Saturday, January 31, 2015

Suriname: The Suriname River

Apart from geography geeks, stamp collectors and cartophiles, Suriname is a country that has escaped most peoples’ awareness. And this is a great pity, because as a destination, Suriname offers interest travellers a peak into any number of worlds.

It lies, along with Guyana and French Guyana on the north-est coast of South America, tucked in between Venezuela and Brazil. Access is patchy but straightforward; from North America, there are flights into the capital of Paramaribo directly from Miami, or with connections in Port of Spain or Curacao. From Europe, non-stop flights from Amsterdam, recognising the old historical connection between the Netherlands and this remote region, operate daily.

And so it was that I found myself boarding the KLM flight at Schipol, shivering because I had jettisoned my warm clothes in anticipation of two months or warmth, for the nine-hour flight south to Suriname.

It is my fourth visit to the region, and I have to say that I really enjoy coming down to the Guyanas. They offer travellers many options, from fabulous fly-in lodges in the rain forest, fascinating canoe trips, expeditions to see the recently-discovered 5000 year-old petroglyphs in the southern forest, and interesting glimpses into contemporary river life, a one travels the Suriname River.

Suriname’s history is bloody. It is a brutal tale of slavery, plantation, disease and constant bickering and fighting with the British and French. It is a history of injustice on an industrial scale, disease and deceit, purgatory and finally salvation.

In the late 1760s, slaves escaped from the plantations, and headed for the river, safe in the assumption that the wussy Dutch would not chase them there. Eventually, they settled into six tribes in different regions, and to this day, live lives in the upper reaches of the rivers that remain traditionally African.

Pingpe Village
Pingpe Village

There is, of course, contemporary turmoil; the transition from centuries of a cashless society to one that cash is needed is painful. The requirement for money (Digicel can’t be paid with local fruit), has forced many to leave their traditional villages to go to Paramaribo to seek work, leaving a social imbalance within the villages. The elderly, formerly looked after by the next generations are being left alone, and the young children are losing the traditional skills and their mentors are away in The City.

It is a familiar story.

What is less familiar is the way that they are working to try and stem the tide.

The Saramacca people, the tribe that live along the Saramacca and Suriname Rivers, have a strong and established social order. Led by an hereditary king who lived in Asidonhopo until his death a year ago, local government is kept by a council of ten “captains” representing five to ten communities, with each community having their own captain and assistant captain.

The role of the assistant captain is ultimately local; they ensure that their communities are kept clean and tidy, they assign village jobs and ensure that daily activities are completed; simple, but very effective.

The new king will be crowned in another year or so, the work of the pervious monarch must first be completed, and the hereditary role is drawn from the maternal line, as are all Saramaccan family structures.

Interestingly, one major movement within the communities is the development of tourism infrastructure to support the communities and create a source of cash; keen and fervent in their desire to welcome visitors and explain their unique history, the Maroon people have flung themselves headlong into the tourism business.

There are now twenty-two such community-owned resorts along this single 100 km stretch of river; this may, of course, prove to be a degree of overkill, but in the meantime that offer visitors a fabulous combination of options. From the primitive facilities that  offer “back to basics” camps, to the more sophisticated resorts like Dan Paati, there are many options and alternatives.

Atjuna, Suriname
They all start, however, in Atjuna, the freight hub of the river. Lying three-hours south of Paramaribo, it is the end of the road, and the place where people, freight and everything else is transferred to the 40’ river canoes that provide the heartbeat of the River.

From Atjuna, the journey heads south into the rain forest; the river, wide at the beginning gradually tapers over the next hundred kilometres  until it reaches the point that it splits into two smaller streams, the Gran Rio and the Pikin Rio that take you to the very centre of the country. Here the villages are simply traditional African communities, little changed in the past three hundred years; they are home to people from Benin, the Luongo and Ashanti and offer a glimpse of rural life, and all of the spiritual and social beliefs that were brought from Africa so many centuries ago at the height of the plantation era.

And so it was, that I headed upstream to the confluence of the rivers and found a simply wonderful village, Pingpe, and stayed at its cosy and welcoming Pingpe Jungle Resort.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Georgia: An escorted tour in September 2015

I rarely, if ever, escort groups; however, Georgia is a country designed for group tours, and it is probably my favourite destination in the world, so this September I am leading a small group to explore the Wine, Food and Culture of this remarkable country.

We will start, as always, with our arrival in Tbilisi, the country's capital, and following a chance to sleep for a few hours, throw ourselves into the fray. From our hotel we will wander up to the marvellous Vino Underground restaurant where we will have our introduction to the myriad complexities that make up the Georgian wine mosaic.

A leisurely walk through Old Town, and dinner at the spectacularly located Kopala Restaurant will round out the day.

We head out of Tbilisi the next day to visit the ancient capital of Mtskheta, the undeniably chilling Stalin Museum, the wonderful vineyard run by my friend Iago and finally to the Tskaltubo Spa. This spa, formerly the recreation facility for high Soviet military folk, is being refurbished and gradually brought back to life; it houses some truly remarkable historical legacies, and is a fascinating stop.

We continue through the Svaneti Valley to Mestia, the commercial hub of this remote mountain district, and the home of a truly remarkable collection of early Christian artefacts and icons in the national museum. We spend a day travelling by 4WD to Ushguli, a UNESCO heritage site, and a destination recently featured by National Geographic 

Following two remarkable days in the highlands, we will return to Kutaisi, the second city of the country, and enjoy time wandering in the Old Town before dinner and our overnight stay.

From Kutaisi, we follow the ancient path of the Silk Road, as we travel past Tbilisi to the rich agricultural lands of Kakheti in Georgia's east. We cross the Likhi Range en route, the mountains that separate the watershed to the Black or Caspian Seas. We will stop along the way, before reaching our overnight stop at Chateau Mere.

The monastery at Alaverdi has to be one of my favourite places in the country, and we will enjoy both the remarkable atmosphere of the monastery and their wine. Having been making wine pretty much continuously since the year 1011, they have become extremely good at their craft, and you will be able to enjoy their unique creation in the splendour of the 6th century monastery.

Our overnight accommodation will be at the Kabadoni hotel in Sighnaghi, and dinner at Pheasants Tears, a restaurant that I love, and is run by two great friends, John Wurderman and Gia Rokashvili. 

We have a gentle day around this gorgeous town before returning to Tbilisi for the final two nights, and some more sightseeing, wandering, a chance to visit the ancient bath-houses and certainly to shop for some memories of this extraordinary trip.

So, enough of the commercial! The tour is limited to eighteen passengers, the weather will be fantastic, the company convivial and our local colleagues at Living Roots are the most brilliant travel company in Georgia.

It will be an ideal journey, and I look forward to having you join! For more information, please feel free to email me at

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Icelandair: Fuel Surcharge Relief

It is with tremendous delight that I can announce that Icelandair has dropped the fuel surcharges that it has levied on their airfares.

This, presumably in response to the huge outcry from the travelling public, and blogs like this one.

Effective immediately, they are dropping their surcharge for flights between Iceland and Europe from £68.50 to £60. This exceptional recognition of the price of aviation fuel, now down over 40% from this time last year, shows exactly what a myth the carriers are perpetrating with this farcical levy.

Be honest, airlines, and put the cost of doing business into the fare, and don't hide it in a miscellany of "Fees, taxes and service charges"