Article and photos by Josette King
The Gulf of Corinth
I thought I knew Greece. I had visited a couple of its legendary islands and snorkeled in the crystalline waters of its rocky coves. I had stayed in Athens long enough to explore most of its nearby ancient ruins. I had enjoyed the taverna food and the street musicians playing their ornate nine-string bouzouki. And I had learned to stay clear of ouzo, the fiery local brew. So, yes I thought I knew Greece. Until I came across an eight-day Tripology Adventures itinerary from Athens to the Pindus Mountains with overnight stops in Delphi, Ano Chora, Karpenisi, Kalampaka and back to Athens.
Columns of the temple of Apollo in Delphi
Tripology is an adventure travel company that has been leading self-drive caravans of all-wheel drive vehicles into remote history-rich areas of the planet for over two decades. The Pindus Mountain Range, the vast backbone of peaks, valleys and gorges that traverses the Greek mainland from the northwest to the southeast definitely fit that profile. It is covered with forests so impenetrable that its central region, the Agrafa (Greek for unchartered), succeeded in maintaining its autonomy throughout the four centuries of Ottoman occupation of the country, becoming a refuge for the fiercely independent souls who wanted to escape the oppressors. That wild, sparsely inhabited region has remained relatively pristine to this day. Most of the roads that wind their way up and down its steep slopes are still unpaved. That was a unique opportunity to venture on terrains that I knew better than to attempt on my own and explore a Greece I hadn’t realized still existed.
Statuary from the Delphi Archeological site now on display in its museum
Our five-vehicle convoy left Athens on a sunny spring morning, four late model 4 x 4 vehicles packed with eager adventurers, 14 of us in all, following the lead land cruiser with our guide, Yoav Barashi, a seven year veteran of Tripology tours in the area. Our lead driver Nikos Manolis, an expert all terrains driver, was also a noted figure in the Greek rally community. The highlights of the first day, a relaxed seaside lunch on the Gulf of Corinth and a privately guided tour of the archeological site of Delphi, were a pleasant nod to familiar Greece, and an ideal opportunity for us to get acquainted with our traveling companions and our vehicles.
Tiny roadside shrines were a frequent sight
The next morning, the roller-coaster ride that was to become the norm for our entire 1,200 kilometer trip began in earnest as we negotiated Bauxite Way. The 24 kilometer (15 mile) uphill strip of gravel and tight turns is one of the best known stages of the Acropolis Rally of Greece, named after the nearby aluminum ore mine and the prevalent red dust. After the exhilarating driving experience followed by a break at the shaded terrace of a village taverna, we were on our way again. That time we climbed up a rough unpaved trail that hugged the rock face and curved incessantly upon itself on our way to a mountaintop picnic. Our lunch scenery was a jaw-dropping view of densely forested canyons and craggy peaks. Then after an equally tortuous descent we ended up at a rustic village inn for the night.
Day after day, as we drove deeper into the Pindus and entered the Agrafa area, the mountains became higher, the canyon deeper and the trails hewed out of the rock more forbidding. Those dramatic vistas bursting with the colors of spring were a photographer’s paradise. Each turn revealed a better view of snow capped peaks, a turquoise lake sculpted by canyons in the shape of a giant octopus or a hill dotted with the purple blooms of Judas trees. Tiny roadside shrines were a frequent sight, presumably meant to petition for divine protection on behalf of intrepid travelers or offer thanks for road catastrophes avoided as much as to mark the spot of one that had been.
The mountain roads were lined with Judas trees in full bloom
We could drive for hours without seeing a sign of human life, much less another car. Then a shepherd with his flock of long haired sheep appeared, or a herd of goats plundering the high grass at the edge of road or beekeepers tending their hives. One more bend in the road would reveal a village of sturdy stone houses stacked against the mountain, and blending into the rock. We would stop in the central platia, the village square at the heart of every Greek village bookended by the ubiquitous taverna on one side and the village church on the other. Even the smallest of churches was a treasure trove of gilded icons and byzantine style frescoes.
Cemetery on the shore of Lake Kremaston
Our guide Yoav was remarkable for his extensive knowledge of the region and also for his passionate interest in it, which he shared over our two way radio channel. He brought places and events into human context, shedding light on a vibrant and often tragic history that is little more than a footnote in western history books. He was equally knowledgeable of the tales of Greek mythology, mimicking to great effect the foibles of Zeus, Apollo, Hermes and even Aphrodite or Psyche. Had my high school history teacher possessed a fraction of his story telling talent, I might have been an ancient Greece scholar today.
Villages were stacked against the hillsides
Do I know Greece now? I do, a little better at least. But more importantly, thanks to this road journey, I fell in love with the country. I now yearn to return at the first opportunity. And best of all, I so enjoyed the Tripology Adventures way of exploring new horizons that I am already searching their destinations for my next road adventure.
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
The entrance to the Inn by the Sea
During a fall visit to Maine we spent three nights at the Inn by the Sea, a boutique 61-room beach facing hotel in Cape Elizabeth south of Portland. We liked the inn's location in a quiet residential area close enough to Portland for visits yet distant from city traffic and noise. We loved our well appointed two-bedroom suite with wonderful fall coastal views. We enjoyed the lovingly tended manicured grounds and Spa at Inn by the Sea in particular.
I liked the spa's use of natural marine products like sea salt, algae and seaweed, essential oils and coastal themed treatments. In addition, we appreciated the property's approach to responsible tourism, blending luxury, service and an exceptional guest stay with sustainability, and minimizing the impact of hotel operations with eco friendly initiatives and local sourcing.
The fall colors in all their glory (click to enlarge)
One example was the Inn’s landscape designed to be attractive to guests and butterflies. Inn staff focused on local plants to create ever blooming gardens and a habitat for indigenous wildlife, earning the inn a Wildlife Habitat certification from the National Wildlife Federation. Indigenous nectar gardens and milkweed were specifically planted for endangered butterflies. During the growing season, the property offered classes on How to Plant for Wildlife, and as part of the Bug’s Life Garden Tours staff taught children about local ecosystems from an insect’s viewpoint. Monarch Watch, which registers properties that provide food and shelter for the endangered monarch butterflies as they migrate through North America, certified the Inn as a Butterfly Waystation.
The living room with fireplace and kitchen of our two bedroom suite
Inn staff worked with seven local schools to provide educational programs throughout the year. In December, the Inn bought a school book from a school librarian's list with every reservation.
The spacious grounds viewed from the back of the hotel (click to enlarge)
At the hotel restaurant, Mitchell Kaldrovich, executive chef, emphasized local produce, meat and poultry from nearby farms and Gulf of Maine fresh underutilized seafood. Working with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI), other Portland area chefs, and a handful of knowledgeable local fishermen, he identified abundant and delectable fish from the Gulf of Maine that were under appreciated and underutilized to offer guests. The program, Out of the Blue, was meant to bring attention to plentiful seafood available in the Gulf of Maine, get better dock prices for fishermen, and help preserve the diversity and health of the Gulf of Maine. The chef was a supporter of the Root to Stock movement. Food waste was composted for later use as landscaping compost for the Inn.
The workout room was downstairs in the spa.
The property had a Silver LEED and Maine DEP Environmental Leader Green Lodging certification thanks to the integration of solar panels, recycled sheet rock walls, recycled cork floors, recycled rubber floors in the cardio room, air to air heat exchangers, dual flush toilets, heating with bio fuels, preferred hybrid parking, sheet and towel reuse programs and purchased renewable electricity.
There were plantings of vegetables and flowers (click to enlarge).
We liked the colorful plants visible along the walkways
The Inn by the Sea was active in habitat restoration. The property worked with the Maine Department of Conservation and Bureau of Parks and Land to restore habitat for the endangered New England cottontail rabbit at Crescent Beach State Park. In an effort to stop the New England cottontail from vanishing in Maine, as it had in the rest of New England, the Inn removed two acres of invasive, non indigenous plant species such as bamboo and bittersweet from state property. The Inn replanted the area with indigenous shrubs such as raspberry, blueberry, dogwood, alder, winterberry and dewberry to create a high quality, safe habitat for New England cottontails. The rabbits were named as candidates for the United States Endangered Species Act in 2006, and were listed as endangered in Maine and New Hampshire.
Article and photos by Elena del Valle
Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park
Yuma, the Florida panther cub (click to enlarge)
Florida’s state animal, the panther, is one the most endangered mammals on Earth. With population estimates at less than 200 they are near impossible to observe in the wild. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are between 100 and 160 adult panthers in the wild in South Florida. These animals once ranged throughout most of the southeastern United States. By the late 1800s the Florida panther had been run off from much of its historical range because its habitat had been destroyed or by human attacks.
They are beautiful animals. When I found out I might be able to see a four month old cub in a wildlife sanctuary I jumped at the opportunity. The drive, several hours long, took me across the state from the southeastern corner of the Florida peninsula northwest to the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park (4150 S. Suncoast Boulevard, Homosassa, Florida 34446, www.floridastateparks.org/homosassa, +1 352 628-5343, Susan.Strawbridge@dep.state.fl.us) in Citrus County where the cub found a permanent home. I stayed at the 68-room Hampton Inn Crystal River (1103 N Suncoast Boulevard, Crystal River Florida, 34429, +1 352-564-6464, www.crystalriver.hamptoninn.com, Chris@mymaverick.net) a clean, newly built (completed in 2013) property conveniently situated a few miles north of the park.
The cub was playful and in constant motion
When he was one week old he was rescued by wildlife personnel after his mother abandoned him or met an unknown fate herself. Having been brought up by humans, he would not be able to survive in the wild. Instead, his home will be a 80 foot by 120 foot special enclosure at the state park which was still under construction when I visited the area.
This cute red fox was sleeping in the partial shade
One of several eagle residents
Yuma, meaning son of the chief in a blend of Native American languages, was playful, energetic and mesmerizing. I could have watched him all day, racing across one side of his temporary fenced in enclosure to the other, climbing, chewing on his toys, eating, leaping against the fence or sitting in the shade.
A pink flamingo
In typical hippo fashion, Lu spends his day submerged and barely visible
With 300,000 annual visitors, the 210 acre Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is said to be the most visited state park in Florida. At the time I was there, it was home to fifty Florida animals such as black bears, bobcats, river otters, red wolves, Key deer, American alligators, gray fox, red fox, roseate spoonbills, eagles, herons, egrets and whooping cranes. There were several resident West Indian manatees which could at times be seen from a floating observatory that sits in the middle of Homosassa Springs. Perhaps the most famous resident of the park was Lu, a hippopotamus who was made a Florida citizen by a governor’s decree so that he could live out his days in the park when it was converted to an exclusive home of native wildlife.
Article and photos by Josette King
The lounge was an eclectic mix of safari antiques, rustic furniture, local crafts
On my first visit to Southern Africa a decade or so ago, my very first guide predicted: “Once the red dirt of Africa gets into you hiking boots, you will never get it out.” Now, a couple of pairs of boots later, I understand what he meant. But, the power of iron saturated clay dust notwithstanding, what keeps me going back is that every so often on those safaris, I come across an exceptional guide who can make the wonder of the natural world come alive, someone like Hearold Mgiba, the guide I had the good fortune to meet on my recent visit to Motswari Private Game Reserve in South Africa.
The library and art gallery
Wedged in the northern corner of the famed 54,000 hectare (209 square mile) Timbavati Nature Reserve, one of the oldest and most pristine in South Africa, and with an open boundary with Kruger National Park, Motswari is reputed for its density of game. The Big Five (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino) roam there. So I expect it would have been relatively easy for Hearold and Difference Hlophe, an excellent tracker, to ensure that I enjoyed what is considered the gold standard of African safaris: repeated Big Five sightings. And I did enjoy those, daily. But one hour into our first drive, I was beyond counting. We were driving into thicket so dense I didn’t imagine we could possibly get through it, much less see anything of note, tracking a leopard. Hearold and Difference knew their big cats and found the one they were searching for in the end, concealed in the rocks near a water hole. We followed it around its territory to the tree where it had stashed its recent impala kill.
A large male leopard surveys its domain
The next morning found us among leopards again as we watched an old male go in the blink of an eye from snoozing in the high grass to snarling menacingly from the top of a 20 meter (65 foot) tree at his nonplussed pursuer. In fact, in my three days at Motswari, I was able to observe at length and at close range more leopards than I had seen in all of my previous visits to Africa. And there were also lions: a fascinating interaction between two males feeding on the carcass of a buffalo calf, and a whole pride going about its daily business; and elephants, a large breeding herd of them on the move with nursing calves; and mud encrusted rhinos crashing their way out of a water hole; and cheetahs on the prowl, and a whole supporting cast of mammals and birds. And in most instances, these weren’t mere sightings but unique opportunities to enjoy an authentic bush experience.
My Bungalow was decorated in relaxing neutral tones
The lodge itself reinforced this feeling. With its neat guest room rondavels scattered in a mature grove along the river, the homey atmosphere of its public areas and its large boma for dinners around the flames of a central fire pit, Motswari had the feel of a family country estate. I especially enjoyed the relaxed simplicity of my airy rondavel, with the creature comforts and modern amenities I could wish for in the bush, such as a king size bed under a romantic white netting canopy, mission style armchairs with thick canvas cushions, a good writing desk and chair, a sunny modern bathroom, ceiling fan and air conditioning, and round the clock electricity with plenty of outlets to recharge my electronic equipment. Returning there after long, exciting game drives, I appreciated all the more that Motswari had eschewed the edgy chic and flamboyance that has become a trend in recent years and sometimes gives me a sense of disconnection from the wilderness.
There was a large resident pride in Motswari
Beyond creating a welcoming haven for its guests, I also valued Motswari for its ongoing commitment to nature conservation and responsible tourism, which has been the guiding principle of the Geiger Family since it acquired the property three decades ago. From the onset, the original owner, the late Paul Geiger, focused on wildlife conservation and environmental management, and on creating employment and growth opportunities for the local communities; thus practicing the key tenets of responsible tourism and sustainable development long before they were articulated by the international community.
A rhino was caked with mud after a visit to a water hole
In recent years, Motswari has been repeatedly recognized for its achievements in that arena, such as its ongoing accreditation by the prominent Fair Trade in Tourism, South Africa (FTTSA), a distinction the property first earned in 2008. In early 2013, Motswari also achieved Gold Class status on the Heritage Environmental Certification Program (based on internationally recognized sustainability and responsible business initiatives), making it the only environmentally certified lodge in Timbavati. I especially appreciated the property's concern for its people. Over and again its policies set the stage for responsible tourism. There appeared to be no gender discrimination for any position. Individuality and initiative were encouraged and acknowledged with a wide range of recognitions from Employee of the Year to Most Valuable and Most Popular and Best Dressed (staff members were given the opportunity to design their own uniform).
Dinner was served in the boma
Because the property was located deep into the reserve, it was necessary for all staff members to live on site. The family friendly staff village included accommodations for visiting spouses. I enjoyed hearing about some of the success stories, such as that of Godfrey Mathebula who grew up on the property and started out in the maintenance workshop. When he became interested in tracking and guiding, Paul Geiger sponsored his education. Mathebula went from guide to head guide to assistant general manager. In 2012, he was nominated for South Africa Guide of the Year.
Motswari also reached out to the community at large. As well as supporting local (Hoespruit) organizations with donations, the property had designated staff members to work with these organizations on issues of basic healthcare, nutrition, HIV education and testing. I left with the impression that the property's responsible tourism ethos created a tight knit community among the management and staff of Mostwari, and an all around friendly atmosphere that directly influenced the exceptional quality of my bush experience there.
Article and photos by Josette King
The view from my tent at Mumbo Island
When I first heard of Malawi, in the earliest days of my love affair with Africa over a decade ago, I confess that I had to consult an atlas to locate the small landlocked country wedged into the southern end of the East African Rift Valley. Less than 900 kilometers (560 miles) from north to south and barely 160 kilometers (100 miles) at its widest, Malawi was overshadowed by its much larger neighbors, Tanzania to the north, Zambia and Mozambique to the south, east and west. It was, and remains as of this writing, mainly unnoticed by international tourism travelers. Yet this narrow strip of rugged terrain carved by the Great Rift Valley is rich in spectacular vistas and home to several national parks, and of course Lake Malawi, known by the most passionate divers and water sports enthusiasts. It is the third largest of the African lakes, and for some arguably the most beautiful.
Great swaths of the country were used for subsistence agriculture
It is also one of the poorest countries in Africa, and one for whom the development of a viable tourism industry is an important growth and indeed survival factor. It was this opportunity to have it all, to visit, and through that support a country in the early stages of modern development as well as enjoy a safari off the beaten track, and experience a remote tropical beach environment known by many in the region, but rarely visited by international travelers, all within a few hours’ drive that made Malawi an irresistible destination for my most recent African visit.
The shores of Lake Malawi were dotted with fishing villages
Reaching Malawi had its challenges. With a population of 16 million living mainly in rural areas, and an economy largely based on subsistence agriculture, it is one the least developed countries in Africa, with only the most rudimentary national infrastructure. And what of the tourism infrastructure? I needn’t have worried. A few forward thinking properties have established themselves in recent years, ranging from unabashedly off the grid to luxury class, in the most desirable tourism destinations in the country. Each had a unique personality that was just right to ensure optimum enjoyment of it surroundings. One constant however, throughout my visit to the peaceful little country was the warm welcome of the gentle people of Malawi.
The king size bed at Mvuu faced the deck and the bush
From a luxury safari perspective, Malawi is for people who want a bit of real world authenticity with their posh African safari.
Mvuu Lodge in Liwonde National Park, considered the premier park in Malawi for its large population of hippos and elephants and its abundant bird life, offered intimate wilderness tented accommodations with a casual atmosphere and the creature comforts I have come to expect from a luxury safari property. Ideally located at the edge of a secluded lagoon across the Shire River from the park entrance, it could be reached only by boat. The open sided main area was raised high into the trees for a sweeping view of the constant wildlife activity along the lagoon. The riverside location allowed for a mix of cruises and drives that provided a close and varied view of the game as it went about its daily life. The highpoint of my stay was a perfect morning on the river, when we came across a bachelor herd of elephants, one of them sound asleep (yes, elephants can sleep laying down), then spent a memorable hour watching their antics as they horsed around in the middle of the river like teenagers at the beach.
A local fisherman casting his net from a dugout canoe
Some 580 kilometer (360 mile) long, Lake Malawi is the main topographic icon of the country. It is internationally renowned among water sports enthusiasts and naturalists for its pristine shores and deserted islands nestled between towering boulders rising straight from crystal clear waters alive with small brightly colored fish. The beauty of the scenery and the hundreds of endemic species of cichlids fish drove the Malawi government to set aside the southern end the lake as Lake Malawi National Park in 1980. It was the first fresh water marine reserve in the world, and then in 1984 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
My tent was a reed and thatch bungalow high above the lake
An hour’s motorboat ride off shore from Cape Maclear, Mumbo Island was a pristine one square kilometer (250 acres) dot of granitic rock topped by lush miombo woodland and blessed with a crescent beach of golden sand. Until the National Parks authorities first awarded Kayak Africa the exclusive rights to operate tourism accommodations on the island in 1996, it had never been populated. To preserve its unspoiled beauty, Kayak Africa created Mumbo Island Camp, a minimalist property run on uncompromising sustainable principles. It consisted of rustic bungalows of reed and thatch with comfortable beds, bucket showers and “eco-loos,” perched high in the rocks to better admire the dazzling waters of the lake, a dining area that served wholesome, simple foods, and in a corner of the beach, a water sports gazebo. There was no electricity, just solar and paraffin lamps and wind up flashlights. What did I like best? The dawn wake up call of a red billed hornbill enthusiastically welcoming the sunrise, and snorkeling in warm waters so clear I could see the outlines of underwater boulders deep beneath me, bright cichlids darting about them, and kayak rides to watch the sun dip into the lake, and… well, everything. The ultimate luxury of Mumbo Island Camp was its very existence.
Elephants were a common sight at Mkulumadzi
Mkulumadzi, the sole property in Majete Game Reserve, the recently reborn only Big Five game park in Malawi on the Lower Shire River; and Pumulani, on the western side of the Nankumba Peninsula at the edge of the Lake Malawi National Park, were sister properties designed for Robin Pope Safaris by G. Hooft Graafland, a Dutch architect. These innovative world class luxury lodges sat gently upon the land, each guest accommodation custom designed to fit into the topographic elements of its environment, and covered with a roof of endemic vegetation to help offset its own carbon footprint and regulate inside temperatures.
Samuel Chihana pours a sundowner drinks for us
While the properties had their distinct character best adapted to their purpose, both were decorated in an elegantly understated contemporary style that offered optimum comfort without ever distracting from their breathtaking surroundings. Each had its own trademark feature. At Mkulumadzi, the wilderness lodge, it was the impressively engineered 88 meter (290 foot) suspension foot bridge that led across the river to the property’s entrance. It never failed to deliver new game viewing opportunities and make me feel like an explorer of a bygone era.
The traditional dhow sailed around the lake
At Pumulani, the lakeside beach lodge, the unique feature was the authentic, hand built wooden dhow with a triangular sail, reminiscent of the days when Arab traders plied the waters of the lake, always ready to take me on a breakfast or sunset cruise. And best of all, along with exceptional memories I took away the satisfaction to have experienced two properties in harmony with my responsible tourism ethos.
But that was no surprise. On one of my early visits to Zambia many years ago, I had the good fortune to meet Robin and Jo, the founders of Robin Pope Safaris. It was a conversation that went a long way to opening my mind to the power of responsible tourism as a tool for sustainable development in Africa and beyond.
The lodge was reached via a suspension footbridge over the Mkulumadzi River
These two premier properties, relatively recently opened in a country still in the early stages of development were an ideal opportunity to experience first hand the contribution that the presence of my fellow tourists and I were making to the protection of previously at risk wilderness areas, while helping to alleviate poverty through good local employment practices, and the involvement of the local communities. I was delighted to hear that Pumulani was recognized as Malawi’s leading hotel at the 2011 and 2012 World Travel Awards.
Photos by Josette King
The lodge was reached via a suspension footbridge over the Mkulumadzi River
The recently restored Majete Wildlife Reserve in southern Malawi remains mostly undiscovered by tourists. Mkulumadzi offered accommodations within a 7,000 hectare (27 square mile) private concession with exclusive tourism rights in one the most spectacular areas of the repopulated wilderness area.
Josette’s room featured a well appointed pantry
Designed to minimize its impact on the environment while offering high levels of creature comforts, the property also focused on serving healthful, refined international dishes with a pan African accent. Beyond game viewing our contributor especially appreciated Mkulumadzi’s responsible tourism practices and guest centered service.