A Road Trip through Andalusia Part 2 – Hiking in Parque del Estrecho

Tarifa is situation right next to the Natural Park del Estrecho, making it really the destination for sports lovers on land or water. If you have a spare 4 to 5 hours, no fear of cows and good foot wear, I’d definitely recommend the hike starting at the edge of town.

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Starting point is the end of the harbour, simple walk along the seafront, past the town center, the ferry arrival terminal and below the Plaza de Santa Maria. You can’t miss the entrance to the Natural Park, it’s all very well sign posted.

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The first 10 minutes take you through meadows and across a few small streams, until you get to the path that takes you back down to the coast. I can highly recommend this hike during spring, it’s simply beautiful. Everything is bathed in fresh shades of green and colourful flowers as far as the eye can reach. If you love photography as much as I do you’ll be in your elements.

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After having descended towards the coast, we hit our first obstacle – free-roaming cows. Now don’t get me wrong, we are not talking wild west bulls or torero-like beasts. Rather cow families, with their off-springs and the odd bull here and there. But still – terrifying, as they were way to interested in us! Hence, we decided to be very brave for the first hurdle but then very quickly went off-route and climbed down the cliffs to the beach where we continued the walk instead of on the signed path. It’s definitely doable and breath-taking scenery.

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The path overall is very well sign-posted and you can easily add you own flavour by going off-route here and there, climb a few hills or descend down to the sandy beach line. We stopped in a perfect little cove for our picnic and instead of doing a u-turn, climbed up the hills to the highest point to re-join an agricultural road taking us back to Tarifa.

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You’ll find a lot of evidence of Tarifa’s military importance on this hike, there are lots of trenched, bunkers as well as canon look-outs, which gives it quite an eery feel.

After 5 hours of solid walking, we happily returned with a bag full of stunning photos, 2,000 burned calories and a couple of achy legs. Highly recommend this way of exploring the natural beauty of south-west Spain!

 

A Road Trip through Andalusia Part 1 – Tarifa

We are off-season travelers and wanted to explore a bit more of the area we will soon be calling our new home. So far, we’ve seen a lot of inland Andalucia north and east of Malaga – it’s beautiful mountains, desert landscapes, rough rocky national parks and turquoise lakes. What is still missing in my travel diary is the west coast of southern Spain.

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We started off in Malga and drove along the coast, past Marbella and Estepona, leaving all the resort towns with their bunkers of hotels behind us. Soon we could see the Rock of Gibraltar at the horizon and the streets were lined with ads for the 1 hour ferry trip to Morocco, Tangier. Again, we passed swiftly – our final destination was Tarifa.

Edged right at the most southern part of Spain’s coast and one of the world’s most popular destinations for wind sports, Tarifa definitely has the surfer flair of Biarritz, the wide, white sandy beaches of any Caribbean Island and the roaring waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Off-season traveling is awesome as it means you have most places to yourself. In Tarifa it meant we got whacked by hurricane gusts and waterfalls from heaven. Or we just chose the completely wrong weekend.

Our first 24 hours were spend inside, desperately trying to dry our wet jeans, trainers and coats in the humid Spanish air after a failed attempt to venture out to find dinner. After the first storm passed, we got 3 hours of mercy the next day to explore the stunning beach of Playa de Los Lances, the number 1 kite surfing spot in Europe.

After burning around 600 calories just trying to not get blown over during our 30 minutes beach “stroll”, we headed away from the cost into the older part of town, through the historic Puerta de Jerez (the only entrance through the old Moorish city walls that remains today of the four original ones) down cobbled streets. We passed and couldn’t resist one of Tarifa’s most famous bakeries, Confiteria La Tarifena, where we bought our diabetic-unfriendly lunch of 4 Spanish donuts, Moroccan Truffles and a mourish apple clafoutis.  The sugar tax would have gone through the roof but it was worth it.

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Tarifa has just about the right mix of chilled surfer town, sleepy seaside village and Mediterranean outdoor living with a slight touch of Morocco. The main cobbled street leading towards the Iglesia de San Mateo is lined with orange trees, authentic tapas bars and small restaurants. Just locals and us with our monster of a cake parcel – the perk of the off-season traveler.

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A January day in Andalucia

Visiting southern Spain in the depth of January has been quite the experience – from arriving in balmy Malga, driving 40 minutes up the mountains into a snow storm and waking up the next day to beautiful blue sky – we saw it all in mere 48 hours.

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A quiet spot by the Caste over-looking the region of Cordoba

We are currently on the hunt for a home in the mountains of Andalusia and I’m very glad we’ve seen this wintery side of the region – nothing is more beautiful than snow covered olive trees and the air absolutely still with all the insects having retired for winter. There is something very moody about southern Spain in the winter, as if it is slightly out of its comfort zone with temperatures below 10 . But I love walking through the empty little villages with their terracotta slated streets and greek-blue flower pots in utter protest against these colder temperatures and cloudy skies. I love that I can have it all to myself without the swarms of tourist.

This time around we visited Iznájar, a small white-washed mountain village in the Córdoba province of Andalusia. In the summer it is a busy resort overlooking the Embalse de Iznájar, one of Spain’s largest water reservoirs with a little beach. In the winter, it is snuggled up to the mountains, still bravely displaying its love for colours with hundreds of flower pots and small squares.

Colmar – fairy tale city break

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Colmar is one of those villages you’d find in a snow globe, that’s how beautiful and charming it is. The very well preserved historical old town with its cobbled streets is a bit of a time trap, taking you back several hundred of years. Being part of the Alsace Wine Route, it attracts tourists from all over the world, and occasionally it comes quite close to Disneyland – the same curse Venice is currently struggling with. But there are enough quiet streets of the beaten track where you can enjoy an authentic cafe au lait and croissant and just wander the streets, taking in the architecture and immense history this place radiates.

Top tip from my side – breakfast at Au Croissant Doré, a hidden gem run by an old lady where you are welcomed like family and help clear your own dishes once finished. A trip down memory lane.

Worth a visit: the food market hall – the permanent terroir market at Place St Joseph –  with its extensive food stands, selling local produce and some of the best local wines. A stunning red brick building build in 1865, right in the middle of Colmar’s little Venice.

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5 Tops things to do in Skopelos

IMG_20170827_152132_765Listen to Jazz at Platanos

Whether it’s for a mid-morning coffee, an aperitif before dinner and a night of drinks – Platanos Jazz bar by the harbour is my favourite spot. Sitting under ancient platanus trees facing the Aegean sea and listening to subtle jazz music on a mix match of antique furniture. It’s one of those places that is a little off the main tourist track but still in a central location, with a good mix of locals and foreigners. You can easily spend an entire day here, watching harbour life go by. As a avid jazz fan, definitely my favourite spot.

Hike the Retsina Trail

Hiking was a bit of a challenge in Skopelos as a lot of the maps and guide books were out of date, and a lot of the trails have been lost due to bad weather. If you want to experience good hiking conditions, I’d recommend the beginning of the season after the trails have just been cleared. We managed to find the Retsina trail, which is the ancient cobbled path from the east to the west coast, where in older times the retsina traders carried the tree sap from harbour to harbour. You will have to go through quite thick undergrowth from time to time so nothing for the pavement-hikers. However, the breathtaking views are worth every scratch. One guide book to recommend is the one by Heather Parsons.

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Find a hidden beach

One thing we found about Skopelos beaches is that they are small…. Small and over-crowded, not necessarily just with tourists but local holiday makers as well. But there are lots and lots of hidden coves and little beaches, so if you have a car, drive off the beaten track and you can find the most extraordinary secluded beaches. Mostly all to yourself. Our tip: Παραλία Αρμενόπετρας – drive past the little blue chapel (the path get very narrow but doable with a car,) and you’ll find the most beautiful little beach all to yourself.

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Get lost in the cobbled streets

I loved just walking through the town of Skopelos, aimlessly taking a left here and a right there, discovering something new and beautiful around every corner. The town has been kept in extraordinary condition, you can really tell how proud the locals are of their little harbour next. I greatly enjoyed taking a hours walking every morning with my camera, find little hidden gems and great photo shots to take home as everlasting memories of this magical place.

Cook local food

Skopelos is a little bit more expensive when it comes to eating out than some of the other Greek islands we’ve been to, although the food quality is outstanding. I enjoy cooking when on holidays, to really get to grips with the local flavours and ingredients. There is nothing more special than cooking your own lunch from locally sourced food and enjoy it on your terrace facing the sea. Pure bliss.

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“Jobs fill your pocket, adventures fill your soul.” – Jamie Lyn Beatty

When in Gran Canaria

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…… stay in the North West and avoid the South

Gran Canaria is a funny little island – we really weren’t sure what to expect, knowing Spain so well, but looking at the very southern location of Gran Canaria, we were intrigued. The rumours are true though – the south is the tourist trap from hell. Glad that I did my research and we stayed in a the tiny fishing village of Agaete. A 1 hour drive from Las Palmas, this sleepy village, called the White Village, sits snug in a valley close to the Parque Natural Tamadaba. The island itself is one big volcanic rock, but the valley of Agaete is a lusciously green oasis with fields, palm trees, cacti and a sea of flowers in spring. Perfect location if you like to hike. We stayed in a small apartments in the  Urb. La Suerta with a wonderful view of the valley from the terrace. Not within walking distance to the town, there 2 restaurants nearby which are very local and not frequented by tourists – my kinda spot 😊 Casa Lolo and En La Suerte.

….. climb the mountains

As we were staying in the Área recreativa Tamadaba near Agaete, there were plenty of hikes and plenty of mountains to climb. Signage is very good in this part of the world, you don’t need a guide book but just follow the markings on the path. Passing waterfalls, cave houses and meadows dotted with goats you don’t hear a sound and only see the occasional fellow hiker. Again, mostly local, and mostly past the 60 mark. Must be the climate.

….. drive through the inland

The inland of Gran Canaria is absolutely beautiful, very very green, very mountainous and full of agriculture. You can really see how fruitful this little island is and how healthy a life style can be here. I wish we would have had a few more days to discover the inland and also climb Pico de las Nieves. We had an afternoon to kill before catching our flight home and drove aimlessly through the beautiful inland of the island, up to Teror for a late lunch break. Teror has a great farmers market on Sunday, attracting a lot of locals from the surrounding villages to stock up on weekly groceries. The market square around the local church is very quaint with lots of little traditional tapas bars. We visited on a rather quiet Monday and enjoyed a relaxed lunch in the sun.

…… visit the sand dunes in Maspalomas

As said before, the south is to be avoided. Unless you like resorts, beach lounges, curry houses and brothels. It’s a very weird atmosphere down south and maybe because we don’t do package holidays we cannot relate. BUT worth visiting are the sand dunes in Maspalomas, right at the tip of the island. You really get the feel of the African influence here, if you wouldn’t know any better you’d think you are in the Sahara. The dunes are vast, not just a few heaps of sand here and there but really translate the feeling of the desert. Some great photo opportunities here! After that, best to jump back into your car and escape northwards.

.… visit the small town of Galdar

Agaete is a little on the quiet side and a little to over-run by the beach, so we very happy to discover Galdar, 20 minutes down the road with lots of small tapas bars, quiet squares to sit outside and enjoy some tapas, and some amazing local bakeries with local cakes and donuts. It has a very local feel and you don’t come across very many tourists. Galdar is a very historic town with a lot of history and baroque influence.

….. catch some rays on the beach of Sardina

In the north, it’s not always that easy to find a beach – you don’t have the long sand banks as in the south with white sand and crystal water. Agaete is a little too small and a little too busy as it is the favourite holiday spots for the locals. So we drove a little further north to Sarina, a tiny village perched at the edge of a cliff with its colourful houses. The beach is small and pebbly but a very nice suntrap with very clean water and mainly locals. It’s a great spot to watch the sunset and has the feel of a calm family weekend by the beach.

“Better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.” —Asian Proverb

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Discover the South of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka overall is quite hard to research online. But I imagine this will change very soon judging by the amount of people on my Facebook feed who have recently been or are planning to go. The next new holiday destination and I sincerely hope this will not change this little teardrop of India. One thing you need in Sri Lanka is time. Things are much slower here, not only service and trains, but also the roads. Places aren’t connected as well and even on the roads you won’t be moving much faster. I’d have loved to have travelled the east coast as well but there just wasn’t time during our 2 weeks trip. But we did the south and very much enjoyed it! That’s the thing about Sri Lanka – you have this incredible countryside with tea fields and then the most stunning whitewashed sand and turquoise Indian Ocean. Paradise in a teardrop.

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The south is very different. It caters much more to the needs of mass tourism and Sri Lanka has worked out very quickly that it has something unique to offer – great surfing spots and the Indian Ocean.  We wanted a mix of both – a chilled beach experience and some surfing. So we split our last week between 2 places: Matara and Hikkaduwa. Matara isn’t that well known and when the south is mentioned, it’s mainly Mirissa or Galle that gets all the reviews. We chose Matara purely BECAUSE it wasn’t mentioned that much and because we found an amazing little spot by the beach : 7th wave beach house. Run by a French / Sri Lankan couple and their 1 year old toddler, this is a proper surfing shack with its own restaurant. We stayed for 4 nights, right by the edge of the beach where you fall asleep to the sound of the waves and you wake up to them. All you need to do is step out of your room and jump on a surf board for an early morning session before indulging on the restaurants terrace with a surfers breakfast – omelette, banana pancakes, coffee and porridge. After having travelled a lot the previous week, it was great to just relax for a few days in a hammock, with fresh seafood and glorious sunsets on a daily basis. A super chilled place with very cool people, it’s basic, it’s simple, it doesn’t have hot water but it’s a little piece of paradise. Having spoke to a few people during out stay, we are glad we didn’t chose Mirissa as it seems to have turned into a bit of a red light district with quite a heavy drug culture.

The last leg of our journey was Hikkaduwa – a town up the west coast towards Colombo. Hikkaduwa is famous for its surf, you don’t got here with your kids for a sand castle beach trip, I myself wasn’t brave enough to go into the water. It’s the Indian Ocean at its wildest, with the caveat that I haven’t seen the east coast which is meant to be even better for surfing. The rawness and strength of the Indian Ocean is scarily beautiful and breathtaking at the same time.

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We treated ourselves a little bit for our last 3 nights and booked the beautiful Banana Leaf Apartment – an AirBnB right in the middle of the jungle. The English / Sri Lankan couple Hannah and Amila build a beautiful little oasis of 3 apartments tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Hikkaduwa in the jungle but still close enough to walk to the town through rice fields. With an outdoor kitchen and outdoor sofa area you couldn’t ask for more, watching monkeys in the morning and exotic birds throughout the day. We had some very relaxing days here with a mix of surfing, drinks by the beach and long mornings on the terrace with some home-cooked lunches. There is a well stocked supermarket and daily market in town and I immensely enjoyed the outdoor cooking. We struggled a little bit with restaurants as it is very tourist heavy so it was nice to have the ability to cook at home. But the beach front is perfect for a light seafood lunch to take a break from the sun and beach.

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“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries” – Aldous Huxley

There are lots of travel reviews on how to travel the Sri Lankan tea country, what’s the best route, where to stay. I struggled a little as I really wanted the authentic experience and not end up in a tourist trap. We managed quite a good balance so here are my tips on how to travel the tea country authentically without missing out on the good stuff:

The Whiter Waters of Ramboda

1. Travel to and stay in Nuwara Eliya

We avoided the tourist traps of Haputal, Dambulla and Nanouya and travelled a little off track from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. The 3 hours drive is absolutely stunning through luscious green tea fields up winding streets. We did a quick stint to a tea factory and visited a couple of waterfalls on the way. Nuwara Eliya itself sits fairly high above sealevel in the mountains and you can really feel the change in air and temperature. Bring some jumpers with you as the temperature difference to Colombo and Kandy is quite noticeable. Jumper and jeans are definitely recommendable, especially in the evening.

View from the top of the hills at Ramboda

Don’t expect a beautiful little mountain village – Nuwara Eliya is robust and convenient. It isn’t packed with colourful restaurants, bars or little tea shops. It’s very local, not necessarily the richest of villages but its people have big hearts and a lot of curiosity. It’s a good location if you want to travel to Adam’s Peak for the sunrise hike – unfortunately we weren’t able to go as I fell ill the night before but I would certainly recommend it over Sigiriya where you have to pay entry and it’s all over in an hour. It is also meant to be very over-run whereas Adam’s peak due to its off the track location still has kept some authenticity and beautiful calmness

2. Book a home-stay

We stayed with a local family at a home stay, definitely an experience I can recommend if you want to experience the real Sri Lanka and its real people. It’s the reason we fell in love with the country  – the most welcome, warm and hospital people I’ve met on my travels and they just want to make your experience unforgettable. Our home-stay was called Redwood Inn, run by a young couple just outside on the outskirts of town. They will cook you a delicious Sri Lankan dinner (just avoid the fruit salad, that was my down-fall) and the breakfast is beautiful home-made cake.

Picturesque drive up the valley to Nuwara Eliya

Restaurant recommendation: The Grand Thai

3. Take the train to Ella

Yes, you will read this in every guide book and yes everyone will say it’s the most beautiful train journey. And – they are right. I was violently ill when we attempted the train journey which definitely dampered the experience for me, but I am very grateful we did it. You will need nerves of steel. The train is delayed – always. At least 2 hours. And tickets – forget about it. Unless you book them 1 year in advance or find someone who sells them under the table, you are in the cattle class. But that’s the point, isn’t it? That’s how the locals travel so that’s how we travelled. With a 39 degree fever. But hey. 7 hours to cover 75 miles in snail pace through the winding hills of the tea country and the 100 shades of green of the tea farms. You will experience all the elements throughout this journey, one of the highest points of the trip will literally take you through the clouds. We arrived in Ella with a beautiful sunset, exhausted but very happy.

 

4. Stay 2 nights in Ella

Ella is the complete opposite to Nuwara Eliya. The main road from the train station to our hotel where all the restaurants and bars are reminds me a little bit of Thailand. Loud and colourful, some shacks, some elaborate terraces. But welcoming. What struck me was that you don’t see a single local. It’s very much westernised and all white people sitting in the restaurants. The locals have their houses higher up in the hills and further into the jungle and you tend to see them much on the main road. It does feel like tourism has taken over this little village but when you are exhausted  – and I don’t say this lightly – and you have an upset stomach, a slice of pizza really did the job. I was strong enough again to climb Ella’s Rock the next morning.

Our morning view of Ella’s Rock from our guesthouse’s rooftop terrace

5. Climb Ella’s Rock

Most people go very early to catch the sunrise, similar to Adam’s Peak. We frankly couldn’t get out of bed as we bagged a pretty good room at the Hilltop Guest House with a beautiful rooftop terrace AND an Italian café (don’t judge, Sri Lankan coffee is tought on the oh so sensitive stomach) at the bottom of the hill – bliss for breakfast with views of the entire valley. We set off at 11am and had crowds of people coming towards us on the first quarter of the way and to be honest, I can only imagine how packed it must have been at the peak at 7am so we were very happy to have left “late”. Just take plenty of water and you should be fine in the heat – the hike should take 2 hours each way. 

 


The track isn’t very well sign-posted – basically not at all. We followed descriptions from a guide book and asked some locals. Our hotel was located right at the beginning by the rail tracks, which you have to walk along for the first 30 minutes. Then take a sharp left at a little hut selling drinks, cross the bridge of a natural swimming pool and you are at the foot of the peak. The climb is quite steep and challenging, but the panorama is breathtaking. At the top, we were almost by ourselves apart from a few guards and of course some stray dogs with puppies.

 

Ella Restaurant recommendations: We really wanted to try AK Ristoro and Café Guru but unfortunately they were shut the night we stayed. But we heard very good things about these restaurants so if you go to Ella, please try them on our behalf!