Journey to the Edge of Africa – From Windhoek to the Namib Desert

Journey to the Edge of Africa – From Windhoek to the Namib Desert

Namibia had been on my radar screen for over a decade. On successive journeys across Africa, the name popped up now and then, usually around the fire at some remote camp. That is when strangers brought together for a day or two by the chance of converging itineraries exchange their most memorable travel experiences. The recurrent tales of parched deserts, mountain-high dunes and eerily fogbound coastlines insidiously worked their way into my mind. Namibia began calling my name in an insistent crescendo.

Namibia - Great Escarpment.

Going over the Great Escarpment feels like an encounter with the edge of the planet.

But there was a major catch. These rugged Namibia cheerleaders spoke of self-drive adventures and sleeping under the stars. My own idea of wilderness travel doesn’t include venturing into one of the most unforgiving deserts on the planet at the wheel of a rented four-wheel drive and pitching my own tent at the end of the day. It looked like Namibia might forever remain the top destination on my Africa wish list.

 

Wild About Africa

Then, while researching for a recent article on the economics of solo travel, I came across Wild about Africa, an offshoot of U.K. based Expert Africa, a trusted specialist in high-quality custom-made safaris, and a pioneer in Namibia travel since 1991.

Namibia-Kulala Adventurer_1.

The Kuala Adventurer Camp offers a unique experience of the Namib Desert.

This younger sibling (created in 2003) offers small-group (maximum 7 participants) road trips in custom-designed, guide-driven land cruisers. Accommodations are ideally suited to my idea of “roughing it”: fully staffed tented wilderness camps exclusive to the group, with the occasional hotel or guesthouse stay thrown in where required by the itinerary. Their “Namibia Wilderness Safari” includes everything on my wish list, plus a couple of destinations I haven’t even thought about. The virtually all-inclusive in-country pricing is reasonable and the solo traveler’s upgrade nominal (86 British pounds or 110 U.S. dollars at the time of my visit). I want in!

Namibia-Windhoek Schweringburg,

The capital of Namibia, Windhoek, retains incongruous of its German colonial past.

I promptly dispatch a query, and things keep getting better from here on. The response is near instantaneous, and in spite of the onset of the year-end holidays (admittedly the most awkward time of year to start planning a complex trip), all my questions are thoroughly addressed, often in real time. The amazing Sabina Hekandjo, clearly a Namibia expert in her own right, becomes my new best friend. Within a few weeks, an exhaustive personalized booklet recapping every point of information I could ever need to ensure a safe and enjoyable adventure lands in my mailbox. A detailed map of the country and a copy of the award-winning Bradt Guide to Namibia are thoughtfully included. Let the countdown begin!

Where It All Falls Into Place

It’s late afternoon when I land in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, dazed after 24 hours of non-stop travel from Europe via Johannesburg. A greeter from Wild about Africa’s local partner, Wilderness Safaris, takes over. Once delivered to my comfortable guest house in a quiet suburb of Windhoek, I manage to stay awake just long enough to meet my guide, Jimmy Limbo, who drops by to introduce himself and recap the main points of my journey of the next twelve days. I meet my traveling companions the next morning, two friendly couples from Australia and the U.K. respectively.

Namibia-Wilderness Truck.

Our custom-design Wilderness Safari vehicle is masterfully handled by guiding expert Jimmy Longo.

We pile into a custom-designed, extended-cab land cruiser with a pop-up roof, three stepped rows of seats and six slide-down windows, so each passenger gets unrestricted views and photo opportunities. In addition to the 12-volt cigarette lighter charger, the dashboard includes two USB ports to recharge cameras on the go. The rear of the vehicle features a locked luggage compartment and a refrigerator stocked with drinking water and picnic lunches. With its oversized tires and high off the ground chassis, this is one impressive all-terrain truck!

A Tropical Bavaria

For the moment, however, it is smoothly gliding over the asphalt of downtown Windhoek, and I get my first real look at this most unlikely African city. No colorful chaos here, cacophonic crowds or free-for-all traffic that define most African capitals.

Windhoek- Christ Church

A Windhoek landmark, the Lutheran Christ Church is a remainder of Namibia’s colonial past.

Namibia’s largest city (population of 368,000, close to 15 percent of the country’s total of 2,500,000) is a well-groomed, modern provincial town shaped by its colonial past when the country was known as German Southwest Africa. Along the neat avenues lined with palm trees, the orderly traffic flows at the regulated speed of synchronized traffic lights. I take in the skyline where new steel and glass commercial and public buildings incongruously mingle with crenellated medieval towers. Jimmy points out the neo-Romanesque Lutheran Christuskirche (Christ Church), topped with a sturdy pseudo-Gothic 24-meter (79-foot) spire, circa 1910. Spread across a verdant plateau of the central highlands, some 1,650 meters (5,400 feet) above sea level, and framed by the brush-covered Auas mountain range, Windhoek brings to mind a misplaced tropical Bavaria. I am hitching to get on with “the real Namibia.”

Off The Grid Into The Desert

Khomas Highlands-Rock Formations

Sculptural rock formations rise from roadsite brush.

I don’t have long to wait. Within the next 20 minutes, the asphalt abruptly gives way to to a dirt road that meanders through the soaring amber-colored schist ridges of the Khomas Highlands. In this landscape eighty million years in the making, the rock formations are eye-popping. Occasional ancient rockslides rise out of the brush like gigantic modern sculptures. I start snapping away non-stop.

 

 

Khomas Highlands-Meerkat.

A meerkat stands guard by the roadside.

We are heading southwest toward the Namib Desert, another five-hour drive on washboard gravel roads, so Jimmy tries to keep photo stops to a minimum. Nonetheless, a moment later he pulls to the side and points into the brush: “meerkat,” he announces. Two of them actually, their slender body erect on a rock, in their familiar standing-guard position. Scenery is definitely the main event in Namibia, but we get interesting wildlife sightings as well, birds mainly, such as a colony of social weavers busily adding an extension to their already tree-sized common nest, and bright russet-colored chestnut weavers for whom nest-building is all about hanging out (quite literally, upside down).

Namibia-Kulala rain.

The Kulala Wilderness Reserve after the rain.

After a quick roadside picnic lunch under a shady camelthorn tree, we continue on over the Great Escarpment, and down in the gravel foothills of the Nautkluft Mountains. Then the unexpected happens. Clouds start building overhead, and ahead of us a wide telltale opaque gray vertical stripe reaches down to the mountaintops. Rain! My heart sinks. I’ve been waiting for decades to experience to one of the most parched deserts on the planet. It cannot rain on the day I get there! Jimmy, on the other hand sounds excited as the clouds keep building and huge drops start splattering our windshield. He says something about the start of the rainy season. What rainy season? Isn’t this place supposed to get barely 100 millimeters of rain in a good year? I keep my peevish thoughts to myself.

Namib-Kulala light.

The landscape changes color with the light.

By now, we are steadily moving through a middle-of-nowhere landscape of lake-size puddles that the parched earth has yet to absorb, featureless save for the black shadow of a mountain range. But shortly after the downpour subsides, the topography returns. We are now in a broad valley, and the mountains on both sides go from black to purple to a warm golden brown as the sky clears up. A right angle turn reveals a half-dozen tents tucked along the base of the mountain. We are in the heart of the 18,5 hectare (46,000 acre) private Kulala Wilderness Reserve, at the edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. And this is the remote Kulala Adventurer Camp, our home for the next two nights, with its friendly staff of two.

Desert Advendure At Its Breathtaking Best

Namibia-Kulala Vista.

The setting sun turns the mountains into burnished gold.

My tent is a cozy three-meter by three-meter dome, raised on a large, canvas-covered wooden platform, with two comfortable cots clad in crisp white cotton bedding. At its rear, the full bathroom with a solar-heated shower and flush toilet is conveniently supplied with a stack of thick cotton bath towels and a full range of biodegradable toiletries. At night, lighting is provided by solar-powered LED fixtures. But the best feature of my desert abode is the front veranda, where I can take in the pyrotechnics of the African sunset on the valley, and the mountains and dunes beyond. The sun has returned just in time to bathe the landscape in burnished gold. Then the sky begins to blaze in every shades of crimson to purple before suddenly fading to black.

At dinner, a wholesome, freshly prepared three-course menu, Jimmy announces the morning schedule: wake-up call at five (!), breakfast at five-thirty, departure by six, which, he explains, will get us in the Sossuslvei dunes area of the Namib-Naukluft National Park just in time to watch the sun rise over the most famous sand dunes on the planet.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – For overseas visitors, Hosea Kutako International Airport, located a 45-minute drive east of Windhoek is the main entry point in the country. Visitors from most Western and Asian countries may enter Namibia visa-free for up to 90 days.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced quality small-group safaris in southern and eastern Africa. They are a fully-bonded member of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO). Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K. Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, tel. +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0)20 8758 4717 (U.K.).
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator in eight countries in eastern and southern Africa. They offer private access to over 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Kulala Wilderness Reserve

Windhoek, Namibia

Paris – Vermeer at the Louvre

Paris – Vermeer at the Louvre

The Louvre requires no introduction. With a world-famous collection ranging from Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century, the once royal palace on the right bank of the Seine turned public museum in 1793 is a central Paris landmark that attracts close to ten millions visitors annually. I resolved long ago to refrain when ever possible from being one of them.

A Rare Landmark Exhibition

Paris-Louvre, Vermeer Woman at Virginal.

Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman Seated at the Virginal. Oil on canvas. 25.2 x 20 cm. (9 7/8 x 7 7/8 in…), New York The Leiden Collection.

But there are times when accommodations must be made, and crowds braved. The entrancing new temporary exhibit: “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting “ is one such moment. This landmark event offers the largest and most dazzling selection of Vermeer works I could even hope to see in one place. Twelve in all are on display, or one third of Johannes Vermeer’s entire known output. Among them are The Milkmaid, on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and poster image for the exhibition, the elaborately composed Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, from the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, and the exquisite miniature-like Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, from a private collection in New York.

 

The Masters of Genre

Paris-Louvre, Metsu Woman Letter.

Gabriel Metsu, Young Woman Reading a Letter. Oil on wood panel 52,5 x 40,2 cm. (20.7 x 15.8 in.), Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland, (Beit Collection)

More than 70 works by Vermeer’s fellow “Masters of Genre Painting” of the Dutch Golden Age, including Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Gabriel Metsu, Caspar Netscher, Samuel van Hoogstaten, Frans van Mieris and Jan Steen are also included. These “Genre” painters were a group of artists who rejected the grand classic subjects of epic kings, Olympian myths, bloody battles and gory martyrdoms of traditional art to take us instead into the homes and everyday life of Dutch merchants of the time. With women as their central characters, they immortalized with delicate precision the mundane moments of domestic life from the servants’ perspective as well as their mistresses’.

 

 

The Genius of Vermeer

Paris-Louvre, Vermeer Lady Writing.

Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Writing. Oil on canvas, 45 x 39.9 cm. (17 3/4 x 15 3/4 in.), Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art.

By juxtaposing works related in theme, composition and technique, this exhibition also demonstrates how these artists inspired and rivaled each other. And it provides a unique opportunity to understand what makes Vermeer stand out from his Golden Age peers. For me, the genius of Vermeer is in his unique use a sensuously cool palette, the lapis blues and pale golden yellows, and the silvery northern light that gives his subjects an enigmatic mood. The other painters in this magnificent display represent similar scenes with exquisite artistry: women writing letters, playing the harpsichord or the lute, and servants engaged in domestic chores. But to me, only Vermeer looks beyond the concrete world depicted by his contemporaries, to create a more insightful mood that hints at the inner life of his subject. Several of them seem to interrupt their writing or music-playing to engage me and make me part of the moment.

Paris-Louvre-Vermeer Pearl Necklace,

Johannes Vermeer, Woman with a Pearl Necklace. Oil on canvas. 55 x 45 cm. (21 5/8 x 17 3/4 in.), Berlin. Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

Others seem fully absorbed in their own world. I find myself wondering: what is she thinking, this young woman in her elegant chamber, holding up a pearl necklace as she looks intently at herself in the mirror? Is she putting it on or removing it? What does this necklace mean to her? Or even more poignantly, who is this young milkmaid in the austere kitchen? In the gray light of dawn, her downcast eyes and expressionless face suggests tired concentration as she cautiously pours milk from an earthenware jug to prepare breakfast before the rest of the household begins to stir. I see the story of a long-ago life behind every Vermeer painting, a life I want to know more about.

 

 

Good to Know

  • Visiting – The  Musée du Louvre, 75001, Paris, France, is open Wednesday through Monday from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, with night openings until 9:45 pm on Wednesday and Friday. It is closed on Tuesday, and on January 1, May 1 and December 25. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 1 40 20 53 17, e-mail. info@louvre.fr.
  • Getting there –There is easy public transportation from anywhere in Paris to the museum: metro station Palais-Royal/Musée du Louvre (lines 1 and 7) or bus stop right in front of the Pyramid ( lines 21, 24, 27, 39, 48, 68, 69, 72, 81, 95, and the Paris Open Tour bus).
  • Admission to Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting – This temporary exhibition, which runs from February 22 to May 22, 2017, requires a special admission ticket for a specific date and time. It must be purchased in advance through the museum’s on-line ticket office: on-line ticket office
  • If you miss the Paris viewing – Don’t despair. After its Paris star debut, the exposition, which was realized in partnership with the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, will travel to the partner venues: National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, from June 17 to September 17, 2017, and National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. from October 22, 2017, to January 21, 2018.

Location, location, location!

Musée du Louvre

The Ultimate Amalfi Coast Getaway – Hotel Santa Caterina

The Ultimate Amalfi Coast Getaway – Hotel Santa Caterina

After decades of “some day soon”, I am finally wending my way along Amalfi Drive, the succession of hairpin turns originally carved by the Romans from the side of cliffs rising out of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Now officially known as Starda Statale 163 (National Highway 163), it remains by any name one of the most spectacular coastal roads in Europe.

Amalfi-Hotel Santa Caterina.

The grand Art Nouveau mansion is an iconic landmark of the Amalfi coast.

Each turn reveals more eye-popping scenery. Isolated farmhouses and watchtowers harking back a millennium grip the vertical rock face above, and whitewashed villages rise in precarious stacks from the azure waters below. Then, on a rare stretch of straight road at the outer edge of Amalfi, the sumptuous Stile Liberty (Art Nouveau) Hotel Santa Caterina outlines the edge of the cliff.

 

 

A Mansion Dreams Are Made Of

Amalfi-Santa Caterina Vetri.

Throughout the light-filled hotel, pale Vetri Majolica tile floors are sprinkled with hand-painted flowers.

Deservedly recognized for over a century as one of the crown jewels of Italy’s legendary Amalfi Coast, the Santa Caterina has the timeless grace of a stately Mediterranean villa. It is a dream-like domaine of light-filled open spaces, high vaulted ceilings, and arched floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open onto flower-filled patios. Its intoxicating sea view melts into the faint outline of the far side of the Gulf of Salerno. Terraced citrus groves and lush gardens cascade down a 60-meter (200-foot) drop to the water’s edge with its private beach and saltwater swimming pool.

Amalfi-Santa Caterina Suite 87

My suite is draped in fuchsia Pierre Frey silk taffeta.

In all the common areas as well as my own suite, pale Vetri Majolica tile floors are sprinkled with hand-painted flowers. White walls and ceilings provide an understated background to better showcase the antique furniture and artworks interspersed throughout. My suite, Number 87, is a 45 square meter (455 square foot) cocoon of luxury with a full-height glass wall that opens onto a verdant terrace. Miles of rich fuchsia Pierre Frey silk taffeta drape the sleeping area and the glass outer wall.

Amalfi-Santa Caterina bath

My bathroom is a lavish personal spa.

Behind a door covered with a mural of a whimsical flower garden in the French post-impressionism Nabis style, the walk-in dressing room is fitted with two walls of floor-to-ceiling storage closets. Then there is the glorious bathroom! With its vaulted frosted glass ceiling, Majolica seascape fresco above the oversized circular Jacuzzi bathtub, huge walk-in shower and lavish toiletries, it had the allure of a private spa.

 

A Superb Amalfitana Dining Experience

Amalfi-Santa Caterina Restaurant.

The rare dark blue-veined Brasilian marble floor sets the tone for the formal dining room of the Santa Caterina.

The Santa Caterina Restaurant is an exquisite antidote to the standard tourist fare dished out in abundance all along the coast. Not only does its scenic dining room offer a sumptuous view of the historic city of Amalfi and the Gulf of Salerno, but it is also arguably the best restaurant in town. Whether for lunch or dinner, Chef Domenico Cuomo and his team showcase the excellent traditional cuisine of the area, prepared to order from the best seasonal ingredients and the latest catch of local fishermen, as well as irresistible home made pasta dishes. And the service is impeccable: attentive, friendly and precisely choreographed to ensure a superb dining experience.

Rooted in Family Tradition

Beyond its breathtaking surroundings, exquisite décor and outstanding cuisine, the inimitable charm of the Santa Caterina comes from its people, management and staff alike, for whom the property has always been, quite literally, a family affair.

Amalfi-Santa Caterina Al Mare.

The Al Mare open-air beachsdie restaurant overlooks the pool.

When Crescenzo Gambardella built his original villa in 1904, he included six guest rooms, and the Santa Catarina was born. Fast forward through the twentieth century, during which the Gambardella family continuously expands and enhances the property into the glamorous luxury resort with its 66 guest rooms and suites that we enjoy today. Along the way, Crescenzo’s daughters, Giuseppina (Giusi) and Carmella (Ninni) assume the direction. Then their children, and more recently grandchildren, step in to continue the family tradition. And so does the staff. Many have been at the Santa Caterina for decades, in some cases for two or more generations, an extended part of the Gambardella family, upholding the tradition of flawless service for which the hotel is famous. Enter the lobby and you immediately become a valued friend. Your preferences are noted, your wishes anticipated.

Amalfi-Santa Caterina Sunset.

The Gulf of Salerno is ablaze with autumn sunset.

Small wonder that over one-third of the guests are return visitors. They come back year after year, and generation after generation. “People who honeymooned here return with their children, and their grandchildren,” Giusi confides. I try to bring the conversation to VIP and celebrity guests. It is after all public knowledge that it was at the Santa Caterina that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began their turbulent relationship in the early 1960’s during the filming of Cleopatra, and that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are rumored to have begun their romance there. And I suspect that yesterday, I espied a musician of international renown in the foyer. But Giusi demurs: “all our guests are VIPs to us, and we strictly respect everyone’s privacy equally.”

Prosecco welcomes us on our private the terrace.

Taking in the late afternoon bustle in the lounge, with every member of the staff attentive and friendly but never overly familiar, I understand the unique strength of the Santa Caterina: it is the personal commitment of its devoted management and staff to their grand tradition of superb hospitably; and the blazing autumn sun dipping into the Tyrrhenian Sea.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting in touchHotel Santa Caterina, S. Amalfitana 9, 84011 Amalfi (SA), Italy. Contact: e-mail www.hotelsantacaterina.it . Tel. +39 (0) 89 871 012.
  • Getting There – The nearest international airports are Rome-Fiumicino and Naples. Both cities have train connections to Sorento. From there, public bus transport (SITA company) is the most efficient (an inexpensive) way to get to Amalfi. My driver even stopped on request in front to the Santa Caterina.
  • Getting around – In addition to the stairs, there are elevators linking all the levels of the property, including a glass-fronted one reaching down to the beach, so you don’t miss a single opportunity to enjoy the jaw-dropping view. The Santa Caterina is just one kilometer (just over half a mile) from the center of Amalfi and its harbor with ferry links to Capri, Positano and Sorento (from April 1 to October 31). The hotel offers a regular shuttle service to and from the harbor.
  • Getting through – There is excellent mobile phone reception and complimentary high speed WiFi throughout the property. An especially notable feat considering the challenging multi-level rocky topography and thick stone construction of the hotel.
  • Pool and beach – Set in a concrete terrace at the base of the cliff, the 18-meter (60 meter) long seawater pool has depths ranging from 1.10 to 2.20 meters (or 3.6 to 7.2 feet). A few steps down, a lower terrace provides easy access to the sea. Both terraces are lined with teak lounge chairs and white canvas umbrellas. Pool assistants and lifeguards are always on hand with fresh bath towels. From May to October, Al Mare, a covered patio overlooking the pool serves a full luncheon menu, and the poolside Beach Club Bar offers a variety of sandwiches and appetizers as well as smoothies and bar drinks.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Hotel Santa Caterina

Gulf of Thailand Paradise Preserved – Santhiya Koh Pha-Ngan

Gulf of Thailand Paradise Preserved – Santhiya Koh Pha-Ngan

Koh Pha-Ngan, or just Pha-Ngan in local parlance, is a heart-shaped dot in a remote corner of the Gulf of Thailand, and an island with a split personality. For several decades now, it has been popular among world-trekking backpackers who have been known to congregate by the tens of thousands on Haad Rin beach, the southern tip of the island, for its now (in)famous monthly Full Moon Party.

Pha-Ngan-easterm coastline.

The steep eastern coastline of the island of Koh Pha-Ngan is covered with forests rising from its rocky shore.

But topography has been kind to Pha-Ngan. Almost three-quarters of the 168 square kilometer (65 square mile) surface of this tropical paradise are covered with mountainous terrain that has safeguarded it from the invasion of mass tourism. Its mainly inaccessible interior remains covered with great swaths of pristine rain forest. Its small local population and most of the tourism activity have settled on the narrow strip of sand and coconut groves that outlines the southern and western sides of the island.

 

Phangan - Santhiya

The bay of Thong Nai Pan is home to Santhiya Resort and Spa.

The eastern side, however, is an entirely different world, an unspoiled coastline of steep hills covered with dense tropical forests rising from the rocky shore. And at its remote northern end, the secluded bay of Thong Nai Pan, rightfully reputed as one of Pha-Ngan’s loveliest beaches, is home to the idyllic Santhiya Resort and Spa.

 

 

Recreating the Mystique of Siam

It’s a pleasant thirty-minute ride in the resort’s private speedboat from Koh Samui, Pha-Ngnan’s larger and more established sister, to Thong Nai Pan. Santhiya emerges from the white sand of the bay, visible only as sharply peaked roofs randomly peering through the lush tropical foliage.

Santhiya-Reception

Antique panels of intricately carved wood provide a backdrop for the reception desk.

The natural and cultural preservation ethos of Santhiya is instantly apparent, in myriad details that evoke the timeless elegance of its Thai heritage and harmoniously blend it with twenty-first century concerns for environmental sustainability and comfort expectations. The property is conceived to take full advantage its glorious ocean views while respecting the topography of the land and its existing mature vegetation. Its architecture, inspired by the soaring nineteenth century teakwood structures of the King Rama V period gives a timeless grace to the decade-old property.

Santhiya-Garden gate;

The privacy fence of my villa’s entrance patio is constructed from repurposed planking.

From the grand pavilions of the common areas with their elaborate filigree carvings to the guest quarters and the gardens, much is constructed from recycled wood.

In the gardens especially, the original function of the landscaping timber is still discernable. Former barn beams have become garden path railings, with orchids blooming from cracks in the wood. Gates are held by water buffalo yokes, and planking that was once the hull of longtail boats now fences the secluded patios of guest villas.

Santhiya - Villa 313 plunge pool.

My villa opens onto a  plunge pool with its own waterfall,

My own accommodation, a 110 square meter (1200 square foot) Ocean View Pool Villa (Number 313) is designed for optimal indoor-outdoor living and superb privacy. The glass-fronted teak pavilion has a soaring peaked roof that dwarfs the king-size four-poster bed. It opens onto a tree-shaded deck and a 7.5-meter (25-foot) long whirlpool plunge pool with its own rocky waterfall, a separate oversized bathtub and a sweeping view of the bay. At the rear of the bedroom, a walled-in courtyard houses a bathroom with the latest in water-saving fixtures and an open air shower. It is the ultimate tropical haven to return to after enjoying the varied attractions the resort has to offer.

Keeping Traditional Lifestyle Arts Alive

Santhiya - Chantara

At the Chantara restaurant, the classic Thai cuisine is at sumptuous as the decor.

At Santhiya, there is a concerted effort to preserve, and give guests every opportunity to appreciate, traditional lifestyle arts. The world-renowned Thai cuisine is not only showcased on the restaurant’s menu, but also transmitted to interested guests in cooking classes offered by master chef God Keawpeth. I thoroughly enjoy my private lesson with him as he demystifies some of my favorite dishes, including Tom Yam Goong (spicy prawn soup) and Phad Thai.

 

Santhiyana- Thai dances.

On Thai Evening, staff members perform traditional dances from the various parts of the country.

On the weekly “Thai evening” at the main restaurant, Chantara, a wide selection of classic Thai dishes is served buffet-style for an opportunity to sample lesser-known specialties. The evening also features a performance by Santhiya’s own dance group. Staff members, who come from various provinces around the country, are encouraged to transmit their regional dances to each other and to young girls from the local school, and to perform for the guests.

 

Santhiya - Ayurvana.

Ayurvana Spa’s enjoys a panoramic view of the bay.

Then there is the Ayurvana Spa, an intimate retreat of private treatment rooms and covered terraces overlooking the bay. Their ninety-minute signature massage combining hot oils with the best of traditional Thai and international methods is one of the finest I have enjoyed anywhere. But equally memorable is my return visit for an lengthy cooling massage with freshly extracted aloe gel, which greatly relieves my discomfort when I return from a morning of snorkeling to discover that yes, you can sunburn while floating below the surface of the water.

With its idyllic location on one of the most pristine islands of the Gulf of Thailand, strong commitment to the conservation of its natural and cultural heritage, and outstanding Thai hospitality, Santhiya excels in putting in a contemporary context the mystique of the exotic Kingdom of Siam.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – There are near-hourly flight connections from Bangkok to the nearby island of Koh Samui (a one-hour flight), as well as a couple of daily flight from Chiang Mai (a two-hour flight) and Phuket (one hour). The main carrier serving the island is Bangkok Air, although Thai Air also has twice-daily service. From the airport, the easiest option is to have Santhiya arrange a shuttle for you to the Petcharat Pier, where you catch the resort’s speedboat.
  • Getting in touch – Santhiya Resort and Spa, 22/7 Moo 5 Bantain, Koh Pha-Ngan, Surat Thani, 84280, Thailand. Contact: e-mail reservation@santhiya.com. Tel. +66 77 428 999, mobile +66 81 968 2026.
  • The property includes 59 private villas and 40 rooms nestled among seven hectares (18 acres) of lush tropical grounds cascading down a to private bay. It can accommodate up to 202 guests and employs a staff of 200.
  • Beach – The pristine private white sand beach is lined with cushioned lounge chairs beneath white canvas umbrellas. Cheerful attendants are always on hand to offer fresh towels and bottled of chilled water. Complimentary equipment is available for guests interested in snorkeling, sea kayaking or sailing around the bay.
  • Pool – The stunning 1,200 square meter (13,000 square foot) bi-level free-form swimming pool with its own 30 foot (10 meter) manmade rock waterfall stands at the edge of the beach. A second lagoon-like infinity pool is built high on the hillside. This pool, which features handcrafted floating beds reminiscent of traditional Thai boats and an endless sea view, is reserved for the exclusive use of the guests in the adjacent Supreme Deluxe building.
  • Restaurants – Chantara, the property’s main restaurant has a refined menu that combines a variety of classical Thai dishes and continental offerings for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and an extensive international wine list. At the edge of the beach, the casual By the Sea iproposes a lighter fare of grilled fish, meat and vegetable, and exquisite fresh juices and smoothies.

Location, location, location!

Santhiiya Resort and Spa

Chiang Mai at its Lanna Thai Best – Tamarind Village

Chiang Mai at its Lanna Thai Best – Tamarind Village

I can think of no better place than Tamarind Village to channel Chiang Mai’s glorious Lanna Thai past. Located a mere five-minute walk from the iconic Wat Chedi Luang, the charming boutique hotel is a haven of timeless grace in the very heart of the Old City. And it is a prime example of the positive impact of responsible tourism in the preservation of local cultural heritage.

Chiang-Mai-Tamarind Village courtyard.

An ancient tamarind tree dominates the main courtyard of Tamarind Village.

In 2002, award-winning architect Ong-ard Satrabhandhu used a rare 4,000-square-meter (one-acre) vacant lot just off Rajdamnoen Road, one of the most vibrant historic arteries within the medieval moat, to construct the first Lanna-style hotel in Chiang Mai. Here, he revived the use of centuries-old design, building techniques and materials to translate distinctive Northern Thai architectural elements into an inviting contemporary version of a traditional village. Today, Tamarind Village is credited with playing a key role in the current revival of the popularity of traditional architecture throughout the area. Ong-ard’s contribution was recognized in 2007, when Tamarind Village was awarded a commendation in the prestigious UNESCO Asia-Pacific awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.

A Village Around a Tree

Chiang Mai-Lanna Thai contemporary.

The revival of centuries-old architectural elements creates the contemporary version of a traditional Lanna Thai village.

From Rajdamnoen Road, a path shaded by an arch of soaring bamboo leads to the discrete gate of Tamarind Village. Named after the towering 200-year-old tamarind tree that dominates the property, the complex of public areas and guest quarters is laid-out around intimate courtyards filled with flowering trees. With its typical whitewashed plaster walls, dark timber beams and peaked roofs of thin clay tiles, it is a reflection of the simple elegance of the local Lanna Thai culture, in harmony with the ancient temples and historic sites that surround it.

Chiang Mai-Tamarind Village pool.

The common areas open onto an ornamental swimming pool.

The common areas are dominated by a swimming pool tiled in royal blue ceramic for an ornamental garden feel. Its length is outlined by a covered walkway leading to a vast reception and lounge area. Under a peaked tiled roof held by high masonry pillars, the entire room opens onto the pool on one side and the main Village courtyard with its ancient tamarind tree on the other. The lounge is decorated with distinctive crafts from the nearby hill-tribes, and from the tall paintings behind the reception desk to antique side-tables holding oversized ceramic bowls filled with sumptuous arrangements of orchids, every detail pays homage to the Lanna Kingdom artistic legacy.

Contemporary Lanna Thai Flair

Chiang Mai-Tamarind Village Lanna Deluxe.

My Lanna Deluxe Room combines Lanna Thai architectural elements and decorative touches with contemporary comforts.

My second-floor Lanna Deluxe room (Number 1201) lives up the promise of its name, with its whitewashed rough-plastered walls, high cathedral ceilings and dark grey polished concrete floors. The comfortable dark wood and rattan furniture creates an effective backdrop for the striking display of lacquered boxes and intricately embroidered tribal children hats. Behind a partition of floor-to-ceiling closets, the bathroom successfully preserves the feel of rustic simplicity while delivering all the contemporary trappings of a luxury property. It is partitioned into three distinct areas, a water closet, a roomy shower, and in the center, a vanity made from a deep copper washbasin of the type used by rural populations, resting on an antique table against a backsplash of jewel-colored ceramic tiles.

Timeless Romantic Retreat

Chiang Mai-Tamarind Courtyard Dusk.

At dusk, the golden chedi of a nearby temple shines over the Village wall.

But the ultimate charm of Tamarind Village rests in its tranquil atmosphere throughout. It’s on the roofed balcony of my room, where I settle into the deep cushions of a loveseat built into the railing to gaze through the branches of the ancient tamarind tree as the last rays of sunshine brush the golden chedi (pagoda) of the seven-centuries old Wat Umong right over the Village wall. It’s all along the garden paths lit at dusk with dancing oil lanterns, and the swimming pool where their reflection shimmers in the water. And it flows in on the gentle evening breeze, carrying with it the sounds of temple bells and the spirit of a culture reaching back a millennium.

It is even in the restaurant, Ruen Tamarind, on the far side of the pool, with its series of French doors opened onto a waterside terrace for candle-lit indoor or outdoors dining. The serene attentive presence of the staff as well as the menu contributes its own homage to the Lanna past.

Northern Thai Delights

Chiang Mai-Ruen Tamarind

Ruen Tamarind poolside dinning.

At Ruen Tamarind, an extensive selection of Northern Thai dishes from original family recipes handed down through generations complements the classic Thai and international offerings. To make the most of this culinary opportunity, I order all my meal from the Northern Thai menu, including breakfast when is forgo the standard buffet offering in favor of traditional Thai soup, a delicate broth filled with nuggets bursting with flavor. I discover superb dinner dishes as well. My favorites are deep-fried bamboo shoot stuffed with ground pork, served with a hot but sweet peanut sauce and fresh-water fish filets marinated in curry, then served in banana leaves en papillote over jasmine rice.

The Village Spa

Chiang Mai-Village Spa

The reception lounge of the Village Spa.

The Village Spa is a serene sanctuary located on the second floor of the most secluded courtyard at the far end Tamarind Village. Its public space embraces the Lanna Thai architectural concept of open galleries under a tiled roof. Loveseats are built into the gallery’s railing to face the doors of the six treatment rooms. This is where I am invited to enjoy a complimentary traditional footbath and foot massage before entering my treatment room.

Chiang Mai -Village Spa Treatment.

A treatment room at the Village Spa.

In consultation with the spa supervisor I select the treatment that best suits me, and from an assortment of essential oils, the scent I prefer for my massage. The spa uses only herbal products drawn from the Lanna Thai heritage of natural healing. To restore my travel-weary body, I chose the 90-minute Village Signature Massage, a heavenly combination of deep tissue massage and applications of heated herbal pouches that soothes and relaxes every fiber of my body and leaves my spirit in a state of zoned-out bliss. I do wish I could package the experience and bring it home with me.

Exploring the Old City

Chiang Mai-Wat Duang Dee offering.

Traditional daily food offering to the monks of Wat Duang Dee.

The Tamarind Village concierge is also its resident expert on Lanna history and northern ethnic crafts. She leads me on a fascinating morning walk in the neighborhoods of the Old City. Our first stop is Wat Duang Dee, a small temple where we deliver the hotel’s traditional daily offering of food to the monks and receive their blessings. Then we walk on to some of the nearby historic sites. This complimentary tour is available daily to hotel guests by previous arrangements.

 

Good to Know

  • Tamarind Village is at 50/1 Rajdamnoen Road Sriphoon, Muang, Chiang Mai, 50200 Thailand. Contact: e-mail reservation@tamarindvillage.com. Tel. + 66 53 418896-9.
  • The 45-room property includes three suites. It consists of two-level structures set around three courtyards. It can accommodate up to 90 guests and employs a staff of 60.
  • There are no elevators on the property. Consequently the upper-level rooms do not allow for mobility-impaired guest access.
  • If your itinerary includes a weekend-stay, the famous Sunday Night market is ideally located just a few steps away from the bamboo archway entrance of Tamarind Village.
  • The hotel is a 15-minute taxi ride from Chiang Mai Airport.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Tamarind Village

Thailand’s Lanna Heritage Shines Through in Contemporary Chiang Mai

Thailand’s Lanna Heritage Shines Through in Contemporary Chiang Mai

Founded in the thirteenth century as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, a powerful state centered in present-day northern Thailand, Chiang Mai still retains within the perimeter of its fortified moat the rich heritage of its glorious past as a cultural and religious center. However, its geographic and business center has moved eastward in more recent times, from the Old City to the area between the moat and the Ping River, where it is dominated by the famous Vieng Ping Night Bazaar.

A Nightly Tradition

Chiang Mai-Night Bazaar.

The Night Bazaar is a time-honored destination for tourists.

A vast three-story shopping arcade under a temple-style roof filled with stalls bursting with crafts, clothing and antiques (real and fake), the Vieng Ping Night Bazaar tradition traces back to the Chinese trading caravans that traveled the ancient route from Yunnan to the sea ports of Burma. In front of the arcade, both sides of Chang Khlan Road are a gauntlet of street vendors hawking souvenirs and mass-produced articles of all kinds. Open from dusk until around midnight, the bazaar is not merely a place to shop but also one of the most popular tourist attractions in Chiang Mai.

Across the street, the less hectic Kalare Center is host to a more varied array of shops that range from artist studios, jewelers, upscale clothing and home décor outlets to tour operators. It also includes a vast food hall and entertainment area where traditional Thai dancers and musicians perform at random intervals throughout the evening.

Coupon Dining

Chiang Mai-Kalare Food Hall.

The Kalare food hall offers a broad range of dining options.

The Kalare food hall is unusual in that it operates on a “coupon system.” The outside perimeter of the hall is lined with small stalls offering a broad range of choices. There are varied Thai specialties, but also but also Chinese, Indian, Japanese, seafood, vegetarian, etc.. Vendors have their dishes on display, usually about six to eight options, with the price prominently indicated, i.e. 20 TBH, 40 TBH, 60 TBH, etc. (yes, that’s fifty cents to one-fifty dollar U.S.!). You browse the offerings and purchase a handful of small denomination coupons from a central booth. Then you point at your selections, hand over the appropriate coupons, and your meal is cooked on demand by the time you’ve found yourself a place to sit at one of the many tables in the center of the hall.

Warorot Market

In Chiang Mai, you don’t have to wait till dusk for a dizzying market experience. Just a few minutes’ walk from the Night Bazaar, the Warorot Market is where locals do their shopping. In Northern Thai (or Lanna) language, it’s called Kat Luang (big market). Warorot actually refers to the entire district, which also happens to be the city’s Chinatown.

Chiang Mai - Worarat Market.

The Warorot Market is a favorite shopping destination for locals as well as tourists.

The side streets are a pandemonium of shops, stalls and street vendors selling everything you can imagine, or not (fried insects anyone?). And in the middle of it all stands the covered market itself. It’s actually two city-block-size, three-story buildings, the Warorot and the Lam Yia markets, linked by a footbridge. Their offerings are similar, all manner of foodstuffs on the ground floor, with plenty of noodles and rice stalls thrown in. Then everything from household goods, clothing and beauty supplies to handicrafts, electronic gadgets, herbal medicines and fireworks are on the upper two floor mezzanines.

The covered markets are open from around 6:00 am to 7:00 pm, but in the surrounding streets the action keeps going well into the evening. And, by the way, the prices are some of the best in the city.

Textile Treasures

The Hmong are one of the most populous “hill-tribe” groups across Southeast Asia, and a number of them are settled in the mountains above Chiang Mai. They are famous for their vibrant costumes, the quality of their textiles and beautiful handmade clothes.

Chiang Mai-Hmong Lane.

The Hmong people are famous for their vibrant clothing.

Just off the southwestern corner of the Warorot Market, the narrow “Hmong Lane” is the ultimate textile extravaganza. Mountains of elaborately pleated skirts, brilliantly embroidered tops, bags and accessories compete for space with bolts of colorful batiks, quilts of all sizes made from repurposed ancient fabric panels  and bins overflowing with antique notions. The sky, or your airline’s luggage allowance, is the limit here.

Wat Saen Fang

Chiang Mai-Wat Saen Fang Chedi.

With its rainbow of mirrored tiles, the chedi of Wat Saen Fang shows a strong Burmese influence.

After an overwhelming couple of hours in Warorot, you may long for the serenity of a Buddhist temple (of wat). At a busy corner of Tapae Road, Wat Saen Fang announces itself by a tall bright red iron gate sandwiched between two grubby storefronts. Through its elaborate latticework, two imposing Nagas (dragon-like serpents) show the way. Follow their undulating bodies to the end the alleyway and you find yourself in the flamboyant compound of Wat Saen Fang. The Burmese influence dominates here, especially in the spectacular whitewashed chedi (pagoda) with its rainbow of mirrored tiles. With its rambling buildings guarded by more Nagas and other spirits, it is not only a peaceful retreat but also a timeless photographers’ haven right in the heart of contemporary Chiang Mai.

Taking to the hills

Chiang Mai-Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

Doi Suthep is one of the most sacred temples in Thailand.

A visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (of Doi Suthep for short) is the ultimate must of a trip to Chiang Mai. Built in the late fourteenth century on a promontory some 1,000 meters (3,200 feet) high, 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from the city center, it offers scenic views of Chiang Mai and the Ping Valley. With its golden central chedi said to enshrine a relic of the historical Buddha, the wat is a flamboyant example of Lanna architecture and considered one of the most sacred temples in Thailand.

Young Hmong girls walk up the great Naga stairs at Doi Suthep.

It is reached by a 306-step staircase guarded by a pair of imposing stone Nagas (or a funicular ride to the top for 20 TBH). A walk through the  buildings of the compound reveals a number well preserved murals that depict everyday life in the Lanna Kingdom.

 

 

 

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Chiang Mai is easily accessible from Bangkok via multiple airlines with flights scheduled throughout the day. The flight takes about 70 minutes.
  • Getting Around – Like the Old City, the downtown area is fairly compact and easily walkable. But if you don’t feel like walking or are loaded down with your purchases from the markets, rickshaws are for you. These traditional man-powered tricycles are everywhere and quite inexpensive. Short hops are between 10 and 20 TBH, or you can hire one to show you the sights around town, (100 to 150 TBH for a half day). If you prefer motorized transportation, three-wheel open-sided tuk-tuks are lined up near all the tourist areas. The cost varies with your destination and bargaining talent and can be anything within the 50 to 150 THB range. Lastly, the ubiquitous songthaews (two rows), canopied red pickup trucks with twin bench seating are Chiang Mai answer to a bus service. The price is 20 THB within the Old Town and downtown area. Then it increases the farther you go.
  • Getting to Doi Suthep – My preferred option to reach the famed wat on the hilltop is to hire a taxi for half a day to go to the site. Negotiate the price before the trip. It should be between 500 and 600 TBH. It will wait for you while you visit, and you do not pay until the end of the trip. Guidebooks give a number of public transport options that usually involve taking a songthaew bus to either Chiang Mail University or the zoo, then another one to Doi Suthep. These budget solutions may save up to 200 TBH (or five dollars U.S.), but considerably increase the complexity of the operation and the waiting time.
  • Where to stay – With tourism now a major economic growth factor for Chiang Mail, a vast array of lodging options have developed throughout the city, from traditional guesthouses to slick new hotels. My personal favorite in the downtown area ist he dusitD2 Chiang Mai, or simply D2as it is affectionately called by the hip local community and visitors alike. Located right across the street from the Night Bazaar, this ultra-modern property combines the highest standards of traditional hospitality with avant-garde East Asian décor to create a chic urban retreat in the midst of the city’s bustling downtown. The restaurant, Moxie, is nationally acclaimed for its eclectic fusion of western and Asian cuisines. dusit D2 Chiang Mai,100 Chang Klan Road, Amphur Muang, Chiang Mai, 50100, Thailand. Contact: e-mail e-mail, Tel: +66 (0) 5399 9999
  • Where to Eat – Moxie, of course, and the Kalare food court, and everywhere! Thailand is famous for it cuisine bursting with flavors and spices, but Chiang Mai is a foodies’ Nirvana. From street food, noodle and rice stands to the new extravagant fusion dishes from a new generation of chefs who add intriguing touches from the world over to traditional cooking, it’s easy to eat your way around Chiang Mai.
  • Visiting – Most wats are open from early morning to late afternoon. Whenever you pass a one that looks interesting, just take off your shoes, step over the threshold (not on it) and you are welcome to walk in. You may find that monks and novices are often glad to speak with foreigners. Make sure to dress appropriately (no tank tops or shorts). And don’t forget to leave a few coins in one of the offering bowls lined near the entrance.
  • Bargaining – You are expected to bargain for your purchases. Good-humored bargaining is practically a national sport in Thailand. Even though the prices may appear quite reasonable by your normal standards, you should always bargain and try to get at least another 20 to 25 percent off the asking price. It’s part of the fun.
  • What to avoid –There is a Hmong village located a short drive from Doi Suthep. Most packaged excursions and chartered cab drivers will offer to include it in your visit to the wat. While the scenery is lovely and worth the detour if time allows, it is now little more than a staged commercial attraction site with a nominal entrance fee. You may notice credit card logos in the stalls of the sprawling textile market at the entrance of the village (variety, quality and prices tend not to measure up to those of the downtown market). For an additional fee, you can visit the small museum perched in a “typical” garden where you can take selfies in full Hmong regalia in front of an opium poppy patch. The Kayan, or “Long Neck Karen” Village is arguably northern Thailand’s most contentious “tourist attraction.” The opportunity to visit the famed “giraffe women” presented me with a dilemma. After researching the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other reputable displaced persons organization files, I concluded that the village was irreconcilable with any principles of responsible tourism and I did not visit. In a nutshell, the Kayans are one of the minority tribes from Burma (now known as Myanmar) displaced by the brutal conflict between the country’s ruling military junta and its ethnic minorities from 1962 until 2011. Because of their tourism value, ring-wearing “long neck” women and their families were granted “conflict refugee” status by Thailand. Today, approximately 500 Kayans live in guarded villages near the northern Thai border. The villages are managed by local businessmen and said to be sustained by the revenue brought by tourism. A second major area of controversy are the rings themselves. Traditionally, only girls born at certain auspicious times were required to wear the rings. Today, the tourist trade is encouraging all the girls to wear them, a practice that must start at the age of 5 or 6, and will severely limit their option to ever leave their current living conditions. For more information about plight of the long-neck women, see Epicure and Culture-Thailand Long Neck Women.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Chiang Mai Warorot Market