Friday, June 3, 2016

St. Helena; a remarkable island in remarkable trouble

St. Helena may not be the most recognised country in the world, but the predicament in which it now finds itself is quite extraordinary, and deserving of thought.

Approaching the Island
It is isolated, and this simple fact is the cause of the islanders’ current sense of complete isolation, even abandonment. It is so far into the Atlantic Ocean, and so far from any other land that until last month when an airport was finally opened it was accessible only with a regular schedule of the Royal Mail ship, the RMS St. Helena. This vessel served both St. Helena, and Ascension Island on a complex itinerary that offered the Saints, as the islanders are called, approximately fourteen sailings off the island each year.

I was fortunate enough to have visited St. Helena with three friends in 2014, and loved every minute of the six-day voyage. Many of our fellow passengers were working on the airport construction project, an extraordinary engineering feat, and one that promised to open the island to the outside world and generate the beginnings of a tourist-based economy.

The RMS St. Helena in Cape Town
We did, however, feel a little perplexed; the generosity of governments is not well known, and to spend well over £250 million on a tourism development project for an island of 4,000 people did seem a touch munificent. “Could it”, we wondered, “have anything to do with the American’s rather robust presence on Ascension Island?”

Jamestown, the island's major centre

Ascension is a volcanic pile of rock with no indigenous population, and its attraction is purely based on its strategic location. The US military built “Wideawake Airfield” there, and although it lies on British soil and is the home of the RAF Ascension base, the Americans are, as is their wont, getting increasingly edgy about who goes there.

St. Helena's defences
This is important because civilian traffic between the UK and the Falkland Islands (remember that war?) use Ascension as a refueling base, and passengers are now subject to an American veto. There is a substantial GCHQ base there, the British equivalent of the American NSA, and civilians working for the BBC, Cable & Wireless and the meteorological services. None of whom the Americans really want anywhere near there airbase.

Well then; thoughts that Washington might become increasingly finicky about visitors to this British island and gradually move to an administrative “occupation”, such as that in Diego Garcia, led us to ponder a simple question. “Were the British, under the guise of an extremely big-hearted approach to tourism and the four thousand islanders, actually shifting their mid-Atlantic base south to St. Helena? Would a new GCHQ base flourish there, and would this become the UK’s and Europe’s new watching base in the South Atlantic?”

Who knows? Well, some obviously do, but we don’t. Six days on a ship in the South Atlantic will do this sort of thing to even reasonable chaps’ minds however, and we had a wonderful time whiling away the six days afloat pondering. 

And also marveling at the engineering masterpiece the airport was.

Everything had to fit through this archway
Imagine, if you will, building an airport on a remote island; the first caveat was that there was no dock suitable for landing any serious equipment, and this necessary facility had to be built from pieces that would fit through the eighteenth century archway on the Jamestown waterfront.
A 450 metre mountain peak had to be chopped up and moved to fill in a 450 metre gully in order to create level space for a runway, and all from original pieces of machinery that could fit through a hole in the wall that was about 15 x 20’ in size. Remarkable.

The problem today, however, is that this astonishing airport doesn’t work. The turbulence and wind shear is so great that it appears to be too dangerous to fly to the airport with any payload at all. There have been two aircraft land, one a Bombardier Challenger jet, and the other an Airbus on a proving flight. In both cases, the pilots reported dramatic and dangerous turbulence, and did not want to fly there again.

Consider the danger; the island is so remote that its alternate airport is Windhoek, 2,000 kilometres away, and aircraft flying to St. Helena will have to carry sufficient fuel for this possible diversion; this means that they will always land “heavy”, and the dangers of an incident on the runway are difficult to comprehend. There would be no way for emergency medevac flights to attend and there is no hospital on the island; such an incident could prove to be extremely grave. Commercial aviation always carries potential dangers, but those specific to St. Helena mean that the airport must be unquestionably and categorically sound.

And it is not. This report by Lord Ashcroft well describes the issues at the airport and is important to read.

The local shops are running low
And what of the islanders? So convinced of the airport’s reliability and the weekly flights that would connect them to the African mainland, the ship has sailed away into the sunset (well, actually north to the UK) to be decommissioned and is three weeks from the island. They are running short of food, there is no plan for the ship to return, although obviously it must do so, and no aircraft in sight.

Local residents who have invested heavily in the tourism boom are facing ruin and the game of finger-pointing is starting. One, the delightful Hazel Wilmot, proprietor of the charming Consulate Hotel and a fellow passenger on the RMS, has invested £2 million in her property. Now, with no guests, no way to get on or off the island and no evident solution for the next few months, her future looks bleak.

It is a delightful island, and with its issues of approach and departure still so testing, it is no wonder that the British used St. Helena to assure Napoleon’s exile

Longwood - Napoleon's final home on St. Helena

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Bodega Sommos: A Super Natural Winery

There are wineries, and there is the Bodega Sommos, located in north-central Spain, just south of the Pyrenees in rural Aragon. For those (like me) whose knowledge of Spain is limited to the most iconic locations, exploring Aragon has come as a complete and wonderful surprise.

Rural Aragon
It is a vast and geographically diverse region, and of historical significance to the British because of Catherine and her relationship with King Henry VIII; and that the pomegranate happened to be her symbol. Although betrothed to Prince Arthur (Henry’s brother) at the tender age of three, and married when she reached a more respectable eighteen, her Spanish life was spent with her parents (Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand (or Aragon)) wandering around the country fighting other kingdoms; not her, obviously, but she would have wandered along with the family. And so she probably had little appreciation of the beauty and diversity of her homeland, Aragon, which is a pity. Because it is a wonderful region of a wonderful country, and the Bodega Sommos is a crowning jewel.

I visited by chance; colleagues from Tbilisi had gone to the winery during a wine tourism conference in Barcelona, and had encouraged me to visit; I was planning a little wander thorough the Pyrenees with my brother, Rik anyhow, and so after contacting Blanca Galino Sanz, the most effervescent and knowledgeable winery representative it has ever been my pleasure to meet, a date and time were set (noon, on May 4th, as it happened), and off we drove through the mountains to keep the engagement.

And my goodness, am I glad that we did. Simply approaching the property is overwhelming. Spanish roads are wonderful, and one turns left by turning right; well, instead of blocking the highway, one is led off to the right and turned to cross the highway from a right angle, and it was at this moment that the full significance of the Bodega Sommos came into view.

Bodega Sommos 

When one is visiting a “natural winery”, there is an image of artisans, pretty frocks billowing in the gentle breezes, a slightly ramshackle but homely winery and a convivial tasting. Well, let me tell you that there is nothing ramshackle about Sommos; it is a fabulous building, designed in 2008 just in time to go bankrupt in the Spanish meltdown, but reignited in 2011 and now running on all cylinders.

My Favourite
They grown a lot of grapes. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as one might expect, but surprisingly, also a Gewurztraminer, one of my favourite grapes, but completely unexpected here. The grape's success was due, we were advised, to the cold and wet winters, and the proximity to the mountains. 

Their reds are the traditional Merlots, Sauvignons and Tempranillos, and all grown with a meticulous eye for detail about every single thing that one could imagine affecting the crops. For this is a “natural winery”, organic, if you like, and uses no pesticides or chemicals in the production of their wines. 

In lieu of pesticides, pheromones are used to so erotically exhaust the pest-bugs, they fall motionless to the ground instead of spreading disease. Wild flowers are grown (or at least they allow wild flowers to flourish), and this melange seem to keep the meticulous vines healthy, happy and ready to please. Which is good, given that the bodega cost somewhere in the region of €120 million to create.

The massive tanks
They harvest gently; large drums of grapes arrive at the winery and are gently jiggled through filters that reject those of the wrong colour, shape or size and allow only the perfect fruit to drop  into the vast fermentation tanks; the tanks, of either 16,000 or 32,000 litres do their thing before they are further mixed.
Not by any crude whisk, but by removing the bottom third of the grapes and dropping them back on top to crush the luckier ones that had been lying at the top of the heap; mixed by gravity, the primary source of force in the bodega.This tactic, using only the pull-of-the-earth certainly seems to work, although gazing down to the depths of the 50 metre tanks one marvels at the sheer quantity of fruit that gets processed; actually, it comes to about 6,000,000 litres of wine each year, the sale of which goes some way to making a dent into the €120 million investment, and the twenty-five year-round staff who keep this wonderful machine ticking over in harmony with the order of things (as St. Augustine would have probably said).

Some oak storage barrels and "Area 51"

My favourite part of the bodega is Area 51; it is the experimental part of the bodega where 51, 100 and 200 litre tanks of secret, experimental creations are furtively fusing in the hope of finding the prefect recepie. Judging by the products that we sampled, these are not wasted efforts.

Blanca with Rik
It is a fine winery; ranked as the “2nd Wonder of the Wine World” by The Drinks Business magazine, a journal of the serious tippler, and as a visitor, overwhelming on many levels. It is architecturally stunning; sympathetic to its environment and although quite dramatically built, it retains the warmth of a more traditional Spanish Bodega. Perhaps it was Blanca, whose care and guidance enthralled us, and whose generosity in the dining room overwhelmed us, but perhaps it is that secret ingredient that all wineries seek.

For making wine is more than science; it is an art. It is always part magic and part sorcery. Fine grapes, perfect science, first-class facilities and ideal weather do their part, but it is the addition of that supernatural supplement that makes a truly great wine.

And the supernatural is at Bodega Sommos in abundance.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Muscat and Oman; a most surprising destination

Travelling to Oman seemed so exciting and demanding; careful planning for visas, car insurance, hotels and every other facet of travel was indicated. However, as it turned out, visiting The Sultanate of Oman is a true joy, simple and an experience like no other.
I drove 1,200 kilometres through the country, and wished that I had given it more time to explore.

From the welcoming message as I crossed the UAE border to the universal greetings I received from everybody I met, I was completely mesmerized, and astonished to find out just how little I knew about this surprising country.

Oman is old; very old indeed, and once a great geographical power throughout the Indian Ocean and beyond. Indeed, its last major dependency was the island of Zanzibar which only joined Tanganyika to create Tanzania in the mid 1970s. It was a formidable country.

On the road from Al Ain to Muscat
Yet in 1970, there were only two paved miles of roads in Oman, four schools and consequently little or no development. But there was oil, and in the personage of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Saed, a mind focused completely on developing his country. He spent the decade of the 1970s travelling through the land talking and listening to his people, and in about 1980 embarked on a thirty-five year (so far) development scheme the like of which it is impossible to imagine.

He is a remarkable man; his father ensured that he studied, and in order to properly develop the skills necessary for the task of nation building he saw in it a military parallel, and sent him to Sandhurst for several years. While the transition from father to son was not entirely peaceful, clearly the lessons were well learned, and today his achievements are visible everywhere and his work reaches into every corner of the country.

Unlike the neighbouring Emirates, Oman’s way is to do things unobtrusively. They join no wars, they fight no battles; they are the region’s peacemakers and political deal-makers, and one imagines that its corps of diplomats are kept very busy indeed. Quietly and with dignity is the Omani way.

And unlike its neighbours, Oman was not turned into a Theme Park.

An Omani doorway
Adhering to strict regulations about the style of architecture, the country grew. Massive six-lane highways link the major centres, tremendous ports were built, cities designed and created and infrastructure laid to every corner of the nation. But first, before any of the major construction work, schools and hospitals were spread throughout Oman, because without the basic ingredients of education and health, it would be impossible to develop the nation.

And so today, as this Herculean achievement has been quietly evolving, Oman has become a wonder for visitors. Its cities, while new, are fascinating; the old port towns still retain a strong air of historical continuation, and their souks are fascinating places to explore, haggle and buy. The community of Muttrah, adjacent to Muscat, is delightful, and a fine place to get a feeling of this unique part of the world.

 The Muttrah Corniche, and its Souk 

Muscat itself is a long, long city; stretching about 40 miles from Muscat, the small, old capital to the Seeb International Airport, is evolves from old to new, from craggy hills to flat shoreline. There are fine museums, opera houses, beaches, parks and shops; there are numerous restaurants and magnificent public buildings. No expense has been spared, and a remarkable restraint on eccentricity has been observed.

Central Muscat

 To leave the city and head in to the hills is to be transported to another era; small villages with their characteristic houses, unorthodox collections of shops and imposing mosques are most curious. The weather, sadly, was not the best, and a dust haze obscured the mountains from any distance, but seeing the Al Hajar range from a distance was impressive. As we approached, and headed to Nakhal Fort, the sheer power of the region was quite obvious.

 The fort, built some time between 600 and 700 AD is impressive; there is little visible of the original site, but through lavish application of appropriately coloured plaster, a very reasonable facsimile of the original is there for one to view. I am actually pleased that they have gone for a complete makeover, and the site is most impressive.

It sits, predictably on a Wadi (or river), and close to the site are the springs that feed this vital watershed; they are unusually hot, and pour endlessly from a small opening in the rock, and presumably have been doing this for millennia. There are many forts, many castles, many wadis and oases to visit, and I am already looking forward to returning to Oman to explore much more of this hidden gem.

My guide for the afternoon excursion was Suleiman, a young man with three children, the youngest of whom was three weeks old. I mention this only because as I heard this as we drove hastily through the singular Omani traffic, I hoped that he wouldn’t fall asleep. His knowledge of Omani history was encyclopaedic, and while I can remember little detail from what he told me, I recall enough to make me want to learn more before my inevitable return.

Taking a day tour made the country come alive, and it was the perfect balance to the independence of a self-drive car. Driving in the region is not difficult; road signs, as is the way of the world, are erected by those who live in the area and know where every place is, and this generated the odd frisson as one’s exit whizzes by. However, in general, a car hire in combination with one or two guided tours is a fine way to explore and learn about this remarkable country.

Oman is a little reticent, a quality that has kept this nation strong, and that has allowed it to develop away from the world’s gaze. It has allowed Oman to become a real treasure, and a destination that will only become more popular as time goes by.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Touring Georgia: some ideas and observations.

Travelling to Georgia is a quite astonishing and unique experience, and I have had many requests for more practical information from readers. How, when, where and sometimes why are asked, and perhaps this will help.

Georgia is, as you will have noticed from my blog, a truly remarkable country. It is remarkable on many levels, and offers visitors an extraordinary variety of experiences, and that is just the beginning.

It is possibly easier to start by saying what Georgia is not. It is not a homogeneous destination, and it is not overrun with tourists; yet. It is not in the grip of any political crisis, and is a country that has managed to wend a path neatly between its painful past and its future. This has not been easy, but the country is resilient, educated and optimistic.

It is a country of passion; often the deep, thoughtful type rather than the ebullience of the Mediterranean, and a country of thought. To spend an evening with Georgians, eating, drinking laughing, singing and toasting is to have one’s soul opened; inevitably one makes toasts, revealing remarkably personal ideas, and sharing thoughts with people who until a few hours before, were complete strangers.

And that’s the key really; Georgian hospitality is legendary, and thousands of years of occupation, war and subjugation have failed completely and utterly in the attempts to extinguish the Georgian Soul. A combination of many factors: isolation, language, the alphabet and the Georgian church are just a few of the threads that have kept the identity burning and alive. 

An evening at Pheasants' Tears in Sighnaghi

 And it is an identity that visitors will find on their first day in this wonderful country.

The Alaverdi Monastery
The architecture, the food, the design and the landscapes are unique; the sights and sounds, the smells and stories will enchant and surprise. Geographically, Georgia is richly endowed with such variety that it is hard to believe each region exists. But it does; in a ten-day trip through the country one will pass from remote and ancient villages in the distant Svaneti Valley, to lush agricultural landscapes, to the rich culture of the Georgian church and the quirky design of Tbilisi, the capital city. One will listen to the haunting sounds of polyphonic music and embrace the different cuisines of the various regions of the country; and all the time marvel at just how small Georgia really is.

But now is the time to go. I have been fortunate enough to visit regularly over the past six years, and where two years ago I saw two or three tour groups, now I see five or six; hotels are sprouting up and magazines in Europe and North America are now full of the country’s many charms. There is a long way to go before Georgia is overwhelmed by tourists, but the time will come, and those of us who were privileged to visit before the hoards will be able to smile quietly and be grateful that we did.

The Great Caucasus Mountains in Svaneti and Mtskheta, the ancient capital 

And if you think that this is a shameless way to plug my two tours (The Classic Georgia: Food, Wine and Culture and the Soviet Legacy Tour) that will run this September, you are partly correct. They will be fun. However, I am more interested in ensuring that one way or another, you get to experience the Georgia that I have come to love – with me or with others, or simply exploring by yourselves. In the immortal words of Nike, “Just do it”!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Chechnya; a glimpse of an extraordinary culture

In truth, I didn’t actually get to Chechnya, but I might as well have done so, and I loved the first flake of this remote, North Caucasian culture.

Mamuli Gumashvili
There is a valley in north Georgia called the Pankisi Gorge; sparsely populated for millennia, since the 19th century, 10,000 Chechens, fleeing  one brutal war or other,  settled here as refugees. This convenience has continued to this day, with more fleeing the 1993 war when the Russians so pitilessly bombed this small republic. Today, the vast majority of the Pankisi Valley are of Chechen origin, and here, Islam lives peacefully with the local Orthodox faith.

And it was here that I was told of a man born in 1870 whose son had a mobile phone; I knew it to be true because the son in question (Mamuli Gumashvili, b. 1955) was sitting next to me at lunch and told me himself.

His father, you see, had been seventy-eight years old with only daughters, and no son to carry his name. After his wife died, and leaving a suitable period for mourning, his daughters found him a second wife, some fifty years his junior. She bore him another daughter when he was eighty, and finally a son when he was in his eighty-fifth year.

If this Year Of Great Celebration was 1955 and he was 85, it follows that he was born back in 1870. And I can vouch for the fact that his son has a mobile phone.

And a Dechik Pondur; this three-stringed instrument, related to the Georgian Panduri, is plucked to accompany the haunting music of this remote region, and following the most delicious and over-the-top lunch he played for us.

The northern Pankisi Gorge
We were in an odd place. The community is called Khadori, and it lies beyond the community of Birkiani, the most northerly dot on the normal government maps. It is small, remote, deep in a valley of presumably high, but mist-obscured mountains, and is home to the most optimistic hotel and restaurant I have ever visited. 

There may be a need for a sixty-seat facility here, but I can't really see it; the accommodation on the other hand, a touch rustic but rather pleasant, would be most useful to those few tourists heading to the valley. Tourism here would be for hikers, those interested in anomalies and the co-existence of Islam and Orthodoxy, those interested in the ethnography and culture of the otherwise unknown Chechens and those simply interested in deepening their knowledge of the most fascinating country of Georgia.

Believe me, the food and wine are worth meeting; our lunch, modest I am told (but disbelieve) was served with passion and overflowing sense of hospitality; the meal was spectacular, and once more highlighted what a very fine destination Georgia is for vegetarians. Wild leeks, fresh tarragon and beets, salads and local cheeses, nettle pies and aubergines accompanied the barbecued meats and fortified us for the inevitable toasts.

Our modest luncheon spread

Including a toast, I should add, made by myself. I noted out that these were the first Chechens that I had ever knowingly met, and they were completely unlike the folks portrayed by the media. Their warmth and hospitality were irresistible, their music and cuisine delightful, and I hoped fervently to return and stay a little in one of their cozy cabins.

And so we left, driving past the valley’s communities, noting the mosques and chadors and marvelling at the 150 years of integration that has finally let peace come to the Pankisi Gorge. While it is true that some young men have left the valley to join Daesh, they are not seen locally as representative, and the vast majority of the Chechen population are dismayed by this intrusion. 

Making Khinkali
Not, I should add, that my rose-tinted glasses prevented me from realising that this had also been a lawless frontier, the centre of drug and gun-smuggling, kidnapping and much other anti-social mayhem until the Georgian government of Michael Sakashvili came down in it like a ton of bricks in 2004; but it was neither ethnic nor sectarian mayhem, it was simple villainy. So that’s alright then.

Georgia never fails to surprise and delight me; for such a small country (69,000² kms) there are so many very different and superbly variant places to explore; there are different cuisines, different musical traditions, different languages, and a eye-watering variety of landscapes. 

Today was no exception, and as I sit and write these thoughts, I can’t help but wonder what is in store for tomorrow as we head west to Imereti.

Are you interested in travelling to Georgia? Come and join me on my fourth "Georgia: its wine, food and culture" tour  in September 2016. For full booking details, please contact me! 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Tourism in Barcelona; a tale of love, hate and El Poblenou!

"I love Barcelona", we hear all the time, but here’s the thing.

You travel for a vacation, pick your destinations carefully, research the sights, restaurants, walks and gradually paint a picture of your perfect stay in the world’s most interesting and desirable cities.

And then you arrive, and find that it does not quite resemble the picture on the tin. “Who are all these folks?”, you wonder, “and what on earth are they all doing here?”

For me, Barcelona is the best of the best and the worst of the worst. It is a wonderful, quirky, enchanting and fascinating city, but on the other hand, it is so over-crowded I have often vowed that I would never return.

Too many tourists.

Barcelona is now the sixth biggest cruise port in the world and Europe’s largest with a stunning 2.5 million passengers boarding and disembarking in the city; add to this staggering number the 0.6 million visitors coming for conferences and congresses and you have over 3 million “accidental tourists” every year. Were they to arrive in an absolutely even pattern, this would put 8,219 visitors into town every single day of the year.

Now on the one hand this is good; the visitors spend a great deal of money, and indeed tourism accounts for 10% of Barcelona’s GDP and a large number of jobs. One another hand it is not so good; prices for almost anything are inflated, the number of one-nighters dozily wandering The Ramblas attracts legendary numbers of pickpockets, and the hoards simply clog up the system.

And of course, they don’t all arrive equally; not at all. Barcelona is the home port of the outrageously sized Allure of the Seas (6,452 passengers/2,440 crew when full, this ship has the same water displacement as a Nimitz-Class aircraft carrier), and when she is one of the arriving or departing vessels, the numbers swell. As they do when the annual Mobile World conference steams into town every February with its 94,000+ attendees.

One day they will finish the Sagrada Familia
Yes, ninety-four thousand attendees; all at once.

So with these folks wandering around, trying to “do” Barcelona in a couple of hours, spending their time either acquiring or nursing a hangover and generally wandering aimlessly, tourists who were actually looking forward to visiting Barcelona for its own charms can feel quite out of place. Cramped and squeezed at every turn, lining up for hours to glance at a Gaudi building or the Sagrada Familia, or trying to get in or out of the airport resentment can build. Tourist Rage; it happens.

Barcelona, though, like every other major centre does have some sweet spots. Tourists, particularly the accidental ones, ripping through the city between workshops of before boarding tend to concentrate, and Barcelona is no exception. While The Ramblas, The Sagrada Familia and one or two other places are heaving with visitors, much of the city remains off limits, and Poblenou is one such gem.

A Gracia Square
Previously, I had escaped to Gracia a cool area just to the north of the centre, home of some great bars, restaurants, leafy squares and a great atmosphere, but this was beginning to be found; and so in search of another up and coming area I headed to and stayed in Poblenou

Four Metro stops from the centre, Poblenou was a distant marshland that started to become settled in the seventeenth century; gradually the community grew to become a great industrial centre described my many as “The Catalan Manchester”. The twentieth century brought more growth and a change to a light industrial and residential base, evolving in the mid-century as an overcrowded shantytown with all of the problems associated with overcrowding.

The Tower in Poblneou
The Olympic Games of 1992 were the turning point with a massive infusion of development and this old, industrial sector has evolved into a delightful area now home to artists and others seeking to escape the pressure and prices of the centre.

For visitors it is delightful; offering easy access to Barcelona’s wonderful sights, it is a peaceful home base to return to each evening and enjoy the many local restaurants and vibrant nightlife that Rambla del Poblenou” and its adjacent streets offer.

Barcelona; love it, hate it or do both, it is still one of Europe’s major tourist attractions. It is possible, however, to be cautious in planning your visit. Don’t just look at what you want to see, make sure that you won’t be overwhelmed and ask Google is there is a major event planned when you want to go. And if there is, switch your dates if you can, and if not, head out to one of the city’s many smaller and delightful neighbourhoods.

And I will be back there on May 5th.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Visiting the Scottish Highlands independently.

The road around the Northwest corner of Scotland
Some destinations are boring, some become boring and others have complete tediousness thrust upon them. Sadly, increasing numbers of “tourist destinations” are falling into the spectrum of tedium as vastly increasing numbers of tourists descend upon them with anxious visitors ticking boxes, and completing “bucket lists”.

Ironically, escape is simple; unfortunately, the powerful “web” through which we get so many ideas is driven by extraordinarily powerful forces whose interests are usually and increasingly at odds with our own.

Take, for example, VisitScotland. This governmental marketing body is well respected, does some very fine work in promoting the country, offers a wide variety of opportunities for visitors, but remains completely out of touch with the vast majority of the Scottish industry.

St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall
Majority, of course, because visitors go where they are told; the global idiom of the travel world is simple. Governments tell you why you should visit a place, and the industry tells you how. 

Governments tell you why you should visit by encouraging journalists to visit, designing and executing major marketing campaigns and using a variety of other tools in their chest. Then the industry follows suit; hotels are built in destinations that receive the most marketing, major tour operators design programs that will fill these hotels, and the die is cast; success breeds success and the country is the winner.

And fewer visitors get to see some of the countries' hidden treasures, ticked away as they are in the remote nooks and crannies of the nation. Like St. Magnus Cathedral; founded in 1137, this gorgeous building dominates the Kirkwall skyline, and offers visitors a remarkable timeline of these remarkable islands.

Durness Coastline 
And it is the same the world  over; look around you; Canada’s tourism is very successful, but Manitoba’s is in the tank. The Languedoc in the Southwest of France does not keep up with the “trends” offered by the French tourism folks and, and to Argentinians, tourism is Buenos Aires, Patagonia or the wineries of Mendoza. The world all follow that pattern, and national tourist boards need to do more to realise that they are funded by an entire nation, and not simply the top four attractions.

Thus the bigger operators get bigger and the wealth is concentrated. A familiar theme?

Well, after this long introductory ramble, I need to move to the Scottish Highlands. I have been here now for ten days, on a spectacular journey through the historical millennia of their past, through landscapes that took my breath away, past seascapes that left me staring for hours, into restaurants whose fare would stand out in any of the world’s major centres and stayed in hotels whose charm exuded the overwhelming hospitality and understated charm of the region.

Be Hope on eh remote "Hope Road"
And other tourists? Few and far between. It is, of course, March, but Edinburgh, Loch Lomond and St. Andrews are full up, but too few visitors escape the confines of their “package” and set themselves free and actually explore.

It is worth noting that much of this can be done by public transport and local taxi, if you don't care to drive. Driving, though, is actually pretty straightforward as there is little other traffic to be seen. The train and bus system in Scotland is simple, integrated and fun.

A combination of trains (and the Highland Line from Inverness to Thurso is really delightful), ferries to cross to the Orkney Islands, and further to Shetland if one has the time, are available and easy to work with. Even in the most rural areas, the Royal Mail Post Bus will carry you to the most extreme parts of the country. While deep exploration needs a little planning, it is quite possible, and the pay off is huge.

This view of leaving Stromness has changed little since the days of the Hudson Bay Company 

A journey from arrival at Aberdeen Airport by train to Forres, an historically important town in Moray and a good two-night stay would be a good start. It is a medieval town, with strong reference to the Real Macbeth, and a delightful garden setting. From there, I would continue in to Inverness, only twenty miles away, and spend a day before heading north on The Orkney Bus to the Northern Isles.

 Highland scenes - a novel use for a bus shelter!

There, steeped in the history of the Bronze Age, the Vikings, the Second World War and the mosaic of art and crafts that have woven their past together, I would stay for a three days at on of Kirkwall’s hotels. Northlink Ferries offer a great  schedule to and from the islands, and by taking the 4.30 sailing to Scrabster and spending the night in Thurso (I love the Pentland Hotel), a £5 cab ride from the terminal. Thurso is a solid, quintessentially northern Scottish town, and a testament to “building buildings that are meant to last”.

Kirkwall Harbour
From Thurso, the train south to Brora will leave you in a most attractive town on the east coast. Here one can rent a vehicle for a couple of days from Northern Car Hire, and head inland toward Altnaharra, Hope and the northwest coast. Returning after one overnight in the wilds, and a two-day drive, you can return the car to Brora and continue south on the train to Inverness.

Just writing out this itinerary makes me want to do it again and again. And the folks at VisitScotland? Well, they react to pressure from numbers, pay lip service to the periphery of their country and leave the explorations of The Highlands and other more remote parts of Scotland up to the initiative of the individuals who truly want to get beyond the maddening crowds. 

It is understandable, but as time moves forward at its incessant rate, the relative strength of the central brand destinations will increase, and the margins will become increasingly marginalised. Does this sound familiar?

I love The Highlands.