A few holiday destinations and properties that we think may spark the imagination and start the journey for your next adventure.
Cuba by Catamaran
9 days sailing in Cuba from £3,260pp.
Classic Panama Holiday
12 Days exploring this fascinating country from £2,260pp.
Situated in the Park where 'Noah left his Ark'.
Banyan Tree Kerala
Surrounded by emerald backwaters on its own private island.
Which is your most favourite country? The perennial question that so often crops up in conversation. What governs the answer? How many times have I visited? The experiences? The sites? Hotels? The people? Everyone has different criteria and the same applies to why we travel. While over the years I have quoted India, Russia, Yemen and Syria as my favourites, for me it is all about people, for it is the people who have evolved to create the culture and architecture which we see in a country today.
With Steppes I set out to create a travel company that would cater to the individual and who would deliver a level of service over and above that normally associated with travel. To create a company that allowed even the most nervous traveller the chance to indulge the explorer within. This could only be achieved through a team of well travelled, well read, intelligent staff who were experts in their own field. People who, on the one hand could appreciate the finest hotels and who, a moment later, would travel to some outlandish corner of the world to visit a monument, site or people which had somehow touched their imagination. As I write this we have over 35 staff in the office many of whom have been with Steppes for more than 10 years making us arguably the most knowledgeable team in the UK. Additionally, with a repeat ratio of over 65%, we seem to be delivering the levels of service and satisfaction which I had envisaged back in 1989.
To mark our 23rd anniversary, I have compiled a glossary of my most favourite journeys. Over the intervening years many will have changed in the experience they can deliver but all remain an unrivalled source of excitement.
The Great Game - 1998
Pakistan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan
To single out one particular journey as my greatest overall trip is a tall order particularly as it was in my youth when I drove a car from London to Singapore in 1975. But if I had to choose from 1989 onwards, it would have been in 1997 when I took a small group from Pakistan to Central Asia following the events of the Great Game so vividly portrayed in Peter Hopkirk’s book of the same name. From Rawalpindi we were taken to the wild frontier town of Peshawar before starting the long slow climb up the twisting bends of the Karakorum Highway to Hunza and Gilgit. What a magnificent part of the world and so hauntingly beautiful, read Greg Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea to fully appreciate it. Down below the brown waters of the Indus crashed down the narrow valley, while above sat the jagged, snow capped peaks of the Karakorum of which five are over 8,000m.
Across into China via the 4,600m Kunjerab pass in time for the Sunday market in Kashgar when close to 50,000 people converge by horse, cart, bus, camel, bicycle and on foot to buy and sell a myriad of domestic animals, goods and clothes. A photographic paradise.
West through the Tien Shan Mountains crossing into the green valleys of Kyrgyzstan where nomadic families herd sheep and goats and faded yurts dot the landscape. Finally into Uzbekistan to explore the exotic cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.
Once you get over the indifferent accommodation and food (although both are slowly improving), the north of Ethiopia evolves into a travellers dream. One of the oldest Christian cultures in the world, the Ethiopians lay claim to the Ark of the Covenant and proudly show the church where it is housed (although no one can enter). Coincide a visit with one of the religious festivals where priests, adorned in gold lame garments and shielded from the sun by brightly coloured umbrellas, lead trailing processions through the streets carrying replicas of the 10 commandments.
Visit the soaring monolithic stele at Axum, the faux English castles at Gondar and the source of the Blue Nile as it tumbles out of Lake Tana to begin its long journey north. Perhaps trek in the Simeon Mountains but undoubtedly your highlight will be the extraordinary rock cut churches at Lalibela which, according to our guide, were built by angels in the 11th century.
St Petersburg 1990
I am of course totally biased when it comes to Russia and St Petersburg in particular. Steppes East (as it was in 1989) was set up specifically to sell Russia and I have travelled there continuously ever since, including a motorbike ride from London to Vladivostok in 2005.
For me, however, St Petersburg remains the epitome of Russia. The opulence of the palaces, the symmetry and elegance of the city, the extraordinary art collections, the hotels and the artistic culture which proliferates through every tier of society. It has attractions for every generation ranging from children’s theatre through extravagant bars and clubs to some of the greatest museums in the world. It suits couples or groups of friends for a long weekend and lends itself to staging fantastic parties and balls for special occasions.
Dog Sledding in Spitsbergen 2009
Spitsbergen, 600 miles from the North Pole in February. Surely it would be pitch dark and bitterly cold? While the sun did indeed remain below the horizon, from 0930 the sky gradually lit up and as the day progressed so the light increased peaking at noon. The reflective nature of the snow added to the ambient light but by 1530 we were back to starlight and a full moon.
The dogs were waiting for us, all 76 of them, barking in anticipation, bounding round their individual kennels eager to be out. We harnessed our own teams, 6 to a sled, and after an all too brief introduction on how to steer and avoid tipping over, we swung out through the gates and away, the silence broken only by excited barks. Surprisingly fast, the sleds sped across the snow and soon any form of habitation was far behind - just us, the dogs and wilderness. A fantastic experience and one I would repeat tomorrow.
I first went to Nepal in 1975 when there were few cars and the hippies were slowly returning after being kicked out during the clean up for the coronation in 1972. Over the years I have travelled back time and time again. I so understand Joanna Lumley’s respect for these people whose dogged loyalty has won them admiration from every corner of the globe.
My favourite journey starts with a day or so in Kathmandu, now rather larger and dirtier than I remember, before embarking on a trek out of Pokhara up into the Annapurna sanctuary. Follow this with three days river rafting and end at Tiger Tops riding elephants in Chitwan Park. It makes a perfect family holiday for children of all ages and even babies will be carried and looked after by your attentive, smiling and willing Sherpas.
Where to start and where to end? I have been there more than 20 times and hope to return for another 20 times. So huge, so diverse it would take a lifetime of travel to see it all. I have trekked in the deserts of Ladakh, partied on the beaches of Goa, drifted slowly down the backwaters of Kerala, ridden the narrow gauge railway up to Darjeeling, seen the Taj Mahal by moonlight; stayed in palaces, colonial hotels, Kashmir houseboats and beach huts, searched for tigers in wildlife parks, have ridden camels, trains, planes, horses, cars and motorbikes and never once tired of it.
There is no best trip in India. The enjoyment of each one is defined by the unpredictability of events and the people and places encountered during the journey.
Despite the controversy surrounding travel to Myanmar we have continued to promote it regardless of the hate mail which would arrive each month. What is more, our stance that it was better to visit Myanmar and return home to spread the word on human rights abuse rather than isolating it through an imposed boycott seems to have now been endorsed by the international community.
It is a beautiful country with the kindest and gentlest of people who welcome all visitors with open arms. The backbone and lifeline takes the form of the slow moving Irrawaddy and now, with a variety of smaller, comfortable flat bottomed, luxury river boats, it is possible to journey upriver in a style to suit the individual and to areas which were previously inaccessible. From here you should visit the remote tribal areas before returning via Mandalay and the floating gardens of Lake Inle to Rangoon. Of course boats are not everyone’s choice and an efficient internal airline or car will reach the same areas.
I think it was reading Mary Lovell’s book A Scandalous Life that first kindled my interest in Syria. Five visits on and nothing deters my interest and love for this country, even the current political situation. Populated by the most delightful and welcoming of people, Syria boasts delicious food, a truly fascinating array of ancient sites to visit and promises fresh surprises each day.
Start in Damascus and then head north to Hamas where the iconic wooden waterwheels have continued to replenish the city’s aqueduct system since Roman times. Drive east across the desert to Palmyra. Stay the night to allow time to wander the magnificent ruins both at sunset and dawn while the opening hours are still unregulated. Head back to the coast via the great crusader castle of Krak des Chevalier and up to Aleppo which can be used as a base for any number of days to explore pre-Roman, Roman and early Christian sites.
Although Bhutan opened its doors to tourism in 1974, it was not until the late 90s that any significant numbers applied for visas. I was lucky enough to go in 1995 and despite the inevitable modernisation of this insular Buddhist kingdom, it remains a magical country to visit. The arrival of a few chic hotels has inevitably attracted the less worldly tourist, but with careful planning it is still possible to find the Bhutan of the 1990s.
If time is not an issue, drive in from Darjeeling in India to Paro in western Bhutan and then drive east across the country. Twisting and turning, the road crosses high mountain passes and threads its way through pretty towns and dense pine forest, trees hanging with lichen adding an almost primordial atmosphere. Stop for a few days trekking, visit the 400 year old fortress monasteries or Dzongs which guard each main valley before exiting south across the border into India where Kaziranga park offers game viewing from elephant back in the tall grasses of the Terrai. A wonderful journey of culture.
The Makgadikgadi salt pans - 1999
Imagine a flat desert the size of Switzerland that was once the floor of a great lake where not a tree, animal, insect nor blade of grass can be seen and where the sky meets the horizon in every direction. Imagine rocky outcrops that were once islands where primitive rock paintings and scattered flint tools and arrow heads stand testament to the long departed people who once lived there. Imagine sleeping out in a comfortable bed with just the myriad of stars as your roof. This is the Makgadikgadi salt pans.
So as not to damage the fragile surface structure of the desert your transportation is by quad bike. An extraordinary experience which reconnects one’s mind to nature and our origins.
Gorilla tracking - 2002
The climb was steeper than I had imagined, the undergrowth thicker and rain clouds hovered menacingly nearby. We walked in silence led by our guide whose face told a multitude of stories. Bird and animal calls punctuated the air and kept us looking this way and that. Suddenly our guide stopped, motioning us to squat down, pointing into the undergrowth ahead. There they were. However cliched, however many photographs or documentaries you have seen, there is nothing in this world that can adequately prepare you for the real encounter. We sat and watched spell bound as the group of mountain gorillas went about their business seemingly oblivious to our presence. There are only 700 left in the world and your visit provides an important source of revenue to help with their conservation.
Climbing Mount Roraima - 2004
The inspiration behind Conan Doyle’s Lost World, Mount Roraima is the tallest of the table topped mountains or Tepui rising above the jungles of Venezuela. Although there are no dinosaurs, the unexpected flat, 12sq mile surface incorporates an extraordinary variety of weird and wonderful flora and fauna, including many carnivorous pitcher plants, while in the bogs you can find tiny black endemic frogs, lichens, mosses and orchids. A couple of days spent camping and walking through lush valleys, past yellow lakes, waterfalls and beautiful bog gardens was an extraordinary treat. For the brave you can shuffle gingerly to the edge of the cliff and look down on the jungle a terrifying 600m below. The climb from base camp to the summit is not for the feint hearted. It’s very steep and takes about 5 hours. But on top, above the clouds, it really is a lost world.
The Mekong, Luang Prabang and Angkor - 1997
Laos and Cambodia
The great legacy the French left behind after their Ignominious withdrawal from Indo-China was the art of bread making. To this day one of the great moments of travelling through the area is to sit in a cafe with good coffee and perfect croissant. There are any number of combinations to explore the area but it was boats which provided the bulk of my transport. Travelling down the Mekong from Chang-Rai in the north of Thailand it was 2 days before we reached the enchanting little town of Luang Prabang. The next stop was Angkor in Cambodia, the old capital of the Khmer empire between 800-1400AD, where over 1,000 temples are spread across an area of 100 sq miles. You can stay here for days, but the Mekong called once more and the journey continued south into Vietnam.
The North African coast - 2006
Libya and Egypt
Just before my eldest son finished his 7th year of studying classics, I took him on a journey of discovery along the North African coast. The western part of Libya once boasted three great cities - Oea (now Tripoli), Sabratha and Leptis Magna. Of the three, Leptis remains the most spectacular with an astonishing amount still to be excavated. On a grand scale you have the huge arch of Septimius Severus and the magnificent amphitheatre and then you find an exquisite villa only excavated eight years previously and virtually intact. Murals still visible on the walls of the children’s bedroom. Tourism to Libya is still in its infancy, but a few private hotels have recently opened. The road east was featureless, monotonous and dull and I have no doubt we should have flown, but a journey is a journey and after a day we arrived in Cyrenaica where the only Greek remains in North Africa are to be found. Then on, via the cemeteries at Tobruk, a reminder that much of our drive had passed through a more recent battlefield. A similar stop in El Alemein and then to the bustle of Alexandria. Educational in more ways than one.
That very first view from my porthole of Antarctica glistening in that pure light of morning will remain indelibly etched in my mind. Cloaked in a white mantle it was pristine, slightly otherworldly and achingly beautiful. Inaccessible for much of the year and protected by towering icy ramparts and the rolling Southern Ocean, Antarctica guards her secrets well but we were richly rewarded.
Over the course of our time there we spent busy days exploring iceberg filled bays from zodiacs, survived a close encounter with an inquisitive minke whale, spent endless time watching the clownish antics of penguins, camped out one night on the continent itself and even braved the icy waters in a mad moment of ill considered heroics (albeit warmed by a thermal spring!). The cabin was comfortable, the food excellent and the attentive crew had the right number of highly knowledgeable specialist guides. Whether you travel to Antarctica in search of its extraordinary scenery, exotic wildlife or just the great silence, it always defies expectation.
There is nowhere else in the world where you can lie face down and eyeball an iguana 4 inches from your nose. But it is not just the iguana that appears indifferent to one’s presence on this extraordinary archipelago that has intrigued the world for the last 170 years. Blue footed boobies, giant tortoise, flightless cormorants, seals, sea lions and penguins also appear unconcerned. It remains perhaps the most rewarding holiday one can make as a family. For children it becomes a life changing experience that will remain indelibly etched on their minds for years to come. 7 days on a boat exploring different islands in the company of expert guides. For children old enough to snorkel, the seas are alive with fish and it is possible to spend hours watching the antics of seals and penguins as they flash past.
Add some time in the Amazon jungles white water river rafting or climbing up into the tree canopy and it surpasses any other trip.
One of the greatest journeys in the Americas has to be the three day road trip from Chile across the high altiplano to Uyuni in Bolivia. My journey started in the delightful little backpacker village of San Pedro de Atacama in the north of Chile. From there we skirted the immense Licancabur volcano before climbing to over 4,000ft to make our way through the Andes. On day one, the gravel road wound its way passed geysers and spectacularly clear blue, emerald and maroon coloured salt lakes dotted with flamingos, the still water perfectly reflecting the surrounding Andean volcanic landscape. Day two was another of incredible beauty as we crossed rivers and traversed the windswept landscape of the Siloli Desert with its bizarre rock formations reminiscent of a Salvador Dali painting. Finally we reached the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats on earth, a vast and shimmering former ocean stretching as far as the eye can see, mirroring the coral, cactus filled islands and the sky above.
Skeleton Coast Flying Safari - 1996
The Skeleton Coast has become the private domain of the Schoeman family who have operated flying safaris here for two decades. For one of my travelling companions it was their fourth trip, testament to the extraordinary nature of this journey. 4 days spent flying between isolated camps. We would drop down and circle low over the Atlantic Ocean setting off pink plumes of flamingos while watching hoards of menacing preying sharks lurking around the seal colonies that were heaving with new born pups.
We were alone in the sky riding high over the endless stretch of dunes where the desert meets the ocean. But there is so much more to this flying safari than the coast alone - no-one else can so eloquently guide you with the same knowledge and experience as these brothers who know this unique environment like the back of their hand. As we headed inland the story continued to unfold as I began to understand the ancient diversity of the geology, the desert adaption of the wildlife and the resilience of tribes past and present.
What is it about the Amazon that inspires such vivid images? Thick jungle, dense rain forest, trees soaring above, the incessant noise, brightly coloured birds and shy animals. It certainly doesn’t disappoint. I travelled to Manaus and headed up the Rio Negro deep into the Amazon basin aboard a traditional river boat the Tucano. At the height of the wet season, the river was in full spate and taking a canoe out into the flooded forests, paddling amongst the tree tops was an eerie feeling knowing that the trunk stretched 8 metres down below the surface.
We spotted an extraordinary assortment of birds, vivid colours flashing through the foliage; parrots, macaws, toucans and woodpeckers to name a few. Howler monkeys would hoot, squirrel monkeys swinging in the tree tops would appear and then disappear in an instant. From the yellow brown waters pink and grey dolphin would surface with a short blow and then slip silently away. At night we would paddle with a searchlight to a cacophony of frogs that croaked, chirped, whistled and even roared, looking for caiman, the giant bamboo rat and snakes. Where the river permitted we visited villages, usually a handful of stilted houses scattered along the riverbank, with a small school, a shop, a manioc hut and church.