Self-professed musical enthusiast Jack Palfrey visits the Greek Sporades, setting of 2008 hit film Mamma Mia!, only to leave with more than he bargained for, including one hell of a hangover.
When I was told I’d be visiting Skopelos, the Greek island on which the 2008 hit film Mamma Mia was set, I was more than a little bit excited. I know what you’re thinking, but what’s wrong with a 23-year-old male enjoying a musical based on the hit songs of Abba? Besides it’s the fastest selling DVD of all time in the UK, so chances are, whether you choose to publicly admit it or not, you probably love it too.
In my mind, striding (or crawling as I’d later find out) up the steps to the hilltop white chapel in front of which Meryl Streep sings The Winner Takes It All to a clearly uncomfortable Pierce Brosnan, would be a personal travel highlight, deeming previous trips to landmarks like the Eiffel Tower insignificant in comparison.
The island of Skopelos, home of the Mamma Mia church, was the last stop on my whirlwind tour of the Sporades, a lesser-known 24-island archipelago off the eastern coast of mainland Greece. Had I known then what I know now, perhaps I would have been in less of a hurry to skip right to the end of the trip.
It was early morning and the sun was just beginning to prickle at the back of my neck as we meandered through the narrow streets of Alonissos’s Old Town. Even though I knew my heart lay in Skopelos, I had to admit that Alonissos struck an impressive first impression. Built into the remnants of a giant hilltop castle that once protected the island from roaming pirates, the Old Town appeared to me as the embodiment of traditional Greece, with tables from white-walled and orange-roofed restaurants spilling out into the winding streets, unoccupied mostly, except for the occasional local smoking a roll up black liquorish cigarette with a stray cat lounging at their feet.
We followed one of the weaving castle paths to a small courtyard with a collection of simple wicker tables overlooking the sea. This was Hayiati, a bar boasting the most scenic beer garden I’d ever seen.
Upon taking a seat we were greeted by a woman with wide hips and a huge smile, the owner, who insisted immediately that we try a home-made cheese pie. Before visiting the Sporades I had no idea that Greece was famous for cheese pie, but after being fed over a dozen of them during my short trip, I’m certainly well aware now. However, out of all the cheese pies I sampled, Hayiati’s was the best. A simple recipe: home-made dough topped with feta and spinach. I seized a few large slices and leisurely took in the view.
Before the sun reached full force we were on our way again, departing the island’s small harbour to explore the remits of The National Marine Park of Alonissos, the largest protected marine area in Europe and home to dolphins, whales and, most significantly, the Mediterranean monk seal, one of the most endangered mammals in the world.
Despite the park’s magnificent aquatic wildlife credentials, it was the many tiny, mostly uninhabited, islets that captured my intrigue, specifically Kyra Panagia, on which stands a lone miniature monastery inhabited by a single monk; our next stop.
Basking near Australia’s continental shelf, Marie Barbieri loses herself among marine creatures of all colours and contours on Lady Elliot Island.
I sharply inhale and halt dead still – or as still as one can hover atop a swaying reef. A majestic four-metre beauty arcs up and we clock eyes. It’s love at first snorkel with a manta ray.
He’s enjoying a body scrub, courtesy of a bluestreak cleaner wrasse that nibbles the attached parasites. This giant black and white kite tangos with the swell, its implausibly placed eyes holding the stare. We share a magical 10 minutes together, until he breaks off the affair.
Lady Elliot Island, located between Fraser Island and Lady Musgrave Island off the east coast of Australia, is the resident home of the Manta alfredi. Due to its isolation (80km/49 miles northeast of Bundaberg), it claims some of the most limpid waters of the Great Barrier Reef.
The glorious, paradisiacal island was actually built by poo (guano, to be precise), courtesy of excreting seabirds that fertilised and seeded the isolated cay.
In 1863, however, it was almost stripped of its vegetative richness. Around 30 Asian miners arrived to pillage Lady Elliot for her guano. Settlers deforested the island, sparing just eight pisonia trees. They dug the topsoil and sold 20,000 tonnes of guano as gunpowder and fertilizer to Sydney and London.
Roll on 1969, when visionary pilot Don Adams arrived, bringing with him native shrubs and seeds for re-vegetation. Planting sheoaks to naturally fertilise the depleted soil, he regenerated the topsoil and reintroduced pisonia trees.
They flourished into the feather-flapping forest here today, reunited with the eight, now 400-year-old, pisonia trees. Adams earned himself a conservation award for his work in 1994.
Today, the Eco Resort upon the island looks to preserve the natural environment of the cay as well as the Great Barrier Reef.
Visibility in the water here reaches up to 30m (98ft), so it’s a pelagic banquet for the snorkeler. I spot the sexy sway of a blacktip reef shark as a green sea turtle periscopes for air before I almost brush scales with a school of big-eye trevally.
All is calm as ecotourism guide Ben shows us yellow trumpetfish needling past striking Picasso triggerfish, where blue-spotted rays, blue linckia sea-stars and giant sea cucumbers crazy-pave the sandy bed.
The larynxes of my group shriek when Ben points to a manta train whooshing by at breakneck speed. It’s a rarely seen courtship act, where males pursue the female, copying her moves while following her lead. She purposely derails the carriages, and the male that best keeps up, gets to mate with her. Our overexcited group, half strangled by camera straps, isn’t quick enough to snap the phenomenal sight.
With mountains on one side, the sea on the other and an exciting urban hub in between, Barcelona has to be the ultimate city destination. The home of modernist artist Gaudi and with a cultural verve unmatched in Spain, the capital of Catalonia is a jumble of fantastical and modern buildings, medieval streets and lively beaches.
Locals still mention the 1992 Olympics as a watershed for the city. It spurred a decade of redevelopment, particularly along the seafront and port area, helping Barcelona transform into a vibrant metropolis.
Nowadays, Spain’s second largest city is at least the cultural equivalent of Madrid but tensions with the capital have even led to a growing campaign for independence among the Catalan people. For the moment though, Barcelona remains an integral part of Spain.
Although a very modern city, Barcelona remains a stronghold of traditions, divided into 10 districts, each with its own character. The Gothic Quarter, stretching from the seafront to La Rambla, is where the city’s oldest buildings can be found – there are numerous historic churches, including the grand cathedral, La Seu, as well as countless bars and shops.
La Rambla, the most famous road in Barcelona, runs through the heart of the city; it was described by the Spanish poet Lorca as “the only street in the world I wish would never end”, and is essential viewing.
As for the architecture of Antoni Gaudí, his most famous work is La Sagrada Familia in the Eixample district. This spectacular dreamlike cathedral is still being worked on nearly a century after the artist’s death. Parc Güell is a metro-ride away on the hill of El Carmel in the Gràcia district, while his many buildings such as the colourful and amorphous Casa Batlló are must-sees.
With so much to do in the city, it’s easy to forget the beautiful nature that surrounds Barcelona. In the north stands Mount Tibidabo, while overlooking the sea is the looming hill of Montjuïc. Of course, if you don’t fancy climbing them, you can just stick to the beaches – saving your energy for the nightly parties.
Samantha Wilson heads to Útila in Honduras in search of Old Tom, the legendary barnacle-encrusted whale shark who has plied the waters for decades.
“Put your faces in the water, sharks don’t fly!”
Bobbing among the dark, slapping waves off of the Honduran coast I hear the shout of our captain over the gentle hum of the dive boat engine. My heavy, nervous breaths through my snorkel make it harder still.
I heed his holler, though, and dip beneath the glistening surface. Finally I get a glimpse of what I have been searching for: a whale shark, the biggest fish in the ocean.
At 9m (30 ft) long, it glides effortlessly beneath my fins, sashaying gracefully with every swish of its enormous, pointed tail. I swim breathlessly alongside, keeping up with it for several minutes until it dives and its blue and white spotted body disappears into the depths of the Caribbean Sea.
You’d think that finding the largest fish on the planet wouldn’t be too difficult, but this is my forth venture to Utila’s north side after three failed attempts. Although they can grow to 14m (45ft) in length, whale sharks can also be extremely elusive.
They tend to frequent warm, tropical seas and Utila’s plankton-rich waters are a major stopping point on their great migrations along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
Tilting their powerful bodies vertically, they open their wide mouths to gorge, creating a feeding frenzy which encourages small tuna to join in the feast. Known as boils, the tuna writhe in the water, their splashes alerting trained eyes to the presence of a whale shark just below the surface.
Local fishermen call them Old Tom after a legendary, barnacle-encrusted whale shark that plied Utila’s waters for decades. Back on the shore, in doorways of the stilted, pastel-coloured houses that make up the Honduras’ Bay Islands, they still tell rum-heartened tales about the great beast, which they say reached 18m (60ft) in length.
Whale sharks skim the north shore here throughout the year, but the best sightings are in March and April at the height of their little-understood migrations. Scientists have long been left baffled by their 5,000 mile-long (8,045 km) trips, and individual sharks have been tracked as far as the mid-Atlantic en route to South Africa after leaving the Belizean Reef. The mystery of where they give birth remains unanswered too, but that just adds to their magnetism.
Ulita was the island where unruly English pirates used to come in search of Spain’s golden treasures but now it lures in wannabe scuba divers with promises of PADI courses, a paradisiacal coastline and rustic eateries. The biggest prize on offer though, is a chance to see Old Tom saunter past.
A little-known surf paradise in the Philippines is about to get a big wave of tourism. Emilee Tombs asks if Siargao can preserve the very thing that attracted people to it in the first place.
The journey to Siargao should have taken an hour, but we’d already been in the air that long when an enormous cloud tore across the sky and chased us twice around the island.
When we finally touched down I realised that the runway we’d been circumnavigating was little more than a finger swipe through custard, a patch of scrubland disappearing into the jungle around it.
After hauling my bag from the prop plane, baffled at the lack of security checks, I climbed into a waiting jeepney, the ubiquitous and colourfully adapted American army jeeps used as public transport in the Philippines.
Bouncing along the dirt track was like stepping back in time. The only life in the dense palm jungle was around basic stilt huts clinging to the road edge. Bamboo frames held up corrugated iron roofs which acted as petrol stations. One litre of gas in a Coca Cola bottle would set you back 20p. Carabao grazed lazily in lush rice paddies; the smell of slow-cooked Lechon pig hung in the hot air.
Siargao (pronounced Shar-gow) is one of over 7,000 islands that make up the Philippine archipelago. Perched 448km (278 miles) off the coast of cacophonic Cebu, the teardrop-shaped isle is relatively unknown, except to the surfing community, for whom it is a mecca.
Compared to neighbouring Boracay (an island with a 5-star Shangri-La resort, full moon parties and a busy airport), Siargao is a sleepy sibling. There are no direct international flights and volatile weather makes current airline timetables chaotic.
But all this will change from 2015 as more than £400,000 is set to be spent on improving and extending Siargao’s Sayak Airport over the next three years.
I was in Siargao to visit the legendary surf at Cloud 9, a break on the east coast made famous by the World Surf League in 2011. I also had a profound urge to set foot on one of the world’s last remaining undeveloped spots.
Whilst on the island I stayed at Buddha’s, a hippie collection of thatched bungalows and hammocks just metres from the beach. I’d rise each morning at 6am and make my way through palm fronds to the sand. I’d heave my board onto a waiting bangkang (a traditional wooden outrigger used to fish) that transported surfers beyond the reef.
By the time we’d reach the swell, the sun would be high and the heat intense. There were only ever a handful of other surfers to compete with, so I’d spend two blissful hours carving watery tracks before heading back for a breakfast of eggs, bacon and fresh calamansi juice. By 6pm I’d sit and watch another sunset, convinced I’d found a personal heaven, my own Cloud 9.
This feeling resonated with many of the expatriates I met on the island, including Gerry Degan, the owner of Sagana, a resort with direct access to the Cloud 9 surf spot.
Gerry and his Filipino wife moved here from Australia in 1995, when the tourism industry was non-existent. With the help of a local, Gerry bought a plot of land and opened the resort. The airport extension makes him anxious, but he’s pragmatic.
“It’s a catch-22,” he says. “We would all like to keep the charm of the undiscovered tropical paradise, but as word leaks out of course more people will come. As a business owner it makes things much easier, but as a surfer my concern is that the waves will become overcrowded and I came here to surf a quiet break.”
Kranjska Gora is one of Slovenia’s best known resorts, located less than 6.5km (4 miles) from both the Austrian and Italian borders, it is an annual host of a major World Cup downhill race that draws the planet’s media to this small resort each March.
That World Cup status is however a little misleading in the modern era; Kranjska Gora’s skiing was established in the late 1940s when ski areas topping out below 2,000m (6,500ft) were the norm. In the modern era the resort’s low top lift height and very limited terrain mean that its main appeal is to beginners and early intermediates looking for an unintimidating area.
But it’s not just about downhill at Kranjska Gora; cross-country trails follow the lower slopes westward to the ski jumping hill at Planica. What’s more, visitors will find ample facilities for tobogganing, ice skating and ice climbing here as well as the best choices of accommodation and après-ski activities of any ski resort in the country.
Some 90km (56 miles) northwest of Ljubljana, Kranjska Gora sits in the Sava Dolinka valley separating the Karavanke Mountains from the Julian Alps. The borders with Italy and Austria are only 6km (4 miles) to the west and northwest respectively.
The ski season in Kranjska Gora officially lasts from mid-December to mid-April but in recent years has not stretched far beyond the later half of March. Snow-making cannons (covering three quarters of the ski slopes) are used to top up Mother Nature’s efforts when required, provided it is cold enough.
The slopes at Kranjska Gora cater to skiers of all levels of ability, but only 2.5km (1.5 miles) of the runs are designated ‘difficult’ – these are mostly racing pistes at Podkoren, 3km (2 miles) to the west. The majority are suitable for beginner skiers and less experienced intermediates, with 10km (6 miles) of runs classified as blue. Freestyle snowboarders can make use of the resort’s terrain park, while cross-country skiers have around 40km (25 miles) of trails to explore.
The resort’s lifts are mostly drags; but there are an increasing number of fast chairlifts, including several quads.
As the Maldives opens its inhabited islands to tourism, Heidi Fuller-love island hops and meets locals in three remote destinations.
My coccyx squeals as the tatty speedboat bucks and thumps us over the waves to Maafushi in the Kaafu Atol. Used to this brutal form of transport, Mohammed lounges on the bench next to me humming a song dedicated to Al-Sultan Ghazi Muhammad Bodu Thakurufaanu, the sea captain who liberated The Maldives from Portuguese conquerors in 1573.
I’ve been to many exotic destinations, but often felt that they’d been over-hyped. The Maldives, however, are as good as in the brochures: beneath our boat the water shimmers clear as turquoise glass as we bump across the waves, past tiny islands set in the sparkling sea like green egg yolks surrounded by the blue-white waters of their coral lagoons. “Most people come here for the diving – it’s the best in the world,” says Mohammed, who I met whilst waiting in line to take this ferry to his island.
Although tourists began to visit the Maldives in 1973, travellers were only allowed to stay on the resort islands and the only Maldivians they encountered would be cleaning their rooms, or serving them dinner. Luckily, a few years ago, ex-President Nasheed authorised islanders to open guesthouses. Nowadays it’s possible to live like a local in the Maldives and pay money directly to the people who live here. Unlike ‘most people’ who make a beeline for the luxury resorts, I’ve come to the Maldives to visit some of the lesser known islands and meet locals like Mohammed.
I arrived at Ibrahim Nasir International airport the day before. It was a hot June afternoon, humidity was fierce and my clothes were soaked with sweat by the time I hopped aboard the traditional wooden dhoni boat that chugged me over to Male. Traditionally known as the King’s island, because it was the seat of the dynasties that ruled here for centuries, few tourists bother to spend time in the capital of the Republic of the Maldives and yet this tiny city, which measures only one square mile, is well worth a visit.
I wandered through narrow streets lined with trees that were heavy with lumpy black growths that turned out to be fruit bats, flapping overhead as I walked. In another bustling street I entered a shop decorated with balloons and tinsel garlands and discovered dozens of excited children whose parents welcomed me with sticky fried banana cake and invited me to join their circumcision party. Later I saw the little boy who’d been operated sitting pale, but proud, in his bed surrounded by presents.
Pas de la Casa’s ski area merged with neighbouring resort Soldeu in 2004 to form the giant Grandvalira area, opening up more than 200km (124 miles) of piste that’s served by a huge network of state-of-the-art, high-speed lifts.
It’s the largest ski area in the Pyrenees by some distance and has become one of the world’s leading ski regions. In fact it has grown so big that pistes have been extended over the border into France.
But as big as the ski area is, it’s the village’s border location, duty free status and snow sure altitude that have been, and continue to be, the key ingredients of Pas de la Casa’s success. The resort also benefits from often warmer, sunnier conditions than centres in the Alps, thanks to its southerly latitude and relative proximity to the Mediterranean.
Despite a gradual move upmarket and increasing amalgamation into the Grandvalira ski area, the resort maintains its strong independent identity and reputation as a base for hardcore snow sports fans and après-ski devotees; perhaps more than any other Andorran ski village.
Pas de la Casa ski resort is part of the Grandvalira ski area, which takes up much of the northeastern region of the small principality of Andorra. Andorra is sandwiched between Spain to the west and France to the east in the Pyrenees mountains, and is about 160km (100 miles) north of the Mediterranean Sea.
Pas de la Casa has an excellent English-speaking ski school and wide, sunny slopes on which to learn; so it’s a good choice for beginners. Once those first turns have been mastered, there are numerous easy green runs on which to totter around. The largely easy-to-ride high-speed detachable chairlifts or walk-in gondolas take beginner skiers back up the slopes without needing to master the dreaded drag lift too early on.
Progressing on to the wider Grandvalira area, roughly two-thirds of the terrain is in the form of wide, fast blues and reds above the treeline, which are perfect for confident intermediates.
Experts, meanwhile, have more than two dozen black runs, including the toughest run, the 2km-long (1.2 miles) Avet No Fifteem. Accomplished skiers can also try heli-skiing, or an off-piste powder course with the ski school when snow conditions are right.
Despite its southerly latitude, the high altitude of the Grandvalira ski area, its mostly north-facing slopes, and its extensive snowmaking have been proven to provide snow cover over much of the terrain even in poor snow years. The ski season in Pas de la Casa typically runs from early December until late April.
Grandvalira and the other Andorran ski area, Vallnord (which covers three resort bases at two other ski areas), participate in the Ski Andorra lift pass, which is valid at any ski area in the principality.
Borovets, a small town with buildings clustered together in the surrounding pine forests, is Bulgaria’s first winter resort. Established in 1896 by the then Bulgarian royal family, the resort is home to the highest peak in the Balkans, Mount Musala.
The resort base is mostly wedged between the huge Rila and Samokov hotels, while the skiing takes place in the Yastrebetz and Markudjik ski areas, around half an hour away by cable car, and in the local Sitnyakovo area, which has runs leading back down to the resort base. The resort has a strong reputation with beginner and early intermediate skiers, but locals know there’s plenty of testing terrain here too.
Though relatively small, Borovets has big expansion plans and development work has already begun – old chairlifts have been replaced by fast new quad chairs and a state-of-the-art snowmaking system has been installed.
This shining new equipment, along with a good variety of runs and a price tag lower than competing resorts in Western Europe, means Bulgaria’s oldest resort is likely to keep drawing skiers for years to come.
Borovets is situated on the northern slopes of the Rila Mountains, in the west of Bulgaria, 72km (45 miles) south of the capital Sofia. Borovets is the country’s oldest ski resort and is the initial point for climbing 2,925m-high (9,596ft) Mount Musala.
The majority of the runs in Borovets ski resort are rated easy to moderate, with its marked pistes totalling 58km (36 miles) split between three areas: Yastrebetz, Markudjik and Sitnyakovo.
Accomplished intermediates and experts are likely to head to Yastrebetz, which has a concentration of fairly steep red runs up to 2,369m (7,772ft) in altitude.
Mid-level skiers will aim for Markudjik, which, like Yastrebetz, is around 30 minutes away from the town via the gondola. This area is home to Borovets’ longest run, the 12km-long (7.5-mile) blue Musala Pathway that winds its way through the forest all the way back down to the resort base. There is also a green run here along the top of the ridge, as well as a couple of black runs for experts.
Beginners and early intermediates can make use of the Sitnyakovo ski area near the resort base, which is home to the Borosport ski school. Beginners who are ready for the slopes can use the chairlift to access the long and winding Sitnyakovo Residence green run. Expert skiers, meanwhile, have a couple more black runs to explore in this area.
There are also 35km (22 miles) of cross-country ski runs, plus biathlon and ski-jumping facilities. Four well-lit runs operate from 1,350m (4,429ft) to 1,648m (5,407ft) for night skiing.
The ski season in Borovets runs from mid-December to early April, with the most reliable snow in February and March.
The city-state of Singapore has grown into a hot destination, blending a heady mix of Asian cultures with a constant drive for progress.
Remnants of the British colonial era can still be found in some fine 19th-century architecture, and there’s plenty in the way of malls and corporate towers, but Singapore’s reputation as somewhere rather dull has been consigned (like most things here) to the bin.
Clean? Yes. Safe? Yes. Boring? Hardly. Today’s Singapore is a high-tech metropolis with a goodtime spirit. The necktie has been well and truly loosened.
Although earlier settlements had existed on the island, Singapore’s development was kick-started by mass immigration from across Asia in the 19th century. As a result, it still plays home to an ethnic mix of Chinese, Malays and Indians, as well as expats from across the world.
The gleaming skyscrapers that tower over Singapore shield a plethora of older buildings, including the temples and mosques that stud this multicultural city. And helpfully for foreign visitors, these different groups tend to use English as their common language.
Changi Airport continues to top polls for its service and facilities, and in many ways exemplifies Singapore’s quest for efficiency, but today’s city is also somewhere with exciting nightlife and some truly exceptional places to eat.
Dining well is a local obsession and you’ll find outstanding examples of everything from Chinese street food to classic French cuisine. And while there are high-end eateries by the dozen, you don’t need to spend big to eat well. Pot-steaming hawker stalls are just as much a part of the Singaporean experience as the palm pots and white gloves of Raffles.
Gone are the days when Singapore was valued mainly as a stopover, and perhaps for its enormous malls. Today, the buoyancy of its tourist industry is reflected in major developments such as Marina Bay Sands, whose three linked towers now loom over the centre of the city. Add to this a constant flow of life in the ethnic quarters of Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam, and the result is one of Asia’s most compelling cities.
Ruling as Japan’s imperial capital for more than a thousand years, Kyoto is a city steeped in historic lore and legacy, where ancient cobbled streets echo with the click-clack of geisha clogs, world-renowned art adorns majestic palaces, and bamboo screens conceal serene teahouses brewing ceremonial matcha according to age-old customs and aesthetics.
Unlike other Japanese cities, Kyoto escaped the mass destruction wrought by WWII, allowing it to remain a well-preserved window into the country’s mystical past. Visitors can pick between an overwhelming array of 1,600 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines and 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but it’s equally as enthralling to get lost among its labyrinthine backstreets uncovering hidden gardens, local markets and offbeat museums along the way.
Those with little time should make a beeline for easterly Higashiyama, the city’s richest sightseeing district, known for its picturesque wooden machiya townhouses occupied by tofu sellers, tea merchants and kimono rental shops. Sightseers can learn more about the Japanese way of life through the city’s thriving cultural scene, particularly in the geisha neighbourhood of Gion where time-honoured theatres stage all kinds of kabuki dance-drama, stylised puppetry and traditional court music.
For all its ancient allure, the cosmopolitan metropolis has its fair share of high-tech, high-octane draws, as anyone arriving on the futuristic Shinkansen (Bullet Train) can vouch. Add to this a dynamic nightlife of sake breweries and cocktail bars, a glittering dining scene boasting over 100 Michelin-starred restaurants, and a trove of stunning ryokan (traditional inn) accommodation, and it’s easy to see why travellers of all types are spellbound by the city.