Friday, January 30, 2009

World's best hotels announced

Popular hotel review website TripAdvisor has announced the winners of their 2009 Travellers' Choice Awards, for the world's best hotels as determined by their readers. Fittingly this year they've highlighted the Top 100 Best Bargain Hotels along with the Top 10 Family Favourites and Top 10 Hidden Gems among others. You can download the list here.

In light of their announcement I thought I'd put together my own 'Top 10' list of favourite hotels based on places I personally stayed in this last year (these are in no particular order and cover everything from homely pensions to luxurious tented safari camps and hotels):

1. MeetingPoint Tanga, Tanga, Tanzania
Run by the indefatigable Mama Ruth this inspiring new community-integrated centre is the ideal place for socially conscious travellers interested in more than just your average beach holiday. The focus here is all about the community experience with all profits reinvested into various local projects such as HIV/AIDS education and guests encouraged to "make a difference" by sharing their knowledge and skills during their stay. Find out more here.

2. Tunza Lodge, Mwanza, Tanzania
This lusciously laidback lodge is located right on the edge of Lake Victoria around 8km from the town of Mwanza. Between the beach, the bar, the staff and the sunsets over the lake, I found it hard to tear myself away. Find out more here.

3. Mkoma Bay Tented Lodge, Mkoma Bay, Tanzania
This is fabulous tented camp run by a lovely Danish/American couple has a stunning location in large, landscaped grounds that sprawl down to a swimming pool on a low cliff overlooking the deserted beach at Mkoma Bay..... Bliss! Find out more here.

4.Casa de Jorge Coalla Potts, Havana, Cuba
In my humble opinion, this homely place is one of the best casa particulares in Havana. It's located in Vedado, just two blocks from the infamous Hotel Tryp Habana Libre. And owner Jorge, his wife Marisel, and their daughter Jessica are such great hosts. Find out more here

5. Inn and Spa at Loretto, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
Sadly, I only stayed here one night, but the Inn and Spa at Loretto certainly lived up to its reputation as an oasis of tranquilly and style. Just one block from the historic heart of Santa Fe, it's noted for its traditional pueblo architecture. Find out more here.

6. Utengule Coffee Lodge, Mbeya, Tanzania
Located on a rambling 500 acre property about 20 km west of Mbeya, in the shadow of the 2,834m Mbeya Peak, this attractive lodge is situated on one of Tanzania's oldest coffee estates. The estate is centred on a delightful manor house built and whitewashed in the classic colonial style, reached via a long dirt driveway lined with rows upon rows of fragrant coffee trees. Find out more here.

7. Ruaha River Lodge, Ruaha National Park, Tanzania
Run by the Fox family Ruaha River Lodge is the longest-serving camp in Tanzania's second-largest national park. All the chalets here have balconies that literally overhang the Great Ruaha River, so you don't even have to leave your room to go game viewing! Find out more here.

8. Hideaway Resort, Coral Coast, Fiji
A tropical island, azure seas, swaying palms, colourful cocktails, pampering spa treatments; need I say more? Find out more here.

9. Vuma Hills Tented Camp, Mikumi National Park, Tanzania
Also run by the Fox family this classic tented camp is set on a wooded hillside in the southern half of Mikumi National Park. Find out more here.

10. The Knutsford Court Hotel, Kingston, Jamaica
This cookiecutter business class hotel in the heart of Kingston wouldn't have made my list if it wasn't for the staff. They went above and beyond the call of duty when I arrived at their hotel sick, with one staff member in particular not only personally taking me to hospital but staying with me until I was admitted (some five hours later!) and then coming to visit me during my three-day stay. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! Find out more: here.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Recession proof your travel

The global economic crisis is biting hard, making travel seem more and more like a luxury. But there are still ways you can take off for your well-deserved break without breaking the piggy bank. Here are a few simple ideas:

Swap your house
Have you seen the movie The Holiday, where Cameron Diaz's character swaps her flashy mansion in Hollywood for Kate Winslet's cute little farm cottage in England? Okay, so swapping homes is little more complex than the movie makes out, but the basic plot is the same: you simply choose your ideal destination, find a match, then swap your house for theirs and you both get to stay for free. Naturally, you'll need to check references and should make out a contract that covers bills and damages. Also while some home exchange websites are free, many charge a small joining fee, running from around $60 to $250 (AUD). For starters try Intervac and Home Exchange. For more information see my article: The first timers' guide to house swapping.

Crash on a couch
Crashing on a stranger's couch in a foreign country or welcoming someone you've never met into your home might sound like a crazy idea, but as thousands of people have discovered Couch Surfing is a great way to meet new people and see the world for free. With a choice of more than 260,000 couches in some 216 countries, you'll never be short of somewhere to stay. As either a host or couch crasher, you can choose your pairing based on profiles that include languages spoken, location, and interests. Other networks include Global Freeloaders and the Hospitality Club.

Volunteer your services
Taking part in a volunteer holiday program is a great way to save money and do something positive for the environment at the same time. While some volunteer programs charge participants for the chance to work without pay, there are still those that will happily accept anyone willing to work and don't charge a cent. From working with disadvantaged kids in South Africa to clearing hiking trails in the Rocky Mountains, there are plenty of opportunities available. In most cases you'll usually only pay for your flights and transfers to a destination, with your accommodation and meals generally free.

For other ideas check out my Top 10 tips for saving money on holiday costs. Apart from that, cross your fingers let's hope this recession doesn't last long! (Just for the record Australia hasn't yet slipped into a recession, though it may not be far off if tonight's news update is correct.)

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hanging ten with Layne Beachley

Perhaps it is the summer sunshine or the fact that I can smell the ocean from my hideaway here in the Byron Hinterland of Far North Coast NSW, but I've been feeling a little beachy lately. Then again, maybe it's because I recently snagged an interview with seven times world surfing champion, Layne Beachley.

2008 was a very busy year for Layne. She released her autobiography, was nominated for Australian of the Year, announced her retirement from surfing, and became engaged to her long-time partner INXS musician, Kirk Pengilly. During my interview with her for Ninemsn she chatted to me about her favourite beach breaks, her new book, Beneath the Waves, and what the future holds.

So where is Layne's favourite beach break, I hear you ask? Well, while she admitted that there were too many to just name one, she did say that one of her favourite spots to surf in Australia is Angourie which is near Yamba on Far North Coast NSW. If you want to know where she likes to go to relax or where her ideal romantic escape is, you can read the full interview here.

Though, if you want a laugh, at my expense of course, you can read about my feeble attempts to learn to hang ten like Layne a couple of years back in an article I wrote for Ninemsn: Let's go surfin' now, everybody's learning how.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Far North Coast NSW insider goes live

In my mad rush to finish all my work before the Christmas holidays, I forgot to mention that I had been working on an Insider's Guide to Far North Coast NSW for Ninemsn. In a bold new move the company has changed the format of their travel site to feature a wide range of insider's guides to well-known destinations, both in Australia and around the world, that have been written by in-the-know locals.

In my humble opinion, my region, Far North Coast NSW, is the closest place to heaven-on-earth that you'll find in Australia. While officially the North Coast of NSW tumbles from Newcastle, just north of Sydney, all the way to Tweed Heads on the border of Queensland, the region I specifically cover is the Far North Coast which stretches from Yamba to the Tweed encompassing a heady mix of sun, sea, sand and sumptuous national parks (not forgetting the country's most celebrated utopian paradise - Byron Bay). But instead of giving you a list of time honoured tourist sights and attractions, I give you the lowdown on where NOT to go and let you in on a few tips on what you can discover near the beaten track.

As part of my work for the guide I will be doing a live one hour chat on Tuesday, April 14 from 5:00pm Eastern Standard Time. For those of you on Facebook you can register here to take part.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Home for the holidays

Hello everyone, I hope you all had a fantastic Christmas and New Year! I had a lovely time celebrating the holidays at home with my family.

One of the most frequent questions I was asked by my family and friends over the holidays was when was I off on my next trip? When I replied that, for the time being, I was planning on staying put (well, at least for the next few months) they all seemed rather disappointed. Well, I suppose that is what I get for spending most of my time off gallivanting around the world, but you'd think that they'd be happy that I'd be staying close to home for a little while (??).

For my part, I have to admit that after the world-wind year that was 2008 - which saw me go underground in Cape Town, help Philip Briggs update the Bradt travel guide to Tanzania, discover the wild side of Nairobi, hang out in Havana, crisscross Southwest USA and lay about on Fiji's Coral Coast, not to mention land in hospital in Jamaica - it has been nice to finally unpack my bags. That said, the traveller in me will never be quelled, so I'm sure I'll be packing them up again sometime very soon.

In the meantime, I've resolved that for 2009 when I'm not on the road working, I'll regularly pull out a map and set about rediscovering the region where I live. Considering I live in one of the most beautiful places in Australia – on the north coast of New South Wales – it certainly won't be a hardship! What's more, I've recently been named Ninemsn’s Insider for Far North Coast NSW, so I have even more reason to do so now (more on that in my next post).