In all our articles, photographs and films we try to show characterful places, real people doing real things and insightful experiences that benefit biodiversity conservation and local communities. Here is a selection of our favourite experiences from the year, as chosen by our team of contributors Paul Bloomfield, Sarah Baxter, Rhiannon Batten, Harriet O'Brien, Mark Rowe, Ginny Light, Jini Reddy, Holly Rooke and Richard Hammond.
Best rural accommodation One of Greentraveller's film unit stayed at Rural Casa Mas Garganta, Catalonia while producing a video about the Catalan Pyrenees: From the Summits to the Sea (which will be out in early 2018). It's a beautifully renovated 14th Century farmhouse on a hill overlooking the D'en Bas valley close to the Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park in the Catalan Pyrenees. Richard said: "It's about as homely as you could imagine, and in a ridiculously picturesque setting. The cosy fireplace was just what you wanted to come home to after a day's filming."
Short clip showing the exterior and setting of Mas Garganta:
Best group gathering In early December Rhiannon and family joined friends for a birthday celebration at Dartington Hall in Devon, and it was an ideal setting for an all-ages group. The accommodation was as comfortable and decadent as many a hotel. There were cosy private lounges for sitting and chatting plus a spectacular 14th Century Great Hall for a birthday supper and ceilidh. Children had the run of the site’s stunning gardens, and playground. And with a pub, cinema and various cafes on site, there were plenty of spaces for individual families and old friends to slip away to between whole-group activities. Plus Dartmoor on the doorstep for longer blustery walks.
Best summer escape A review trip for Olive Magazine took Rhiannon to Levendis Estate on the Ionian island of Ithaca in the summer and she’s now dreaming of returning for a family holiday. Run by an Aussie-Greek couple, Spero and Marilyn Raftopulos - plus their (grown-up) children, Kate and Niko - this collection of four cottages plus swimming pool, is set on Spero’s family homestead. Cottage kitchens are pre-stocked with delicious Greek wine, olives and pistachios for that first holiday sundowner (plus peach juice, bread, tea, coffee, milk, homemade jams, local thyme honey, freshly laid eggs and own-recipe muesli for the first morning’s breakfast).
The estate opens a coffee shop each morning, which also acts as a reception of sorts; whether you want to stock up on Levendis’ homegrown olives or local bread, order a ready meal or barbecue pack, borrow a coolbox or pick up a map of walks. For getting out to local villages, restaurants and beaches, you can pedal off on one of the estate’s bikes, or use the hire cars that all cottages come with (the only charge is for petrol) - beach towels and beach bags are left in the cars ready to go and sunhats and jelly shoes are there for the borrowing too.
Most inspirational Eco Resort As part of the series 'Transforming Our World' we produced for WTTC (see earlier), we helped put together this short film (with destination footage by the incredible Shawn Heinrichs) about Misool - an eco resort in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, which won the Environment Award in this year's Tourism for Tomorrow Awards. Here's their story:
Best sunrise Greentraveller's films crews spent much of the autumn and early winter filming the coast of England for the National Coastal Tourism Academy's England's Coast project (due in early 2018). These films capture landscape as well as visitor attractions, so the filming days were from dawn til dusk, and one of the best things about these trips are the early mornings at some of England's finest coastal locations. Richard's favourite was sunrise at Lulworth Cove in Dorset.
Best unexpected wildness On a trip to Cyprus, Sarah Baxter got up early, headed away from the touristy beach resorts and hiked down the Avakas Gorge before anyone else arrived. Just her and the goats, stream-splashing and squeezing through an ever-narrowing rocky ravine. Spectacular.
Best wildlife experience in UK Watching puffins flying in and out of their nests at Sumburgh head on Shetland was the most magical wildlife encounter of the year for Mark and his family. “You could watch them from a drystone wall, you were completely unobtrusive but you could even see their chests breathe in and out” says Mark. “The kids were utterly overawed by it.”
Best café Castle Cary, in Somerset, made it firmly onto Rhiannon's local food map this year. Joining long-standing culinary businesses like Levant and Charlie Hill Butcher and Pie Maker are newcomers such as the Somerset Wine Company and Home - a veggie café run by Paul and Fiona Mattesini. “Home’s unpretentious, wholesome, modern cooking also happens to be delicious,” says Rhiannon. “I stopped off with my son and had a fabulous African peanut soup - smooth and rich with just a hint of chilli and a scattering of crunchy roast chickpeas - and the signature warm haloumi salad while my son approved so highly of his sponge cake with fresh cream and blackcurrant jam that it was gone before I’d managed to forage a single crumb”.
Best Community-owned pub The Cat and Custard Pot is a shining example of community spirit, say Harriet O'Brien. It's a handsome old inn bought by four local families in 2014 in order to ensure it remained a proper, traditional facility for the village. "And so it is" says Harriet. "it’s an honest-to-goodness pub with a fine range of ales, a generous bar area, horse brasses, comfy chairs, log burner and excellent food sourced from the area and priced very reasonably. Set in the pretty Cotswold village of Shipton Moyne, the pub is close to Westonbirt and Highgrove and occasionally attracts A-list customers - who blend in with others enjoying this place of warmth, quality and pleasing simplicity."
Most inspirational personal story Evalyn Sintoya Mayetu's journey is a remarkable one, says Richard. Against considerable odds, she managed to get herself an education in remote part of rural Kenya, learnt to be a safari spotter and eventually became a full qualified safari guide at Naboisho Camp in the Masai Mara. Greentraveller's film crew interviewed her as part of a series of films Greentraveller produced for the World Travel and Tourism Council called Transforming Our World. Here she tells her story:
Most remote experience For Mark, a seasoned international travel writer, this was actually in the UK, walking around the lochs of South Uist in the late evening midsummer light. “At 10.30pm it was still light, there was no-one around and the outline of the South Uist mountains was diamond sharp. I walked past a picked-clean sheep’s skull, saw a hobby munching a dragonfly and swans motionless on Loch Druidibeg. South Uist is the edge of the UK and it really looked the part.”
Best father and daughter experience Walking up Helvellyn via Striding Edge with his daughter Hannah (12) was Mark’s most exhilarating moment of the year. The loop from the village of Glenridding took 4.5 hours up and down and involved an impromptu bit of running along Striding Edge, the narrow ledge that leads from the Hole in the wall to the summit. “We didn’t plan it but we do a lot of running together and it kind of made sense” says Mark.
Lives up to the hype Paul Bloomfield's friends had waxed lyrical about the Picos de Europa range in northern Spain, but a week-long hike from east to north-west was even better than he'd hoped: "nearly empty trails, craggy limestone peaks, dozens of soaring birds of prey, wildflowers galore, terrific blue cheeses and, in the Cares Gorge, one of the most spectacular canyon walks in Europe."
Best Big Data initiative As part of the series 'Transforming Our World' we produced for WTTC (see earlier), we helped put together this short film about The Nature Conservancy's Mapping Ocean Wealth Project, which aims to put an economic value on coral reefs. It won the Innovation Award in this year's Tourism for Tomorrow Awards. Here's their story:
Best bike ride for softies Via Verde from Horta de Sant Joan to Benifallet, Catalonia. Picasso loved Horta, but Paul Bloomfield couldn't wait to get out. Not that he thought there's anything wrong with this attractive, historic little town on the edge of Els Ports National Park, "but the bike path winding through the countryside below the town towards Tortosa was irresistable, snaking gently downhill for dozens of miles past rocky canyons, craggy outcrops and forested gorges. Easy, but epic."
Best welcome At Easter Rhiannon Batten and family headed to Cauterets for a first family ski trip. Not only were they blessed with both snow and sunshine but their base, an apartment at the family-run Hotel Lion D’Or, couldn’t have been more comfortable, or welcoming. “We knew we were off to a good start when we arrived to find a jug of fresh lilacs, a straight-from-the-oven gingerbread loaf and a jar of homemade marmalade waiting for us in the kitchen,” says Rhiannon.
Best discovery This summer Sarah traced some of the Stop Line Green, the defensive line erected in the 1940s in case the Germans invaded. She'd never heard of it before she started researching, but pieced together a section mere miles from her doorstep, seeking out the trenches and pillboxes that still exist – a great excuse for a long walk.
Best hostel stay In 2017 Rhiannon Batten continued her rediscovery of the YHA (youth hostel association) with several stays. One of the most memorable, however, was a Father’s Day weekend trip to YHA Street, staying in a cosy family room and venturing out to swim in the local outdoor pool, Greenbank Pool, and eat from a hyper-locally sourced menu at Bocabar in nearby Glastonbury. Independent hostels also got a look-in from the Batten household this year, notably the Kyle Blue in Bristol (pictured below), a geothermally heated barge moored up near Cargo, the city’s growing container park restaurant enclave, and the must-visit SS Great Britain. The smartly refurbished boat has a custom-built kitchen, decent showers, a large lounge area (wifi is free) and a range of bedrooms, including doubles, dorms and family rooms.
Best Winter Activity Holly discovered dog sledding in the Catalan Pyrenees, the perfect way to experience the beauty of the snowy mountains away from the bustle of ski resorts. “We were lucky enough to be the dogs first outing of the winter. After a whole summer of training, their excitement, and the excitement of the musher Marc, added an amazing energy to the experience.”
Best small island escape Jini was charmed by the Hebridean island of Iona. "It’s small and magical, an ancient landscape where the veil between worlds feels thin. If you’re the reflective sort who loves to walk you’ll feel instantly at ease. There are hidden coves, white-sand beaches filled with tiny cowrie shells, bays full of serpentine stones, lush glens and wild, mysterious corners to explore, away from the day-trippers who, in season, throng the village. I loved it in the sunshine, and in the fierce rain and wind too. ‘I stayed at Torrasa, a B&B on a farm with sheep and a horse named ‘Dio’, towards the Machair, with views of neighbouring Erraid."
Best refuge After a tough couple of days' trekking on the Tour du Mont Blanc (and a tough night not sleeping in a dormitory alongside a heavily snoring fellow hiker) Paul's arrival at the Auberge de la Nova was a delight: "friendly, neat, cute, beautiful views and terrific food. Few beers taste as glorious as my first pression sipped in the auberge garden after kicking off my boots in the late afternoon sun."
Best Wildlife Watching Experience Abroad As part of Greentraveller's series of films for WTTC's Transforming Our World initiative, we filmed the work of Botswana Tourism Organisation in Makgadikgadi, Okavango Delta and Chobe. "Filming elephants swimming in a lake in Makgadikgadi was pretty special," says Richard, "but on our last night, while staying at Thobolo Bush Lodge near the border with Namibia, we saw over 500 elephants arrive at night to a watering hole. It was magical."
Best pitstop “Whenever we’ve found ourselves doing a long UK drive as a family this year we have had reason to be thankful for the National Trust,” says Rhiannon. “Just when we’ve needed a loo break, a cup of tea and space for the children to run around and work off all that pent-up energy, a National Trust site has stepped in and saved the day. Highlights this year included a cup of tea and a look at the giant waterwheel at Quarry Bank in Cheshire, a climb of the tree hide and a meet-up with grandparents at Moseley Old Hall in Staffordshire and a rainy run around the garden followed by tea and scones in the wood-panelled tea room at Barrington Court in Somerset.”
Best neighbourhood restaurant Brassica is the kind of restaurant you dream of finding in small towns around the UK and, in Beaminster, Rhiannon Batten’s dreams came true. In a light, bright, colourful and very stylish dining room, liberally dotted with posies of fresh flowers (co-owner Louise Chidgey was once senior buyer for The Conran Shop and knows her stuff – if you love the crockery you can buy it in the accompanying shop next door), chef and co-owner Cass Titcombe serves the kind of food that appears simple but takes great skill to pull off so well. “Start with a seasonal cocktail (blood orange mimosa) or mocktail (quince soda) then move on to roast squash with pecorino, black garlic and chestnuts or whole grilled seabass with fennel and anchovy aioli, making sure you save space for a slice of lemon, almond and polenta cake with vanilla ice cream” advises Rhiannon.
Best coastal hiking loop Paul Blomfield's unexpected few hours on Exmoor on a quiet autumn Sunday morning yielded one of his best four hours' walking ever. Walking from Oare to County Gate, Countisbury Hill, Watersmeet and back: "peaceful wooded paths, dramatic views across the Bristol Channel and along the coast to Lynmouth, the babbling East Lyn River... gorgeous."
Best Foodie Destination Beyond Barcelona and the coast, Paul and Richard both say the variety of Catalonia's landscapes, cuisines and activities is astonishing. Who knew that snails, simply grilled and served with garlicky aioli in Lleida (where they worship the mollusc with a huge festival each year) could be so delicious? Or that food all over the region is such high quality and great value? A great example is the fabulous Hotel 1935, Costa Brava.
Best family holiday Mark and his family loved their trip to the Isles of Scilly. “It was like Cornwall in the 1950s, except with good food and updated accommodation” says Mark. “We kayaked around Bryher in the footsteps of Michael Morpurgo’s novel, Why the Whales Came, and snorkelled with seals. The highlight was sailing to the Bishop Rock lighthouse at the south-west extremity of the islands - it was a little choppy but dramatic and thrilling.”
The one that got away Ginny missed out on a paddleboarding tour of the salt marshes on her trip to Ile de Ré in June, but hopes to return to this "island idyll" to do it: "The marshes put on an ever-changing spectacle of flora and fauna as well as being host to a recovering artisan/small scale oyster industry (which can now be sampled any time of the day or night thanks to the 24 hour vending machine installed by one of the oyster producers this year). Ile de Re is most famously explored by bike but a paddleboard tour of the marshes, or the Atlantic shores, would be an invigorating alternative."
And finally.... Best interviewee clip Greentraveller's film unit was commissioned by the Travel Foundation to produce a series of videos about its work in Jamaica, Croatia and Cape Verde. The highlight of the Jamaica shoot, Richard says, was visiting the Rastafari Indigenous Village in the hills above Montego Bay. Here is a short clip with Queen B who leads tours around the village:
A very happy 2018 from all of us at Greentraveller!