Whether you fancy getting away to enjoy the summer sunshine or are planning a weekend break in the autumn once things have cooled down, I’m happy to announce my summer hotel-stay giveaway in partnership with HotelsCheap.org. I’m giving away a HotelsCheap.org voucher to one of my readers, worth $250 (or equivalent value of £145/€185) which you can use to book yourself a stay in a lovely hotel and treat yourself and that special someone to a relaxing summer break. The voucher can be redeemed for a hotel booking on the HotelsCheap.org website up until spring next year, so if you prefer you can wait until the autumn or even next spring to enjoy your hotel stay.
HotelsCheap.org is a hotel booking website that specialises in finding discount hotel rates for travellers worldwide and you can use the voucher to book a hotel stay in the UK, US and Canada, Europe and many other destinations worldwide. To inspire you in your choice of hotel getaway, I’ve come up with a few ideas, based on destinations and hotels I can personally recommend. If you’d like to enter this giveaway, please follow the details at the bottom of the article to find out how you can gain the maximum chances to win the HotelsCheap.org voucher.
A historic getaway in Winchester
The best of England packed into an ancient market town, Winchester has a very walkable historic centre, plenty of green spaces, river walks, interesting artizan shops and great places to eat. If that’s not enough, you have the beautiful Hampshire countryside on your doorstep, with walking and country houses to explore within a short drive of Winchester.
Where to stay?
What to see?
Wander around the medieval market town and visit the famous cathedral where Jane Austen is buried – perhaps you’ll find a farmer’s market in full swing. Shop in the craft markets or artizan shops that line the narrow lanes, walk along the river to the city mill where you can see flour being ground as it has for centuries and perhaps spot some otters in the mill stream. The South Downs Way starts at Winchester so you may like a hike in the lovely Hampshire countryside or walk to the top of the town and visit the medieval Great Hall with King Arthur’s round table.
Read more about Winchester here: 10 ways to spend a wonderful weekend in Winchester
A lively stay in San Antonio, Texas
This town is one of the most historic in Texas, set on the San Antonio river, with some buzzing bars and restaurants along the Riverwalk making it a great choice for a relaxing getaway.
Where to Stay?
Hotel Valencia Riverwalk is an elegant boutique hotel on the Riverwalk and has Saturday night stays in August and September for under $200 although you may prefer to wait until the sweltering Texas heat and humidity reduces and take your hotel break in October or November. Read my review of Hotel Valencia Riverwalk
What to see?
Take a boat tour along the Riverwalk or stroll on foot as evening falls and the area buzzes with bars and restaurants. Of course you will want to visit the Alamo, a landmark in the struggle for Texan independence and perhaps drive out to some of the other historic Spanish missions in the area. You can hire bikes and cycle on the path beside the San Antonio river or shop for local crafts and artizan souvenirs in the La Villita Historic district.
Read more about our stay in San Antonio here: Texas Podcast Part 1, Houston, San Antonio and Picosa Ranch
A cool weekend in Copenhagen
Haven of Scandi-cool, Denmark’s capital has a compact centre that is easy to explore by bike or on foot and in summer you can take in the party atmosphere as locals enjoy the summer in the parks and around the harbour.
Where to Stay?
The Ibsens Hotel is a stylish hotel near the Copenhagen lakes that is furnished with quirky finds from neighbourhood shops and local artizan businesses and has Saturday night stays available in August and September for €130-180. Read my review and video of Ibsens Hotel here
What to see?
A boat tour of the canals and harbour will help you get your bearings and locate some of the major Copenhagen landmarks, such as the Opera House, Royal Palace and the Little Mermaid statue. Stroll along Stroget where you’ll find luxury Danish design stores and climb the medieval Round Tower, for views over the city. You’ll want to enjoy the food scene too, with some of the best restaurants in the world where Michelin stars abound, but you can also find inexpensive snacks and deli-meals in the Torverhallerne food halls.
Read more about Copenhagen here: In photos: Our weekend stay in Copenhagen
A spa break in Budapest
Hungary’s capital has all the sophistication of Paris but with far more affordable prices and warm, friendly locals. There’s so much to see whether you love sightseeing, relaxing in the numerous traditional and trendy cafes or visiting one of the thermal spas.
Where to Stay?
The Intercontinental Hotel is a 5 star hotel that’s centrally located for sightseeing by the Chain Bridge with views of the Danube and there are dates in August and September available from €100 per night. Read my review and video of Intercontinental Hotel Budapest here
What to see?
Take the funicular up to the top of Castle Hill to visit the colourful Matyas church and take in the views from the Fisherman’s Bastion over the Danube and Hungarian Parliament building. You’ll want to visit one of the Hungarian spa baths such as the Gellert or Szechenyi complexes to enjoy a massage or a soak in the warm baths and perhaps afterwards have coffee and cake in an elegant cafe. The House of Terror is a compelling reminder of Hungary’s communist past, while a visit to the Hungarian State Opera House for a concert or ballet is a must for culture lovers.
Read more about Budapest here: 48 hours in Budapest, top things to see on a weekend break
HotelsCheap.org specialises in finding discount hotel rates for travellers worldwide operating in 75 countries for hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and holiday apartments. On HotelsCheap.org you can find anything from hostels and popular brand hotels to boutique hotels to luxury resorts, so getting the best hotel price doesn’t mean compromising on where you stay. You can also find more tips, traveller interviews and accommodation guides on the HotelsCheap blog
About the giveaway
I’m giving away a voucher to one of my readers worth $250 US (equivalent value £146 or €185) which can be redeemed on HotelsCheap.org any time before June 2015. The giveaway is open to all readers regardless of your location although the voucher will be redeemed in $US. The giveaway will run for 2 weeks and end on Monday 4 August 2014. To enter the giveaway all you have to do is;
- Leave a comment below telling me how you’d like to spend your HotelsCheap voucher; which destination would you love to visit, who will you be going with, where would you like to stay?
You can also add 5 additional chances to win by doing any of the following through the Rafflecopter widget below;
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In this article our intrepid guest author Rhys, climbs the unexpectedly steep Mount Kinabalu for a New Year’s view from the top, meets the king of the swingers, gets eaten alive in the jungle and catches some squeaking catfish in Borneo.
When people think of Borneo they usually think sprawling rainforest and amazing wildlife, not the highest mountain in South East Asia. For some reason though Danielle, my partner, thought the latter and we booked to climb Mount Kinabalu for what should have been the romantic New Year’s Eve to end them all. We also booked a little bit of the former as well with a three day camp at Uncle Tans wildlife camp.
Borneo, the largest island in Asia (and the third largest in the world), is divided up amongst three counties; Brunei and Malaysia to the North, Indonesia to the South. The country was actually once part of the British empire and you can see the British influence in the three pin plug sockets which were a welcome sight for us and our tangle of iPad, Camera and other assorted chargers and plugs.
We flew in it Kota Kinabalu to start our trip, Kota being the capital of the Northern region of Sabah where we spent all of our time. Although it’s nothing to write home about, it’s still worth a visit for a night on your way through to somewhere else. Check out the cool Sunday Market which closes down one of the main streets for the morning and also go to the Signal Hill Observatory from which you can look out over the whole city and various islands. The night market is a great choice for food, buying a whole fresh fish from a local fisherman and taking it to a food stall to have it cooked with various other delicacies is an experience in itself as well as a delicious meal.
Although information is scarce on this (even on the interwebs), minibuses depart regularly from the central bus station to Kota Kinabalu National Park, the home of Mount Kinabalu, for around $5 each way. Get there early though as once they’re full they’re gone; we were there for 8am and departed with the last minibus by 9am. The luxury buses are slightly more expensive and go from the main terminal a few km out of the town, most hotels will arrange tickets and the tuktuk there.
Mount Kinabalu, not just a walk in the park
Mount Kinabalu stands at just over 4000 meters but for some reason (mainly a lack of any real research) we thought it would be a nice gently sloping climb. As soon as we arrived at the national park to check in to our accommodation we saw what we were up against; gently sloping it was not.
There is a range of accommodation and tour operators with which to book, the secret however is that all accommodation in the national park is provided through Sutera Sanctuary lodges and you can contact them directly for the best rates. Prices range from RM100 to RM1000 per night at the bottom of the mountain, and RM350 to RM3600 per night at the top. We went for the basic packages as we were on a budget but we saw some of the nicer accommodation at the bottom and it certainly had the feel of a luxury resort about it.
Whilst the budget accommodation at the top of the mountain was extremely basic with bunk beds and no hot water (you only really stay for a few hours sleep though before the 2am start) the bottom was actually quite nice for the amount we paid. As part of the package, food is provided via a buffet dinner the evening before the climb, breakfast the morning before, a packed lunch for during the climb, a buffet dinner after day one climb, buffet snacks before day two climb, buffet breakfast after the climb and then another buffet lunch when you get down. Phew! Basically you get fed a lot and although the mountain top food is pretty average (you can see why when the only way to get food up there is on the back of mountain sherpas) the food at the bottom was fantastic with a range of curries and a decent breakfast including fresh cooked omelettes.
Day one starts by paying 80RM for a guide, 30RM climbing permit fee, 14RM insurance fee, 10RM certificate fee, 10RM trail fee to the gate and 10RM storage fee if you need to leave any bags at the bottom (it’s 80RM if you need a porter to bring anything up to 10kg up with you so I’d suggest storing it and bringing a light backpack with a change if warm clothes and any other essentials). It can feel like you’re paying for something every time you turn around, especially as you are shepherded to various windows throughout the process; to be fair most of these fees are pointed out at the time of booking but it’s easy to forget such things when you have to book months in advance to secure a permit.
It’s then time to spend the next five to eight hours walking up very steep steps, relentlessly, until you get to Laban Rata guest house for your lunch. It’s pretty knackering, there’s no two ways about it and it can be pretty miserable at times if it starts to rain as it did for the last two hours with us. I have to confess here that neither of us are mountain climbers in any way shape or form, we both keep fairly fit but we certainty weren’t accustomed to the type of exercise and I think it would have been a lot easier had we done any form of specialist training beforehand. There are some quite spectacular views early on but after that it’s a bit of a drudge to get to the mid way point for your food, sitting and eating said food looking out above the clouds is pretty special though. All though the advice for the mountain is that it’s easily accessible and for all ages we actually found it quite hard going and there were tears from Danielle on a few occasions.
Second day brings the summit
Day two starts at 2am and although that sounds horrific it’s actually pretty exciting being out there in the pitch black, with a head torch, heading for the summit and the first sunrise of the New Year. This second half of the climb is a lot steeper than the first in certain parts, lots of sections don’t have steps and you have to scramble up some quite scary bits of slippy rock in pitch black with just a frayed piece of rope to help you out. It certainly tested our nerve and resolve, this was the highlight of Danielle’s crying throughout the trip with there being more cries per hour than at any other time.
We eventually made it to the summit and a short period of elation gave way to the urgent need to get down as we felt unsafe in between a sheer twenty meter drop and a wall of people bustling to get past each other to have a photo next to the summit sign; it gets very busy in a very small space up there. It was even more treacherous on the way down as it had started to rain and there were certain sections where it seemed if you slipped you could be falling for a very long time. In the end we didn’t see an amazingly romantic sunrise as it was too cloudy but being above the clouds is still pretty unbelievable viewing and we were both overjoyed with our effort and achievement when we arrived back at the park headquarters.
At the bottom of the mountain you can catch one of the regular luxury buses back to Kota Kinablu or on to Sandakan. You can also stay an extra night at Sutera Sanctuary or do like most people do and stay at the hot springs resort near by. We chose to get straight on the bus though and on to Sandakan for a wild life camp at Uncle Tans. Uncle Tans wildlife camp started out in 1986 when the man himself began taking tourists on wildlife tours around Sepilok and Sandakan. Move on twenty years and Uncle Tan is no longer around but the legend lives on with a large Bed and Breakfast/Operations centre, a wildlife camp and boats along the Lokan river in Kinabatangan.
Viewing the elusive orangutan
We stayed at the operations base the night before our trek, this isn’t necessary but you do have to be there at 9:30am the next day so it’s worth at least staying on the same road as Sandakan is up to an hour away. The accommodation at the operations base is basic and our room had no hot water, Danielle would certainly recommend trying one of the number of other more upmarket choices close by. The morning starts off with a visit to the Sepilok orang-utan rehabilitation centre, this isn’t part of the camp and you have to pay the entrance fee of RM30 but the transfer from Uncle Tans is complimentary. The centre is a fantastic place, we were unfortunate to have two orangutans turn up for feeding who were camera shy and turned their backs on us for the entire hour but we heard from others at the camp they had seen up to twenty of them turn up and cause chaos jumping all over each other. It’s not a zoo and the orangutans come from the near by jungle for a free nosh up so it can be hit and miss but I guess that’s all part of the appeal.
Later in the morning we were off to camp, an hour by mini bus and then an hour on a boat headed down the river. For some reason the boats the camp use do not have roofs and after remarking to each other how amazing it was to be out on the river we quickly found ourselves in the middle of a biblical downpour. Although we both had decent waterproof jackets on I stupidly had my phone, passport and wallet in my non waterproof shorts pockets. Complete amateur. I’m happy to report both the wallet and passport are now doing fine but the phone didn’t make it. RIP phone. Be warned.
The camp is very basic but we forgave that as we spent the next two days seeing orangutans, proboscis monkeys, long tailed macaques and a host of other animals in their natural habitat. We went on morning, afternoon and evening safaris across the two days by boat along the river and some trekking through the jungle, all were fantastic. The guides are extremely knowledgeable and can spot the smallest of monkeys from miles away whilst driving a long tail boat down the river at full speed with huge smiles on their faces, they are all really lovely guys as well.
The catfish weren’t the only thing biting
There is a real family friendly atmosphere at the camp and there were lots of families with children when we were there. There is even a camp band to entertain throughout and after dinner consisting of a few of the guides and the cook. What lack in talent they make up for in volume though which did get slightly annoying later in to the night when we were trying to sleep for our 6am morning safari. Word to the wise, I am normally a magnet for mozzies, in fact I am utterly irresistible to them, like mosquito crunchy nut cornflakes; Uncle Tans mosquitos took it to the next level though. Yeah I don’t know what the next level is either but it involved bites too numerous to mention. Luckily we had some good soothing cream but stupidly we had the worst mozzie repellant ever as it was the only thing available near the camp and the camp incredibly doesn’t sell any….be prepared would be the motto of the day.
We also managed to squeeze in a bit of fishing which was a paid for extra but well worth it. Danielle cried when she caught cat fish after cat fish and they squeaked a terrible, sad sound when they were plucked from the water. Her sensitive side was no match for her competitive spirit though and she plucked a further eight out to my measly one, I didn’t hear the end of that for days. We BBQ’d our fish for dinner and luckily Danielle let me have a few of hers so I didn’t starve. The food in general was fantastic considering it was brought in by boat and prepared in the middle of the jungle. We had a number of different curries and vegetable dishes throughout our stay, all were delicious and we even received a free cooking lesson one evening from the camp cook.
Although there were times when we were extremely tired, uncomfortable, crying and wishing we weren’t there throughout the trip, we both look back now with extremely fond memories. Whilst it isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s certainly not a hard core adventure holiday either and you can certainly up the luxury levels of certain parts of the trip if you so desire. I don’t think we will be pursuing a career in mountain climbing after this but another New Years on a wildlife tour may just be a certainty.
Rhys is a 31 year old I.T. consultant from England who, after working in Sydney for four years, decided to pack it all in and set off with his girlfriend Danielle on the travelling adventure of their dreams. Destinations include Thai kickboxing camp, volunteering in Cambodia, Myanmar, Everest base camp, Burning Man festival and plenty of motorcycling adventures; they are currently blogging daily about their experiences on 365 Days Off Work.
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When Mike and Lucie Wood found an old property in the Marrakech Medina to add to their small group of Marrakech Boutique Riads, they named it Riad Star, for not much more reason than their daughter liked the name. It was only when neighbours asked them if they were naming it after the star who had lived there, that they learned this had once been home to Josephine Baker; the American born cabaret artist of the 1920s, 30s and 40s who had been the toast of Paris, who had been awarded the Legion d’Honeur by Charles de Gaule for her wartime work in the French Resistance and who was a leader in the civil rights movement for racial equality. In honour of Josephine Baker, the renovation of Riad Star, with its art deco woodwork and coloured glass took a new theme, incorporating jazz age glamour and sparkle and a sprinkling of objets and memorabilia from the period.
I hope you enjoy the video below of Finding Josephine Baker at Riad Star in Marrakech
We spent a weekend staying at Riad Star in May, taking advantage of the new easyJet direct flight from Bristol with a schedule that is well timed for long weekend breaks. Our taxi from the airport dropped us as close as it could could get to the Riad, where Abdel, the energetic Riad manager greeted us and led us through the narrow lanes to the unassuming door of the Riad, marked only with a small star. Miriam, the Riad’s excellent cook had prepared a traditional Moroccan meal for us with a selection of side dishes as starters; coleslaw with walnuts and sweet dried fruits, a delicious rice dish with green and red peppers, courgettes and green beans cooked with oil, lemon, parsley and cumin. After such a feast we barely had room for the succulant and fruity lamb tagine cooked with prunes, a dish that is often served at celebration meals in Morocco.
The Josephine room where stayed is thought to be where Josephine Baker herself slept, and the white walls were hung with Jazz age prints from the Revue Negre as well as a large portrait of Grace Kelly who befriended Josephine Baker and invited her to perform in Monacco. The double bed covered with a soft gold bedspread was framed by an arch of traditional carved plasterwork, while silver cutwork metal lamps threw patterns of light on the ceiling. On the tiled floor was a Zayan Berber marriage shawl serving as a rug, with silver sequins woven into the fabric to represent money and a few small tables and stools scattered with catalogues and records from Josephine Baker’s musical performances.
Our en suite bathroom was a similar fusion of traditional Moroccan polished plasterwork and art deco inspired polished black marble with delicious orange blossom shower gel and body lotion from Les Sens de Marrakech. The powerful shower was contained in a bathing area with a high step which I tackled rather carefully for fear of slipping on the tiled surfaces. At the internal window from which voices wafted up from the kitchen below, was a wire sculpture of Josephine Baker dangling in the space, complete with banana skirt and pouting lips.
From reading the books and biographies about Josephine Baker that were scattered around the Riad, I learned more fascinating stories of her time in Marrakech. In the early years of the Second World War, Josephine had started to work for the French resistance, secretly passing information about German operations within occupied France which she hid in her underwear or wrote in invisible ink on her music scores. In 1941 she received orders to move on the North Africa, arriving first in Algiers and then moving on the Casablanca and Marrakech, and it was during this time that she met one of the most powerful and wealthy men in Morocco, T’hami el Glaoui, the Pasha of Marrakech. Josephine had left France suffering with pneumonia and fatigue but now El Glaoui offered her a place to rest and recuperate in his palace, now the Museum of Marrakech next door to Riad Star, putting on a grand dinner in her honour.
The two became close friends and in 1942 Josephine became pregnant and late in her pregnancy suffered a miscarriage in the clinic in Casablanca. She developed an acute infection from which she nearly died and had an emergency hysterectomy which meant that she could never have children of her own. When she was well enough Josephine returned to Marrakech where El Glaoui offered her the use of the guest wing of his palace, now Riad Star, to recuperate. It is said that the Pasha paid children to stand under her window and recite verses from the Koran, as we might say a prayer for someone’s good health and speedy recovery.
As the Josephine room where we stayed is the only room in the riad that overlooks the street, which is unusual as most look inwards to the courtyard, it is believed that this must have been her bedroom. In the street she was known for her generosity and the elderly neighbour remembered being given sweets and modelling clay by her when he was a child. After her recovery Josephine Baker spent the remaining war years touring North Africa entertaining the American, English and French troops and later adopted a ‘Rainbow tribe’ of thirteen children to make up for the children of her own she could never have.
We loved the fusion of Moroccan craftsmanship at Riad Star with the elegant furnishings and metalwork from the souk and the Art Deco antiques and objets that owners, Mike and Lucie Wood have collected on their travels. Each room is decorated in unique style and is named after a part of Josephine Baker’s life; The Paris room after the Casino de Paris that made her a star; the Rainbow room after her Rainbow tribe of adoptive children and the Chiquita room on the roof terrace after her pet cheetah.
Each morning we were served a delicious breakfast of fruit salad, pancakes and scrambled eggs, seated at the green banquette in the alcove to one side of the inner courtyard, which had a small dipping pool to cool off on hot days. While many of the Riads of Marrakech have been converted into holiday homes or small boutique hotels, they were originally family homes designed to house extended families, with different generations living in the rooms that overlook the internal courtyard. The narrow street outside may look a little scruffy, but the unassuming door opens to reveal an elegant private world, designed to shield the women from prying eyes and to keep the house cool in the heat of summer. Owner, Mike Wood told me how most of the skilled craftsmen he had employed to recreate the traditional Beijmat teracotta tiled floors, Tadlakt polished plasterwork and hand carved plasterwork friezes and arches, could be found within 10 minutes of the Riad. From the souk had come embroidered cushions, small silver poufs and stools, silver cut metalwork lanterns and berber sequin marriage rugs, as well as art deco statues and ornaments in keeping with the Jazz Age theme.
The roof terrace has been converted into a delightful area for relaxation, with a wrought iron ballustrade around the central opening which has a clever retractable roof to keep the courtyard below dry and warm in the cooler months. The terrace is cleverly designed with different seating and sunbathing areas separated by arrangements of shrubs and herbs in pots, and in the evening the fairy lights twinkle in the bouganvillia with a fireplace for cooler evenings. There’s also a private hammam that leads off the terrace, where private treatments can be arranged, which is ideal for couples who want to try the hammam experience together, as the public hammams are strictly segregated.
In keeping with the Josephine Baker theme, there’s a rail of sparkling, sequinned dresses and other costumes provided for guests to dress up, with a jewellery box of 1920s style hair ornaments and necklaces to try. While we were there, the Riad had a special display of costumes for the Marrakech Bienniale cultural festival, including a red evening gown worn by Josephine Baker in during one of her final performances in Paris before she died in 1975. The Woods managed to purchase the dress, along with a sequined costume worn by the celebrated French singer, Mistinguett, letters, a movie script and other Josephine Baker memorabilia at a recent auction at the Casino de Paris.
We very much enjoyed our stay at Riad Star, being looked after by the wonderful staff, relaxing in the beautifully restored surroundings and reliving a little Jazz Age glamour. I’m sure Josephine Baker would have approved.
Visiting Riad Star and Marrakech
Thanks to Riad Star who hosted our stay in Marrakech. Rooms at the Riad start at £140 per night bed and breakfast. The Riad is one of four in the Marrakech-Riad family, which are all well located close to all the major sights of the Medina, with English-speaking Moroccan staff who will offer advice, airport transfers, book restaurants, and lend you a local mobile so they can rescue you if you get lost in the Souk! Each Riad has between 4 and 7 bedrooms, making them ideal to book as a group if you are planning a gathering of family or friends, or for couples planning a romantic getaway.
Heather and Guy flew to Marrakech courtesy of easyJet who fly from Bristol to Marrakech on Tuesdays and Saturdays – perfect for a long weekend break. EasyJet also fly to Marrakech from Gatwick, Stanstead and Manchester so you really have no excuse!
We also found the free Marrakech-Riad app was indispensable for finding our way around the Medina and full of useful tips and information about sightseeing, restaurants and shopping. The app features a GPS responsive map of the old town medina which saves you from getting lost in the maze of narrow lanes and the latest version has been extended to cover the new town area of Marrakech. Download the free Marrakech-Riad app from iTunes here
More things to see in Morocco
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey