Carter’s World – Best Holidays for 2015

What better way of shedding those festive calories than a bracing walk?

Cape Verde  Image - A Flatt

Cape Verde Image - A Flatt

Beijing China

Beijing China

Havana Cuba

Havana Cuba

Lion's Head and Signal Hill

Lion's Head and Signal Hill

John Carter, former presenter of television’s top rated Wish You Were Here programme and avid globetrotter selects a range of the best guided walking holidays for 2015.

“Faraway places with strange-sounding names”, is how an old song put it. ”Distant destinations” is another description.   Or, maybe, “Far Horizons”.   All evocative phrases for the concept of travelling far away.

The travel trade is more prosaic.   They call such holidays “Long Haul”, knowing it can be quite a haul to get yourself to those tempting spots.

The western islands of the Cape Verde group are the ones to visit if you are going to take the long flight from Heathrow (seven hours, plus time spent changing planes in Lisbon).   Santiago, Sao Vincente and Santo Antao are the ones I have in mind.

On Santiago, I stayed in a small hotel tucked away in the undulating countryside a few miles from Praia, the capital of the island group, making the most of its tranquility and the beauty of its surroundings before flying to Sao Vicente.

Like island communities the world over, the Capeverdians use aircraft like we use commuter trains or buses.   They have a somewhat cavalier attitude towards weight restrictions, but my flight was punctual and smooth.

Mindelo is Sao Vicente’s main town.   In the 19th century it was an important coaling and provisioning port for ships plying between Europe, South America and Africa.   It has a strong British connection and there’s even a cricket club, though I wasn’t able to attend a match, having to go on to yet another island.

This was Santo Antao, to my mind the best of the lot.   You reach it by ferry and it has some of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenery I have seen in many a long year.   Especially when viewed from the Estrada de Corda, a 22 mile long road constructed of small squares of volcanic blocks in the 1960s.

Steep valleys, wooded slopes plunging down from the roadside, views across to high, rugged mountains.   Quite unforgettable.

Those islands are relatively new to the “long haul” brochures.   China isn’t, though the places you can visit in that vast land are constantly increasing.

Beijing and Xian – for the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army – are well established, as are Shanghai and Hangzhou.   But an increasing number of visitors to China are second and even third-timers, who want to see more.

One region which is attracting such visitors is Huangshan, south west of Shanghai, in Southern Anhui province.

Its spectacular mountain scenery, with granite peaks jutting up into the clouds, is the inspiration for traditional Chinese paintings, and the whole region was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.

It’s also famed for its pine trees, many of which are well over a century old, with a few over 1,000 years.   Though it has modern hotels and cable cars and all one would expect to find in a developing tourist area, the ageless beauty of its scenery, its hot springs, tea plantations and much more are reminders of an unchanging world.

Such distinctive scenery is one good reason for travelling far.   The people you encounter provide another.    And it is the people I remember best from my visit to Cuba – another long haul destination which is growing in popularity.

Cuba is, of course, unique in that its politics have given the USA much cause for concern.   Indeed Americans are strongly discouraged – if not downright forbidden – from visiting the island.   Which is their loss, because it is a fascinating destination.

I was bowled over by Havana, in particular by the huge classic American cars which fill its streets.   These gas-guzzling Studebakers, Chevrolets, Plymouths and De Sotos have beautifully maintained original bodywork, and cleverly adapted Russian engines.   In contrast, and never mentioned in the brochures, old Lada cars make up its ramshackle taxi fleet.    I even took a ride in a “stretched” Lada, if you can believe such a thing.

Varadero was another delight.   A modern seaside resort which could, in all honesty, be anywhere in the Caribbean, it is one of the island’s showplaces.   As, for different reasons, is the town of Trinidad, with some of Cuba’s best museums and 19th century “Colonial” architecture.

Best of all, though, was the unexpected coincidence of being in Havana at the time of the Carnival.   I’ve seen some spectacular Carnivals in my time, and    Havana can’t hold a candle to those of Rio or New Orleans, for example.   But what it lacks in flamboyance it more than makes up for in the genuine joy of the Cubans – those taking part, and those watching.   These people may not have much, but they make the most of what they do have.

One of the pleasures of re-visiting a long haul destination is that, the second or third time around, you can ignore the basic reason people choose it, and find a completely different holiday.

South Africa is a good example of this. First (and even second) timers opt for the game parks – wild animals, spectacular scenery and accommodation in lodges of much better quality than you anticipated.

On subsequent visits you can discover other aspects of that country. Travelling the Garden Route east from Cape Town is like driving through Somerset on steroids.   Heading north into the Great Karoo reveals the amazing variety of the province’s flowers.    My guide explained the geographical and climatic reasons why Cape Province has close on 9,000 species of plants, but I forget the technical terms he used. However, I shall never forget the spectacle of those flowers and plants.

When travelling far away, it pays to expect the unexpected.

The holidays John has identified are offered by guided walking specialist operator, Ramblers Worldwide Holidays for example:

A Taste of South Africa and Safari

A 17 night guided walking adventure embracing Cape Town, Robben Island, the Valley of Desolation, ‘Big Five’ game viewing at Kariega Game Reserve and the Kruger National Park (staying at the Imbali Safari lodge).

Price from £4,175 per person includes return flights, transfers, half board accommodation (plus 4 nights full board), all local transport costs and game drives, a local guide and the services of a dedicated tour leader. Departs 23 October 2015. 01707 33 11 33