Monthly Archives: December 2016

Find the unique one when you visit in Utila

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.

Greece and the destination

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.

Cheese pies

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.

Ouzo shots

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.

Philippines preserve Siargao Island

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.”

How to Find Best And Affordable Resort on Kranjska Gora

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.

Location:

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.

Website:

www.kranjska-gora.si

Slope Elevation
Kranjska Gora
Resort:
803m
Top:
1623m
Base:
810m
On the slopes

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.