple, but only to those who like their luxuries shiny and bright, who aren’t drawn to the mystery of shadows. A pared-back Kigelia tent, in a landscape like this, has the same effect: intimate and softly lit, a place of spiritual repose. Paper walls and canvas tents, Japan and Africa, home and away . . . My discovery of the year? I have three: Ruaha, Kigelia and the importance of packing holiday books that have nothing to do with the place you are visiting.
Details: Sophy Roberts was a guest of Nomad Tanzania (nomad-tanzania.com), which offers a seven-night safari, with three nights at Kigelia Ruaha and four at Sands Rivers Selous, from $5,700 per person
Llŷn Peninsula, Wales
The Llŷn Peninsula in north Wales was the best place in the world to be for a week this summer. Sweet meadows stretched languidly westward towards a July sun that was breaking records over Ireland. We holidayed in a heatwave in a cottage overlooking Criccieth Castle. Every glowing morning the coast of Snowdonia and Cardigan Bay were remade Mediterranean.
My mother stayed here as a child and remembers Free French soldiers singing as they practised for D-Day on the sands. They left the same world we found — grandmothers in hats, hot grass and gorse scent, fishing tackle, bucketing toddlers, cake and sun cream and picnics, all in an azure haze.
At the farthest end of the beach at Aberdaron we swam over peacock reefs of tiny stones, the dowry of the sea. On Porthor beach — Whistling Sands — we cast hopeful bait at bass that had lost their appetites to the heat. They flopped about laughing in the lazy waves. Porthor has all you want: a scallop of hot gold sand at high tide, a glitter of wet bronze at low tide, an ice cream café and, at the far end, a crinkle of inlets in the rocks.
Here bladder wrack and sugar kelp, belts of oarweed and carrageen hide deep coves, the fish nurseries of the Atlantic. The peninsula reaches out and down into the Irish Sea so that you are not really sure which direction you face. We fell off the compass, the clock and the calendar into summer’s sea.
Details: The National Trust (nationaltrust.org.uk) has a selection of holiday cottages for rent on the Llŷn Peninsula; Red Welly (red-welly.com) is three cottages rented together for up to 14 people; Under the Thatch (underthethatch.co.uk) rents Y Plas, a manor house for up to 21 just outside Criccieth
At the castle of Cris in Transylvania, the archaeologist led me outside to the excavations they had opened the previous week. In an exposed trench wall was a narrow line of black ash. The Mongols, he said, 1241. We ran our hands over the burnt layer. The Mongol invasion of Europe, and the torching of all that lay in their path, was suddenly palpable in the crumbling earth. It stained our fingertips.
There are many moments in Transylvania when the past looms. It probably helps that the region feels like the Europe of our great-grandparents — horse-drawn wagons, unfenced pastures, shepherds with long crooks, virgin forests where bears still prowl, dangerous geese patrolling village greens, and everywhere carpets of wild flowers uncontaminated by pesticides. In the villages, the churches are ecclesiastic fortresses among the old Saxon houses, as if they feared the Mongols might return at any moment to interrupt Sunday mass.
In the village of Biertan, three colossal citadel walls, studded with towers, ring the church. A long wooden stairway leads upwards, like Jacob’s ladder, to the north entrance. Stepping inside you pass from anxieties about enemies to the certainty of salvation. The interior is elegant and delicate. In swaths of filtered light, vaulted ceilings soar heavenwards. You could believe here, as the arrows of your attackers rained over the walls, that you had God on your side.
And, hopefully, your spouse. Marriage was sacrosanct here. High up in a tower at Biertan is the divorce chamber where the community locked quarrelling couples into a spartan room with a single plate, a single spoon, a single cup and a single bed, until they learnt to get on, until the battles subsided.
Details: Stanley Stewart was a guest of Bethlen Estates (bethlenestates.com), which offers a range of accommodation in the village of Cris from €125 per person per night
You may think it intrepid or stupidly wasteful, but 2021 was the year that space tourism took off.
Forget Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson launching themselves into the upper atmosphere, the signal moment came on September 15 when online payments billionaire Jared Isaacman took three guests on a 72-hour jaunt around the Earth, 363 miles up, orbiting every hour and a half, and without a professional astronaut on board. Elon Musk will be taking paying guests around the Moon in his Starship very soon.
A growing number of companies are now “training” potential vacationauts, relying mainly on facilities such as Star City outside Moscow. But it took a French hotelier named Nicolas Gaume to wonder why the facilities needed to be so spartan and militaristic.
Gaume, with Seattle rocket scientist Jason Andrews, decided to lux it up. They had met when Gaume was arranging to age a case of 2000 Pétrus on the International Space Station.
So it was that I found myself staying at the ultra-chic La Co(o)rniche hotel outside Arcachon on France’s Atlantic coast in August, passing my days going up in one of those zero-gravity airliners astronauts once called “vomit comets”, being thrown around in an aerobatic plane to experience launch g-forces, and orbiting the world in virtual reality.
And all from the extreme comfort of the Philippe Starck-designed inn, drinking 1969 Mumm champagne (one small sip for man, one giant glug for mankind) and eating endless plates of oysters and foie gras (not great in zero gravity, to be honest) in the company of real life astronauts such as Jean-François Clervoy.
Orbite, as Gaume’s and Andrews’ company is called, is organising four more training sessions next year — there was also one last weekend at the Four Seasons outside Orlando — before building a five-star facility of their own at an as yet undisclosed location in the US. They’ve just signed up Monsieur Starck to design it.
I was sceptical and slightly appalled at first but the truth is I’ve rarely had so much fun. And of the eight who took part in Orbite’s original programme, each and every one now wants to go to space. All we need is the green stuff.
Azumi Setoda, Ikuchijima, Japan
Cherry blossoms were flowering over streams and pathways and much of the world was beginning to awaken from a long, unwanted hibernation when I arrived, in bright spring sunshine, at the latest innovation of Adrian Zecha, the indomitable 88-year-old Indonesian hotelier who dreamt up Aman Resorts.
The setting was as unexpected as that of any Aman property: a fisherman’s island of 8,000 souls that few of my Japanese neighbours had heard of. The aesthetic was vintage Zecha: spotless blonde wood, a scrupulously relaxed staff, no TVs and a glass-walled modern teahouse made for nothing in particular.
Nor was there much to see nearby: just a gaudy temple called Kosanji, a stylish museum commemorating the local Silk Road painter Ikuo Hirayama, lemon groves everywhere. A ferry boat could take me, in 40 minutes, to the funky alleyways and silent temples of Onomichi. A longer trip would have brought me to the ravishing art-islands of Naoshima and Teshima. But the real sight here was a forgotten Japan that was sleepy, gloriously unbuttoned and proud of its rural continuity.
Zecha’s latest version of a 21st century ryokan is, as with all his properties, essentially a training in attentiveness, and the art of slowing down. Much as in a 13th-generation Kyoto inn, you start to notice how the sun glances off the high cedar fences, begin to hear silence as an active presence. You savour how a local tangerine can blend with a Valencia orange and feel how a cypress-wood bathtub can wash away every care.
At Azumi, I no longer thought of the global pandemic, the disaster in Afghanistan, the ill-starred Olympics. Out on the Inland Sea, a boat was making its slow way across to another island. The only other thing that seemed to move was within.
Details: Pico Iyer was a guest of Azumi Setoda (azumi.co), where doubles cost from about Y80,000 (£584) per night
It was, for me, that other island in the Gulf of Naples — the one whose densely built, candy-coloured coastline I’d watch flow by as the ferry from Naples to Ischia skirted past it. For someone who is ostensibly somewhat expert in things Italian-peninsular, I was a neophyte to (and — full disclosure — pretty shamefully incurious about) Procida. A mistake, because this tiny Phlegraean island, whose bow and stern almost kiss Ischia and the mainland (a good swimmer could easily handle the distances that separate it from either), possesses — almost miraculously, given the co-ordinates — a sense of life still unalloyed in many ways by the world beyond it.
I stayed at the 18th-century Villa Eldorado, on a bluff above Chiaia beach, in a flat called “La Casa di Elsa”, after Elsa Morante, the 20th century novelist whose seminal Arturo’s Island is set here. Soaring ceilings, French doors and original floor tiles more than compensated for homey furnishings and the cacophony of traffic on the Via Vittorio Emanuele. Even more so the huge overgrown garden, its paths lined with listing late-summer hydrangeas, culminating in a magical clifftop terrace overlooking the Bay of Ciraccio.
It was an easy walk from here down to the Corricella, a quayside plied by both tourists and local salt dogs who putter in and out of the glassy port in wooden gozzi, often painted a cerulean blue, usually not much longer than themselves. At one end is the sleek-ish La Lampara, where art collectors and dealers had convened during an island-wide exhibition organised by Italics, the gallery consortium, in September. Towards the other is Felice Mare, outside seating on plastic chairs, where €2 gets you a superlative lemon granita for breakfast and €4 a sunset spritz.
Palazzo d’Avalos, the 16th century Bourbon royal palace that until 1988 was used as a maximum-security prison, looms over the north-eastern part of the island from atop its craggy promontory, its dun-coloured fortified expanse somehow intensifying the sorbet shades of the Corricella, nestled below in the curve of its cove. If you can manage the steep, sinuous ascent, you can pick your way through the ruins of the warden’s house, where the odd table lays toppled on the floor stones and climbing vines lace across the ceilings. Wind buffets and bullies the crenellated cliff below; the long-abandoned views are lonely, and sublime.
Procida will not be abandoned in 2022, for which year it is designated Italy’s Capital of Culture. It’s quite possible (could it be inevitable?) that by this time next December, it will have emerged a glossier, cannier version of itself. I realise how late I am to this party, but I really hope not.
Details: Maria Shollenbarger was a guest of Casa Vacanze Procida (casavacanzeprocida.it), which rents Casa di Elsa, sleeping four, from €80 per week as well as a range of other apartments. More information on Capital of Culture 2022 programming is available at procida2022.com
Sweeney’s Bothy, Isle of Eigg, Scotland
I was recently reminded that one need not go far to reap the benefits of travel when I traded my home island of Orkney for the Hebridean island of Eigg for a week. I stayed with my partner in Sweeney’s Bothy, an off-grid architectural wonder built by the Scottish arts group The Bothy Project.
The “bothy” is a wood-built cabin, one side of which is floor-to-ceiling glass, offering remarkable views of nearby Rum’s dramatic silhouette — a razor-like ridge cutting the sky, dark crags falling away to the sea — backlit by watercolour skies at sunset. It has a wood-burning stove, a gas hob, a table for writing or painting (or, if you like, playing board games), and a double bed lifted high on a platform.
It sounds simple, but we spent the week admiring its various elegant design features, and each night showered outside under the stars in water heated via ingenious methods — by first the sun, and then the stove.
Eigg is an island with a fascinating story: next year the islanders will mark a quarter of a century of self-ownership, having banded together to pull off Scotland’s first major community buyout in 1997 after decades of issues with absentee landowners. The journey has not been easy but they have reaped the rewards: Eigg’s population has risen from about 60 to around 100. The islanders produce all their own electricity and support a number of businesses, including a shop and a brewery.
It’s also a beautiful place, with white sand beaches, an iconic pitchstone ridge and a plethora of wildlife to spot — including eagles (golden and white-tailed). There’s nowhere better to appreciate its beauty than this glass-walled cabin.
Details: For six months of the year Sweeney’s Bothy can be rented as a conventional holiday let, sleeping two, from £540 per week, via Eigg Time (eiggtime.com). For the remainder of the year, writers and artists can arrange a residency at Sweeney’s Bothy via The Bothy Project (bothyproject.com)
Spain without a phone
Last month I pitched up in Spain without a phone, having left it on the bus en route to Heathrow. My passage through the stages of grief was traumatic but swift, and I came home three days later as a bright-eyed evangelist for mobile-free travel.
The lost art of getting lost, bonding with the locals you ask for directions, and stumbling across unexpected fascinations. Savouring these serendipitous discoveries for what they are, freed from the reflexive urge to capture them on camera for Twitter or the family WhatsApp group. Nipping into a café or bar without an interminable assessment of its competitors’ ratings and reviews.
Above all, sitting down and just drinking in the scene around, being an undiluted part of this new here and now, disengaged from the pocket anchor that always drags you away from your surroundings with all its notifications and gossip and football scores and unmissable Black Friday deals. How tragic that the current circumstances weigh so heavily against deviceless travel. If I try it again, I’ll need to implant a QR reader in one eyeball and maybe a USB port in the other.
Lake Como, Italy
Lake Como has been regarded as one of Europe’s most jaw-droppingly beautiful locations since Pliny built villas here shortly before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD, so it may seem a bit of a stretch to describe it as in any sense a travel “discovery”. Paeans to its loveliness have flowed from the pens of Mary Shelley and Stendhal; it has inspired Liszt and Wagner; Verdi wrote La traviata on its shores.
Yet when, unable to return to India during the pandemic, I ended up staying for an entire autumn in a writer’s retreat looking across its waters to the lovely spa town of Bellagio, it was for me not just a discovery — it was a revelation. I have simply never lived anywhere lovelier in Europe.
I arrived here having driven up Italy all the way from the westernmost toe of Sicily, and what first amazed me was how utterly different it was from the bits of the country I knew best. It felt a continent away from Palermo and a completely different country to Tuscany.
From the steep-sided mountain behind the house you could see Switzerland, and by late October the air was sharp and clean and the tops of the mountains were white with snow. All around my retreat were large baroque villas that dated back to the 18th century popularity of this lake. Each had their own jetties and wooden bathing pavilions, and were surrounded by moss-covered walls, topped with baroque statues of Roman senators. Grand classical gateways were decorated with obelisks and baroque urns. Some, such as Villa Carlotta or Villa del Balbianello — a location for both Casino Royale and Star Wars — turned out to harbour magnificent botanic gardens, open to the public.
As late summer gave way to the colder embrace of autumn, the crowds left for Milan and the colours of the woods turned from green to copper to gold. By nine in the morning, the early morning mist had diffused and I would head up past cypresses, palms and fruiting persimmons to Alpine meadows dotted with wild flowers and ringing with cow bells. I took to climbing to a Gothic tower to get the blood racing before breakfast, and for much of November would arrive to find a gorgeous golden autumnal haze hanging over the waters of the lake, broken only by the morning ferries criss-crossing its water to Bellagio and Varenna, and refracting the snowy peaks above.
High, clear winter days followed, and in November the snows came to powder even the lower slopes, while the lake turned a gleaming polished silver. At the weekends I began walking to the Alpine rifugios on the cold upper slopes towards Pigra, explored the Ottonian frescoes of the Basilica San Vincenzo in Galliano and the shady cloisters of the church of San Eusebio above Gravedona.
The temperature was still hovering just above freezing and on the way down, in the ebbing of the winter light, I would sometimes sight herds of semi-feral goats, bells ringing through the gloaming, and even, on a couple of occasions, wild boar on their way down from the mountains to look for food. By early December, on my last week in this cold but pristine paradise, one sounder had dug a grassy bed next to the tower above my retreat, and on the way down I would sometimes come across a hog, two old matriarch sows and four little scittering humbugs. Despite the litter, they never seemed to mind my presence and carried on rooting around for acorns until darkness blotted them out and all I could hear was their rummagings and rufflings amid the fallen leaves.
Details: William Dalrymple was a guest of Villa La Felice, which sleeps 12 and is available from Menaggio-based agency Love Como (lovecomo.com) from €5,005 per week. For more information on the history of the boats and ferry services on Lake Como see navigazionelaghi.it/historical-notes
Drake Bay, Costa Rica
Michelle Jana Chan
Most come to Drake Bay as a springboard to Terraba Sierpe National Wetlands, one of the largest mangrove reserves in Central America, or to see the exuberant forests of Corcovado National Park, where giant trees grow right up to the high tide line of the Pacific. But I fell for the town itself, reached only by boat for much of the year, a fishing port with colourful clapboard houses and ramshackle restaurants serving fresh catches of mahi-mahi and wahoo. It’s a travellers’ kind of town where the WiFi is bad enough to make you believe you’ve gone off-grid, happily so.
I tracked down entomologist Tracie Stice, nicknamed “the bug lady”, lured to Drake Bay by its intense biodiversity. We met after dark, exploring a fringe of cliffside forest, hearing winged insects whirring through the still, humid air. There were kinkajou in the canopy, a mesmerising gaudy leaf frog with red protuberant eyes, and scorpion glowing cyan under Tracie’s UV torch. “Their sting is used to treat tumours; it costs $39m a gallon,” she told me, animatedly.
Medical breakthroughs are often used as arguments for saving our last wildernesses, that they could hold the cure for cancer. But that night I felt there was only one reason: because we should. On my last morning, I woke to the tremulous cry of a tinamou, and hoped we might yet heed such a call.
Details: Michelle Jana Chan was a guest of Pura Aventura (pura-aventura.com). It offers an 18-night “Hidden Highlights of Costa Rica” trip from £3,490 per person, including accommodation, four-wheel drive rental, activities and some meals
South Uist, Scotland
My first travel discovery of the year was that driving 700 miles with a three-month old baby is mostly OK, so long as the car is in motion. My second was the west coast of South Uist. We stayed in a thatched holiday cottage three metres above sea level — it was October, to the south of us COP26 was gearing up in Glasgow, and the local crofters kept talking about storm surges.
When they told me how much things had changed in the past 50 years, they didn’t just mean a new house here or a resurfaced road there. They meant the land here is shifting: rocks they had leapt off as children have been drowned in sand, and the machair — a fertile coastal grassland habitat unique to western Scotland and Ireland — is being slowly eroded by Atlantic storms.
South Uist has the largest area of machair in the British Isles. It provides a haven for wild flowers and birds, grazing for livestock, and once provided roofing material in the form of marram grass for its inhabitants. Consisting of nothing more than sandy soil held together by plant roots, it is now known to be particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.
One evening towards the end of our stay the sky cleared to a wild light show of pinks and golds. Trains of barnacle geese passed across it, honking their arrival from their Arctic breeding grounds. As I looked out at the darkening machair, my mind ran through possible future moments in our baby daughter’s life, and I wondered what will have become of this place when she reaches them.
Details: Tom Allan stayed at Cuir-na-Bhoir, a cottage that sleeps two at Iochdar, where he was repairing the thatched roof. It is available from £700 per week via LHH (lhhscotland.com)
Sea Ranch, California
I live in New York but seldom travel to California. Having grown up in South Africa’s Western Cape, which has one of the most magnificent coastlines in the world, I’ve been apathetic about visiting a place people often compare to home.
This year, though, a friend and I surprised another close friend in San Francisco. Her husband booked us a night at a hotel three hours north of the city, so we planned a road trip stopping at the neighbouring Sea Ranch. The collection of geometric wooden sea-facing houses inspired by nature were first developed in the early 1960s by architect and planner Al Boeke, who had a vision for a community that would live lightly on the land. Mostly inaccessible to outsiders unless you’re renting a house from a homeowner or visiting The Sea Ranch Lodge — which recently partially reopened after a major revitalisation — I leapt at the opportunity to see the hotel and longtime gathering place for members.
We drove over the red bridge, sunroof open, hair entangled in the wind. Then we wound along the coast, through tunnels of Monterey cypress, past jagged cliffs fringed with soft bulrushes, along rocky bays and sheer green mountains punctuated with woolly cows that balanced at near 90-degree angles — already a little embarrassed I’d been so blasé beforehand.
When we arrived at the ocean-facing Sea Ranch Lodge, recently reimagined by Mithun architects and The Office of Charles de Lisle, we curiously poked around the warming wood-clad lounge, with slanted ceilings and rounded green couches. Community members dressed in jeans and practical jackets calmly drifted in and out, stopping by to purchase milk from the store or catch up with a neighbour beside the fireplace. We then collapsed in the dining room under a giant pool of sun and drank wine, our eyes fixed on the wild Pacific Ocean.
Later we drove around the weathered fields passing modest but striking houses, now turning flaxen in the sun, pointing out which ones we liked best. A little awestruck, I suddenly realised my previous preconceptions were unfair, and couldn’t help but wonder: which ones are for sale?
Details: The bar, restaurant and café at Sea Ranch Lodge (thesearanchlodge.com) are open now; the bedrooms are being renovated and will reopen in spring 2023
Deterred by the hassle of PCR tests, I didn’t stray far beyond southern England this year. But what a lot there is to see in West Sussex, especially in Petworth.
That this picturesque Georgian town in the South Downs National Park makes such a rewarding place for a weekend is largely thanks to Nicola Jones, who settled here in 2010 after a 22-year career in finance in Dubai. Struck first by its lack of a cheesemonger, she established a deli. Next she bought a pub, renovated it and opened a restaurant. Then she bought another inn, The Angel, and turned it into a hotel, handsomely furnished from a shop, Augustus Brandt, that she has also acquired.
Originally an antiques dealer, its stock has expanded under her ownership to embrace contemporary homeware, bespoke furniture and the occasional work of art. It was only a matter of time until she founded a gallery: Newlands House, a distinguished 18th-century red-brick townhouse containing a dozen airy rooms, some splendid and corniced, others beamed and rustic.
Dedicated to modern and contemporary art, it has since last May hosted surveys of Joan Miró, Sean Scully and now Julian Opie (until March 6 2022). It’s an intriguing exhibition. Newlands’ curator Maya Binkin, formerly of the Royal Academy and Serpentine Gallery, juxtaposes works by Opie with 180 or so objects from his own eclectic collection.
These range from portraits by Joshua Reynolds and Peter Lely (whose paintings you’ll also encounter at Petworth House, former seat of JMW Turner’s patron the Earl of Egremont, the gates to which are a five-minute walk away), not to mention Thomas Ruff, Chuck Close and Kara Walker, to Japanese woodblock prints by Hiroshige and original manga sketches for Studio Ghibli movies. There are Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities; Tau Tau statuary from Sulawesi; medieval armour displayed alongside 21st-century ski helmets, all of which shed light on the forms and figures in Opie’s own oeuvre. That show alone is very much worth the trip, proof, I think, that Petworth is the cultural capital of the Sussex Weald.
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