My secret hideaway: foreign correspondents reveal all
Foreign correspondents know how to get under the skin of a country. But where do they go when they want to get away from it all? Here, well-travelled journalists reveal their ultimate holiday escapes
Afua Hirsch on São Tomé e Principe, Africa
At first I felt critical of the many Africans I spoke to who had never heard of São Tomé e Principe. It is after all an African country, albeit one of the smallest (population 194,000) and remotest an archipelago of tiny islands nestled in the watery armpit of west and central Africa, deep in the Atlantic, with Gabon to the east and Nigeria to the north.
Then I realised how difficult it was to get there. Back then, in 2002, there was one flight a week from Gabon, and one from Lisbon which ferried the children of Portuguese aristocrats to secretive resorts in pristine bays at the foot of volcanos carpeted in the countrys endless virgin rainforest.
I had graduated from university just months before and in my shiny new NGO job chose São Tomé as the location for an international conference I was organising. But getting hundreds of dignitaries there meant chartering planes, training hotel staff and even having new phone cables laid. I arrived exhausted. My VIP guests were in a strop, not because the plane Id chartered looked ripe for the scrap heap, but because it had no business class seats. I was not in the mood to fall in love.
But I did. Id never seen volcanoes so alive with forest or the Atlantic such a seductive, sleepy blue. Ive never felt so close to a history I thought much older no African language is spoken in São Tomé, but, rather a creole version of Portuguese. The inhabitants are all descended from slaves, Portuguese outcasts and Jewish children dumped on the islands hundreds of years ago.
People lived in the ruins of decayed colonial palaces as if the plantation had collapsed the day before. It felt separated at birth from another part of the world the Caribbean or South America with its palatial palms and crumbling façades, ridgeback mountains and Portuguese towns.
But its Africa all right. Billions of barrels of oil have achieved what natural beauty and human charm never did and placed it firmly on the map. The oil workers have been streaming in since São Tomé and I had our first encounter: I hope people seeking Africas greatest beauty will, too.
Fly to São Tomé e Principe from London via Lisbon with TAP Portugal from £457 (flytap.com). Stay at Omali Lodge, doubles from £106 (omalilodge.com)
Afua Hirsch is the former West Africa correspondent for the Guardian
Lyse Doucet on New Brunswick, Canada
Ive heard it time and time again. New Brunswick? Oh, I drove through it to get to Nova Scotia. Acadians? Hmm Cajuns? Oh Cajun cooking Music Louisiana!
But New Brunswick in eastern Canada is much more than a place to drive through. And its northeastern coast will not just delight but enlighten you about a people who survived a British colonial expulsion from here in 1755 and returned to establish a vibrant culture and proud sense of self.
The Acadians are the descendants of the French who colonised the region from the 17th century, and if you visit on 15 August, Acadian national day, youll be loudly reminded of that by the tintamarre. At 17.55, on the dot, people dance in the streets, beating pans and blowing horns, to make as much noise as possible to let the world know theyre still here. A dark day in imperial history, when thousands were forced to flee south including to Louisiana, where the term Acadian became Cajun is now a vibrant celebration of survival.
A drive along the winding shore takes you through a picturesque landscape of simple cottages hugging the coastline and rambling farmhouses set back on rolling green fields (except in the freezing depths of winter, when all is snowy white).
Lobster traps and the Acadian flag are ubiquitous a tricolour to honour French ancestry, with a bright yellow star, representing the Stella Maris, the star of the sea, that guides sailors in storms.
To know even more about this charming corner on the sea, visit the Acadian village, a functioning replica of life through the late 18th to the mid-20th centuries. Inside the original wooden houses of the first Acadian families they are carrying on with daily chores, but are never too busy to warmly welcome visitors.
History comes alive in the evening at the elegant LHôtel Château Albert, where you can tuck into an old- fashioned meal while being entertained by a trio of traditional fiddlers. On my last visit there, a female fiddler recounted how she had to practise in secret as a young girl. Fiddling was only for men then.
And do drop by the Doucet farm in the historical village, where you may find them baking bread.
Fly to Moncton from London via Toronto or Montreal with Air Canada from £532 (aircanada.com). Stay at LHôtel Château Albert, doubles from £70 (villagehistoriqueacadien.com)
Lyse Doucet is the BBCs chief international correspondent
Ed Vulliamy on Sfântu Gheorghe, Romania
The Sfântu Gheorghe arm of the Danube Delta is gratifyingly hard to reach: by ferry from the river port of Mahmudia, which departs between two and five hours late, laden with essential goods that folk in Sfântu Gheorghe on the Black Sea shore cannot buy in their village shop. The boat navigates bends in Europes mightiest river, past oxbow lakes and through newly dug channels. A small crowd makes its way through the mud to the jetty with donkeys to collect the shopping.
There are two cars in Sfântu Gheorghe: one belongs to the policeman, the other to the government environmental officer. During my first visit in 1995, they had crashed and were being repaired.
I frequent Sfântu Gheorghe thanks to an ornithologist friend from Bucharest. His metier along with caviar from local sturgeon is the ostensible reason to be there: a wonder of eagles, egrets, vultures, cranes, ibises, cormorants and pelicans. Fishermen weigh their wares on iron scales in a market that has not changed for centuries. They say that when the sea howls it means a life lost in revenge for mans abuse of the oceans. Sure enough, last time it howled, the bodies of a father and son washed ashore.
One day the ornithologist took me out on the river in his little boat. And there it was: the howl, a heart-stopping scream, and the river heaved. The ornithologists jovial face was suddenly terrified and intense as he gripped the outboard motor to carve a way through the current and driving rain. After 50 minutes of thinking that any of them could be my last, we made it to the bank.
On the night they return, the fishermen gather, after a brief visit home, at the only bar in town: a window cut into a brickwork house. Outside which they sit to drink vodka that comes in bottles the size of a standard beer thats the unit per round, and I confess its tough going.
In keeping with the vulgarisation and invasion by tourism of anything authentic in Romania (as everywhere else), there is now a Green Village Resort in Sfântu Gheorghe: some people on TripAdvisor seem to have had horrendous experiences there, which can only be a good thing.
On one final night in Sfântu Gheorghe, the ornithologist and I were supposed to have gone to bed early, to catch the dawn boat back to Mahmudia, but the captain was dancing on the table, drinking vodka, so there didnt seem to be much hurry.
When the ferry did leave, I was as ever sad to leave with it, into the quickening eastern sky and the brave dawn of newly capitalist, tourist-friendly Romania.
Fly to Bucharest from London with Ryanair from £22.99 (ryanair.com). Mahmudia port is roughly four hours drive, then take the ferry to Sfântu Gheorghe. Stay at the Green Village, doubles from £40 (greenvillage.ro)
Ed Vulliamy is a writer for the Guardian and Observer and was was New York correspondent for the Observer and Rome correspondent for the Guardian
Kate Connolly on Hiddensee, Germany
As a hideaway it could hardly be better named. The island of Hiddensee sits on Germanys north-eastern tip and is one of the countrys sunniest, windiest locations. Despite being just under 11 miles long and, at its broadest point, only two miles wide, even in the height of summer it is surprisingly easy to find a spot in the dunes or in its expansive heathland to escape the daytrippers who arrive en masse from neighbouring Rügen. While to English ears at least its name sounds like a clever reference to its remoteness, it is in fact a nod to the legendary Norwegian king, Hedin, who is believed to have fought here. Whether for a love interest or for gold, opinions are divided, but in any case Hedins Oe or Hedins Island as it was named while under Danish rule has more or less stuck.
In the 1920s the Baltic island was a magnet for intellects and artists. The families of writers Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Günter Grass (whose wife was a Hiddenseer), sculptor Käthe Kollwitz and the Freuds were among the regulars, as was Danish film star Asta Nielsen, who had a playful circular holiday home, the karusel. The Freud connection endures to this day thanks to Esther Freuds 2003 novel The Sea House, which recalls the holidays her great-grandfather Sigmund and his family enjoyed on the island before they and many Hiddensee residents were banned by the Nazis. The family found some sort of solace in the village of Walberswick on the Suffolk coast which, with its grassy sand dunes, large skies and a home they called Hidden House, reminded them of the beloved Baltic island they were forced to forsake.
Ive been coming here regularly for more than a decade, and it has never lost its appeal as an ideal place for escape. It is car-free, with no golf courses and, at around six hours by train and ferry from Berlin, close enough for a long weekend. Aside from swimming, walking and biking, there are three bookshops, a theatre, some pubs and a tent cinema. Otherwise theres little more to do than ask locals to teach you how to fish for pieces of amber after a storm, or literally milk the bright-orange buckthorn berries for their vitamin C-rich juice.
It continues to be a draw for writers and artists, too. Lutz Seilers 2014 novel Kruso, which won the German Book Prize (out in English this year), is set in Hiddensee during the heady days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its a poetic tribute to the island as well as offering an insight into life here during the East German dictatorship for those wanting to flee to the west (Denmark is hardly more than an energetic swim away) as well as those who simply sought internal exile amid the wind and the waves from the every day strains of the GDR. Hiddensee has never lost its appeal as an ideal place for escape.
Fly to Berlin from London with EasyJet from £29.49 (easyjet.com). Regular trains are 44 from Berlin (bahn.com) to Stralsund, from there take a ferry to Hiddensee (reederei-hiddensee.de). Stay at Hotel Godewind, doubles from £92 (hotelgodewind.de)
Kate Connolly is the Guardian and Observers Berlin correspondent
Peter Beaumont on Hosh Jasmin, West Bank
The hills just beyond the outskirts of the Palestinian town of Beit Jala Bethlehems other half, though never say that to a native are a special place. Ancient limestone terraces descend towards Battir and the cool valley of Wadi Refaim, with its fig trees and gazelles. Small apricot orchards hem in the old stone farms that dot the slopes. Just outside the town is where you find Hosh Jasmin, an organic farm and restaurant opened in 2012 by filmmaker, sculptor and restaurateur Mazen Saadeh.
Fifteen minutes drive from the western edge of Jerusalem, Hosh Jasmin is both circumscribed by and defies Israels continuing occupation of the West Bank. Located in Area C, under Israeli security and administrative control, it is reached for us at least through the Walajah checkpoint, passing the Israeli settlement of Har Gilo. The Israeli separation wall is visible from Hosh Jasmin in the distance, a snaking line of grey concrete.
Despite the reminders, it is a place to escape for a while from the continuing violence and tensions, popular with Palestinians from the neighbouring town, Jerusalemites and internationals. Visiting on a blue moon last year, a group of musicians had been assembled. The waiters, encouraging us to stay, suggested if everyone was drunk enough a midnight walk would be initiated. Named for the Syrian-style hosh compounds, tables are set on rough-hewn wooden platforms under the trees, areas designed for sprawling on cushions, although there is a small indoor area for when it rains and a fire pit for the winter chill of the Jerusalem hills. Elsewhere there are hammocks and swing seats.
Below is Saadehs farm, including olives that Hosh Jasmin presses for oil, fruit trees, hives and rabbit runs and the restaurants arak distillery. Its location is a double-edged sword. The lack of building permits for Palestinians in Area C has preserved the areas rustic feel, and it also means that the accommodation Saadeh provides for those who stay beyond when the fire burns down is a treehouse and several tents.
This Christmas those of us in the press corps celebrated lunch outdoors with turkey and Palestinian starters and Taybeh, the Palestinian beer. On other days the food is dictated by the seasons, although there are no actual menus. Specialities include rabbit zarb, a tagine-like dish cooked in an underground oven, Palestinian dumplings and chicken musakhan with flatbread in its rich sauce of onions and sumac served on a flat bread.
For me, the best time is the late afternoon and evening, watching the hills bruise purple into night as the fire starts. Then, Hosh Jasmin is a place to forget for a while at least all of the areas troubles.
Fly to Tel Aviv from London with British Airways from £304 return (ba.com). Eat and camp at Hosh Jasmin organic farm (facebook.com/HoshJas; +972(0)599 868 914), which can be reached from Jerusalem by taxi or hire car (europcar.co.uk). You will need your passport to cross the Walajah checkpoint
Peter Beaumont is the Guardians Jerusalem correspondent
Emma Graham-Harrison on the Jalori Pass, India
The sound of cymbals, drums and song followed us the whole morning, across hillsides of wild iris and through deodar forests, the musicians hidden and the music sometimes thinning to silence but always returning again when mountain paths brought us and the mysterious band back within earshot.
We met them at last outside a tea shack on the Jalori Pass, more than 3,000m high, villagers escorting a goddess swathed in gold and scarlet to the Dussehra festival in Kullu town, two days walk away.
She would be jostled and photographed there by thousands of tourists, but we met her almost alone, our paths crossing at just the right moment.
It seemed like serendipity but our guide, Prem Singh Bodh, had known more or less when the group would arrive, after decades hiking trails in this corner of north India.
Friends got to know him while living in Delhi, and had invited me to join them on a 10-day trip to an area that is little visited by tourists, but full of life and natural beauty.
We met pilgrims at ruined hilltop forts that have become windswept temples. Kids raced up to one campsite from the nearest village and convinced us to lose a game of cricket on an impossible slope.
Their teacher was a postgraduate with a taste for Victorian literature Thackeray, Kipling, Dickens who grew up the other side of a nearby peak. We asked why he turned down the chance of a more lucrative city life after graduating. I missed these mountains, he said simply.
Between those meetings, we had the forests, fields and temples to ourselves for hours at a time. We slept in tents on high meadows beside a woodland lake and spent a couple of nights in spartan but charming lodges built for colonial administrators more than a century ago.
We were camping, but it felt luxurious, with air mattresses, ponies to carry gear so we travelled with just a small day pack, and even a cook.
A few bars of coverage would occasionally appear on the phones of people trying to keep in touch with home. But most of us were happy to be out of contact and suspended in time.
It was often surprising, always beautiful and entirely special, and because we arranged the trip directly with Bodhs company, Zingaro, it was a relatively affordable £50 per person per day including tents and lodges, food and guides. We spent nothing else because there was nothing we needed and nothing to buy. Zingaro also arranges trips to higher altitude areas, for those seeking an even more remote getaway.
Fly to Dharamsala (aka Kangra or Gaggal) from London via Delhi with Air India from £495 (airindia.in). Zingaro treks can organise treks across northern India (zingarotreks.com). Ask Zingaro for advice, but they will usually meet you with a 4×4 or minibus at the edge of the mountains
Emma Graham-Harrison is international affairs correspondent for the Guardian and Observer and was Afghanistan bureau chief for Thomson Reuters
Matilda Temperley on Kaokoland, Namibia
Five hundred miles north-east of Windhoek, the dusty town of Opuwo is nestled into the edge of Kaokolands arid hills. The local inhabitants are bare-breasted, clad in goatskin and covered in ochre. These are the Himba. They live alongside Herero women wearing dresses reminiscent of 19th-century German colonialists with hats shaped to resemble cow horns. Unusual characters arrive in this small trading hub to replenish their supplies at the areas only garage and supermarket before disappearing back into the surrounding desert.
Opuwo is the entrance to the remarkable Kaokoland that lies to the east. This is an area so empty and vast you can drive for days without seeing another soul. I picked up a local guide in Opuwo and set off in the 4×4 (complete with camping gear and roof tents) I had rented in Windhoek. Within an hour, a sandy riverbed stalled our progress and throughout the day the roads became ever more dubious. It doesnt take long until you are obliged to stop being precious about your vehicle and surrender to the inevitable punctures, scrapes and scratches and the hundreds of kilometres of unknown terrain that stretch before you. As you drive, red rocks give way to white deserts, plains become mountains and colours evolve with the day.
After two days of driving, we came across the first sign of human habitation and were surprised to see a rusty petrol drum on a rocky outcrop with signs advertising cold drinks and fuel. It turned out the attendant Himba women had nothing to sell and were rather hoping we could give them some food. It was undoubtedly the oddest petrol station Ive ever seen. The occasional villages we then passed were welcoming, perhaps because the Himbas ancestral land rights and autonomy are well recognised and the increasing cultural tourism in the area is largely on their terms.
When I visited last February, the villages were mainly populated with women and children as the men were with the herds looking for pasture. The villages were full of laughter, most of which was at my expense. The fact that I was childless at 33 never failed to cause mirth. In the first village I camped in, I was given a live chicken that they insisted I leave with. At the next village, I was made to dance out stories. There was something magical in being innocently teased in this matriarchal society.
Kaokoland stretches for many hundreds of kilometres from the Hoanib river north to the Kunene river, which is the border with Angola, and one of the least-populated places on earth. In Kaokoland, you cannot fail to marvel at your insignificance. Kaokoland stole my heart on my first foray and I have been looking for an excuse to return ever since.
Fly to Windhoek from London with South African Airways from £615 (flysaa.com). Car rentals from Camping Car Hire (camping-carhire.com). A 4×4 with full camping equipment is available from £45 a day
Matilda Temperley is a photographer and writer
Helena Smith on Koufonisia, Greece
Greece has always been about the light. The shadows lie in its luminosity. For years I have tried to swim into the sun, a days fading rays made sweeter still by waters brush. The quest for light can take you places that you might otherwise never know; beaches you might never see. In the summer of 1984, on a whim propelled by adventure, I holidayed on Naxos, crossed it by bike and got into a little cargo ship that took me to a place that at the time seemed so ethereal, so elemental, so remote, it has remained with me ever since.
That place was Koufonisia, an isle made up of parts upper Koufonisi and lower Koufonisi and over the course of a spring and summer I would come to know both. Before the internet, before mass travel, before Greeks got fat on EU funds, upper Koufonisi had a smattering of white, flat-roofed houses, one fish tavern, one meat tavern, one tourist (a French painter), one road and a girdle of virgin beaches, ornamented by turquoise sea. In the spring its was carpeted with poppies just as Naxos to its west and Amorgos to its east; and in summer covered by herbs carried on a breeze. But although perfect, it was to be trumped by the discovery of lower Koufonisi: uninhabited (bar the odd shepherd), with even bluer seas, better shorelines and a pure light that I swam into with the passing of each day.
Several years later I returned to upper Koufonisi, this time making my home a rented villa looking out to sea on the isles southern extremity. The water was aquamarine, as seductively translucent as it had been all those summers ago, but it was a world away a world discovered by Greeks who had built second homes, Italians who went for the tourist season and beach bars that served cocktails to the dulcet tones of Icelandic composers.
Lower Koufonisi had changed, too: its cave no more (thanks to a landslide), its beaches the preserve of the droves who descended from fishing boats now busily crossing the 200m channel that separated the isle from upper Koufonisi. But the light was still there, the sky and sea co-joined by a brilliance that was unbeatable and blue. And, as I had done all those years before, I swam into the sun at the end of the day, backstroking through the flat blue, eyes fixed on the brilliant skies and the rocks they framed, knowing I had arrived where I had begun, in the magic of Greece.
Fly to Athens from London with British Airways from £104 (ba.com). Blue Star Ferries on the (Athens) Piraeus Amorgos route stop at Koufonisia three times a week (euroferries.com). Sea jets also makes the trip in summer (seajets.gr). Travellers passing through Athens can also book tickets through Grecian travel (grecian.gr)
Helena Smith is the Guardians correspondent in Greece, Turkey and Cyprus
Stephen Gibbs on Playa Bacunayagua, Cuba
Go to that bar that serves the piña coladas, cross the bridge, then the road to Bacunayagua is on the left. Those were typical driving directions in Cuba in the early 2000s. Then, it was a country without road signs. The reason was never clear. One theory was that every time a sign was put up it was stolen so that its metal could be turned into car parts. Another was that Fidel Castro, determined that the nation remain on a constant military footing, was convinced that road signage would help invaders. It made travelling a challenge. And arriving especially rewarding.
The directions were good enough the first time I went to Bacunayagua in 2005. There were three of us: two Cuban friends, one of whom was a scuba dive instructor, and me. The piña colada stop was memorable. Alongside the road Marco, in a crisp white guayabera shirt, prepared cocktails for thirsty motorists from palm-fresh coconuts, cream and pineapple. He agreed, reluctantly, to go easy on the rum.
After that we crossed the spectacular Puente de Bacunayagua, the tallest bridge in Cuba, completed in 1959. A couple of kilometres later, almost hidden by trees, there on the left was an unmarked, steep concrete road. It dived through a forest towards the sea, bringing us to a complex of run-down 1970s bungalows. In front was the clearest water, framed by an elegant peninsula, and a perfect little hidden beach.
This particular stretch of coastline was also a notorious pick-up point for the cigarette boats that come from Florida and smuggle Cubans back to the US. A few bored young soldiers were there on watch; they were surprised to see us. The offer of a cold drink turned their frowns into smiles. They kept an eye on the car while we explored the pristine waters below.
I returned to Bacunayagua a few weeks ago. A gleaming blue sign now clearly marks that turnoff to the bay. It is as beautiful as ever, but a little noisier. A Cuban family, complete with relatives from Miami, had rented the house the military once occupied. Silence has been replaced by reggaeton.
On the way back to Havana, I stopped at the roadside bar. Marco was still there. Estás perdido, he said to me. That delightful Cuban greeting perhaps best translated as: Where have you been?, offered with equal feeling whether someone hasnt been seen for a few days or a few years. Cuba may be changing, but it still moves at its own pace.
Fly to Havana from London with Virgin Atlantic from £559 (virginatlantic.com). Hire a car using the concierge at one of the bigger hotels, or contact Cuba Diving Now (cubadivingnow.com) to be guided
Stephen Gibbs covers Venezuela for Chinese TV and The Economist
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